Cultivating Christ-Centered Relationships from Afar
When I was seven, my family moved across the world to spend 12 years in Mongolia. I still remember the day our plane touched down and the drive from the airport, drinking in the new sights, sounds, and smells: the Soviet-style apartment buildings, the old women sitting together in their traditional Mongolian coats, the little kids walking home from school with their ice cream cones, the tiny shops along the road that sold everything from Coca-Cola to socks, and the unfamiliar language that grew to be so sweet to my ears.
It didn’t take me long to embrace these new surroundings as a normal part of life that I loved. But, as excited as I was to live there, I always carried with me the ache of missing dear family members and friends I had known all my life. It soon became a regular and accepted part of life to miss people who were very precious to me.
A number of years later when I moved back to Colorado and got married, I then had to walk through the reverse experience — saying goodbye to my parents and younger siblings who were going back overseas while I settled and made a home with my new husband to start a family of our own. And along with that, many of my best friends were now scattered across the world as we all left Mongolia and began new seasons of life.
My own life was full — adjusting to being a new wife and going through Bible school, but I didn’t want to just drop these precious relationships. How was I supposed to cultivate them while still being fully present and engaged in the season I was in now?
LOVING OTHERS FROM A DISTANCE
I’m sure I’m not alone in the struggle to maintain my relationships with people who are very dear to me, and yet live far away. Fortunately, we live in a time when it’s much easier to invest in these far-away friendships because of technology. We can just pop on Skype or FaceTime rather than having to pay an arm and a leg for a long-distance call or waiting weeks to receive a letter. Yet, the questions remain: How much time and energy do we invest in these relationships? And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t detract from the people who are present in our lives right now?
As I was pondering these questions in my own life, the Apostle Paul came to mind. It struck me — epistles like Philippians, Colossians, and so on are all letters written to people he dearly loved but was far away from.
These well-read portions of Scripture offer us a precious glimpse into Paul’s heart.
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ … For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:3–6,8 ESV).
“Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Phil. 4:1 ESV).
“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess.1:2–3 ESV).
Even from a distance, Paul intentionally invested in the lives of his fellow believers. Scripture says that he prayed for them “constantly,” encouraged them over and over, and pointed them to Jesus. He used every space in those letters to encourage them in Christ.
While we may not have the same spiritual authority in others’ lives like Paul did, we can practice these same principles of loving, encouraging, and praying for the people in our lives every chance we are given.
As I’ve sought the Lord in cultivating the long-distance relationships in my own life — with family living thousands of miles away and many friends scattered around the world — here are some tips that have been helpful to me.
TIP 1: FOCUS ON JESUS
I’ve been amazed at how many times I’ve had a phone call with a friend I haven’t talked to in months or years, and it feels as if time hasn’t passed. And this, I’ve realized, is because Jesus is the One who carries these friendships. When two people are seeking Him, there is always something we mutually relate to and can resonate with, no matter how different our lives might be. I strive to keep the times we do have focused on the One who keeps the relationship thriving. And when we’re apart, I rest in knowing that He is the Keeper of our relationship whether we talk every day or once a year.
In relationships where the other person is not a believer, it can be a little bit trickier to know what to talk about because our foundation is different. However, we can still ask ourselves: How would Jesus want me to cultivate this relationship? How can I show His love to this person, whether it’s over the phone or through an email or text message?
Even from afar, God can use us to point others to Him.
TIP 2: ASK GOOD QUESTIONS
I’ve found it helpful to have questions ready to ask before I spend time with someone I haven’t seen or talked to in a long time. This keeps the time purposeful and meaningful rather than awkward or shallow. Question-asking isn’t naturally my strong point, but I’m married to one amazing question-asker. My husband, Judah, has been so helpful to me in learning how to ask good questions and show interest in other people’s lives, rather than just trying to come up with things to say about myself or my own life.
So if you’re like me and find it difficult to keep a meaningful conversation going, find someone you know who is really good at asking questions, and ask them to help you learn this skill. Consider talking with them before a conversation so you can get good ideas for conversation topics and intentional questions. Even if you don’t end up using the questions you thought of beforehand, it will still be helpful to think about how you can show interest in the other person.
TIP 3: PLAN WELL
One thing I’ve had to think through is when to fit in time to talk with loved ones who are far away. It’s important to me that I am not having long-distance conversations at the expense of the people and responsibilities that are a part of my daily life.
Let me tell you, there have been many times when I thought it was a good time to connect with someone, only to have my children suddenly start throwing tantrums or getting into the things they know they’re not supposed to touch. So while there may never be an ideal time, I’ve realized that there are going to be times when it is much easier to focus on the conversation without dropping the ball on what is right in front of me. (For me, this is usually during my kids’ rest time or in the evening once they go to bed.)
When it comes to having deeper conversations with my loved ones or friends, I pencil these times in on the calendar, just like I would if someone was coming over for the afternoon. This way I know exactly when it is happening and that it will be a time I can fully focus and make the most of it. By thinking ahead and planning well, I’ve learned that I can give quality time to loved ones, even from a distance.
As you seek the Lord for how to correctly prioritize the far-away relationships in your life, you can trust that He will give you wisdom for what this should look like.
We can always rest in the reality that God cares about our relationships — both near and far — more than we do. Relationships are His idea, and we can trust Him to use the ones He has put in our lives for our good and His glory as we commit them to Him!