Let’s face it. Relationships aren’t easy. In fact, they can be down right messy. Many times they’re characterized by unmet expectations, selfish agendas, frustration, hurt, and disappointment. Often leaving us ready to throw in the towel, wishing for the safety of an ideal, sinless world where relationships are devoid of difficulty and instead defined solely by the markings of conflict-free living. But as Tim Lane and Paul Tripp argue in their book, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, without these relationship lows, we’d be less likely to recognize our weak, needy state and seek out the "help God alone can provide."
They explain that it’s through the messiness of relationships that "our hearts are revealed, our weaknesses are exposed, and we start coming to the end of ourselves." Here, we realize our need for God’s strength to help us navigate the stormy waters of relational life. And it’s our admittance that we can’t fix relationships on our own, that allows Him to intervene and to use the difficulty as a means of maturing us in godliness and making us more like Him.
The writing duo cover a lot of ground in the book’s fifteen chapters. Much more than can be discussed in a single review. While I learned valuable insights from each section—including those on sin, agendas, talk, forgiveness, and time and money—for me the most profound discussion occurs in chapter 6. In it, Lane and Tripp address the importance of building our relationships on a solid foundation. They write:
Good relationships are always built on the foundation stones of identity and worship….For our relationships to be what God designed them to be, the rebuilding, restoring, and reconciling must start with a solid new foundation.
This foundation is not what we say or do. It begins in the heart, the source of the thoughts and motives that shape what we do and say. Your heart is always with you, and in profound ways it shapes your interactions with others. If your heart’s foundation is solid, based on God’s truth, design, and purpose for us, we will be able to build healthy, God-honoring relationships even though we are flawed people living in a broken world.
Until this chapter, I didn’t fully realize how much these two stones of identity (who we are) and worship (who God is) influence my own daily interactions with others. But as Lane and Tripp explain "the things we believe about God and ourselves are the foundation for all the decisions we make, all the actions we take, and all the words we speak."
For example, if I define myself as simply a wife and mother, than I will daily seek my identity in my husband and children. I’ll look to them to bring me contentment and joy. When they fail to, I’ll find myself disappointed, disillusioned, frustrated, and more apt to focus on their shortcomings. I’ll be unable to love and serve them as I should because my focus is inward. However, if my identity is rooted in who I am in Christ, "I remember that Christ has given me everything I need to be the person he designed me to be, [and] I am free to serve and love."
The authors go on to explain that remembering who we are isn’t enough. We also need to remember who God is because "real love and esteem for other people are always rooted in our worship of God." I was convicted as I read of the important role our worship of God as Creator, as sovereign, and as Savior plays in the way we relate to others. I walked away from this chapter realizing my need to be more careful to view others’ differences as part of God’s handiwork. Lane and Tripp encourage:
God wants me to remember that his hands formed every part of you. His attention never wandered, his hand never slipped, he made no mistakes, and there were no accidents. The shape of your chin, the size of your frame, your personality, your intellectual gifts, your natural abilities, the color of your hair and skin, the timbre of your voice, the way you walk, and a million other things that make you who you are were all crafted by a gloriously wise Creator. You are the creature you are because of his beautiful plan.
I was reminded to view everyone I interact with—from my family members, friends, and neighbors to the checkout clerk at the grocery store—as I do my unborn baby: as one fearfully and wonderfully made.
While this chapter challenged me in many ways, I did feel that Lane and Tripp failed to fully explore the issue of cultures and customs. They argue:
When I look at you, I need to see God’s sovereign hand writing your story perfectly. The person you are and the responses you make to life have been shaped by his sovereign choices and your responses to the story he has written for you. He determined that you would be part of the customs and cultures of a certain ethnic group. He planned that you would be shaped by living in a certain geographical setting. He determined that you would live in a particular family, with all of its powerfully influential values and rules, spoken and unspoken….
If I fail to honor God’s sovereignty in the influences he has placed in your life and the way those influences have shaped you, I will attempt to take God’s place and clone you into my own image. I will tend to think my way is better than your way, my culture better than your culture, and my customs and manners more appropriate than yours. I will be constantly frustrated by you and even more frustrated by my attempts to remake you into my image.
I understand what the authors are intending to communicate here. We shouldn’t seek to change others according to our preferences and what we believe to be "the right way" of doing things. Instead, our goal should be to honor, respect, and celebrate our differences; to clearly see that these differences stem from God’s hand on our individual lives. But in doing so, they allow this section to read like an Intro to Intercultural Communication class by leaning too heavily toward cultural sensitivity. It would have been helpful for them to clarify that while yes, God places us in a particular culture that has specific customs, cultures and customs are often man made. Because of this, there is a place to question and help others see the need for change in the area of cultural customs that fly in the face of God’s Word.
Aside from this issue of being too culturally sensitive, I was also distracted by the book’s use of "I." In the first chapter the two authors explain their writing process, telling us that "we discussed our way through sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters." Yet throughout the work, stories are told in first person. I was left to guess if the personal experience belonged to Lane or to Tripp.
Although Relationships: A Mess Worth Making has its weaknesses, its strengths far outweigh any shortcomings. It’s a book rich with biblical wisdom and practical advice that make it a must read for those with the desire to learn how to better glorify God through their relationships.