Today Jack came home with a this note tucked into his folder. While handing it to me he announced (with great éclat) “I was an EXCELLENT obeyer today, Mama!”
I enthusiastically commenced with my motherly praise. And as Jack puttered around the kitchen, happily basking in all the admiration, I took a few moments to mentally pat myself on the back as well. “We’re seeing improvement! He obeyed for the WHOLE (half)day! He was the best! Whoo-hoo!”
My self-congratulatory musings were abruptly cut short by an angry Jack slamming the cabinet door and yelling at Brenn to stop following him around and “annoying” him. A crestfallen Brenn began to wail as my personal basking moment fizzled. Within half an hour more Jack had flat-out disobeyed me twice. After the second conflict I asked “Jack! Why are you having such a hard time obeying now? Why are you being mean to your brother? You did such a great job at school!” His answer didn’t surprise me (wouldn’t surprise any parent I’d imagine). “Well, I see you and Brenn all the time. It’s hard to be nice to you.”
Sad. But true.
Because, if I were being really honest, it’s hard for me to love Jack, Brenn and Paul. . .partly because I see them all the time! When the term “familiarity breeds contempt” was coined, I wonder if the author had families in mind? “Contempt” can mean,
“the feeling that a person or a thing is worthless or deserving scorn” (Oxford Dictionary)
A little harsh, but even a softer version isn’t very flattering—my contempt looks more like a lack of common courtesy, a terse answer, a quick judgment, a tolerant interaction, my kindle instead of a cuddle, or a kiss and a promise without ever following up. All actions that I try to avoid outside of my home.
In Mark 12:31, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That simple statement has staggering implications for our everyday lives. Each day, each moment really, we are told to set aside our own desires and focus instead on serving and loving those around us (Phil 2:3-4). When it comes to spouses and children, isn’t it hard to do this? I mean, I can love the people around me really well during the few hours of a church activity or when at a work party, or during a playdate with other moms, or while spending time with friends out getting coffee. Like Jack, we find it is easier to love those people (in his mind it means getting a certificate!) because we aren’t with them all the time. But it is the everyday relationships (whoever that is in your life at this time) that challenge and train our faith the most. They are the spiritual work-out relationships! They are the Jillian Michaels of our christian life!! (I pretty much despise Jillian Michaels : ) Timothy Lane writes in his book “Heart of the Matter“,
What happens in the messiness of relationships is that our hearts are revealed, our weaknesses are exposed, and we start coming to the end of ourselves. Only when this happens do we reach out for the help God alone can provide.
That last phrase communicates the most comforting thing about the sweat-and-tears challenge of loving our closest neighbors. God is with us. With each scribbled-on wall, each dinner time battle, each running-late spouse, each night time argument, each misplaced set of keys—whatever it is that makes a relationship difficult—God is there. In fact, he is inside us. His spirit prompts us to obey his command to love (Mark 12:31, Phil 2:3-4, I Peter 4:8) while also re-convincing us of his sustaining grace for every situation, no matter how seemingly trivial (Hebrews 4:16).
Lest you think that I find my closest relationships an ever-present burden, there is alot of joy found in loving these neighbors of mine. While God never promised perfect human relationships just because we follow his commands, he normally allows our obedience to positively affect our relationships. Loving the boys means getting to see happiness in a child’s face, to comfort a hurting child, to share Jesus with them, to surprise them with good gifts, and just to hold their little hands as they explore the world around them each day. Loving Paul means that as I learn to respect him more and serve him selflessly, my marriage will improve! Over the last ten years I haven’t liked every moment individually (who likes denying themselves! I don’t!), but added all together the benefit to our marriage far outweighs those moments. We are closer to each other now than ten years ago and it’s because we have each worked through the mess of our own self-centered hearts and learned to love better. (Which is basically Paul’s whole point in his post on Holiness in Marriage : )
In the end, loving our closest neighbors is hard work (and, last time I checked, no one is handing out “Super Job!” certificates at the end of the day : ). But it will be testimony to the world around us (John 13:35) and most importantly, God will be pleased by our Holy-Spirit-wrought love.
12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Col 3:12-14