I’m thinking today of the gaps that we call synapses, those miniscule spaces between the endings of nerve cells through which chemicals or sparks of energy jump, passing messages along a chain of nerve cells back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body. This is a crude over-simplification of an incredibly complex functionality created by God. But it is accurate enough to serve our purposes.
God could have designed our nervous system as a set of continuous and attached nerve cells. Seems like it would have been simpler and more direct. But perhaps it would not have been as flexible and allowed for the diversity of function as the synapse system. I don’t know. But here is what has captured my attention. The gaps are there by design. There is something significant about the gaps. That gap between one nerve cell and the next is critical to the communication of messages throughout the whole body.
That led me to thinking about the gaps in human relationships. Not the painful gaps characterized by brokenness, but the gaps that are there by design. God created each of us as deliberately distinct and unique beings. We each have things we like and things we don’t like; things we are good at and things we are not so good at. We are shaped by our life experiences, by the families we grew up in, and by our genetics. So many factors in so many permutations, all overseen by God, produce an endless array of personalities.
I think the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 is a good analogy here. In this parable, three servants are each given differing amounts of money by their master just before he leaves on a journey. The text says that they were given money in proportion to their abilities. So each servant had different abilities, but each was expected to make full use of his own abilities to increase the money he was given.
This speaks to our individuality. I do not have the same abilities you do, and we will not be measured against each other. In order to exploit my own abilities, I must have some understanding of myself and be willing to “put myself out there” as it were, putting my unique abilities on display in order to make a good profit. I have to have a certain comfort level with who I am and how I operate rather than waiting for someone else to give me approval. In my case, I need to be willing to say, “Hey, I am a therapist. I think I can help you with your emotions if you’d like.” Often, when I am helping someone with their struggles, I can witness their great faith in the midst of adversity, or their creativity in solving problems. My faith is blessed or challenged and I am able to affirm their faith and abilities.
Does that sound arrogant? Arrogance means that I think I am better than you are. What I’m talking about is a sense that I am different than you are and that my approval comes from God. I can feel comfortable with myself because I know that God designed me with purpose and helps me fulfill that purpose (or purposes).
And rather than resulting in arrogance, a funny thing happens. When I am okay being different from you, I can also appreciate the ways in which you are different from me. I don’t have to feel bad that I can’t do what you can do—I can revel in God’s design. I can be amazed that something that seems impossible for me is mastered by you, and that God has formed us to work together in his body.
Each of us also, by design, has a desire, a longing, a need to be connected to others. And yet, deep connection with another human being is only possible between individuals who have the capacity to be separate and to recognize where “I” stop and “you” begin. If I encounter you with my face smashed up against yours, I am unable to see you clearly. It is only as I take a step back and create a bit of separation that I can appreciate all of you and see how each of your features fits into the whole person. Because it is in those gaps between you and me where the sparks leap. Sparks of wonder and of curiosity, of appreciation and attraction.
And something else even more ethereal. Authenticity. Integrity. You can feel it, can’t you, when you encounter someone who is both confident and humble, both principled and gracious? Something is communicated through the eyes, the facial expressions and body language, the words, and the tone of voice. It reaches your own soul and resonates as truthful and trustworthy. It calls out to you in a way that is above and beyond words.
In religious language we might call this “assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace” as described in the answer to Westminster Shorter Catechism question 36. Or we might think of it as the Spirit of God within our brother or sister crying out to our own spirits. When we are at home in the love of Christ, we possess a peace and joy that overrules the opinions of others and gives us a quiet confidence in ourselves as creations and recreations of God. I can enjoy your strengths without being threatened by them because we are each created to fill different roles in the body.
Psychology describes this kind of emotional self-recognition and acceptance as differentiation. I accept myself for who I am without need for your approval, and in turn I can accept you for who you are. We each recognize and accept our own differences. It is an essential skill for maintaining your own personal health as well as managing the inevitable anxiety that happens when you are relating to someone who is different from you. You have to be able to say, “Oh, here’s a place where we disagree. I don’t need to make you conform to my opinions or expectations in order to maintain a relationship with you. But I do need to let you know where I stand so we can negotiate a way to relate that is satisfying to both of us.” It is that separateness that facilitates our embrace.
So let’s examine where the spiritual and psychological intersect here. We’re not saying that assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Spirit and increase of grace are just a matter of emotional health. They are spiritual realities which are mediated within us by the Holy Spirit. They cannot be faked or exchanged for one another.
It is possible for a non-Christian to achieve a good degree of emotional health or differentiation. That is a function of common grace, or the way God created human emotions to operate. A Christian has a huge advantage by having the spiritual knowledge and the inner reality described above to ground her and provide resources and encouragement along the journey.
On the other hand, there are many dear, sincere Christians who have been stunted in their growth toward emotional maturity by misguided teaching or by being seriously sinned against by others. Here is one representative example.
Ann and Betty are friends. Ann is moderately introverted and Betty is very extroverted. A third friend, Carol, has just announced her engagement. Betty immediately proposes that she and Ann collaborate on a bridal shower for Carol. Ann is eager to honor her friend in this way.
Here is how this scenario might unfold if these two friends are not well differentiated:
As soon as Betty proposes the shower, she begins to wax rhapsodic about the plans. Ann gets a knot in her stomach as she envisions the amount of work and money Betty’s plans will take. However, Ann has been taught that Christians should beloving and self-sacrificing, so she puts on a brave face and agrees with Betty’s plans. As time goes on, she feels more overwhelmed and drags her feet on her tasks. Betty notices and begins to complain that Ann is a party pooper and leaves all the work to her. Both women begin to feel resentful of each other and manifest it in snide remarks or stony silence.
Here is what might happen if each of these women is more differentiated:
Ann gets a knot in her stomach as she envisions the amount of work and money Betty’s plans will take. She knows that she needs to be honest with Betty about what she can handle and how much she can afford to spend, even though it makes her nervous that Betty might get angry. So she says, “Betty, I’m already feeling overwhelmed by all these plans. I think I can take on these specific tasks and spend this amount of money,” and then waits for Betty’s response. Betty laughs and says, “Yeah, I know my ideas can get pretty grandiose. Thank you for letting me know what I can expect from you. That keeps me more realistic and helps me decide what I want to take on.”
Ann has spoken the truth in love. She knows her own strengths and weaknesses and has been willing to say, “This is who I am. This is what I can do and am willing to do.” Betty has responded with appreciation. The honesty has allowed them to know themselves and each other better and to grow closer in their friendship. That's the magic you find in the gaps.