Transforming 7: Transforming Our Social Dimension

For those of you who are hockey fans, or have a hockey fan in your house, know that the NHL season has begun. It is that time of year when fans of a lot of teams are looking forward to the future with hopeful anticipation because they want to see their team win the Stanley Cup. That is what every hockey player in the NHL plays for. It is what every kid playing shinny on an outdoor patch of ice dreams of. And if you have watched a team win a Stanley Cup, then you know how the team celebrations happen after the last game is over. Gary Bettman comes out onto the ice to a chorus of boos from the crowd. He congratulates the losing and winning teams. And then he presents the Stanley Cup to the team captain who triumphantly lifts it over his head as the crowd cheers. And then what does he do? He gives the Cup to another member of the team, usually it is someone who has been playing hockey for a long time and never had a chance to lift the Cup before. And then was does that person do? He passes the Cup to another member of the team, and so on, and so on, until everyone, even the trainers, get to lift that Cup up over their heads. Why do they do that? It is because no one never, never, ever, ever, ever won a Stanley Cup all by themselves.  Hockey is a team sport, and we know that. And in a team sports, the victories of a team are shared with all the members of the team.

You may not have thought of things in this way before, but life is also a team sport. Each of us has a web of relationships that we both need and are a big part of our life. But what does it look like to win in our relationships? Does that mean that we get what we want? What does God want for our relationships? Since he created human beings, perhaps he has some ideas about what good relationships should look like. And how can our social context be transformed to be a win for God, for others and for us? That’s what we are going to be thinking about today, and the Bible verse that will be guiding our reflections is 1 John 3:16: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3:16) I also want to acknowledge that a major source of the content in this message and this series is from a book by Dallas Willard titled Renovation of the Heart.

Our Social Context Needs to be Transformed

We all need to be connected to and supported by others. We need others to be “for” us. When have a relationship circle where people are for us in the way that we need them to be, we can say that a circle of sufficiency has formed. We call it a circle because it might contain two or more people in relationship with each other. We say that the circle is sufficient because, in it, we receive something that we really need. The first and, we could say, most important Circle of Sufficiency is the relationship between a mother and a child. Other kinds of Circles of Sufficiency are a family, young lovers, or mature mates.

Each Circle of Sufficiency is supported by a larger Circle. The mother and child circle will need the support of the larger family. The extended family circle will need a supportive community, and so on. These layers of supportive Circles continue to expand until they encircle the globe. Therefore, we can say that all human beings are interdependent. The togetherness of a mother and child in Canada can be drastically affected by events on the other side of the world. Imagine having relatives who caught in the conflict in Ukraine, or devastated by the floods in Pakistan. Those things have the power to impact close personal relationships here.

Ultimately, every human relationship circle will break down unless it is supported by the ultimate Circle of Sufficiency, the divine community of self-giving, unconditional love that exists, and has always existed between God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is because broken and flawed human beings can only form broken and flawed relationships. Because our relationship circles are broken, the opposite of being for someone, which is rejecting them, creeps into our circles.  This rejection causes wounds, and the deeper and more intimate the relationship, like the parent-child or husband-wife relationships, the deeper and more enduring the wound. Our relational wounds can be buried so deep within us that we may not even be aware of their presence, or we don’t have words to describe the wound if we are aware of it.

That woundedness results in two sin poisons being injected into our relationships. Those sin poisons are assault (or attack) and withdrawal (or distancing). The sin poisons of assault and withdrawal are so common in human relationships in our world today that we think that are normal. But they certainly are not what God intended to be normal in human relationships. For our lives to be spiritually formed by Jesus Christ, the power of these two sin toxins must be broken, purged from our soul and eliminated, as far as it is possible in this life, from our relationships.

Dallas Willard defines assault as when we act against what is good for others, even when we do it with their consent. The second table of the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s teachings in Colossians, chapter 3-4 and 1 Corinthians 13 all show us what acting for, or against, the good of others looks like.

Withdrawal is a little different, but just as toxic. We withdraw from someone when we consider their goodness and well-being to be of no concern to us. We may even despise them. Withdrawal and assault apply primarily to those closest to us. We cannot be all things to all people everywhere. Assault and withdrawal are very similar—we always withdraw from those we assault and sometimes our withdrawal in intended to be an assault on the other person—but there is slight difference between assault and withdrawal which, as we will see later, helps us to diagnose the form of lovelessness that is causing each.

God Can Do It With His Love

Spiritual formation always has an impact on our relationships. When God is transforming our lives, our relationships with others will also be changed. One’s relationship with God impacts who they are and that, in turn, impacts their relationships. And one’s relationships with others impacts who they are and their relationship with God. So our relationships need to be transformed if we am going to be transformed.

            The goal in spiritual formation is for us to love others as Jesus loved us. He tells us, as recorded in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) The command to love others was around long before Jesus walked around on this earth. But what made Jesus’ command new was the kind of love he called us to have for others: the same kind of love that he has for us. And the stakes are high. Failure to love chokes off the supply of life that God is trying to pour into our lives. In 1 John 3:14, the apostle John writes, “…Anyone who does not love remains in death. (1 John 3:14) Note that John does not say, “Anyone who hates remains in death,” though that is also true. He says, “Anyone who does not love remains in death.”

            While the command to love others as Jesus loved us may seem daunting, that it only the case when we try to do it on our own. It is impossible for us to conjure up such love on our own. We cannot do it, and Jesus is not asking us to try. We must first receive the agape, the choosing, self-giving, sacrificial love, that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have for us. They become for us our unshakeable Circle of Sufficiency. Then we share God’s agape love in our other Circles of Sufficiency. It is important to note that the love that Jesus calls us to have is not a feeling. Dallas Willard defines it as a “…divine way of relating to others and oneself that moves through every dimension of our being and restructure the world for good.” God is able to give us the love that we and others need, not only because he loves us, which he does, but because he is love. God exists as three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who have existed eternally in what is called the perichoresis, the divine dance of love. Throughout all eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit have been loving each other with unconditional, choosing, self-giving love. And note that though the three persons are not the same as each other, the unconditional love that they have for each other means there is no room for hierarchy or subordination. No person in the Trinity is above the other two. No person in the Trinity is below the other two. Unconditional love creates a level playing field where all are considered equal.

Through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, God the Father is inviting us to live in this love that lifts us and others up, and then and let his love flow through us out into the world around us. God is for us, and his ideal is for humanity to be living in community where people are solidly for each other as they live under God’s leadership and with his love.

Would you like to guess where these communities of love are supposed to exist on earth? In the Christian church. And here we need to make a distinction between the visible and the invisible church. The visible church is all the churches that we see in the world around us. The invisible church can only be seen by God, and it consists of all the people everywhere who have been enabled by the Holy Spirit to trust in Jesus.

With faith in Jesus, our connection to him becomes our primary Circle of Sufficiency. Through the perfect life he lived, the horrible death he died on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead on the third day that followed, Jesus shows us that God loves us and is for us. Jesus sacrificed himself to remove the sin that would otherwise separate us from God. He has given us a new life where we have the same status in God’s family that he has, a beloved child of God. And our new life with God will last forever.

Right now, in part one of our life with God, we are learning to rely on the fullness of God’s love through faith and share it with others. God’s love is what heals the wounds in our heart. God’s love helps us to see the importance of connecting with others. God’s love is enables us to love others and be for others with God’s unconditional love. As we begin to see God’s love flow through us to others we begin to realize that we are participating in his plan to redeem and restore all things through his love. God’s love is made complete when it flows through us to others, and through others to us. That is how our wounds are healed.

The Wholeness We Have in Jesus is the Key

So how do we make this happen? We need to start by identifying and understanding what we are doing wrong in our relationships. Are we assaulting others? Assault is the first kind of relationship poison to arise in the development of a child. It happens when there is a conflict of wills. We want what the other person has, or we want them to do what we want them to do, and things are not working out like we want. We become angry with the other person, and that anger sets the foundation for what happens next. It can lead to lasting feelings of resentment or contempt in the relationship. Out of these feelings come actions like lying, theft, adultery, murder or engrained covetousness, all of which are forms of assault. An often overlooked, but equally harmful form of assault, happens through our words. We need to really watch what we say because our words can cause wounds that are deeper and more enduring than those caused by a physical blow. Spiritual formation in Christ means becoming a person who would not even consider assaulting someone we are in relationship with because that is not who we are. Only God’s love and forgiveness will help us do that.  

     Withdrawal is similar to assault in that it is a lack of love, but it has a different root, and so it needs a different kind of healing. Withdrawal happens because of a weakness, fear or uncertainty within us, or because of a concern about how we may look to others. In my own life, I find that I tend to withdraw because of fear that others may hurt me, and I want to protect against that happening. It is a self-centered fear because I have no appreciation for what my withdrawal is doing to the person who I am in a relationship with. Just as with assault, words can play a large role in withdrawal as we poison our relationships by not speaking. We may not intend to hurt others with our silence, but it always does. Only a full awareness of God’s agape love and power can prevent or heal our wounds of withdrawal.

     Once we identify the toxins of assault and withdrawal in our relational life and apply the healing power of God’s love to the wounds at the root of them, we then, with God’s help, replace them with blessing and goodwill. The social area of our lives was always meant by God to be an area of blessing, where we regard others with goodwill and respect, and we are always ready to help them in suitable ways. Our churches are where we can learn how to do this so that we can practice it in the rest of our lives wherever we go.

     For those of us who are married, that’s where the purging of the relational toxins of assault and withdrawal, so they can be replaced with blessing and goodwill needs to begin. For strong, healthy, loving marriage relationships are the foundation of human society. And that is how God planned things to be. When a husband and wife love each with mutual submission in awe of the love that Jesus has for both of them, there is no room for assault or withdrawal in their relationship. They are then able to create a safe, nurturing, nourishing environment for a child, if they are able to conceive one. The first safe, nurturing, nourishing environment for the child is his or her mother’s womb. After birth, the safe, nurturing environment becomes the home and the father joins with the mother in making this happen. The love that the husband and wife have for each other now means that they support each other so that each can fulfill their role as parent and spouse.

     This is totally antithetical to marriage as it is often understood in our world today. We think that marriage is supposed to fulfill us and help us meet our goals in life. We know that we need to give in a marriage, but we think that we give in order to get. But that is not marriage works. It is no wonder that our divorce rate is so high and we have so many problems in our world. In the most intimate and foundational of all human relationships, marriage, we don’t know how to love one another. Because husbands and wives don’t know how to love one another well, children are neglected or abused, withdrawal and assault become common, and our children harden themselves and grow up to become adults who wound the next generation of children. Our world’s only approach is to apply human solutions of education, diversity or tolerance, but these will never work. At best, they will create a stable social context within which people will shrivel and die. This is because the deep roots of the problems we face are not ignorance, prejudice or intolerance. To address the social problems we face in the world, we need to address the deeper issue of how men and women relate to each other. If that relationship is wrong, then all who come through it will be wounded, and they will be further damaged by all the wounded people that surround them.

     There are no human solutions to the problems we face in this world. We must rely on the transcendent power and love of Jesus Christ to help heal our wounds and drain the assault and the withdrawal, and attack and the coldness, from the individual women and men who form families under the ministry of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. From this beachhead in the family home, established and supported by the church of Jesus Christ, God will break the deadly hold of withdrawal and assault and heal the social aspect of our lives.

     There are four major elements to redeemed relationships. First, we need to see ourselves as whole, which is how God sees us, and with this vision of ourselves, we are able to see ourselves as blessed by God no matter what happens. This whole life is really real, but we can only see it now with the eyes of faith. As we read in Colossians 3:3-4, For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3:3-4)

     The second step is to abandon all defensiveness. This means abandoning all our practices of self-justification, deceit, evasiveness, and manipulation. We stop hiding and quit all our strategies for making ourselves look good. We take off the masks that we tend to wear around others, and we become willing to be known for who we really are. We are only able to do this because we know that the person who we really are is unconditionally loved by God.

     The third step is for genuine love to predominate in our gatherings with fellow followers of Jesus. God tells us what this looks like Romans 12:9-21, which starts off by saying, Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:9-10) Imagine what could happen in a church where people are devoted to one another in love.

     The fourth step is to open up our relationships with people outside the church to become places where God’s healing happens. When we no longer need to defend, justify or promote ourselves, because we know that God loves us and is for us, we are then free to devote our lives to serving others. All these things we can only do with the help of God. As we live in his love and upholding care, we freely share what we have been given with others.

Love Distorts Itself for the Sake of the Other

Dr. Richard Selzer operated on a young woman to remove a tumor in her cheek. In order to fully remove the tumor, he had to cut a facial nerve. As a result, when the woman awoke after the surgery, her face was twisted and malformed. After viewing her face in a mirror, she asked Dr. Selzer, “Will my mouth always be like this?” He replied, “Yes, it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” The woman nodded and fell silent.

            Her husband, who was in the room, smiled and said, “I like it. It is kind of cute.” And then he bent down to kiss his wife. Dr. Selzer is close enough to see that he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, so that he can show her that their kiss still works.[i]

This is what love does. The lover bends themselves out of shape in order to accommodate the shape of the one they love. It is what Jesus has done for you, and we see that most clearly in the cross. For there, Jesus the twisted, broken shape of humanity upon himself to give us his loving kiss of forgiveness and life that heals all the relational wounds we have experienced in life. You cannot do anything about the toxins other people are pouring into your relationship with them. You cannot do anything about the wounds in other people’s souls. You can only do something about what is going on in your soul.

            So the challenge that I am setting before you today is to embrace the wholeness you have in Jesus, then share his love with others. And remember, the victories of a team are shared with all the members of the team.That is what Jesus has done for us. Amen.

[i] Richard Selzer, M.D., Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, 1978, pp 45-6 found at “Love,” Sermon Illustrations (Internet; available at:; accessed on November 10, 2022).

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(This blog post is similar to, but not exactly the same as, the sermon given at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on November 13, 2022. For more info about WGLC, please go to

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