When We Can’t Fix the Relationship: Hope for Hurting Hearts

Eight years ago, I lost a lifelong friend.

Both of us had been broken by seasons of suffering, and out of our pain we misunderstood and hurt each other. Both of us were also unquestionably for each other—full of love and forgiveness, eager to reconcile, intent on unity. However, after spending the better part of a year trying to work things out, seeking counsel, and watching my already fragile health crumble under the strain of it all—I knew I could do no more to affect the outcome I had desperately longed and prayed for. 

I’ve heard it said that “attachment pain” is some of the worst pain we humans experience, and I believe it. The loss of my forty-year friendship felt akin to a divorce or the death of a dear loved one—and left me with agonizing but unanswered questions. 

Doesn’t God want this kind of relationship restored?
How could it be right to give up a four-decade friendship centered on Jesus?!
What am I missing? There
has to be something else I can do or confess to fix this . . . God, show me!

Instead of giving me clarity or easy answers, God taught me to sit quietly in His presence, to trust Him with my confusion, and to embrace the humbling—knowing that “a broken and humbled heart,” which is pleasing to God (Psalm 51:17), becomes the soil where beautiful things grow. I knew I could entrust myself to Him. I could entrust my dear friend to Him too. 

Suffering Intensified

Trials are masters at exposing our frailties and proving how little we actually control in life—not only circumstantially, but even more so, relationally. When suffering strips us bare, we realize we cannot affect one iota of change in our friends, family, colleagues, or ministry partners. We can’t force anyone to understand the complexities of our difficult journey, and we certainly can’t control their thoughts or reactions toward us. 

Relational conflict is always difficult, but it can feel devastating when God has us in the furnace of affliction.This friend was the Shadrach to my Meshach! Yet this very friend (or family member, or ministry partner . . . ), for one reason or another, is unable to join us in the fire. In fact, they’ve intensified the heat of our hardship. The psalmist David understood this well when he wrote—

It is not an enemy who insults me—
otherwise I could bear it; 
it is not a foe who rises up against me—
otherwise I could hide from him. 
But it is you…
my companion and good friend! 
We used to have close fellowship . . . (Psalm 55:12–14) 

I’ve been on both sides of this painful equation. I’ve been the one to wound and the one to be wounded. And what I’ve observed over time is that with greater suffering comes greater potential for relational hurt. For example, if you stub your big toe, you don’t expect anyone to show up with words of comfort. But if you end up in a hospital bed, you’re more likely to feel wounded by the silence or insensitivity of a loved one.

Walking Wounded

How do we handle these hurts? What do we do when a dear one tramples over our tender places? And perhaps more importantly—what do we do when we ourselves are the tramplers? 

I’ve been immensely helped by remembering two things:

1. Relational wounds are an enviable invitation into deeper places with Christ. 

I get to feel what He felt, to suffer as He suffered, to know Him better.

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of suffering who knew what sickness was.
He was like someone people turned away from;
he was despised, and we didn’t value him. (Isaiah 53:3)

We don’t revel in our suffering like sadists. Rather, we “rejoice as [we] share in the sufferings of Christ so that [we] may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13). It’s the sharing with Christ that brings us great joy.He is the fulfillment of our hearts’ desires, He is our greatest good, and He is infinitely better than all our dearest relationships combined. This is why the psalmist wrote,

Who do I have in heaven but you?
And I desire nothing on earth but you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart,
my portion forever.

God’s presence is my good. (Psalm 73:25–26,28)

Not only do I know Christ better through being wounded, but I also know Him better when I am humbled over my own failings. Thomas Watson wrote,

Not that there is the least good in sin. [But] it is a good use that may be made even of our sins, when they occasion low thoughts of ourselves.1

Through being humbled again and again over my own sins, I’ve learned to bask in the beauty of the good news of Christ’s forgiveness and to heap grace on others because so much grace has been heaped on me!

Oh, how I relate with Amy Carmichael’s words to a friend—

God has forgiven me far more than I have ever forgiven you, so you see it is as one who has been forgiven much that I forgive you—not as one who never needs forgiveness. We love because He forgives us. Oh, let us more and more deeply love the Forgiving Saviour and more and more walk softly with Him…

Now all is forgotten, buried in the sea. . . . It is gone.2

2. What I “wear” really, really matters. 

It’s so easy to “wear” our loved one’s offenses or responses. I can tell I’m doing this when I try to justify myself to them or affect some kind of change in them, when I can’t pray for their blessing or turn off my inner monologue against them.

But when I clothe myself with Christ,I have everything I need to navigate the complex waters of hurtful relationships, even during times of suffering when my emotional boat is already at risk of capsizing. Left to my own devices, I will surely sink in my selfishness, resentment, envy, pettiness, and pride. But when I “put on Christ,” I experience supernatural “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, love and forgiveness” (Col. 3:12–14). I can defer my own needs and focus on theirs. I can remember I’m the bigger sinner in the relationship because I know the mess inside of me better than the mess inside of them.

In his sermon “Christ Put On,” C.H. Spurgeon said—

You are to put on the Lord Jesus as you put on your garment . . . He is to cover us from head to foot. We do not so much copy his humility, his gentleness, his love, his zeal, his prayerfulness, as himself. Endeavour to come into such communion with Jesus himself that his character is reproduced in you. Oh, to be wrapped about with himself: feeling, desiring, acting, as he felt, desired, and acted.4

As we “move and live and have our being” in Christ (Acts 17:28), we find grace to own our failings, to root out resentment, and to pursue peace and unity as far as we can (see Romans 12:18). We learn when to hold fast to a relationship and when to let it go. When to be silent and when to speak truth in love. We find freedom in humbling ourselves and in learning how to rejoice when we are misunderstood or even maligned (1 Pet. 4:14; Matt. 5:11). We are dressed in Christ’s perfect love, and that perfect love casts out the fear that often drives our relationships (1 John 4:18).

Beautiful Hope

One day soon our broken relationships will be joyfully restored in the presence of Jesus Himself. That hope should fill us with love for one another, even now before all things are made new. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), which causes me to stop right now to pray for myself and for you, dear reader:

God, help us understand how deep and high and long and wide Your love is. Clothe us with Yourself that we might love You with all our hearts and spend our lives loving one another! (Eph. 3:17–19; Matt. 22:36–40).

Are you suffering right now? Find hope in “God’s Faithfulness in Times of Trouble (Psalm 107)” on the Revive Our Hearts podcast, as Nancy unpacks Psalm 107, giving hope to anyone in distress, danger, or despondency. She’ll help you seek the Lord and be satisfied in Him even during times of trouble.

Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Gideon House, 2015).

Amy Carmichael, Candles in the Dark: Letters of Hope and Encouragement (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2012), 23.

Scriptures on being “clothed with Christ”: Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 3:9–14; Ephesians 4:24.

“Christ Put On,” The Spurgeon Center, February 23, 1890, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/christ-put-on/#flipbook/.

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