Some time ago I had a conversation with a professed Christian woman who had gone through a difficult divorce, and was struggling to understand what went wrong. She posed some interesting questions: “How do we serve others constantly without becoming door mats? Won’t giving unconditional love make us enablers?” One of her angriest complaints was the fact that although she and her husband were both professional people, working full time and long hours, her husband had refused to help around the house because that was “women’s work”. Her questions needed to be addressed, but the fact that she even asked them raised an important subject: the expression of Christian family love.
I know there are times when, as wives and mothers, we sometimes find frustrated and rebellious thoughts creeping into our heads: “Can’t any of you remember your own schedules?” “Am I the only one who can remember to hang up towels or change the toilet roll?” “How is it that I am the only one who remembers to feed the dog?” There are times when you just want to pull out your hair. However, as most women know, children (and sometimes even husbands) must be trained (something especially to consider if we are raising boys!). Some of these frustrations will be improved with time and maturity as our children grow into adults. The key lies in how diligent we are in training them to be active participants in family responsibilities. It is very hard when they are all little, but it is our responsibility as parents to teach them to be accountable… and no one said being a parent was easy.
Here is another thought: if I am the one in the family who seems to be doing all the work around the house, it could be that I am refusing to delegate and am insisting on staying in control of every detail. I may have a need to make sure things are done the “right” way (aka “my way”). We might need to learn to be willing to accept less than perfect results sometimes in order to encourage a child (or a husband) to feel happy about helping.
No one likes to feel that nothing they do is ever right.
I was uncomfortable with my acquaintance’s suggestion that loving service to others ever makes someone a doormat. Whether or not you are a doormat doesn’t hinge on how others see us, but on how we see ourselves. Paul instructs us to follow Christ’s example and choose the role (and heart) of a servant. This is not gender specific, and I believe it implies that in a family husbands and wives are to love and serve each other. This may be problematic if a husband sees himself in an authoritarian, patriarchal role and views women as mere breeders and indentured servants, but that is a separate issue. Husbands are to love their wives as they love their own bodies, and love has greater implications than just sex. Mutual respect and a willingness to serve each other can take many forms, including a man picking up a dishtowel once in a while, or a woman remembering to fill the gas tank.
Over and over in scripture we are told to humble ourselves. Matthew 23:12 “whoever humbles himself will be exalted”; Prov. 15:33: “humility comes before honor”, Titus 3:2: “show true humility before all men”, I Peter 5:5: “clothe yourselves with humility”, etc. Humility is not synonymous with weakness. It is also not pretending to be meek while secretly seething inside, or consciously using an attitude of humility as a weapon to shame others. On the contrary: to be genuinely humble can only come from a foundation of great strength. It is an understanding of self which strips me of all prideful pretense and acknowledges my need for dependence on God. My ego is put into its proper place.
I don’t need to impose my will on every situation because, in Him, I am strong enough to let others lead without damaging my own self-worth. If I think of myself as being demeaned because I am serving others, I may need to take a closer look at the Lord.
Christ vividly demonstrated His own willingness to be a servant at the Last Supper, when He washed the feet of the disciples. He didn’t consider that this was humiliating, or that it degraded His dignity or sense of self. It was a symbol of how He was prepared to set aside His own glory, and become a servant-God. He was prepared to take the lowest place. It did not diminish Him, but instead revealed the strength of His character and grace. Can I ignore this if my goal is to be conformed to His image?
God is concerned with my character ~ my inner woman. He does not value me only if I
am powerful or famous or wealthy. I am successful to Him to the degree that I reflect the character of Christ and possess a humble and obedient heart.
James’ letter calls me “to learn in order to do”. Humility is one of the qualities which keeps our sense of our own importance from obstructing our primary work, which is to reveal the love of God.
Most of the disciples ~ Jesus’ “work” family ~ responded with love and loyalty to Christ’s teaching, but there was one who didn’t. Judas had no appreciation of what he had been given by being allowed to be an intimate of the Christ, and Jesus knew his heart. Nevertheless, He continued to offer Judas everything He offered to the other disciples. Christ did not demand credit or a reward for what He gave, or else withhold His love.
This tells me that needing gratitude or recognition should not be a factor in my giving. This can be very hard! God encourages us to be open hearted and open handed. Living
a life of grace means letting go, abandoning my sense of entitlement and giving my best even if I have no expectation of return. My gifts of love, even if in the most menial tasks, should be given with grace no matter how they are received.
It is not that I desire to be nothing, in some negative vision of myself as being worthless. God has made me and has paid an infinite price for my redemption so I must have worth in His sight. It is more that I voluntarily give up demanding my rights and become willing to learn to care about others at least as much as I care about myself.
There is another part to my friend’s question: Can we give too much? What is appropriate giving?
Appropriate giving is based on what is truly best for our loved ones. Giving the right kind of love in a family often means being a disciplinarian. Children need to be taught appropriate boundaries in relationships and behavior very early, and it is our job to teach them lovingly, but firmly. We are not to be overbearing bullies, shouting threats ~ but we can’t go the other way and have no rules at all. There are parents who find it uncomfortable to discipline or say “no” to their children so they always give in, and feebly watch their children become tiny, spoiled thugs. Some parents are so over-protective and do so much for the child that he or she never learns self-reliance or how to make decisions, and is unable to become a mature adult. However, learning how to do things for myself teaches me self-respect.
Children need to learn to respect authority and to exercise self-control for their own well-being. It is really more loving to discipline children consistently, calmly, and lovingly so that they can become responsible and considerate adults. Realistically, no parent can do this 100% of the time. We will inevitably miss the mark sometimes, but it should be our goal to stay on message as much as we can. Although it might be easier to blame everyone else (the teachers, the school, society) for my children’s faults, the primary responsibility for teaching them good manners and self-discipline is mine from their first moments.
We also may need to examine our motives for what we call “helping” others. Remember Marie Barone from “Everybody Loves Raymond”? “Helping” and “interference” are not the same thing. Having a genuine servant’s heart comes from open-handed love; interference often comes from a selfish need to control. Bottom line: having a servant’s heart means being willing to serve others in the spirit of Christ’s love, and in doing so glorify His name.
Love is patient; love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always preserves. (I Corinthians 13:4-7)