Relationships can disappoint us and leave us struggling with how to move forward. When trust is undermined, we must decide whether to do the hard work of trying to rebuild the relationship or whether to move forward with a diminished relationship. As Christians, we are called to peace. Romans 12:18 instructs, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” We can’t control the behavior of others, but in what we can control, we need to be working toward unity and peace.
In Ephesians 4, Paul urges us “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” This text speaks to the essential qualities needed for working toward unity. It takes gentleness and love to address issues of concern, humility to claim our ownership of the problem, and patience to guide us through the process of rebuilding trust. It is not a pursuit for the timid; it requires courage to bear with one another in love.
I don’t know how often I am eager to maintain unity. It is hard work to maintain relationships and work past tensions. It is easier to just move ahead with distance in the relationship than to do the hard work of confronting others, acknowledging offenses, confessing our unrealistic expectations, and working on repairing broken trust. Distance may be easier, but God never called us to follow the easy path.
If we maintain unity without addressing issues, we let our relationships become something superficial. Denying a problem only causes our anxiety around the situation to fester. Many situations can be resolved if we take the risk of acknowledging the pain we feel over someone else's behavior. Sometimes that means confronting someone over their poor choices. Sometimes that means taking a hard look at our disappointed expectations and realizing they weren't realistic. As people pleasers, we tend to avoid conflict and dwell in denial rather than face someone’s anger. But it is in facing conflict that we can root out problems and find healing.
As we address issues, we need to acknowledge how we have contributed to the struggle. We may not have started the conflict, but our own attitude or behavior may have contributed in some way to the conflict. We bring our own desires, sensitivities, and expectations to every relationship. Being aware of our needs that we bring into a conflict is important for judging it fairly. However we participated in the situation, we need to own our contribution. It takes humility to claim our contribution and ask forgiveness. As we take a humble posture, we model a willingness to exert effort in healing the relationship.
Unity fractures when trust is undermined in a relationship. Matthew 18:15-20 spells out how to deal with someone whose behavior has hurt us. We go to them and strive to work things out, and bring in accountability and limit setting if it does not. Trust is rebuilt when behavior over time is demonstrably improved and that requires patience. Trust is not rebuilt in a day and it will require openness to go forward.
Unity is an important goal, but we don’t pursue it any cost. As image bearers of God, we do a disservice by allowing abusive behavior to go unchecked. If we don’t set limits we are in effect saying that bad behavior is acceptable. We grow and change when people care enough to challenge our selfishness and call us to something better. The most loving action we can do is not ignoring bad behavior, but calling it out and holding people accountable. This is not easy, but growth comes as we are stretched outside of our comfort zone.
That may mean accountability. A spouse who has cheated, or has an addiction struggle, for example, should share their phone or computer to demonstrate accountability. Blindly trusting someone whose past behavior has been untrustworthy is unproductive foolishness--it does not restore or rebuild, it does not honor the offender or the offended, it only returns to an opportunity for bad behavior. Trust grows as we are transparent in our behavior and show ourselves to be reliable.
That may mean new boundaries. Forgiveness means letting go of your right to be vindicated, but it does not always mean restoration of a relationship. If bad behavior continues, put boundaries and distance around it to keep others safe.
Prayer is a powerful tool for transforming hearts and lives. What feels impossible to us is possible with God. Trust the situation to God and allow him to do the challenging work of transformation. Lay your burdens down at God's feet and be assured that he will carry his work to completion.
Unity is a goal worth pursuing and it is what God has called us to. As we “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” God equips us for the task.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster