July 24, 2020

Spiritual Maturity: Having the right relationships

Spiritual Maturity: Having the right relationships
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In this episode, we talk about being intentional about your influential relationships. 

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Be good and do good.


In this episode of Balancing the Christian Life, we talk about having the right relationships.

Okay, I want you to think about 3 to 5 of your closest friends. When you have a group project, these are the people you want to be grouped with. These can be coworkers or people from church. These can be family members or people who visit often. These can be lifelong friends, or just people you tend to be around a lot. Do you have these people in your head? I need you to concentrate on them. How old are they? Are they more than 15 years older or younger than you? How much money do you think they make? Do they make significantly more or less? How much do they weigh? Do they weight a lot more or less than you? What political beliefs do they have? Do they vote differently than you on candidates or issues? What kinds of attitudes do they have? Are they generally more optimistic or pessimistic than you? How healthy are they? How do they generally spend their free time? How do you feel around them? Do you feel comfortable or uncomfortable? What kind of spiritual lives do you think they lead? Do you find yourself talking about spiritual topics around them or do you generally talk about hobbies, sports teams or the events from the last few days?

The people we surround ourselves with reflect a lot of who we are. I’m going to take a chance and answer some of the questions above for you. I’m going to guess you are generally within 15 years of age as the people you’re thinking about. You probably weigh about the same. You probably make similar incomes. You’re probably at about the same stage of your spiritual maturity. You probably have similar political beliefs. Your outlook on life is, likewise, similar. In other words, when I asked you to think about your friends, they probably look a lot like you. I know none of your friends are identical to you. There are differences, and we’re quick to identify them. But ask yourself this question. Are you more alike or are you more different?

Part of my argument for spiritual maturity is it’s not an accident. There’s a big difference between getting older and getting better, and people who get better intentionally put themselves in situations which make them grow. Part of that difference includes intentionally seeking out people better than we are. 

Jim Rohn was a motivational speaker who mentored several self-help gurus such as Anthony Robbins, and the quote which helped make him famous was “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” The research on this is pretty clear. We can bicker over the number, but it’s hard to argue the results. Several studies confirm what Rohn says--from the Harvard study on weight and wellness to the Northwestern University study on attitudes. We tend to become like the people spend time with.

There’s good news and bad news there. The good news is you can probably predict with some reliability what your future looks like. If you’ve got friends a little older than you, just look at how they’re doing. But the bad news is if you want to get better, you need to start thinking seriously about the relationships you have and make changes. And to be clear, that probably means changing who you’re spending time with.

When it comes to spiritual maturity, let me suggest there are a few specific actions you need to take which will help you get the right relationships. First, identifying what is and is not working with the relationships you have. Second, figuring out the relationships which will force you to improve. And third, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

A lot of the relationships we have right now work pretty well, but there are a good number which don’t. We know that. Some people make us feel uncomfortable, are critical or suck all the energy from a room. Many of them are pessimists or feel like they have a special license to criticize our choices. Many are rarely in a good mood, talk incessantly about themselves and have a gift for finding the worst in any situation. By the way, my experience has usually been these people don’t usually see themselves as pessimists but realists. And when you try to uncover why they see the world as a terrible place, will often talk about how they see the truth of situations. When we know these people are going to be somewhere, we begin to tense up and dread what’s ahead. Or we get angry or frustrated. We begin anticipating conversations and how they are likely to turn out. You may think I’m going to say to just cut these people out of our lives. But you can’t, and I’ll argue you shouldn’t. If we really want to grow, we need to see the parts of ourselves which aren’t working, and sometimes these are the people who see it first. Let’s face it when you train your entire life to look for the bad, you get pretty good at finding it.

If I were listening to a podcast that said keep negative people in our lives, I would be looking for a podcast replacement, but give me a minute to explain why. Their criticism isn’t always wrong. In Luke 7, Jesus was invited to dinner at the house of a nameless Pharisee. It’s here where a woman who had an earned bad reputation came and washed His feet with her hair. Rather than make an awkward situation more comfortable for His host, Jesus criticized him. He blatantly called him out for all the things he didn’t do which he should have. He pointed out the hypocrisy of his host rather than express gratitude for being invited. It was bad etiquette, but it wasn’t wrong. Was Jesus being unloving? Was Jesus ever unloving? We could point to several places where Jesus openly criticized the most influential Jews of the day. If I were a Pharisee or scribe in the first century, I don’t know if Jesus was the guy I would want to be at my dinner party or church service. I mean, Jesus often called out bad behavior. So did Jesus hate the scribes and Pharsees? I hope you know the answer to that. No, he loved them. He loved the host of his dinner. He loved the scribes and Pharsees. He loved the sinner washing his feet with her tears. Each of them were worthy of criticism. Yet, while he criticized them, he loved them. 

Ironically, it’s often those who gloss over or turn a blind eye to our faults which do us the most harm. We feel more comfortable but comfort doesn’t often mean growth.

Another podcaster, Carey Nieuwhof, said we often judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. In other words, we often criticize what others are doing, but are more generous when looking at our own actions because we know what we were trying to do. My wife Katie is great at helping me see how some people may interpret what I say or do. For example, I have loved putting this podcast together, but it’s a learning process. In one of the episodes I got some feedback that I spoke too quickly and I needed to slow down. To me, it sounds about right, but I’m biased. So I played the episode for her. Well, she said, I see why you think it sounds good, but they’re right. You’re talking too fast and you need to slow down. In other words, she helped me see what others see and hear what others hear. She was able to help connect my intentions to others’ needs. She’s a great audience. I know when Katie is getting bored or confused or is working too hard, it may make sense to change what I’m doing to make something more clear or concise. She makes me better by looking at what I’m trying to do and focusing on something I hadn’t considered.

However, not all relationships are helpful, nor are all parts of your relationships going to help you grow. The toxic part of pessimists is when we give them too much power in shaping our decisions. I believe pessimistic people are hurt people. I believe they have an internal need to make the world around them a dangerous or bad place to help them deal with something we can’t fix. I’ve been a professor for a long time, and every semester I get student evaluations. I’m not perfect and sometimes I get really valuable insight into how to teach better. But I remember one evaluation which tore me up. In a class with overwhelmingly positive reviews, one person called me an egomaniac, someone who played favorites, and graded unfairly. This person said I was obviously insecure and loved to play power games. In a group of excellent reviews, it was one person who was hurt and lashing out. If I were a new professor, a review like this would have driven me crazy. I would feel horrible. I would dread going back to the classroom. I would question every teaching tactic I know and probably change everything I thought was working well. And I would either live in fear or dread of my students, or worse, despise them. But after almost 20 years in the classroom, my perspective has changed. First, I try to uncover what’s useful in the feedback. I look for more than one person saying something similar to see if it’s valid. And then I feel a lot of sympathy for the person attacking me. Someone in my class was suffering. I don’t know why they are, but often criticism like this targets me, but its source is something else. This student probably thought I hated him. But as someone who has seen a lot of broken people, please take my word this is precisely the kind of person I truly love, and I hope he gets help. People who attack often come from a place of hurt, and often it’s a hurt we didn’t cause and can’t fix. When dealing with pessimists, we need to express our love, examine their criticism for what’s valid, but stop focusing on what we can’t or won’t change. Don’t completely discount what they say, but consider that hurt people often exaggerate or miss what others are trying to do.

The key to having the right relationships which help us grow is to surround ourselves with people better than us. It’s easy to say we need to look for great people, and we definitely should. You should figure out what you want to grow and connect with the people who are better at it or just farther along. Part of this is admitting where you’re not great. Look, if we find we are always the most competent, smartest person in the room, change rooms. Or better yet, look closer at the people around us and see what we’re missing. If we keep talking about how good or smart or clever we are, who are we really trying to convince? We often try to talk up our greatest insecurity. If you keep talking about how smart you are, I wonder why you feel like you need to. It makes me suspect you might not think you’re so smart. Look, Jesus was perfect. Literally perfect. But please give me the place where He said that. Show me where He looked at his disciples and said I’m smarter than any of you guys. Give me the place in scripture where he said I’m the most important person in this room. What did Jesus do instead? If you’ve spent any time being a Christian, you’re probably thinking about when Jesus washed the disciple’s feet in John 13. He wasted no time talking about how important He was, but instead in doing important things. He didn’t need to say he was important. If you paid any attention at all, his actions spoke far louder than his words.

You need to intentionally decide who you want to become your influencers. Over time these people with influence have been called mentors, teachers or masters to apprentices. I’m fascinated with online influencers. And I’ve learned an important lesson about the most successful ones, online and face-to-face who have a lot of followers, disciples or students. Good influencers give their followers consistent value. In other words, these are people you trust because they help you learn. You feel an authentic relationship because their advice and insight are good. You know them, You like them. You trust them.

Influencer relationships can, and should, be made face-to-face. But just as we talked about in episode 3, you form relationships in who you meet and what you learn in books, podcasts, videos and other media. 

Good influencers challenge you to do things you’re not used to doing. Ginni Rometty was the CEO of IBM from 2012-2020. She had an fascinating career, and one of the quotes she made was “growth and comfort do not coexist.” If you want to get better, you need to try things you’re not used to trying and meeting people you don’t already know. You need to start looking at people in a different way to see how they can help you become better. And likewise, you need to see how you can return the favor. How can you make them better? How can you help others grow? How can you become a positive influencer to those around you?

As you think about the 3 to 5 people you spend the most time with and how they affect you for good or bad, I want you to try something new. Who are the 3 to 5 people you most want to be like and why? Who are the 3 to 5 people you can learn from? These are the people you intentionally choose to be one of the five people who influence who you will become. If you’d like to reach out to me, you’re welcome to email me atkembry@balancingthechristianlife.comor sign up for my newsletter on balancingthechristianlife.com, and I’d be truly flattered. But who is someone you feel has found some success in life you’d like to be an intentional, positive influence on yours? And finally, what kind of influencer would you like to be for others?