Relationships are difficult. Whether it’s a relationship with your spouse, child, former spouse, stepchild, parent, sibling, in-laws, grandchild, friend, coworker or employer, conflict is inevitable. Unfortunately, it often leads to a cycle of hurt, anger, and distancing yourself from the other person.
Change My Relationships does not believe that you have to live this way. If you are willing to study and consistently practice the Ten Relationship Principles, change is possible. The principles work because God’s Word works. He is the Creator who designed man. He knows what is necessary for healthy, loving relationships.
The Ten Relationship Principles
1. You can’t change others
2. Change starts with you
3. Adopt realistic expectations
4. Get rid of your emotional baggage
5. Communicate openly and honestly
6. Regulate your emotions
7. Forgive others
8. Establish firm boundaries
9. Take responsibility for your choices
10. Depend on God’s power
You can’t change others
It’s easy to blame the other person for your unhappiness. You may think, “They’re the problem; they need to change!” When you externalize your frustration by blaming or criticizing them for your discontent, you are attempting to change them. “If you would only _________, I wouldn’t be so mad.” Unfortunately, all you really accomplish is to create resistance on their part. Most people simply respond in like kind or distance themselves from you.
When you pressure the other person to behave in a certain way, you convey the message, “You ought to do this…” “You should act like this because…” “You shouldn’t do that…” Consequently, you wind up in an endless cycle of drama. Most people are motivated to change only when they sense that you like and accept them. When they feel criticized, disliked, or unappreciated they are usually reluctant to change. They shift into a protective mode.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should never confront bad behavior. Some relationships are marked by abuse, addiction, and infidelity. To say nothing is to give tacit approval to what is causing your emotional pain. Unhealthy, selfish, and dysfunctional behavior should always be confronted in a straightforward and tactful way. “If another believer sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.” Matthew 18:15
You must understand, however, that you cannot make that person change. It must be an internal decision on their part. The more you nag, whine, cry, beg, threaten, rant, rave, or pout in an effort to change them, the more frustrated and angry you will become. Does this mean that you must acquiesce and live with status quo? No, it doesn’t. You must learn to implement tough love. Tough love is best demonstrated in difficult relationships by setting firm boundaries and the consequences for violating those boundaries. The practical application of this concept will be more fully discussed in Principle 8.
Change starts with you
God’s Word says that conflict with another person starts in your heart. When selfish desires are not checked, you try to get your own way, which leads to resistance on the other person’s part.
What causes fights and arguments among you? They come from your selfish desires that fight to control you. You want what you cannot get. James 4:1-2
Notice that James says, “Selfish desires fight to control you.” There is a civil war going on in your mind. Sinful desires are in combat with what you know is right. And when you don’t get what you want, you’re more likely to argue, attack, sulk, nag, whine, lie, or throw a temper tantrum to get the other person to give in. This almost always ends badly.
You’re probably thinking, “I’m not the problem, he is! My ex-husband had an affair with my best friend, divorced me and married her. They seem perfectly happy. I can’t stand looking at their Facebook page. It’s not fair. He’s the one who should change!” You’re right—it’s not fair. You were victimized by his selfishness. But, let’s face it—you probably will not get a heartfelt admission of guilt or a request for your forgiveness. The bottom line is that you cannot change your ex husband or his new wife. Any attempt on your part will most likely result in more hurt, frustration and anger.
You must realize that it is human nature to think that the solution lies in changing the other person. “If he/she would only _________, life would be better.” Unfortunately, you will waste a lot of time and energy trying to change the other person. You may pray, nag, lecture, argue, manipulate, beg, cry, and threaten to get them to change. Sadly, none of it works. All you will get is a more fractured relationship.
You must accept the fact that you are powerless to change anyone. You cannot make anyone change any more than you can make it rain. If it is impossible to make someone do what you want them to do, why waste your time and energy? That same energy would be better spent on changing yourself.
“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, and criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling roadshow mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.” Matthew 7:1-5
So what are you supposed to do about the painful circumstances of life? Chuck Swindoll has said, “The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.” In other words, if your relationships are going to change, it must begin with you. Instead of trying to change the other person, you must be the change maker. When you become the change, you will regain power over your own life and begin to get emotionally healthy. When you become willing to take the focus off the other person, it will change the way you act toward them, and that will change the dynamic of the relationship. This is a key principle for changing your relationships with other people.
Learning what makes relationships successful and owning your counterproductive behavior is a great place to start. But the fact remains that you have an internal enemy (AKA selfish desires) that can sabotage your best intentions. Simply knowing what to do in a difficult relationship is not enough. Insight and understanding can be easily swept away when your selfish desires get the upper hand. What are you to do? As a Christian you must understand that you need more than willpower to win the internal war. We need God’s power; that is, the power of the Holy Spirit.
“If you are empowered by the Spirit, you won’t obey your selfish desires.” Galatians 5:16
He comes to indwell every true believer at the point of salvation. He is your divine guest who provides comfort when you are hurting; guidance when you are confused; power to overcome temptation; and conviction when you have sinned. It’s been said that living a successful Christian life is not hard—it is impossible. You need his empowerment to resist the temptation to selfishly insist on having your way.
When you submit your will to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, he instantly provides his power to resist the desire to act selfishly. Specifically, he gives you the patience and self-control that you lack.
“But when the Holy Spirit controls our Life, he produces this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23
Keep in mind that you have catered to your selfish desires throughout life, which has produced negative communication patterns. As a result, your first response will most likely be selfish in nature. Therefore, you must retrain yourself to respond and not react.
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” James 1:19
Having the right tools is not enough. Real change only occurs when relationship skills are used in the power of the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit will be discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 10.
Adopt realistic expectations
You have a mental list of expectations as to how another person should behave toward you. Some of these expectations come from fairy tales, movies, television, the Internet, and the culture. You have a mental picture or ideal in your mind as to what the other person should do to meet your “needs” (i.e., inner desires). Some are realistic and others are not. When unrealistic expectations are not met, you are hurt, disappointed, frustrated, and even angry, which usually leads to conflict.
What are some of the unrealistic expectations that you may have of others?
• Others should always agree with me. Accept the fact that people view situations and circumstances differently. To insist that you alone have the right answer, perspective or solution is arrogant. Be willing to respect the other person’s point of view.
• Others should be like me. Although you may have many good qualities don’t assume that others should pattern themselves after you.
• Others should make the changes I want. As you have already seen this expectation is nothing more than an exercise in futility.
• Others should make me happy. Your happiness should never be dependent on other people. Happiness is a state of mind that only you control; it’s about your attitude and choices.
• Others should know what I am feeling and why. Face it, you are not a mind reader. Don’t expect others to be. It is your responsibility to communicate openly and honestly.
• Others should like me. No matter how good you are to people, there will always be at least one negative person who is going to be critical. Not everyone is going to like you. That’s okay because there are many others who do genuinely care about you.
And the list goes on. Take time to examine your unrealistic expectations. Bring them into line with reality and avoid unnecessary unhappiness.
Get rid of your emotional baggage
What is emotional baggage? In simple terms, it is unresolved emotional issues from the past. For some, emotional baggage goes back to childhood. For others, it may be of a more recent origin. The primary characteristic of most emotional baggage is that it involves some type of abuse and/or trauma. Because these painful experience(s) have not been addressed and processed, there is a tendency to ruminate about what happened. You become weighed down by those feelings. It’s like carrying multiple suitcases loaded with negative emotions, which makes your travel through life much more difficult. Unfortunately, this baggage is often “unpacked” in relationships, which creates difficulty in getting along with others. Some people are resilient and bounce back while others seem to be consumed with their emotional pain. Those memories can haunt these individuals for years and even decades.
There are four types of emotional baggage: regret, shame, guilt, and anger: Regret is a negative emotional state that results from blaming ourselves for a bad outcome. You have a sense of loss at what might have been; sorrow that you cannot undo a previous decision that you made. Regret can leave you stuck in the past mulling over situations in which you have no control and cannot change. It can make you afraid to take risks and doubt your own judgment.
“About that time Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that Jesus had been condemned to die, changed his mind and deeply regretted what he had done, and brought back the money to the chief priests and other Jewish leaders.” Matthew 27:3
Shame is a powerful emotion, which causes you to feel worthless, embarrassed, humiliated, or unclean after having experienced, committed, or associated with a shameful act.
Many confuse guilt with shame. A simple way to understand the difference is that guilt says, ‘I did something wrong’ while shame says, ‘I am something wrong’. Guilt is associated with the wrong action, but shame is the belief that something is inherently and deeply wrong with you. Shame can impact the whole trajectory of your life:
• People who live with shame often avoid relationships and are less likely to be vulnerable. Shame causes you to hide and selfconceal. You are unwilling to share your true self with the world.
• People who live with shame suppress their emotions. If you feel ashamed of who you are or of something that has happened to you, it is likely you’ll keep your thoughts and feelings wrapped up inside.
• People who live with shame often feel worthless, depressed, and anxious.
• People who live with shame are less likely to take healthy risks. Shame diminishes your sense of self-confidence, which will keep you from making decisions that might end in failure. It will prevent you from taking risks concerning jobs, relationships, school, etc. unless you feel certain the outcome will be favorable.
• People who live with shame are more likely to relapse back into problem behaviors. Research indicates that people who struggle with alcoholism are more likely to relapse back into drinking if they experience shame. Those who are ashamed of their behavior sometimes continue in that behavior because they don’t believe that change is possible. Shame can be the reason people choose not to take steps towards healing. They
believe they are worthless and are likely to engage in behaviors that are bad for their health and well-being.
Guilt is the emotional distress that you experience when you have done something wrong or committed an offense that violates your conscience. King David is a prime example of someone who struggled with guilt. He had committed adultery and murder then attempted to cover it up. Look at the terrible impact his guilt had on him until he finally confessed his wrongdoing:
“There was a time when I wouldn’t admit what a sinner I was. But my dishonesty made me miserable and filled my days with frustration. All
day and all night your hand was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water on a sunny day until I finally admitted all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide them. I said to myself, “I will confess them to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.” Psalm 32:3-5
In verses 3-4, David gives a vivid physical and emotional description of his struggle with guilt. He says that his “strength evaporated like water on a sunny day”. He was clearly depressed and feeling physically exhausted. David describes the weight of his guilt as God’s hand being “heavy upon me”.
God, in his mercy, will keep his heavy hand upon you when you have sinned and need to confess. Covering up, running away, denying, avoiding, or overcompensating will only magnify the deep sense of guilt you feel. To prevent guilt from turning into shame you must come clean before God and those that you have offended.
Anger is a strong emotion that occurs when you think someone has behaved in an unfair, cruel, or unacceptable way. Anger is a God given emotion that can be used in a constructive or a destructive manner. Anger can be used to express negative feelings and move us to find solutions to relationship problems or it can be unleashed on others (verbal and physical abuse). Sometimes anger can have a destructive effect on you mentally and/or physically when it is internalized. This is vividly illustrated in the life of Absalom, one of David’s favorite sons. When he discovered that his sister, Tamar had been raped by his half-brother, Amnon, notice how he handled his anger:
“Has your brother Amnon had his way with you? Now, my dear sister, let’s keep it quiet—a family matter. He is, after all, your brother. Don’t take this so hard.” Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s home, bitter and desolate. King David heard the whole story and was enraged, but he didn’t discipline Amnon. David doted on him because he was his firstborn. Absalom quit speaking to Amnon—not a word, whether good or bad—because he hated him for violating his sister Tamar. Two years went by. One day Absalom threw a sheep shearing party in Baal Hazor in the vicinity of phraim and invited all the king’s sons. He also went to the king and invited him. “Look, I’m throwing a sheep-shearing party. Come, and bring your ervants.”
But the king said, “No, son—not this time, and not the whole household. We’d just be a burden to you.” Absalom pushed, but David wouldn’t budge. But he did give him his blessing. Then Absalom said, “Well, if you won’t come, at least let my brother Amnon come.” “And why,” said the king, “should he go with you?” But Absalom was so insistent that he gave in and let Amnon and all the rest of the king’s sons go. Absalom prepared a banquet fit for a king. Then he instructed his servants, “Look sharp, now. When Amnon is well into the sauce and feeling no pain, and I give the
order ‘Strike Amnon,’ kill him. And don’t be afraid—I’m the one giving the command. Courage! You can do it!” Absalom’s servants did to Amnon exactly what their master ordered. 2 Samuel 13: 20-29
Anger can be used for good or bad purposes. When you choose to clam up or blow up, you will inevitably damage your relationship with others.
Communicate openly and honestly
Communication can make or break a relationship. The more open and honest the dialogue, the healthier the relationship will be. This type of communication builds trust and credibility. But when you pretend to be someone you aren’t the relationship cannot grow.
“What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth.” Ephesians 4:25
Transparent communication can be difficult because it requires vulnerability; that is, becoming psychologically naked. Psychological nakedness is frightening because you fear the disapproval and rejection of others. There are other reasons for not being open and honest:
• Avoid conflict. Addressing problems in a relationship can trigger a reaction in the other person. They may become argumentative and defensive, which can lead to emotional turmoil in you.
• Avoid consequences. When you engage in behaviors that you know are unacceptable, there is an innate tendency to hide and cover-up. You do not want to suffer the relational consequences.
“That evening they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and they hid themselves among the trees. The Lord God called to Adam, “Why are you hiding? And Adam replied, “I heard you coming and didn’t want you to see me naked so I hid” (Genesis 3:8-10).
• Protect your image. No one wants to lose face. It’s embarrassing and sometimes humiliating. The problem is that you fear the truth will ruin your reputation. As you have already seen a refusal to be vulnerable interferes with forming a healthy, intimate relationship.
• Fear it will be used against you. You are responsible for sharing the truth and not what others may do with that information. It’s a risk that you must take to have a growing, connected relationship.
Open, honest communication is not about blame or projection. You must vigilantly avoid “you statements” and stay focused what you think and feel. This is best accomplished by using “I messages.” For example, “You totally disrespected me at the party!” will most likely trigger a defensive reaction. An “I message” might sound like this: “I felt angry when I was made the brunt of your joke. I’m struggling with that right now.”
When you have been hurt, upset or disappointed by the other person’s behavior, use emotion words, not interpretations. Usually, it almost always comes down to fear, sadness, anger or disappointment. Once you have identified the emotion, share it as an observation about yourself and how it has affected you. You might ask, “What if there is something that is really bothering me about the other person?” Simply share your observations about their behavior and how it has affected you. Avoid speculating about their motives or intentions. Responding this way will reduce your risk of not being heard or triggering defensiveness. Be willing to give up control over the outcome and accept that they may not agree with your feedback.
Regulate your emotions
Managing or regulating your emotions isn’t the same as suppressing them. Regulating your emotions simply means that they don’t control you, but you control them. It’s about learning to navigate them skillfully. “It is better to be patient than to be a strong soldier. It is better to control your anger than to capture a city.” Proverbs 16:32
Negative emotions exist for a purpose. They move you to action. Look at the word ‘emotion’ (motion—move; e—out). Emotions become the motivation for taking action. For example, if you’re angry you can choose to address the person and hopefully find a resolution. However, if you choose to suppress your anger or explode in a tirade, you have created a bigger problem. The same is true with emotional hurt. Pretending that you aren’t emotionally hurt will not make the bad feelings go away. As with anger, you can choose to address the person and hopefully find a resolution or suppress the hurt and create a breech in the relationship.
When negative emotions aren’t addressed they usually get worse and there’s a good chance that you will turn to an unhealthy coping mechanism such as food or alcohol abuse. How are emotions regulated?
• Put on your emotional brakes. Don’t react but respond. Immediately reacting almost always is a mistake. You’ll probably say something that you will later regret. Take a deep breath and tell yourself to stay calm. Repeat this internal command multiple times. This will prevent a thoughtless
reaction and offending the other person.
• Label your emotions. Identify what you are feeling. Put a name on your emotion. Are you frustrated? Do you feel disappointed? Are you sad? Pay close attention to what’s going on internally. It’s not uncommon to experience a mixed bag of emotions such as anxiety, frustration, and anger. Labeling how you feel will give you a sense of control.
• Re frame your thoughts. Your thinking affects how you feel. For example, you receive an email from your supervisor stating that she wants to she you in her office immediately. Your automatic thought might be that you are in trouble and may be fired. This kind of thought process is called forecasting. You are jumping to conclusions without knowing the facts, which can trigger anxious feelings. You are forecasting in a negative way.
Others who are more self-confident may assume that they are going to get promoted, be given a raise, or congratulated for a job well done. Re framing your thoughts in this situation would mean adopting a more realistic view. For example, “I have no idea why she wants to see me in her office. I will not jump to conclusions, but wait until I get the facts from her.”
• Practice on a regular basis. Managing your emotions can be difficult, particularly when a specific emotion like anger routinely gets the best of you. The more time and attention you spend on the skills mentioned above, the more competent you will become in regulating your emotions. You’ll gain a sense of confidence in your ability to control your emotions, which will improve your relationship with others. Forgive others Have you been deeply wounded by someone? Have you been carrying emotional pain associated with that wound for months possibly even years? When you think of the person who hurt you is there a sudden rush of anger and resentment? Does it never seem to go away? Perhaps you’re thinking, “Why should I forgive them? You have no idea how much they hurt me. Why should I let them off the hook? They don’t deserve grace.” The following three reasons for forgiveness should always be considered:
• Be gracious to others and forgive those who’ve hurt you because God has been gracious to you.
“Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32b
God has been very gracious to you. You have been forgiven a multitude of sins and received an abundance of mercy. You are in no place to withhold grace from those who sinned against you.
• Forgive others because the alternative is bitterness. Research clearly indicates that bitterness is a destructive emotion. Stress hormones are released, which puts your body in a fight or flight mode. If you stay in a chronic state of distress there will be severe emotional and physical consequences. You are hurting no one but yourself! Holding onto resentment will not change the past or resolve the issue. And it will certainly not
make you feel better. It is a foolish choice that you will eventually regret.
“Be careful that none of you fails to respond to the grace which God gives, for if he does there can very easily spring up in him a bitter
spirit which is not only bad in itself but can also poison the lives of many others.” Hebrews 12:15
• Show grace and forgive others or God will not forgive you.
“If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.” Matthew 6:14-15
You should not expect to be forgiven by God if you are unwilling to forgive others when they sin against you. In God’s economy, you simply cannot receive what you are unwilling to give. Many counselors have heard clients say, “I can’t forgive them for what they did to me.” You need to understand that it is not a matter of “can’t” but “won’t.” God would not have given the command to forgive if it was humanly impossible. The problem is a hardened heart.
What is Forgiveness?
To forgive is to release; that is, to let something go. Let go of what? You are releasing them from punishment—the right to pay them back. It is not a matter of feelings but a choice you must make. There is no better example of this than the life of Joseph:
“But now that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers were frightened. ‘Now Joseph will pay us back for all the evil we did to him,’ they said. So they sent him this message: ‘Before he died, your father instructed us to tell you to forgive us for the great evil we did to you. We servants of the God of your father beg you to forgive us.’ When Joseph read the message, he broke down and cried. Then his brothers came and fell down before him and said, ‘We are your slaves.’ But Joseph told them, ‘Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, to judge and punish you? As far as I am concerned, God turned into good what you meant for evil, for he brought me to this high position I have today so that I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be
afraid. Indeed, I myself will take care of you and your families.’ And he spoke very kindly to them, reassuring them.” Genesis 50:15-21
• Forgiveness is not forgetting. Most people, even Christians, mistakenly believe that you must forgive and forget. Scripture, however, does not teach this. It sounds right, but isn’t. In fact, it is impossible to erase the event from memory. No one has the mental ability to intentionally delete neuronal memory files. It is impossible to erase biochemical encoding. If you do forget it occurs unintentionally over time. Some memories are “overwritten” by new experiences, but most of what you forget is due to the aging process.
It is foolish to think that God forgives and forgets. He never develops amnesia and is unable to remember what you did. If God could possibly forget, the truth of his omniscience would be undermined. Jeremiah 31:34 states, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” The clear meaning is that God promises to never bring your sin up against you ever again. He purposefully chooses to focus on the righteousness of Christ in which you stand.
• Forgiveness doesn’t mean you no longer feel the pain. Although you may have sincerely forgiven your offender, the emotional pain of the offense may linger. Healing takes time. If you have ever been physically injured, you must understand this truth. The physician may clean, stitch, medicate, and bandage your wound, but the physical pain usually persists. Over time, however, the pain will eventually subside. The opposite is also true. If you neglect medical care, the wound will become infected creating more intense pain. The same is also true concerning emotional wounds. Unless you choose to forgive, the emotional pain will worsen.
• It doesn’t mean you cease longing for justice. To forgive your offender doesn’t mean you give up the right for justice. It is a legitimate desire to want your offender to be held accountable. You should never minimize sin. “They called loudly to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge the people of the earth for what they’ve done to us? When will you avenge our blood against those living on the earth?” Revelation 6:10 The problem is that you have a tendency to take matters into your own hands. You seek to personally avenge the wrong done against you. Scripture commands you to “never avenge (yourself), but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). To long for justice is right, but you must let the Judge of all the earth deal with the offender in his own way and in his own time.
• It doesn’t mean you should make it easy for them to hurt you again. Forgiveness and trust are two different concepts. You may choose to forgive someone of their offense, but it doesn’t mean they should be trusted. Once trust has been broken it must be reestablished. Boundaries must be set and monitored. They will determine to what extent you will interact with that person. The offender may protest that you have placed parameters on the relationship. They may even say, “How dare you? This proves that you haven’t forgiven me.”
They are wrong. Boundaries have been set to protect you from further harm and to give that individual time to demonstrate that they are trustworthy.
• Forgiveness is rarely a one-time event. Although forgiveness occurs at a specific point in time it usually a life-long process. Initially, there may be a great sense of emotional relief. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the good feeling will last. In fact, you may find yourself struggling with the emotional pain all over again, particularly if you are married to the offender! This will require that you reaffirm the decision you originally made.
• We are to forgive “as” Christ forgave us. You are to forgive others because God has forgiven you. And you are to forgive in same manner that he has forgiven you.
“Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God has forgiven you because you belong to Christ.” Ephesians 4:32
How did God forgive you in Christ? He cancelled the debt that you owe him by accepting Christ’s payment on your behalf. Your offender’s debt is canceled when you promise not to bring their sin up to them again. You must not hold it over their head to manipulate or shame them. You also promise not to bring it up to others in order to denigrate them. And finally, you must not ruminate on the hurt and pain they caused you. You must
not allow yourself to wallow in self-pity or justify resentment or bitterness.
• Forgiveness means that you are to be good to them. Forgiving your offender requires you to do good to them rather than evil.
“If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong. Try to do what everyone considers to be good.” Romans 12:17
This may involve a simple act of kindness such as greeting them warmly and shaking their hand. When you decide to do good toward them rather than evil, the Holy Spirit will prompt you to be compassionate and merciful. You might ask, “What will that accomplish?” It will surprise and shame them. Most people who intentionally sin against you do so with the expectation that you will react in the same way. If you choose to repay them with evil, they will feel justified. If you choose to repay them with good, they will be disarmed and hopefully see the sinfulness of their behavior.
• Forgiveness means reconciliation. You were reconciled to God through his Son’s sacrifice. In God’s economy, forgiveness goes beyond the cancellation of a person’s sin debt. It requires that you pursue reconciliation with your offender.
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.” Matthew 18:15
You must realize that being obedient to this command does not guarantee the offender will be receptive. Not everyone wants to make peace. If you have reached out to the offender and been rebuffed, you have done all that you can do. It then becomes a matter between them and God.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:15
You must understand that being reconciled does not mean that the person who offended you should now become your closest friend. Many times that does not happen. The intimacy and trust that were once there are now gone due to the crushing damage of sin. The command to reconcile becomes painfully difficult when the offender committed an egregious sin such as incest, rape, or physical abuse. Consider the woman who is savagely beaten by her husband. Should she continue to reconcile with him seventy times seven until he has either murdered her or so destroyed her life so that she is nothing but an empty human shell? Does seventy times seven mean that she should continue to be his victim? The answer is a resounding “No!” Biblical reconciliation always assumes repentance—a turning away from evil. It mandates that the offender do what Zacchaeus told Jesus he would do:
“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Luke 19:8
It is possible to genuinely forgive your offender and not be reconciled. A lack of reconciliation is merely an indication that the offender is unwilling to repent. True repentance is always accompanied by the desire to make matters right. And the offender always takes ownership of his sin. “I have sinned against the Lord,” David confessed to Nathan. Then Nathan replied, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin.” 2 Samuel 12:13
Reconciliation requires that you give the offender an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and regain your trust. This may be a slow, arduous process particularly if that person has behaved in a consistently hurtful or irresponsible manner. There are seven signs that indicate the offender is genuinely repentant:
1. Accepts full responsibility for his or her actions.
2. Welcomes accountability from others.
3. Does not continue in the hurtful behavior or anything associated with it.
4. Does not have a defensive attitude about being in the wrong.
5. Does not dismiss or downplay the hurtful behavior.
6. Does not resent doubts about their sincerity or the need to demonstrate sincerity—-especially in cases involving repeated offenses.
7. Makes restitution where necessary.
A boundary is simply a dividing line. A geographical boundary marks the extent of one person’s property or jurisdiction and the beginning of another. In personal relationships, a boundary divides one person’s identity, responsibilities, and privileges from another. It creates “space” between individuals and defines expectations. The Bible addresses boundaries in the context of self-control.
“That grace instructs us to give up ungodly living and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this world (Titus 2:12).
When your sinful desires are not checked, you are prone to control, use, and manipulate others. The boundaries you establish help limit your selfish tendencies. In the same way, boundaries can also protect you from those who lack self-control. A person with clear and firm boundaries communicates to others what is and is not permissible. In effect, they convey the message, “This is my jurisdiction and you have no right to interfere.”
Sometimes you must say “no” to others when they attempt to violate a boundary you have set. For example, if a family member is abusing alcohol at a family gathering, it is appropriate to confront them. To ignore or dismiss the inappropriate behavior gives them tacit approval and puts you and your family at risk. There is the possibility that they will become angry and leave. You must resist any feelings of guilt associated with their negative reaction. It is not sinful to say “no” to someone when they violate personal boundaries in harmful and destructive ways.
Boundaries can be used in godly ways and sinful ways. You can distinguish between the two by examining the motive. Are you protecting yourself or someone weaker from potential harm? If so, it is a godly boundary. If you set a boundary to exclude someone who poses no harm, it is sinful. This type of boundary is most often seen in racism. Even cliques within the church fall into this category. Appropriate boundaries can help you keep out worldly influences. They will protect you from the world’s sinful philosophy and fleshly enticements.
“Stop loving this evil world and all that it offers you, for when you love these things you show that you do not really love God” (I John 2:15).
This does not mean you should avoid unbelievers. Christ interacted with the most despised of society and was harshly criticized for it. He demonstrated that he genuinely loved the lost unlike the self-serving Pharisees. You, too, have been called to be salt and light of the world.
“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:13-16)
God has set boundaries for his children but gives you the freedom to live within or without those parameters. If you violate his prescribed
boundaries, you must accept his discipline. Living within his boundaries, however, brings blessing. Adam and Eve were given one boundary in the Garden of Eden: to abstain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were free to exercise their freedom except in this one area. They chose to overstep this boundary, which led to the Fall and being driven out of the Garden. God later defined his boundaries to the nation of Israel through the Ten Commandments:
“Then, as God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were written with the finger of God” (Genesis 31:18). The boundaries established by the law were given to protect the covenantal relationship he had with his people and their relationships with one another. God also established societal law through governmental authorities to protect law keepers from law-breakers. “Obey the government for God is the one who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power. So
those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow. For the policeman does not frighten people who are doing right; but those doing evil will always fear him. So if you don’t want to be afraid, keep the laws and you will get along well. The policeman is sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for he will have you punished. He is sent by God for that very purpose” (Romans 13:1-4).
Healthy marriages require boundaries in order to protect the sanctity of the covenant relationship that exists between a husband and wife. This is best seen in the traditional wedding vows that a groom and bride make to one another before becoming husband and wife: [Groom’s name], do you take [Bride’s name] to be your wedded wife, to live together in marriage? Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as you both shall live? Marriage is to be an exclusive relationship. There is a commitment to love, comfort, honor, and to be faithful regardless of life’s circumstances. When these vows are kept a couple will experience the blessings God intended for this sacred relationship. Violating these boundaries, however, quickly destroys trust and creates conflict in the marriage.
Perhaps the best example of a marital boundary is the influential evangelist, Dr. Billy Graham. On October 24, 1948, Dr. Graham began a series of evangelistic meetings in Modesto, California. He was a couple of weeks shy of his 30th birthday. He and his close friends, George Beverly Shea, Grady Wilson, and Cliff Barrows were lodging at a motel on South Ninth Street. In early November, Dr. Graham initiated a discussion with these men about the problems they had witnessed among other evangelists; actions that had undermined the integrity of the gospel message, revealed hypocrisy, and ruined lives. He recounts the story in his autobiography:
“One afternoon during the Modesto meetings, I called the team together to discuss the problem. Then I asked them to go to their rooms for an hour and list all the problems they could think of that evangelists had encountered. When they returned, the lists were remarkably similar, and in a short amount of time, we made a series of resolutions or commitment among ourselves that would guide us in our future evangelistic work. In reality, it was more of an informal understanding among ourselves—a shared commitment to do all we could do to uphold the Bible’s standard of absolute integrity and purity for evangelists.”
Among the issues discussed was sexual immorality. Dr. Graham went on to write:
“The second item on the list was the danger of sexual immorality. We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated
from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or
suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s
mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee . . youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV).
This eventually became known as the Billy Graham rule, which has been practiced by many evangelical leaders since that time. It is interesting to note that in 2017 Vice President, Mike Pence was castigated for stating that he, too, follows the Billy Graham Rule. He was accused of being sexist and portraying women as temptresses and men as weak-willed beings unable to resist their sexual urges. Some went as far as to say that his behavior is a violation of the federal anti-discrimination law Title VII. Of course, this kind of criticism is nothing new. Isaiah, the prophet, warned of this irrational morality 2700 years ago:
“They say that what is right is wrong and what is wrong is right; that black is white and white is black; bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter” (Isaiah 5:20).
Boundaries are also necessary in parenting. Setting clear and firm limits for your children will protect them from making foolish and harmful decisions. “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Most children do not appreciate the boundaries their parents set. Teens, in particular, view them as unfair and restrictive, which leads to power struggles. Boundaries interfere with their desire for independence. When parents monitor and consistently enforce limits, they are able to shape their child’s behavior and ultimately their character. A failure to monitor and consistently enforce limits, however, typically leads to acting out, emotional immaturity,
disrespect for authority, and the development of character defects. Boundaries established early in a child’s life help them develop the self-discipline they will need to be productive citizens, parents, spouses, and employees. “Discipline your son in his early years while there is hope. If you don’t,
you will ruin his life” (Proverbs 19:18). Parental boundaries will serve a child well over the course of his life. In time, they will come to understand that real joy and blessing is not found in self-centeredness, but other-centeredness; not in taking but giving.
Take responsibility for your choices
Taking responsibility for bad behavior is hard. It is much easier to live in denial or blame someone else. Although you may dodge accountability, your relationships will always suffer as a result. Denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact. You act as if a painful event or an inappropriate behavior does not exist. For example, the death of a loved may trigger denial because the emotional pain is so great. Or, a person who is a functioning alcoholic may deny that they have a drinking problem, pointing to how well they function at their job and in relationships. Blaming is shifting responsibility for your bad behavior onto someone or something else. This coping strategy has its origins in the Garden of Eden. Following Adam and Eve’s violation of God’s boundary, the following conversation occurred:
“That evening they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden and they hid themselves among the trees. The Lord God called to Adam, ‘Why are you hiding?’ And Adam replied, ‘I heard you coming and didn’t want you to see me naked. So I hid.’ ‘Who told you were naked?’ the Lord God asked. ‘Have you eaten fruit from the tree I warned you about?’ ‘Yes,’ Adam admitted, ‘but it was the woman you gave me who brought me some, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:8-12).
All of mankind has a hard time admitting that they are wrong. It is an innate tendency we all possess due to the Fall. What you must understand is that denial and blaming always damage relationships. For a relationship to be healthy both parties must be willing to accept personal responsibility for their behavior and the consequences of that behavior. Someone has said, “When you blame others, you give up your power to change.” For relationships to grow there must be ongoing change. A failure to take ownership of bad behavior and make changes may work to your advantage in the short term, but eventually there will be consequences. Others will see you as untrustworthy and as uncaring. Not owning your behavior is convincing proof that you will most likely do it again; it says that you really don’t care about the other person. What are the benefits of taking personal responsibility for your behavior?
• Allows you to make better decisions. Self-justification distorts reality. You no longer see yourself as you really are and you develop a narcissistic frame of reference. You become convinced that you’re right, which leads to a decreased ability to make good choices.
• Small problems don’t become big ones. If you will own your mistake quickly and do your best to make it right, you can prevent it from turning into a major problem that will be difficult to resolve. A failure to do so will create a snowball effect, which can undermine your relationships.
• Allows you to learn from your mistakes. You can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t acknowledge them. And if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re destined to repeat them.
• Cultivates the respect of others. You hide your mistakes because you believe others will think less of you. The irony is that the opposite is true. When you admit your mistakes, apologize for them, and diligently work to make things right, most people will respect you for it. There still may be consequences, but people will appreciate your honesty.
• Strengthens your relationships. Self-justification is a cold, hard relationship killer. Blaming others for your failure creates contempt and alienation. Conversely, quickly admitting fault and acknowledging your role in the resolution of problems goes a long way in strengthening and preserving the relationship. Taking personal responsibility for your behavior will help you to develop an accurate perception of who you are, how you behave, and how your behavior affects others. Instead of living in denial or blaming others for your failures, you will learn from your mistakes and use them as stepping-stones to strengthen your relationships.
Depend on God’s power
It’s often said that the Christian life is not difficult; it is absolutely impossible apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. This maxim is based on what Jesus said in John 15:5: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” This is especially true when it comes to the development and maintenance of healthy relationships. You have a continuous civil war raging in your minds. That battle is between the flesh and the Holy Spirit. Both are resident within your earthly bodies.
“For we naturally love to do evil things that are just the opposite from the things that the Holy Spirit tells us to do; and the good things we
want to do when the Spirit has his way with us are just the opposite of our natural desires. These two forces within us are constantly fighting
each other to win control over us, and our wishes are never free from their pressures” (Galatians 5:17).
When you yield to the pressure of the flesh, you become self centered, mean-spirited, unkind, resentful, harsh, critical, indifferent, lustful, greedy, untruthful, unloving and the like. But the “fruit of the Spirit,” however is radically different. You are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no comparison. The answer to your relationship problems is obvious. You must learn to appropriate the power of the Spirit in order to live harmoniously with others. Human willpower is not enough to keep the flesh in check. It requires a supernatural power to overcome ungodly attitudes and behaviors. What you must grasp for this to become a reality is that the Holy Spirit became a divine resident in your life at the time of regeneration; that is, when you were born again.
“Jesus replied, ‘With all the earnestness I possess I tell you this: Unless you are born again, you can never get into the Kingdom of God.’ ‘Born again!’ exclaimed Nicodemus. ‘What do you mean? How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?’ Jesus replied, ‘What I am telling you so earnestly is this: Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3-5).
The Christian life must be the Spirit-filled life, which means that you are to be yielded, moment-by-moment, to the Holy Spirit’s control and power.
“Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).
You must understand that the Holy Spirit will not release his power in an unclean vessel. Consequently, you must confess all known sin
and yield your mind and body to him. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
We must present ourselves to God as those alive from the dead and yield our minds and bodies to Him as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).
Being filled with the Spirit is also called walking in the Spirit. Walking implies a repeated, step-by-step reliance on the Holy Spirit.
“I advise you to obey only the Holy Spirit’s instructions. He will tell you where to go and what to do, and then you won’t always be doing the wrong things your evil nature wants you to” (Gal. 5:16). The internal battle between the flesh and the Spirit will never cease even when you are fully yielded to him. When the battle rages, you are to immediately acknowledge your weakness and cry out to him for his empowerment. When you practice walking in the Spirit day after day, you will develop a habit of holiness. Like a toddler first learning to walk, you will fall repeatedly. But when you get back up and try again, you will eventually develop the ability to walk without falling. The same is true in your spiritual walk. As you learn to consistently yield to his influence and control, he will enable you to say and do those things that nurture your relationship with others.
Life is too short to be at odds with those you care about. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Difficult, frustrating relationships do not have to be the norm. You can be the change maker in your relationships. As you have discovered, this is not accomplished by trying to change the other person but yourself. Be encouraged, there is hope! You do not have to remain hopelessly stuck in unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships, which leave you feeling angry and defeated. The Ten Relationship Principles are tried and true—they work. They can transform you from the inside out and make you the catalyst for taking all of your relationships to the next level.