Monthly Archives

February 2018

Self Development

God’s Unexpected (and Under-appreciated) Purpose in Marriage

The requirements for a successful date include having bathed within the previous 24 hours and being agreeable (naturally or artificially). Usually some amount of cash is also required. It’s really not too hard. When two freshly-washed and agreeable people spend a few hours together in some recreational activity, they will probably have fun. Dating is a nice way to pass time.

Marriage requires more. A successful companionship requires not only patience, hard work, commitment, compassion, and unselfishness but continued stretching. So when Father says that “marriage is ordained of God,” He has something loftier in mind than a pleasant evening or even a lifetime of pleasant evenings.

God has never varied in His commitment to the development of our character. He wants to stretch us toward godliness and that will often require discomfort and inconvenience. It is not enough to take a shower and put on a smile. We must be patient in affliction. We must be willing to grow. We must be willing to put aside our preferences and enter our partners’ worlds.

The problem is that most of us like the fun of dating far more than we like having our characters developed. We chafe when our spouses favor different foods and activities. We get defensive when our partners accuse us of selfishness. We feel indignant when they tell us we are wrong. We become insulting when they don’t meet our needs. We are filled with resentment when they expect us to set aside our priorities in order to meet the family’s needs.

The problem isn’t that marriage is challenging. God always intended it that way. The problem is that we expected it to be like those vacuous dates that began our relationships. We can become quite indignant when our expectations are upended.

President Hinckley quoted Jenkin Lloyd Jones: “There seems to be a superstition among many thousands of our young [men and women] who hold hands and smooch in the drive-ins that marriage is a cottage surrounded by perpetual hollyhocks to which a perpetually young and handsome husband comes home to a perpetually young and [beautiful] wife. When the hollyhocks wither and boredom and bills appear the divorce courts are jammed. . . .
“Anyone who imagines that bliss [in marriage] is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.
[The fact is] “most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. . . .
“Life is like an old time rail journey–delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.
“The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride”
(“A Conversation with Single Adults,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 60)

Of course Jones is right that marriage is challenging. But why is it so? Does God merely want to annoy us? Does He want to test us? Or is He providing us a gym in which to stretch and enlarge our Christian goodness?

That great marital therapist, King Benjamin, counseled us: “For the natural [spouse] is an enemy to [their partner], and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever . . .”

Forever and ever. That is pretty definitive. Fortunately, there is an escape close for those of us who are fallen partners:

“unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

When we understand God’s purposes for marriage, we cherish every moment of connection and joy. We also recognize irritation as an invitation to grow in our discipleship.

C. S. Lewis provided a glorious metaphor: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently, He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.” (Mere Christianity [New York: Macmillan, 1960], p. 174.)

Yes. Marriage is ordained of God because He is quite determined to teach us to get beyond our petty preferences and on to greater goodness. He wants to make us into Kings and Queens.

Invitation: Think about some of the things that currently irritate you in your marriage. Now, rather than find fault with your partner, consider what holy purpose God may have in that irritation. Is He trying to help you develop humility, compassion, patience, or kindness? If Heavenly Father sat down with you right now to guide you, how do you think He would counsel you to respond to those irritations?

Recommendation: For a spiritual perspective on marriage, read my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.

Parenting

Good Control and Bad Control in Parenting

Imagine that you find a policeman at your door one Saturday morning. You’re surprised. You ask how you can help him. “Apparently your teenage son was out with his friends last night and they blew up Mrs. Jones’ mailbox. She is very upset. I need to take your son to the station for questioning.”

Let’s use this situation as an example as we consider three categories of control described by parenting scholars. The first is power assertion in which the parent approaches non-compliance with force: “If you don’t do as I say, you will suffer,” said ominously. Or: “You’ll do it because I say so!” with an assumed threat of violence. You won’t be surprised to learn that power assertion is associated with bad parenting outcomes. Children tend to become either passive or rebellious. They tend to be less socially competent and have less conscience.

A parent who uses power assertion might respond to the news from the officer by marching to his son and shouting threats. “You are grounded until you are 65! I hope you enjoy prison!”

The second category of control is love withdrawal which sends children the message: “I don’t want anything to do with you if you act that way.” The parent may walk away from the child leaving him feeling unlovable. Love withdrawal has not been shown to work successfully in controlling children. And it creates children who feel guilty.

A parent who uses love withdrawal might approach the son and express disappointment. “I thought you were becoming a good boy. I was wrong.” You can see that this is likely to create guilt without helping your son learn better ways.

Fortunately, there is a third child control technique which is effective. Scholars call it induction and it is defined as parental behavior that minimizes the use of power, uses reasoning, and helps the child understand the effect of his behavior on others. This kind of parenting sounds remarkably similar to what the Lord recommends:

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [parenthood], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— (D&C 121:41-2)

As we should have expected, the Lord has always understood principles of effective influence. Parental use of induction is associated with many positive outcomes for children including greater success, social competence, and moral development. Induction is powerful parenting.

We should note that induction can only be done correctly by a parent who feels peaceful and appreciative of the child. Your heart must be right.

What would effective induction look like in the situation described above? The parent might ask the officer if she could have some time with her son and then bring him by the station later. A good parent is worth 100 police officers when it comes to moral development in children.

The initial approach to the son is vitally important. An angry, screaming parent creates a child who is worried about safety more than goodness. A parent who expresses disappointment does not teach the child anything. The best approach engages the boy’s mind and heart without overwhelming him. We want to educate his soul. The parent might calmly say: “A policeman was just here to see you.”

That should get his attention.

It is almost always unproductive to ask a question for which you already have the answer. Rather than ask, “Did you do anything stupid or illegal last night?” you might say: “Apparently you and your friends used your newly-acquired fireworks to blow up Mrs. Jones’ mailbox last night.”

And here is a vital element of induction: We give the child the benefit of the doubt. “I know how much fun it is to use fireworks. And I know that you and your friends like to have fun. I’m sure that you intended Mrs. Jones no harm.”

Your son may sputter: “Why is that such a big deal? It was just an old mailbox!”

“It might seem like an old mailbox isn’t that big of a deal. But just as your property is important to you and you wouldn’t want someone destroying it, that mailbox was important to her. And it’s against the law to destroy someone else’s property.”

Obviously, this discussion requires wisdom, diplomacy, and sensitivity. The objective is to activate your son’s mind and heart without causing distracting anxiety or resistance.

Son: “That’s crazy! It’s not like we are criminals!”

Mom: “I think we can work this out. If you would like, I will go with you to the police station. We can offer to buy Mrs. Jones a new mailbox and install it with the appropriate apologies. Does that sound okay to you?”

It is possible that processing the situation may be upsetting to your son. A break or pause may be necessary: “Should we take a break so you have time to settle down?”

When he is ready to sustain a calm conversation, he might say: “You’re right. We should buy her a new mailbox.”

“Thanks, Son. I’m glad you are willing to take responsibility.” The process of educating your son’s mind is well begun. Now comes the educating of his heart.

“May I share a part of the situation that would be easy for you to miss? You might not know that Mrs. Jones is a widow and has lived alone since her husband died some years ago. I wonder what it was like for her to be awakened in the middle of the night last night with the sounds of stomping on her porch and then explosions. I know she was already uncomfortable living alone. She felt very vulnerable. I wonder if she is now overwhelmed and panicked.”

The objective is not to fill your son with guilt but with compassion. He might respond: “Oh, Mom! I didn’t think of that. I am so sorry! We did not want to frighten her. We were just having fun with fireworks.”

“Yes. I know you would never want to hurt her or frighten her. I’m glad you are compassionate. Do you have any ideas how you can help her feel safe again?”

“The guys and I could apologize to her and offer to mow her lawn this summer. Do you think that would help?”

“Son, I am so glad that you want to help her. May I go with you when you go? Together we can help Mrs. Jones feel safer.”

No parent-child conversation follows a tidy script. But we can apply eternal principles. The induction process is intended to educate your child’s mind and heart. It helps children anticipate how their behavior will affect others. It involves appropriate consequences. Wisely used, induction results in the heart and soul of moral development: an internalized concern for others.

While power assertion and love withdrawal may or may not control behavior, induction invites the child to think about other people and their needs. It changes children into ever-better people. It helps them to begin the important process of regulating their own behavior.

This is “persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.” It is the best kind of parenting. It is the same kind Heavenly Father uses with His children.

Invitation: Think how you might have applied induction in a parenting challenge you recently faced. See if you can be prepared to use these principles the next time you face a need to redirect your child.

Recommendations: Martin Hoffman has written scholarly works on the uses of induction. The more practical approach to parenting is given by Haim Ginott who combined compassion with limits. I heartily recommend his Between Parent and Child. (Disclosure: I helped update his work for the current edition.)

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful suggestions for this article.

Self Development

Making Grace Personal

Stephen Robinson was the person who awakened me to the new LDS understanding of grace. He replaced my spiritual do-it-yourself attitude with an understanding of the infinite and eternal atonement. His book, Believing Christ, has changed my life—and the lives of thousands of Latter-day Saints.

Maybe Hafen, Wilcox, or Givens or someone else awakened you. Thank heaven that the light has dawned! We understand now better than ever that we cannot save ourselves. We can allow ourselves to be humbled. We can throw ourselves on His merits, mercy, and grace. But we are saved through His redemption. His is the only name under heaven whereby we can be saved (See Acts 4:12).

That doctrine is central to the Book of Mormon message. And the Bible’s message. Yet it required a new generation of messengers to break down our cultural resistance.

It seems to me that there is one thing still missing even after this remarkable revolution. It is a great first step to recognize that Jesus is a Savior who saves. It is quite another thing to fully accept that His saving can reach through my weakness, my contrariness, my fallenness and encircle me in the arms of His love (See Lehi’s words in 2 Nephi 1:15).

It is great to know that Jesus and His plan are so amazing. But it doesn’t change anything for me or any of us until we accept that He loves and fully intends to save us. The plan must become personal to be meaningful.

For years I believed and taught that Jesus loves us with an incomprehensible love. But I did not accept that He loved me because I knew that I often acted foolishly, selfishly, and wickedly. I often made bad choices while knowing better. As a result, I did not truly believe that He could love me or rescue me. I felt that His love could not reach past my badness.

I wish I could say that I matured into a wiser view of His redemptiveness. That’s not what happened. No. He tricked me into accepting His love.

When I was serving as a bishop, He sent a deeply troubled woman to visit with me. She described a life that was filled with the wreckage of bad choices and regrettable behaviors. I saw little hope for her. When she asked for counsel I was worried. What hope could I offer to someone whose life was in total shambles.

But then something astonishing happened. God reached to one of His troubled children through a weak messenger. I found myself telling this troubled woman that there were three things the Lord wanted her to do. I had no idea what they were. But the Lord told me there were three things. When I wrote the number “1” on a piece of paper, a clear, wise, loving, and encouraging message came. We discussed the idea. When I wrote the number “2” on the paper, another wise and loving bit of counsel came; likewise, with #3. God loved her, taught her, and sent her forth with hope and a plan.

I was dumbfounded. I was astonished by His love for even His most troubled children. I knelt on the floor and shook my head: “I had no idea how much You love your children! I just didn’t know.” If He could and did love her despite all that she had described to me, then He must also love me the same way.

Ever since that day, I have rejoiced in His love. I still grieve at my mistakes. But I repent more gladly and live more fully because I know that His love extends to me.

Dozens of readings of Believing Christ helped me understand the plan. I grew in my love and appreciation for Him. But His message did not become fully personal until God broke through my defenses and surprised me with His love!

I suspect that there are many saints who are committed appreciators of Jesus but not yet surrendered disciples. How do we move from appreciators to disciples? What are the steps?

I don’t know. He had to trick me. And the way He breaks through your defenses will be different from the way He broke through mine.

I suppose that we can lower our defenses. We can learn of His magnificent plan. But the experience of His love will always be a miracle. Maybe the best we can do is pray for it and embrace it when it comes. And we must trust that, because of His love, He does stand ready to save and redeem us. He carries each of us to glory.

As the years go by, I become more and more aware of “His relentless redemptiveness.” Story after story in scripture deliver the same message: God is faithful. He presides in our messy learning process. When we are foolish and contrary, He offers a fresh start through the atonement of Jesus Christ. With infinite patience, He oversees our development toward godliness, line upon line.

If you haven’t already felt that life-changing love, I wish I could tell you how to find it. I pray that you will persist in seeking it until you are swamped by the personal good news: Jesus loves YOU and intends to teach and bless you until you are ready to go to your Heavenly Home and join Him in the work of redemption.

Marriage

You Create the Story of Your Relationship

We can tell the story of our relationship in many ways. We can take the facts of our togetherness and form a comedy, a tragedy, a romance or a satire. We have full power to create whatever narrative we choose. And we can make it fully convincing.

Let’s take an example. A family needed a new refrigerator. The husband consulted reviews and settled on a good choice. He presented the data to his wife. She shook her head. Nope. She wanted one specific brand. He showed her data that favored other brands. She was undeterred; she knew what she wanted. He was frustrated.

When faced with experiences like this, we can form biased perceptions of our spouse: “She is irrational!” “He doesn’t care what I think!”

With that perception in place, we find plenty of evidence to confirm anything we want to believe. The next time he disagrees with or neglects her request, her hypothesis is supported. The next time she says something he doesn’t understand, his view of her is solidified. We continue to look for evidence and continue to find it.

Natural spouses are enemies to their partners. Unless. Unless, instead of looking for evidence to convict, we look for reasons to appreciate. The condition of our hearts determines what we see in people—especially those we are close to. When our hearts are self-focused, irritated, and resentful, we will see lots of offenses. When we are gracious, generous, and compassionate, we see very different people and tell very different stories.

You may recognize the story about the refrigerator as one that Steve Covey told. He and his wife Sandra could not see eye-to-eye on refrigerators. Some months later they were relaxing together when Sandra told Steve an important story from her childhood. During the depression, their family struggled. Her dad worked two jobs including running an appliance business. Only one appliance company had been willing to front her dad needed inventory in those tough times. He often expressed appreciation for that company to his family. Because of her deep love for her father, she had an enduring devotion to that company.

We never know enough to condemn another person. Only God knows that much. (And He uses His knowledge to redeem.)

So, when we’re frustrated with the actions or positions taken by our partners, our best bet is to become detectives. Why does that behavior make sense to my spouse? Why is that position so important to my spouse?

For example, in one couple the wife loves tidiness and order. It is hard for her to feel peaceful without neatness. For her, tidiness is a sacred duty. Her husband loves to hang onto old clothes, household items she believes have out-lived their usefulness, and all kinds of random “stuff” in the garage. He doesn’t like to throw out things that might still be useful. For him, frugality is a heavenly mandate. When she is irritated by all of what she views as “junk”, she faces a choice. She can see him as a slob who doesn’t care about tidiness or her preferences and probably would annoy all heaven’s inhabitants (if he had any chance of being admitted). Or, she can try to understand his mindset. “Why is his desire to hang onto things so important to him?” It may be difficult to understand, but, until she sees why it makes sense to him, she has not arrived.

In addition, she can also make requests that would help resolve the situation while trying to honor what is important to him. “Sweetheart, could we pack up some of the clothes you haven’t worn in a long time and store them in the attic so our closet is less cluttered?” “Would you consider organizing what’s in the garage as a birthday present to me?”

Understanding our spouse doesn’t mean we can’t make our own needs known. But when we truly gain understanding and compassion, we are more likely to tackle issues with kindness and creativity rather than blame, threats, or withdrawal. We are more likely to discover solutions that are agreeable to both partners.

In a marriage there are unnumbered opportunities for irritation. Intimacy. Finances. Priorities. Communication styles. Household chores. Children. If you didn’t know better, you might think that God was trying to stretch us towards greater godliness through our marriages. I often say: Irritation is an invitation. When we are irritated we should imagine it as an invitation from God to display greater understanding and compassion—what we call Christ-like charity. We can also pray to be given that divine gift of charity.

Please note that none of this discussion excuses destructive, abusive, or immoral behavior. In extreme cases we may need to leave a relationship. However, in most relationships we need to stop any narratives that condemn our spouses without any understanding or compassion. Instead, we need to soften our hearts and seek to comprehend the other side of the story.

Look for the good. Seek to understand the irritating. Be ready to forgive. Be wise in making requests.

If you want a vibrant relationship, one of the best things you can do is to collect memories of your best times. “Find the glory in your marital story,” Gottman advises. Make a habit of noticing and cherishing good experiences in your marriage. And elevate the ordinary experiences by the way you interpret them.

Marriage is God’s training ground for godliness. He invites us to bring compassion, patience, and kindness to those flawed and fallen humans to whom we are married.

Application: Watch carefully for irritation with your spouse. Next time you spot irritation welling up, take a deep breath. Try seeing the world through your spouse’s eyes. Pray for heavenly kindness.

Recommendation: The classic secular book on marriage is Gottman’s 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. For an LDS perspective, see my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful comments on this article.