Your Relationships: Circle or Labyrinth
In 2009, I wrote a three-part article entitled, The 21 Laws of Relationships. (There is a book out there by someone else with the same title, but no relation or association to me or JDM.) It went viral pretty quickly and led to a radio interview with author and radio host Jules Kenney. I will reference pieces of the article here. You can read the full article at the Relationships Catalog (link at very bottom).
In 2020, I finished my seventeenth book, Relationship Intelligence: Creating Holy, Healthy, Happy Bonds. It, too, had an unusual impact, leading to a three-part TV interview at Life Christian TV and several other major opportunities (that I have not made public yet). I will be adding to the book this fall, making it even more dimensional and detailed. I will reference pieces of the book here. If you'd like to watch the interviews, click on the photo links:
I share the aforementioned because Christians are really, really struggling in their personal relationships. Adding to the relationship pandemic is a famine of surgically deep, and surgically nuanced, help with relationships (from a Biblical worldview) that goes beyond nondescript glittering generalities about love. When Christians do find such help, they tend to gobble it up like starved creatures. I understand beloveds, my heart feels you.
I love you.
Genesis 1:1 says, in the beginning (time) God created the heavens (space) and the earth (matter). After angels and other types of sentient celestial beings (Job 38:4-7), God's first creative act was a relationship, a trinitarian relationship between time, space, and matter. After this, God created another relationship, an ecological order in which flora, fauna, water, and sun have an ongoing interdependence. After this, God created another relationship, the romantic-sexual-marital relationship between male and female. After this, God created another relationship, the parent-child relationship between Adam and Eve and their two boys. After this, God created another relationship, the peer relationship between Cain and Abel. After this, God created another relationship, a spiritual fellowship and partnership via Seth's prayer movement (Gen 4:26). After this, God created another relationship, the mentorship relationship, brought about by Noah's leadership and preaching in the days before the Flood (2Pet 2:5).
Before we even get out of the first six chapters of Genesis, the Lord had already initiated a multitude of relationships by which the cosmos, earth's biome, and humanity function. And therein lies one of the main causes of misery and tragedy in life on earth: relationships. Failed relationships. Nonexistent relationships. Misunderstood relationships. Mismanaged relationships.
Hear the word of your God from Isaiah 42:22,23 (ESV): But this is a people plundered and looted; they are all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become plunder with none to rescue, spoil with none to say, "Restore!" Who among you will give ear to this, will attend and listen for the time to come?
In civil society, if we break certain laws we go to prison. In relationships, if we break certain laws we also end up in prison--a prison of frustration, loneliness, emptiness, anger, blaming, decreased mental health, emotional problems, feeling hopelessly trapped, and just plain misery. In relationship therapy I call this "relationship prison". I have been incarcerated there before. Weren't you my cellmate?
Most of the time we go to relationship prison (or stay longer than our fair sentence) on our own. I know, I know, I can already hear your ego protest in kneejerk self-justification: he/she was an abuser/manipulator/controller/narcissist/selfish/orc/other. However, you must realize (1) your lower self tolerated them far longer than was Biblical and healthy, and (2) you did not detect, or take seriously, the warning signs before you got tangled up with them. As the sarcastic saying goes, "Everyone in prison is innocent." Own your part in the relationship lawbreaking that earned you prison time, own it honestly, even if your crime was being a passive doormat. Ever heard of accessory after the fact? Not reporting a crime? Complicity through silence? Turning a blind eye?
Sweet beloveds, enough vomiting in our own mouth about someone else's crazy and swallowing it again. And again. And again. Unhealed wounds, tolerated idols, ignorance of relationship terrain, lack of Biblical wisdom, and lack of intense intimacy with God made us wounded prey for sharks, who can smell one drop of blood in ten billion drops of water.
Lawbreakers Go To Prison
We go to relationship prison because we break laws that govern all human relationships, and we break them because we do not know or fully understand or tremble in godly fear at those precepts and concepts. Then we wonder why everyone else is so unloving, so cruel. Then we swallow that vomit. Again.
We do not have to go to relationship prison! It is a dark place infested with numerous species of demons, especially tormenting spirits. Unholy, unhealthy, unhappy relationships are, more or less, lawless. They are self-consumed, overemotional, hypersensitive, kneejerk reactionary, bitter and simmering, smoke and mirrors, unstable, suspicious and paranoid, and ultimately just plain miserable. Holy, healthy, happy relationships comply with the absolute precepts and concepts that govern all relationships. They get to enjoy the wonder that is a safe, stable, fulfilling bond. They get to enjoy longterm oneness with another human soul.
Hear the good news from the Lord in Isaiah 42:7 and 61:1 (ESV): ...to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness...The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound...
Circles & Labyrinths
Let's talk about circles and labyrinths.
A circle conveys endless repetition without change or evolution. It illustrates vain repetition. God used the circling of Mount Seir to illustrate how Israel would wander the desert, in vain repetition, for forty years. For a season He made them circle Mount Seir endlessly, mindlessly, meaninglessly. Deuteronomy 2:1-3 (NASB): ...we circled Mount Seir for many days. And the LORD spoke to me, saying, "You have circled this mountain long enough..."
A labyrinth is functionally identical to a circle, with one distinguishing feature. I like Merriam-Webster's definition: "a place...full of intricate passageways and blind alleys...something extremely complex...in structure, arrangement, or character." Think intricacy and perplexity. Think secret doors and trap doors. Think blank walls and dead ends. Identical to a circle, a labyrinth, too, can produce maddening repetitions. The feeling and outcome of getting stuck in a maze is no different than going in circles.
There is one splendid difference, however, between a circle and a labyrinth: an exit. A labyrinth has a genuine way out, a circle does not. It only needs to be discovered and followed.
Our Relationships are a Circle or a Labyrinth
Have you noticed a relationship can "go in circles"? Have you noticed you tend to circle the same mountains and hills, hit the same walls and dead ends, in a relationship? Have you noticed your relationship tends to have conflict and frustration about the same things over and over? Do some of your relationships have trap doors or secret doors? Has the complexity and intricacy of your relationship convinced you to no longer wing it, or keep chanting nondescript glittering generalities about agape love?
A relationship can be a circle or a labyrinth. A labyrinth, though, has a way out.
When It Is a Circle
If a relationship is a hardened circle, it has reached a hopeless plateau, an iron ceiling, a vain repetition. Do not look at me all cockeyed because I said "hopeless". Anything is possible with God, but God intentionally restrains His sovereign omnipotence to make room for freewill choices. This is why it seems God never answered your prayers about certain relationships. Neither your prayers nor God's sovereign omnipotence will override personal responsibility. What your prayers do is increase God's convicting, drawing, revelatory activity in that person's life, raising the possibility they will submit and commit to Him. Our prayers put God to work; see Isaiah 62:6,7. What our prayers cannot do is force a person against their will, it cannot magically change their heart witchcraft-style. If your intercessions for someone have ever been successful, it is not because your prayers directly changed their spirit, it is because they freely, willingly, knowingly said Yes to God's increased activity in their life.
"But," you may say, "What about Proverbs 21:1--the king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, He directs it like a river wherever he pleases--and similar verses?"
I do not have the space here to explain (1) why God exerts direct sovereign influence over kings (national and international decision-makers) and (2) exception verses where God seems to exert direct sovereign influence over an individual. For the moment, let it be sufficient that these are exceptions, something a sovereign God is always entitled to as His own sovereign prerogative. However, these handful of instances are not the norm. His norm is to make space for personal responsibility, something that is emphasized hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of times in Scripture.
Samuel's Intercession: What It Could & Could Not Do
Notice what Samuel said about praying for the Israelites. He said, "Far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you" (1Sam 12:23). Did he expect his prayers to bend or break their freewill? No, not even close. Immediately after promising to pray for them, he warned them sternly to choose God and keep making choices towards Him (v24,25 ESV): Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart...But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.
Samuel also prayed zealously, with tears, for Saul, not wanting to accept his relationship with Saul had become a permanent circle. And God's response to Samuel's crying and praying? 16:1 (ESV): The LORD said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons."
Samuel also prayed for his sons, as any godly father and faithful intercessor would. Yet they chose to reject the Lord and Samuel's example. 8:3 (ESV): Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.
Was Samuel's prayer life and intercessory faithfulness powerless then? Were his prayers not effectual, fervent, powerful, and effective? Of course they were; he called down instantaneous thunder and rain from the Lord in front of the entire assembly (12:16-18). His prayers, however, simply could not override personal responsibility, and ours cannot either.
Circling Mount Seir over and over and over--because of our own ignorance of relationship terrain or someone else's or both--is not the plan of God. The Word offers us many breathtaking promises on relationships. However, you will need to understand the unchanging machinery of relationships, and make sure you and your relationship do not harden into a permanent circle. If you embrace relationships as an occasional labyrinth, realistic about its complexity and intricacy, then you are ready to learn and change and consistently find the exits to green pastures and still waters.
When It Is a Labyrinth
Relationships were never supposed to be hair-pulling circles where the scenery never changes. They are, however, occasional labyrinths. It is impossible for relationships not to be an occasional maze because, think about it, a relationship is two universes merging into one. Or, at the very least, two universes overlapping partially to create a layer of shared reality.
We are a bit silly and uninformed when we proclaim, Relationships should be easy! They shouldn't be this hard! They should just flow! God's Word never says relationships should be hard or easy, it does, however, say the way of the unfaithful is hard. Proverbs 13:15 says (NKJV), Good understanding gains favor, but the way of the unfaithful is hard. In the context of relationships, if we are unfaithful to Biblical and common sense laws, our relationships will be unnecessarily, unbearably hard. His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Mt 11:30), and His commands are not burdensome (1Jn 5:3). However, this does not mean His ideals in relationships are not complex or intricate, or, that they won't make you awfully uncomfortable as your lower self tries to conform to them. The simplicity that is in Christ refers to the gospel (2Co 11:3,4 NKJV), however, advanced truths that pertain to maturity contain complex and intricate wisdom (1Co 2:6), a spirit of mystery (v7), and the "deep things" of God (v10).
Relationships, then, do not fall under the beginner category of the simple gospel, but under the spiritual grown-up category of maturity. This is because, as you well know, the mature and almost-mature have the holiest, healthiest, happiest relationships, and the immature, they have mediocre, disappointing, or even dangerous ones.
A Labyrinth is an Intricate Network
A perceptual mistake people often make is overlooking the interconnectivity of everything in a relationship. The relationship is an intricate network, a multilevel labyrinth, wherein the spiritual, the emotional, the intellectual, the physical, the verbal, the financial, the vocational, the conscious, the subconscious, the past, the present, the future, and other realms all influence one another in multidirectional pathways. If you do not get this you will try to work on relationship issues in isolation, which is doomed to the dizzying frustration of that dreadful merry-go-round.
No individual, and no relationship, can be reduced to one part. While an issue may present in a distinct form (a passivity issue, an emotional coldness issue, an anger issue, a substance abuse issue, a porn issue, etc.), that issue is merely the pimple on the face of a complex organism. Learn the entire labyrinth of yourself. Learn the entire labyrinth of the person you are in relationship with. If they do not let you, not even gradually over time, you may be in a hopeless circle. Learn the entire labyrinth of the relationship you are in; that labyrinth will be arranged differently for each relationship. If you learn the labyrinth you can eventually find the way out into green pastures and still waters.
Feel like too much "work" for you? Then your values hierarchy needs repentance and reprioritizing. All you truly have in this life is a love relationship with God, with yourself, and with others. Do not let tragedy have to convince you of that. Invest time and energy in what really matters. Learn the labyrinth. Know the terrain.
A Labyrinth has Trap Doors
Today, the term trap door (or trapdoor) has a harmless meaning. Originally, however, in the 1300s it referred to a door in the floor, wall, or ceiling leading to a secret dungeon. In the late 1700s France, a trapdoor led to an oubliette, a secret dungeon "used for persons condemned to perpetual imprisonment or to perish secretly" (Online Etymology Dictionary).
Oh how some people and relationships have trapdoors! An unhealthy person has one or more secret dungeons in their life, and if you go through the wrong door, you could get trapped there with them. For example, look at the very public and very tragic relationship between Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston. We will never know who had the secret dungeon of hard drug abuse first. However, both lives and both careers went down the trapdoor into a dungeon because of it.
Think of how children (small, minors, or adult children) can get sucked into the dungeons of their parents, if they are unhealthy. Think of how a child (small, minors, or adult children) can suck a parent into their dungeon. Parents often fall for these trapdoors because of a codependent, idolatrous "love" for their kids. Think of how one friend can pull his/her friend down a trapdoor. I once knew a pastor who ruined the finances of his church through haphazard and shady actions. The church of seven hundred-plus members almost went under because of it. They fired him. His money issue was the trapdoor; the church was in his dungeon for over a year.
A labyrinth has trapdoors leading to secret prisons--like some people and relationships. Learn to look behind the doors people open for you. When a parent says to their grown-up adult child, "You are still supposed to obey me," that is a trapdoor. When a child uses perfect excuses and sob stories to overextend and exploit a parent's support, that is a trapdoor. When a romantic partner is jealous and possessive in the name of love, protection, and "because I care", that is a trapdoor. When a pastor or spiritual leader tries to control your personal decisions in the name of spiritual authority, that is a trapdoor. When anyone fluctuates their labels of you (unicorn then villain, villain then unicorn...), or when they constantly alternate glowing validation and cutthroat criticism, that is a trapdoor.
This is the rhema of the Spirit for someone(s): Beloved, you ended up in that dungeon with that Saul or Jezebel friend/child/parent/leader/spouse/partner because (1) you did not discern or peek behind their trapdoors or (2) you let a false version of "agape love" mislead you to not take those trapdoors seriously. When a person has trapdoors, the winning move is not to play.
A Labyrinth has Secret Doors Leading to Shortcuts & Easy Exits
A labyrinth has secret doors leading to shortcuts and easy exits. People and relationships also have secret doors that lead to faster resolution and evolution. There are multiple ways to solve relationship challenges, however, there is one way that is fastest: pinpoint the specific value driving your/their behavior or misbehavior.
Everyone is driven by extremely deep emotional values, but the dilemma is, not everyone is aware of or honest about their truest, deepest, most brazen values. A person who craves power almost never admits it. A person who craves justice or vengeance almost never admits it. A person who craves redemption from major mistakes almost never admits it. A person who craves attention almost never admits it. A person who craves validation almost never admits it. Etcetera. That is, if they are even aware that that is precisely what they value deep down.
A person's deepest, possibly subconscious, values are the secret doors in every relationship. They lead to the transformational heart of the matter much more quickly than trying to browbeat behavior modification, or dragging them to counseling, or even having your most Charismaniac Charismatic friends hoop and holler over them with oil. Jesus put it this way: if you want a wrong behavior structure (the fig tree) to not exist anymore, you have to address the root system fueling it (He cursed the roots). See Mark 11:12-14,20,21.
Once again, this is a challenge because many people are not aware of their truest, deepest, most brazen motives. And if they are, it takes a special kind of humility to admit it honestly to God for analysis and transformation, and admit it honestly in a relationship for vulnerability and intimacy, and use that honesty to walk out of the labyrinth together to green pastures and still waters.
Look for secret doors, the indicators of a subconscious value (your own or theirs). These lead to shortcuts and easy exits from the maze. If you do not find the secret doors, your problem-solving efforts and the relationship's culture will stay on the surface, never going deep enough into the true person inside the person (or the true you inside you).
A Labyrinth has Blank Walls & Dead Ends
Perhaps the greatest feature of a labyrinth, aside from its configural complexity, is the blank walls and dead ends. It is a temporary spasm of insanity to keep thinking that blank wall or dead end will magically produce a door or new passageway. And yet this is what many people do in relationships. They think one more conversation, the 900th, will finally get through to the person. Or one more argument/email/text/card/gift/church service/counseling session/prophecy/etc. Beloveds, after a several failed attempts, you need to accept that either you have not found the right pathway with this person, or, this relationship is a hopeless circle.
Carry a can of spray paint with you; spray BW or DE on anything and everything that does not get you of the relationship labyrinth. If you are hitting cul-de-sacs consistently, application #1 is you need to innovate your tactics and methods. This means you have to pray and think outside your padded cell and act in creative new ways. Application #2: the person and the relationship itself is a blank wall, a dead end, a hardened circle. Get off the merry-go-round and move on.
Have you noticed a relationship can "go in circles"? Have you noticed you tend to circle the same mountains and hills, hit the same walls and dead ends, in a relationship? Have you noticed your relationship tends to have conflict and frustration about the same things over and over? Do some of your relationships have trap doors and secret doors? Has the complexity and intricacy of your relationship made you realize you can longer simply wing it, or keep chanting glittering generalities about agape love?
A relationship can be a circle or a labyrinth. A labyrinth, though, has a way out. Here is a recap and comparison chart.
inveterate relationship lawbreaking by one person or both
vain repetition without change or evolution in one person or both
fundamentally unchangeable and unsolvable
prays for the relationship to be what they want above personal illumination, relationship laws, and healthier relationship options
the relationship is the idol
some relationship lawbreaking, but submitted and committed to learn
repetition, but signs that change and evolution are possible
possesses exits to green pastures and still waters, even if challenging to find
realistic, critical thinking
prays for personal illumination, relationship lawkeeping, and open to various relationship options
the relationship is nailed to the cross permanently; is an ark for God's presence
Relationships seem to be the one area people are the most dreamy and unrealistic about, Christians included. Perhaps we've watched too many movies. Perhaps we've let our imagination exaggerate what is real. Perhaps we've let our pain drive us to ideas about relationships that are simply not true or not realistic. Regardless of how we got here, we need to face the fact that we have not been genuinely God-centered, proactive, Biblical, or even common sensical about relationships.
Let's repent and start from scratch?
Yahweh Elohim, the Maker of all things, made laws to govern each and every layer of reality. Why do we think such a purposeful God would leave relationships to the unstable wind and waves of feeling and chance? There is a way relationships become holy, healthy, and happy, and attract the incredible blessings of God. There is a way relationships do not work, a way that activates the curses that come inherently with all lawbreaking. Reflect, therefore, on Hebrews 6:7,8, a passage written in the New Covenant to the born-again church (NIV): Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.