I teach a class on marriage and family. Recently we explored different theoretical models for understanding relationships within families and how individual family members connect to one another. One of the models we discussed is called “Social Exchange Theory.” The theory generally states relationships within a family are based on a conscious (And sometimes unconscious) analysis of the costs and benefits of remaining in them. To explain this further, it’s as if you ask yourself, “What’s the least amount of time I have to spend with my wife (or husband) to ensure I get the support and affection I want from the relationship?” You could translate that into other family relationships as well. A mother might ask herself, “What’s the least amount of affection I need to show my children to make sure they behave the way I want them to behave?” Again, the theory doesn’t state we have to explicitly think this way, only that in either a conscious or unconscious way this is continually playing out in our minds.
Unfortunately, as ugly as it sounds, sometimes this is exactly how we view our family relationships. I don’t think it defines everything about relationships but because we’re fallen broken human beings, we often think about ourselves first and then consider how much of “our self” we need to give up to continue in a relationship that benefits us. This model assumes most of us are self-interested and too often we prove that assumption to be true. When we fell from God’s grace, our “self focus” became the lens in which we view all of reality, including our relationships with one another.
Yet, here is the paradox. The more of ourselves we keep from one another the more isolated and “unrelated” we become. This is most evident when we consider Christian spirituality. We are created for relationships, thrive when we give and receive love, and it’s when we encounter other people and invest ourselves in their lives that our lives become most fulfilled. The Christian religion isn’t a religion of isolated hermits sitting on mountains gazing at their bellies to discover who they are. Christian spirituality is something poured out of oneself and offered for the benefit of others.
I remember when I first started praying the liturgy of the hours. This ancient spiritual practice of stopping what you are doing at certain points in the day to pray the psalms and meditate on scripture became a priority in my life. In fact, I would often step away from my family, friends, and other people to sit quietly and pray the hours. Normally this is a fine practice but a wise spiritual director listened to me describe how I often got frustrated when my wife and children interrupted me while performing this important spiritual work. He reminded me this practice, while admirable, needed stopped immediately because it was becoming a stumbling block to my spiritual progress. I was taken back by his comments, particularly because he knew as a Benedictine Oblate (A lay person who tries to live by the Rule of St. Benedict in the world, not in a monastery) I made promises to pray in this manner throughout the day. My spiritual director was wise. He reminded me if any spiritual discipline pulled me away from investing myself in the lives of others it’s not one that honors God. By making this spiritual practice more important than the relationships God placed in my life I wasn’t growing in grace but rather recoiling in self-absorption. Self-absorption forces us to “Count the cost” of the relationships to determine if they are worth continuing. I was indeed in a bad place.
What I learned from my spiritual director is that a solid Christian spirituality begins by being invested in relationships and doing so without counting the cost. We can’t do that on our own, it requires the grace of God to lift us from mere human love to reach the pinnacle of divine love, what scripture refers to as agape love. When the Christian realizes his choice to love God and others is a choice to selflessly pour his life out so others may thrive he’s at the starting point for beginning the spiritual life. Christianity is a faith that teaches one finds his life by losing it, and in losing it we rise from our losses to encounter God himself. So, if you think you’re spiritually mature because of the spiritual practices you perform but never seek ways to pour your life into the lives of others, think again. A Christian cannot thrive spiritually if he doesn’t love others unconditionally. Start your spiritual life by asking yourself every day how you can love others better. The more you love, the more God pours himself into you. After all if you empty yourself of “you” while connected to God, he will fill that space with his Holy Spirit and empower you to be a great force of love in a broken world.