Avoiding Overdrawn Relationships

overdrawn account 3

Many decades ago, I discovered the reality of Jesus’ teaching that it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). So I became a giver, and I’ve received many blessings as a result.

But, as with most truths, there’s another side to this principle: Healthy relationships are reciprocal.  When one person in the relationship does all the giving and the other does all the taking, the bond inevitably becomes twisted and toxic.

Sadly, I’ve been rather slow in learning this. Giving has always been a natural part of who I am, but receiving is much more difficult for me. I don’t like asking people for their help, even when I need it. And the thought of being a burden to someone else is horrifying.

So, when I give, I seldom expect anything in return. Based on Jesus’ words in Luke 6:34-35, I’ve always thought this was the godly way to relate to people. But once again, I’ve often missed another important component of the relationship equation. Too often, I’ve been willing to continually give and give, while the other person received and received. Although this made me feel good at first, it was a prescription for codependency, certainly not a healthy relationship.

The apostle Paul seemed to face this kind of situation with the Corinthian church. He had poured his life into them and opened his heart wide. While this kind of imbalance was fine in their infancy, he said it was now time for them to grow up and open their hearts to him as well (2 Corinthians 6:11-13).

Monitoring Your Account

If we don’t ever monitor our checking account, we run the risk of overdrawing it from time to time. Our relationships need to be monitored and assessed in much the same way.

I’ve found that when our emotional bank account is full and overflowing, it’s very easy to be a giver. But if the other person never puts anything back into the relational bank account, we eventually discover that the account is empty or even overdrawn.

Have you ever experienced this? If you’re a chronic giver like me, I’m sure you have. And then you find yourself resenting the very people you joyfully gave your life to for so long.

If you are willing to do all the giving, you’ll have no trouble finding people willing to do all the taking. Even with that imbalance, everything is likely to seem fine until the relational bank account finally runs dry.

This is a hard lesson, but you’re not doing people any favor if you allow them to become a leech instead of a healthy contributor to the relationship. They may not be able to contribute as much as you do, and that’s okay. But they need to contribute something.

Making Changes

Recently I’ve had to say “NO” to several people who wanted to make a withdrawal from my emotional bank account. Why? Because, over the course of time, they had never put anything into the account.

When people face times of crisis, it’s natural to want to help them. But what about a situation where someone always seems to be in crisis mode? And how should you respond those who never make any deposit into your account even when times are good for them? It may seem harsh, but sometimes the imbalance is so great that the wisest thing to do is to shut the door on the relationship altogether.

In contrast, I’ve found that it’s always a great joy to give to those who’ve taken time to make a deposit of some kind into my life. Whatever they need, I’m happy to give it if I can.

So I hope you’ve discovered the joy in being a giver. But I also hope you’ve learned to develop healthy, reciprocal relationships, where both of you are putting something into the account.

If, like me, your relationships have often been off-balanced, perhaps it’s time for some frank discussions with your friends and family members. Don’t wait until the account is totally overdrawn to request some changes.

One More Thing…

Even as we learn the importance of cultivating reciprocal relationships, where both parties make contributions into the account, there’s another vital principle we must never forget: The ultimate source of love is God Himself, not any human relationship.

“Let us love one another,”  we’re told in 1 John 4:7, “for love comes from God.” If we look to any other source, we’re certain to face disappointment.

You see, we’re much more likely to be hurt by our human relationships when we allow our love relationship with the Lord to run dry. When His love is overflowing in our lives (Psalm 23:5), we’re far less likely to be offended by the failure of people to make deposits into our emotional account. That doesn’t let them off the hook, but it means we can abide in God’s peace and joy even when people let us down.

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Defusing Your Emotional Land Mines

Land mines 4

My friend Ron is a divorced man in his 50s who has ventured into the world of online dating the past few years. He’s a good man who sincerely would like to find a new wife. But although he’s met a number of good prospects, each new relationship has exploded after a month or two, often suddenly and unexpectedly.

Ron typically explains the breakup in terms of “overemotional” or “hypersensitive” women. “They all say on their online profile that they’re baggage-free and drama-free,” he tells me with a grimace, “but they all have issues. They’re either kidding themselves or outright lying.”

Hmmm…interesting that guys always think it’s the women who have all the baggage.

While pondering Ron’s puzzling experiences, I remembered a news report I saw on the problem of land mines in Cambodia and Vietnam. Although the wars there ended decades ago, numerous land mines still remain, maiming and killing many innocent people each year.

The more I thought about these hazardous military land mines, the more I understood about the emotional land mines contributing to Ron’s situation.

A land mine is defined as “an explosive charge concealed just under the surface of the ground, designed to be detonated by pressure.” A minefield typically looks like an ordinary, harmless piece of land. It’s only when pressure is applied that the hidden mines are detonated, usually by completely innocent people who’ve unwittingly entered the danger zone.

So why haven’t all the unexploded bombs in Southeast Asia been removed by this time? Unfortunately, the people who laid the mines have often forgotten where they are. It’s a slow process to detect the unexploded mines with metal detectors or other devices, and great care must be taken not to unintentionally detonate the bombs while attempting to remove them.

Poor Ron, I thought to myself as I understood what had been happening. And even worse, I felt extremely sorry for the women he had dated. None of them deserved any of this.

But here are the sad facts about emotional minefields…

Just as the unexploded mines in Cambodia and Vietnam are the result of wars occurring 30, 40, or 50 years ago, we’ve all sustained emotional scars as we’ve walked through life. Many of them happened during our childhood, sometimes so early that we don’t even consciously remember the event. Other scars happened in our teen years or through shrapnel from a failed marriage.

Just like military land mines, our emotional land mines are detonated by pressure. At times the pressure comes through something like a health crisis, lost job, or financial setback. But as in Ron’s case, emotional land mines are frequently ignited when a person embarks on a close personal relationship.

Usually everything seems fine in the early stage of a relationship. But greater intimacy brings greater pressure. Like a ticking time bomb, the relationship is destined for detonation unless it can successfully cross the minefield of unresolved issues of the past.

Nothing is more bewildering than to detonate a land mine. One minute you’re walking innocently on a seemingly safe roadway, and the next minute you find yourself bleeding from an unforeseen explosion. You didn’t anticipate it…didn’t deserve it…but it happened anyway.

Although I’ve usually seen myself as an emotionally healthy person, I’ve been deeply jarred by Ron’s story. I’m horrified by the thought that my emotional land mines could detonate unexpectedly, doing great damage to someone I care about.

If you’re like Ron, hoping for a healthy new relationship, you should pray to find someone with lots of unconditional love. Why? Because land mines will inevitably be exposed in time. And to paraphrase 1 Peter 4:8, “Love covers a multitude of land mines.”

Also take some time, as I’ve been doing recently, to let God search your heart and expose hidden scars and forgotten minefields. You owe this to yourself and to those you love. Don’t let past wars and traumas sabotage the happiness of your present and future relationships.

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Brokenness, Vulnerability & Scrambled Eggs

eggs broken

I have a new theory—I would even call it a discovery—about two of life’s greatest mysteries. The two mysteries are related, and my theorem explains both.

The first mystery is why there are so many unhappy marriages, and the second is like it: Why is it often so difficult to find fulfillment in the modern-day churches we attend?

I call both of these “mysteries,” because God intended something far better. He created marriage and the church to be enjoyable, life-changing institutions.

So what has gone so terribly wrong?

That brings up my theorem, which I discovered while cooking eggs for breakfast recently. I’ll start by applying my discovery to churches, then proceed to marriages.

Most modern churches are like a carton of eggs. People come and sit together in neat rows of stadium seats, never touching, never relating, never sharing their hearts. They just sit there and observe the show, which probably would be more enjoyable if popcorn were served. After an hour or so, it’s time to leave. But the churchgoers, like eggs still in the shells, are usually unchanged by the experience.

How sad! No wonder millions of Christians have chosen to opt out of the egg-carton church experience. They’ve concluded that they might as well stay home and listen to a podcast.

Here’s the problem with this scenario, as my theorem so beautifully illustrates: Life-change only happens when there is vulnerability, and vulnerability requires brokenness.

Put simply, the eggshell must be cracked open if anyone is going to enjoy the egg. I don’t know anyone who eats the shells—it’s what’s inside that counts.

So if you’re going to have a meaningful experience with other believers, there must a touching of hearts (involving the egg whites and yokes), not just a superficial touching of the shells. That’s why so little transformation occurs while you sit, unengaged, as a spectator in a church congregation. The experience failed to reach your heart, will, or emotions in a meaningful way.

That brings us to an even more illuminating application of my theorem: unhappy marriages…

Last year I overheard a conversation that really troubled me. A recently divorced man was complaining to a married friend, saying he didn’t like being single. The married man just smiled and said, “Brother, do you realize how many million men would gladly trade places with you?!”

Ouch. The statement reflects today’s common view that it is preferable to be single than to be in an unhappy marriage. It’s a pretty sad commentary, but King Solomon reached a similar conclusion (Proverbs 21:9, 21:19).

Fortunately, my egg analogy helps to explain the demise of marriage in our culture, and it also offers hope for better outcomes if we learn its lessons.

The Bible says marriage involves TWO people who become ONE (Genesis 2:21-25, Ephesians 5:22-33). However, this phenomenon is often misunderstood, as my egg theorem shows:

  • Eggs in a carton are like individuals who live in close proximity, yet never interact on an emotional or spiritual level. This could describe singleness for many people, but it also helps to explain unhappy marriages. Many husbands and wives today start with prenups, move on to separate bank accounts, and end up with separate bedrooms. They are under the same roof, but become more akin to roommates than marriage partners. Do you see why this would be unsatisfying? The eggs are together in the carton, but they are back in their shells.
  • At the other extreme are scrambled eggs. Although many people think churches and marriages are supposed to model this kind of extreme “oneness,” that is NOT what the Bible teaches. Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “one” but retain their separate identities, so it is with happy marriages. The husband and wife each have a unique role and some individual interests. They have not become “scrambled eggs,” where their identity is forever lost. No, God made us to remain distinct, “male and female” (Genesis 1:27)—and marriage is meant to enhance that fact, not erase it. You are who you are, and getting married shouldn’t radically alter your God-given personality or love languages. So if you’ve allowed your identity to be swallowed up in a relationships that resembles a pile of scrambled eggs, it’s no wonder your unhappy. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always preferred my eggs cooked over easy, touching and overlapping in some ways, but still separate.

If you are unhappy in your marriage or church, I wish I could sit down with you and apply my theorem to your specific situation. The good news is that it may not be too late to unscramble your scrambled eggs. But there’s no time to waste.

To rediscover the joy of intimate relationships, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Make sure you are broken and vulnerable in your relationship with the Lord. Let Him get past your hard outer shell and deal with the issues of your heart. You’re never going to restore your marriage or find a life-changing church experience unless you first have a tender heart before God.
  2. After you’ve been broken before the Lord, you can expect a new fragrance to emerge in your life, affecting all of your relationships. In a pivotal story in the Gospels, a woman broke an alabaster jar of perfume in order to worship Jesus. The resulting fragrance filled the house and changed the entire atmosphere (Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8). The same can happen with the atmosphere in your home or church.
  3. As hard as it may be, you must let down your guard (i.e., remove the eggshell) and expose your heart and your emotions to the people closest to you. Men tend to have an especially difficult time with this. Too often, we come home from work, curl up on the couch to watch our favorite sports event on TV, and never take time to become emotionally vulnerable. Hmmm…no wonder that scenario doesn’t lead to a satisfying marriage.

Wow. There’s so much more I could say about my eggshell theorem. I’m praying for you to regain your tender heart and the joy of true intimacy—starting with God and then working outward to your marriage and close friendships. You’ll be amazed by how the atmosphere can change.

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The #1 Cause of Failed Marriages & Churches

Lately I’ve been pondering what’s the primary reason so many marriages and churches ultimately fail. Is it because of self-centeredness? Narcissism? A refusal to die to our own interests so that the love of God can reign in our hearts?

I guess we could debate this all day. All sorts of core issues could be cited, and entire books have been written to analyze the subject.

However, I’ve been increasingly focusing my attention on an obscure passage in Nehemiah 4:2 that seems to describe where much of the problem lies. Nehemiah and his followers wanted to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem, but their efforts were ridiculed by critics as impossible: Do they actually think they can make something of stones from a rubbish heap—and charred ones at that?” (Nehemiah 4:2)

The imagery here describes people who want to build something grand and glorious, but the available building materials are seriously flawed. Rather than coming directly from some manufacturing plant, the bricks have been drawn from a “rubbish heap.” No longer in pristine condition, they are charred and broken.

This explains a lot about the difficulty of constructing healthy marriages. While the bride and groom typically dress up in their finest apparel on their wedding day, underneath the tux and gown are flawed, burnt, and broken people.

You may not want to own up to the fact that you’ve been “charred” by your life experiences, but we ALL have. We’re in this together, so we might as well be honest. If “original sin” wasn’t a big enough problem, we’ve all been scarred by imperfect childhoods, toxic relationships, poor choices, or mishaps in our career.

So what happens when two flawed, broken people come together in holy matrimony? Well, ideally, God’s healing process can begin. But too often, the opposite occurs: The flaws and brokenness come to the surface in even greater ways than before, and the couple has no idea how to handle them.

And no wonder it’s so difficult to plant healthy churches these days. People may bring their “Sunday smiles” to church, but during stressful times their dysfunctions emerge. Unity is strained, because everyone wants to get their own way.

Yes, it’s hard lay a strong foundation when you’re working with charred materials.

In case you think I’m being far too negative, let me also point to one reason for hope. God knows all about our flaws and imperfections, and He loves us anyway. The whole point of the Gospel is that the cross of Christ provides both forgiveness and a remedy for our sin-wrecked nature.

However, here’s the problem: In order for the Gospel to do its restorative work in our lives, we have to acknowledge our brokenness and sincerely want to change. Otherwise, our inherent flaws will be compounded rather than healed.

If you’re feeling like a charred stone today, don’t despair. You aren’t alone. There’s hope for a turnaround when you cry out to the One who’s able to make ALL things new (Revelation 21:5).

And I almost forgot to mention another very encouraging fact. Despite his persistent detractors, Nehemiah and his team were successful in rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall—even though their building materials came from the rubbish heap. With God’s help, you can build something beautiful as well.

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If the World Didn’t Give It to You…

Several months ago, my friend Ron was ecstatic when he met the woman of his dreams at a Christian leadership event. “Jim,” he told me at lunch one day, “meeting Jill was magical…like a Disney movie or something.”

Ron went on to describe all the circumstantial evidence that God had brought this woman into his life. “I’m SO thankful to the Lord!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t have to go out looking for the perfect match. Nor did I have to spend hours on a bunch of dating websites or go on countless dates to find the right person. She was a gift sent from God, right when I least expected it!”

Since it’s hard to talk any sense into a person who’s so in love, I mostly just listened to Ron’s story. But he clearly was convinced this new relationship was heaven-sent, and his heart was definitely all in.

However, when I met with Ron a few weeks later, he was beginning to have some doubts. Although he was still crazy about the woman he had met, he was wondering whether she would love him back after she became aware of his many flaws.

“Jim, I need to lose some weight,” he said with a scowl. “Jill deserves someone who’s in better shape.”

As the conversation continued, Ron went on and on about all the other reasons Jill might reject him in the end. He questioned the size of his house, the make of his car, his wardrobe, and his income, among other things. He was beginning to conclude that someone of Jill’s caliber couldn’t possibly settle for a person with so little to offer.

Again I listened. The more Ron talked, the more I could see he was correct about his limitations.

But then an old Gospel song came to mind: “The world didn’t give it to me, and the world can’t take it away.”

Recalling Ron’s description of how GOD had brought Jill into his life, I said with a grin, “I think I see what is going on here. Although you were totally convinced that the Lord supernaturally brought Jill into your life, now you’re coming up with all sorts of ways YOU must work to hang on to her.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he conceded. “So what should I do?”

“Well, look Ron, if you weren’t responsible for bringing Jill into your life, then perhaps you need to quit acting as if you’ll only keep her in your life by your own efforts and worthiness.”

Ron looked down for a moment to gather his thoughts. “Jim, I see what you’re saying, but let’s be honest: There’s a real chance she will be disillusioned once she gets to know me better.”

“Very true!” I acknowledged. “But you have to go back to the question of whether God was truly the one who brought you together in the first place. If so, you can relax and be yourself. You’ve got nothing to worry about!”

Still rather exasperated, he replied, “Okay, man, I see what you mean. But what if we discover that God really DIDN’T bring us together?”

“That would be great too, Ron,” I assured him. “Then you can walk away knowing you didn’t initiate the relationship, nor were your flaws the reason it ended.”

At that point, Ron breathed a huge sigh of relief, as if an enormous weight had been removed from his shoulders. He said with a smile, “Wow. That’s awesome. I can just be myself and trust God with the rest. If He truly has brought Jill into my life, there’s no need for me to worry about losing her. And if it turns out He really hasn’t brought her into my life, I don’t have to worry about losing her in that case either!”

So why did I share Ron’s story with you? Because it’s a parable about several different aspects of our relationship with the Lord.

Were we saved by our own efforts? No! Our relationship with God began through His grace alone, on the basis of faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). And just as we were initially saved by God’s unmerited favor, we can trust Him to keep on loving us all along the way. Thankfully, we don’t have to fear His rejection when He finds out more about us—because He already knows EVERYTHING about us. (Go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief!)

Ron’s story also reminds us that we can rely on God to keep things safe when we’ve entrusted them to Him. The apostle Paul said it this way, I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day”  (2 Timothy 1:12). Instead of feeling fearful and insecure, treating his relationship with Jill as if it were something quite fragile, my friend should have simply entrusted it back into God’s care.

Finally, what are we to make of Ron’s claim that Jill was a gift from the Lord? Well, the Bible clearly says, EVERY good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17).

Isn’t that good news? Our Heavenly Father doesn’t vacillate. He’s not like a shifting shadow, bouncing here and there. Since He is the SOURCE of every good thing, we can also trust Him to be the SUSTAINER of every good thing. Wow. What an incredible relief.

So take a moment to ask yourself: Is there something you’ve been struggling to entrust to the Lord?  If so, remember: The safest place you can put things is in the loving hands of God.

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Almost Like Being ‘in Love’

Are you in love?  That’s an important question, and I don’t want you to dismiss it as being frivolous. If you’re married, I sure hope you can say yes to this question, but I’m referring to a love that goes even beyond that—an “in love” state of mind that every follower of Jesus is supposed to experience, whether married or single.

My curiosity about being “in love” was sparked recently when I found myself humming an old song originally introduced in the musical Brigadoon:

What a day this has been
What a rare mood I’m in
Why, it’s almost like being in love.

There’s a smile on my face
For the whole human race
Why, it’s almost like being in love.

As this song suggests, love will cause you to see “the whole human race” differently, not just the person you’re in love with. This should be a real challenge to us who claim we’re in love with Jesus. If our love for Him is genuine, there should be a smile on our face for people too.

But how can we go deeper than the world’s superficial concept of being “in love”—typically a phrase used just in the context of romantic or emotional love?

I decided to do a search on BibleGateway.com and found some fantastic “in love” passages. Here’s a small sample, including my observations about how the principles apply to our lives today:

“Walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Ephesians 5:2).

  • Love is not just a feeling or even just a matter of words—it’s something we’re called to walk in and live out. When we do this, our lives will emit the sweet fragrance of Christ instead of less-appealing odors.

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16).

  • Since God is love, there’s no way to maintain an intimate relationship with Him without abiding in love. And the word “abide” means that love is not meant to be a sporadic series of emotional, spiritual, or physical encounters, but rather a continual, unending connection.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love (1 John 4:18).

  • Fear and love are mortal enemies. Fear tries to undercut love, but God’s love can destroy our fears. Let’s not allow fear to hold us back from reaching out in love to others.

“May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another” (1 Thessalonians 3:12).

  • Our love is not supposed to diminish over time—it’s supposed to “increase and abound.” Is that happening with your love?

Of course, there are many other Bible passages about love. I even noticed this verse saying that “older men” (like me!) are supposed to be in love: “…that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience” (Titus 2:2).

So let me ask you again…

Are you in love?  If you still aren’t sure how to answer, I encourage you to take the LOVE TEST in 1 Corinthians 13 (MSG paraphrase). From what we read in the book of Acts, walking “in love” doesn’t seem to have been easy for the apostle Paul. But he realized its importance nevertheless: “No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (v. 3).

What an incredible statement: Without love, our lives are surely “bankrupt.”

Paul goes on to give us a very detailed description of love’s characteristics:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

Love never dies (vs. 4-8).

How did you do on this LOVE TEST? If you’re like me, you still fall short in many ways. But that’s another thing I like about the song from Brigadoon. Instead of saying we’ve fully mastered this thing called love, it only describes our experience as “almost” like being in love.

The LOVE TEST ends with Paul’s conclusion at the beginning of the next chapter: Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it—because it does.”  So true, Paul. So true.

———————————

I would love to preach at your church or conference, be a consultant to your leadership team, or help your organization navigate the waters of transition. You can reach me at info@JimBuchan.com.

 

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