As a communication major, I spent my college years studying the way we interact with each other. What we say, what we don’t say, how we say things. While in hindsight it may not have been the most practical major, for me it was fascinating.
One of the most interesting communication theories that I came in contact with is called the Social Exchange Theory. This theory hinges on the assumption that we are rational people who try to maximize rewards and minimize costs in relationships and potential relationships.
Essentially, this theory says that if humans are rational, and it assumes that they are, they will “invest” in the people who make them feel good, who entertain them, and who don’t take too much effort to get along with. But if someone becomes to “costly” to be in a relationship with- if they start complaining too much, or become withdrawn, or they say one too many hurtful things- we can’t afford to keep them in our lives.
Social Exchange Theory, by putting our emotional lives into monetary terms, makes our species seem pretty cold and calculating. The first time I heard this, I was quick to reject it- at least, as far as it applied to me. But as I thought about it, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the way I’ve seen this played out over and over in my life.
Just think back to the first day of middle school (or college, or a new workplace). I can bet that, like me, you weren’t scanning the cafeteria for someone who would challenge you as a person or who you could encourage. You were looking for someone who looked nice and normal. Someone who shared your interests (or at least your class schedule). We were all looking for the friendships that would be easy- Safe- Fun.
Most of us go through our lives never branching out too far from those cafeteria kinds of friendships. Our friends are the people who don’t just accept us, but love us for who we are- weird quirks and all. They make us laugh and are there for us when we cry. Friends are one of God’s single greatest gifts that He gives us on this earth.
But when we surround ourselves only with people who give into our lives, we are missing out on one of God’s other great gifts- the experience of His unending supply of grace.
Once Jesus was invited to a banquet, which He promptly turned into a “teachable moment.” He said to the people sitting at the table:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:12-14 ESV)
Jesus, as He has a habit of doing, is asking his followers to act in complete opposition to social norms as well as their natural inclinations. To extend kindness and hospitality to people who were physically and economically incapable of returning the invitation is not something we naturally like to do. Especially when we have limited resources. A person who makes a habit of throwing lavish banquets every week without so much as a hostess gift in return would quickly exhaust her income. Most of us would say that is a foolish use of your hard earned money.
We make the same excuses when it comes to spending time with the people in our lives that take without giving back. We even use the same rhetoric. We say “it’s just not worth it” to listen to someone who uses you as a sounding board for all her issues, but cuts you off the second you start to talk about yourself. It’s not worth even trying to start a conversation with someone who is just painfully awkward to be around. And if that guy was worth keeping as a friend, he would act more sorry for the way he hurt you in the past.
We have all kinds of labels for these “takers”. Selfish, egotistical, unaware, self-focused, greedy. I see these traits most openly in the kids I work with- the ones who have not yet learned to hide their worst tendencies. But all of us, on our bad days, would fall into the category of being a taker instead of a giver.
So what do we do when we find ourselves in a situation where someone who we care about seems to be endlessly receiving our grace and giving nothing in return? It’s emotionally draining to care about someone who doesn’t sincerely care about you. Frankly, if it weren’t for God in my life, I would cut those people out of my life faster than I skip ads on youtube.
But God does make the difference.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! (1 John 3:1)
The love that we have been shown in Jesus is so great, so overwhelmingly perfect, that it is absurd for us to turn around and be stingy in our love for those around us. To Him, we were all worth dying for.
Jesus instructed us to stretch the capacity of our love so that it even covers our enemies (Matthew 5:43), so I think that more than covers our more difficult friends. Yet, because He knows how impossible that is for us in our fallen state, He doesn’t send us out on our own strength.
I have found that only way that I can begin to afford to show love to people who are incapable of showing the same to me is because I am connected to a God who offers me an infinite supply of His perfect peace and strength.
“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)
I can attest to God’s faithfulness to supply for my needs when I felt like I couldn’t possibly give anything more. Some of the times when I have felt God’s peace most strongly have come in the moments when, between the pressures of friendship and working with some very needy kids, I’m about to go into the red emotionally. These are the moments when it is most clear where my strength is coming from, and it isn’t something that I can manufacture.
So maybe we should learn to give just a little more than we think we can. To smile and listen for one more day, because we never know what a difference that will make for someone else.
At the same time, there is a line that you should never let anyone cross. If someone’s actions cause you to doubt your worth or pull you down with them, there comes a point when you can no longer support someone who is a poisonous influence on your life. God will give you strength to do whatever He calls you to do, but sometimes the kindest thing you can do for someone is to let go of being a physical presence in their life and commit to praying for them instead.
My prayer for you is that you will find a new kind of social transaction. One that doesn’t bankrupt you, but endlessly fills you with Christ’s inexhaustible love and strength.
“Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.”