I left Texas two years ago, strong, able, capable, and sure, in the delirium of vows and on the cusp of summer. I came back here weak, knowing my frailty, and my failure ever before me. Limping more than running, praying more than proclaiming.
A week ago I sat in my car with a friend, though, and she said I seem stronger, surer, less fearful of the opinions of others. I went home and asked Nate, "Is this true? And if it is, am I gentle or unkind in it?" We had a fine talk and he said something that hasn't dislodged itself since then: I think one reason you might be stronger is because you've spent the past two years living with someone who encourages you consistently to bear the fruit of the Spirit instead of the fruit of your own sin.
For 34 years I lived with 42 roommates. With the exception of a few homes that weren't perfect, but sure full of joy and fun and mutual service to one another, most of the homes I've lived in were reaming with dysfunction. It's hard to press that many sinners together in such close quarters without all sorts of insecurities rising up, proclivities pushing out, and humanity running over. Those places were bastions of sinfulness—not because we weren't mostly trying to walk in grace by faith, but because we were at varying places in the long walk of obedience in the same direction.
There were days I cried myself to sleep under the weight of shame I had at my failure to love all those girls fully, my own insecurities rising up and cursing me and others. And other days I cried myself to sleep because I was doing my best to love—even in tough ways, and all I received in return was the hurt that hurt people cause. It was painful. Really painful. It was good, don't get me wrong, and I wouldn't change it if I could, but there were days when it was excruciating and when I felt my whole self was being sucked up in the vortex of the sin of others—knowing they could very well be being sucked up in mine too.
Here's the thing, though: I thought that was normal. I thought that's how every home functioned.
I thought in order to feel at home, everyone in the home needed to be free to express their best and worst self, but the result was often that they were free to inflict their worst self on others. I thought being at home meant I could be lazy when I wanted or indifferent or I could close the door when I didn't want to face the dysfunction outside it (but couldn't hide from the dysfunction inside it). I thought it meant bearing the brunt of the shouts and screams of others, the slammed doors, the cold shoulders, and the willful selfishness. In my sinfulness, I thought that was normal.
A friend told me recently the person she feels most like herself with brings out the worst in her, and I ached inside. We believe a lie when we believe "being ourselves" means permission to be angry, manipulative, indifferent, and unkind, in the presence of the one with whom we feel at home.
Of all the challenging things I've found inside marriage, one hundred percent of them are the fact that my own selfish inclinations have no place to hide—and they also have no place to express themselves. They're suffocated to death (and rightfully so) in the presence of one who lives and walks by the Spirit, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, and always encouraging me to bear it as well. There isn't space for us to lash out toward one another or "be ourselves," because that's not who we are. We're children of the living God. We're sons and daughters. We're chosen people. We're royal priests. We're a people for his own possession. What gives us the right to live as though we're children of the enemy? Expressing anger or giving a cold shoulder or manipulating others or preferring ourselves over others? Those are the fruits of the enemy. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control. Those are the fruits the children of God bear.
I'm weaker than I ever thought I would be, but there is a strong and certain confidence in me born partially because it's the first time I'm living in a home where "feeling like ourselves" isn't our currency. I've died a thousand deaths over the past two years, death to selfishness, death to preferences, death to priorities, and in all that pruning, fruit has begun to grow.
I don't know if you're unmarried or married, a mother or a sister or a brother or a friend, but today, I'm praying that the areas of our lives where we're grasping to "feel like ourselves" or "express ourselves freely," would begin to die today. If we're children of God, we know "to die is gain," "unless a kernel falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit" "sown in weakness, raised in power," and on and on. So much of this upside-down kingdom means dying to what feels comfortable, not getting our preferences, setting aside our expectations or desires, and being raised to walk in the glorious freedom of self-forgetfulness. I'm praying that for all of us today.