reflections of mine others might find useful

Category: Counseling Topics

If Wedding Vows Were Honest

People love weddings.  I should know because I officiated over 50 of them!  Everything is arranged to make the perfect day.   Everyone cleans up, dresses up, covers up, and gets made up.   Friends and family converge from all over the world and sit expectantly through the prelude.  Then the elegant wedding party glides down the aisle until the real head-turner appears–the radiant bride.  Then we blush with the stunning groom who is grinning from ear to ear as he beholds her approach.   She arrives, the bride is given, he takes her arm, they come forward and, as the ceremony proceeds, they gaze into each other’s eyes transfixed.  Everything is picture perfect!   As Uncle Herman reads 1 Corinthians chapter 13, “the love chapter,” eyes are moist all around.

And then we get to the culmination of the whole event–the exchanging of vows.   A holy hush occurs as everyone strains to listen to what the lovers will pledge to one another.

In a Christian wedding, they’ll traditionally sound something like this.

“I, Ken, pledge my undying love to you, Barbie, as I invite you to share my life. I promise to be kind, unselfish, respectful, and trustworthy, serving you and putting your needs before my own.  I promise to love you with unconditional, agape love, like Christ loved the church.  Barbie, today, before God and these witnesses, I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, remaining faithful to you as long as we both shall live.”

Beautiful words of promise fit for such a beautiful day.  Everyone melts.  Tears flow.  Cameras capture it for posterity.

But is it honest?   Will Ken really love her unconditionally?  Will he really put all of her needs before his own?  Will his love be unwavering when things get worse, or poorer, or in sickness?   No.

The problem is, Barbie is not marrying Jesus, she’s marrying Ken.  And Ken is a fallen human being, just as she is.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, it is a guarantee that all of us will miserably fail at consistently delivering Christian agape love to those we care about.  1 Corinthians, chapter 13 vividly describes God’s perfect love, but only He demonstrates it without fail.   Though hopefully, we are growing in Christlikeness, we will demonstrate it intermittently at best.  This is because we are humans with some serious limitations, which means…

  • we get distracted
  • we forget things
  • we get overloaded
  • life depletes us and wears us down
  • we get tired, hungry, and uncomfortable
  • we run out of energy
  • we sometimes speak before thinking
  • we lack sensitivity
  • we see things from our limited perspective, etc.
  • we don’t know how others interpret things
  • we don’t know what it’s like to be our spouse
  • we are ignorant, not always understanding what is needed in certain situations
  • we lose momentum
  • we lose focus
  • we misprioritize
  • we get lazy
  • we get selfish
  • we think our way is better
  • we can only hold it together for so long
  • we have limits

We can’t keep it together for a single day, let alone ’till death do us part!

So if wedding vows were honest, I think they would sound more like this.

I, Ken, take you, Barbie, to be my wedded wife.  As your husband, God calls me to love you as Christ loved the church, with unconditional, agape love.  With God’s help, I will strive to love you that way, but I know that my love will often fall short of that ideal because I’m human, and because my pursuit of Christ is a work in progress.  I promise that it is my intention to treat you with the kindness, respect, and trust that you deserve, putting your needs before my own.  I also promise that when I fail, and treat you in ways that are not loving, I will admit my sin against you, repent of it, make things right with you, and then learn from my failure how to love you better in the future.  I also promise that when you fail at loving me, I will be quick to forgive you and will do everything I can to restore our relationship and grow from it as well.  Barbie, today, before God and these witnesses, I promise to work on loving you more and more, repairing things with you when I fail, and making our home one that models perpetual grace and forgiveness–through better or worse, for richer or poorer, and in sickness and in health. Whatever God brings our way, I promise to remain faithful to you for as long as we both shall live.

Now please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting every future bride and groom needs to change their traditional wedding vows to match my honest ones.  In fact, at our own wedding,  Cindy and I shared traditional vows that were very similar to the ones in the first sample above.  If there was ever a day to celebrate idealism, it would be on your wedding day!  I’m not wanting to kill the mood!

But what I am saying is that–regardless of promises made–we should live with the expectation that we will regularly fail to love our loved ones and they will regularly fail to love us.  That’s the real promise!   So let’s adjust our expectations and be prepared for that.  And then when we do hurt each other, let’s be quick to heal the hurts and grow from them so that we might learn to love more and hurt less.

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Relational Temperature, Part 3: Temperature Definitions

In my past two posts, I framed relationships as having temperatures.  Part 1 talked about what factors cause relationships to either warm up or cool down, and Part 2 told what to do if others choose to remain cold despite your attempts at warmth.

In this post, I will define each of the twelve temperature increments on my graphic.  I’ll explain the warmer ones first, followed by the colder ones.  I’ll begin each grouping with the absence of temperature–what I call Complacent.

Here’s how I describe the increasing levels of warmth in relationships.

COMPLACENT   This level is neither warm nor cool.  Indifference or ambivalence characterizes such relationships.  No positive or negative interactions or feelings exist.  This category can describe people with whom we have little or no interaction, such as neighbors we haven’t met.  To move to the next level of warmness often begins with introducing ourselves and learning names.

CORDIAL   This is the level where people are polite and respectful toward each other, but there is still a formality to the interactions.  Cordiality is seen in the pleasant conversations between people who just met–involving an ever-so-slight amount of relational warmth.  Moving to the next level requires viewing the other person as someone to bless.

COURTEOUS  Here, the people show gracious consideration toward one another involving small acts of kindness that have minimal cost.  Shoveling a neighbor’s driveway is an example of being courteous.  Moving to the next level of warmth requires becoming aware of the particular needs of others.

CARING  In this level, people demonstrate a greater level of kindness through costlier actions, empathy, and personalized compliments.   Examples would be bringing over a meal for someone in crisis, helping someone move, offering a listening ear to a neighbor who needs to vent, or building up someone who feels like a failure.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people were better at caring!   And think of the influence we would have if we were better at this; people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.  With many of the people in our lives, this level is as warm as we need to get.  But for others, we will have even warmer relationships.

CONNECTED  People in this category find community with others, often through group involvement, shared experiences, geographical proximity, ethnic backgrounds, and shared interests such as sports, hobbies, politics, beliefs, or church involvement.  Such connections offer an antidote for loneliness and provide a sense of belonging.  In connected relationships, it is safe to share opinions, values, and passions.  Here, we enjoy camaraderie and a sense of we, not just me.  People can feel connected with dozens and even hundreds of people; however, the final two levels necessarily involve much smaller numbers of people.

CLOSE  This level describes relationships where there is a much higher level of vulnerability, safety, and trust.  The people within this level find it safe to share difficult experiences, controversial views, emotions, hurts, fears, and dreams in the context of unconditional support and encouragement.   Bible studies, accountability or support groups, support groups, and close teams often provide such close connections.  We usually have only a handful or two of family and friends within this category.

CORE  The most intimate relationships belong in this final category which is characterized by complete vulnerability, transparency, and support.  These are the closest of friends and they enjoy safe, secure, attachment bonds.  A person may have one or two core people in their lives and spouses in the healthiest of marriages relate at this level.  For Christians, our relationship with God should also be at this level of intimacy.

And here’s how I describe the levels of increasing coldness, again.

COMPLACENT   This level is neither warm nor cool.  Indifference or ambivalence characterizes such relationships.  No positive or negative feelings or interactions exist.  This category can describe people with whom we have little or no interaction, such as neighbors we haven’t met.

COLD  This is the first level where the interactions are chilly.  People here are stand-offish or resort to brief answers to questions without elaboration.  Sarcasm, eye-rolling, and sighs of exasperation may also occur in cold relationships.  When people are cold toward us, it is difficult–but important–not to reciprocate; returning coldness for coldness serves only to propel us toward the next level.

CRITICAL  Relationships at this level contain a lot of criticism, focusing on the other person’s failures.  Harsh words are spoken, flaws are highlighted, complaints are levied, and disparaging words are shared.  It is the opposite of encouragement and there is no granting  any “benefit of the doubt.”   When people are critical of us, it is nearly impossible not to strike back with criticism, but we are wise when we listen to the criticism, looking for kernels of truth that we might learn from.   But, instead, if we deflect their criticisms and turn the attention back to their flaws, we only lead the relationship closer toward the next level of coldness.

CONTEMPTUOUS   Criticism eventually grows into an internal attitude of contempt, which dwells under the surface with feelings of disdain and resentment.  Contempt is sometimes expressed through external cutting remarks and negative generalizations.  According to acclaimed marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, contempt between spouses is the number one predictor of divorce.  When we harbor contempt toward another, all compassion is gone.  We would be wise to check our attitudes and look for the image of God in others.  But, instead, if we keep viewing them with contempt, we are heading toward the added coldness of the next level.

CONFLICT-RIDDEN  By this point, the gloves have completely come off–wounding the other is the primary goal.  Relationships in this level are characterized by constant bickering, arguments, shutting down the other, deflection, blame-shifting, avoidance of responsibility, and unforgiveness.   The goal is to defeat them at all costs, opposing every statement, getting the last word in, proving them wrong, and cutting them down.  If we are wise, we will become convicted about the damage we’re causing and will see the importance of standing down.  If we don’t, the only option will be the final level.

CUT OFF COMPLETELY  These relationships are so icy cold that one or both parties have cut the other off completely.  The hurts are so deep that the parties refuse to interact at all.   [Note: in abusive relationships, this level may be the only safe option.  But in all other situations, see my previous post on how to warm things up.]

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Relational Temperature, Part 2: When Others Choose Coldness

In my first post, I introduced the concept of relational temperatures and listed things that will cause relationships to either warm up or cool off.

It’s wonderful when families and friendships are close, but it’s painful when we feel kept at a distance by those we long to be close to.  This post explores ways to respond when others continue to treat us coldly, despite our efforts at warmth.

Grieve.  God created us for warm connections, so when those we care about treat us with coldness, grief is inevitable.  This grief involves not only the distancing of the person, but also the diminished relationship itself.  Additional losses may include accessibility, trust, enjoyment, support, peace, safety, security, harmony, respect, love, and delight.  Such great losses inevitably bring along the various stages of grief:  denial, anger, bartering, and depression.  Working through these is important.

Accept.  The final stage of grief is acceptance.  This does not mean throwing in the towel and giving up on the relationship, but it does mean accepting that the other person has chosen to remain cold toward us.  Acceptance recognizes that we can’t control the choices of others.  We can only take responsibility for ourselves.

Move from Madness to Sadness.  When others choose to relate to us with coldness, criticism, contempt, etc., it is deeply hurtful.  And the more we care about the relationship, the more their coldness hurts.  They have likely treated us in ways that seem unfair, unreasonable, unappreciative, demeaning, and insulting.  Anger is understandable and probably unavoidable.  Yet we can’t stay there.  Harboring bitterness only hurts ourselves, the other person, and whatever remains of the relationship.  In our hearts, we must work toward letting go of our anger and forgiving people for the hurt they caused.  Our goal is to move from Madness to Sadness.  We mustn’t remain mad, but it’s ok to remain sad–in fact, our sadness will be a beautiful testimonial to how much the relationship means to us.

Get Support.  It will be impossible to do any of this on our own—we need support!  We must take it first to Jesus, who understands more than anyone what it feels like to receive iciness in response to His warm love.  He is the one who can bring us comfort in our grief, who can help us accept what we can’t control, who can give us the willingness and ability to forgive, and who can give us the power to change our Madness to Sadness.  We’ll also need peer support.  Let’s lean on others during our time of hurt to receive needed prayer, encouragement, perspective, wisdom, and guidance.  God instructed His Church to practice the “one anothers” for needs such as ours in times such as this.  The warmth offered by Jesus and His Church is sure to offset much of the cold treatment we’ve been receiving.

Keep Our Wants and Needs Straight.  We cause ourselves needless additional pain when we confuse our needs and our wants.  Think of the weight that would be lifted if we viewed getting warmth from others as a want, but not a need.  Consider these scenarios…

  • The mom who needs her daughter to call on Mother’s Day will be shattered when she doesn’t, whereas the mom who merely wants that won’t let her daughter’s negligence define her worth or ruin her day.
  • The son who needs his parents to visit him as often as they visit the other siblings will be infuriated when they don’t, whereas the son who merely wants equal time will have a gentler response to the unfairness.
  • The wife who needs her husband to compliment her will be crushed, whereas the one who only wants his compliments will be hurt, but not let it define her well-being.
  • The sister who needs her brother to enthusiastically help plan their parents’ 50th anniversary will be incensed when he shows disinterest. The one who merely wants that will have a more tempered response to him as she honors her parents without him.
  • The friend who needs her former boyfriend to respond to communications will be absolutely wrecked by his ghosting, but the one who only wants a response will be able to recover.

So let’s be careful about what category we place things into.  Unmet needs seem catastrophic, make us feel desperate, and cause us to panic.  Unmet wants may be unpleasant, but can be overcome far more easily.  (Technically, I believe we don’t need anything from anyone, but that’s beyond today’s topic!)  

Don’t Give Up Hope.  Earlier we talked about accepting the other’s choice to treat us coldly, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hope for a warmer future.  Below are some suggestions for practical things we can do that may increase the chances of the other person warming up to us.

[Disclaimer, it’s important to acknowledge that some relationships are abusive and need boundaries rather than increased warmth.  In extreme cases, remaining cut off completely may be the only healthy response while abusive behavior persists.]   

Pray.  Most “coldness” issues are matters of the heart, so asking God to change the heart of the cold person is essential.  Let’s be sure to pray “for” the person and not “against” him or her.  If our loved ones have cut us off completely or are unsafe to be around, prayer for them may literally be our only option.   Where we do have contact, let’s pray also for ourselves, that we’ll avoid the temptation to return coldness for coldness.  Let’s pray that somehow, in some way, we’ll be able to build a relational bridge to the person’s heart.

Apologize.  When in doubt, let’s apologize!  Let’s take responsibility for anything we perceive we may have done to contribute to the coldness between us, and offer a heartfelt apology.  Let’s also ask them if there’s anything else we missed–other things we need to make right.  Let’s listen carefully and take full responsibility for every hurt we caused without resorting to defensiveness, blame-shifting, deflection, or excuse-making.

Hide Our Hurt.   Even though we have certainly been wounded by those who treat us coldly, let’s not share this with them unless they ask.  Let’s be especially careful not to complain, pout, sulk, act wounded, play the victim, or call them out.  Scolding willfully-cold people for treating us coldly will surely result in further coldness.  This is an occasion when honesty is not the best policy.  No, I am not suggesting we stuff our feelings.  The hurts do need to be expressed, but that’s why we have a support team in place!

Express Our Desire.  Sometimes, it can help just to state what we’d like.  We can describe to them what we liked when things were warmer between us, sharing cherished memories of former times.  We can express how we long to get back to that place of warmth again if possible.  Let’s paint a picture of an improved future and express our commitment to doing whatever we can to get there if possible.  But if we do so, let’s be careful to avoid shaming, pressuring, sermonizing, and manipulating.  Let’s allow them the freedom to disagree.

Continue to Act Warmly Even to Those Who Remain Cold.  Jesus loved us when we were still his enemies, so when we act warmly to those who continue to treat us coldly, we are being like Him.  We all give account for ourselves, not for anyone else.  They will answer for their actions and so will we.  When others are cold to us, let’s always choose to be the warmer person, the bigger person, the godlier person.  It’s the right thing to do.

In Part 3 on this topic, I will define my chart’s various temperature levels and suggest practical ways to make warm relationships even warmer.

 

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Thoughts about Relational Temperature, Part 1

To varying degrees, relationships can feel warm and intimate or they can feel chilly and estranged.   I’ve created this graphic to illustrate the wide range of “relational temperatures” that we might experience.

Healthy relationships involve warm connections with others; these are represented by the six “yellow zones” of my illustration.  We engage intimately in the center zones with just a few people; there are more people–with less intimacy– in each subsequent circle.    Regardless of the amount of closeness, intimacy, and warmth, all of these yellow-zone relationships are healthy.

Unfortunately, we are sinful people who don’t always get relationships right.  Our brokenness affects all areas of life, including how we interact with others.

Unhealthiness exists when relationships operate in the blue zones.   A relationship that includes cold-shouldering, hostility, or shunning can be crushing, especially when it involves family and friends.   The biblical story of Jacob and Esau and the account of Joseph and his brothers illustrate the pain that comes from living in these circles.  Such pain can sometimes last for generations!

The pain caused by blue-zone relationships keeps us counselors in business.

Almost all of us would prefer to relate with others in the yellow zones; only the seriously dysfunctional would want their relationships devoid of warmth.

All relationships have a temperature, but as with the weather, temperatures can either warm up or cool off.  So let’s look at some things that might cause variations in relational temperatures.

List 1.  What may help relationships Warm Up?

  • Listening for understanding
  • Pursuing clarity
  • Seeking reconciliation
  • Assuming goodwill
  • Heartfelt apologies
  • Forgiveness
  • Humility
  • An “others orientation”
  • Expressions of love and care
  • Being fully present, staying engaged
  • Mutual respect
  • Making others feel safe
  • Acts of kindness
  • Choosing to be unoffendable

List 2.  What may cause relationships to Cool Off?

  • Poor communication
  • Withholding the benefit of the doubt
  • Assuming ill-will
  • Making assumptions
  • Judging motives
  • Stereotyping
  • Victim mentalities
  • Resentment, bitterness, and unforgiveness
  • Seeking revenge or retribution
  • Prejudice, condescension, judgmentalism, –any of the “isms”
  • Selfishness, greed, and pride
  • Withdrawing or stonewalling
  • Inattentiveness
  • Anger, out-of-control emotions
  • Exaggerations using “always” and “never”
  • Fear, intimidation

Doing more of the things on list 1 above and doing less of the things on list 2 ought to warm up any relationship.   It’s worth noting that all of the “one another” passages in Scripture would fall under list 1.  The church is to be a place of exceptional warmth!

But even so, there is no guarantee that things will always be warm with our families, friends, and churches.  Some things remain out of our control.   In Part 2 on this topic, I will talk about how to handle it when coldness remains in a relationship even after doing your part.

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Honesty is not the best policy

 

I don’t want you being honest with me — and I promise not to be honest with you either.    I want us to withhold the truth, avoid transparency, and be pretenders.  In fact, I don’t want anyone in the world being honest with each other.  Honesty is not the best policy.

My friends may be surprised at me saying such an outlandish thing.  As a God-fearing person who often speaks about truthfulness, integrity, and accountability, this doesn’t sound congruent.

Here’s what I mean.

We don’t need to disclose everything we’re thinking.  Just because it’s in my head doesn’t mean it needs to be spoken.   Before talking, I need to consider whether speaking my thoughts would be beneficial.

Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Here, Paul tells the Ephesians not to let everything in your head come out of your mouth.  In other words, “Put a filter on it!”   Prior to opening up your mouth, make sure your words suit the occasion, build up, and give grace to the hearer.  Less is more.

James, in 1:19, agrees, telling us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Our culture today completely fails in this area.  People are slow to listen, quick to speak, and filterless — particularly in our online communications!

Less is more.  We don’t need to share all of our opinions or always get in the last word.  Why do we feel it so necessary to tell others all the things that displease us about them?  How about putting a stop to our constant critiques and obeying Philippians 2:3 instead, which tells us to treat others better than ourselves!

We’ve drifted a long way from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous Sonnet 43.  “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  If written today it would read, “How have you offended me?  Let me count the ways.”  People are quick to point out their dissatisfactions, grievances, and disappointments in brutally honest, hate-filled attacks.  Let’s be different;  let’s never insult others by our honesty.

But what if the honesty of others insults us?  What then?

I recently read a book about apologizing, where the author contends that we must honestly tell people whenever they hurt us.  I completely disagree.  As I’ve blogged elsewhere, we can forgive someone who has hurt us without needing to inform them of the hurt they caused.  Let me take my hurts to Jesus, who understands mistreatment better than anyone, and then let me treat the offender with undeserved, unconditional mercy, grace, and love.  Only if it would benefit the other person do I suggest telling them what they did to me.

Is honesty ever a good policy?  Certainly.  Here are occasions where I think honesty is vitally important:

  1.  We need to be honest with God, ourselves, and others about our own weaknesses.  To hide our fatal flaws is foolish.  That’s why one of my personal Life Resolutions is to “keep no personal secrets of any kind, but rather disclose any areas of weakness to trusted friends that they may hold me accountable…”
  2. If I become aware that I’ve hurt someone, I should confess my sin honestly, request forgiveness, and seek to restore harmony.  Matthew 5:23-24 says, “…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
  3. When a person has hurt me AND it would also benefit him or her to understand the effects of that hurt, my honesty would actually be a kindness.  But make sure our motive involves his benefit, not our vindication or comeuppance.  The goal of such honesty must be to help him learn the ways others may be adversely affected by his actions.  The focus should be on educating more than confronting.
  4. When someone’s performance is sub-standard, a supervisor’s honest feedback and possible discipline are necessary.
  5. When someone exhibits behavior that is unethical, self-destructive, or harmful to you or others, honest, constructive criticism is essential.  Such honest communication may help reveal the person’s blind spots and prevent further harm or abuse.  But be sure the motive behind such honest feedback is protection and reformation and not judgment or condescension. Galatians 6 admonishes us to restore a straying person gently, something that takes great sensitivity, courage, and honesty.

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