During my time in high school I spent different seasons with different groups of friends. While some of these seasons were driven by specific factors, others happened organically. I would attend a sporting event or work long hours with other students on a group project and a month later found myself going to a movie with the same students. How did that happen? At some point, being physically gathered and engaged in conversation led to future gatherings and new friendships with people I hardly knew before. This reality highlights an experience that many of us can relate to — proximity powerfully shapes our relationships.
Humans: Irreducibly Relational
Relationships are central to our everyday lives. Recognizing this doesn’t take a college degree in human psychology. You only need to listen to another person talk about their lives for less than five minutes. What are their greatest joys? What is the source of their frustration at work? What caused some of the greatest pain they have experienced in life? Where are they going now? It is very likely that their relationships with other people factor heavily in the things that they say and do.
Humans are relational because they were wired by their Creator to yearn for and experience relational satisfaction. This good gift flows out of God’s very essence. God has eternally existed as three distinct persons in one divine being (Isa 45:5; John 1:1-3; Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14). No doubt, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most challenging doctrines to understand fully. However, I am underscoring the Triune nature of God to demonstrate that His existence has always been a relational one. Therefore, when God made man in His image to be representatives of Himself on earth, He created him to be a relational being (Gen 1:26-27). This is the primary reason that relationships occupy so much of our daily lives.
Further evidence of man’s relational design is that the Bible has much to say about relationships. As we’ve already noted, proximity is one fundamental element that shapes how humans relate to one another. Consider the cliché phrase we often express in rocky relationships: “You feel distant…” Scripture makes it plain that nearness and distance impact the quality of our relationships and our experience of them.
The Importance of Physical Nearness
Let’s start with the concept of nearness. Who are the individuals that are closest in proximity to people in their youth? Family! In God’s design, children are intended to be under the care and supervision of their parents until they are old enough to start a new family unit. During this time of childhood, their parents provide for and nurture them as they grow into adults. Now, due to the Fall and the consequences of sin, not every family experience is a joyful one. Yet, even in a sinful world many children grow up with a love and affection for family since family constitutes their closest relationships on earth.
Physical proximity over the many seasons of life is one of the greatest causes of these powerful, familial emotions. Proverbs 18:24 highlights this aspect of proximity another way: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” How is it that a friend could stick closer than one’s physical relatives? While there may be many reasons, it is not unreasonable to believe that this is another illustration of how proximity shapes relationships. Physical location can create bonds between any two individuals, whether family or not.
While proximity can produce strong generational bonds, it also has a practical element that must be considered in certain situations. In emergency situations, the Scripture wisely exhorts individuals not to go to their family in their time of need but to their neighbor (Prov 27:10). Is God advocating that people intentionally cultivate a deeper love with their neighbor than their family of origin? Not necessarily. The reason for this instruction is plainly stated in the following verse: “Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away” (emphasis added). In distressing circumstances, it is not a person’s value that is most important but a person’s ability to help. When I moved to Northern California, I switched my emergency contact from my dear mother to another dear friend in the church because of their proximity to where I lived. While my mother would get on a plane if I found myself in a critical moment of need, it would still take her many hours to get to my location. In this way, proximity is incredibly practical in helping God’s people think sober-mindedly about their relationships.
Proximity and Learning
Another example of relational proximity is expressed in what a person learns from others. This is where Proverbs 22:6 can be applied: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” The most effective training of a child will occur when both the parent and the child are together physically. While technology makes it possible for parents to instruct children remotely, it will be more difficult to teach a child to use the potty or ride a bike over Zoom. It is also important to note that proximity will cause much of a child’s training to happen indirectly through observations and relational patterns in the home. As they live with their parents, they will become like them, adopting their mannerisms and word patterns. Jesus pointed out that the same is true for learners of all ages, who will eventually become like the teacher they select for instruction (Luke 6:40).
The Scripture also makes it clear that nearness does not always lead to positive outcomes. Paul explained to the Corinthians that when a person keeps bad company their ability to maintain steadfast devotion to moral uprightness is corrupted (1 Cor 15:33). Consider how the book of Psalms begins: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1). Many have observed the progressive nature of the opening verse. A walking person is moving. A standing person has stopped moving. A seated person has made themselves comfortable. Increased proximity to negative influences will influence a person negatively. What is the remedy? Proximity to positive influences! The Psalmist goes on to talk about the benefits of drawing near to God’s instruction: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water…” (Psalm 1:2-3). The picture of the righteous man is one who establishes the roots of his life as close to the living water of God’s word as possible, so that the result is fruitfulness and prosperity in all he does.
The Problem of Distance
A final consideration of proximity’s ability to shape relationships is the concept of distance. Two types of distance are pertinent to this discussion—the distance that naturally exists between individuals and the distance that is intentionally pursued. The fact that natural distances exist between individuals is on full display at every airport during the holidays. In his perfect wisdom, God providentially moves family, friends, and loved ones to various parts of the world by various means for various purposes. Therefore, it is common for individuals to travel around the world throughout the year so that they can share a Thanksgiving meal, enjoy a white Christmas, or celebrate a wedding with the people they cherish. As already mentioned, technological advances in travel have made it more efficient and safer to visit those who live in different places. Breakthroughs in cellular technology and the development of social media have revolutionized our ability to remain in close contact with those we don’t see daily.
This prompts an important question—how should Christians think about the natural distance that exists between them and other individuals in their lives? Biblical imperatives such as, “Honor your father and mother” (Eph 6:2-3), or, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all men” (Gal 6:10), are not invalidated by distance. A person may not use distance as an excuse to neglect providing for their immediate family members that have need (1 Tim 5:8). On the other hand, it may be wise for a person to consider how much distance plays a role in how they steward the resources given to them by God.
God has given every person alive a fixed amount of time and material resources to steward. A definite commitment to the place where God has stationed us in different seasons of our lives can be a useful tool for prioritizing our resources to the glory of God. A mother may forgo the opportunity to visit a relative, participate in a high school friend’s wedding, or attend a three-day getaway with work friends to care for their child after an unexpected visit to the emergency room. A student may miss an opportunity to travel home for the summer to complete summer school so that they can graduate a semester earlier. A father may accept a lower paying job closer to home to minimize his commute time and maximize his time at home with the family. When proximity is brought to the forefront of a person’s decision making, they may conclude that their heavy investment in relationships that are far away are hindering their ability to cultivate new relationships that are minutes from their doorstep.
The second type of distancing is not a natural distancing but an intentional, calculated distancing from relationships. Proverbs 18:1 highlights this type of distancing: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” Remember, humans were created in the image of God to be relational beings. Therefore, increased absence from school, work, friends, family members, or even the local church congregation can be a strong indication that a person is in danger. To cut oneself off from relational interaction is to go against God’s design for humanity. This type of distance keeps a person from enjoying the benefits of accountability, the wisdom of counselors, and every other positive element relationships were intended to provide.
Proximity shapes our relationships. In fact, if we were to give daily attention to where we have been providentially placed for the glory of God it would likely impact our relationships much more. In our next article on this important topic, we will learn how proximity shapes our desires.