As believers, we know we probably have areas we should focus on throughout our lives in order to live in a glorifying way, but what are they?
In front of several hundred megachurch pastors, Dr. Henry Cloud drew a slightly lumpy rectangle on a whiteboard.
The renowned clinical psychologist and counselor to CEOs and business managers leaned back with pursed lips like a six-year-old examining a kindergarten project. “Anyone know what that is?”
A few voices shouted out from the audience, and he grinned at one. “It’s a boat! Thank you. I’m not an artist, but somebody recognized it.
“What a boat does is leave a wake behind, and you as a leader will leave a wake behind you in two areas. On one side, there will be the mission, the fruitfulness. ‘Did we accomplish anything?’ After you move through, we can look behind and see what you left behind in terms of the mission.
“On the second side, sometimes—Have you ever noticed this?—pastors accomplish the mission, but they kill everybody in the process. There are relationships on the other side of the wake.
“I would submit to you that, in the image of God, you are these two things: you are a lover—” he pointed to the relationship part of the wake and then moved his hand up to the other side, “—and you are a worker.”
The Relationship Wake Is Small and Sad
Probably the most common reason that couples go to marriage counseling with their wedding vows on the rocks is not “irreconcilable differences,” not really.
It’s because of neglect.
The Seattle Christian Counseling center points out that “Neglect speaks of a partner’s failure to extend care and concern toward their spouse. I am not speaking of enabling dysfunction or denying responsibility for one’s own emotional stability. Today’s marriages are inundated with work stress, child challenges, Facebook, and in-law interruptions. We spend more time focusing on outward distractions than on inward congruence.”
This kind of relational negligence extends to every kind of relationship, and it’s a good way to find ourselves alone a few years down the road.
Paul pointed out the ultimate futility of a life that focuses so sharply on accomplishments that it neglects other people. “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2-3 ESV).
Our greatest spiritual achievements are dust and ash if they were done without any care for our fellow human beings, especially those closest to us.
Not only is relationship neglect disobedience to God, but it deprives us of what we are designed to long for and have.
“We all want someone in our life who shares our values and standards, a friend who will be loyal and love us in spite of our weaknesses,” Gary Wilkerson muses in a devotional. “We read of such a friendship in 1 Samuel 18:1, 3-4: ‘The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul….
“These verses represent the love that Jesus has for us, an unmerited, supernatural love, a love that sees beyond our weaknesses and is always supportive and encouraging. It is called the agape love of God and is above human understanding. The type of loving friendship that Jonathan and David shared—I call it gospel relationship—can come only through the power of Jesus Christ.
“As you freely receive this gift of love from Jesus, ask him to enable you to be a godly friend who encourages spiritual growth in someone else, truly ‘a friend who sticks closer than a brother.’”
We can’t let our mission overshadow caring for the hearts of our loved ones and allowing ourselves to be cared for by other believers.
When Mission Gets Left Behind
The other side of the coin are people who focus far too much on maintaining relational harmony. This usually comes at the expense of actually accomplishing anything worthwhile.
Once upon a time, I agreed to edit a group of writers’ attempt to collaboratively pen an epic fantasy adventure novel. The first couple chapters were quite entertaining, though probably not for the reasons that they’d hoped.
The first chapter featured the author—*cough* I mean, a character—who was far superior to the other three in terms of intelligence and good looks.
I made it to the second chapter, and the new author’s character was now the best and brightest while the first chapter’s narrator was a drooling moron picking his nose in the back of the party.
Needless to say, the manuscript was a hot mess with storylines that evaporated into thin air and character inconsistency that was comedic because it was so obviously unintentional and self-aggrandizing. Each writer’s selfishness and myopia were brutally exposed in their sections, and I spent fruitless hours trying to unify their individual visions. Over time, it became clear that they were unable to create anything with even a semblance of coherency together.
All I did was waste my time trying to listen to them all.
This is more or less what happens when we try to please the crowd. Everyone’s opinion starts muddying the water until we’ve lost sight of the end goal.
A quick litmus test for this issue is the following: you’re pretending to agree with things you don’t actually think is right; you feel responsible for how other people’s reactions or feelings; you’re going to great lengths to avoid conflict.
Marriage counselor and psychologist Dr. David Hawkins points out the worst problem with trying to keep all of our relationships positive at the expense of our mission. “Hearing so many voices, we can’t distinguish those coming from ourselves, others or God. Simply put, there are too many people in our heads.”
He follows this by offering a few steps like setting boundaries and pursuing a relationship with God first and foremost so that we don’t let other relationships get us stuck on needless detours.
Balancing Out the Wake
Starting to turn our boat on a skewed course is far too easy. Often we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing before we end up dozens of miles off course and in uncharted waters.
Pursuing a mission at the expense of others doesn’t honor the God who meticulously crafted our fellow image-bearers.
Pursuing relationships at the expense of our mission ignores the fact that God has good works he has prepared in advance for us to do in our time on earth, a divine business we should attend to with all our strength.
The quickest way to tell if we’re wheeling one way or another is to glance back at our wake.
Are we making choices that build steadily toward a mission, the vision or thing that God has laid on our hearts? Are we also carefully tending our relationships with God, family, friends and coworkers or ministry partners?
Are we leaving a balanced wake behind us?