“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I dislike this opening line in one of my otherwise favorite books. In reality, dysfunctional human dynamics are far less unique and easier to acquire than happy, healthy ones.
All you need is sin and selfishness. Et voilà, a pain-riddled relationship.
Unfortunately, sin and selfishness spring up inside all of us quite naturally, and we have to make conscious, daily choices to love others truly. In this way, happy connections are so unique because they require hundreds of concerted efforts every day to merely exist.
There are a handful of practical—though not simple—steps we can take toward building better relationships.
Step 1: Ask a Question
“Did you know that most of the red letters of Jesus were not sermons that he preached but rather conversations he had with one individual?” Pastor Tim Dilena asked in his sermon.
While Jesus certainly did preach many sermons, the majority of the gospels are focused on his one-on-one interactions with his disciples or individuals at house parties, weddings or the temple. He focused most often on a person right where they were in life, on their struggles in the moment. His interactions were very rarely the same. He modulated his approach to each individual’s needs.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ style to Jesus’ relationships, and a major part of this was his invitation to others to uncover their own selves and their distinctive need for God in their lives.
“When you ask questions, you show people you’re interested,” Dilena, a World Challenge board member, points out.
When you ask a question, you are offering someone an opening to reveal themselves. You are offering to care about their lives, their needs, their pains and joys.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV).
Step 2: Ask Another Question
“The second step,” Pastor Tim Dilena continues in his sermon on relationships, “I think, is really important. Listen carefully so you can ask a follow up question.
“I know a lot of people who can ask an opening question but could care less about anything else. Usually, they get your answer and that means ‘I paid my toll. Now you got to listen to me for 20 minutes.’”
Chances are good we’ve all come across that person who asks the same questions every time we see them or who immediately has a story that one-ups anything you’ve just said, and it goes on and on and on...
These types of relationships can’t progress past a certain point simply because there’s very little mutual investment. It’s an experience eerily reminiscent of talking to someone with dementia.
Ed Cunningham touched on the loving heart of truly listening when he said, "Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer."
Investing means listening to each word and what’s not said in the spaces between them.
Step 3: Offer to Pray
“There’s a third thing,” Dilena says. “Listen for a prayer pause. You’re going to hear something and say, ‘Hey, can I pray with you about that? Can I pray right now? Or if you’re uncomfortable, can I make a commitment to pray about this for the next five days? But man, update me, and let me know what’s happened!’”
Ultimately, God’s going to know the best answer to their situation. Our great physician knows the exact cure each one of us need.
To pray about a problem means trusting God to answer. Praying with others not only means entrusting your pain to others but also allowing others to witness God’s hand in your life.
“A long time ago, my brother and I had a philosophical debate about what was more important in a relationship—love, trust, or passion,” says out professional development trainer, Lorri Freifeld. “Years later, I bought my brother a photograph of a little girl who was smiling and staring confidently at the camera with an elephant’s foot just above her head.
“The caption was: ‘To trust is more important than love.’ I believe that sentiment is true because no love will last without equal amounts of respect and trust.”
As you reach out to others, how each conversation plays out and each relationship builds up will look different for everyone, but the principle of healthy, good bonds will remain the same at heart.
By asking questions and offering to pray for others, we invite them to trust us and their Father.