Many years ago, when I was in college, I bought my first adult car for $500. As the old saying goes: A $500 car doesn’t go far. This proved true as it generally didn’t get far between breakdowns. Being a poor college kid, I was forced to learn the gentle art of automobile repair and maintenance. Surprisingly, I found that I really enjoyed fixing things. I love diagnosing a problem and replacing parts. However, over the years I have also discovered that I hate doing maintenance work. I will happily replace a water pump, but cringe at the thought of changing oil or doing a tuneup. It’s just easier to not do maintenance. The problem, of course, is that not doing maintenance results in frequent breakdowns, poor fuel economy, and shorter lifespan for the vehicle in general. The same is often true of many men. Solving a problem is more interesting to them than working to maintain things. Unfortunately, this tendency often translates into married life.
Before proceeding further, I’m going to acknowledge that this is a very guy-oriented illustration for understanding marriage, but this is intentional because this post is aimed at men. For many men, dating and courtship go hand in hand and ultimately deliver them to the altar with their new wife. This is a problem to be worked on, a goal to be achieved, or an objective to be reached. Unfortunately, this can represent the end of courtship. The job is completed and now its time to put the tools away. It is not unusual for men to take on new projects after marriage, like career advancement. Its not that he no longer loves or desires his wife. Instead, it is easy to see her as “won.” The relational tools that served him so well when trying to win a wife become increasingly less used. Romance, long conversations, and thoughtful gifts grow increasingly less frequent and sometimes cease altogether. As the years pass by, date nights and gifts of flowers are all too often replaced with nights on the couch watching television and gifts of vacuum cleaners or other practicalities. The trend often accelerates with the arrival of children, which gives both parents a new object of focus that demands their relational energy. The movement away from the courting stage often results in married couples that lack connection and eventually become glorified roommates. In addition, as the “pursuit” phase of the relationship fades, it becomes easier for men to fight without making up; after all, the spouse’s affections have already been won so there is no point in winning them again. There is no job to be done. The relationship still basically works. Why bother fixing it?
The problem with this is that it generally results in unhappiness in the marriage and frequently leads to divorce. Though the solution sounds simple, it is easy for men to take it for granted. Men must learn to take on their end of the responsibility for regular maintenance of the relationship in the form of courting behaviors. Going on dates, buying romantic gifts, just talking for the sake of talking, and maintaining interests apart from child-rearing are a few suggestions, but anything that results in building up the relationship will do. This is sort of like changing the relationship spark plugs and air filter. It’s not challenging, but it needs to be done, particularly when kids enter the picture. Several years ago, my wife and I realized after our daughter’s first birthday that we had only gone out alone together twice in the previous year. Courtship and routine relationship work had fallen to the wayside. If it had been allowed to stay there, our relationship would eventually stall and leave us stranded with a bigger set of repairs to do. When couples find themselves in this predicament, they often simply opt to sell and find a newer model.
To be fair, this maintenance work is not the responsibility of only one partner. Both spouses ought to look for ways to entice and woo their mate. It is important that this task be taken on with the understanding that open communication about intentions is vital and that your spouse may not respond in the way you want them to. However, if your partner doesn’t simply conform to your relational preferences, it is necessary to recognize that courting is done in order to help build the relationship, not for your immediate gratification. Love is selfless, which means focusing on the other’s needs. Often, effort and time are needed before damage done through ongoing patterns of neglect are repaired. Sometimes, it is necessary for time to go by before courting patterns change the situation. It is also necessary to understand that patterns that develop in relationships over the course of years will not be undone in a matter of days. It may take time and regular intentional maintenance work before things run smoothly, but the payoff is worth it.
It’s 2 AM and I am sitting up with a sick baby. I would much rather be sleeping, but my poor 15-month old has a cold and was fussing. So, I hopped out of bed, fed him, gave him medicine, and am now holding my son until he dozes off. I would rather be sleeping, but I find myself subject to a higher law. I love my boy more than I love sleep. Perhaps the biggest blessing I have experienced as a parent is the opportunity to see another human being in a similar light to how God sees humanity. As I sit with my cranky child, the verse that keeps running through my head is from Psalm 8.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty!
It’s important to understand that humanity is like one huge collection of sick and cranky children. We are infected with an inclination to rebel against out Creator. At the core of our beings, we are sick, broken, and often hurting as a result. God loves us so immensely that He sent His only begotten Son to take our punishment for us on the cross. We are forgiven because He suffered our deserved punishment. Through this forgiveness, we are adopted as sons of God. Even after being forgiven God, still brings us through the slow process of spiritual healing, though we often fight Him every step of the way. God does this out of the boundless and perfect love of an eternal Father toward his creation. The parental love we witness and experience is a shadow of His perfect love. It is a blessing to experience and understand the Father’s perspective, even if it’s only a pale shadow.
I would suggest that this is a perspective that all creatures are capable of understanding at least in part. All people have parents. Through our relationships with them, we experience the same shadow of His love for us. Even if we do not have a good relationship with our parents, we experience a deep need and yearning for parental affection. This need is built in, and through, our thirst we can understand the magnitude of God’s love for us.
In the closing chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul takes the time to address a brewing church fight. Throughout the letter, he seems to touch on the problems that were slowly boiling in the church, while addressing other matters ranging from his experience in prison to dealing with persecution. In the closing remarks of his letter, the apostle bluntly asks for Euodia and Syntyche to live in harmony. Apparently, these women had some sort of interpersonal conflict that had been ongoing and created enough trouble that Paul addresses it directly in his letter. It is important to note that Paul isn’t correcting some evil behavior one or the other is engaging in. Rather, it seems that they just couldn’t seem to get along with each other. Though it seems frivolous, this is an issue that stands at the heart of the most church fights I have encountered in my career. Seldom do modern believers come into conflict with each other over theological matters. Rather, the modern church often fights over issues of personal preference and interpersonal conflict. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes fights are over weighty theological issues, though at times theological issues act as a smokescreen to cover more petty reasons for church schism and disharmony in the body. The same holds true of many other relationships believers find themselves participating in.
Paul’s address of the conflict between the two women is no isolated request. It is part of a larger trend in his work, urging believers to seek harmony and unity, even encouraging grace over theological differences in non-essential matters. This is an issue of significant importance to Paul. So much so that he doesn’t simply give an isolated instruction. Instead, he follows up the direction that they learn to live in harmony by offering a handful of practical suggestions. These suggestions include the use of a mediator of sorts, prayer, etc. One particularly interesting direction is found in Philippians 4:8 “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” This is not just a direction to think positively. It is an instruction regarding the sorts of things we focus on. Most of us have encountered people who just rub them the wrong way. Irritation and friction are common whenever people are expected to interact with each other. One foolproof way to make it worse is to spend time ruminating over perceived wrongs and slights. This time spent replaying or just thinking about things that have been said or done by others often results in more anger and irritation. It’s a little like adding fuel to a fire to keep it alive. In my time as a minister, I have talked to countless people who have kept a resentment alive for years by simply spending time thinking through past wrongs. I have never met anyone who was happier or better off for spending time and energy keeping a resentment hot. Instead, it usually results in bitterness and further disharmony. Paul’s direction to focus on whatever is honorable, good, etc. involves building our thought life around things that will produce good fruit and move us toward the sort of righteousness that God intended us to exude and the kind of harmonious relationship he desires for his children. The practice of training our thoughts on praiseworthy matters is a mental discipline that can quickly contribute to ending fights in our marriages, families, churches, and community. It is easier to forgive, overlook, and get along with someone if you don’t spend huge amounts of mental and emotional energy keeping the fires of animosity burning hot. Grace is easier to offer if we keep no record of wrongs. This is not an instant occurrence in our lives.It is much harder to forgive a wound we keep fresh by picking at the scab.There is a natural tendency in people to remember wrongs and develop resentments. Keeping our thought life focused on honorable and good things takes effort and intentionality. It needs to be worked at every day. Further, in a believer’s life it is accomplished through the intervention of the Spirit, in response to prayer. As we grow spiritually, we learn to forgive and focus on those things that Paul listed. Conversely, if we fail to discipline our thought lives, we will not mature spiritually. Resentments will always hinder intimacy with God.
Perhaps the hardest bit of advice I ever received from a mentor was that I needed to pray more. Normally, being told that you need to pray shouldn’t be an overly difficult suggestion, but this was related to a couple of guys I was working with at the time, who were creating significant difficulty for me. They were making my work harder and undermining me with my supervisor. During the several months I was working with these two individuals, I spent hours every evening fuming and dreaded going to work in the morning. After several months of misery, I approached my mentor and asked him what I could do to deal with the problem. His response made me angry. He asked me how praying for them was going, also reminding me that Jesus directs his followers to pray for their enemies. I didn’t argue, because I knew I was stuck. This began a process of prayer that changed my life. It was hard to pray for the men in question, largely because I didn’t want to do it. The idea of praying for these guys who had made me miserable for months scalded me. It offended me through and through. Praying for my enemies, and as dramatic as it sounds, they were my enemies, was difficult at first. As time progressed, it became increasingly easier and I learned several important lessons.
First, I learned that praying for folks that I disliked had a profound effect on me. I increasingly learned to love the folks who mistreated me. My resentments slowly ebbed away. I began to rejoice when God brought blessing into their lives. Ultimately, prayer accomplished something amazing in me, it changed my heart. Through prayer, I became more like Jesus, a gain that makes all of the discomfort more than worthwhile.
The second major lesson I learned happened in the months and years that followed. One of the guys I was praying for received a huge blessing in his life that resulted in his moving to another job. I celebrated an answer to prayer in the form of God blessing him and also in his departure. The other guy I was praying for changed slowly over time and eventually became a very different person. The changes God made in his heart were evident and a reason for celebration. Prayer changes things. In this case, it changed the guys I was praying for. This is important because God is capable of accomplishing great things in our world.
A final lesson I learned from praying for my enemies happened years later, when I began praying for another fellow I found myself in conflict with. During my first sit down to pray for him, I was suddenly convicted of the various actions I had taken in response to the unpleasantness I was encountering. A simple question came to mind: Is he seeing Jesus in my responses? I will admit that I knew I hadn’t been turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile. I didn’t want to. I wanted to exact my pound of flesh. I began to employ Christ’s other teachings for dealing with my enemy and my relationship with the individual changed. In fact, within a short period I had become friends with him. The product of prayer in this case was conviction of my own sins. That conviction resulted in new action that resulted in a change in the situation. Through prayer, God brought to light my own failure to imitate Christ in my reactions to mistreatment.
At the most basic level, the direction to pray for our enemies is one that is prominent in the teachings of Christ. This is the single best reason for doing it. I can testify as to the various benefits that have resulted from my prayer experiences, but the reason we ought to do it is because Jesus commands it. If He is Lord in our lives, we must do it. Fortunately, it is a teaching that, though counterintuitive, has some clear benefits to believers.
My first ministry job was as a youth pastor. When I started, the church had over 200 members and was growing. 9 years and 5 church fights later, we left a congregation of 20, swearing that we would never work in a church again. During my tenure, I had seen folks act poorly, gossip, mistreat each other (and me), and all manner of other unpleasantness. When I left the church, I took a job as a chaplain at a mental health facility for children with emotional disorders. It was volatile, frequently violent, and a breath of fresh air. I used to joke that even though the kids sometimes tried to punch you, at least they were attacking you out in the open and to your face. It took my wife and I years to decide to agree to take on ministry employment in a church again. There is a terrible truth about churches that has to be faced by anyone who is (or was) ever a part of one. The people who are meant to become like Jesus through their lives together in the church community, often bear little resemblance to Jesus or what He taught. Over the years, I have spoken with and visited with all sorts of folks who have shared tough stories, ones that I can relate to all too well. Folks were burned by people that were supposed to love and support them. It’s a tragedy that such experiences are so common. While talking with a friend earlier this afternoon, I realized how blessed I was to have been surrounded and supported by some awesome believers who helped my wife and I find rest and healing after a tumultuous time in our lives and relationship with God. The basic lessons and realizations we came to were powerful and important.
One of the major lessons I learned was from the Apostle Paul. While studying the second letter to Corinth, I realized that Paul had come to visit the church there and been humiliated and run out of town. A group of preachers, who were more concerned with making money than preaching the gospel, had made a fool of Paul in a debate. Paul then sent Titus to salvage his relationship with the church. He was eventually reconciled with them and the false teachers run off. The thing that’s worth observing here is that Paul was stabbed in the back, mocked, and mistreated by folks who were supposed to be his brothers in Christ. His response was stern, but loving. He did not back down off of the truth, but throughout the whole ordeal he pointed to Jesus as the truth. He did not want payback. He wanted the church to be reconciled. Ultimately, he was just following the example of Christ, who reinstated Peter after he denied even knowing Christ. The lesson to be learned here isn’t that we should jump back into the mess after walking away from those who abused us. Rather, it is a model of forgiveness and grace. It is very easy to fall into bitterness after we are hurt. It is easy to attack and judge. In the end, we need to forgive in order to heal. Nothing keeps a wound fresh more effectively than picking at it forever. I do not believe that Paul simply forget when individuals proved themselves to be untrustworthy. Rather, I’d suggest that he acted “as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.” Love and grace need to rule our attitude and decisions, particularly when dealing with fellow believers.
Another vital lesson I learned was that not every Christian is the same. In fact, not every member of any denomination, sect, or movement is the same. While one church handled us roughly, the next church we attended was supportive and loving. We watched our senior pastor being mistreated in one setting, but have experienced significant appreciation and support in our current ministry situation. It is easy to resort to this: all Christians are the same. Or to insert any of the following groups into that sentence: all pastors, all Presbyterians, all Baptists, all men, all elders, all Calvinists, etc. The truth is that it’s just not true. The people that brought hurt into your life are not the same people as all the other members of the larger group. It is easy to blame everyone for the actions of a few, and it can be quite comforting. It’s comforting to have someone to aim your anger at. It’s easy to transfer hurt feelings to everyone. However, as comforting as it is, aiming hurt at others doesn’t produce healing. It is a false comfort, like drinking salt water to quench your thirst. You can drink as much as you like, it’ll only make you thirstier.
A final lesson I learned in the process of overcoming the hurt that I experienced was regarding the importance of moving on. For my wife and I, it was easy to get mired in remembering some of the particularly ugly behaviors we encountered. I personally spent a lot of time living in response to various actions and things that had been said to me. It’s easy to get stuck. I have met people who walked away from church for life over the actions of a few individuals. I have met those who abandoned their faith in response to un-Christlike Christians. I have met all sorts of people who have let the root of bitterness take hold in their souls and simply live to attack, bite, fight, and hurt because they have hurt that they cannot help but share. Getting stuck in a response to hurt inflicted upon you is simply allowing the people who hurt you to control your life. Whether it’s spending forever ignoring God or trying to take a pound of flesh from someone, anyone. Overcoming this sort of thing once it is entrenched in your life begins with a conscious effort to choose a different response to our past. This isn’t easy, but it is necessary in order to find healing and become whole again.
James’ epistle features a terrific line:
This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.
As we evaluate our response to past ill treatment, it is important that we ask ourselves regularly if the anger we are carrying is bringing God glory. Are we loving the lost and our brothers in Christ? Are we acting in a way that draws others closer to Christ? Is our anger a product of resentment and bitterness? Do we love the least lovable people we encounter? If we find ourselves answering any of these questions in a way that indicates we are not glorifying God, even in the most painful parts of our lives, then we must heal and overcome. James offers an interesting bit of advice for accomplishing this. He calls us to pray for wisdom, which is applied knowledge. This is a difficult act of submission, but is necessary for spiritual growth to take place in the lives of those who have been broken by the careless acts of misguided believers.