Relationships with people are a sweet gift our Father entrusts to us. Through friendships, siblings, spouses, children, neighbors, and mentors we can experience love, encouragement, being known, and helped in our lives as we work out our salvation and grow up into Christ. These gifts of God’s grace are deposited in our hearts not only as we receive relationship, but as we offer ourselves to others.
Sounds so easy and full of warm fuzzies, right?! Wrong! In fact, our relationships provide a key context for learning how to “…take up our cross daily” and follow Jesus (see Luke 9:23-25). God allows relationships to be a regular source of disappointment while we face not only the sins of others but our own. However, when we view these painful circumstances through his redemptive purposes, we discover some surprisingly sweet spiritual fruit that God seeks to mature in our lives.
So how can we begin to process the pain of relational disappointment from a redemptive perspective? The following two truths and a lie offer us a helpful place to start.
Truth: God uses relational disappointments to draw us closer to himself
It hurts when someone we trust, or a person we desire to cultivate a relationship with, doesn’t come through. When people fail us, there may be difficult conversations that need to happen—or even biblical confrontation to pursue. And yet, whether they’re oblivious to our needs or unable to give us the love we crave, relational disappointments are always occasions for us to draw near to Christ. Remember that God promises to be near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18) and that Jesus is actively seeking closeness with you through his Spirit and Word. None of the pain that enters your life through people is wasted when it leads you to fellowship with Christ.
When I’ve needed comfort due to relational ache, these wise words from Andrew Murray often steady my heart and lift my gaze towards the Lord:
“Abide in Christ! This is indeed the Father’s object in sending the trial. In the storm the tree strikes deeper roots in the soil; in the hurricane the inhabitants of the house abide within, and rejoice in its shelter. So by suffering the Father would lead us to enter more deeply into the love of Christ.” 
Truth: God can use relational disappointment to protect and redirect us
Sometimes our Father, the holy and sovereign Vinedresser, allows a person to disappoint us because he’s pruning us from selfishness or removing a person who’s more of a distraction than an encouragement for our spiritual journey. When you experience the trial of betrayal or disappointment in a relationship, remember that God is ultimately in control of our circumstances. God never causes people to sin against us, but he will use it for his purposes to go forward in our lives.
“In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” (Ps. 139:16)
God’s sovereign rule over our days extends to all of the ways we experience the people in our lives. Our Father will actively intervene with protective love, using the weaknesses and sins of others to guard his plans for us. Will you believe the Psalmist’s words deeply enough to trust them when someone disappoints you?
God also uses relational disappointment to detach us from idolatrous dynamics with those who so easily captivate our hearts and desires in ways that become sinful and enslaving. When you’re confronted with someone’s lack of desire or inability to meet your perceived needs, cry out to your Father in heaven who loves you. It may be that he’s pruning you to bring forth growth in response to a good gift (a person and the relationship you share with them) functioning like a god in your life. Tim Keller expresses it beautifully:
“When you feel the steel, cling to the Vine. The Vinedresser never cuts something away unless it is a gain to lose because it would be a loss to keep. There are no random strokes! Trust your Father, knowing you don’t know the whole picture of what He is up to.” 
These are hard truths to take in. I know—I’ve experienced this uncomfortable pruning many times before. But a redemptive perspective on the situation can help us to take heart. Sometimes God redeems our relational disappointments by redirecting our energy and attention to the good works he’s prepared for us to walk in (see Eph. 2:10). Are there other people in your life that he wants you to invest in? Are you seeing fresh ministry opportunities that you’ve been previously blinded to? Is there a future marriage he is preparing you for, or is he awakening you to guard and nurture the marriage you presently have?
Lie: Disappointments in our relationships always indicate unrealistic expectations
Perhaps you’ve been told that you want to much, or that your hopes in friendship, marriage, or parenting are selfish and unrealistic. These observations may be true, but not necessarily.
It is right and good to expect a spouse to be faithful to their wedding vows, however imperfectly. It honors Christ to expect and exhort fellow believers to live out the gospel in the ways they relate to you (Heb. 3:12-13). Of course sin taints all our relationships on this side of heaven—this we know well enough (Jas. 4:1)! And yet, the Spirit enables believers to bear the beautiful fruit of Christ’s life to each other. We have Christ-fueled, faith-enabled realism operating when we expect Christians to live in Christlike ways (Jas. 1:22).
While it’s true that relational disappointments are painful to endure, it’s also true that God can use them to woo us to Christ, our perfect companion. Come to him with your disappointments and receive whatever gifts he’s depositing in you through the ways you’ve been let down. And as you wait for God to work in your strained relationships, commit to love and serve others as Jesus Christ did (Ro. 12:9-21). He knows what it is to be despised, rejected, betrayed, wrongly accused, even crucified by other people, yet he still trusted that the Father’s redemptive purposes would ultimately prevail (1 Pt. 2:23).
Stream the podcast interview Hope + Help for Toxic Relationships to hear more from Ellen on this topic.
 Andrew Murray, Abide in Christ, https://www.worldinvisible.com/library/murray/5f00.0562/5f00.0562.19.htm, accessed June 26, 2023.
 Tim Keller, “The Vinedresser”, https://gospelinlife.com/downloads/the-vinedresser-5769/, accessed June 26, 2023.