***Special thanks to Rick Roberson, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***
William P. Smith, M.Div., Ph.D., is the director of counseling at Chelten Baptist Church, Dresher, Pa., the author of the book Caught Off Guard: Encounters with the Unexpected God; and the minibooks How Do I Stop Losing It with My Children?; How to Love Difficult People?; Should We Get Married?; Starting Over; When Bad Things Happen; and Who Should I Date?. Bill is regularly invited to speak at other churches and lead weekend retreats. He and his wife, Sally, are the parents of three very active children.
For most of us, certain unhealthy reactions feel natural and even inevitable. Unconsciously, we cling to what 1 Peter 1:18 calls the “empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers.”
But you are not doomed to repeat this cycle, according to William P. Smith, since Jesus came to redeem his people from such things. The destructive relationship patterns you learned before you met Christ no longer need to control how you live and interact with others. Instead, you can exchange the empty ways for new ones that promote deep unity and peacefulness—patterns that create satisfying and God-honoring relationships. A rich, practical relationship with Jesus enables you to develop rich, practical relationships with others in spite of your brokenness and theirs. Through Christ, you no longer have to do what you have always done. In short, you can learn to love well.
I n t r o d u c t i o n
Escaping an Empty Way of Life
I stood outside, shivering in the cold, “talking” to God. Venting would be the more honest description. I had just thrown down the papers I was working on and stalked out of the room after unloading on one of my children, who had been repeatedly interrupting me every few minutes. My parting words were, “I am so frustrated right now. It doesn’t matter what I say or do, you don’t get it. It doesn’t matter if I speak gently to you. It doesn’t matter if I ignore you. It doesn’t matter if I explode! You just keep coming. I don’t know what to do with you.”
I hate those times. I have no interest in verbally bashing my kids, making them feel like I’m never satisfied with them. And yet, I also don’t want them to grow up believing that the world is all about them. What I’d just done wasn’t terribly loving (I get that), but in that moment I didn’t have any idea what else to do, so I ended up doing something that broke down the relationship instead of building it.
Ever been there? That place where, despite the fact that you really do want to love the people around you, somehow it all goes south? Either you do something to shred the friendship or you face something you don’t know how to handle. You’ve tried everything you do know, and nothing seems to help. As a pastoral counselor, I have lots of friends who share those feelings.
Friends like Tasha and Maurice. Tasha is unhappy with her job and would really rather stay home with the baby, only they can’t afford to have her do that. So every time she comes home, she com- plains to Maurice about how bad work was.
Maurice, however, doesn’t know what to do with her complaints. His preferred role of being the funny, lighthearted guy just doesn’t seem to work like it used to with her. So he prefers to switch on the TV during dinner and watch it into the night, or play card games with her, or do some other activity that safely insulates him from an intimidating conversation.
She likes him, but feels alone and abandoned. So guess what she does about her loneliness? She complains about it, adding it to the complaints about her job. And when she complains, he feels more helpless and confused, so he finds new ways to ignore her. And ’round and ’round they go. You wouldn’t say he’s a bad man or she’s a miserable woman, but they don’t know how to engage each other in a helpful way.
Most of the time, my friends and I don’t set out trying to hurt anyone, especially those we really care about. We’re relational creatures, made in the image of the great communal, three-in-one God. We long for relationships. Intentionally undermining our closest relationships would be counterproductive to our whole nature and desire. And yet we do just that. We watch them slip through our fingers—or worse, we see ourselves actively poisoning them simply by doing what feels right in the moment.
Because you’ve picked up this book, you probably know what broken relationships feel like. You see yourself damaging your closest friendships or not knowing how to bring healing when someone else harms them. Sometimes these unhealthy patterns and reactions can feel so natural that you don’t even think about how they came about. You might not even realize how many of them you’ve adopted from other people. You may only be aware that, in the moment, the strategy seems to get you what you want.
Patrice pulls away from situations she doesn’t like by withdrawing from people and refusing to talk to them. Her reaction makes complete sense when you learn that for her whole life she witnessed her father controlling her mother with the silent treatment. You probably wouldn’t be too surprised to discover that this was the example he had while growing up in his home. Each generation learned how to relate to others from the generation before, even if those ways soured the closest relationships they had.
We are all fully responsible for the ways we mistreat each other, and we have all learned from the bad examples we’ve had. Nature (your own sinful inclinations) and nurture (the things you’ve experienced from others) join forces to undermine your relationships. They produce what the apostle Peter refers to as “the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18, NIV).
Some people have more “empty way of life” quotient than others, but every person has embraced a legacy of emptiness—patterns of relating that seem right in the moment, but that ultimately tear friendships apart. These patterns are truly insane. What else can you call it when you repeatedly engage your children, spouse, parents, or friends in the same destructive ways even though you realize you’re driving them away?
For someone like Patrice, the empty ways she deals with are primarily identified by the ongoing presence of evil. People in those positions experienced an aggressive negative relational style and had to react to it. Some become comfortable adopting the model as their own by taking the junkyard dog approach. They relate to others with the belief that, “If what wins arguments and protects me in this family is being loud, sarcastic, or insulting, then I will be the loudest, meanest, most caustic person in the room!” Others who have no interest in competing at that level develop self-protective strategies that keep everyone else at arm’s length.
Empty ways of life, however, are not always defined by the active presence of evil. Just as often they are characterized by the absence of positive elements that would foster healthy relationships.
Nick’s wife noted that his parents essentially ignored him after providing for his physical needs. Robert’s family was more extreme. He didn’t know what a hug felt like growing up. No one touched in his family nor wanted to. They didn’t own a couch, only a collection of individual chairs. Walking through his living room daily reinforced the relational message “you are on your own in this life.” That lack of physical connection mirrored the lack of intimacy at all other levels. Little wonder that these men struggled to know how to connect with their wives and kids.
Other families are not as dramatic in their dysfunction but still leave out many crucial relational elements. Some people never heard a parent say “I’m sorry; please forgive me.” Others don’t know what it is to hear “I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m so glad to see you!” Still others didn’t experience someone pursuing them, inviting them back to relationship when they’d strayed, or simply affirming their feeling that life isn’t very nice sometimes.
Without experiencing a healthy way of relating in your life, it’s really hard to know it’s even missing, much less that it’s an essential element to give someone else. The absence of positive relational interactions gets passed on just as surely as the presence of negative patterns.
Spend just a little bit of time with God’s people and you’ll quickly learn that empty ways of life abound even in the middle of the redeemed community. Small home fellowship groups don’t know how to embrace the quirky single guy who comes for a few weeks, so he quietly drops off the radar. Warring factions break out in the congregation over what style of music we sing or how we decorate the building. Elders approach their congregation with a heavy hand or back way off with no hand. Leaders fail, like they have all the way back to Noah, and no one knows how to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
People are lured into church by hearing the language of intimacy, authenticity, and genuineness, but when they experience their absence, they are left feeling even more hurt than before. They had hoped finally to find a safe place where they could experience being loved, only to realize that Christians are not really all that good at it. Instead of being welcomed and embraced, often they can end up isolated and alone.
So they walk away discouraged and cynical— with good reason.
Does any of this resonate with your own experience? Over the past twenty-five years of professional and volunteer ministry, I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t struggle at some point in his or her relationships.
Maybe you find yourself undermining the relationships that are most important to you. Or maybe someone else is hurting you and you don’t know how to invite that person to something better. Or maybe you just find your relationships stagnate and don’t grow richer.
If that’s you, you’re not alone. And you don’t have to settle for these empty ways of life. You can exchange those patterns for others that promote deep unity and peacefulness—patterns that offer a satisfying and rich relationship to the people around you.
In short, you can learn to love well.
Jesus Loves us out of Emptiness
Peter draws our attention to the empty ways of life only in order to highlight that we have been redeemed from them by the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18–19). God cares about the hold these destructive patterns have on you, and he made a way to free you from them. They don’t have to control how you live and react in your relationships.
Now you may expect me to fill the rest of this book with lists of helpful hints and biblical principles for maximizing the positive things and minimizing the negatives in your relationships. But escaping an empty way of life does not rely on principles—it relies on a person. And not just a person who comes and does things for you or is an example outside of you, but a person who comes and relates to you.
I’m afraid that too many times we hold up Jesus as though he were simply a model of brilliant living—one who would inspire us to live a holy life in the same way that we extol the virtues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. The problem with that thinking is that models alone are un- able to make you want to follow their example. They point out the way for you to go, but they don’t empower you to walk down that path. They might inspire you, but inspiration alone is not enough to actually move you.
Over the years I have heard a number of great stories of people who have done amazing things or overcome incredible obstacles—a father who enters marathons, pushing his wheelchair-bound son; a married couple who adopts 19 children with special needs over the course of their lifetime; or the concert musician who plays at Carnegie Hall because of the countless hours of practice she spent with her instrument. Those examples are stirring. Inwardly I cheer for those people and wish them the best.
Though I am inspired by their stories, however, my own lifestyle has not changed in the least. It takes far more than inspiration to escape an empty way of life. I’ve not yet been driven by these examples to take up jogging, adopt even one child, or pick up an instrument. They truly are praiseworthy examples, but they’re outside of me. Therefore, by themselves, they are insufficient to move me.
Jesus is different. His examples of loving and serving are not things that happen outside of me–things I dispassionately observe. Far from being an uninvolved spectator to his reconciling work, I’m a recipient of his gracious actions. He is my example, but he is also my experience. In experiencing him, I not only develop a personal sense of what he calls me to, but I also gain the power to live out that calling with others.
God understands that you don’t always know how to love people, so he does not insist you figure out how to bootstrap yourself into relationships. Instead, he makes sure you already know exactly what love is before he requires you to love others. As the apostle John put it, “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us . . . if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10 –11, in larger context of vv. 7–21). It’s only after having been loved that you respond with love. You love him back, and you reach out to share with others a tiny portion of the love that you yourself have received.
In my relationship with God, what’s always been most important is the quality of his love for me, not the quality of my love for him. It’s only as the reality of his love becomes my present experience that I will be more concerned about expressing my love to others than insisting they express theirs for me.
Too often I get this order backward with my children, like when I blew up at my child earlier. Those are the days when I keep careful track of all the ways it seems they don’t care nearly enough about me. I become consumed with how they don’t consider the pressures of my schedule when they want me to chauffeur them to their next sports game or to the store. I grumble about how they don’t respect my property as they trample through the garden or slam the doorknob through the drywall. And I fume over how they’re more interested in my money than my friendship. I confess, I have a hard time being greeted at the door after a long, hard day with “Hi, Daddy—can I have my allowance?”
In those moments, I get caught believing that what most needs to change in my family is them. They need to be more considerate, more respectful, and more grateful. In other words, I wrongly believe that our relationship is dependent on the quality of their love for me.
That’s backward from the way I experience Jesus. The way he treats me, both historically and in the present, gives me the experience of being loved. And it is that experience that allows me to respond to him and extend myself to others, which is the real need of the people I live with. My family needs me to pursue them like Jesus pursues me. They need me to forgive them like Jesus forgives me. They need me to like them, engage with them, and share myself with them just as Jesus likes me, engages with me, and shares himself with me.
And that’s where there is a disconnect for many people. They don’t have a sense of the risen Christ relating to them in real time in a helpful, positive way. Whether I’m serving in my home church or traveling to others, I regularly interact with people who can explain historically what Jesus has done for them and who genuinely look forward to what he will do in eternity. But his present activities in their lives remain a cloudy mystery.
In turn, they struggle to communicate love to others in any tangible, recognizable form. This recognition forms the working thesis of this book: only through a present, rich, practical relationship with Jesus will you be able to develop rich, practical relationships with each other.
Your Human relationships Flow from the god You Worship
The way I live out my relationships with people is one of the clearest indicators of how healthy my relationship with the Lord is. If I live knowing that God moves toward me all day long and invites me to move toward him, then I will engage people positively in their lives. But if I wait for others to give themselves to me first, then I show that I really don’t believe or regularly experience this God who is reconciling people to himself. Either way, I live out the truth that you become whatever you worship.
Sadly, there are so many bad gods waiting to take Jesus’ place. There’s the false notion of God as a deity who sits in heaven, vaguely interested in your life, but who keeps himself pretty detached and aloof. Or there’s the god who is only disengaged until you do something wrong. Then he springs into action, pulling out a long list of your failures and threatening you if you don’t shape up. Or worse, maybe you’ve found the god who smiles at you a lot, but is too weak to challenge you or help you when you need it. The hard reality is that if your god is distant, critical, scary, or impotent then you will mimic that quality about him in the ways you treat those around you.
Thank God he doesn’t leave you to those gods. Jesus came to redeem you from living out those empty ways of life handed down to you by your forefathers.
Throughout Scripture you see one overarching storyline: a good Father welcomes homeless orphans into his family by searching for them, rescuing them, embracing them, providing for them, and nurturing them. With that experience of life, you now have reason to hope for something different in the way you live with others. And hope is exactly what I need every day of my life.
My kids and I had a really rough week that felt like every inter- action turned into a half-hour argument that I didn’t handle very well. As the week wore on I became increasingly out of control, and I responded more harshly and critically each time. It was not a good week. Ironically, a few days later I was scheduled to give a radio interview for a booklet I had written entitled How Do I Stop Losing It with My Kids? I felt like such a hypocrite. I reread the booklet and kept thinking, Hmm, that’s a good idea. I wonder who wrote that? Or, Oh! Wish I had remembered to try that.
At the end of the program, the interviewer asked one final question. He said, “Okay, this has been helpful, but what about the person who has been losing it—maybe for years? Who has been failing over and over again? What hope does that person have?”
I replied, “Well, honestly, that’s me this morning. And my hope is that not only am I a parent in my family, but I’m also a child in a better family with a much better Father. And my Father is absolutely committed to being involved in my life, parenting me so that I can be the parent that he always meant me to be.”
I need that hope. And I need even more than hope. It’s easy to say we need to love others well, but that statement can feel pretty vague when I face a particular challenge with caring for a real, flesh-and- blood person in the smaller, practical moments of life. For instance, what does loving others well look like when I need to restore a relationship that I just damaged? At times like that, I need to know specifically what love looks like.
I find it helpful to think of love as a large jewel with many facets. Each facet gives you a glimpse into the jewel’s essence because each is part of the same jewel. But every viewpoint has a sparkle and radiance all its own.
Throughout this book we’re going to investigate fifteen facets of the love we experience from God because it is in these ways that he invites you to mature as you relate to other people with love. While there are many more that we could explore—and we will as eternity unwinds—these fifteen form a solid toolkit that, as you grow in them, will affect the quality of relationships you currently have.
You can love other people only out of your own experience of being loved. Or, to say it in reverse, you cannot pass along what you yourself have not received. Does that sound limiting to you or maybe even completely demoralizing? Like you’re fated never to rise above the inadequacies other people have passed down to you?
That’s where a relationship with Jesus is intensely practical. Because you are his, you are not beyond hope—nor are your relationships. Missing out on being loved well by other humans does not doom your present relationships. In your present, ongoing relationship with Jesus, you can receive from him all the love you need to give to others.
He can give you what you never received, and then you can pass it to those around you who need it.
We’ll approach our topic in three parts. In Part I, “Love That Responds to a Broken World,” we’ll look at those aspects of love that help you move toward your friend as she experiences sin or suffering so that she knows she is not alone.
Part II, “Love That Reaches Out to Build Others Up,” focuses on aspects of love that show someone else you’re more interested in helping him be all God ever meant him to be, than using him to make yourself feel good.
And in Part III, “Love That Enjoys Heaven Now,” we’ll look at the kinds of love that allow people to see and trust your heart for them so that you can enjoy being together now.
Let me offer one caveat before we dive in: please be careful not to fall into a mindset that looks for quick, immediate results when you reach out to love well. Learning these fifteen aspects will improve the overall tone of your relationships, but they are not part of a guaranteed formula that works like this: if you do ________, then everyone else will respond to you with ________. Rather, you can expect to receive these elements from Jesus, and as you practice them you will find yourself moving in harmony with the way he runs his world rather than against it. In that sense your life will be better, you will be more satisfied, and your relationships will change for the better.
As a friend, lay leader, counselor, seminary professor, conference speaker, and pastor I have seen many people turn away from destructive patterns and enter into the freedom of healthy relationships. That’s been quite a privilege. Beyond all those instances of seeing people love well, however, I’m most encouraged to believe you really can escape your empty ways of living because of the way relationships in my own home have grown healthier over the years.
Remember that I told you how hard my child and I worked to ruin our relationship? Sadly, there are still plenty of times when we collectively rip at the fabric of our relationship. That’s the product of real people in a really fallen world. But even more significant is what we do with those destructive moments. By God’s kindness, we continue to learn how to repair the rips we create and celebrate the greater number of times when we move closer without damaging our friendship.
That’s the product of being loved by a gracious God in a grace- infused world. If Jesus can help free me and my family from being stuck in bad patterns, and teach us to create beneficial ones, then I know he can help you too.
As you are introduced to each way he loves us, I think you’ll be surprised by how intimately involved God is with you. I know I have been surprised. After seeing and re-experiencing him in new ways, I suspect you’ll hardly be able to wait to give that experience to someone else!