How to Cultivate Christ-Centered Relationships
By LESLIE LUDY
“If I slip into the place that can be filled by Christ alone, making myself the first necessity to a soul instead of leading it to fasten upon Him, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”
– Amy Carmichael
“I can’t believe we are actually going to our first party as a married couple!” I told Eric happily as our old-but-faithful Toyota pulled into the circular driveway of our friends’ house. After two years of being in a long-distance relationship and six months of wedding planning, we were finally married. I’d always dreamed of going to parties and gatherings as “husband and wife.” Now, as we parked our car and saw several church friends waving in our direction, I realized with a surge of excitement that this dream had become a reality.
As Eric opened my car door and I stepped into the muggy summer air, a middle-aged woman crooned, “Aww, isn’t that sweet! What a gentleman!” Then coming up beside me she whispered conspiratorially, “Enjoy it while it lasts, honey!” My blissful musings were abruptly cut short by the sarcasm in her voice.
Another married woman overheard her comment and decided to join the conversation. “That’s right, dear,” she told me with a knowing smile, “don’t expect your husband to be so sweet to you once you two are no longer newlyweds. Why, I can’t even remember the last time Bob did anything remotely romantic for me.” She sighed with resignation. “It’s just the way things go.”
It wasn’t the first time that Eric and I had heard dour predictions about our marriage. Amid all of the congratulations and best-wishes, there were always those people who were determined to “bring us back down to reality” with their dismal comments about our future. A disturbing number of Christian couples seemed to believe that marriage was destined to lose its beauty and luster as time went on. We’d even heard a Christian counselor say that every married person should expect to one day wish they were married to someone else.
We completely disagreed with this notion. God had written a beautiful love story for us and had guided each step of our relationship. Why should we expect it to slowly fall apart over time? Since we had only been married for a short time, we didn’t have a personal track record to prove the nay-sayers wrong. But as we studied Scripture, we became convinced that if we kept Him at the center of our marriage, it would grow more beautiful — not more miserable — with time.
About ten years later, the reality of this principle was proven true during a conversation we had with some Christian young people who were attending a “marriage and family” course at a Christian training school. The young people were frustrated because the teachers at the school told them not to have high expectations for marriage, and that marriage wasn’t really the “fairy tale” they had always dreamed of.
“I don’t get it,” one of the young men said with consternation. “Growing up, Christian leaders always told me that if I saved my purity, I would have a beautiful marriage. But now the Christian leaders in my life are telling me that marriage isn’t really all that great after all. If that’s true, then what have I been saving myself for all these years?”
The young people wanted Eric and I to tell them whether marriage was really worth waiting for. “Has your marriage stayed strong after ten years?” one of the young women asked. “Or has the beauty started to fade like everyone says it does?”
Eric and I looked at each other and realized that we could answer the question with perfect confidence. “Our marriage has only grown more beautiful with each passing year,” Eric told them. “In fact, I love Leslie even more now than I did on our wedding day.”
After that conversation, as we thought about all that God had done in those first ten years together, we recognized that our relationship had truly grown more beautiful and amazing as time passed—not the other way around. As I write this article, Eric and I have been married for more than twenty years, and I can honestly say the same principle is still at work. With each year that passes, our love grows stronger.
So what is our secret? Is it because Eric and I have some kind of special gift for being romantic all the time? Were we both born with a supernatural ability to be perfectly sensitive to our spouse? Have we had an easy, stress-free, fairy tale life? Are we just lucky?
An emphatic “no” to all of the above! We are not especially gifted at romance, sensitivity is not something we were born with, and our life has been far from easy or perfect. The secret to our strong marriage has nothing to do with our own abilities or special circumstances.
The reason that our marriage has only grown stronger with time is because we have learned to continually point each other to Jesus Christ.
OUR MARRIAGE HAS ONLY GROWN STRONGER WITH
TIME BECAUSE WE HAVE LEARNED TO CONTINUALLY
POINT EACH OTHER TO JESUS CHRIST
This is a principle that God began teaching us even before we met each other.
As a young woman, I believed that if I could only find my future husband — the knight in shining armor I’d always dreamed of — I would be completely happy. Marriage was the only thing that I felt could truly satisfy me. As a result, I built my life around the pursuit of finding “the one”. Whenever I interacted with an attractive single guy, I did everything in my power to constantly draw his attention to me and show him that I was the one person who could fulfill the longings of his heart.
But when I surrendered my life to Christ, I began to understand that He alone must become my chief desire; the source of my satisfaction, and my “all in all” (Eph. 1:23). I realized that I had been looking to a person to meet needs in my heart that only Christ could fill. And I saw how wrong it was to pull a guy’s heart and focus to myself, instead of pointing him to Jesus Christ.
Before God could write my love story with Eric, there were two crucial lessons I had to learn. The first was to find my satisfaction in Jesus Christ, recognizing that I had everything I needed for perfect happiness in Him, whether or not I ever got married. At first it seemed impossible that my heart could ever truly echo the words of Psalm 73:25, “there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.” Yet as I spent purposeful time in His presence drawing near to Him, pouring out my heart to Him, and meditating upon Him, I began to experience the deep heart-satisfaction that can only come from making Christ my First Love.
The second lesson I had to learn was how to point others to Christ and not to myself. It was so easy to try and take first place in a person’s life and heart, not just in my interactions with men, but in all of my relationships. I had a natural prideful desire to make myself indispensable in my friends’ lives; to be that special person they confided in, leaned upon, and valued above all their other relationships. And in a love story, I wanted to be adored and “worshiped” by a man; to have him find his utmost satisfaction in his relationship with me.
As Amy Carmichael wrote, “If I slip into the place that can be filled by Christ alone, making myself the first necessity to a soul instead of leading it to fasten upon Him, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”
I KNOW NOTHING OF CALVARY LOVE
This principle is profoundly true, yet it is the opposite of the way most of us approach friendships and relationships.
Our culture teaches us that if we can become indispensable in someone’s life, it is the highest form of love that can be achieved — like the love songs that declare, “Baby, I can’t live without you!” or “I’m lost without you!”
But God’s pattern for real love is altogether different. The Apostle Paul shared a deep, heartfelt love with the Christians that he taught and discipled. Yet, in all his interactions with the churches, his ultimate goal was to point them to Jesus Christ — not to himself. He said, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). And when some believers tried to attach themselves to him in an unhealthy way (i.e. become more preoccupied with Paul than with Jesus), he corrected them with the poignant words, “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:13).
When Paul describes the kind of “Calvary love” that God has called us to live by, he says “[Love] is not self-seeking” (1 Cor. 13:5 NIV). In other words, Christ’s love does not selfishly seek first place, but always considers the other person’s highest good. The highest good that any person can ever find is not something we can offer, but is only found in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Therefore, our goal in every friendship or relationship should be to “fasten that soul to Christ” and not ourselves. We are called to be a reflection of Christ’s love in our relationships, but we should never try to take first place in another person’s heart. That position must be reserved for Christ alone.
“FASTEN THAT SOUL TO CHRIST”
AND NOT OURSELVES
When we look to another person to meet needs in our heart that only Christ can fill, we quickly become needy and selfish in the relationship. For example, if I base my happiness upon Eric’s ability to act like a romantic fairy tale prince twenty-four hours a day, I quickly become a frustrated, nagging wife who complains about my husband’s faults and shortcomings. But when I make Jesus Christ my First Love and allow Him to meet the deepest needs of my heart and soul, I approach Eric with an entirely different mindset. Instead of thinking, “How can I get Eric to fulfill all my dreams?” I can ask a new question: “How can I love and serve my husband better?” This is the kind of selfless attitude that causes a marriage to grow stronger with time.
By the same token, if we seek to make another person emotionally dependent upon us rather than seeking to fasten them to Christ, we become a barrier to their intimacy with Him. If I come to Eric with a problem and he tries to make himself the ultimate answer to my need instead of turning my heart to the true Comforter, he robs me of a precious opportunity to “pour out [my] heart to Him” and make Him my “all in all.” (See Psalm 62:8; 1 Corinthians 15:28.) But when he reminds me of God’s promises, prays with me, and encourages me to cast my cares upon Christ, my spiritual life is strengthened and I learn to look to the right Source for comfort and peace.
Of course, that is not to say that we should never help to meet another person’s emotional needs by showing encouragement, comfort, and selfless love. There is great joy and beauty to be found in human friendships and earthly relationships — they can be a picture of our relationship with Jesus Christ. But by God’s grace, may we never “slip into the place that can be filled by Christ alone.” Our ultimate desire should be to see the other person draw closer to Him. Whether in a marriage relationship or friendship, as each person individually draws closer to Jesus Christ, they naturally draw closer to each other in healthy, God-honoring intimacy — that’s the amazing way God’s pattern works.
Making Him Our All in All
Before we can learn how to seek to “fasten a soul to Him” we must first understand what it means to make Him our “all in all.” If we don’t understand who our King really is, we will never know how to truly point another person’s heart toward Him.
Here is a quick glimpse into the incredible attributes of our amazing Savior:
My Portion (Lamentations 3:24), My Maker (Isaiah 54:5), My Husband (Isaiah 54:5), My Well-beloved (Song of Solomon 1:13), My Savior (2 Peter 3:18), My Hope (1 Timothy 1:1), My Brother (Mark 3:35), My Helper (Hebrews 13:6), My Physician (Jeremiah 8:22), My Healer (Luke 9:11), My Refiner (Malachi 3:3), My Purifier (Malachi 3:3), My Lord, Master (John 13:13), My Servant (Luke 12:37), My Example (John 13:15), My Teacher (John 3:2), My Shepherd (Psalm 23:1), My Keeper (John 17:12), My Feeder (Ezekiel 34:23), My Leader (Isaiah 40:11), My Restorer (Psalm 23:3), My Resting-place (Jeremiah 50:6), My Meat (John 6:55), My Drink (John 6:55), My Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7), My Peace (Ephesians 2:14), My Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30), My Righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30), My Sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30), My Redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30), My All in All (Colossians 3:11).
If your heart is longing for the ultimate Prince, Hero, Gentleman, Rescuer, Protector, and Comforter — look no further than Jesus Christ. No human could ever come close to meeting our needs so perfectly and completely. Why would we ever seek to find fulfillment in another source but Him? And why would we seek to take His place in another person’s life? It’s like attempting to fly someone across the world in a paper airplane instead of a 747. It simply cannot be done.
In addition to learning more about who Christ is, I encourage you to practice personally making Him your All in all. The next time you are tempted to look to another person for comfort, peace, joy, etc., practice turning to Christ first. That certainly doesn’t mean that we should never find any comfort or peace through other members of Christ’s Body. But all too often, we don’t bother to take our cares to Him, because we are convinced that unless we “pour out our heart” to another person, we won’t be truly comforted and our needs won’t truly be met. Yet throughout Christian history (and today in many persecuted countries), men and women have been stripped of all human contact and put into solitary prison cells, sometimes for years at a time. Their triumphant testimonies prove that Christ is more than enough to meet all our needs and satisfy all the longings of our heart, even if every other relational comfort is taken from us.
If you have never personally experienced the reality that “In [His] presence is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11), then I encourage you to put this principle to the test. Make Him your “first turn” and allow Him to become everything to you that Scripture says He is. As you discover what it means to make Jesus your “All in all” you will be far more equipped to encourage others to do the same.
The Right Kind of Encouragement
When Oswald Chambers (the man behind the beloved devotional My Utmost for His Highest) was a young traveling minister, he and his ten-year-old niece were leaving a church service when a woman came up to him and said, “Mr. Chambers, I must tell you everything about myself!” At these words, his young niece sighed and sat down on a pew, prepared for a long, boring wait as the woman talked with her uncle. But she was surprised when Oswald returned a few minutes later and said it was time for them to go home. “I thought that woman was going to tell you everything about herself!” she exclaimed in surprise. Oswald smiled and replied, “Well, I asked her if she had ever told God everything about herself, and she said she hadn’t. So I told her to go home and tell God everything about herself, and after that if she still felt she wanted to tell me, she could.”
What a great illustration of pointing someone back to Christ! When someone comes to you with a problem or a need, it’s easy to feel that you must come up with all the answers. But it’s not our job to come up with all the answers. We are only called to point them back to the only One who has all the answers. Instead of feeling that you must spend hours and hours listening to a person’s tales of sorrow and woe, and coming up with a perfect answer to their every question, encourage them to first and foremost take their cares to Him. Ask if they have truly laid their burdens at Jesus’ feet. Ask if they have truly searched the Word of God for the specific promises and truths that apply to their situation. Ask if they have wrestled in prayer and cried out to God for their needs to be met. In many cases, they will have skipped those steps because they believed that their answers would be found in human wisdom or human comfort.
WE ARE ONLY CALLED TO POINT THEM BACK
TO THE ONLY ONE WHO HAS ALL THE ANSWERS
Remember, no matter how seemingly complicated a person’s issues may be, the root problem is still the same: sin. And the true solution is still the same: Jesus Christ. If you find yourself always being the “counselor” or the “listening ear”, ask whether you are truly exhorting people to take their cares to Jesus first. Of course, it’s not wrong to listen and show empathy or support, and it can be a wonderful idea to pray with someone or search the Scriptures together. But when you find yourself in a position of being someone’s “first turn” that’s when you know that you need to be more proactive in “fastening them to Christ.” Encourage, exhort, and strengthen your brothers and sisters in Christ. But never let them look to you for answers that only Christ can give.
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The old hymn says: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, o what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”
May we never forget that Jesus is the truest, most trustworthy, most faithful, most perfect Friend we could ever have. Human comfort and human wisdom will inevitably fall short. But His love never will. There is no problem He cannot solve; no need that He cannot meet. No matter what other friendships or relationships may come into our life, He is the only One who will never fail us. May we never let any but Him claim first place in our heart, and may we never take the place that only He was meant to have. If, by His grace, we learn to love with this kind of selfless, Christ-honoring love, we can be sure that our relationships will flourish and shine with heavenly beauty.