We all have people in our lives who are difficult to love – and yet we can’t away from them. Maybe they are members of our own family, co-workers or neighbors. What is our own responsibility in those situations? What will God do? I believe it was in “The Christian Family” by Larry Christenson that I came across this illustration many years ago. It helps me see what is mine to do while asking God to do the heart-work I cannot do. I have added some of my own thoughts and offer it in hopes that it will be as helpful to you as it has been to me.
Have you ever seen someone build a sidewalk? After they prepare the ground, they must put down a wooden frame to hold the cement when it’s poured. After the cement is hard the wooden pieces will be removed, having served their purpose. Those wooden pieces can represent the Christian’s part in the process of learning to be kind, to love. I believe our emotions are beyond our ability to manufacture or transform but we can construct the form into which we, in faith, ask God to pour His love for another person.
Suppose a woman feels no love for her husband. He is bossy, demanding and arrogant. She prays for him, but her prayers are really about wanting him to change so she’ll be happier. She is impatient for him to change and she can’t seem to get over it. Impatience comes from the heart and only God can change the heart. She begins to understand this fact and realizes from Colossians 3:12-14 that her responsibility is to “put on” patience. She is to build a form into which God can pour patience.
As she searches God’s Word she discovers some of the things that she can do, regardless of how she feels, while she continues to ask God to change her heart. In 1 Peter 3:2 she sees that “respect” is a big-ticket item. It’s been a long time since she has shown him respect. She chooses to speak forth respect as God reveals appropriate ways. “Appreciation” has gone begging in her treatment of her husband. She thinks hard about the things he does for the family and chooses to express her gratitude. She has been unhappy for so long that she’s fallen into the habit of ignoring her husband. She comes to realize that she can choose to notice him and even “defer” to him when selecting activities or menus. She had prayed selfishly, now she would choose a different prayer behavior. She would “pray for her husband’s joy in Christ.” Praying that God would be at work in him for His own glory and her husband’s benefit, rather than her own advantage.
In our illustration the boards can be in place and the cement be poured, but it can run out rather than remain where it was intended unless the boards are nailed together. Keeping to the illustration for the wife in our story, she will only succeed in becoming increasingly self- righteous as she chooses to act in godly ways, unless the chosen behaviors are “nailed together” with faith. She must want God to change her heart and believe that He will use the form to do so. She must ask Him and trust Him to pour into the form His love – to give to her heart a genuine love for her husband.
Remember that the sidewalk’s wooden forms need not be perfectly shaped. Neither will our chosen actions be perfect. We are frequently failing followers of Jesus and even when we want to do what is right, our doing is often awkward, ungainly and very human. But God looks at the heart and He is pleased when we acknowledge that our hearts need His transforming work and we cooperate with Him. The form which we build, the “respect” or “patience” we “put on”, will never be as beautiful as the real thing. It is simply our expression of faith that God will form in us that which is beautiful, true and genuine.
When we speak of doing, regardless of feeling, we are far from the hypocrisy some may call it. This is obedience at the foundation of life, if it is accompanied by a genuine desire for heart change from God. We do the temporary act, God does the work within that lasts and brings Him glory. Our faith, which originally came from God as His gift, moves us to act, seeking His grace and wisdom to build a form into which He is able to pour His work.
Galatians 5:16 “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” It doesn’t say we won’t have the desires, but by the work of God’s Spirit we can prevent their outward expression. (ESV)
1 Peter 3:1c-2 (husbands) may be won over not by discussion but by the [godly] lives of their wives, when they observe the pure and modest way in which you conduct yourselves, together with your reverence [for your husband; you are to …respect, defer to, revere him—to honor, esteem, appreciate, prize, and, in the human sense, to adore him, that is, to admire, praise, be devoted to, deeply love, and enjoy your husband]. (AMP)
Phil. 2:13 [Not in your own strength] for it is God Who is all the while effectually at work in you [energizing and creating in you the power and desire], both to will and to work for His good pleasure and satisfaction and delight. (AMP)
Psalm 51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right, persevering, and steadfast spirit within me. (AMP)
1 John 1:9 Confession prepares the ground.