Have you ever seen one of those news reports showing how scientists will swab some common surfaces like a cell phone or door knob, and put the smears on a petri dish? Later the dish is full of disgusting bacteria. Recently, a friend and I were talking about the messiness of relationships, and he commented on how flawed each of us are and how we all are dealing with so many issues behind the scenes. In reply, I likened relationships (whether marital, friends, small groups, colleagues, or even church relationships) to petri dishes. In the dish of relationships the bacteria of our flaws, sins, wounds and contrasting characteristics often grow some pretty nasty bacteria.

We can tend to idealize relationships and think that it is normal to have smooth sailing, after all, “we are all professionals,” or “we are all Christians,” or “I’m married to a believer and we are so in love,” or, “families are supposed to get along.” But the reality is we all really are flawed, sinful, wounded, and self-focused—every one of us, even the redeemed. This means conflict, wounded feelings, misunderstandings and strains in relationships are guaranteed to occur. Such conflict is the rule more than the exception.

The thing about petri dishes is they are designed to grow bacteria. There is a plan and a purpose behind them. What grows there, even if infectious in the beginning, can end up bringing healing, life, and truth. God designed relationships for a similar purpose. While the Lord does not want us to be selfish or sinful with one another, He intended good to come out of the struggle. He designed the rough parts of relationship to have a positive result in the end.

When we rub against each other we sometimes get a bit raw. That is because some pokey, prickly thing in us has been exposed, or some old wound has been opened. God’s purpose in revealing these things is at least two-fold. One purpose is to get us to pay attention (pain has a tendency to do that) and to deal with the flaw, or sin, or wound exposed by the relational tension, and another purpose is to help us to grow in grace.

The first purpose reveals something about ourselves that can be humbling. Either we need to repent, or grow in something that we are lacking, to be willing to see someone else’s perspective, or to seek help to find healing from something that could be deep and festering. Friction in relationships can uncover places in us we never realized were laying just under the surface—characteristics, tendencies that don’t appear when everything is going smoothly. It has been said that it is when we are bumped that what is already in our cups splashes out. We may not even be aware of what we are carrying around—bitterness, or woundedness, or sinfulness, or ignorance, or insecurities…until we hit a relational bump…and SPLASH!

It can also expose that a distance has grown between us and the Spirit, a drift that has happened, through distraction or sin, that has drained us of His fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, self-control, goodness, faithfulness. When our reactions to the irritations of others show a glaring absence of these fruit, it is the Spirit’s wake up call to us to get back in step with Him.
We might not even be aware we’ve drifted if not for the petri dish exposure.

The second purpose is a valuable lesson about the unmerited favor God has given us, and which He expects us to extend to others. We so often misunderstand giving grace to others, thinking of it as basically giving someone a pass—a relational Mulligan. They may have established a fair amount of capital in our relationship bank, so the occasional withdraws through their offensive behavior can be absorbed. Even the best of friends, or spouse, or close colleague will often make withdraws that cause us to give them this form of grace. However, true grace, the kind God gives us, is unmerited. There is NO capital in our bank with God. ZERO. Rarely are we called upon to give that level of grace to others. In fact, we struggle to even give grace at the deep level God calls us to when faced with some forms of offense or wounding in these messy interpersonal situations. It is a true challenge for our spiritual development.

So we can see it is in this petri dish of relationship that God purposes us to realize our own flaws and hurts, and to grow in grace for others when they display their own. He designed them to alert us to our drifting and draw us back to dependence on Him. Therefore, rather than lashing out or fleeing, let’s look at these messy manifestations as God-ordained opportunities to learn and to grow with one another, and gratefully press on to take this on in His strength.

by Sheri Cook, Director of Special Ministries