The first bite of my lunch stuck in my throat as soon as she started crying. A friend and I had just sat down for a meal and a catch-up session after being out of touch for a few months. She shrugged and stared down at her burrito as the tears continued. “I’ve given it everything I can … two years of my life. And now he’s just not returning my calls or texts. I can’t believe this is happening.” As we talked about her failed relationship, I found myself reflecting on a question I’ve pondered for months: What is the one thing every relationship—friendship, dating, marriage—must have to be healthy?
When I asked my friend this question, she said communication. I ask others, and they say humility or honesty or Jesus.
But I think there’s something even more important than any of that. It’s the one thing that Jesus needs from you. It’s the one thing your relationships need from you. By the end of our lunch, my friend and I both knew this mysterious factor was exactly what her boyfriend was lacking: The desire to grow.
I’m guessing that sounds obvious, even stupid, to you. Everyone wants to grow, right? Perhaps in theory, but in reality, many people don’t want to do the work that growth requires. Friendships, working relationships and marriages all eventually turn toxic if both parties aren’t committed to growth. Think about people who’ve bugged you to no end, the ones who are “close-minded” or “stuck in their ways” or “control freaks.” At the end of the day, isn’t the heart of our complaint the fact that these people won’t change, won’t flex, won’t grow?
As a marriage counselor, I see this hurdle when a husband or wife simply won’t show up for sessions. Nothing says “I refuse to grow” like that! And yet, how often are we guilty of the same thing in being physically present in our relationships, yet refusing to show up mentally or emotionally.
So, do you really want to grow? Ask yourself these questions:
1) When is the last time you listened to a friend admonish you, and then went and did something about it?
2) Are you intentional about meeting personal goals or do you simply drift day-to-day?
3) If you asked a close friend or family member what they’ve observed in you the past few months, for better or for worse, what would they say?
Growth and the Gospel
In Matthew 19, a young guy comes to Jesus to ask about the good life, and Jesus’ response illustrates how serious He is about our growth. After Jesus covered all of the basics—follow the 10 commandments, love your neighbors—the young man says he’s committed himself to these things. It’s clear that he understands and lives God’s way, and wants to go even deeper. So, then he asks Jesus about his wealth. But when Jesus tells him to give up his money and follow Him, to grow even closer in relationship, the young man chooses the status quo. He chooses comfort, instead of challenge-provoked growth of character and faith. He walks away from the most important relationship in his life because he wasn’t willing to give up the luxuries that were preventing him from growing in his faith.
Paul admonishes the church at Ephesus to “grow up into” Jesus, who is the head of the church. And how do we do that? By “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) to one another, by growing up in our salvation (1 Peter 2:2). Growing up looks like more devotion to Jesus, more humility, more honesty, more courage to do the right thing and more mercy when things go wrong. These are Christ qualities, and they are also the qualities that create people who love each other in healthy, honoring ways.
The “It” Factor at Work
A healthy relationship is composed of two people who are humble and honest enough with one another to allow growth to occur, which often means admitting mistakes and working through the hard stuff. There is no room for passivity in relationships defined by growth.
So, what is humility, really? Humility is not a self-hating, insecure abasement of oneself, but a healthy understanding of your weakness rooted in a healthy understanding of God’s strength. Humility actually takes confidence—confidence to believe you are worth loving even when you are flawed, and courage to believe that God can change even the most stubborn personality traits.
A good relationship also takes honesty. Honesty isn’t about cold-hearted critique. It’s about loving someone—not out of selfish motive or self-protection, but out of a genuine desire to see them thrive in life. Real honesty also requires courage, because being honest with ourselves and with others is vulnerable.
An Active Decision
In my married life, I’ve found that when I just “let it be,” choosing a passive stance over an active one, humility and honesty never thrive. Instead, I fill the lack of communication with a negative, prideful explanation for our struggles. When this happens, not only are my husband and I not communicating honestly with each other, but I communicate for him—and I’m often wrong. Choosing growth means choosing honest over easy every single time.
Outside of a family or marriage, my single friends are working hard to figure out what it looks like to be in healthy friendships. And my friends are also discovering that when either themselves or their friends lean toward passivity, the friendship wanes.
Everyone wants healthy relationships. But the real question is: Are you willing to do what it takes to thrive in friendship, working relationships, in marriage? Whatever relationship you are in, the choice to change and grow is in your hands.