Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reflections on Gentleness

When I was 21, I lived in Spain for a few months while attending a Bible school. To this day, it remains the most renewing time in my walk with the Lord. It was a season of rest, of reflection, and of turning aright with God. He allowed me to spend time in what is very possibly the most beautiful place on Earth coming to understand Him more.

While I was there, an instructor told me that I was “so gentle,” which has stuck with me since then. When I thought of gentleness, I thought of someone who was generally soft-spoken, mild-tempered, quiet and submissive. I had never before been called gentle. This instructor absolutely meant it as a compliment; he spoke with a twinkle in his eye and a smile of kindness on his lips. So what did he mean?
Seven years later, in the midst of a deployment, I found myself studying Colossians 3:12-13:

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you… (New American Standard Bible)

These verses offer a clear list of characteristics that ought to describe one who belongs to the Lord. Most are fairly straight-forward; compassion is the seat of emotion, or pity, kindness is moral goodness expressed in action, humility is a sense of one’s moral littleness, or modesty, patience is perseverance and longsuffering, and bearing with is  holding up or enduring.[1] It is gentleness that piqued my interest.  

Gentleness and meekness are synonyms, and they have a beautiful definition. According to Strongs (2001), gentleness is mildness of disposition and a meekness “not of outward behavior only…it is an inwrought grace of the soul, and the exercises of it are first and chiefly towards God. It is that temper of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting… it is associated with humility and self-control, and the opposite or self-interest.” This is grace of the soul that enables one to accept the actions of the Lord as good, without a view to one’s own self-interest. It is gentleness that enables one to “cease striving and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10, NASB).  

This deployment is certainly not what I would have chosen for my life. To live apart from my love for a year, missing anniversaries, birthdays and holidays is painful. God knows I have bouts of anger, exhaustion and sorrow over the situation. But throughout this year, He has consistently reminded me that He “will make known to me the path of life, and in [His] presence is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11, NASB). He has put in me that “inwrought grace of the soul” that allows me to accept God’s dealings with me without dispute.

When I was in Spain, we had a sort of “anthem”: the hymn How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.  This hymn exemplifies a gentle heart, and consistently reminds me of the deep trust I can have in my Father’s arms, regardless of the circumstances of my life.

How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

His wounds have paid my ransom.

Jesus went to the cross without disputing. He allowed himself to be sacrificed without resisting, with a heart of compassion for those mocking Him, with eyes only for the interest of His Father in Heaven (Isaiah 53). Jesus is the model of a gentle spirit, and the One who can absolutely understand the desperate struggle to accept one’s circumstances when they cause heartbreak.

So this season, I’m thankful for my God who cultivates gentleness in me. God’s will is perfect, though often a mystery. My prayer is that He helps us to remain faithful, hopeful, persevering and protected from Evil. I know that there is joy ahead, for me and for my husband.  

[1] http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Col&c=3&v=2&t=NASB#conc/12

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reflections on Conflict

I don’t think any married couple likes conflict. It’s a part of being together that seems to cast doubt and negativity over the entire marriage. If we argue, are we destined to fail? Is he going to get fed up with me and leave? Will we always have this same argument? Pretty soon, the thought of bringing up a hurt brings on heartburn.

I remember our first argument after my husband deployed. It was bound to happen; we’d been together for almost four years… occasionally, we have a tiff. But a tiff feels infinitely more manageable face to face in the living room of our cozy home rather than over the phone from a distance of thousands of miles and several time zones. I think I was even driving when it happened.
As a counselor, I see a lot of clients who have trouble with conflict, particularly in their intimate relationships. I used to think I was good at conflict; until I had to start learning how to navigate transatlantic conflict. Suddenly, I felt as inept as my most clueless clients. Thankfully, the Lord is faithful, and is my perfect Counselor, consistently growing me in to a more honoring wife.
One of the most convicting things I’m learning how to practice is the eliminating of what relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D. calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: Criticism (a more global character assassination than a specific complaint), Contempt (the mean cousin of sarcasm), Defensiveness and Stonewalling (pretty straightforward). If marital conflict is consistently made up of these bad habits, the marriage is on a slow road to failure. Fortunately for me, I don’t see all of these horsemen in our marriage. I do, however, feel like I struggle with Defensiveness. For whatever reason, when conflict begins, I feel the need to defend myself; each complaint is a personal attack. I find that this distracts from the actual point of conflict, which is resolution. Getting defensive brings in an unnecessary level of emotionality, which then seems to send the conflict spiraling into other directions.
I’m also a big fan of the apology .A sincere apology can go a long way to extinguishing conflict.  There’s a reason we teach our children to “say you’re sorry” as soon as they can speak. That said, something else I’ve learned is that tone matters. If someone says, “I’m sorry I hurt you” in a bored tone with a sense of obvious obligation, it grates. It hurts more. It doesn’t say, “I love you more than myself, and that’s why I’m sorry I hurt you.” It says, “I didn’t do anything wrong, but since you won’t drop this until I apologize, I’m sorry.” Our wedding vows were a sort of re-write of Philippians 2:1-4, which says, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” On our wedding day, we committed to humbly treating each other as more important than ourselves, to loving each other as selflessly and sacrificially as Christ loves us. That means that when we do or say something to hurt each other, an apology should come naturally and willingly, because it is a truly awful thing to hurt the one you love.
Finally, I’m learning how to forgive the way Christ forgives me: unconditionally and completely. He sets our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12, NIV), and demonstrates the same mercy to us that He did to the Israelites when he promised to “forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Who am I to offer any less to the man to whom I’ve given my heart?
Deployments have the ability to suck the energy out of a vital marriage, and conflicts seem far worse than they would within the ease of a face-to-face relationship. So working through conflict during a deployment demands higher levels of patience, humility, mercy and sincere apologies than one might expect.
There’s nothing else to say… just, “I’m sorry, my love”.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reflections on Loneliness

Every significant other, spouse, parent or sibling of a military member is all too familiar with loneliness. We’ve all used similar words to try to offer a just description to the feeling that life just isn’t right when our loved one is gone. I think it’s a pain unique to everyone- sometimes it’s a dull ache, sometimes it’s sharp and quick, and sometimes it’s suffocating. Whatever it feels like, it’s inescapable.

The morning my husband left for his deployment, we read a devotional together in our favorite chair, and got to pray holding hands one more time. It was a perfect morning, full of hope and promise for the things we’d do when he got home. He said goodbye to the puppy, and we left for the airport. When I returned from the airport, my dog looked around expectantly for her daddy, and laid staring helplessly at the door for almost two hours after I returned home while I sat in our chair and cried. My puppy’s hopeful expectation to see my husband come through the door again was bittersweet; I knew it would be 52 long weeks before her wish, and mine, came true.

Eventually, we all start moving again. I found a love note hidden in my sock drawer, which still makes me smile. I went to work. I went to church. I had dinner with friends. I worked out. I did what I could to fill the time and keep the loneliness away. And yet, each night, I was forced to face it.

I think the most challenging part of being alone was sorting out what to expect from other people. At first, every conversation seemed to start with a concerned, “How ya doin’? You okay?” accompanied by a pitying head tilt and pat on the arm. It grated, because each time someone asked that question, it undid all of my efforts to set aside my loneliness for the day. But later, I was hurt by those same friends because they stopped asking. Everyone else forgot that I was missing half of my heart, a fact which was ever-present on my mind. I was hurt because I felt like those people who were closest to me didn’t care enough to offer comfort during this most difficult trial. My loneliness was a pervasive ache, felt only by me.

Then, about eight months into the year, I came upon this passage from 2 Corinthians, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5, New International Version).

This passage brought me some much needed perspective. God is my comforter. The word comfort can also be translated “solace, that which affords refreshment”[1]. My God and Father can bring me solace and refreshment during my time of trouble. Not my friends or family, God. I cannot explain why this thought was so… comforting. It relieved me of expecting others to take away my loneliness, which means I wasn’t disappointed in them when they couldn’t. It also gave me a Person to turn to who wasn’t susceptible to the waves of chaos life brings. God isn’t going to be caught up with kids, or stuck at work, feeling preoccupied with graduate school or the latest argument with a family member. He is the one Person who is always available to me, who is always concerned with my heart, and who absolutely loves my husband more than I do.

Even though this bright spot came eight months into the deployment, I’m thankful for the few months of relief from the ever-present loneliness I’d been feeling. Nothing else is different; only my perspective has changed. I still miss my husband, and there are still some days that seem to drag on forever. There is still no one else who makes me feel quite right with myself like my husband. But I understand the comfort of God in a deeper way than before the deployment, and I have to wonder… would there have been another way for God to become this Comforter for me if I wasn’t so sick with loneliness? Maybe there is a purpose to this deployment after all.

[1] http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3874&t=NASB