Cross-cultural workers are quite good at taking risk. It is part of what draws many of us to the field. We view risk as a necessity in reaching people with the good news and it energizes us. We surround ourselves with the biographies of Jim Elliot, Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, Gladys Alward, and more. We memorize quotes from our heroes and bible verses to strengthen our resolve to take risk.
So, we travel to difficult locations with new illnesses and a lack of medical care. We willingly risk our homes and stability. We risk because we believe in the eternal reward. As Jim Eliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Our willingness to risk is predicated on the faith that the reward is worth more than what has been sacrificed.
However, because of the transient and nomadic life of the cross-cultural worker it can be more natural to risk our physical and material safety while shying away from the risk of transparent relationship. I don’t suppose we think the reward found in real relationship is worth the risk. The risk of loss, grief, money, support and reputation is a high risk for such a seemingly low return.
I know for myself that this is true.
I remember the day that I decided relationships weren’t worth the pain. I remember the moment that I consciously chose never to make attachments again. I was 15 years old, competing at a swim meet for Tustin High School, my Dad had just gotten back from meetings in China in an attempt to smooth over team dysfunctions. At those meetings, it was decided that a compromise was untenable. We would have to leave my city. We would have to leave my friends. We would have to leave my home.
I felt so betrayed by our organization as well as our teammates. As a child these people are your family, they are Aunt and they are Uncle and to have decisions made that affected me so painfully and irrevocably without their consideration, I shut down. I became an observer of relationships and no longer a participant. The walls I built were tall and strong.
On the surface, these walls were safe for me but they have been truly damaging. Through my personal process of growth and maturity I have hurt many people by neither caring nor considering their relational efforts. Not to mention, that walls built against one of God’s greatest gifts are walls that will ultimately devastate a soul.
I continue to ask myself if there even is a reward found within relationship that would outweigh the risk of loss? The struggle within my soul is real. Risk versus reward.
Still I know that when God created the world it had been perfect. I know that Adam had been formed in the image of God and there was no sin, no pain, no shame and yet there was still a problem. The problem was simple and yet profound. “It is not good that man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18). Adam had God, he could walk and talk and interact with God freely without the veil that sin has brought us and yet it was still “not good” that Adam be alone. It’s not good for us to be alone.
The war within me wants to deny that there is any such value to relational attachment. Can’t it be just me and God? Isn’t that enough? Unfortunately, for me, it’s not. Our relationships are the tangible teachers of all spiritual truths. There is a reason that God calls himself our father and there is a reason that fathers play a significant role in the emotional development of their children. The relational attachments are essential for understanding who our God is. What a grace it is that He has given us physical examples of spiritual truths that would be otherwise unknowable.
Therefore, the walls that we build against rejection and pain and loss only become walls that separate us further from God. Who we are and how deeply we interact in relationship with our fellow brothers and sisters has a direct impact on how we relate to our God. In contrast, as we openly relate with a relational God our lateral relationships grow and improve in intimacy and transparency. It is a symbiotic relationship between both the horizontal and the lateral which drives our growth as emotional and spiritual beings. As Peter Scazzero points out, “Our relationship with God and our relationship with others are two sides of the same coin.” (Emotionally Healthy Spirituality)
All of us have our reasons for building walls and withholding ourselves from others. Past experiences with betrayal, rejection, loss, transition, lack of energy or simply lack of experience. What does a healthy relationship even look like? No matter the reasons for self-protection, we need each other, and not just so that we can ease loneliness or find support, but to see the face of God. What is the fruit of the Spirit if not relational? Love whom? Patience with whom? Kindness to whom?
Many of us are willing to take great risk in mission. Risky moves from country to country to witness to risky people, eating exotic foods, but are we as willing to take equal risks in our relationships?
Do we risk honesty with our teammates? Do we risk transparency with our friendships? Do we risk speaking truth to supporters? Do we risk the pain of reconciliation? Can we risk being wrong? What about within our marriages? Or within our families? Are we willing to risk conflict? Are we even willing to risk our ministries?
I still carry with me a lot of relational baggage that manifests itself in many different ways. I still have so far to go and yet I also can see how far I have come. Every tiny step I take to develop and grow in my personal relationships I take one step closer to the heart of Christ.
I encourage you to take a risk in relationship and expect that there will be great reward.
Do you hold yourself back in relationship to others? What step could you take this week to improve intimacy in just one relationship?