What is the most significant predictor of health, happiness, and longevity? Is it diet, exercise, social class, I.Q., 401K, or quality of relationships?
According to one of the longest research projects in the history of research projects it is the quality of your closest relationships!
The official name of this research project is The Harvard Study of Adult Development based on eight decades of research going back to 1938. Current Director Robert Waldinger, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, gave a TED Talk in 2015, What Makes a Good Life: Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness, viewed by over 100 million people. The conclusion in a nutshell, is that “the most significant predictor of your health, happiness, and longevity … is the quality of your closest relationships.” Not necessarily that you have a lot of friends but rather that you have quality relationships with those closest to you.
Not just Harvard research, but more importantly Scripture suggests that the quality of our relationships powerfully influences the quality of our lives. If I were to try and summarize the biblical prescription for quality relationships in a word, it would be “love.”
Notice the priority Scripture gives to love.
“Love the Lord our God…love your neighbor…there is no commandment greater than this…”
Jesus – Mark 12:30-31
“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word…you shall love your neighbor as yourself”
Paul – Galatians 5:14
“Let all that you do be done in love.
Paul – I Corinthians 16:14
“A new commandment (the 11th commandment, if you will) I give you, that you love one another.”
John – John 13:34-35
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
John – 15:12, 17
“For this is the message you have heard from the beginning that you should love one another.”
John – John 3:11
“…love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again.”
Peter – I Peter 1:23
This emphasis on love is everywhere in Scripture. It is not only primary but pervasive. It is our central relationship responsibility. Now you might be saying, “All right all ready, I got it, love one another,” but what does that really look like in practical terms?
Think of the command to love one another as the mother command, from which dozens of other interpersonal commands will be birthed. They are sometimes called “mutuality commands” or more popularly the “one another commandments.”
The New Testament uses a recurring word pattern, an action verb followed by the words one another. The action verb translates love into action. For example:
- Bear one another’s burdens -Galatians 6:12
- Comfort one another – 1 Thessalonians 4:18
- Encourage one another – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
- Speak truth to one another – Ephesians 4:23
- Care for one another – 1 Corinthians 12:25
- Be hospitable to one another – 1 Peter 4:9
- Pray for one another – James 5:16
- Serve one another – Galatians 5:13
- Clothe yourself in humility toward one another – 1 Peter 5:5
The one another commands (referenced over 50 times in the New Testament) flesh out what it looks like to love one another in practical terms. Think of a beam of light being dispersed through a prism.
The various colors represent the range of expressions and applications of how God’s love manifests itself in building quality relationships. Isn’t it interesting that the Scriptural emphasis on quality relationships now has science based evidence of its positive impact on health, happiness and longevity.
Now, notice another interesting pattern. Several of the “one another” statements follow a pattern of command and comparison. For example:
Command: Love one another
Comparison: as I have loved you
Command: Accept one another
Comparison: as I have accepted you
Command: Forgive one another
Comparison: as I have forgiven you
When we step back and reflect on these commands, we see that love means to relate to others the way the God of love has related to us.
God loves us, so we love others.
God accepts us, so we accept others.
God forgives us, so we forgive others.
Our vertical relationship with God, informs and shapes our horizontal relationships with one another.
If you think about these different applications of how love expresses itself you’ll see another pattern. They are all self-giving and other-centered, which is one of my favorite ways to define the biblical notion of love.
“God so loved that he gave his only Son…”
Think of the two central symbols of the Christian faith – the cradle and the cross. The former points to the incarnation and the latter points to the crucifixion. Both are expressions of self-giving and other-centeredness.
What is our most fundamental human problem? Sin! We are turned inward on self. What is the genius of Christianity? It breaks the gravitational pull inward and pulls us upward toward God and outward toward others. We become increasingly self-giving and other centered!
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In other words, when the church, in all its diversity (Black, White, Asian, Latino, rich, poor, middle class, etc.) – is seen caring for one another, serving one another, bearing one another’s burdens, encouraging one another, speaking truth to one another, stirring up one another to love and good deeds – the world will sit up and take notice. Why? Because self-giving, other-centeredness is so counter cultural! As someone well said, “One of the most evangelistic things the church can do is to be the church!”
Think of some of the major metaphors for the church (e.g., light of the world, salt of the earth, stars shining in a dark place). The church was to be a prototype of the coming Kingdom, a contrasting society within the dominant culture, a colony of heaven on earth.
Francis Schaeffer, theologian, philosopher, pastor, author of twenty-two books (many on apologetics) was probably best known for his thoughtful, well-reasoned arguments for the Christian faith. He coined the phrase, “The Final Apologetic”, (the title of his last book) in which he argued that the most compelling argument for Christian faith is the observable, practical love that true Christians have for each other.
He also lamented the fact that “the final apologetic” is often the absent apologetic! But as we follow Jesus in discipleship our love becomes a powerful magnet. Consider these prophetic words from Elton Trueblood:
One of the truly shocking passages of the gospel is that in which Jesus indicates that there is absolutely no substitute for a tiny, loving, caring, reconciling society. If it fails, he suggests, all is failure; there is no other way. He told the little bedraggled fellowship that they were actually the salt of the earth and that if this salt should fail there would be no adequate preservative at all. He was staking all on one throw…One of the most powerful ways of turning people’s loyalty to Christ is by loving others with the great love of God…If there should emerge in our day such a fellowship, wholly without artificiality and free from the dead hand of the past, it would be an exciting event of momentous importance. A society of genuine loving friends, set free from the self-seeking struggle for personal prestige and from all unreality, would be something unutterably priceless and powerful. A wise person would travel any distance to join it. 1
As a pastor, my church is approaching its 25 year anniversary. Clearly some of the most significant and impactful stories in our history have been when the storms of life hit individuals or families and they experience first-hand the power of “the one another’s” from our congregation. On many occasions, after a period of healing and recovery, individuals celebrate how they experienced the practical love of their small group or serving team, and the impact it made on their friends and family.
To sum up, our primary relational responsibility as Christ followers is to “love one another.” The example we are called to follow is to relate to others the way God has related to us. And our objective is to bear witness to the watching world that the Kingdom of God has come and invite them to join us.
Let me close this column by reminding you of Paul’s prayer for the church at Philippi. Let it be our prayer as well.
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best…having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
 James R. Newby, The Best of Elton Trueblood, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1979, page 26
This post originally appeared at: Cultivating Quality Relationships — The Bonhoeffer Project