Biblical Principles of Healthy Relationships
The relationships of our lives can range from blissful to rocky, easy to difficult, fun to boring…
Sometimes it can be challenging to manage each of these relationships when they all seem so different. But the good news is, the relational God who created us provided foundational principles to guide us in any type of relationship.
We can find these principles of healthy relationships throughout the Bible.
God wants us to get along and to live in harmony with those around us. Though sin broke humanity’s perfect relationship with Him, His plan is in motion to restore it. He even went so far as to become a human through Jesus so He could walk among us and model how to love one another.
By studying that model, we can put it into practice in our own lives. We’ll look at the following questions:
- How are relationships talked about in the Bible?
- What is the biblical model for relationships?
- How do we follow the biblical model for relationships?
Let’s get into the Word of God and see what we find.
How are relationships talked about in the Bible?
In the beginning, God created us in His image as relational beings. From then on, the whole story of the Bible is about how He is pursuing a relationship with us even after sin separated us from Him. He longs to bridge that gap.
Jesus is the epitome of that longing of God. He came to this earth to restore humanity’s connection with God and to show us what our relationships with Him and with one another should look like.
So let’s start with understanding the relational essence of God.
God is relational
God is all about relationships, even down to His very nature.
He exists within a three-in-one “family unit” called the Godhead (Matthew 28:19). Each member of the Godhead serves the others (John 5:30; 16:13–14).
Furthermore, the Bible tells us that He is love (1 John 4:8).
Notice it doesn’t say that He is loving, or that He simply has love.
No—He is love at His very core.
But what is this love? Our world portrays love as a strong yet conflicted, faulty emotion. We fall in and out of love. We throw the word around casually, as we “love” chocolate chip cookie dough, ice cream, and the latest car model.
But God is the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (ESV).
God created human beings because He longs for a relationship with us (Jeremiah 31:3). And He has created us with the same longing for Him.
He also provided us with the Ten Commandments—which are guidelines for healthy relationships with Him and others (Matthew 22:37–40).
Though it breaks God’s heart that humans chose to rebel against His love, He has not given up.
Instead, He’s shown us the greatest example of what it means to love difficult people—us.
The biblical narrative is all about relationships
The story of the Bible follows the interactions of people with God and with one another. It portrays relationships of all kinds, so we’re bound to find one that we can relate to.
And the Bible doesn’t just give us the beautiful side of things. It portrays the good, the bad, and the ugly. Human relationships can be messy!
A theme we see is God’s use of relationship imagery as He reaches out to His rebellious people.
He uses the terms covenant and marriage to describe His commitment to human beings. Covenant occurs 316 times in the Bible and almost always in the context of God’s faithfulness.1
He also uses marriage as a symbol of His relationship with His people:
“For your Maker is your husband” (Isaiah 54:5, ESV).2
The book of Hosea tells the story of when God called Hosea to marry a prostitute and to continue to pursue her with love even when she would leave him repeatedly. Similarly, God goes after His people and seeks to draw them back even when they turn from Him.
In addition, God uses parental language to show His love for us3:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15, ESV).
Jesus is our example in relationships
Jesus came to the world to reveal the love of God for difficult people. At the same time, He gave us an example of how to relate to one another (1 Peter 2:21), combining compassion and truth.
It looked like…
- Mentoring twelve men (Mark 3:14).
- Reaching out to a Samaritan woman who needed hope (John 4) even though the Samaritans were enemies of the Jews and talking to a woman was taboo.
- Accepting dinner invitations with society’s outcasts (Matthew 9:10) and leaders alike (Luke 7:36).
- Inviting children to come to Him (Mark 10:13–14).
- Speaking with the religious leader Nicodemus and pointing out his heart’s need (John 3).
- Praying for the forgiveness of those who murdered Him on the Cross (Luke 23:34).
In every way, Jesus demonstrated essential characteristics for healthy relationships.
What is the biblical model for relationships?
No matter what kind of relationship you’re looking to improve—whether with a friend, parent, sibling, church member, spouse, or co-worker—the Bible offers principles that work across all relationships. It’s often the same factors that make or break closeness.
- Selfishness vs. self-giving
- Pride vs. humility
- Hardheartedness or vs. empathy
- Anger vs. forgiveness
- Disrespect vs. honor
- Dishonesty vs. transparency
Read on for a closer look at each one.
Selfishness vs. self-giving
Selfishness—looking out for yourself over the needs of the other person—is the downfall of many relationships. Unfortunately, we all tend toward selfishness because of our sinful nature.
But Jesus came to show us a different way—that of self-giving. He served others, even to the point of giving up His life. And from that we see the ultimate demonstration of unconditional love:
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, ESV).
We see glimpses of this kind of commitment in the story of Ruth. After losing her husband, she had a chance to go back to her hometown where she could be taken care of. She instead chose to go with her widowed mother-in-law to a foreign country and care for her (Ruth 1:14–17).
In Ephesians 5:25, the apostle Paul compares Jesus’ relationship with His people to the self-sacrifice a husband should have in marriage:
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (ESV).
Mutual self-giving causes relationships to thrive.
Pride vs. humility
We know what it’s like to cross our arms in an argument, unwilling to admit we’re wrong. We might even have a list of reasons we should “win” an argument.
But having a healthy relationship requires letting go of that pride. Ephesians 5:21 calls us to “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (ESV).
Jonathan was the heir to the throne of Israel. And yet, he put aside the pride of position to befriend and protect David, the one God had chosen to rule Israel next (1 Samuel 18; 20; 2 Samuel 9:1–7).
Our humility can also be seen in the way we treat people who are struggling—the poor, the prisoners, the sick, the overlooked, the unpopular (James 2:1–13; Matthew 25). Are we willing to associate with people who may be looked down upon by others?
Hardheartedness vs. empathy
We can respond to the mistakes of others in two ways: with hardheartedness and condemnation or empathy and compassion (Romans 15:1–2).
Paul and Barnabas demonstrated these opposite traits (Acts 15:36–41):
While on a mission trip, Paul refused to take John Mark with them because previously, the young man had given up out of fear. Barnabas, on the other hand, had compassion for John Mark and saw potential in him. He chose to take him and mentor him.
This could be similar to the idea of being curious rather than judgmental. Instead of writing people off, we ask them questions and see if there’s more to the story.
The way we handle people’s mistakes can affect our relationships with them.
But what about when they hurt us?
Anger or forgiveness
Mending a relationship can be incredibly difficult when we are the ones who were wronged. The choice between anger and forgiveness is hard.
That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to be angry. If someone hurts you, it’s natural to feel anger. But when we let that anger fester and turn into bitterness, it ends up eating away at ourselves—and at the relationship.
One example of this kind of grudge is with Esau and Jacob. It took many years for these brothers to mend the rift between them after Jacob stole Esau’s blessing as the firstborn (Genesis 27:34–35, 41–43).
And yet Jesus calls us to forgive instead of clinging to bitterness:
“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV).
(Please note: Forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation. At times, even after forgiveness happens, it may not be safe or appropriate to resume a relationship—particularly when abuse has occurred.)
Disrespect vs. honor
To “outdo one another in showing honor” is a high calling (Romans 12:10, ESV).
You might have that person of authority in your life—perhaps a boss, a family member, or even a government leader—that you can’t stand. There’s always the temptation to make sideways remarks about them behind their backs, and sometimes to turn other people against them as well.
And yet the Bible calls for us to respect our parents (Ephesians 6:1–3), our bosses (verses 5–8), and our leaders (Romans 13:1–7).
What does “respect” mean?
It means valuing people, recognizing their humanity because they’ve been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:28). It means taking the time to hear them out, instead of reflexively responding in anger (James 1:19).
David in the Old Testament displayed this respect when being pursued by King Saul. Even though he knew God had given the throne to him, David refused to end Saul’s life because he respected Saul’s God-given position (1 Samuel 24).
Dishonesty vs. transparency
Dishonesty is one of the quickest ways to break trust in a relationship. Transparency helps build that trust.
Look at Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law, Laban (Genesis 29–31). Instead of allowing Jacob to marry his daughter Rachel as he had promised, Laban deceived Jacob and gave him Leah as a wife. Laban also treated Jacob unfairly and changed his wages many times (Genesis 31:41–42). As you can imagine, that dishonesty put a major strain on their relationship.
The Bible speaks against this:
“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds” (Colossians 3:9, NKJV).
Transparency is also important when one individual in a relationship believes they’ve been wronged.
It can be hard to speak up when you’ve been hurt. But Matthew 18 provides some principles for healthy ways to approach someone that has hurt us. Though the principles are specifically for relationships with church members, they can also apply to others.
As we’ve looked at these factors that can make or break relationships, we’re left to wonder: How do we apply these in our own lives?
How do we follow the biblical model?
Jesus has set us an example of how to cultivate healthy relationships. Following the biblical model of relationships starts with having a friendship with Him. Then, when we see glimpses of His life, it allows us to reflect on our interactions with others and pray for the Holy Spirit to transform our lives.
As we surrender to Him, He gives us the power to live out His love.
We get it—it sounds simple when relationships seem so difficult. As Christians, we often know what we should do but struggle to do it (Romans 7:15-20).
You know you should treat your grumpy coworker with courtesy but find yourself wanting to snap back at them. You know you don’t need to prove your point, but can’t help it when arguing with your spouse.
Here’s the thing about love. It’s not just a feeling. Biblical love—the kind that God embodies—is an action (1 John 3:18). As the Holy Spirit works in our lives, He gives us the power to live it out even when we may not feel like it.
Let’s look at the steps that will help us have this experience:
Seek a friendship with God
Before we can have healthy relationships with other people, we need a friendship with the source of love Himself. As we come to see who He is and how He relates to people, His love will fill us (1 John 4:12).
Take the time to get to know God. Talk with Him in prayer and read His messages to you in Scripture. Spend time learning about the life of Jesus and how He treated people.
As you read about God’s love and His ideal for relationships, ask Him to search your heart (Psalm 139:23–24) and show you where you can grow.
Thoughts and feelings form the foundation of our actions (Proverbs 23:7; 4:23), so ask yourself: What thoughts are fueling my actions?
Reading Scripture will help you in this process. It speaks to our hearts and reveals our very motives (Hebrews 4:12).
Pray for the Holy Spirit
Seeing areas of growth in our lives can be painful and discouraging. We may wonder if we can reach God’s standard.
Well, not in our own strength! But we can ask for the Holy Spirit to change us—from the inside out. And He is more than willing.
When He comes into our hearts, He places His law of love there (Hebrews 8:10) and gives us the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23):
That’s why it’s so important that we pray for the Holy Spirit’s presence each day.
Surrender to God
Following the biblical principles for relationships doesn’t mean we won’t face challenges. But when we face them, we can see them as opportunities to surrender to God.
Surrender is an ongoing process of giving ourselves to Him. When we experience negative thoughts and temptations, we can give those to Him in the heat of the moment (2 Corinthians 10:3–5). He, in turn, gives us His power.
Surrender can be hard. It means accepting what God says is right—even when we don’t feel like saying or doing it at the moment.
But here’s the promise: When we submit to Him and resist the devil, we will experience victory (James 4:7).
Take the first step of love
As we’ve already emphasized, love is a choice to take action—regardless of how you feel toward a person. And there comes a point when we have to take that step.
The disciples refused to move a finger to wash one another’s feet. They didn’t want to stoop to that level! Especially since they’d often argued about who was the greatest among them (Luke 22:24–27).
But Jesus took action.
He grabbed a towel and a washbasin to wipe His disciples’ dusty feet. All because of love.
It wasn’t glamorous by any means. But it shows us what love truly is—doing what needs to be done to serve those we’re in a relationship with. Love takes action.
You can have healthy relationships
As you think about your relationships, be encouraged that God has given you a way to make those relationships thrive. The principles of the Bible and the power of God combined will help you interact with people in a healthy way.
The challenge will be different for each individual.
The cold spouse.
The tense sibling relationship.
The coworker who talks behind your back.
The moody employee at your post office.
But ultimately, Jesus calls us to live out His unconditional love and acceptance to everyone we encounter. Beautiful things can happen.
- Genesis 6:18; 15:1; Exodus 19:5; Leviticus 26:45; Deuteronomy 7:9; Judges 2:1; 2 Chronicles 15:12; Nehemiah 1:5; Psalm 25:14; 89:28; Isaiah 54:10; 55:3; Jer. 31:33; 32:40; Ezekiel 16:8. [↵]
- See also Hosea 2:16, 19; 2 Corinthians 11:2 [↵]
- Psalm 103:13; 2 Samuel 7:14–15; Luke 15:11–32; Hebrews 12:7 [↵]
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