Life Well Lived with ‘Impossible’ People

“He’s driving me crazy!” “She’s so hard to deal with!” How many of us have found ourselves in a relationship with someone who has caused us to utter something along those lines in white-hot frustration…or at least think it to ourselves?

It’s especially ironic, really, that we Christians don’t tend to expect relationships to be hard. Even if we fully embrace Genesis 3 along with the idea that sin entered the world through Adam and has been creating havoc all around us in everything we see – and within our hearts as well – we still find ourselves somehow “surprised” and frustrated time and time again when relationships aren’t easy and personally fulfilling.

At least that’s true for me. Over and over, I find myself surprised when difficulty enters a relationship. Somehow, I have failed this person, or this person has failed me, and there is just enough truth in that judgment to create what I would call a plausible lie. In that recognition of imperfection and failure between two people – and let’s face it, eventually every single relationship will be a disappointment to all involved – it’s easy to think that maybe it was a mistake to enter into that relationship.

We all do this. We begin friendships that don’t last. As singles, we date people and then end the romance when things get hard. Sometimes that may even be the right thing to do. But what if disappointment enters your relationship with a child, a parent, or a spouse? How do we deal with what looks like a “relationship failure” when it’s with someone to whom we should have a lifelong connection?

Recently, I’ve been deeply struck by the perspective of a pastor, long dead, whose writings I’ve only just begun to pick up. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and author in the early 20th century. He died in his 30’s in a Nazi prison camp in April 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II. In his short lifetime, he wrote several books that are challenging to anyone trying to live out a life of faith. In reading his book, Life Together, I came across this section that speaks incisively to the issue of community:

Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world…God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

I think we all have this tendency to build up in our own minds what our relationship with someone is “supposed to” look like. By so doing, we set ourselves up as God and Judge when those relationships inevitably disappoint. When we are given a different kind of relationship – one that does not stay obediently within the boundaries our ideal has superimposed over it – we get upset, we feel disappointed, and we judge it as “less than.”

I’m certainly guilty of this. I can’t give a specific example without risking hurting feelings, but suffice it to say that as someone who has been through divorce and remarriage, I’ve had many relationships that have been strained. And, as someone who came to Christ later in life, there are many relationships built on an old foundation that have subsequently had to go through pretty big shifts. Some of those people, though I dearly love them, have not dealt well with the changes that Jesus has wrought in my life. And I know several other people who find themselves in the identical situation.

It’s in those very situations that we can learn a lot about who God is, who we aren’t, and why we need Him so desperately.

As followers of Christ, God calls us to community with other believers for many reasons. One reason may be that as we deal with the sin and failures of others against us, we are driven to recognize that only in leaning on Christ will we be able to continue to love the sinners who surround us. We are not sufficient in and of ourselves to handle all the things that difficult, often-disappointing relationships bring to our doorsteps. In those moments where our insufficiency is so evident, we should turn at once to God and cry out for His wisdom, the patience and love we need, other godly qualities we lack, and that only He can supply.

Hard relationships can be a gift from God to remind us that only He can satisfy our deepest longings for community. And for that we should be deeply, deeply thankful.

In the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the greater spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
Augustine, The Confessions

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