I was the new kid, knowing no one and no one knowing me. Having just moved in from out of state, trying out for the football team as a high-school freshman was my uncharacteristically bold way of seeking connections. But half-way through the first day, I realized it wasn’t working. Everyone could see by my clumsy movements that I had never played this game before. I was an athletic pariah. No one dared risk expending social capital to get to know someone who would not increase their chances for success on the team.
At the end of the long day, I dragged myself toward the locker room with quitting on my mind. “Hey, I think you’ll do all right,” a voice said behind me. I turned to see the player I had from the beginning of the day identified as the overall star of the team. He slapped me on my shoulder pads. And with that heavy thud, my life changed.
Kelley ended up becoming my best friend through our high-school years. His extroverted popularity covered my shy awkwardness in ways I had never before experienced. We went on to room together at college (he continued his success as a football player) and were the “best men” in each other’s weddings (I finally beat him in finding a wife sooner). We were the first ones at the hospital when each of our daughters were born within a few weeks of each other (both, little beauties). To this day, decades later, though we live in different states and stay connected with phone calls and visits whenever possible, I still consider him my best friend.
Years after that first day of practice I asked him why he, with such rich social and athletic clout, reached out to me, an unknown nobody. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I just felt my heart go out to you.”
That was it.
Why do we choose the relationships we do?
It’s no secret that many use relationships as stepping stones to help get what they want. It’s not unusual for someone to let a “friendship” wither once it’s no longer useful or convenient. And for most of us, the thought of initiating a relationship that shows no potential for personal benefit doesn’t even enter our minds. There are natural subconscious blocks against that. Whether I consciously acknowledge it or not, relationships are most often evaluated on “what they can do for me.” Energy, effort and commitment to others are meted out as I can envision what the return will be on my investment. Granted, sometimes wisdom requires me to trim my social interactions when I get overextended or a relationship becomes unhealthy. But what standard do I use for such pruning?
The Bible has much to say about how we do relationships. Of course, its message is best summed up in one word: LOVE. 1 Corinthians 13 gives us specifics, like being patient, kind, not envying, not boasting, and banishing pride. Yet, biblical instruction for how or what reason we are to initiate relationships is given with a bit more nuance. We are told to be wise: “The righteous choose their friends carefully. . .” (Proverbs 12:26, NIV). And “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’” (1 Corinthians 15:33, NIV). These and other passages give the general idea that if you expose yourself to the right people regularly, goodness and favor are likely to pass on to you, making your life better. Makes sense. So, the Bible is saying we should initiate friendships with those we perceive will help us get ahead in life, right? Kind of, but not exactly.
An Illogical Choice
The Old Testament story of Ruth provides an interesting counterbalance to all the relationship pragmatism we find in the Proverbs and other verses. As a Moabite, Ruth married a young Jewish man who had immigrated to her country with his family from Israel during a famine. Extreme hardship hit when her husband died along with her father-in-law and her husband’s brother. She was left very vulnerable with two other widows—her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, Naomi.
In ancient male-dominated cultures (as in some modern ones), widowhood left a woman with very few options. She could return to her parents and hope to marry again. She could beg for her livelihood. Or she could prostitute herself. Few women had marketable skills to be independent of a man’s care, and it would have likely been frowned upon anyway. Ruth watched as her sister-in-law chose to return to her original family. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, then urged Ruth to do the same while she would go back to Israel and live the life of a beggar. Her age would keep her from remarrying and her piety made prostitution unthinkable.
When Naomi told Ruth to return to her own people, the young woman made a decision that is the more remarkable when all the ancient cultural norms are considered. “But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!’” (Ruth 1:16-17, NLT).
No logical reason is given for why Ruth renounced her own nation, religion, and family to join herself with a poor, widowed, and elderly foreigner. She surrendered herself to a lifestyle of begging for the sake of a relationship that somehow stirred something in her heart. It’s obvious that she followed guidance other than what her culture or, likely, even her family had taught her. The motivation for her decision was a mystery to everyone, perhaps even herself.
This story has been loved for countless generations because of how it ends. After arriving in Israel, Ruth was noticed and pursued by an honorable landowner, Boaz, whom she ended up marrying. A sweet love story. But it’s at the very end we’re told that one of her grandsons was named Jesse. And Jesse became the father of David, the greatest king in Israel’s history! Additionally, fast-forwarding to the New Testament, Ruth is one of a tiny handful of women who was listed in the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1:5-6). What a destiny this poor foreigner ended up being given!
A Lesson from Ruth?
The only reason we know anything about this woman today is because she pursued a relationship that made no sense. Somehow, Ruth knew that goodness in her future would not be laid hold of by evaluating her relationships according to what they could do for her. She covenanted with a penniless widow for better or for worse. We can see now that she was responding to God’s promptings.
As the scriptures instruct, we must use wisdom in choosing who we’re going to let influence us as friends. But as the story of Ruth shows us, we must also change our myopic, self-serving perspective. God seems to delight in guiding His children into their futures, through committed covenantal relationships. They don’t always make sense to us or those around us. Who might be that individual or group in your life right now, perhaps easy to overlook or discount, whom God would have you give more of yourself to?
I didn’t realize it when I first met him, but my friend, Kelley, was spiritually hungry. Our high-school relationship ended up being a pathway for this accomplished athlete to encounter God. I am so grateful that he initiated a friendship with me. But, like Ruth, he was responding to a stirring in his heart. It was only a few weeks later that he showed up at the church my dad pastored and heard the Gospel of Jesus for the first time. Today, he pastors a church he and his wife planted more than 20 years ago.
God works and guides through relationships. Your God-designed destiny awaits you, not through more intensive planning or tighter control. It’s not an issue of being more rational, but more relational. You just have to let Him guide your heart in how you connect with people, and then trust Him when it doesn’t make sense—all the way to the end.