Strong Houses: on troubled relationships and the courage to tread new paths

Oh Lord…take pity on your servants! Satisfy us each morning with your unfailing love, so we may sing for joy to the end of our lives. Give us gladness in proportion to our former misery! Replace the evil years with good. Let us, your servants see you work again; let our children see your glory.

Psalm 90:13-16

Cody and I got to go out for coffee one afternoon in October – we were offered some surprise babysitting so we could put some quality time toward our marriage.

It was a sweet time, but a lot of it was spent in tears as we took stock of some of the walls we’ve had up toward each other and just how we have struggled, especially through the adjustment of having Abishai, the travel problems, struggles feeding the baby, and post-partum emotions. We both felt at a loss for how to cope with that season. We reacted poorly and now we’re trying to sort through it all and break bad patterns. It’s easy to just wish it could go back to how it was before; back to when our relationship just worked. But we don’t want that. We want to press through this to the place where our marriage is better than before. We want to stare down the hard things in our relationship and work at them and believe that God is growing something even deeper and sweeter.

A hopeful moment in the conversation was when we verbalized the truth that this hard season did not take a beautiful relationship and wreck it.

Each of these stacked-up challenges added pressure to a relationship that was functioning okay, but had some harmful undercurrents. God allowed a hard season to push to the surface dynamics in our marriage that he was not content to leave the way they were. His desire is to transform what does not line up with his design and his character – not just in our hearts as individuals, but in our relationships with each other.

He is teaching us not to be disheartened or discouraged but to come to him and humbly ask him to change what we cannot. We are powerless to be any different, but in Christ, we have all that we need to walk forward; and we have all confidence that we are walking forward toward something good.

He is also teaching me to change my thinking toward my son. I am starting to see how easy it is to lose the joy of our relationship because I see parenting him as a matter of my performance. I tend to think of him in terms of the academic – a problem I can solve if only I study hard enough, a test I can get a good grade on if I put in the work. But Abishai is a complex soul, a growing heart, a person who longs for love, attention, and control just like I do. A firecracker like me who wrestles to manage the same anger, frustration and intensity, but with a lot less practice. And God have given us to each other; and given himself to us.

For a goal-oriented person who likes to hustle and shoot high and work with all my might, it is a strange thing to discover that sometimes the best thing I can do for my relationships is to relax toward them; to stop fighting to make sure everything goes right and to lay down my many expectations, both for myself and for my people. Marriage and parenting are both callings that take hard work and I want to do a good job so badly. But a big part my job is to enjoy, appreciate and notice the sweetness of the gift I have been given.

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Family is not just a job; it’s a treasure. It’s a context in which we work out our understanding of who God is and who we are – it’s the most important place for us to stand still and see him work on our behalf.

Family is where we grow in how we handle pressure, weariness, pinch points, and passion. It’s where we practice sharing, giving, encouraging, handling insult, and allowing for faults. It’s companionship for the funny moments, the little stresses, and the daily decisions that no one else may witness.

It’s not an arena for competition. It’s a garden for tending: a place for spotting beauty, giving thanks, and celebrating the growth of good fruit. It’s a sanctuary of waiting, trusting, hoping, holding steady and holding our breath to see what will break through the surface. It is soil that holds all kinds of potential, a calling to plant seeds faithfully and cultivate the good growth and new life God gives.

It is not a computer program with predictable input and output. No. It is far more beautiful than that.

Oh Lord,

Help me to see it, to really see it, and to thank you.

Please give us gladness in proportion to our former misery. Let us, your servants, see you work again. Satisfy us with your love. In our marriage and in our family, teach us to come to you for the strength to tread new paths. Fill our hearts with hope toward what you can do with what feels wrecked, with the deep ruts we don’t see a way out of, and with the scarred, tender places where have snagged a hundred times already. We invite you to step in, to transform what we are helpless to change. Lord, we need you desperately. Let us see you work beyond our highest expectations and let our children see your glory.

With each of my people, help my heart to see this truth: they are not my audience, they are not my rival, and they are not my project. They are your gift to me. And you are the builder who is knocking away our crumbling places so that you may lay steady foundations in their place.

May I learn to let my soul rest, to thank you, and to take courage – for you give good gifts and you build strong houses.

Unless the Lord builds a house,
    the work of the builders is wasted.
Unless the Lord protects a city,
    guarding it with sentries will do no good.
It is useless for you to work so hard
    from early morning until late at night,
anxiously working for food to eat;
    for God gives rest to his loved ones.

Children are a gift from the Lord;
    they are a reward from him.

Psalm 127:1-3

Stay In The Room: on grace with each other that doesn’t give up

While he was eating, a woman came in with a beautiful alabaster jar of expensive perfume and poured it over his head. The disciples were indignant when they saw this, “What a waste!”

…but Jesus, aware of this, said, “Why criticize this woman for doing such a good thing to me?”…from that time on, Judas began looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus.

Matthew 26:7-10, 16

Greed, dishonesty, and theft were already at work in Judas. But here, we witness a turning point. He sees someone freely pour out something precious for Jesus – a treasure wasted, in Judas’ opinion. A loss. A disagreement about how to manage resources. A “That is it!” moment. And Judas heads into the night, in more ways than one.

His story teaches me that I need to be wary when I start to get frustrated with how things are being managed, when resources start to become more precious than people, when the way a decision is handled tempts me to throw up my hands and throw in the towel. May I have the wisdom to hold my tongue and tread carefully when my heart grows angry enough to say “That is it!”

Bad decisions often follow.

In this season of much disagreement – in our nation, in our churches, and in our homes – my need to tend to my heart is greater than ever. It is labor-intensive to weed out the pride, bitterness, greed, and criticism that so easily take up residence within me.

As we work alongside others to manage the time and resources God has given, and as our lives are impacted by the decisions of others – how desperately I need him to give me a gentleness and a calm toward choices that are handled differently than I expect and toward events that may unfold differently than I hoped. We are not called to control our future, or to control each other. We are called to control ourselves in how we think about the future and in how we handle each other.

I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge…let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then…you will overflow with thankfulness.

Colossians 2:2-3, 7

In all that is uncertain, I can be completely confident that I understand God’s mysterious plan: it’s Christ himself. The savior who laid down his life to rescue any of us who place our trust in him from the penalty and power of our sin. The author and finisher of our faith who lives in and through us and leads us forward when things get hairy. The solid rock where we find our firm footing. The vine that produces in us the kind of life that lays itself down for the sake of others, and reaches so far beyond our sad standard of love.

God’s plan and his instructions have much more to do with how I live through the events unfolding around me that it does with what those events are.

…you must clothe yourselves with tender-hearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives

Colossians 3:12-16

He does not require me to be carefully placed and painstakingly balanced within a very specific set of circumstances in order to display his power. The mystery and wonder of Christ in me is that his strength is enough and I can be thrown to lions, dropped in a furnace, overcome with illness, locked up, chased down or silenced with stones and He will still do exactly what he intends to in and through my life.

My hardships, weaknesses, and circumstances do not limit him in the least. Nothing threatens his plan for my life. And he asks me to fill my life not with questions about the future or a determination to steer it, but with the message of Christ as my firm foundation that gives me the fortitude to face absolutely anything, and to walk through it extending grace to other people.

When it comes to staying encouraged, maintaining unity, conquering evil impulses, and walking in new life – Christ is the secret, the source of power, and the only strategy.

When the pressure dials up, may I be confident that I understand exactly what God’s plan is and exactly where to turn for the help to carry it out. May I learn to sink my roots down deep into him and hang on tight. May I set my eyes on him alone and be renewed as I learn to know him.

Everything is wrapped up in him and to the degree that my life is, too, I live thankful, at peace, and able to extend a grace that doesn’t give up. It is out of that steady place that I can work willingly at whatever I do, forgive anyone who offends me, make allowance for the faults of others, take on his tender-hearted mercy in my interactions, put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking with me, and invite him into my most desperate moments, trusting him to transform what I am helpless to change.

Oh Lord,

When we reach our “That is it!” moments with each other, give us the courage to stay in the room and keep fighting for this to work. Give us the wisdom to turn our back on the night, not on the relationships that have become strained. Encourage our hearts so that we don’t give up on each other.

Take us deeper into an understanding of you so that we are changed from the inside out. Help us to offer ourselves and all we have daily to be used however you please. Remind us that we are united by something so much more significant than the issues that weigh down our relationships and leave us wanting to slam the door. Give us a glimpse of the forgiveness we have been given, and may it soften our hearts toward each other.

Equip us to understand how to walk in your power and display the life and abundance you offer to all who believe – to all who lay aside their pale efforts and revel in what you have accomplished on the cross – to all who trust you for this next step, too.

…those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength...

Isaiah 40:31

Fulcrum: what’s the next step when we can’t get along?

“This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.  There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

John 15:12-13

“I will gladly spend myself and all I have for you…Everything we do, dear friends, is to strengthen you.”

2 Corinthians 12:15, 19

What does love look like? It lays down all it owns for the sake of the beloved.

This is what Christ did for me. He gave up position, wealth, recognition, respect, power, comfort, dignity, and then, after all of that, He gave up his life. For me.

As he prepared to face the cross, he left this instruction with his followers:  Love each other the same way. i.e. Lay down absolutely everything for each other if you have to.

I have a love-hate relationship with verses about this kind of love. It’s beautiful and it describes who I want to become, but these sentences often sting because my heart attitude is so unlike them.

Freely spend myself and all I have for you? No thank you. Even with everything I’ve been given, I count the cost, I weigh the risk, I hold my rights close.

I’ve read that among the many stresses of serving overseas, co-worker conflict can be the tipping point that sends a missionary home. It’s one of the top three reasons people leave the field earlier than anticipated. We’ve been warned over and over about it.  

Now, here we are. We’re preparing to join a new team and a new way of doing things. We’ll be working with them on a tight schedule, in close proximity, and under a lot of pressure. And I’ve been anxious that we may wrestle a little to find our rhythm with each other.

So, it’s been my prayer that God will prepare us to work through any misunderstandings or clashes that come up and that, in His grace, we will mesh well with each other and be a team that is a joy and encouragement to each other and to those we are there to serve.

I think, in answer to that prayer, He has been driving home with me how much a selfless, humble attitude does to smooth interactions with others and diffuse conflict. He has been calling my attention to his example: willing to take the lowest position, willing to cover great cost without being repaid, willing to forego recognition or attention.

Gently, he has been pointing out how little I resemble that example, with my son, in my marriage, and in my own family. If I am to follow it, not only in those intimate relationships, but in my every-day, rubbing shoulders relationships, there must be a shift.

In Philippians 2, Paul asks his readers to imitate Christ; and he calls their attention not just to a specific set of behaviors, but to an attitude that reveals itself in a pattern of choices.

The attitude is the fulcrum.

The behaviors build up to the reveal of that attitude:

“Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ had…He humbled himself…therefore God elevated him to the place of highest honor…”

Philippians 2:3-5, 8-9

What were the “do not’s” in this passage? Selfishness. The need to impress. The relentless pursuit of my own interests. What do all those behaviors point to?

They reveal a fulcrum of PRIDE.

That’s why they are so unlike Christ. And so, Paul pleads with the believers in Philippi to humble themselves, because even the One deserving of all the glory chose an attitude of humility as his pattern. And God says this is what leads to the honor we’re all so hungry for in the first place.

We all have a fulcrum. Working closely with other people is often the context that makes what that fulcrum is so clear. If I am to love my team, I must prepare myself to lay down many things, and the first of those things is my pride.

Lord,

You will be working on this with me my whole life long. Humility is the divine crafting of your hands alone. I am not naturally driven to seek it or even able, in my fallenness, to produce authentic humility. But as I set my eyes on you, you are moving me closer to understanding two things:

  1. Humility is one of your most beautiful works.
  2. You are faithfully building it in my life.

Help me to lay down my craving for honor.

Help me to cling to the promise that you honor those who humble themselves, and it is more satisfying than any recognition this world could offer. Change my attitude, Lord, and the behavior will follow.

When my actions, my words, my pattern of choices show a drift, help me to recognize it: these are the products of pride. The next step is not to grow discouraged with the ugliness of it or fret over the trend I see. The next step is just to humble myself.

How do I follow the example of Christ in all I am called to decide and navigate? What is the next step when we can’t get along?

A humble attitude is a pretty reliable place to start.

Hostility Radar: on how to not be harsh in conflict

“…throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life…Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes…get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words…Instead, be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”

Ephesians 4:22-23, 31-32
 

These used to be words I read over easily and nodded my head, “yes, yes, don’t let anger control you, be kind and forgiving, got it.” But in this season of my life, stripped down and rubbed raw by all the moving and transition and stress and adjustment, I have been poring over scripture, desperately searching for help with my anger.

My two sweetest relationships: with the Lord and with Cody, have been riddled with conflict and punctuated with my outbursts. And so this week, I sat long with this passage. It describes the purge of what is harsh and the renewal of tender-heartedness that I so long for.

My response: “Yes, but how?”

The answer provided in the passage is: Instead, let the Spirit.

As I have processed this last year and some of the difficulties I’ve walked through, I’ve come to realize how easy it is to place myself in a stand-off with God, to grow frustrated with Him and accuse Him, and then end up feeling hopeless because I don’t like how He’s doing things, but where else can I turn?

Two verses from Romans helped me to understand this pattern of what I tend to do and what it means to insteadlet the Spirit:

1.  “For the sinful nature is always hostile to God.”  

Romans 8:7

The stand-offs, the arguments, the frustration, the hostility, these are not some new dynamic in my relationship with the Lord that I have to figure out how to navigate. No. The sinful nature IS ALWAYS hostile to God. These attitudes are only the sinful nature’s expected response to trouble. This is how it always acts. It’s that annoying character in the story who takes every opportunity to pick a fight. Hostile thoughts are not cause for alarm, they only signal that I need to adjust who I’m listening to.

2. Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?”

Romans 8:35

 
This is the new nature’s response to trouble: yes, God has allowed something hard, but that does not mean I am separated from his love. It doesn’t mean that I have lost his favor, or that I’m doing something wrong, or that he’s no longer on my side. Trouble does not equal abandonment. The Spirit speaks truth and the new nature clings to it.
 
One response is filled with suspicion. The other chooses to operate on trust. I can lean into my frustration and my demand for answers, or I can instead, let the Spirit answer my troubled heart with the reassurance that it is not unloved.

And so, I am slowly learning not to put myself at odds with God when I don’t understand my circumstances. It is in hard situations that I most need to let the Spirit speak truth rather than allowing my fear and hurt and confusion to push down his words. I need to recognize that when hostile thoughts crop up, it is a sign I have been listening to the sin nature’s poisonous words and started to distrust the One who is only ever true.

In the same way, I think the how of exchanging harsh for tender-hearted in my marriage lies in recognizing hostility.

Just as hostility toward God is how the sinful nature always responds to trouble, I think that hostility toward each other is how the sinful nature always responds to conflict. Hostility is NOT an inevitable symptom of how serious the disagreement or misunderstanding is.

I have been operating in frustrated, angry helplessness as we face our conflicts, knowing that I’m doing this wrong but not sure how to do it differently. I’m all fired up, but determined to press on because I’m sure we can’t get to a better place until we solve the problem at hand, so it’s bound to be messy until it’s settled.

But I have been wrong.

We can get to a better place before we solve the problem at hand. If I only recognize that the reason I’m angry and harsh and exploding is not because of the conflict, it’s because of the sin nature. If we let the Spirit in, we can then work at the problem while still offering kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness to each other. We can be in the midst of a conflict and at the same time not hostile with each other. We can problem-solve while we walk in the Spirit.

And so, as I walk forward, I must have a radar always operating that checks for hostility with every sweep. Conflict does not equal hostility, and a blip on the radar lets me know it’s time to step back, check who I am listening to, and alter course.

Lord-

I know there’s a learning curve here, and I desperately want to get it. Please be my teacher. Please show me how to recognize when I am operating out of anger and bitterness. Let my own harsh words catch my attention. Let me not over-complicate what’s going on, but recognize that I have a sin nature, eager to jump into a fight and an enemy, eager to destroy us, who only waits for the foothold anger gives him to force his way in and stir up all sorts of trouble.

Teach us, Lord, to be a team who knows how desperately we need you and who always, always lets you in to our troubles, trusting you to renew our thoughts and attitudes, to give us a fresh beginning at what feels so impossible and new understanding of what feel so hurtful. Remind us that we are working together at this. We are not enemies.

Supply kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness to the point of overflowing so we have plenty to buffer us through the rough spots.

The rapids can be bumpy when you are white water rafting, but if there’s enough water in the river you don’t snag on the stones. Let it be so with the kindness and grace you pour into our relationship, for we have been snagging.

Lord, we need your help and your Spirit living within us to guide us through our conflicts so that we are not waiting until we reach the other side of the rapids for things to be okay in the raft.

Help me to grow toward maturity and learn, in the heat of the moment, to let the Spirit in. May I start to see what a difference you are able to make in the midst of my helplessness and what beauty you are able to craft from my struggles if I only invite you into them.