In this final part of our series, Simplicity: Finding Contentment in a Busy Life, we tackle one last area where we all struggle with finding contentment: Our relationships. Relationships can be hard. They can be so complicated. What causes that and how can we fix it? With some wise words from Paul as our guide, we wrap up our journey by answering those very two questions. Thanks for reading.
Around about the time that I was coming through my early teenage years, schools were just beginning to transition from having junior high schools to having middle schools. My own school district followed the trend pretty closely. When I was a freshman in high school, they passed a huge bond issue to fund some badly needed new school buildings. The initial plan was to build three single-grade schools for all the students in the district. So, they opened Pioneer Ridge Sixth Grade Center, George Caleb Bingham Seventh Grade Center, and they converted my junior high building into the James Bridger Eighth Grade Center. The first class of those students came in as freshmen during my senior year of high school. Imagine that—an entire grade who had been entirely on their own for three years. And the year before that, they were all the last class of fifth graders at their various elementary schools. Forget about not knowing how the standard school pecking order worked; they didn’t even remember what a pecking order was!
Those kids never got to experience the human-grinding mill that was junior high. Now, today’s middle schools are basically the same thing, they’ve just generally added sixth graders to the mix—which in many ways makes the puzzle even more deliciously complex. Junior high is a weird time. The innocence of elementary school is gone, but the self-confidence in some identity that begins to really take root in high school is still only a seed for most students. The result is this confusing and often highly charged atmosphere where you just never quite know what is going to set someone else off. I remember a lot of times when my goal for the day was to keep my head down and just make it through unscathed. Junior high—and now middle school—is a time when relationships start to first get really complicated.
I remember a complicated relationship I had with another student named Ryan. Ryan was one of the class bullies and I was a featherweight nerd who only a year before was still running around on the playground playing superheroes with other nerdy kids once a week at the nerdy kids’ gifted program. I might as well have just painted myself with concentric red and white circles. And—lucky me—I had P.E. with him. It was like something out of a comic strip. The rite-of-passage picking wasn’t what made the relationship complicated. One day after Ryan had been picking on me particularly badly, I confided in my tablemate in drafting class that I thought I could probably take him if one of his posse members didn’t interfere. Imagine my surprise when my tablemate felt like this was information worth sharing with Ryan himself. He gifted me the opportunity to back up my boasting the next day in the locker room. Needless to say, I didn’t put much stock in my tablemate’s personal integrity after this. I did, however, manage to talk my way out of a broken nose. But, I redeemed myself. A couple of weeks later, we were on the same dodgeball team (yes, I went to junior high when they still actually let kids play dodgeball in school). Although he did purposely drill me in the head during one game, on a subsequent game I was the last person standing on our team and caught a ball, allowing for the rest of the team to reenter the game and guaranteeing our win. He told me I was pretty cool after that and we never really had any other issues for the rest of the year. Like I said: Complicated.
Well, this morning finds us finally at the end of our series, Simplicity: Finding Contentment in a Busy Life. My hope and prayer is that over the course of the past six weeks the Holy Spirit has given you some direction or call to action that you have been able to take and implement in your life in such a way as to bring more of a spirit of contentment to it than you knew previously. It is our very common desire for that kind of a life that has really been the driving force of our conversations. We all want a life that is simple and content. All of us. And we see echoes of this desire everywhere we look. Funny story: Remember last week how I mentioned Hallmark movies as one of the chief places we see this played out in our culture? Lisa and I were watching a Hallmark movie this past week. The main character actually had to go from the country to the city to find her love interest. I looked over at her and said, “If they wind up settling in the city, it’s going to completely destroy my illustration from Sunday.” Good news: She finally went back to the country, he followed, and they got married there. My point stands.
The problem is: In spite of all of these cultural echoes and internal longings, most of us nonetheless feel like life is complex and frustrating a whole lot more frequently than we’d prefer. Fortunately, if you are a person who gives any credence to the Scriptures, the apostle Paul, 2,000 years ago, told us he had discovered the secret to being content in all circumstances. After talking about how to combat some common enemies of contentment, we examined what Paul had to say and discovered that the secret to contentment is Jesus. True contentment is found in Christ alone and nowhere else. The past couple of weeks, then, we have been applying that somewhat abstract truth to some specific situations we all face where we struggle to be content. Having covered our finances and our time, this morning we are going to wrap up this whole journey by looking at what is perhaps the biggest and most difficult area to be content in our lives: Our relationships.
Have you ever had a complicated relationship? I have a sneaking suspicion that you have. Why? Because everybody has complicated relationships. Whether it’s your relationship with your spouse or your parents or your kids or your siblings or your co-workers or some stranger off the street, we all have relationships in our lives that are complicated. We all have that person who is hard to be around, but who we have to be around on a regular basis for some reason. This is not a recipe for contentment, is it?
Why is this? Why do we all have these relationships in our lives? What is it that makes them the way they are? It could be a lot of things. There are as many different reasons as there are relationships. Maybe our personality and their personality just clash. It could be they did something to offend or hurt us very badly (or us them), and we have never really gotten over it. Perhaps we have a parent who really wasn’t very good at it and the wounds that caused haven’t healed. Maybe one of you got caught in a lie and now there’s a serious deficit of trust. It could just be an issue of neglect over time causing a buildup of resentment in a relationship in which you feel stuck. Again: There are a lot of possible reasons why your complicated relationship is the way it is, but can I suggest that all of these different reasons have something in common? That thing is sin. At the end of the day, sin is what makes relationships complicated. Whether sins of commission or sins of omission, sins actively perpetrated or passively allowed, sin lies at the root of whatever it is that complicates your relationships.
Okay, that explains it generally, but how do we deal with it? Well, what is the antidote to sin? Grace. Forgiveness. Justice. Those are all good options, but I think there is another that hits even closer to the center: Righteousness. Now, righteousness is a church word. That means if you haven’t had a whole lot of exposure to the church, there’s a good chance you don’t know what it means. Don’t feel bad, though, because there are a whole lot of folks who have had a lot of exposure to the church who still don’t know what it means. Righteousness means right relationships. Say that with me: Righteousness means right relationships. Being righteous means we are rightly related to God and to people. You can’t be rightly related to God or to people if there is sin in your life because sin destroys relationships. That’s simply what it does. So, if we are going to have relationships in our lives that are uncomplicated—if we want to uncomplicate all of our relationships—we are going to need to be intentional about pursuing a life of righteousness.
Of course, the challenge here is that not pursuing a life of righteousness is what made the relationships complicated in the first place. And the uncomfortable fact is: We don’t always pursue a life of righteousness. So the real question is how we can get better at pursuing righteousness—that is, right relationships—in our lives. The answer to that question is where we are going to find the secret to finding contentment in our relationships. And when I tell you what this is, some of you are going to think, “Well, duh! What else do you have?” But the truth is that it really is this simple. This is one of those problems where the solution is never sitting anywhere other than right in our face. We just need to put it into practice. The thing that can increase righteousness in our lives is love. And what is love? That one we’ve talked about: Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be.
If that is the real thing we need to do to uncomplicate our relationships, the real thing we need to know is how. What does it look like to be intentionally committed to seeing the people around us—but particularly those with whom we interact on a regular basis—moved in the direction of who God designed them to be? This is one of those places where if we just had a list it would be so helpful. Well, as it turns out, we do. Turn or scroll in your Bibles with me to Romans 12. Romans is a letter written by the apostle Paul to a church he didn’t plant and hadn’t visited. Because he didn’t have a lot of personal experiences to touch on with them, what he did was to make sure their theology was sound. This came by way of what is the most complete theological exposition of the Gospel ever written.
For eleven glorious chapters Paul tells us all about the ins and outs of what God in Christ has made available to us through His death on the cross and resurrection after three days. Thinking right thoughts about God, though, does us no good if we don’t take those thoughts and pair them with right actions. So, in chapter 12, Paul shifts gears and begins explaining what all of the theology he’s been spelling out looks like in practice. He begins with a general call to think rightly, acknowledges the variety God has built into the church, and in v. 9 begins what is essentially a list of what love looks like in practice. And, like we saw this summer in Peter’s list of how to be useful to Jesus, Paul starts on the inside, moves to the people we see most often, and finally moves to those folks who fall outside our circle of influence and who just may be hard to love because of how they treat us. Are you ready for this? If you get this list right, I can guarantee you that your relationships will be set on the path of becoming less complicated than they are right now.
Find Romans 12:9 with me and let’s take a look at this together. Paul starts with this: “Let love be without hypocrisy.” Now, why start there? Well, if love is the key to uncomplicated relationships, we’ve got to actually use that key. The thing about real love is that you can’t fake it. Not for very long, anyway. If we are going to be intentionally committed to moving someone in the direction of who God made them to be, then either we are intentionally committed to that end or we’re not. If we say we are, but really we’re not, the truth is eventually going to come out. And there are few things that are going to complicate relationships so much as faked love. If you want uncomplicated relationships and the simple, content life that comes along with those, you’ve got to be all in for it.
As a matter of fact, if we are going to get this right, we’ve got to get ourselves to the place where anything that even looks like it is not going to lead to the end of who God made the other person to be makes us sick. This is why the very next thing Paul commands is for us to “detest evil, [and] cling to what is good.” Ask yourself this: How sensitive are you to things that are unloving? Perhaps in other people, but how about in your own life? Are you aware (without being told) of when you are being unloving toward your spouse? How about your siblings? How about your kids? That one right there can be tough. It’s so easy to let frustration come out in our voices and by our tone communicate contempt toward our kids. Contempt is anything that sends the message, “I think you’re an idiot,” and our kids will hear that loudly and clearly whenever it creeps into our communication with them. And here’s the thing about contempt: You can’t be intentionally committed to moving someone in the direction of who God made them to be if you think they’re an idiot. Hate what is evil. Cling to what is good.
The next command requires just a bit of unpacking. Paul tells us to, “love one another deeply…” so far so good there; “…as brothers and sisters.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I watch three brothers interact on a regular basis. I interacted with a sister growing up. I’ve got to be honest with you: There’s not always a lot of love there. In fact, there were and are often times where downright cruelty is the name of the game. Seems like maybe brothers and sisters aren’t necessarily the best illustrations of love. Well, while it is undoubtedly true that sibling relationships can be among the most complicated we have, you’ve seen—or maybe you have experienced—them when they are working rightly. In those cases, while you may drive each other crazy, there isn’t anyone in the world to whom you are more committed to seeing become who God made them to be, and they you. That’s what Paul’s talking about here.
And if you want to lean into the natural rivalries that often make those relationships complex, Paul gives you something to compete about next: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Imagine how utterly uncomplicated your relationships would be if the only thing you argued over was who could show more honor to the other. Instead, we fight about being dishonored by one another. This kind of thing only comes out of a relationship with Jesus: “Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer.”
All of these are things you can do by yourself. You see, if your relationships are going to be uncomplicated, the motivation for that is going to have to start with you. Until you are willing to do the work on the inside—to work on your own character with the Spirit’s help—you’re never going to be able to get anywhere with the people around you. You can only lead them to a place you yourself are already going.
Still, though, while the work may start with you, it can’t end with you. You can only have uncomplicated relationships if you actually have relationships. For followers of Jesus—Paul’s primary audience here—the place our relationships need to start is in the body of Christ. Look at what He says next in v. 13 now: “Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality.” One of the foundational assumptions about relationships in general is that we cannot do life on our own. I don’t have the wherewithal to get through life without you and you don’t without me. We can try, but we are setting ourselves up for a long, hard road that will ultimately end in failure. Since we are in this thing called life together—and this goes double for the church—let’s learn to lean on each other. When you are pursuing practical hospitality in the life of another person and them with you, all with the mutual understanding that you can lean on each other as needs must in your efforts to move each other along the path to righteousness, your relationship is not going to be complicated.
And, when you are pursuing hospitality with one another, you’re not going to be worrying so much about personal attacks, because you have a higher goal: being a blessing. Thus, what Paul says next fits right into place: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
Speaking of a curse, do you know what is a real curse to many relationships? Jealousy. How many relationships have you known to become complicated because of the green-eyed monster? Jealousy is like envy, but goes a step further. Envy is wanting something someone else has; jealousy is wanting them not to have it. Instead, we want to have it to ourselves. Jealousy is a bane to relationships. You can’t be jealous of someone and simultaneously move them down the path of Christ. That is, jealousy and love are mutually exclusive. But, do you know what kills jealousy? Celebrating the other person. Do you know how uncomplicated our relationships would be if we focused on celebrating with them when something good happened rather than hating them for it? This is why Paul’s next command is to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” But, if we are going to go all in on lovingly reflecting their emotions, we’ve got to be there when things fall apart too: “weep with those who weep.” What helps with that is when we are able to be honest about ourselves: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation.”
Uncomplicating our relationships starts with us, moves to those closest to us, but eventually it is going to come into contact with those who aren’t like us. You can have the simplest, most content relationships in the world with people who are like you, people you love; but you still live in a world filled with people who are not like you. If your relationships with the folks who might normally be considered your enemies either because they are so different from you or else because of something they’ve done to you are complicated and conflicted, it doesn’t matter how solid your relationships with the people like you are, contentment is going to be nothing more than a mirage on the horizon.
Listen to the beginning of this last part: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” When we respond only in kind rather than with kindness, we just keep problems going. “Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.” This doesn’t mean we compromise our convictions in order to kowtow to the people around us. Rather, we seek to make sure that the only thing offensive about us is the Gospel we have embraced. “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Now, it doesn’t always depend on you and Paul implicitly acknowledges that here; but as far as it does, make sure that you do. Quite simply, it is what love requires. More than even that, though, if we are going to be intentional about seeing the people around us become more fully who God designed them to be, we can’t worry ourselves about personally righting any wrongs they may deal us. As soon as we cross that line, we are not working toward their good any longer; we’re actively subverting that. Besides, we’re not the one most directly offended by whatever it was and so vengeance isn’t ours to have. “Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,’ says the Lord. But, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.’” In other words, the worst thing you can do to someone who is actively trying to hurt you is return only kindness to them. This will serve to pull back the curtain on their evil and expose it for just how bad it really is.
Paul finally gives us the bottom line in v. 21: “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.” Jesus put a bit more concisely: Love one another. If you want to experience contentment in your relationships, love is the way to get there; love expressed in all the ways we’ve spent the last few minutes talking about and as many more like them as you can imagine. Sin complicates relationships; love drives that sin away. If you want relationships that are simple and uncomplicated, then let God’s love drive how you relate to others. Let God’s love drive how you relate to others. Let God’s love drive how you relate to others.
Let it drive because the destination toward which it is heading is better than wherever it is you are going without it. Let it drive because it is better at pacing the journey than you are. Let it drive because He is the one who defines all of reality and living in a fantasy world is only ever fun in the movies. Let it drive because your vision is too shortsighted to really see where you need to go. Let it drive because no obstacles can stand in its way. Let it drive because it has the wisdom to recognize when to go and when to stop; when to hurry and when to take just a bit longer. Let it drive because you’ve tried doing life behind the wheel enough times and all you’ve ever gotten for your efforts is a mess. Let it drive because then things don’t depend on you and that’s one less thing you have to worry about. Let it drive because the path it takes will be a simple one whereas you and I just tend to complicate everything. Let God’s love drive how you relate to others because you want a simple life, and this is the way to have it. Let God’s love drive how you relate to others.