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There's a prevailing stance on relationships that I find both intriguing and disturbing. It starts with the idea that each of us is the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time.
Where this leads can be beneficial or dangerous – depending on whether I continue to embrace loved ones who may (or may not) fully represent what I aspire to become or reject them in favor of pursuing relationships based on superficial and possibly meaningless measures, such as net worth, last year's sales figures, or perceived business acumen.
There's truth in the thought process that we're affected by people with whom we interact regularly. There's also value in the concept that we should intentionally invest in certain relationships and abandon others. But choosing who benefits from my relationship efforts and by what standard — without a proper guide — seems treacherous.
As a Christian, I wondered what I might learn from how Jesus lived and what he taught his disciples about relationships. I decided to start with the Gospel of Matthew and then build upon my knowledge. I'm not a theologian and I'm sure I have personal biases … but wanted to share what I've learned. Here are some thoughts on making choices about investing in relationships:
Invest in people who respond to me
In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22:1-14, Jesus tells a parable about inviting people and noticing who responds. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet prepared by a king for his son.
We don't get all the details but it sounds like the king sent a preliminary invitation days, weeks, or even months in advance of a fancy dinner. He doesn't mail save-the-date cards. Instead, he tells his workers to let these chosen folks, possibly the wealthy and those with status, know they're invited to a special event, details supplied at a later date.
When the meal is (finally) ready, the king sends his servants to tell the invited guests that it's time for the celebration. But the A-list guests refuse to come. They claim busyness at best or show disrespect at worst. So, a second batch of guests, and then another, is invited — until the banquet hall is full.
Sadly, there is one guest who refuses to put on wedding clothes supplied to him. The incident sounds like an under-dressed patron demanding a seat in a fine-dining restaurant, while shunning the suit jacket that's being quietly offered. When the guest refuses the special clothing, he's condemned.
The story has deep implications about many types of relationships. But what I've gleaned in regard to friendships and professional relationships is that I should invest in relationships with people who say “yes” to my invitations. They're the ones who want to go hiking with me, eat dinner with me, or collaborate on a project with me.
The folks who say “no” don't necessarily dislike or disrespect me. One may have a family crisis of which I'm unaware. Another may have recently taken on a time-consuming project at work. For whatever reason, our schedules don't mesh.
Still, I know if someone wants to spend time with me, she could rearrange her schedule or offer an alternate invitation that suits her preferences. But it's not for me to demand a time slot. I've learned to accept and embrace who's available to me at the moment.
But just because someone responds to my invitation — like the guest who later refuses to act appropriately — doesn't qualify automatically as a potential friend or business partner. Noticing who responds positively is a first step in determining what relationships are worthy of my investment. I also pay attention to who values and respects me.
Invest in people who value me
Drawing on the wedding banquet parable, I welcome nearly anyone who wants to hang out with me. I'm unconcerned with wealth, status, position, or educational achievement. Accept my invitation and you're my friend — almost always.
However, I can't ignore the person who won't play by basic rules of etiquette, like the wedding guest who won't put on wedding clothes. It's not that he lacks sophistication or understanding or access to the right gear. He simply refuses to adhere to acceptable behavior.
I don't have a lot of rules by which I deem others worthy or unworthy of my time or attention. But certain traits disqualify someone from being considered as a possible friend or colleague. For example, I keep my distance from the person who makes illicit comments about me and refuse to do business with folks who intentionally deceive customers. I don't like to judge and condemn others but I need to protect myself.
To understand who's not worthy of my investment in time and energy, I turn to Matthew 7:6:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.
“Dogs” represent people who aren't smart or discerning enough to recognize my worth. “Pigs” portray those who show contempt for everyone, including me. Jesus is telling me plainly that not only are they not worth my effort but also that they're likely to hurt me.
Dogs and pigs attempt to harass me, ask me to compromise my standards, make unreasonable demands, refuse to pay me fairly for my work. Dealing with them destroys me — either directly as a result of harm or indirectly because I'm spending too much effort trying to win them over.
Over the years, in my encounters with folks who behave like dogs or pigs, I've discovered that there's nothing I can do to change them. Educating them doesn't help and neither does showing patience. Instead, I need to focus on the people who value and respect me.
Deeply invest in a limited number of people
Jesus had a lot of friends but he pursued and invested deeply in a limited number of people. Much of his life's work was focused on calling, teaching, challenging, and nurturing the 12 disciples. They and others in his inner circle become the spokespersons to connect people with God.
Interestingly, Jesus didn't want recognition (or love) merely for certain superpowers, like the ability to heal people of strange, chronic, and terrifying diseases. For example, in Matthew 8:1-4, he tells the man cured of leprosy not to tell anyone except the priest. He gladly delivered people from their suffering. But he also tried to deflect prestige associated with this healing power in favor of genuine friendships.
However, he sensed that many people had difficulty entering into meaningful relationships or expanding their circle of friends — if they had a sick child or a debilitating illness. In these situations, healing could restore a person's ability to relate to God and other people.
In applying Jesus's model of friendship to my own life, I notice that it's desirable to have many friends. It's also crucial to deeply invest in a select number of people. A reasonable place to start in terms of investing in relationships is my family. I can also find those who want to grow closer and stronger together — though I'm not Jesus and could do well both as a leader and follower.
Contemplating relationships with the others, like the crowds who gather to listen and the many one-time conversations, I discover that certain interactions are meaningful even if they don't continue on a regular basis. In addition, while I acknowledge that certain gifts may enable me to make initial connections, I shouldn't seek to maintain friendships based solely on specific talents.
Understand that a small number of relationships may not turn out well
Let's be real: one of Jesus's core relationship turned toxic. In Matthew 26:14-50, we learn that Judas betrayed him and this betrayal sent Jesus to his death (though gladly followed by the resurrection and victory over death). I can speculate that Jesus knew this particular relationship wouldn't end well or rationalize that Judas's role was simply part of God's plan.
For now, though, I'm going to focus on this simple point: I may invest in a relationship that isn't good for me. If that happens, I shouldn't beat myself up for choosing unwisely, lacking discernment, trusting the untrustworthy, or ignoring the obvious.
I should be alert to signs that a relationship is inappropriate or potentially harmful. But I need to acknowledge that I can't predict or control another person's actions. In addition, it's okay to move on after a betrayal.
Evaluate relationships by their fruit, good or bad.
A pervasive concept throughout the Bible (including Matthew 7:15-20) is the idea of evaluating a person based on his or her fruit. That is, good produces good and bad yields bad.
The idea is not to dismiss people who haven't proven themselves, but show caution around folks with a string of broken relationships. In addition, I should pay attention to how our relationship affects my friends and colleagues.When I read the Bible or any historical account, I have the benefit of knowing how stories end, what relationships worked and which ones failed. I can then summarize relationship truisms based on the fruit, the results, of the marriages, family connections, friendships, alliances, and business collaborations.
Knowing how to proceed in relationships today is not always clear from the start. I can notice who responds, who values and respects me, and who to consider for a deepening investment, largely due to proximity, availability, and shared interests and goals.
Drawing on the idea of fruitfulness, I can consider what relationships have helped me to bear fruit — become more compassionate, joyful, contented, patient, kind, honorable, faithful, gentle, and disciplined. I may also reflect on how whether someone has helped me to achieve certain results, such as demonstrating greater generosity, increasing my endurance, or improving my writing prowess, and which ones have tended to drag me down in terms of perspective, skills, and wisdom.
I don't reject the idea that I reflect who surrounds me. For starters, though, my habits, not just my friendships, shape me. More importantly, there are many ways to evaluate the potential of a relationship and determine whether it's worthy of a time investment — than simply whether another person boasts a specific accomplishment that I'd like to emulate.
In the future, I'll consider whether a friend or colleague responds to me, values me for who I am (not just what I can do), respects me, and whether we're better together or without each other.