We Christians are supposed to be happy. Even when — especially when — things go wrong. We are not immune from the difficult moments of life — a health breakdown, an employment crisis, financial troubles, addictions or relationship problems. Yet, armed with our faith in God, we are supposed to handle them better than we would without faith, and in doing so, show others "the hope that lies within us."
So why don’t we? What is going wrong? In this article, I would like to offer some insight, and I hope some encouragement, to those who are disillusioned with their human relationships and experiences.
The root of the problem
Let’s look at two key dynamics of the human experience: needs and intimacy. I think it’s reasonable to say that we all have needs. How we got them and where we look to have them fulfilled is another story. You see, when we say we have needs, we are also admitting that we have expectations about how those needs will be met. And, if there is anything that will make Christians aware of what they feel they need, it’s a trial or test of some kind.
Many Christians are looking for a particular person who will fulfill all their needs; maybe even heal their pain. When this doesn’t happen, it opens the door for the negative emotions of sorrow, disappointment, anger, depression, isolation, and even bitterness. These emotions can make people focus even more on how much they feel their "needs," and so begins a downward spiral of their relationships. Eventually, we even drag God into the "hell hole" we have created for ourselves.
Surely we can all identify with this in some way. We all want someone we can truly trust, someone who can "be there" for us and understand. In other words, we want an intimate relationship. I’m talking about the need for relationships that touch the heart, soul, and mind. Sometimes we wonder if we really do want it, because this can be the place where we feel really out of control.
Is there anyone reading this who has not been disappointed or let down by someone they were looking to fulfill their needs, especially in the middle of a trial or crisis? In fact, the ones we expect to understand us best are the ones who have the greatest potential to disappoint us. It is most likely that it will be a close relative, a church member, a pastor, a friend at work…anyone we feel we know well and can trust…who will be the one to let us down. Or at least, fail to meet our expectations. How sad it is that those who were once close to us — in a family or a church fellowship — often end up being the most estranged.
"We need to trust God with the pain and emptiness that can result from conflict and disappointment with people we expect to help us in times of trial."
What’s the answer?
So how do we establish relationships that will not let us down? Where do we find a friend who will accept us unconditionally? Who will not run from us, but always be there no matter what, and fully understand our needs and deepest longings?
You know what I am going to say, don’t you? Right — that relationship can come only from God. But that is not just a platitude or a religious cliché. Let’s unpack that.
Have we ever considered that the reason our needs are not being fully met in our human relationships or ventures is because we were designed to look somewhere else? And have we ever considered that the misunderstandings that we have with each other — misunderstandings that often shatter relationships — can be used to strengthen the bonds between us?
You see, in order to accept that our needs will not be completely met by people or situations, we must be brutally honest with the limitations of the people around us. Even with the best of intentions, our best friends and even family members will let us down. And we will let them down. That is why we all need to have a personal and intimate relationship with God and learn to put our ultimate trust in him.
But—and this is vital to understand — we also need each other. It is not God’s intention for us to retreat into a hermit-like existence with just "me and God," however tempting that might be when relationships start to go sour. There are valuable lessons to be learned in close relationships with others, and God wants us to experience these — including when, make that especially when, things start to go wrong.
Our first reaction is to retreat and spare ourselves more pain and heartache. So we "run away from home." We abandon our families. We leave the church. We quit the ministry. We turn to drink, take drugs, become sexually promiscuous, feed on pornography, and find a new partner, a new church, a new job. But the pain really never goes away. How can it? By running away you are actually running further into the problem.
Running towards intimacy
Life does not have to be a vicious cycle of misdirected, unresolved emotions leading to bitterness and broken friendships. Have you noticed how often the Bible focuses us on the need to preserve, maintain and also repair relationships? Intimacy is not to be gained by running away from a troubled relationship, whether it is a family or a church. It is built and made stronger by facing the problems, and doing what needs to be done to repair them. It may mean apologizing, forgiving or perhaps just setting clearer boundaries. What God does not want us to do, because it is counterproductive, is to withdraw inwardly.
So why don’t we go to the people who are disappointing us and say, "There’s something I really need to talk with you about. I may have misunderstood, but our relationship means so much to me and I have to clear the air."
That scenario scares the living daylights out of most of us. It seems full of risk, and indeed it is. The other person might get mad at us. They might misunderstand what we are trying to do. If they do, there is a place where we can have our needs met — our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And like a once-broken bone, the relationship may actually become stronger.
We need to trust God with the pain and emptiness that can result from conflict and disappointment with people we expect to help us in times of test and trial. We can take the risk of telling God how empty we are and how much we would love to feel better. That doesn’t mean we will feel better right away. But it does mean we’ve taken a step that will help us become more intimate with God, and as a result, maybe more intimate with the people who have disappointed us. If we can take the risk and be honest with these people, expecting nothing in return, God can work with that!
So, the next time you find yourself tempted to just "run away" because you feel offended and let down, ask yourself, "What do I really expect to happen and what do I really need?" Then ask this question: "Is there any human being that can completely meet and heal all of the physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological needs that I feel so deeply?"
No, there is not, although others can help. But there is God, who understands all of these needs before we even knew we had them. That is truly an intimacy that we can always rely on. And that relationship helps us put all the others in perspective. As the New Testament reminds us:
"If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we have not seen? And God himself has commanded that we must love not only him but our Christian brothers and sisters, too" (1 John 4:20-21, New Living Translation).
Mark Mounts has a MA in Professional Counseling, specializing in early childhood intervention, and a Registered Play Therapist Intern. He is an ordained minister, pastoring a congregation in Houston, Texas.