BY EMILY O'CONNOR, COMMUNICATIONS INTERN
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness….” (Genesis 1:26)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” (John 1:1-2)
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – God three in one. Even as the Creator of the Universe, God’s essence is relational. The Trinity moves and works together as a whole, unified, to care for the world. One being, three parts.
God’s image, as stated in Genesis 1, is relational, and if we are created in God’s image, then we must be relational, too. Man’s first relationship is to God Himself. Then God created woman because he decided man should not be alone. From the beginning, God purposed us for relationship, first to Him, then to each other.
God created and called us to be people who need one another, so our souls naturally desire a healthy dependence on other people. Creating a healthy dependence means first rooting in God for worth and identity, and second depending on trusted people for guidance toward our truest selves in Jesus’ name.
Finding healthy dependence means wading through relational brokenness – difficult family situations, loneliness, and the projection of expectations with little communication. Perfect relationships do not exist this side of heaven, but community is imperative to having a healthy sense of self.
But society’s message today does not echo God’s purpose. Today I hear that independence yields strength, success, and stability in life, especially as a woman. Dependence is synonymous with weakness. Personally, I’ve vacillated from one extreme to the other before recognizing the goodness of healthy dependence.
My first dating relationship exemplifies one end of the pendulum swing. I measured my worth in how I met my boyfriend’s needs, which meant my confidence was a rollercoaster. I constantly bent myself to fit the mold he desired of me, until one day I had enough. I realized that I could never fulfill him, and my worth wasn’t based in what he thought of me.
Of course, this resulted in a pendulum swing to the other side. Never again would I depend on another person. I would be independent, and most importantly, vigilant about who I decide to trust. Other relationships and friendships ebbed and flowed, but I kept them at the surface, because letting them in too far meant vulnerability and the risk of more harm.
Not until college did I understand healthy dependence. I built relationships with young women and men who pursued God and offered their whole being to Him. These relationships found their base in shared identity as God’s beloved. As we did life together, I slowly offered my deepest self to the people I trusted. My roommates would tell you that this offering wasn’t without prompting. But they love me, so they wanted to know my deepest self and guide me to my truest self in Jesus’ name. They received my whole being – scars, fears, skeletons in the closet, dreams, passions, and calling. I risked dependence – not in my worth, but out of obedience to God’s call into communal living – and I was met with the richest relationships I’ve ever experienced.
My desire for independence was ultimately prideful and selfish. I am good enough alone, I thought. I don’t need anyone else because other people can hurt me; other people can’t understand me; other people don’t need me, and maybe I don’t need them.
Ironically, God did not create me to do anything alone, not even my faith journey. In fact, the more I believe in my selfish independence, the less I am aware of my own brokenness. God’s desire for us is to recognize our own shortcomings enough to cry out for help – first to Him, and then to others. The longer I walk with Him, the more I understand that I am too broken to do anything alone. To be healthy is to be intentionally dependent on God and the people He placed in my life.
Kristen Boice, a family counselor at Pathways to Healing, said that if we look at human development and the way God designed it, we are supposed to depend on God alone for our worth.
“We struggle for worthiness, so we hustle to gain worth from other people, and we become dependent on a partner, parent, friend, etc., to feed us so we feel worthy,” Boice said. “That puts a lot of unhealthy strain on a relationship.”
It’s important to cultivate a healthy sense of self so you become dependent on your relationship with God, not on other people, Boice said.
When we can root our identity in Belovedness rather than relationships, it liberates us to pursue healthy dependence. But, of course, this isn’t an easy task.
Aside from God, one of the greatest reminders of our dependence is family.
Paul and Kandy Thompson are parents of five and grandparents of three, but their definition of family extends beyond biological boundaries. Married for 34 years, Paul and Kandy learned how to cultivate a healthy dependence on each other, God, and intentional community as they raised their kids.
As the Thompson family grew over time, and continues to grow, Paul and Kandy actively sought ways to include more people in their community.
“We like the title of the series (Bless This Mess) because families really are a mess, for better or for worse, and that’s not always a bad thing,” Paul said, referring to Grace’s sermon series on how to be family. “They were taking pictures after service, and our family has a lady from down the street, a single mom with her two kids, and we consider them family. Even with two sons-in-law now, we are really deliberate to say we don’t have any in-laws, we only have kids. There’s not natural born or implant.”
The potential equilibrium imbalance that comes with inviting people into your family does not deter the Thompsons from accepting the call to love their neighbors.
“I’m not bothered by chaos and lots of people,” Kandy said. “Chaos or mess or whatever you call it is part of what God’s called us to do, to love people where they’re at and not have expectations on them…I think it’s just living right alongside them in the messiness of what’s going on, what’s hard right now.”
Loneliness & Fear
One of Grace Church’s six broken places is isolation, so it’s safe to assume that most of us feel alone. I think loneliness stems from an ironic blend of the desire for independence, the desire to be loved and known, and the reality that brokenness can make it hard to be loved and love other people.
“Not having a support system can be a lonely, hopeless, and despairing place, but pain can be transformed into healing and meaning, if we attempt to find meaning in the pain,” Boice said.
We must be willing and open to receive support, which means admitting that we feel isolated and putting ourselves out there to find community. But it takes a lot of courage to step out and be open to receiving relationships.
“Fear of rejection is a huge factor in why people don’t put themselves out there. When you can lean on God and ask for courage and put yourself out there in a group, He will come through in those times,” Boice said.
Unfortunately, fear can easily feel bigger than faith in those moments. It’s uncomfortable to sit in loneliness, but it can be even more uncomfortable to be vulnerable and ask for help.
When that fear feels bigger, Boice advises people to lean into the discomfort, take a deep breath, and encourage yourself to take that risk. If that seems impossible, she advises people to seek therapy to understand if there is a deeper cause to the fear.
“We are called to be like Christ in that we encourage and empathize with one another. This helps the amygdala in the brain calm down and say that it feels good to be seen and understood,” Boice said. “Then we can go out and do that in the world.”
All of us yearn to be loved amidst chaos and messiness, loved amidst what’s hard right now, and loved without expectations.
“We are all wired for love and belonging, and if we don’t feel like we’re connected in community, it can stifle growth,” Boice said.
God did not intend for His people to be or feel isolated. Through personal experience and Scripture, we know that God created our souls for love and intimate connections, but our brokenness makes this a challenge.
Expectations & Communication
One of the biggest contributors to family conflict, and other kinds of relational conflict, is expectations.
“Our expectations are based more on our desires than facts, and they often turn into resentments,” Boice said. “We have a movie script in our heads of what we thought would happen, and no one else knows what movie plays in our heads, but we get upset when it doesn’t play out.”
We have expectations in every relationship, even if we don’t think we do. A solution to this problem is to get curious about the expectations we bring into relationships rather than passing judgment when events don’t play out like we imagined, Boice said.
“Look at the feelings you have,” Boice said. “God gave us feelings to be explored, to invite us into deeper relationship with Him, and they can often teach us things. But we didn’t get the memo that our feelings are important.”
There is power in acknowledging our personal emotions. Not only can we gain personal empowerment, but we gain the ability to empathize with others.
“If I’m not doing my own feeling work, it’s hard for me to understand and acknowledge someone else’s feelings,” Boice said. “If I’m asleep to my own emotions, I can’t handle yours.”
Kandy and Paul agree that communication, aside from a relationship with Christ, is the biggest piece of advice they give their kids when entering dating relationships. When you’re looking for someone to date, find someone who communicates well with you.
“Paul and I know in a relationship that neither of us is going to meet the other person’s needs 100 percent. That’s not realistic,” Kandy said. “When we started out, I valued myself as a person from what Paul would say to me or what he would think of me, or if he was ever disappointed in me, and that crushed me. Because he was the one person I wanted to please…I think over time we’ve learned to work and talk through that.”
As Paul and Kandy parented their five kids, they made it a priority to build a safe place, a support system, for their children. They prioritized knowing their kids and creating open lines of communication.
“One thing I didn’t have modeled for me, and I think we really wanted to do, is to know our kids well, even as adults,” Paul said. “Maybe not to give all the answers, but to say, ‘This is who you are. In the struggles of life, here’s what I know about you,’ and to encourage them to be fully who they are.”
More than anything, the Thompsons desired that Jesus dwell in their home. If Kandy has any advice for families, it is to invite Jesus into the mess.
“Don’t be afraid to talk about God on a daily basis,” Kandy said. “He should be a natural member of your home…It feels unnatural at times, but work hard to make it natural.”
Regardless of relationship type – family, friend, significant other, acquaintance – that relationship can bring God’s Kingdom on earth as we live into our identity as relational beings.
“God uses us as a vessel to spread His love in each and every moment,” Boice said. “We are vessels of God. If we have community and support one another, He can come through in a powerful way to make transformation happen.”
Maybe you don’t feel lonely or isolated. Maybe God has provided you with an amazing community of people you trust and love, and they encourage you to be yourself. If that’s the case, pay attention to people outside your circle. Where do you see loneliness? Listen and look around to notice someone who seems depressed, hopeless, helpless, or isolated. Lean into the discomfort of extending an invitation. Building community is a two-way street. No one is meant to journey through life alone.
“There’s a picture in my mind about the end of life, the idea of crossing the finish line, bloody and bruised and with your arms around other people, crossing the finish line together, limping,” Paul said. “None of us gets out of here nicely, unless Jesus comes back, we get weak and we die. I think we want to be people who can stumble along together, because stumbling is what we do.”