Read Ephesians 4:1-3, 25-32
We are all very experienced at relating. It began for us as soon as we were born. We then watched and experienced members of our family relating. We went to school and experienced friendships. As we grew we experienced the teenage need to belong and be accepted, we may have had romantic relationships and may have chosen to marry. We have friendships. We are part of a church. We have had workmates, children, neighbours and enemies.
Out of all of those relationships, how many were trouble free?
One thing that is should be clear to us is that not all relationships are good. Some are painful. Some are highly destructive. There are more bad relationships than good ones in the Bible. The Bible reflects our sinful humanity. Bad relationships in the Bible include: Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers (although they were reconciled), Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, the disciples arguing about who was the greatest, Judas and Jesus, Euodia and Syntyche.
But at the same time, the Bible contains examples of wonderful, godly relationships that we can aspire to and imitate. Think of David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and the disciples, Jesus and His mother (although that wasn’t always good), Barnabas and Paul (although they fell out), the friends who brought the paralysed man to Jesus.
The bad is there was a picture of reality and as a warning. The good is there to inspire us to strive for the relationships that God wants us to live. As our reading from Ephesians said, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
We have been called to be sons and daughters of the living God. We have been called to be citizens of God’s Kingdom. We are to live lives that are worthy of that great calling – lives that honour God. In the middle part of this chapter (which we didn’t read) we are instructed to put off the old life and to put on the new life “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Notice how much of living this new life is about relationships. Our relationships are a key indicator of our discipleship. “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34)
“Love” of course is the primary characteristic of good relationships. Love is what it is all about but I want to unpack that by suggesting four characteristics of biblical, godly, high quality relationships – all of which we will find in these verses from Ephesians 4. And I want to suggest that these characteristics apply to all relationships – marriage, family, friendships, church…
Eph 4:3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Unity says, “We are one.”
In marriage, the husband and wife become one.
The early church was described as being “one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). Paul said to the Philippians, “I will know that you stand firm in one Spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27). Note all the references to oneness in that sentence: “stand firm in one Spirit”, “striving together”, “with one accord”.
Being one means many things. It means that if you hurt, I hurt because we are one.
But primarily it means that we agree with one another. One in heart and mind means one in our passions and affection and ambitions, and one in their thinking and beliefs.
People sometimes say, “Wouldn’t it be boring if we all agreed”. The Presbyterian church has been deeply divided for decades and we sometimes trumpet our so-called diversity as a strength. God doesn’t agree. He wants His people to be one in heart and mind – particularly on core issues. The Bible does talk about “disputable issues”. On some things there is room for debate but essentially, in quality relationships, people are in fundamental agreement.
Think of some relationships in your life. Are you in agreement? Are you one? Are you united?
Safety means that the other person won’t get hurt. In Ephesians 4, Paul talked about being humble, gentle and patient. Gentle, in particular, is the opposite of hurtful.
Quality relationships are those relationships in which people can be themselves without wearing a mask or putting up a façade and they can do that because they know that they are not going to be hurt. They are like the relationship Adam and Eve had before the Fall when they could be completely open with each other without fear and without shame.
People are not safe with us if we slander them to other people, we share a confidence we shouldn’t have or we criticise them or gossip about them. People are not safe if they fear we will mock them and laugh at them. People will be hurt if we neglect them – ignore them, show no interest in them.
Where there is safety, people trust you and know that they can share their views and live their lives without fear of criticism or mocking or rejection.
That doesn’t mean we will agree with everything they say and do but when we do disagree, we won’t hurt. We might discuss it. We might even need to challenge it but our desire is help not hurt.
In v.31, Paul said to get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Malice is a desire to hurt. That is not to be part of our armoury. Instead, he says, be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other.
Forgiveness implies that something hurtful has been done to you (not necessarily intentionally but it has been done nevertheless.) The Christian response is not hurting but forgiving. In v.3 he talked about “bearing with one another in love”. “Bearing with” also suggests that something has gone wrong but we don’t hurt. We take a deep breath and we work our way through it, lovingly.
1 John 4:8 perfect love casts out all fear
Are people safe with you? Or might they fear getting hurt? Are you safe with them? If not, it is not a healthy relationship or maybe that is an aspect of the relationship that needs to be addressed.
This is a huge one with many sub-categories but the basic idea of service is that I will try to benefit you; I am committed to helping you.
Ephesians 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Say only what is helpful for building others up. Your objective is to benefit those who listen.
Sometimes in relationships we look to receive but serving is about giving. When I was moderator, the leader of a particular organisation got in touch with me and we developed a relationship but I always had the feeling that it was purely for his benefit. He wanted me to introduce him to certain people and access money for him. It didn’t seem very mutual as if he was also seeking to help me.
Phil 2:3-4 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
After James and John asked Jesus if they could sit at His right and His left in glory, the other disciples were indignant (suggesting that they had similar ambitions!) Jesus said that in the world people want to be boss…
Mark 10:43-45 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus came to serve, and the relationships of Jesus’ followers are marked by their willingness to serve – to benefit others – which, of course, requires a humble heart. Paul mentioned humility in his description of lives worthy of the calling we have received. It involves sacrifice and selflessness but Jesus said…
John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Matt 10:8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
In our relationships we are to seek the good of others. It makes a difference to our attitude if we go into every encounter with other people with the idea that we want to give something to them. It might be some encouragement. It might be inspiration or guidance. You might meet a practical need. The attitude of the Christ-follower is to serve. When we are giving people, we will find that people will give to us as well. People will respond in a similar fashion. Not everybody because some people don’t have this sort of attitude and simply want to get but, in other people, our example will prompt something in them as well.
I like the phrase Paul used: Building others up; edifying; helping this person who to a better, more mature, more whole person. As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. (Pr 27:17). It is that love for others that makes us willing to invest in them; develop them.
Significantly, Paul talked about “building others up according to their needs.” It is not about what we think people need to learn; it is about what they genuinely need. It is not about us; it is about them. And that means that another aspect of service is attentiveness – being aware of their needs, having empathy, paying them sufficient attention to know what is really going on. Listening and observing should precede helping or advising. As Stephen Covey says, “Diagnose before you prescribe.”
In you relationships, is your desire to serve – to give?
Did you notice that Paul said that, instead of stealing (which is selfish) Christians should work so that they might have something to share with those in need? It is all about giving.
Faithfulness means remaining true and loyal (even despite provocation.) It means you don’t change with the circumstances. You remain a true friend.
Firstly, we must be faithful to God. Our relationships with others should not come before our duty to God. We should not compromise godly values for the sake of a relationship.
To the Ephesians, Paul said, “you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully… be angry but do not sin… do not give the devil a foothold… don’t steal… Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”
Faithfulness to God comes first and faithfulness to God means we bring godly values to our relationships.
But there is also faithfulness to the other person. That means that no matter what happens you stay true to this person. It is what is expressed in wedding vows when the couple say, “for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health”. No matter what happens I will remain faithful.
It means that we don’t walk away and we don’t turn on the other person. When we have been wronged we forgive. When there are issues, we work on them. When there is doubt, we will believe the best about other people and we won’t take offence.
The references to patience and “bearing with” and forgiving all reflect faithfulness.
Many people have found that, when they get into trouble, or they run out of money, they find that their so-called friends are nowhere to be found. But…
Proverbs 17:17 A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.
Proverbs 18:24 One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
That is faithfulness. Are you that friend?
There is huge emphasis in the Bible on relationships. Love is the central principle of the Bible. God wants us to model, for the world to see, relationships that reflect Kingdom principles.
You might have classified these things differently but can I invite you to use those four characteristics as a checklist? Consider your various relationships – family, friendships, neighbours, church – using those four characteristics: unity, safety, service and faithfulness. If God is calling you to attend to a relationship because it really should be better…
- Seek His help. Often we are not adequate for these things by ourselves but God offers us His grace
- Identify what God wants you to do
- Determine to do it
- Assess how it went and go back to step 1.
- Consider each of the aspects of love listed in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
- What does each one mean in practice?
- Do they fit into the four categories listed above? If not, how would you categorise them?
- Do the same with Romans 12.
- What is the overall message of this chapter?
- Identify the various aspects of godly relationships?
- What does each one mean in practice?
- How well do they fit into the categories above?
- Spiritual gifts occupy a sizable section of both Ephesians 4 and Romans 12. Conversely, love is talked about at length within the three chapters on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians (chapters 12-14). Why are spiritual gifts so important when talking about relationships?
- What other passages focus strongly on relationships?
- Why do you think God puts so much stress on relationships?