The good life is all about good relationships. Our most serious problems and our greatest accomplishments involve relationships. Studies have repeatedly shown that good relationships contribute more to happiness than success, and bad relationships contribute more to unhappiness than failure.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the lives of 724 men for 75 years. The study director, Robert Waldinger, summarized its findings this way: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
One of Western society’s principal myths envisions the good life waiting at the end of a career path. But the good life is found in healthy and appropriate relationships with those who share the path with us, not at its end. People who sacrifice good relationships for money or career unwittingly pull the rug out from under their own contentment.
The word the Christian tradition uses to denote healthy and appropriate relationships is “righteousness.” The noun and its cognates appear over a thousand times in the Bible. Being righteous was a chief concern of both Jews and Christians.
Unfortunately, many people thought that righteousness was about keeping rules rather than living in right relationships. The Pharisees, who were contemporaries of Jesus, are a case in point. Their experts had composed 39 separate categories of rules just to govern Sabbath Day conduct. Every poor Pharisee had thousands of rules to try to remember and keep.
One rule, for example, prohibited a person from carrying “a burden” on the Sabbath. That seems straightforward enough. But not so fast. What constitutes a burden? To answer that question, religious scholars composed endless lists of proscribed burdens. A burden was food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet — and on and on.
If memorizing lists like these is what it takes to be “righteous,” the only righteous people will be nit-picking, fastidious cranks. But the righteous people of the Bible, including Abraham, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, and especially Jesus, were anything but nit-picking cranks.
Fastidious rule-keeping is not righteousness. A person does not cross the “righteousness boundary” because he or she has achieved 75 percent of perfection on some official list of religious behaviors.
Righteousness is all about relationships. No one, not even God, can be righteous in isolation; it requires relationship. To be righteous is to be right in relationship; that is, to relate appropriately. An appropriate relationship will be different with a spouse than with a boss — it’s probably best not to kiss your boss hello and goodbye — and both will differ from an appropriate relationship with God.
Of course, many people feel like right and good relationships are no longer possible for them. Their relationship with spouse, child, parent, or co-worker has been so badly damaged that it seems beyond repair. So, they give up on good relationships and pursue money or success or endless distraction instead.
But it is never too late. No matter how strained a relationship is, one can always begin to relate appropriately. That won’t “fix” a damaged relationship, which may require years of rebuilding, but it will put it on different footing. Even if the other person rebuffs all communication, one can still act appropriately, given the situation. One can forgive or request forgiveness, pray for the other person, refuse to speak badly and instead speak well of him or her to others. In a badly damaged relationship, such actions might be what righteousness entails.
The good life is about good and healthy relationships, and good and healthy relationships begin in a right relationship with God, made possible through confidence in Jesus Christ. By its very nature, a relationship with God interacts with every other relationship we have, making it the perfect place to start. It gives a person room to stand, and the strength and insight necessary to begin new ways of relating to others.
Put simply: The good life is all about good relationships, and good relationships depend on a right relationship with God.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County (Mich.). Read more at shaynelooper.com.