Have you ever wished for a relationship “how-to” manual? Over the years, I’ve collected dozens of books about marriage, divorce, parenting, friendship, and family. Always looking for ways to strengthen bonds, communicate clearly, and handle conflict. I’m a willing but impatient student, so I usually scan the pages looking for quick and practical advice. Hoping to find something I might put into action right away, then presto! Stand back and watch my relationships thrive.
Maybe you’re like me and find yourself wishing for a quick and handy guide to relationships at times. Like when you and your spouse disagree about family goals or finances. Or when you’re seriously wondering if parenting is just not your thing. When keeping friendships going feels like a whole lot of work. Or when you discover that you’re the chosen one to handle the storms brewing among your extended family members.
Happily, there is help.
Not a rulebook or a checklist but a way of life. And it’s nestled inside Jesus’s answer to life’s biggest question:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
It’s God’s design for growing great relationships. Here’s how to use it in yours.
First, foremost, and above all others. We belong to God, and He wants to spend time with us. (1 John 4:16)
When we get this priority right, every other relationship in our lives gets healthier (not necessarily easier, but healthier.) Because when we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we find ourselves awash in the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Pretty much all we need to make our human relationships work.
We grow our relationship with God by abiding in His love – settling in, dwelling with, and spending time with Him. Yes, in the company of others when we worship, study and fellowship. But think about how you build intimacy with someone you love – group dates just aren’t enough. Schedule time regularly to get alone with God and start talking – and listening. Then ask Him to help you do what He says.
By God’s design, we love others “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and Jesus shows us that real love takes action. He didn’t only talk about loving people, He got up close and personal – washing feet, healing wounds, eating meals, drinking wine, holding children, celebrating weddings, grieving losses, touching, laughing, and loving as a servant, teacher, and friend. And He equips us to do the same.
We can serve and love like Jesus because we know that as we care for others, God cares for us. The power of His love gives us the fuel and stamina we need to trust, forgive, encourage, compromise, confront, stop trying to manipulate, and set healthy boundaries.
And because we know and understand how deeply loved we are, we can confidently be our authentic selves with others. Free to let down our defenses, be vulnerable, open and honest. To speak up when we disagree because we’re not relying on people-pleasing or the approval of others to fill us. We learn to love wholeheartedly, and our relationships grow lasting and strong because they are built on truth and fueled by the gift of God’s love.
We need to be at our best to keep up with the plans God has for us, and that means loving and caring for ourselves – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Lots of us get confused here. One end of the self-care spectrum claims that loving yourself is selfish or self-indulgent. The other end exalts it as the highest goal. Neither is the healthy self-love we’re asked to practice.
Simply put, we are not equipped to love anyone when we have nothing left to give. If we choose to ignore this truth, we dishonor the gift of life and the love we’ve received. When we choose the path of rest and healthy self-care, something miraculous happens. We regain our strength and energy, and we open up a space where we can feel God’s love and pleasure – even when we’re not producing or performing. By giving ourselves room to breathe, we give God room to remind us of his constant presence in our lives. We remember that we belong to Him and He is always caring for us.
So get the rest you need. Eat right and exercise. Spend time with God chasing your dreams and finding your joys. Care enough to say no when others are abusive or destructive. Not because you believe yourself to be more important than others, but because you are a dearly beloved child of the King. (1 John 3:1)
It’s as simple and challenging as this.
What Jesus called the Greatest Commandment contains God’s design for great relationships: Love God. Love others as you love yourself.
It takes a lifetime of practice, but no rulebook is required. Just a heart to live and love as God loves us. And the faith to believe that with His help, we can grow the great relationships He wants for us.