Relationships are hard.

Cross-cultural, cross-gender, cross-generation, cross-anything relationships are even harder.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with these cross-anything, cross-everything relationships.  I don’t feel productive, useful, or like my time is spent efficiently.  I don’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Those frustrations have gotten the better of me one or twice.  Or three times.

It usually goes something like this:

We speaking the same language, but we’re not.  They don’t understand me.

We’re having lunch together, but the expectations about who will pay are not the same.  You’ve misunderstood my invitation.

We’re saying the same thing, but we can’t seem to agree.  There is a wall between us.

And on and on…

I’ll be honest – It can be infuriating.  And it’s easy, all too easy – frighteningly too easy – to let that frustration swell into an arrogance that is divisive and destructive.

It’s also all too easy to defend it.

Our culture in the States – especially in power hungry, Type A towns like the one I come from – tells me that appearance is important.  Efficiency is important.  Winning is important.  Success is key.  But more than that, there is a constant individualism that directs all of our behavior.  I call it… the culture of King Resume.

Think about it!  Think about the way you select a job.  You ask yourself questions like, “what skills will I gain, who will mentor me, how much money will I make, how will this job propel me to my next, better paying, well respected, more powerful position?”

It sounds harmless and it IS good to strive for achievement.  But to what end?  For what end?

When my value of success is compromised because I am living in a country where I can’t communicate and there are cultural barriers and gender barriers and all kinds of other barriers that make it hard to live up to our Western standards of success, I fight back – because how am I supposed to now justify my time?  What will define my existence here?

That’s just it – we’re always justifying our existence by what we do, what we contribute.

We’re living like our lives depend on it, and after a long, sobering look in the mirror, this is what I think:  Deep, deep, deep down, success and praise and acceptance are how I justify my whole life – and I don’t think I am alone in this.

I was listening to a podcast from my home church last week and I had one of those brick in the face moments.  (Yes, it hurt.)

He was talking about the two kinds of justification we live by:  my rule of justification, the thing I use to give meaning to my existence, and God’s rule of justification – Christ.

The Christ who died to to reconcile our relationship with the father and each other.  Who made Jews and Gentiles one.

In Philippians Paul says, “To live is Christ, but to die is gain.”  This is where the truth of the gospel gets tricky: the heart of Christianity runs so counter-cultural to everything we believe about life and relationships.

Culturally, the gospel makes no sense.  It is counter-intuitive.  We strive so hard to make the most of ourselves, our lives.  We run each other over to get ahead.  So the thought of dying to our own desires is downright terrifying.  Because then we’re not in control.

But that’s the point.  That’s the hope.  That’s where grace lies.

T.S. Eliot said it another way, “Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.”

Here’s where it comes full circle for me.  There a lot of things that are humbling about working in Africa, but the most humbling thing is knowledge that I am not here to fix anything.  I’m here to support and serve. But those are not things that the Resume King values, so still… I strive when I should learn and I do when I should just listen.

There is another verse that has been extremely real to me in Africa:

But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

This is where I usually stop, and there is a lot of truth in those words, but if you keep going Paul says,

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

This takes counter-cultural to a whole new level.  I don’t know anyone who likes to talk about their weakness, so boasting is definitely out of the question.

Intellectually, I can know the Truth – that my strength is nothing compared to Christ in my weakness – but still… our sin runs deep.

Self-justification runs deep.

And this is the reason relationships fall apart, why we become so frustrated by one another, why it’s so hard to tear down that wall, physical or otherwise.  We insist on justifying ourselves and boasting in ourselves rather than in Christ.

In the same sermon my pastor said, “In conflict, our rule of justification has been violated, compared, or contrasted, so we have to defend it…. when we are defending our self-justification it can become vicious because it strikes to the very core of our being.”

It’s personal.  It’s our culture.  It’s engrained in our souls.  It strikes to the very core of our being.

That doesn’t go away easily, but reconciliation never comes without cost.  If Christ died to reconcile my relationship with God, my desires – desires to be right, to have the last word, to do it my way, to win – must also die to reconcile my relationships with others, even if this runs counter to everything my culture of power and prestige tells me about myself and the world.

There is a song by the band Caedmon’s Call that speaks these words well, and it is my prayer for myself in this struggle:

Now for the loss I bear his name

What was my gain I count my loss

My former pride I call my shame

And nail my glory to his cross

In our culture we often consider humility a weakness, a flaw. When in reality, humility is just the proper estimation of ourselves – recognizing who I am in light of who God is, and choosing to act accordingly in relationship to one another.

To nail our glory to the cross.

And all of the sudden, pride breaks down and the walls that divide our cross-everything relationships start to crumble.

Because if you want to know what you’re worth, both in terms of your sinfulness and God’s love for you, all you have to do is look to the cross.