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Interpersonal Relationships

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**The audio for this article is in two parts, click for part 1 and for part 2.**

The value of people skills in the workplace can hardly be overstated. Zig Ziglar, for example, has said that according to Cavett Robert,

Fifteen percent of the reason [people] get a job, keep that job and move ahead in that job, is determined by [their] technical skill and knowledge – regardless of their profession…. What about the other 85 percent? Cavett quotes Stanford Research Institute, Harvard University and the Carnegie Foundation as having proved that 85 percent of the reason people get a job, keep that job, and move ahead in that job has to do with [their] people skills and people knowledge.1

That’s impressive information. It underlines the importance of human relationships to our work. And if human relationships play such an important role at work, they’re crucial to our role as leaders. After all, leadership is about people in relationships.

Sometimes strengthening relationships requires both the grace of God and a deep reservoir of love. That was certainly the case with Hosea, who lived in Israel during a time of financial prosperity but spiritual poverty. God, through Hosea, called Israel’s failed leaders to account. They were wicked, deceptive and arrogant. Because they had failed to acknowledge God, they – and their people – were doomed. As a prophet to Israel, Hosea’s unenviable job was to predict the nation’s exile and later restoration.

Yet God never disciplines simply out of anger. His is a righteous and loving jealousy. His discipline in this world is always tempered by his mercy. So, in order to illustrate God’s love for the nation, he commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer. Hosea did so, and the not-surprising result was that his heart was broken when she proved unfaithful and eventually left him. Later, Hosea sought out an emotionally broken and financially destitute Gomer, forgave her and renewed their marriage relationship.

Through his marital problems, he experienced something of God’s grief for his unfaithful people. Hosea’s love for Gomer serves as a picture of God’s love for us – a love that is unconditional but also marked by his holiness. For our specific purposes here, however, Hosea serves as an example for us to follow. At times, every leader is called upon by God to seek out, forgive and restore those who have wronged him or her. This amounts to nothing more than becoming like our Father in heaven. God forgives. But forgiveness never comes cheap. Such actions require that we grow in our ability to show the grace and love of God to those who hurt us and enter into a willingness to give up the right to hurt the other person in return.

Forgiveness and reconciliation often run counter to the way of the world and the way of our own hearts. God created us in his image – with the ability to connect with others in deep and meaningful ways. Yet it did not take long for us to learn how to disconnect and live as enemies. God created relational beings, beautiful and good. Shortly thereafter humans added a creation of their own: revenge.

Pain, betrayal and loss are inevitable in a fallen world. But there are two ways to live in such a world: the way of revenge and the way of reconciliation. One road leads to death; the other road leads to life. Anne Lamott wrote,

I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness – that I am one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way…. In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.2

Great leaders are well acquainted with forgiveness. The more a leader grasps the level of his or her own forgiveness, the easier it will be to forgive others.

The God of Relationships

The Bible is all about relationships. The greatest theologians of church history have agreed on this. Obviously, the first example would be Jesus. When he was asked to sum up the God-centered life, he said that it was quite simple. Love God; love others (cf. Mark 12:28-31). Later, Augustine, the great theologian of the early church, observed that everything written in Scripture is meant to teach us how to love either God or our neighbor.3 More than a thousand years later, a converted Augustinian monk named Martin Luther echoed this same thought when he declared that the entire Christian life consists of relating to people around us – particularly by serving our neighbor.4 As Michael Wittmer says, “The one truth that everyone seems to agree on, from Moses through Jesus and on to Augustine and the Reformers, is that it’s virtually impossible to please God without loving our neighbors.”5

Of course, this comes as no surprise when we consider that the triune God is a personal being who exists as a joyous community of humility, servanthood and mutual submission. The Trinity is “a self-sufficing community of unspeakable magnificent personal beings of boundless love, knowledge and power,” as Dallas Willard puts it.6

Not only does this great God exist in a perfect community himself, he has also paid a great price to make it possible for us to enter a relationship with him through the merits of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is all an old, old story. Unfortunately, in our day, this familiar story has lost some of its power and punch; some of the mystery and wonder have worn off. And yet it is the single most magnificent story in all the world. There is nothing like it. God in his mercy and wisdom, fully understanding that we cannot save ourselves, initiates our salvation. He freely offers forgiveness to all those who will accept his simple invitation. Pardon and reconciliation are ours for the taking.

He wants this relationship, in turn, to be made visible in our relationships with others. God knows that not only are we unable to save ourselves, but we are also incapable of truly loving others. So, God goes beyond merely offering us salvation; when we accept his invitation, he miraculously infuses us with the ability to love others properly.

The apostle John affirms that God’s love for us precedes our love for him and our love for people. God demonstrated his love for humanity in very tangible ways throughout the history of Israel, but he did so most fully and clearly in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. This love is expressed not only in words, but also in actions. John says,

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

1 John 4:9-10

God never simply says he loves us; he demonstrates it. To show his love, he gives. A genuine love will always be a generous love. God’s love for us, agape love, is the steady intention of his will for our highest good. It is this agape love that he enables and calls us to extend toward others.

This sentiment is so strong in the mind of the Holy Spirit, that later in the same chapter, John tells us that those who do not love the members of God’s family should seriously question whether they really love God (vv. 20-21). In other words, whatever begins with a love of God will inevitably end with a practical demonstration of our love of our neighbor.

There is a reciprocal relationship between loving God and loving people. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commandments” (1 John 5:1-2). And what are his commandments? Remember how Jesus answered that question: Love God; love others.

The religious leaders during Jesus’ time had 613 laws that served as commentary on the Law of Moses. Much of Moses’ codified law was commentary on the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments in turn can be easily divided between those which deal with our relationship to God and those which deal with our relationship to others. Thus, Jesus takes all of the commentaries and distills them into two overarching principles: Love God; love others. In the final analysis, the one who loves is the one who fulfills the law. God is love, and he invites us to become lovers as well – not in words only but in practical, tangible ways.

In fact, the importance of proper relationships is so central that in Scripture righteousness is not merely a legal status; it is, rather, a relational concept, since it refers to good, just and loving associations with God and others. Righteousness is “right relationships” in the sense that it means being rightly related to God and others.

There is a line from the musical Les Miserables that sounds like what John is getting at: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Think for a moment about the quality of your relationships. Are you pursuing any aspirations, ambitions or accomplishments that threaten the quality of the relationships in your life? At the end of their lives, the things that people generally regret have far more to do with unfinished relational business than with uncompleted tasks. What must you do now to look back at the end of your journey with no regrets?

Relationships and Real Wealth

“I may not have much money, but I’m filthy rich in relationships.” The person who said this had his priorities in order, because he understood the true value of things on this earth. There is an enormous difference between loving things and using people and loving people and using things.

First Kings 19:19-21 marks a permanent transition in the lives of two men: Elijah and Elisha:

So Elijah went down from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother good-by,” he said, “and then I will come with you.”

“Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?”

So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant.

When Elijah approached the younger man Elisha and threw his cloak around this young man, they both knew that their lives would never again be the same. Elijah had become a mentor and Elisha his disciple. David Roper highlights the weight of this encounter: “It is highly significant that his oxen, the yoke, and the wooden ploughshare – all implements related to his past life – were consumed in a final feast with his family and friends. In an odd mix of metaphors, he burned his bridges and ate them!”7

As we noted with Hosea, serving as a prophet was about as rough as it got in ancient Israel. A prophet traveled constantly for little or no pay, and the benefits package didn’t kick in until after death! In spite of these drawbacks, many men and women answered the call to proclaim the Word of the Lord to people who usually didn’t have much interest in hearing it. Eventually, after completing years of prophetic service, Elijah realized that the time had come to pass the torch to his protégé Elisha.

Elisha, whose name means “my God is salvation,” proved to be a good student and a faithful friend who was more than equipped for the task. When Elijah attempted to persuade Elisha to stay behind for Elijah’s final journey, the younger man refused saying, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you” (2 Kings 2:1-6).

But it soon became apparent that it was God’s will for Elijah to leave Elisha, so the mentor asked his apprentice, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha may have felt inadequate in comparison to the aged prophet, because he asked for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit in order to carry out the work Elijah had begun (v. 9).

The Old Testament law stipulated that the older, favored brother was to receive a double share of his father’s inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). Elisha was the “favored son” with respect to the ministry of Elijah, and, when he asked God for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, this unusual request was honored.

Like Elijah, Elisha was obedient to God, eager to follow in the footsteps of his mentor. God granted Elisha’s request, and Elijah left his cloak behind as a symbol of authority for the young prophet (v. 13). Elisha ministered during the reigns of five different kings of Israel, and Scripture records 20 different miracles Elisha performed, including one that he performed after he was dead and buried (see 2 Kings 13:20-21).

Hundreds of years later, along the banks of the same river, there would be another, far more significant, “passing of the mantle” as Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, signaling the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Matthew 3:13-17). As God’s own Son, Jesus more than met the requirements for the task. He was and is faithful, never straying from his mission of doing the Father’s will (John 17:4), performing it perfectly to the smallest detail.

The Elijah/Elisha association was also similar to Jesus’ mentoring relationship with his disciples. Like Elisha, they had to drop everything and be willing to follow Jesus wherever he went. But they soon discovered that by loving Jesus more than others, they gained not only a greater ability to perform mighty works but also a greater capacity to love others.

Elisha and the disciples learned that following God’s will is worth infinitely more than money. Jesus emphasized just that when he told the Pharisees, who loved money, that “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15). Money and achievements will disappear in the end, but relationships will endure forever. This is why our Lord said, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).

Relationships are the currency of God’s Kingdom. The one who wins in life is not the one who has the most toys, but the one who has the best relationships.

Two is Always Better than One

April 26, 2003 started out like a normal Saturday for Aron Ralston, a 27-year-old avid outdoorsman and mountain climber. Aron planned on spending the day riding his mountain bike and climbing rocks just outside the Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah. As was his usual custom, Ralston planned to climb alone.

After a 15-mile bike ride to the Bluejohn Canyon Trailhead, he locked his bike to a juniper tree and, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts and carrying a backpack, he began to climb and hike his way towards Horseshoe Canyon. His backpack contained two burritos, less than a liter of water, a cheap pocketknife, a small first aid kit, a video camera, a digital camera and some rock climbing gear. He began to climb and hike his way towards Horseshoe Canyon.

About 150 yards above the final rappel, Ralston was maneuvering in a three-foot wide slot trying to get over the top of a large boulder wedged between the narrow canyon walls. He scaled the boulder face and stood on top. It seemed very stable to him, but as he began to climb down the opposite side, the 800-pound rock shifted, pinning his right arm. Finding his pocketknife, he chipped away at the rock for 10 hours, managing to produce only a small handful of dust. His arm was still trapped.

Sunday came and went. Monday passed. He was still trapped. He ran out of food and water on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he recorded a video message to his parents. He scored his name in the rock wall along with his birth date and what he was certain would be the date of his death. He finished his carving with three letters: R.I.P.

Sometime on Thursday morning, Ralston began hallucinating. He had a vision of a small boy running across a sunlit floor to be scooped up by a one-armed man. Something in his mind clicked, and he prepared to amputate his right arm below the elbow using his pocketknife. First, he broke the bones in his arm. Next he applied a tourniquet to his arm. He then used the knife blade to finish the procedure.

After applying some simple first aid, he rappelled nearly 70 feet to the bottom of Bluejohn Canyon and hiked five miles downstream into adjacent Horseshoe Canyon where he literally stumbled upon a Dutch family on vacation.

Meanwhile, back in Ralston’s hometown of Aspen, his friends began to worry when he failed to appear for work. Not only had Aron gone alone, he had also neglected to notify anyone of his itinerary.

Eventually, Aron Ralston was carried by helicopter to Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab, Utah, where he was treated for shock. His arm could not be re-attached. A tragic event, to be sure, with a somewhat happy ending – Aron Ralston survived but he paid a tremendous price.

Perhaps the most tragic part is that it all might have been avoided if Aron had taken someone else along with him. It is difficult to imagine a more poignant illustration of the biblical wisdom found in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” This passage reminds us why we bring people together in organizations. We can not only do better work, we can help each other in difficult times.

In explaining this concept, the author provides us with a powerful visual image: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken” (v. 12). Take a thread and see how much strength is needed to break it. It’s easily doable. But take three strands of the same thread and twist them together; the task of snapping them becomes significantly more difficult. What is so simple with thread can be difficult in a leadership situation. The leader has to relate with his or her followers in a way that encourages the intertwining of ideas, commitments and values.

Three separate individuals are as vulnerable as one individual alone. The word “relationship” implies the attempt to twist the threads together. The result? Better work, less vulnerability.

The two extremes to be avoided are codependence and independence. The balance to strive for is interdependence. The truth is you must not base your identity upon another person. Neither should you think you can go through the toils and snares of life alone. No man is an island. In fact, most men drown when attached to the ocean floor. We’re not to go through life alone. Rather, we are called to enter into covenant relationships, walking together with others in peace and truth and mutual support.

The Transformational Power of Relationships

Barnabas is a biblical example of a man who worked at relationships. Two men in the New Testament, both better known than Barnabas, owe their success at least in part to the mentoring relationship they had with him.

Mentoring is an essential leadership function. Men and women who are discerning enough to spot young people with potential and confident enough to assist them with visibility and exposure are fulfilling a key leadership role. Barnabas was one of those leaders. His real name was Joseph, but he was known by his nickname, Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36). Several episodes in the book of Acts describe how he earned this name and this reputation.

First, Barnabas sponsored Paul at a time when everyone else suspected and rejected him. This is one of the great mentoring stories of all time. Before his own conversion, Paul had done his best to destroy the church (Acts 9:1-2). After his miraculous conversion, the Christians refused to be convinced. They avoided Paul like the plague he had been. Paul was only introduced to the church because “Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles” (v. 27).

Later Barnabas moved to Antioch. When he arrived, he “encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” (11:23). As the result of his contagious witness many people came to believe. And when the work became too much for one man, Barnabas brought Paul back to Antioch. We can only imagine the mutual growth that occurred as these two great leaders worked together.

Later, the believers chose this dynamic team to expand the church into new frontiers (13:2). The missionary trip, though difficult, was phenomenally successful. But a quiet event on that trip had a significant effect on the relationship between Barnabas and Paul: John Mark, one of the younger team members, deserted the effort and returned home.

As Paul and Barnabas organized their second journey, John Mark signed back on. But Paul refused to take Mark with them, so Barnabas had a decision to make: go with the highly effective and rising star he had launched or help another young champion whom others had written off. For Barnabas the choice was simple – his career was marked by a refusal to abandon good people who needed sponsorship, encouragement and development. “Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus” (15:39) – and into obscurity. Luke, who traveled with Paul, recorded his story.

Did Barnabas pick another champion in Mark? Did his investment pay a dividend? Peter thought so, referring to him later as “my son Mark” (1 Peter 5:13). And amazingly, so did Paul, who near the end of his life requested that Mark come to him in Rome “because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Most importantly, however, God thought so.

Barnabas didn’t pick a champion; he helped turn a young man who had earlier walked away from his commitment into a champion. A great mentor doesn’t win just by going with the winners. He or she sometimes turns losers into winners. God always needs leaders with the vision and commitment to do this.

Many years ago – it was May of 1986, though it seems like only yesterday – I was ministering at a men’s retreat, and a friend of mine named Paul was going through a very difficult time. His father had recently died, and as a new believer Paul needed encouragement. As we drove to the airport he asked me a question: “Is it real?” In other words, “Is this stuff really true? Is there life beyond what we can see and feel and taste and touch? Should I really bank on this?” I guess Paul respected me and knew that I would tell him the truth.

I can remember everything about that moment – where he was standing, what he was wearing. I looked him in the eye and said, “Paul, it’s real.”

I got a call from Paul recently. He is doing well financially, spiritually, relationally. But he is struggling with his direction, struggling with what God is calling him to in the future. He said, “You know, I guess I want to hear you say that again, that it’s real.”

It is such an honor to be chosen by God to assist people in these holy moments. That is what mentoring is often about, the giving and receiving of encouragement, the knowledge that there is someone who believes in you, who loves you and will tell you, “Yeah, it really is real.”

No one can go through life alone, because we all fall down. Everyone falls, and usually we have enough inner strength to pick ourselves back up again. But the time comes for all of us when we fall and find that we cannot go on. It is in those times that we discover our true need for others.


1 Zig Ziglar, Top Performance (New York: Berkeley Books, 1986), p. 11.

2 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 2000), pp. 128, 134.

3 Augustine, “Sermon 350: On Charity,” in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century III, vol. 3, no. 10, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press, 1995), p. 108.

4 See Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Luther’s Works, 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), p. 365.

5 Michael Wittmer, Heaven Is a Place on Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 102.

6 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), p. 318.

7 David Roper, Seeing Through (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995), p. 200.


Related Topics: Leadership