During our first two years of marriage, we lived in a neighborhood for married students. In our trailer, the rooms had been painted crimson, navy, light blue and orange, but the most unique area was the kitchen.
It was yellow with red, orange and green chili peppers stamped on every inch of the walls and cupboards. Someone had even made curtains out of fabric printed with chili peppers.
On the side of our fridge, I would stick pictures of friends serving overseas or quotes I had read. I loved the one by Ruth Bell Graham that said, “If a husband and wife agree all the time, one of them is unnecessary.”
But I also got the idea of writing a note using the words from 1 Corinthians 13.
A wife is patient.
A wife is kind.
A wife does not envy.
A wife does not boast.
A wife is not proud.
A wife is not rude.
A wife is not self-seeking.
A wife is not easily angered.
A wife keeps no record of wrongs.
I thought that since I had vowed my life to my husband and loved him, I should be doing what that famous chapter mentioned.
But the more I tried, the more aware I was of how I was failing in every one of those areas.
My thoughts would go something like this:
“How could you have just. . .”
“I can’t believe you decided to. . .”
“Did you really just do that again?”
I thought I could shame my way into behaving more like a godly wife should.
It wasn’t until God reminded me that He never expected me to do it on my own, that I threw away the paper and tried to ask the Spirit to love through me each time I felt like I was failing.
Unfortunately, some of those self-effort patterns left a residue on my thoughts, like a shower that will never be free from years of grime.
It has taken daily practice to look away from the stains of failure and let the clean water of God’s grace flow over me.
When Shame is the Name of the Game
My mentor Natalie recently recommended a book called, Tired of Trying to Measure Up, by Jeff VanVonderen.
His premise is that shame often keeps us from living in joyful dependence on God. We are so preoccupied with trying to do good works in our own strength (and failing), that we ignore the freedom and forgiveness He offers because of His death on the cross.
We don’t live from our accepted position as children of God, which keep us blind to the things that the Spirit wants to do through us.
Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Jeff shares that “Many of us have heard a ‘death to self’ teaching, based on a misinterpretation of Galatians 2:20 and 1 Corinthians 15:31. It says that every time one of our “unspiritual” human elements (feelings, drives, needs and likes) raises its ugly head, we are supposed to look at it with disgust and shame it out of existence. If you like something, it is probably wrong or selfish.
“The reason this teaching is totally unhelpful to those who feel a sense of shame in their lives is that in its effort to deny self, it actually results in focusing on self.
“People who are trying to bring about their own death to self are really preoccupied with self. And they are constantly looking at themselves to make sure they are “dead” enough. What a tiring way to live!” (p. 130)
When my husband and I had conflict over money or what a Saturday afternoon should look like, I would get so frustrated with my feelings of impatience that my focus became how I was performing/failing as a wife rather than resolving the conflict.
At other times, I’d evaluate my roles as a homemaker and mother. I’d often ask myself, “Am I doing enough?”
In my mind, I’d separate what I thought were “good deeds” from the rest of my cleaning, cooking, and childcare responsibilities. Then I’d measure what I accomplished aside from my normal tasks.
If the dryer broke or a glass shattered on the floor, it was one more interruption from the good things I was trying to do.
Jeff addressed these feelings in much of his book. He said, “I think the more good works we have going, the harder it is to know, or to remember, that our only hope is God. It’s not just that ‘things go better with Jesus.’ Jesus said, ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5)
“[The apostle] Paul discovered that real life comes from continuing to depend upon, draw life from, receive our value and acceptance from the Spirit. It comes from learning that what is natural, whether good or bad, is dead and has no real life to offer.” (p. 145)
How often I’ve considered the world’s measure of success as proof of a job well done.
One moment it might be wishing I could write a bestseller novel.
The next, it might be hoping for people to tell me I did a good job on the worship team at church, or the meal I cooked was fantastic.
I’ve pictured God doing the same thing, saying, “You worked pretty hard today, so I’m pleased with you.”
The problem was, those warm feelings I felt from people’s words were disintegrated by thoughts of insufficiency and needing to keep up with the standard of good I had set for myself.
I was trying to gain approval through works, instead of remembering what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Our position before God is a gift. He created us in His image and has special works He wants us to join Him in. And if I can’t accept His grace, how can I extend it to others?
Jeff reminded me that “Having healthy relationships does result in “fruitful” lives. But the difference is that the fruit is no longer the means by which we try to establish, earn, or protect our value and identity.
“When we learn to be consistent with who we are and with what is true about us because of Jesus, bearing fruit no longer means producing. It means capable of holding the weight of the fruit He produces.” (p. 159-160)
One of the first verses my parents had us memorize was Galatians 5:22-23. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
There was a time in my life when I felt discouraged because I couldn’t make myself feel joyful, and I certainly didn’t have peace. Every time I’d try to feel peaceful, I’d worry.
Jeff referred to these verses in Galatians when he said, “Notice that this is a list of the fruit of the Spirit. Paul isn’t saying, ‘Try hard to love, act joyful, keep the peace, be patient, be kind, etc.’
“It is what God’s Spirit produces in and through people who boast in, rejoice in, fix their hope on, build their house upon God, or ‘walk by the Spirit.’ It is His fruit, not the result of your efforts to do good.” (p. 167)
Isn’t it refreshing to know the burden isn’t ours to bear? The God who created the universe by mere words certainly has the power to keep doing beautiful deeds in His world.
Our job is to look to Him and ask for Him to work through us every step of the way.
Jeff quotes Philippians 1:6, which says, “‘And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion. . . .’ We are in a process. Now, let’s remind ourselves of whose process it is. God is the one in charge of bringing the work to completion, of perfecting you. He will do it.
“Another reminder is found in Philippians 2:13. ‘For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.’ God is right now doing the work in you to change you. It’s an inside job.” (p. 168)
Is there an area of self-effort you need to mentally take off your fridge and rip up?
In your marriage? Parenting? Other relationships?
Jesus, we want to bring You glory and enjoy You and the lives you’ve called us to. We can’t do anything of value without you. Use us today any way You wish. We are Yours.