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The Problem with Relationships: The X-Factor

It is only when I forget myself and devote myself to another’s fulfillment that I will find my own heart running over with grace and satisfaction.
This is one of the fundamental mysteries of life, and it is confirmed to us every day.
Those who try desperately to satisfy themselves are the ones who end up hollow inside.

Ray Stedman

A popular talent show seen in several countries is called The X-Factor. Each week, pop singers compete for the judge’s approval, and those that advance far enough are then mentored on how to develop their X-Factor—that something special that might make them a superstar.

So what is the X-Factor for Christ followers? Ephesians chapter four sums it up in four little words: “Submit to one another.” Given our culture’s love affair with itself, those four words probably invoke the same effect as holy water on a vampire. Some of that reaction is due to selfishness, and some is due to a misunderstanding of what it means to submit.

Submissiveness has nothing to do with greater worth or position before God. It also has nothing to do with being passive or weak. The X-Factor of the Christian life has everything to do with a willingness to live obediently before God so others can see Him at work in us. We must never forget that in every relationship of life, another person is present. It is not merely a problem of what I want versus what you want. In every relationship, we are reminded, a third Person is present – the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing makes a relationship work better than forgetting ourselves and others and simply looking to Christ!

A Crash Course in Relationships

The book of Ephesians is a primer on relationships, first with God and then with others. Too often we plunge ahead in our relationships with others without understanding the importance of our relationship with God. Before Paul even gets to “submit to one another” in chapter four, he lays the foundation for all relationships in chapters two and three.

God and Me (Ephesians 2:1-10) – Every believer in Christ has been given a new life and a new relationship with Him. That life and relationship are based on a grace that empowers and motivates us to serve God and others. This grace life begins internally and must always be nurtured there.

God and Others (Ephesians 2:11-22) – God broke down the barrier of sin that stands between all people. Because we are reconciled to God, we can now be reconciled to each other. As we relate properly to God He joins us together into a unified building.

Not long ago I had the pleasure of meeting Gloria. She is an Iraqi ex-patriot and refugee to the United States. Gloria was raised among Muslims as a Christian. She has experienced untold prejudice from both Arabs and Americans because she is like a person without a country: Christian, therefore distrusted by Muslims, and Iraqi, therefore distrusted by Americans. My son has fought and nearly died in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and I must be honest, distrust comes naturally. But Gloria and I are brother and sister. The grace life must extend to others, or chances are, it does not exist at all.

But Christians are different, right? (Ephesians 3:14-21) – The not-so-secret truth is that Christians can often be just as, if not more, self-centered as those who do not claim Christ. We all find ourselves, at times, gazing a little too long at ourselves and building monuments there. And we all have to be reminded along the way that we are looking in the wrong place.

When God’s love is not the motivating factor of life, relationships tend to become unstable. The power to relate to others rightly is found in the love God fills us with as we walk with Him! A study of agape love in Scripture reveals that true love is:

  • Self-Initiating – Love for the sake of loving, not because of worthiness of being loved.
  • Self-Giving – Love to satisfy another, not one’s self.
  • Self-Activating – Love that is defined by action more than words.

Relationships at the Intersection

A good exercise would be to read Ephesians 4:1-5:20 and make a list of qualities, attitudes, and actions that Paul says are changed by our relationship to God. That passage begins by calling on us to walk worthy of our calling. In a nutshell, the apostle is telling us the logical conclusion for someone who knows the grace of God is to live his or her life in a gracious manner.

Grace produces qualities such as humility, gentleness, and patience.  Even though God places these things in our hearts, we still have to be careful to maintain the unity these produce (Ephesians 4:3). Unity cannot be assumed! It is something we must work to preserve.

A life of grace is radically different than the norm. It radically changes how we speak and act toward each other (Ephesians 4:25-32), who and what we associate with (5:6-12), what we give our lives to (5:15-20). Such a radical change within us must certainly cause a radical change around us (4:17-5:20).

The Conclusion

Nestled in the center of this section of Ephesians is one of the most difficult principles to master in all of Scripture. Ephesians 5:21 simply says, “Submit to one another,” but what does that mean? The word “submit” is translated from the Greek and means “to place one’s self under another.” It was a military term used of troops taking the place assigned to them so the army as a unit could function most effectively. As followers of Christ, this means we are to place others before ourselves as we trust Christ to take care of us.

It is important to note that some abuse submission to mean what God does not. Remember, we are told to submit to each other. This is not a matter of greater and lesser, but rather placing self secondary to God and what He wants us to do and be in His Body. Submissiveness has nothing to do with greater worth or position before God. It has everything to do with a willingness to live obediently before God so others can see Him at work in us.

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