Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Art of Loving Well

As I reflected last week on learning to love well, it reminded me that the art of learning to love well can only be learned in the context of relationships. Ironically, as much as I want loving relationships they are difficult to navigate because they are like the process of iron sharpening iron and when iron sharpens iron sparks fly! Because relationships are designed to refine, rubbing shoulders with others has a way of exposing ungodly things like selfishness, weaknesses, overactive defense mechanisms, and a bunch of other stuff I will simply clump together and call the messy parts of relationships.

In my relationships I've experienced love by being the recipient of others' kind actions, acts of service, or the graces extended me in the reality of my failure to love well. I also experienced love through words--sometimes in the words, "I love you," sometimes words of affirmation for a job well done or for a character trait others observed and appreciated, and sometimes in simple sweet encouraging words that were balm to my soul when it was aching. I tried to emulate those things.

But, I also loved in some ways I learned were not healthy. I mistakenly thought love and grace meant overlooking bad behavior, but it was enabling others to continue to behave in ways that were destructive to the relationships we had. I also mistakenly thought it was loving to rescue others from the consequences of their choices because it prevented them pain. But, I learned they needed that pain to understand the need for change. Just like I am having to teach my new puppy his love bites aren't the best way to show this human some love. I had to learn godly love requires I not overlook bad behavior or rescue. Love includes gentle, direct confrontation and the speaking of truth in love. I am learning the best love I can give is truth and staying out of God's way so people experience consequences of their choices and His love through discipline. It sometimes hurts to observe, but ultimately God is infinitely wiser than me and He knows what each of us needs to motivate growth so we experience His love and develop the desire to embrace His life of loving others.

At one point in my life I believed I would someday obtain a level of spirituality and loving well would become so natural. I believed I would no longer be triggered or be tempted to act out of my sinful flesh. But, I still struggle daily with temptation to protect my heart through harsh words that can flow from anger and judgement. I am sometimes still tempted to hurt those who hurt me through slander or by blasting them with toxic, loud, and critical words aimed like arrows at their sweet hearts. Sometimes I am also tempted to withdraw in stony silence exhibiting aggression in a more passive-aggressive way.  I am not proud of these things, just owning the reality of them. The more I get to know others, the more I realize this isn't just a Wendy issue, it is a human one. It is just that some openly admit the struggle and others don't. But the truth is we are all just one step, one moment away from committing sin that wounds, and we are all just one step, one moment away from loving well in a way that builds others up. It is a moment by moment walk and it will never be done this side of heaven.

Several years ago I learned the skill of self reflection, which is way different than the self absorption I had struggled with in the past. Through reflection I learned to recognize the weaknesses of my temperament, the defense mechanisms I tend to favor, and the sinful tendencies that flow from my flesh. This has driven me to continually search for God's wisdom in how to overcome these fleshly patterns so I can love well. I have seen that the closer I walk with God, the more I experience His love and see it being poured on others through me. His love helps me bridle my tongue and use it for good. It motivates me to carry out actions that are loving and kind rather than selfish and self serving. His grace motivates me to forgive and to extend His grace to others.

There are so many treasures of wisdom in the word that teach me to love well, but for them to impact me I have to think on them continually and practice them over and over until they become natural to me. Other wise His Word becomes just go in and out of my brain and don't take root in my heart where they can produce godly fruit in my life.

As I shared in my last post loving well begins with accepting the truth that God's love is the source of all godly love. Loving others well requires I sit in His love so it can empower me to love like Him. Ephesians 4 is a powerful, practical chapter about loving. Paul even began the the chapter urging the Ephesians to walk worthy of  of their calling, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, and forbearance--all of which are fruits of the Spirit! These are produced in me as I spend time with God, choosing to walk in obedience by faith.

It is so easy for me to get caught up in the "If he (or she) does this then I will show them love." or "If he (or she) quits doing that I will show them love." I may not have ever said those exact words, but anyone observing me closely would have been able to see the reality of them guiding my life. I remind myself often of my personal responsibility as a child of God to love well. It is never contingent on others' actions or attitudes. It is only contingent on my being loved well by God.

Because there is an active enemy and because I have a sinful flesh I daily must put to death, the relationships and the unity I desire in them takes work. I have to continually grow so I am not tossed to and fro by the deceit the enemy whispers in my mind. I've also been learning to focus on others more than I am focus on myself. I'm learning to put off old, unhealthy ways of relating and put on God's loving ways. According to Ephesians 4, that means not responding out of my flesh which can lead me to sensuality, greed, impurity, and deceit. It means replacing falsehood with the truth. It means replacing thievery with hard labor with the intention of sharing out of the reward of that. It means replacing corrupt speech with words that build up and fit the occasion and give grace to the hearer.

We can apply this principle of replacement with anything that hinders our ability to love well. For the one who likes to stonewall, it means replacing stonewalling with humble engagement and a willingness to hear. For the manipulator, it means releasing the desire to control another and fully respecting their right to their own thoughts, words, feelings, perspectives, and choices. For the one who yells, it means taking off the tendency to blast another with words and gently engaging in conversation. For the one who withdraws to punish, it means doing the next loving thing even when it is hard. for the one given to blame it means accepting personal responsibility their part in the ugliness of a relationship.

There is an art to loving well. Just as an artist would take great pains to choose his colors and placement of strokes, we have to be willing to put the time and energy into loving well so each is built up, our integrity is maintained, and the relationship itself is both preserved and enhanced. It is a time consuming and sometimes painful process, but the masterpiece of a godly, loving relationship is is a beautiful portrait, exemplifying God's love to a world full of hate.

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Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!