Perhaps the truest test of a relationship is what happens when one of the people changes.
At some level, change is inevitable. Small changes and slow, steady changes are easy. But when the change is significant, it will stress a relationship.
An acquaintance of mine was in a relationship with a person of the opposite sex. Then that person decided they were transitioning to the opposite gender. Naturally, this presented a choice to my acquaintance. Was the person more than their gender? Was the relationship more important than that change? Was my acquaintance willing to pursue the relationship even in the face of something so fundamental as a change in gender identity?
This seems like a fairly extreme example, but in reality, there are quite a few other things that can seem just as earthshaking to a relationship. For example, most people consider their party politics to be close to their core identity. If a friend changes parties, that may feel like a betrayal of very important principles. And of course religious views are another point of significant core identity. When some change occurs in one’s religious views, that may also feel like a betrayal, and in many ways more than just changes in political views.
This kind of situation – or more specifically how we respond to such a change – therefore reveals quite a bit about a relationship. It shows whether it’s a convenience or it’s important to us.
Why It Matters
What I’ve observed this past couple years is that a lot of relationships were shown to be matters of convenience, even when they seemed very deep and solid. In the presence of change, the relationships were abandoned. The ones who did not change showed they were unwilling to do the hard work of adapting to the change, and finding a new point of balance in the relationship.
The interesting thing about a change in some aspect of core identity is that it offers an unprecedented window into someone’s deepest self. It also shows that something is so important to them that they’re willing to risk this kind of relationship upheaval that always comes with such significant changes.
For this reason, I find it rather curious that most of us tend to simply abandon a relationship in these cases. It’s exactly the time and the opportunity to deepen the relationship in ways that are otherwise quite inaccessible to ordinary life. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – quite the opposite – but it stands to produce amazing fruit.
And that fruit is not just in the relationship. Such upheaval exposes us, as well, and shows us ways in which we judge others and are unloving. I believe such opportunities are God-given, even when the other person seems to be making a change away from God.
Why It’s Hard
Perhaps that’s why we shy away from taking those opportunities. We cannot hide ourselves and continue a relationship when our friend is willing to expose their core identity. We cannot hold onto prejudices and biases and hatred when our friend is the one we would have to hate, so we must choose to abandon the hate. In choosing to love them, we’re also offered the opportunity to see God’s love for others with the same characteristics.
And more than that, these situations offer us the chance to discover that perhaps our biases and prejudices are wrong. I believe that the Lord presents us with people that He loves and of whom He approves in order to show us that sometimes our dearly held beliefs are incorrect. If our friend, who we have always believed to be a wise and thoughtful and careful individual, has changed their perspective or even their core identity, it really ought to challenge us to inquire why that intelligent person was willing to make such a fundamental shift.
The easy answer would be to say “Oh, they’re deceived now.”
The hard answer would be to say “Oh, maybe they’re on to something that I cannot see yet.”
But all too often, our response is to just walk away from the relationship, rather than doing the hard work.
So this is personal for me. In addition to watching my acquaintance deal with their friend’s change, I’ve been through some pretty extreme changes in my own core belief structures, and I’ve observed the response of many people I thought were close to me.
For one thing, I’m looking at my side of the change – will I continue to pursue people with whom I now disagree in doctrine or politics? Are those relationships more important to me than having a totally shared value system?
And for another thing, I’ve found that extremely few people with whom I thought I had a long-standing, solid relationship have been willing to go on this journey with me. To all appearances, they have abandoned our relationship, not once reaching out for continued connection, and definitely not inquiring as to why my change occurred, or what they might learn from it.
That feels really strange. They formerly seemed to trust my insights, and wanted to learn from me. But now that some aspect of my belief system disagrees with them, my learning and growth and insights are no longer valuable?
My Atheist Friend
Not long ago, I discovered that a close friend of mine, with whom I’d had some intriguing religious discussions and spent quite a few hours in deep conversations, was an atheist, and had in fact walked away from his Christian faith some years before. While it didn’t feel like a change to him, discovering this about him felt like a significant change to me. As a life-long Christian, remaining in a close relationship with someone who explicitly rejects things to which I’m firmly committed felt risky.
But I’ve discovered that this person has been vital to my ongoing relationship with the Lord. His views challenge me every week. His questions demand that I understand my Lord and Savior and my doctrine and my understanding of holy Scripture. His insights about how Christians handle their faith routinely expose weaknesses in both my faith and actions, and those of the Church at large.
And I’m not trying to change him, and he’s not trying to change me. We continue to actively pursue our relationship because we both value it, and because we both learn from it. I’d hope that someday my love for and walk with the Lord would convince my friend that he’s missing out on something important. But I guarantee that preaching at him wouldn’t help that process. He already intellectually knows all these things – we’ve spent many hours talking about them. What he needs is my friendship – and I need his too. I simply trust the Father to know and love him better than me.
And such it should be with my other friends. As they watch me change, they have the opportunity to continue our relationship, and perhaps to learn something from the Lord as they understand me better.
Perhaps what is most intriguing to me, through this season of personal change, is that I’ve discovered it’s opened me up to loving others more deeply and richly and freely than I ever thought possible. All my self protection, avoiding those with whom I found doctrinal or political disagreements, was harming me and preventing me from learning more about the God that I love and honor. Every time I chose to love someone despite our marked differences, I believe I’ve become more like Jesus.
A Call to Action
This global and national season of change has been full of these opportunities. Social difficulty exposes many things, and causes many changes, and is a catalyst for this kind of upheaval in relationships. My challenge to you is this: pursue relationships, and hold onto them like they’re that goop in a glue trap that you just can’t get off your skin. Even when there’s extreme discomfort, hold on. Find out everything you can about the person. Why did they change? What in their history led to this? What in their present triggered a difference? Is the Lord in it, even though it’s unfamiliar to you? Don’t settle. Don’t abandon. Dig deep.
And most of all, cultivate an attitude of repentance: give the Lord your “yes” to be changed, and invite Him to show you what ways and beliefs in you are unhealthy. As the Psalmist ended Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the way everlasting.” Be willing to recognize that the very best catalyst for this testing is our friend, even when it hurts. Proverbs 27:6 says “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”
A Personal Appeal
And if you feel like I’m writing this to you personally, then you’re absolutely right. I am. I want to resume our relationship. Call me. Let’s do lunch and find out what God has for both of us.