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Seeking Wisdom in our Human Relationships

It’s the wisdom that we acquire over time that enables us to perceive that pattern and live in harmony with it. You know, the importance of seeing life through the lens of God’s truth, because as we’ve said, truth illuminates, and it allows us to live in harmony with this pattern or fabric that God has designed and woven to this life. And this is where I want to start, the fact that God is a designer. He designed this life and you and I function best as human beings when we do what we’re designed to do. And I think this is a good place for us to start this morning is to consider how God designed us as human beings. He is a designer and probably our most important feature as human beings compared to all the rest of the animal world is that we were designed in the image of God.

Now you may have heard that term before and never really understood it. For years, I never quite understood it, but what it literally means is that our lives reflect who He is and what He is like. In other words, we’re very much like God, in the way we’re made, we’re not God, but we reflect who He is. For instance, we think, we reason, and we are creative because He thinks, He reasons and He is a creative, a creative being. We have a personality, and we have emotions because He has a personality, and He is an emotional God. And if you don’t think so, examine the life of Jesus. You clearly see a human person, I mean, you see a man with a personality and emotions, just like we have. But most significantly, what we want to home in on today is that we are relational beings because God is relational. And we love as the Scripture says, because He first loved us. Now, this is so important to understand, and I want to spend a few minutes on it so that we really grasp it. God, the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit have been in relationship throughout eternity. You know, you look at Jesus; He has a relationship with His heavenly father. He goes off and spends time with Him regularly, but it’s so important to understand that relationship is inherent to who God is.

Now, I want to take just a brief moment to just consider something about the Trinity, which is a great mystery. Understanding one God, one heart, one will, one intention, but three persons. You see, when you look out at the landscape of all the world’s religions, you know, one of the things you see historically, as you go backwards in time, polytheism is a very popular, and I guess a very ingrained, particularly over in the East when you consider Hinduism, but it’s also infiltrated here in our country, and the thing about that is when you have thousands and thousands of gods, all these gods have their own wills. They have their own agenda. There’s no unity there which creates all kinds of problems and great incoherence. And then on the other side of the coin, you have, for instance, monotheism, which is what the Muslims believe. One God, Allah, which means for all eternity, this God has been by Himself. And at some point, He created people and then there was formed some type of relationship, but relationship is not intrinsic to Him. He is in essence, a solitary God, but that’s the uniqueness of Christianity and the uniqueness of the Trinity, three persons, but one unified will, one heart. And yet, the three persons of the Godhead have been in relationship for all of time. So, this is inherent to who He is and it’s inherent to who we are as people.

Now, another way we know for sure that we were designed to be relational, because if we were not, there’d be no such thing as loneliness. In this life, human beings would never get lonely. There’s something about us that, that we experience this loneliness in life. Let me share you what Donald Miller says. He says, “The words alone, lonely and loneliness are three of the most powerful words in the English language. Those words say we are human, but they’re like the words hunger and thirst, but they’re not words about the body, but the soul.” He goes on to say, “I think it’s interesting that God designed people to need other people. We see those cigarette advertisers with the rugged cowboy, riding around alone on a horse. And we think that’s strength when really, it’s like placing your soul on a couch and not exercising it. The soul needs to interact with other people to be healthy.”

Now, what I want to do is maybe share several, I think, really good examples that support the fact that relationships are so important to our lives. And I did some research on this on the Internet because I’d heard someone say that a law had been passed. And I don’t know whether it was a federal law, but it’s apparently, more and more states are beginning, this is quite interesting, to outlaw complete solitary confinement in their prisons, because what studies clearly show is that when people have no interaction with other people, when they have no human contact, when they live in utter silence, it leads to mental breakdown. In fact, as one researcher put it, it leads to a slow psychological death. Now why is that? It’s because of the way we were designed. We need human contact. We need to interact with others if we’re going to be able to function. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with what is called a longitudinal study, but it’s not like your standard survey that’s done where you go out and survey, but it’s more of a, it’s a study that takes place over a long period of time. And not long ago one of these longitudinal studies was completed where researchers over a 40-year period, this is quite interesting, studied 200 men right after they graduated from college and what they tried to discover were the factors which distinguished the healthy men from those who were deceased or disabled. And this is fascinating. It says, “The crucial distinguishing factor discovered was not salt intake or diet or weight. The key was self-disclosure. The healthy group reported the consistent presence in their lives of at least one person with whom they could share their thoughts and feelings. For some, it was a spouse, for others, it was a friend or a colleague.”

I read an interesting book a couple of years ago, it’s called Culture Shift. And There was a part of it that really struck me. And he was talking about just material possessions or any kind of anything. That’s I thought this was a pretty good insight. He says, have you ever noticed there’s a pattern when we buy something, a new CD, a new pair of hiking boots, a new car, a new boat, a new home. It really doesn’t matter because it always happens. When we first get whatever it is, there’s an energy we have. There’s an excitement. It wakes us up. It makes us alive. But then after a while, and usually it’s a pretty short while, there’s a kind of a sleepy dissatisfaction that comes over us. This new thing doesn’t feel new anymore. And it doesn’t bring that energy anymore. It becomes familiar, normal, ordinary, and soon it blends in with everything else we own. And now we’re restless for something else. Then he asks the question. He says, have you ever stopped to think about what’s going on here? Now, this is the nature or the fabric of life. All material objects, decrease in enjoyment and satisfaction over time. And I should share this because there’s only one thing in this life that can grow in love and enjoyment over time. And that is relationships with others. And the reason is, is because relationships are organic. In other words, they have the capacity to grow in intimacy and enjoyment and love over time if, and I would say, I would point out very clearly, if they’re nourished. Anything organic needs to be nourished to flourish, and I’m going to come back to that thought. But I, in sharing all this, it really struck me that if all of what I’ve just shared with you is the truth, then the deeper and more intimate our relationships are in this life, the richer our lives would be. And therefore, you would think that we would pour so much more of our time and energy into our relationships. And yet we don’t seem to be very wise as people, we don’t seem to see life through the lens of God’s truth, because what I find is most middle- and upper-income men in midlife and going forward as their kids are leaving the home focus so much of their lives on building their careers, their wealth, and pursuing their pleasures and their hobbies. And just kind of take for granted their relationships as if they, you know, they’re just going to be maintained. I love these words of James Bryant. He said, “Love does not die easily. It’s a living thing. It thrives in the face of all life’s hazards. Save one. Neglect.”

Now, before I focus on the two relationships that I mentioned when we began, I want to share with you, I think a very important insight here. And I believe very strongly in this. The most important thing that you and I bring to a relationship is yourself. In other words, the healthier you are as a man, the better your relationships are going to be.

Stephen Covey brings this out, very forcefully in The Seven Habits. Listen to what he says. “Self-mastery, self-discipline are the foundation of good relationships with others.” Of course, we don’t think that way. That’s a clueless thought to us. He goes on to say, “Some people say that you have to like yourself before you can like others. I think that idea has merit, but if you don’t know yourself, if you don’t control yourself, if you don’t have mastery over yourself, it’s very hard to like yourself except in some short time term, superficial way. Real self-respect comes from dominion over self.” It’s kind of like what Paul says In I Corinthians 6, when he says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” In other words, I won’t let anything out in the world have mastery over me where I’m a slave to it. And then he says this, “The most important ingredient we put into any relationship is not what we say or what we do, but who we are as people.”

You know, guys, your character, your humility, your willingness to be honest and transparent with others, and your ability to love will ultimately determine the quality of our relationships. And the problem is these are all issues of the heart. These are issues of the soul, and we can’t generate them ourselves. You know, I spoke to a group at lunch yesterday and I asked this question. I said, you know, as a husband, if you made the decision today that I’m going to be a more loving husband, I’m going to be kinder, and I’m not going to lose my temper at home anymore; it’s not going to happen. And I’m going to do this by sheer willpower for the rest of my life. The question I would ask you is, do you really think you could pull that off? I think the answer is no, because you can’t transform yourself, because listen to this, guys. The type of person that you and I are becoming is most significantly impacted by our relationship with Christ, because these are all part of the inner man as the Bible calls it. They flow from the heart and the soul and you can’t transform your heart and soul, but He can. And therefore, the deeper we go with Him, the greater the transformation that will take place in our lives as time goes by.

Now, I want to shift our focus and talk for just a minute about relationships with other men, friendships. And it’s kind of interesting. I think some of you know Father William Wilson. He’s a gentleman that lives here in Birmingham. He was a Trappist monk for 25 years. I think he’s 67 or 68 years old today, I mean, an incredibly Godly, humble man. And he was sharing with me just the fact, and I’ve seen this, he works with a lot of men whose lives have been broken over the years and often many men who he says have betrayed their wives, Christian men. And he said this to me a couple of months ago. He says, you know, I generally notice two things about these men that I meet with. He says, one, they generally have no real connection with God. And number two, he says they have no real connection to any other men. You know, he says, not that they don’t have friends, but they don’t have any men that really know them, who they can really confide in and share what’s going on in their lives. And, you know, guys, we spend so much, if you think about it, so much of our time and so much of our energy trying to hide our true selves from others, and in the process, nobody really knows who we are. Nobody knows what’s really going on in our life. Nobody knows if we’re struggling, nobody knows if we’re about to fall apart because we have to hide it. We have nobody we can confide in.

I heard Gordon McDonald who’s a minister up in Boston. At least he used to be, I’m not sure he may be retired by now. He said several years ago he had an opportunity to address 50 of the world’s leading nuclear scientists. He said these were all men who had multiple PhDs from MIT and they all once had commanded nuclear submarines for the Navy. He says they were meeting together because they were men who ran and supervised many of the nuclear power plants around the world. He said, “I came to address them concerning several lofty issues. At a certain point, during my presentation, I made the comment that midlife men were terribly lonely. At that moment, a hand shot up from the audience and a man asked Mr. McDonald, can you tell us why we’re so lonely? This was a fascinating question. I thought and made a few comments about the need of friendship. At that point, another man raised his hand and asked, could you tell us how to make a friend? I thought to myself that I was answering a simple question like this for a man who had had his finger on nuclear missile buttons for several years and knows how to construct a nuclear power plant. And here was a man in his fifties who wanted to know how to make a true friend. And for the next two hours, that group was captivated with the question of how to retrieve intimacy, because they all admitted as a group that as successful as they were, they had become terribly lonely.”

There was an interesting article several years back in The US News and World Report, where they interviewed a Dr. Eugene Kennedy, who was a psychologist at Loyola University in Chicago. And they asked him and questioned him about friendship, particularly homing in on men and their inability to have and to make friends. And the first question that was asked, is it more difficult to make meaningful friends in our U.S. society today than ever before? And he said, “Well, it’s dangerous to say, make a comment like that. But there are factors today in the U.S. culture, such as high mobility, social conditions, the emphasis on the self and the superficial things of life, technology that combine to make it very tough for many people to make good friends. There is a tendency in the U.S. today to emphasize surface qualities. The attributes you need for friendship go much deeper than that and usually require a surrender of self rather than the triumph of self over others. There is a profound,” this is something he’s observing, “there is a profound longing for friendship, a poignant searching for the kinds of things that only close and lasting relationships give you. But people have difficulty in knowing how to go about making friends because our society has told them that self-gratification will make them successful and happy. We have a generation of people,” and I would say men, “who are working terribly hard to find things to do together, thinking that friendship comes out of that kind of frenetic activity, the sort of carousing, good fellowship you see on television beer commercials. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not friendship.” And listen to this. He says, “Friendship means having enough trust in others to act genuinely yet many people aren’t on good enough terms with themselves and don’t appreciate the simple things about their own character.” And this is the clincher. “We somehow think we have to be something other than what we are.”

Guys, substantive relationships with other men have got to be pursued. In other words, there’s got to be an intent to find those type of relationships and it takes a great deal of courage and a great deal of honesty. And I’d say a great deal of humility. On a personal note, once a month, I meet with three other men, and we meet in my conference room in my office. And these are guys I’ve been friends with for a long time. And we take about an hour and we share what’s going on in our lives. We talk about what’s going in our marriages, our kids, our struggles. And then we close by praying for each other and then are committed during the course of the week to pray for each other. And I can tell you that I think to a man, I can’t speak for them, but to a man, I think every one of them would say, including myself, would say how important and meaningful that time is in our lives. And I am now convinced, and I’m almost 53 years old, I am now convinced that the older we get, deep down, we all get to a point in our lives where we want people to love us, not for what we’ve accomplished in life, but just for who we are.

Now, I want to close by talking about marriage. I’ve got about 15 minutes. And how do you do justice to a complicated relationship, a complicated institution like marriage in 15 minutes? But I’m going to give it a shot by just sharing a couple of thoughts, a couple of insights to leave you with and then tie this all together, tie the whole series together beautifully with a couple of…but you know, marriage is complex, and it is difficult, but a couple of thoughts that hopefully will be of value to you. You know, as I said, a few minutes ago, it’s critical to understand that relationships are like living organisms, but particularly the marriage relationship.

You know, I think sometimes, I was sharing with somebody recently, how my first year of marriage, we didn’t have children, it was terrific. And after end of year one, I’m thinking if I can maintain this for the rest of my life, I’ll be happy. I’ll be a satisfied man. But you know what the problem is. Relationships aren’t static. They change. They change over time as obviously your circumstances change. They always seem to be in a state of flux. And therefore guys, if they’re going to grow and flourish, they have to continually be nourished because the most destructive force in relationships, particularly husband and wife, particularly when life gets frenetic with kids and activities and whatever, the most destructive force is neglect. I don’t think we realize, neglect, in one sense, is a form of unfaithfulness. You know, we think the opposite of love is hate. It’s not.  The opposite of love is indifference.

And often I think we don’t intend to neglect our relationship with our spouses. It just happens. I’ll never forget. A couple years ago, a man came to my office. This guy is really very, he’s not a real emotional guy, very strong, had what I thought was a great marriage. This guy was very successful in his work. He was a deacon in his church or on the vestry of his church, some role like that, very important role in his church, taught Sunday school. He coached his kids’ athletic teams, great coach. And he was on the board of several very fine charitable organizations. And yet he sat before me in tears telling me his wife was leaving him, filing for divorce. She’d gotten involved with another man and I was stunned, and we talked and I asked him, I said, you know, how long has, I said, how long has this been going on?

He said, we’ve been having problems I guess for about two years. And I said, okay, if you could go back two years ago, just trying to get to the heart of it. I said, if you could go back two years ago, what would you do different? And I’ll never forget, with tears in his eyes, he said, I would not have neglected my wife. And it’s interesting. I shared that story with a group of men and, and I got an email from a guy who said, you just nailed what has happened to me in my marriage. My wife is leaving me and it’s because I neglected her. You know, I don’t know this, but I believe it because I’ve had two different marriage counselors telling me this, women, unlike men, women are very loyal. They are very loyal to their husbands. The only problem is, if they’re neglected, over time, they lose that loyalty. And this is interesting. They said, once they lose it, it’s hard for them to get it back. That’s something about women. They are very loyal, but once they cross the line, it’s very difficult to get it back.

Let me share a second thought with you. This is a great quote. I want to make a couple of comments on it from a guy named Gary Ricucci. He says this, “One of the best wedding gifts God gave you was a full-length mirror called your spouse. Had there been a card attached, it would’ve said, ‘here’s to helping you discover what you’re really like.’”

Gary Thomas in his book, Sacred Marriage says something similar. He says, “What marriage has done for me is to hold up a mirror to my sinfulness. It forces me to face myself honestly and consider my character flaws and my selfishness.” He goes on to say, “I have a theory behind every behind virtually every case of marital dissatisfaction lies an unwillingness to admit our self-centeredness. Couples do not fall out of love so much as they are unwilling to humbly acknowledge they have shortcomings as a spouse. Sin, wrong attitudes, and personal failures that are not dealt with will slowly erode the relationship assaulting and eventually erasing the once lofty promises in the throes of an earlier and less polluted love.” You see people in healthy, vibrant marriages deal with their problems. They deal with their issues. They don’t let them fester.

And I think one of the most significant things Jesus has said and I think I mentioned it in one of the earlier sessions is that’s meant so much to me is when He says, “why is it you,” and this think about this in the relation to marriage, “Why is it that you notice the speck in your spouse’s eye and yet can’t see the log in your own?”

Any marriage counselor will tell you that if you have two people in conflict that are struggling with their marriage, if they both were willing to, instead of pointing the finger at the other, but taking a good hard look at their self and their flaws and their shortcomings, if both of them will do that, there’s a high probability that they can restore their marriage and not only restore it, but it can flourish.

The final thought that I’ll share with you. And this is probably the biggest and it’s the hardest to detect. But one of the biggest mistakes we make is to believe that our spouse is the source of our happiness. You know, because I don’t know if you know, but this is the way most Americans approach marriage. I’m looking to you to make me happy. I’m looking to you to complete my life, but in doing so, what we’re doing, we’re looking for something from our wives that only God can provide because our wives cannot be God, because we were created with a soul that thirsts for Him. And as wonderful as our wives may be, as good as our marriage may be, they cannot satisfy the yearning of the soul. The thirst of the soul.

Listen to what David says in Psalm 42:1. “As the deer pants for the water brook, so my soul thirsts for God. Psalm 63:1 says, “My soul thirsts for you in a dry and weary land.” You remember the incident where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well? She clearly was looking for a man to make her happy, to fulfill her life, because it says she’d been married five times and she was currently living with a man. And you know, Jesus doesn’t, He doesn’t condemn her but what He does is He points her to Himself. He says, He homes in on the spiritual need in her life and offers her living water. And He says living water, only that living water which He offers will satisfy that thirst in your soul. No man will ever do that.

Guys, nothing in this life, including our spouses, as wonderful as marriage is, and can be, and how it can be one of the probably, I think the greatest human relationship in all of life, our wives can’t satisfy that thirst. And this is why Jesus says in John 6:35, I am the bread of life,” and He’s not talking about physical bread. He says, “I am the bread of life, he who comes to Me will not hunger and he believes in Me will never thirst.”

Now I want to try and tie all this together with what I consider to be, I think, a very powerful insight. And at this stage of my life, I’ve come to this conclusion that really good substantive relationships with anyone is very hard to come by. And the reason is, true love means you have to speak into somebody else’s life. You’ve got to be willing to say hard things to them. You’ve got to be willing to expose yourself. You have to deal with hard issues, and you have to accept their flaws. Tim Keller has some interesting words to say about this. Listen, this is powerful. He starts by saying, “In our relationship with God, God truly desires to relate to us, but He’s also given us some non-negotiables about life. And if we’re going to truly follow Him, we have to adjust our lives to these non-negotiables.”

But this is true, he says, really in all of the relationships that you have, because he says, “there could be no intimacy in relationships unless you adjust to the finalities of the person you’re relating to. He says, “Consider marriage. When you get married, you generally see very few flaws in the person that you’re getting ready to marry.” I mean, isn’t that true? I mean, you think this is the perfect person, and then you get married and you come back from your honeymoon, and over time, you know, she begins to contradict you, tell you things you don’t want to hear. She crosses your will and there’s conflict, maybe even fighting. And what happens is, over time, there are things you negotiate and agree upon and hopefully work on your character flaws. But one of the things that’s crucial to realize that there are certain non-negotiables. In other words, you accept the way that person is and how they like things to be. And there are things, my wife, there’s certain things my wife likes, she likes them this way and I don’t like them, but I’ve gotten to the point where I accept it.

Because you’re not, you know the bottom line, you’re not going to change it. You’re not. We’re talking about finalities you don’t like, but you accept. Now this is very important Keller says. “In the end, you cannot have a personal relationship with someone unless you adjust to these finalities, because if you’re someone who always has to have his way and refuses to adjust, you will never have a relationship that lasts.”

I don’t know, if any of you ever saw that movie, you don’t have to show a hand, but the Stepford Wives; it was made twice back in the seventies. And then just recently, and I saw both of them. Interestingly, it’s about this little town of Stepford, you know, it’s just this nice peaceful town. And one of the reasons it’s peaceful because when you move there, they take the females, the wives, and they put this little microchip in their brain. And in the process, it removed all the finalities, all the non-negotiables. You know, the men completely have their way on all issues. In other words, the women never contradict or cross the wills of their husbands. Now I know a lot of you think that sounds appealing, but the problem is the personal relationship was gone because you can’t have a relationship with a compliant machine, a robot. To have a personal relationship, you have to have someone who will cross your will, who will offend you, even if it leads to conflict.

Listen to what Phillip Yancey says about this. This is really good. This is something we should all listen to. He says, “Every marriage has crisis times, moments of truth when one partner, or both, is tempted to give up; to judge the other undependable, irrational, untrustworthy.” I bet there are a lot of you who’ve been there. Maybe you’re there right now, but he says, “Great marriages survive these moments, weak ones fall apart.” And then he says this, “Great relationships take form when they are stretched to the breaking point and they do not break.”

I’d ask you, just keep that in mind the next time you go through a difficult time in your marriage. But again, as we think and consider this, guys, think about how pertinent this is to our relationship with God. You know, I encounter many men who believe in God who believe in Jesus, but I hear them say, you know, but I just don’t buy this about Christianity, you know, there’s, I just don’t like, you know, this part or these words of Jesus, cause there’s a lot of hard stuff in there. I just, you know, that’s not for me. I don’t know if you ever feel this way, but a good question to ask is, does the God you believe in ever contradict you or cross your will? Does He ever tell you things you don’t want to hear?

Does He ever point out your character flaws, your shortcomings, your sinfulness? Because if we don’t have a God who speaks into our lives, guys, and if we don’t believe in the authority of Scripture in our lives, we have a God with a chip in His brain, a robot, a God who is under our control. And if that’s the case, your God is not real and He’s not personal. You see, unless we have a God that tells us things that we have to submit to, that we have to adjust our lives to, whether we like it or not, you don’t have a real God in your life and you don’t have a personal relationship with Him.

And this is the most crucial thing to understand as I close this up, as I wrap this up. Where do we start? We started by considering our design. We’re designed in the image of God. He makes us like Himself in many ways, but He tells us one other important thing about our existence. And He tells us this in Colossians 1:16-17. He says, “For by Him, all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, all things have been created through Him,” listen to this, “and for Him.” We’re designed and created for Him. Isaiah 43:21 says, “The people who I formed for Myself.” I love this one. I Corinthians 8:6 says, “We exist for Him.” And then I Corinthians 1:9 says, “We have been called to live in fellowship with Jesus Christ.” And that word fellowship literally means companionship. Guys, this is why we exist. We exist for Him. We’re designed to live in relationship with Him. In fact, the mark of a legitimate Christian is someone who knows Him and lives in relationship with Him. One of the most chilling passages in Scripture is Matthew 7:21-23, where Jesus says, On the judgment day, many people will stand before Me and say, Lord, I did all these good things for You. I believed in You. I did this and I did this, and I did this. And Jesus gives them these chilling words. He says, “depart from Me. I never knew you. I never knew you.” And then He says, Jesus, some of His final words in John 17 in his high priestly prayer, he says, this is what eternal life is all about. This is the mark of a person with eternal life. He says in John 17:3, he says, “This is eternal life. That they may know You, the only true God in Jesus Christ, whom You’ve sent.”

I’ll leave you with this question. Have you ever truly surrendered your life to Christ and entered in a relationship with Him and are getting to know Him personally and where He speaks with authority into your life? Because He has to speak with authority into our lives if we’re to have that personal relationship, because if He’s not, He’s a God with a chip in his brain, a God that you serve on your own terms, and He is under your control. And in that situation, there can be no personal relationship, which is the mark of a Christian.

Let me close in prayer. Lord, we do thank You for the truth that You give us though it’s hard at times. We’re grateful for the gift of relationship and that we do have people in our lives. Father, the question is, how well do we really know them, and do we really pursue them or are we neglecting them? Not necessarily intentionally, because we can fill our lives with so many good things, but in the process, we can neglect that which is most important. The relationships with the people that we love and our relationship with You. We do thank You for our time together. We’re grateful for the light that You’ve given us, that we can see, that we can have wisdom. We pray these things in Christ’s name. Amen.

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