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

Worthy: on untying little sandals and who it is we’re serving

“…I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal.”John 1:27

“I was hungry, and you fed me. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me….when you did it to one of the least of these…you were doing it to me!”Matthew 25:35-36, 40

I’ve never looked at these two passages in tandem before, but I thought the parallel was thought-provoking: when you take care of people, you take care of Christ.

p.s. That’s an honor, because we’re not even worthy to tend to his sandals.

I’ve heard that marriage, parenting, and even the privilege of full-time ministry can be “a series of little deaths,” as we lay down our expectations and rights and desires for the sake of those we are called to serve. I think we only humble ourselves to the point of those little deaths when we remember that the One who asks us to do so led the way himself.

I have often found it helpful, whether I’m having difficulty with a stranger or family, to look past the person I am directly interacting with to the Savior who is teaching me how to treat them. When I see him, all my excuses about how it’s not fair and they don’t deserve it and I’m too tired fall away, because whatever it is he is asking of me, he is absolutely worthy of it. This person in front of me, I could easily find a reason to turn away from.

But how could I say no to the one who has given up everything for me?

Today, as I feed, clothe, and unfasten sandals, may I remember who I’m really doing it for, and that I am not even worthy to be his slave. 

Lord,

Make me a humble and willing servant, eager to give to and help those who are precious to you in any way I can. 

Authentic generosity and willingness to serve are two of the clearest displays that someone is becoming more like you – the only one who is worthy of all service and yet laid down his position and rights and very life to serve.

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.