Relational Dialectics with God
I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. Psalm 69:3(NIV)
Several years ago, a student in an interpersonal class wrote me the most satisfying note I ever received as a teacher. She explained that she had been estranged from her mother for many years. But after our class lectures and discussion about relational tensions, conflict and apologies, she decided to write her mother a letter.
In the letter she expressed her sorrow about the rifts in their relationship and apologized for her own part in them. She wasn’t sure if their relationship would be repaired, but the burden she had carried for so long had been lifted just by putting her thoughts on paper.
If you have been in a long-term relationship with a spouse, parents, siblings, or friends, you have no doubt experienced times of difficulty, maybe extreme disillusionment, hurt, and conflict like my student. And the truth is, sometimes we may experience some of those same tensions in our relationship with God.
Communication researcher Leslie Baxter[i] identifies three primary relationship tensions, or dialectics, that arise in close relationships. These dialectics arise internally within the relationship and externally as the relational partners face others in the world. The tensions center on three conflicting desires: time together, changes, and sharing.
When we consider these tensions in our relationship to God, we can begin to see what the Psalm writer was expressing in 69:—a feeling of separation and a desperate cry for the relationship to be restored.
- Connection vs. Autonomy (Time Together). God has promised never to leave us alone (Hebrews 13:5), however, sometimes we want autonomy to do our own thing until we think we need him again.
- Predictability vs. Novelty (Change). Rather than seeing God in the glory of His creation all around us (Romans 1: 20), we seek for some new and novel experience. Reading His Word and seeing His daily provision becomes humdrum and we long instead for something outstanding.
- Openness vs. Privacy (Sharing). It can become hard to pray and to confess our sins to the Father (1 John 1:9) instead wanting to keep certain things to ourselves.
These tensions exist in our relationship with God, but also in the way we witness our relationship with Him to the world. Do we compartmentalize God so we forget He is with us all the time? Do we allow our attention to be distracted from His Word to the newest posts on social media, longing to live more like the world? Do we keep our relationship with Him so quiet our friends or co-workers would not know we even have one?
Relationships are not one-way and all of them face dialectical tensions. Like the daughter who decided to swallow her pride, face her own short-comings, and express her thoughts to her estranged mother, our relationship with God requires investment of time, consistency, and a willingness to share.
Reflection: Which of the three dialectics do you face most within your relationship with God? Which do you face most in the external expression of your relationship with God to others?
Today’s Challenge: Choose one of the dialectics described above and write a letter to God expressing your thoughts about how that tension has affected your relationship with Him directly and how it has affected your expression of that relationship to the world.
–Donna M. Elkins, Spalding University
[i] Baxter, L. (2011). Voicing Relationships: A Dialogical Perspective (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage).