Monday, March 26, 2012

Marriage Matters: Forgiveness

Did you make the choice to marry so that you could have greater opportunity to learn how to forgive? Forgiveness is a supernatural act invented by God with his love as its foundation. The most dramatic and most certainly the most powerful display of God's love and forgiveness is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus' death was accompanied by some very dramatic events including the tearing of the temple curtain. This curtain separated the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the temple that housed the ark of the covenant containing the stone tablets on which were inscribed the ten commandments. Covering the ark was the solid gold mercy seat, the throne of God. Every Israelite knew that without the curtain anyone who saw the face of God would die. Sin separated man from God and prevented access to Him.
Each year on the Day of Atonement (read Leviticus 16) the priest made a sacrifice for the cleansing of the sins of Israel. The blood of a bull was sprinkled on the mercy seat behind that curtain to provide forgiveness for God's people. But the curtain remained. In this system of ritual sacrifice and cleansing there was atonement, or payment of sins for Israel, but separation by the curtain was an ever-present reminder of sin, separation and death.
At the moment of Jesus' death "the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." The message was unmistakable. God's people had been forgiven once and forever by the sacrifice of one perfect Lamb, the Lamb of God himself, Jesus Christ. The obstacle of sin was removed by the blood of Jesus and access to God was gained.  Hebrews 10:19-22 gives us assurance of our ability to draw near to God now that our hearts have been sprinkled to cleanse us and we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place through the blood of Jesus.
In past lessons we talked about how our thoughts, actions and words either move us toward, away from, or against our husbands. Forgiveness is moving toward your husband as God moved toward us in the person of Jesus Christ that we as forgiven believers might move toward Him. In forgiveness God released us from the penalty of our sin. It is a conscious act of love. In forgiving we make a conscious choice to refuse to dwell on how we have been wronged. It is refusing to continually open the mental filing cabinet of revenge, or emotions that prompt us to change our course. Sometimes anger and hurt seem preferable to feeling rejected, anxious or helpless. Emotions can be a self-protective measure that we use to justify our refusal to embrace the danger of re-entering a fractured relationship.
Our emotions can pump up our sense of superiority that prevents us from recognizing our own sin and failure that contribute to conflict. Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is a decision and an action. Our thoughts also can keep the mental filing cabinet open. Beware of patterns,  places and times when left to your thoughts the default setting isn't pretty. Take every thought captive to Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:5. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:8 the composition of the thought life of a Christian.
In forgiving us God made a tremendous sacrifice and absorbed the penalty for our sin. Forgiving means accepting the wound that has been delivered and choosing to draw near to the one who has harmed us. Our forgiveness requires the sacrifice of facing the pain to deal with the situation, the discomfort of talking about it, and sacrificing the security of your world to enter the world of the one who has sinned against you. This is what God did in Jesus Christ as He entered the world of our sinfulness.
In forgiving us God accomplished good. He doesn't just forgive us. He promises to use even our worst failures to work good into our lives. When we forgive our husbands we trust that God will be at work for our good and the good of our marriages. We must trust God that He will do as He promised. Romans 8:28. Forgiveness may not change your husband, but it will surely change you. It is the path that God provides to draw back the curtain that separates you from your husband.
God is patient to allow us time to grow. He is fully aware in His forgiveness that we are moving along the path to holiness and that path reaches its home only in heaven. Growth is a life-long process and growth in choosing forgiveness is as well.
If forgiveness is so wonderful, then why is it so hard to choose? Sometimes our motives are incomplete or insincere. For example, conflict may be so difficult and unpleasant that we may choose to scoot through just to get the misery back in the bottle. As one good counselor says, "Deal with it now or deal with it later. But you'll have to deal with it." Not dealing thoroughly with forgiveness is like stitching up a wound that hasn't been cleaned well. There's more trouble ahead. The effects of sin need to be verbalized, as painful as that can be. What you've said has hurt me. Your anger frightens me. Your unfaithfulness has destroyed my trust and crushed my heart. The offending spouse needs to own up to their sin and confess it. When we as wives are quick to own up to sin and confess we provide a safety net of sorts for our husbands to do the same thing. Confession means to come into agreement with.

The offending spouse needs to express repentance from the sin and a genuine desire to be filled with godliness. Remember as well that there are natural consequences of sin that often need to occur. Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. Read Marriage Matters for more details on that!
Henry Nouwen says "Forgiveness is love practiced among people who love poorly." It needs to be learned and relearned, practiced and then practiced some more. Forgiveness is difficult because it does not immediately restore trust or relieve pain. The burden of the restoration of trust falls on the shoulders of the offender and the healing from pain on the shoulders of the other. In each case both parties must be willing to diligently, willingly, and intentionally move toward one another and in reasonable time. If restoration and reconciliation is your goal, then move toward the goal line.
In the meantime remember these things which will aid you in choosing forgiveness:
I have been forgiven much. Lord, help me to desire mercy and forgiveness for my husband as much as I desire it for myself. Entering into the world of painful consequences of the sins of another, especially a husband, can bring new-found depth of understanding to the truth that Jesus Christ bore immeasurable pain and suffering for you. "I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death." Phil. 3:10. Do you?
Remember also that you and your husband are more alike than different. Really? Sin causes us to elevate ourselves above others and when we are injured by our spouse it can be tempting to comfort ourselves by elevating our worth and importance above theirs.  We are all in equal need of God's forgiveness of our law-breaking that we read about in Matthew 5-7. If one of you needs to forgive, you go first.
Trust that God will use this discipline for your good and the good of your marriage. Confessing sin and forgiving is a proclamation of the gospel that there is a way back from sin. There is a way to healing, a way through brokenness. Walk through the curtain.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Marriage Matters: Conflict: God is Up to Something Good

And now for our favorite topic of the semester....and I probably should say that I hope my readers realize that many of the illustrations on the blog are very tongue-in-cheek. Remember to plug in your sense of humor before reading. Someone once told me that in their marriage of many year's duration they had never run into any conflict. None? Really? Being the positive, all-comforting, let's think the best of everyone person that I am I thought, "One of you must no longer have a heart beat or both of you are self-deceived Utopians." I wish I'd asked, "So tell me, how's that working for you?"
Conflict first appears in my bible on page 12 and it would have appeared on page 3 if it weren't for all of the study notes and diagrams. While many of us may tend to run straight from it, the bible teaches us that conflict can be not only beneficial but actually a sign that God is at work destroying sin in our lives and establishing peace among His people. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the result of overcoming sin. Notice how God handles the conflict in the garden. Read Genesis 3:14-19.God confronts Adam and Eve but he does not destroy them. There are consequences to be borne, but God's responses and the consequences are laced with his goodness, love, mercy and the promise of redemption. God's curse is not on Adam and Eve, but on the serpent. Satan will ultimately be destroyed, not us. God spared Adam and Eve and made a way for their offspring (you and I) to be redeemed and part of God's plan for restoration.  As painful as conflict can be for us, as destructive as WE can make it, conflict is God's chosen means to rescue His people and to destroy sin.God promises and sends the final blow to Satan through His son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the seed born of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent, even as he is "struck on the heel" on the cross. Jesus is wounded, but it is Satan who will be destroyed.

Perhaps you just didn't expect there to be so much conflict in your own home. God did. That's why the armor of God passages come right where they do. After the instructions concerning every day relationships in the home in Ephesians 6. Husbands and wives are to live together in love and respect, children are to obey their parents, parents are to rear their children wisely. So put on your helmet, sword and shield and be prepared. We let our guard down at home. We are lax and careless around people we feel we do not need to impress, when actually those whom we say we love the most should receive the best from us. Love your neighbor. Who is my closest neighbor? Those living  under the same set of shingles. Home is where we have the greatest opportunity to live selfishly or selflessly. You pick.
Your spouse is not the enemy. The powers of darkness that roam the earth seeking whom they may devour are the enemies. Gird yourself with the armor of God that you may speak the truth in love to your husband. That truth is the righteousness of Christ and His standard, not mine. It is the sturdiness and protection of the gospel that equips us for every good work. Protect yourself with the shield of faith against the evil one for Satan cannot harm us if we belong to God. Take the confidence given us in salvation as the battle has already been won by God, and use His word which is your greatest tool for matters of faith and living.
God tells us wives where our conflict lies in marriage when he says, "Your desire shall be for your husband." Like I said at MOMs, this doesn't mean as y'all say, "My husband's hot." It means that your desire is to dominate him, to rule him, to have it your way. James instructs us in 4:1 to look inside, not at our husbands for the sources of conflict. The desires that battle within us for that which we think we need to have, to do, or become. Idols, ladies.
That's why we become defensive. Proverbs 18:19 says An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city and quarrels are like the barred gates of a castle. When we are unwilling to see the viewpoint or needs of our husbands we both try to squeeze ourselves through the walls of his defenses while throwing up our walls making them thicker and higher. A marital version of capture the castle.
We are hypocritical. Those wonderful judgment verses about specks and planks in Matthew 7 are often misused as a way of keeping one another from confronting the truth in love, when actually the verses tell us how to rightfully gain an audience when our spouse needs to hear the truth. The message? Deal with your own heart first. Ask yourself a few of these questions. Could it be possible that this sin or behavior is so egregious to me because I actually have the same fault? Is my desire to dominate my husband? Am I trying to make myself feel better, superior, justified? Would I like my husband to stop what he's doing simply so that I don't have to deal with it any more? Is this more about me or about my husband's holiness and growth of Christian character? Part of taking the plank out of your own eye is a serious assessment of our own character according to the Word of God as it is given in, for instance, Galatians 5:22, 23. Where are there still large holes in my heart that I need to relinquish for some spiritual surgery?

Detail, Chocolate MaidRecurring conflicts are generally over heart issues that are buried beneath the surface. Are you ticked off that Joe didn't help you put the children to bed...again? Is Joe not spending enough time with the children? Not taking advantage of those moments of transparency that you often see in your children when putting them down for the night? Are you aggravated that Joe doesn't help you? Have you decided you're just the hired help and you're tired of this? Before addressing Joe, this scripture teaches us to be willing to seek to identify and address the underlying issues in your own heart. Those desires that are driven by what you believe you must have. This is hard to hear, hard to do and impossible without a relationship with Jesus Christ. Tim Keller says "Marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as to confront you with yourself." Ouch.

 Perhaps out of sincere love for God and your spouse you many need to yield to them both. Notice I didn't say avoid. Yield. Love is patient and kind. It does not envy or boast. It is not rude or self-seeking. Self-centeredness is the cancer in the center of every marriage. Tim Keller once again..."Is the purpose of marriage to deny your interests for the good of the family, or is it rather to assert your interests for the fulfillment of yourself? The Christian teaching does not offer a choice between fulfillment and sacrifice, but rather mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice." Sounds great but the trouble is that living this way is not easy and it's painful. There, we've said it. We prefer an easy pain-free death to self. Dying to self is neither pain free nor easy but it is safe because Jesus went to hell and back for us. It is His death to self that gives us the power and pattern for the same.

Waiting is also a biblical pattern for handling conflict. Notice I didn't say avoid. :) Waiting. It is to a man's honor to avoid strife but every fool is quick to quarrel. Proverbs 17:4. Our God and Savior's love for us is very slow to anger and long suffering. No matter how aware we are of some of our own sins, there are countless others of which we have no knowledge. God does not confront us with each and every sin. That would be unbearable. As wives we need to understand our mate's weaknesses, present struggles, personality and emotional make-up to provide wisdom for when and how to confront. A bit of advice, give the man a break. Chill out.
And then there is the confronting itself. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so that you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:17-18. We could land here for several weeks. Your husband is not the enemy, sin is. We are not to attack him angrily, pursue revenge against him, or give him a dose of his own behavior. We must not tuck sins away for long periods of time where they sour in our hearts and become grudges and roots of bitterness. We should speak directly and honestly without seeking to to beat them down, destroy them, or crush their spirit. God rebukes, corrects and disciplines with the goals of restoration and reconciliation in sight. Being right or proving wrong is not the goal, but bringing all under the headship of Jesus Christ in wholeness and oneness. This is peace. Not the absence of conflict, but the overcoming of sin to being conformed and always conforming to the image of Christ.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Marriage Matters: Constructive Communication

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that God is the author of scripture. It is "God breathed" which makes it different from all other words, especially ours which are mostly, often, or unfortunately sometimes true. God is perfectly holy. We are not. Understatement. In the previous lesson from Marriage Matters by Winston Smith we learned how we hide from God, our husbands, and ourselves. Now that we've come out of hiding we'll tackle the subject of speaking the truth in love. While we say that we believe the truth of God's love and forgiveness in Christ, we often communicate in a way that suggests otherwise.

Due to my genetic make up here I bring box turtles to my grandchildren who illustrate for us the way we communicate with our spouses. Mr. Turtle is avoiding at all cost the children's attempt at conversation. The best part is that Charlie was saying, "Come on out, Mr. Turtle. We won't hurt you." Notice the revolver in Charlie's hand. The revolver he had been tapping on Mr. Turtle's shell. With our lips we say, "Come on out, the coast is clear," but past history tells us that we are all armed and ready to shoot should our conversation head south.
Once again from Tim Keller...who says that marriage is the combination of the power of truth and love. The power of truth is marriage's ability to show you who you really are. The power of love is marriage's capacity to reprogram your self-image and to heal the past. Keller says it looks like this. Everyone can tell you that you're ugly, but if your husband says you're beautiful you feel beautiful. Your husband's words have that kind of power. But if everyone says you're beautiful and you're husband says you're ugly, you feel ugly. The words of a spouse wield great power both for good and destruction.
How do we handle Paul's instruction from Ephesians 4:25 rightly? Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truth to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. How can I speak to my spouse truthfully without crushing him? By remembering Ephesians 4:14 ...speak the truth in love that we may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ. God's over arching purpose in loving us through Jesus Christ is to bring all things under the headship of Christ. It is due to a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ that our desires become God's desires. Our desires in marriage become what God desires for us in marriage, to be united under the headship of Christ. To be one with each other and Him. Remembering the love of the Father that became one of us that we might be assured that God knows what it is to be man, a love so great that it lived the perfect life that I cannot, a love so deep that He died to redeem my sinful brokenness and ascended to live, reign and intercede for me gives us the context in which the content of truth is spoken.
We also join God in His purposes for speaking truth. Ephesians 4:16. We are one body in Christ and one body in marriage. Remember that Christian love is not a feeling, but an action. Here we see that loving is doing what causes the body to be whole, functioning according to purpose, and built up or encouraged.
Using words that are truthful, edifying and carefully chosen should be our priority. Proverbs 12:18 There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health. In our conversations Smith says, we allow dishonesty, selfishness and emotionalism to enter the fray. How? By exaggerating. "Your first response is always negative. You never listen to me. You're the only one who can't understand this!" Words like always, only, never, and all can greatly reduce the chances that our husbands will hear what we're trying to say. We can stoke the fire in communication by using trait names or name calling. "You're a jerk. You're a liar. You're a...." In moments of frustration calling the other by a name that reduces his identity to his sinful behavior is terribly wounding and overwhelming. Try this. "I feel like you're not being honest with me. Let me say this in another way."
Some of us are particularly skilled at becoming mind readers. Poor guy doesn't have a chance with this one. I know what you're trying to do. I know what you're thinking. Oh really now. Truths that we craft in our minds to use against our husbands is not truth at all. A positive response is not likely from a man who has just had confirmed for him that you think the worst about him. Remember, building up and encouraging involves the truth, but the truth spoken with kindness, understanding, and with the purpose of building unity in Christ. Just put the crystal ball away for good.
So how do we speak the truth to our husbands? By using wholesome speech that affirms your spouse's identity as a son of God and a beloved marriage partner. Ephesians 1:3-6. Paul is telling us that from the beginning God has had a plan to make us his children and to make us more like Jesus. The plan is grace-filled, not about our ability or goodness. God asks us to grow, not as a condition of his love, but in response to it. Our speech should be crafted and delivered with this grace in mind. Even words of just anger can be spoken with words of healing in a tone that doesn't crush. How? Winston Smith has a few suggestions.
Take time to cool off.
In issues of conflict and character a few moments of regrouping and cooling off may make all the difference in the world.

Remember, God is using ordinary moments for extraordinary change.
He is the author of the truth and the mediator of every conflict.
Sometimes prayer can be very difficult.
Don't let that keep you from taking your conflict to the Lord.

Choose both the words and the time to speak words of truth.
Timing can be everything.
I know better than to talk about much of anything while LSU and Alabama are engaged in a contest.
Even checkers.
It's a no-go.

The philosophy of two famous sculptors illustrates well the point of this lesson.
Alberto Giocometti was a son of Italian refugees born in Switzerland just after the turn of the 20th century. He trained in Paris under the sculptor Roden and became famous for the stringy elongated bodies and heads of his works of art that would make his subject look like the blade of a knife. Giocometti began with a block of stone working and refining, chipping away everything offensive, chipping, chipping, chipping. Sometimes he did so much chipping that there was nothing left but a pile of rubble.
Michelangelo was and is still considered one of the finest artists of all time.
Two of his most famous works, David and the Pieta, were finished before he was 30. After the death of his mother when he was but six  years old Michelangelo went to live with a stone cutter and his wife. He said that in addition to his mother's milk he was raised with a hammer in one hand and a chisel in the other. His philosophy of sculpting was very different from that of Giocometti. "In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."
Giocometti saw only what he didn't like and chiseled away until there was nothing left. Michelangelo saw the possibility of what was to be and hewed away only the rough to reveal what was hidden in the stone.
You answer the question. With your words, which kind of sculptor are you?