We expect reciprocation in our relationships.
We just do. It’s a natural human impulse. When I text my mom, she texts me back. When my husband calls me and I miss the call, I call him back. If I receive a note from someone saying “I care about you,” I get in touch with them to thank them and to tell them I care about them, too. When someone admits they’re having a bad day, I respond with sympathy.
Give and take. Back and forth. It’s how relationships go…until they don’t.
Because sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a relationship just comes to a halt in a strange, one-sided kind of way. You’re communicating with someone and they’re communicating back and then suddenly…they’re not. And you have no idea why.
I’m not talking about the break in communication that occurs over a wrong or a hurt or a conflict or an offense. I’m talking about when the phone goes silent and there seems to be no meaningful cause – or perhaps there are a million meaningful causes. They’re busy. Or forgetful. Or careless. They depend on you to take the initiative all the time. They’re sort of bad at friendship generally. Or maybe there’s a darker explanation. They’re struggling with problems or demons that threaten to drown them. They’re deliberately pushing people away.
Everyone I know has dealt with someone like this. And it hurts, always.
And so – because it hurts, and because we’re the only one making an investment – there’s a temptation to even the score. You’re not going to call me? Fine. I’m not going to call you, either. Or sometimes I’m just going to stop inviting you places until you make the effort to invite me somewhere, too. And even I’m sick and tired of putting all this work in and receiving nothing in return, so I’m just going to stop trying.
Tit for tat. Eye for an eye. You get what you give.
Except it’s not supposed to work that way for believers. Service and love aren’t things we do in order to get something back. They are not coins that we insert into the vending machine of friendship to receive the appropriate prizes. We serve and we love because we love Jesus, and Jesus asked it of us:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
We love and serve because we recognize the value of the act is in the sacrificial nature of it, in the giving without expecting anything in return, in offering grace instead of whatever is deserved.
So we need to resist the temptation to give up or to instead give people what they deserve, to harrumph at their lack of effort and decide it’s not worth our time or energy, either. When people stop responding – when they stop making the effort, stop reaching out, stop bothering – that doesn’t mean that we have to do the same. Sure, don’t waste your time planning a lunch with someone if you don’t think they really care or even want to go. But reach out. Send the note, or the card, or the text. Leave the message on Facebook. Don’t forget, and don’t let go.
Set down for them what is true, whether they choose to pick it up or not: I love you. I’m here.
And I recognize that this is hard. There is one person I care about whom I haven’t heard from for ages. They’ve gone through some tough times, I know. I write notes, simple ones, every other month or so. Emails. Hey. Praying for you. Hey. Thinking of you. Hey, Merry Christmas. I don’t hear a response back – whether from lack of interest, depression, or the general chaos of their circumstances, I don’t know. If I ever received an email that said, “Please stop writing to me,” I would stop immediately. I believe it’s imperative to respect people’s boundaries and to acknowledge them in that respect, especially as a believer. But until that day comes, I keep writing the notes. I’ve written them for years. I will write them for years, even if they go unread or get sent immediately to the trash can.
Because the alternative to writing is to not write. And that, I can’t do.
I can’t because I’ve been alive long enough to watch what happens when love is patient, and when it perseveres. I have seen families slowly knit back together after years of outreach by a single stubborn family member. I’ve watched people who swore they’d never go back to church again walk into the building smiling. And I’ve heard more than one person sheepishly make the confession:
I was just in this place where I couldn’t reach out, you know? Didn’t want to answer the phone or any emails, just kind of decided to shut the world out. But people stuck with me anyway, regardless of what I did, and it meant the world.
What do we do when people stop responding?
We love ’em anyway, as best we can, respecting the lines that they’ve drawn for themselves. It’s what we were born to do.