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Treating People (Including the Opposite Sex) With Respect

Since no one is exactly alike, how can we get along with others? How can we deal with the differences between us?

by David Johnson

How many people do you know who are exactly like you—who look like you, think like you, act like you? Sure, there are people who share some of the same characteristics you have. About half of the world's population is the same gender you are. Roughly one third of the world's population is the same basic racial stock as you. Millions of people live in the same country you do, but billions more don't.

Twins Geneticists say that one set of parents would need to produce enough children to populate three planets the size of the earth before they ever produced two who were genetically identical. (Those of you who are "identical" twins may share basically the same genetic makeup, but you know you and your twin are still not exactly alike.) So, is there anyone exactly like you, or are you unique? And if you are unique, what about me or your neighbors or your friends at school or work?

In our own special ways, all of us are unique individuals who share both similarities and differences. While our similarities may bring us together, our differences should help us appreciate the unique qualities each person can bring to a relationship. Sadly, we live in a world where differences often divide people, nations and even families. The unique differences that should add richness to our lives end up separating people who could have been best friends. Racial and ethnic prejudices can artificially separate us from people who could greatly enrich our lives if we only knew them better. Does it have to be this way?

Our circle of influence

We know that as individuals, we may have little impact on the great problems of the world around us. We may properly try to help with various worthy causes, but we know that our ability to make a difference is limited. Each of us has what has been called a "circle of influence."

We have the power to influence the conditions in the world around us only within our circle of influence. Our circle of influence may change as we go through life, depending upon our age, our educational level, our financial prosperity or other factors. Within our circle of influence, we form many special relationships. Any time we begin to "relate" to another person, regardless of his or her race or gender or anything else, we are forming a "relationship."

Many people think of a relationship as something romantic, but most of the relationships we form in life have nothing to do with romance. We form relationships with family members, friends, teachers, neighbors, employers—the list is endless. Relationships can be good or bad, positive or negative, constructive or destructive, uplifting or degrading.

What kind of relationships do you have within your circle of influence? Which of your relationships are the most satisfying? Is there a way we could build relationships that are based upon appreciating the uniqueness of the individual—relationships where differences strengthen instead of dividing?

Sometimes it seems that every newspaper, every magazine, every radio station, has someone whose job is to give advice about relationships. The late Ann Landers and her sister, Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"), made entire careers out of dispensing advice about relationships, yet they barely spoke with each other. Books, tapes and videos abound for those seeking advice on how to change their relationships. Yet, many times, these advisers can't agree on how people should deal with one another.

What God says about relationships

Did you realize that God is the original adviser on human relationships? Since He is the one who designed each of us to be the unique people we are, it shouldn't surprise us that He also advises us on how to get along with the people who are most important to us.

In the first chapter of the Bible, God tells us about the creation of two unique people, Adam and Eve, and He hints at the relationship they could have with each other and with Him. He tells us clearly that each of them was created in God's own "image." While this may include the idea of our physical appearance, we understand that the primary way in which humans are like God is in our ability to think, plan, reason and make moral choices. Animals can't do those things in the same way humans can.

Adam and Eve were both created with the ability to think much like God thinks, and God makes it very clear that one was not created better than the other. In the next chapter, God shows us that they were both incomplete and in need of each other—in need of what the other could bring to the relationship.

Male-female differences

Male and female symbols Science has confirmed what most men and women have known all along--men and women don't think the same way. Women tend to use both hemispheres of the brain and are much better at multitasking than men. Men tend to predominantly use one hemisphere at a time, and men's brains tend to be much more compartmentalized and able to focus intently on one task at a time. Men tend to be better at tasks involving spatial ability and large muscle movements, while women are often better at time management and fine motor skills.

Some people have tried to say that male and female differences are just the result of our culture, but the measurable differences are undeniable, and solid scientific evidence backs up these facts. Men and women were each created with the ability to think like God, but they think in different ways.

What does this tell us about relationships between men and women, whether we refer to the ultimate closeness of marriage or more casual relationships at work or other social situations? Research and Scripture clearly show that men and women each have a unique and helpful contribution to make. In a relationship of mutual respect and appreciation, the two can work together, each using his or her own strengths, and accomplish much more than either one could on his or her own.

With Adam and Eve, God created two unique individuals who each had special skills to bring to their relationship. By respecting, appreciating and giving to each other, they could have what they needed for a successful and happy relationship. This relationship became the foundation for every other relationship we have in life.


Though the family relationship is crumbling today—nearly one third of all babies born in the United States last year were born to single mothers—most people are born into a family. A child's first human relationships are with his or her parents. It's hard to describe the depth of love the parents have for their children, and as time goes by, the children grow to love their parents as well.

Family The Bible shows us that a child's love is to be expressed in a special way in the parent-child relationship. In Exodus 20:12, God instructed His people to, "Honor your father and your mother." Respect lies at the foundation of any relationship, and we learn to respect others through the very first relationship we have in life, the relationship with our parents.

While we would hope that parents would be worthy of respect, God says nothing about respecting them if they have earned our respect. Failing to properly respect a parent will certainly harm that relationship, but there is another important facet to this instruction. If we don't learn to show respect in this relationship, we will find it difficult to have the proper respect in our other relationships in life.

It is also from our parents that we learn how adults relate to one another. Though love and romance are certainly a part of the relationship we see between our mother and father, we also learn that marriage involves a lot more than romance. If we see the mutual respect and cooperation that is supposed to be at the heart of this relationship, it will have a powerful impact upon our understanding of how men and women are supposed to relate successfully to one another.

Brothers and sisters

Most families have more than one child, so the next relationships we learn about are between us and our brothers and sisters. In this situation, we may learn that there are some people we like more than others, but we can still love and respect everyone. We also learn that our relationship with a brother is different from a relationship with a sister. Brothers may be more likely to roughhouse and sisters to share private matters with each other.

The relationship between a brother and sister is a different kind of relationship. We learn that men and women think and act differently, and we may irritate each other, yet these relationships are often very special and have a lasting impact for many years. Many a young man has learned how to treat a young lady through his relationship with his mother and his sister.

Sisters As we grow older, we begin to form relationships outside the family with friends, neighbors, teachers and others we meet. The respect and appreciation we learned in our family should carry over to these new relationships. As we get to know more people, we can come to appreciate the unique differences that make us who we are. We will also learn that relationships can be harmed, sometimes irreparably, when we fail to respect and appreciate others.

As we mature, we come to understand more deeply what Jesus Christ meant when He said, "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12, NRSV). If we want our relationships to be successful, uplifting and positive, we must treat others the way we want to be treated. A person who lives this way just doesn't think about putting others down or ridiculing those who are different. Instead, he or she appreciates the unique perspective each person can add to our lives.

Be proactive

Are you familiar with the term "proactive"? It is the opposite of "reactive." Reactive people go through life reacting to situations. They react when someone doesn't treat them the way they think they should be treated. They seem to constantly roll from one crisis to another, and their relationships are often volatile and fragile.

Proactive people, on the other hand, are leaders. They take the lead in treating other people positively and respectfully. They don't wait for someone else to do the right thing and then react to it; they lead the way in doing and saying what is right. Their relationships tend to be more stable and positive because their approach encourages others to be more positive. When it comes to your relationships, which one are you—reactive or proactive? That's a choice you and I must make every day.

As long as we live, unless we become hermits, we're going to be in relationships with many different people. Most of those relationships will be friendships of varying degrees of closeness with those we encounter at work and play. Some relationships will be deep and lasting, while some will be shorter. We generally don't know which will last and which ones won't. Doesn't it make sense to do all we can to make each relationship as positive as it can be?

Mutual respect, a genuine appreciation for each individual's unique strengths, treating others in the way we want to be treated—these are tools for relationship building. We cannot change the whole world—yet—but we can change the relationships within our circle of influence. We can be proactive in building up others we know and care about. And each relationship built upon these foundational principles will be a shining example for others to see and imitate. YU

About the author:
David Johnson pastors United Church of God congregations in Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and Paducah, Kentucky.

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