Flirting with Danger
By: Henry Cloud, Ph.D.
Sandy’s crying troubled me. It did not seem to be the normal pain of breaking off a relationship with a boyfriend. That kind of grief is sad to be with, but I felt more disturbed at the tone of her sobs. There was a certain feeling of despair more than grief. I asked her about my concern, and she replied, “It just seems so hopeless. I thought he was ‘the one.’ Everything was so good, and I was wrong again. I don’t have any hope anymore.” I could see that the pattern of choosing men poorly had taken its toll on her. She was close to giving up.
I recalled the beginning of their relationship when she had told me how “wonderful” he was. This time she was sure. But, I also remembered being troubled even then. As charming and wonderful as he sounded, there were some scary things that were easily seen, if one were looking. What Sandy saw was a person who was attractive, outgoing, witty, financially successful, and very involved in ministry and the things of God. What I saw was a self-centered person who gave to get and would probably be unable to make a commitment to her in the end. I tried to warn her, but ultimately, she had to find out for herself.
And find out she did, when after pressing him a bit more for some kind of commitment, he began distancing himself more and more, ultimately to another woman. Sandy watched “Mr. Perfect” go away, and with him her dreams for all that she had wanted. I had told her in the beginning that she was “flirting with danger” and that this guy was showing nothing worth committing to. But she continued to believe his charm, and gave more and more of herself—emotionally, spiritually and physically. And here she sat, with no one but herself to blame.
I felt sad for Sandy, but did not share in her despair. I knew that if she could learn something that we do not hear enough about, evaluating character, then she would finally be able to find the things that she was looking for. I prayed James 1:2-5 for her, that God would use this struggle to teach her more about herself and the things she needed to learn about other people. She would then be able to choose better. I also knew that we had a lot of work to do.
Not long after that, I was speaking at a Christian college and asked the students what they looked for in someone to date or marry. I got the expected answers:
- Someone really committed to God
- Someone who really knows the Bible
- A person with a strong walk with God
I agreed that these, or some other qualities about their “spiritual life” were important, but at the same time shared something from my experience that was a bit of an eye opener. “Those things are wonderful and important,” I said. “But, in my 20 years of experience in counseling, I have never heard anyone say they were struggling with their spouse or getting divorced because ‘th
eir walk with the Lord was not good enough.’ Or, ‘they did not know enough about the Bible.’ Instead, I hear the following kinds of things:
- He does not share his feelings with me
- She is so controlling
- He demands perfection and I cannot stand it anymore
- His temper scares me
- She is never satisfied, no matter what I do. I am always in the “doghouse”
- I feel empty and alone in this relationship
- I cannot tell them anything they do wrong
These and other qualities that tend to affect people in interpersonal relationships are the ones that often make the difference in the long run. They are the things that hurt people and drive them apart, whether it be in dating, marriage or friendship, and they are ultimately things of character. I went on to explain to them that we are in some ways attracted to someone’s “outsides.” We look at appearance, intelligence, charm, achievement, external spiritual activity, status or works, career success or whatever our own tastes seem to value. And, these qualities are indeed enjoyable and attractive. Cute and witty go a long way in making an evening fly by, but it is the absence of deeper things of character that can make a month seem like a life sentence after someone has committed to a person with character problems. Remember this: you may be attracted to someone’s outsides, but what you will ultimately experience will be their ‘insides,’ or what we call character. Someone’s character is what will ultimately bring you satisfaction or pain in the relationship.
If this is true, and research, life experience and the Bible all say that it is, then why do we not hear more about discerning character in people? Do any of you remember taking a class in “character discernment” to learn how to pick friends and partners? I certainly don’t. But, I do know that if I and others had been taught to do that, we could avoid a lot of pain in the following relational arenas:
- Spiritual Relationships
- It is in these primary relationships of life that we tend to experience the most damage. And, the truth is, most of what we suffer in these relationships is misery of our own making, as these are the relationships in life that we have freedom to choose.
Further, the surprising thing is that God has not omitted this training from the things He tries to teach us. It is there throughout the Bible. In fact, the Scriptures contain more about evaluating character than any book I can think of. He has warned us that there are people that you are to avoid getting into deep relationships with for a variety of reasons. They can hurt you, corrupt your morals and lead you away from Him. And, to do so, they don’t even have to be non-believers. They just have to have poor character.
David said that he would be very careful to choose who would “minister to” him, and that he would avoid the ones who were hurtful (Ps. 101). Jesus told us to watch out for people who make “little ones stumble” and are like devouring “dogs” (Luke 17:1,2; Matt. 7:6). Solomon wrote two entire books describing character. God is very into reality. He does not sugar coat anything, especially in an area as important as relationships, and He does not want His children to be blind.
With understanding the importance of character in mind, what do we need to do? Well, the first thing is to become aware of the issue. Character will be experienced, for the tree will bear its fruit, either good or bad (Lk. 6:43-45). You need to know that you must be careful, “guarding your heart with all diligence” (Prov. 4:23). But, knowing that you should be careful is not enough. You must know what qualities to look for and which ones to avoid. In the book Safe People (Zondervan), we tried to present the personal and interpersonal traits that make or break relationships of all kinds. We found it helpful to contrast these traits that hinder relationships with the corresponding traits that help. See if you can recognize where some of your choices have been hindered:
- People who avoid closeness vs. people who can establish true intimacy
- People who “have it all together” vs. people who can own and share their weakness and hurt
- People who are self-centered and see the world (including you) as revolving around them, vs. people who think in terms of the relationship first
- People who are religious instead of spiritual, focusing on external performance instead of honesty and relationship in their spirituality
- People who try to control the other person’s freedom vs. seeing freedom and separateness as good
- People who are “non-confrontable” and unable to hear the truth about themselves vs. people that you can be honest with about their faults
- People who apologize and don’t change when confronted with their faults vs. those who truly repent
- People who flatter people they are close to vs. telling them the truth
- People who are in denial of their problems vs. those who are growing and dealing with their issues
- People who condemn and shame others vs. forgivers
- People who “parent” others, telling them what they should and shouldn’t do vs. an equal partner
- People who “demand trust” vs. people who earn it
- People who have a bad effect on you vs. those who help you become a better person
- People who think they are perfect vs. those who own their faults
- People who blame others vs. people who take responsibility for their side of an issue
- People who lie or deceive vs. those who are completely honest
Certainly all of us can see times when we flunk most of these, so the immediate question that comes up is “Who could ever find people who are perfect?” Good question. None of us are perfect, and none of us can ever find anyone who is. The trick is similar to the teaching of the Bible that has to do with “patterns.” It teaches us that all of us sin, but if some tendency becomes a pattern that is not owned, confessed and dealt with, then it becomes hurtful or dangerous.
For example, all of us can get controlling at times, but not all of us are “control freaks.” All of us can get defensive at times, but not everyone is “totally unconfrontable.” All of us can get critical, but not everyone has a “critical spirit.”
When evaluating people to share your heart with, ask yourself some questions about these issues:
- Are you able to be happy with the level of maturity the person now possesses, or are you hoping they will change? Many times people will see what is wrong, but think that the other person will grow out of it or that they can change them. You must be able to be like God with them, accepting them for who they are at this very moment.
- Are you being honest with yourself about who they really are and what it really feels like to be in a relationship with them? Sometimes, either our wishes for who they are, our needs, or our past patterns can blind us to the reality of a person. Ask your close friends what they see and compare notes. Usually, they can see more clearly than you can.
- Do they possess the ability to see when they are wrong, confess it, apologize and then change their behavior? God does not require perfection, and neither should you. But, He does require us to own it when we are wrong, see how we have hurt Him or others, and then do something to change. You need to require the same thing in your relationships.
- Are the areas where they are weak areas that you can live with over time in close friendship, dating or marriage, or are they areas that might break your ability to cope? We all have problems, but there are some issues that are too much for some people to handle, where they would have no trouble handling other faults. For example, if you were raised with perfectionistic parents and are still trying to recover from those hurts, do you want to be married to a perfectionistic person who repeats the cycle all over again? We cannot find perfect people, but we can find the imperfections that we can best live with.
- Are they a growing person who does not blame others, but instead is actively involved in the growth process? One of the saddest things that I see is when one person “hungers and thirsts” for righteousness and growth and is always trying to push the other along. Find someone you have to run to keep up with instead of someone you always have to goad into growing.
Remember, the time to evaluate character is before you get too deeply involved. For, once you are in, it is more difficult to get out. When the attachment deepens, so the reasoning weakens. I see a lot of people who instantly fall into things with people who are not OK, in relationships based more on fantasy than reality, and then find themselves in trouble. Give yourself and your heart to people who prove themselves trustworthy. You are then less likely to end up like Sandy, flirting with and ultimately caught up in danger. Good character cannot produce bad fruit, and bad character cannot produce good fruit. Learn to tell the difference, and you won’t be disappointed.
Copyright © 2000 Cloud-Townsend Resources, All rights reserved.
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