I have several relationships that exist across wide gaps in time and distance. Friends who live in other states I only get to see a few times each year, and with whom I don’t maintain regular contact (ie we don’t email, Face Book, text, Skype, facetime, etc, frequently or at all). These relationships exist with a lot of empty space, yet the minute I am together with these people I feel as if I’ve never missed a beat. We pick up right where we left off and keep going. Actually we have grown in friendship even without regular communication. But there are other relationships I have that a week without communication creates something dark. Its as if the lack of contact creates more distance. I notice that I fill up the empty space in some relationships with good thoughts and others I fill up with negative thoughts. Some people don’t call me for 3 months and when I think of them I smile and say, “Wow, I bet Joe is super busy. I should probably check up on him.” In the other kind of relationship three days go by, and I think of them and say “Wow, what’s Joe’s problem? I must have made him angry about something.”
It is a bad sign for a relationship when you start filling up the empty spaces with negative thoughts. Every time you get back in contact with a person in this kind of relationship, you have to expend time and effort checking to see if your negative thoughts were right. That is time and effort you can’t use to grow the relationship. Since most of us don’t have huge excess of time and energy, the time and energy lost to the dark space is more than we have to give. Instead of digging out all the nastiness we pour into the empty space and getting rid of it, we don’t deal with it all. It takes too much effort. It accumulates. The next time we are disconnected from the person we throw a little more negativity into the empty space and it doesn’t get cleaned out. Like barnacles on a ship, this stuff puts a drag on our relationships. Sometimes you are right about why your wife didn’t call you while she was away on the business trip. She was mad about an unresolved conflict over the kids. Sometimes your friend did get your texts and ignored them because your needs weren’t very important to them at the time. Add enough “true” situations where your negative thoughts are accurate, and it gets easier to throw even more negativity into the next time there is empty space in the relationship.
This is a mess. It is full of guilt and shame, presumption and anger and self-righteousness and hurt. It is the exact opposite of the easy, fulfilling and life-giving kind of relationships we treasure. If you continue pouring negative thoughts into the empty space, the relationship will break down. You’ll have the occasional “come to Jesus” meetings where months worth of junk gets pulled out of the dark and you start over again, but those take a lot of effort, and after you’ve done it enough you’ll stop having them. You will be worn out. Marriages like this don’t last. Parents and children like this drift apart and only connect in the mandatory meetings of life. Friendships cool and die out.
What’s the answer? Well you could try thought replacement. Every time a negative thought tries to come into the empty space just squash it. That is fine if you are strong and consistent. But it also wears you out and often feels false. There are some really negative things that come into our relationships and it seems a bad idea to pretend they don’t exist. The root of negativity is the thing we need to get rid of. How can we find it? Well what is at the core of those other kind of relationships where empty space gets filled with positive thoughts? That must be the thing we need to bring into all our relationships. The thing is called grace. Grace allows me to think of you in the highest light. A grace-based relationship is the opposite of a works based relationship. It means I’ve decided to love you for who you are, not for anything you do. I make no claims upon what you owe me; not a phone call or text or a birthday card. If any of those things are missing it has not changed the foundation of our relationship AT ALL. But in works based relationships, the exchange of goods and services is the basis of how I relate to you and when you or I are behind in payment our relationship foundation cracks and shifts. I’m not sure who I am any more or who you are. Am I the one behind in payment? Have you ever owed money to someone and not been able to pay them back? It isn’t easy to come around them is it? You might start avoiding them. If you see them talking to someone you may assume they are talking about what a no load you are. This is what a works based relationship looks like.
How do I get grace into my relationships? Foremost, grace is a decision. You must decide your relationships are not going to be based upon works. You have to say that your friends, lovers, and children owe you nothing. Then you have to put this into practice. No matter what happens you have to keep a zero balance sheet. My husband owes me nothing. My daughter owes me nothing. My best friend owes me nothing. Sound easy? No, it is pretty hard. But it is the way to go if you want lasting and healthy relationships. Fortunately the gospel gives us a huge resource we can incorporate into all our relationships if we accept it. Jesus told a story about two sons. The younger asked for his inheritance and spent it in a wild extended party until he ended up eating out of a pig trough. The older keep working at home tending the father’s farm. When the younger came home, asking to just become a hired hand, the father not only received him back, he put a ring on his finger and a robe on his back and threw a party for his lost son. The older brother got angry at this and complained to the father. One of the things the older brother says to his dad is basically, “I’ve never done anything but work and do your will and yet you throw a party for this horrible son of yours…while you’ve never done anything for me. What’s wrong with this picture???” The older son had a relationship with his father based on work. I do for him and I should expect X out of you. The younger son had a relationship of grace with his father. I should only be a servant, yet you call me a son. If you notice in the story, the father takes the same position toward both sons. He stands ready to give them what they don’t deserve. The older prodigal son couldn’t possibly work hard enough to earn what the father offers him – yet the father says to him “all I have is yours.” Wow! He gives up everything for the older son. Grace. And the father offers the younger son his place in the family even though the younger son, by asking for his inheritance before his father was even dead was saying, “I’m outa here pops, you can drop dead for all I care.” Grace.
How can you and I change the basis of all of our relationships at once? Get some perspective. The gospel is God being in relationship with you regardless of what you do. Wish him dead and just want his stuff? He doesn’t change his mind about you. He will still call you son or daughter. Think you are pleasing him and earning your keep by all your hard work even though you couldn’t know your left from your right unless he gave you air to breathe? He doesn’t change his mind about you. He will still invite you to come in out of the field of works you’ve made for yourself. At what cost does God extend his good thoughts about us? How can he afford to fill up the empty space with good will towards us when we are so obviously messed up? He gave up his son. He let Jesus do all the work of the older brother and make up for the inheritance the younger brother blew with prostitutes. If you and I see the grace God extends to us, it puts our grace in perspective. It shrinks the burden. When I want to think ill of you the gospel reminds me that God thinks well of me when I don’t deserve it. It also reminds me that God is thinking well of you too. The cross is the evidence of how God feels about you and me. Grace. It is fresh air. I have so much I have plenty to spare. Now I can give it to you and I still haven’t lost any of God’s infinite supply. No wonder Paul opened so many of his letters with “Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ.” He was filling in all the empty space of every relationship in and around the church with the most positive thing he could think of. Grace and peace to you. Give this to all your relationships in the name of Jesus Christ.