My husband comes in the door at the end of the day and we connect briefly with a nice peck on the lips. “You’re home,” I say. “Look who’s home, girls!”
Then I return instantly to what I was doing—getting dinner on the table or putting pants on somebody. I remember that I’ve forgotten to get his coffee ready—something that he’s never really asked me to do but that I know he takes as a gesture of special kindness. I find, as we sit down to supper, that I’ve forgotten and put nuts in his salad again. The dinner is not one that he gets excited about but it’s healthy, good for all of us. A few books are still on the floor from when the baby was investigating his commentaries on Acts earlier.
These things aren’t my responsibility. My job is to survive, I tell myself, until the end of the day.
If he comments on the nuts in the salad or books on the floor, I say little, or cheerfully apologize, but inwardly I take notes to myself. “Take this down,” I say to my inner secretary. “Note this down please—Petty. Petty is the right word. I would never comment like that about something he did wrong.”
The evening wears on, with play, food, devotions, baths, dishes, each of us taking turns in an arrangement of labor that has come to work best for us.
When the final child is in bed—put there lovingly by him—I find that I’ve gotten really into a book while he was putting her down.
He wants to read aloud together, and gives me a little look when I hesitate.
“Petty,” my secretary scribbles. “Self-centered. Lack of self-control.”
Calmly, I put my book aside and pick up the one we are reading together.
“Patient,” my secretary is taking dictation again. “Ready to bend at a moment’s notice. Make sure you get that last part: Moment’s notice. Notice is spelled with a ‘c’.”
Garden Variety Stinge
This is the way things are at the end of a day when I feel that I’ve barely squeaked by as a mother and homemaker. Usually the sin that feeds this kind of interchange is a garden-variety stinginess on my part that causes me to stand away from my husband emotionally while coldly taking down a list of everyone else’s shortcomings. I do this when I’m feeling particularly spent and irritated, and I do it in an attempt to reassert my self’s selfness after a day when it felt like my self was threatened by the two small beings who care very little about my self’s fragile independence.
See, the thing that doesn’t change, from day to day, is the takey-ness of my girls. They are relentless in their need. They take and take my energy all day long. This is a given.
What does change from day to day is my attitude towards the fact of their takey-ness. When I settle into it with cheer and a sense of humor, just as determined to give and give as they are to take, somehow I seem to come to the end of the day with more energy than on the stingy days. But in the stingy-day scenario, I’m conserving energy like mad, giving them only the little bit of myself that is absolutely necessary to keep them alive.
At the end of stingy days, my husband comes home and to me he looks like one of two things: 1) another warm body to thrust a child at so I can go hide for part of the evening or at least give him a few well-placed hints about how hard the day was, 2) an extra-ordinary burden, another thing that is going to require something of me in the form of attention, food, or emotional energy.
So I conserve, again. I’ll feed you, but I won’t engage you with the part of myself that I’ve decided is unavailable to the world today. I’ll stop short of rudeness, but I’m not going to bring my heart into the business of keeping fellowship with you. I’ll eat with you, read with you, and sleep with you, but I’m not going to be fully present during these activities because I just can’t.
A Woman’s Transforming Credulity
Obviously, God has made it clear that no Christian needs to camp out in “bad-attitude-ville” for an extended stay. Men, women, and children all need to check right out of there as soon as ever they notice where they are. But women, I feel, have a unique responsibility to make an extra push to resist the drama in their hearts.
Why? Because of what our particular strength is.
God asks that I approach the jobs of mother and wife with the whole heart and emotional creativity of a woman. Because that’s what he made me. A woman. A woman, meaning that my particular strength doesn’t lie in taking a dictation of wrongs down in a never-ending spiral notebook. My strength, and the thing that I’m supposed to pour into my marriage, is a uniquely feminine power. It is the power to look at a thing and to see in it the potential of the thing it could be, ought to be, and will—with God’s grace—someday actually be.
The unique power of the feminine is a power of transforming credulity.
Incredulous, adj.: unbelieving, skeptical, cynical, distrustful, suspicious, doubtful, dubious, unconvinced.
What a woman possesses is the ability to not only suspend disbelief, but to enthusiastically, energetically believe in something she loves. It’s a transforming credulity.
Nobody else knows that this table could be great if it was sanded, painted eggshell blue and distressed—to the naked eye it’s just an ugly table. Nobody else knows that this child is beautiful—others see only that she is covered in cradle cap and has a soggy diaper. Nobody else knows that this egg and this flour and this sugar are actually a cake—until a woman’s optimistic endeavor brings it about. Nobody else knows that this man is a wise man and a leader and a lover and a future grandfather—others may at this moment only see his feet of clay.
But a woman knows, because the table, baby, ingredient, or man is hers to see and love. I believe in this [table, baby, ingredient, man] the way only a woman could, and that credulity sets the [table, baby, ingredient, man] up for being the thing I already see in it .
And it isn’t a matter of a woman fooling herself, as if a woman is most feminine when she blinds herself most successfully. Also, this isn’t a kind of “he isn’t the man I hoped for, but I can change him!” mentality. It’s more than that. It’s looking at a thing and, after accurately assessing the thing as it is, seeing the full possibility of what the thing was made for and then getting on board with helping in any way you can.
A woman can accurately assess the fact that she is married to a sinner, but it is just as accurate for her to look at her husband and see that he is an eternal creature endowed with glory and honor (Ps. 8:6) because he was made in the image of God himself (Gen. 1:27). Just as she looks at eggs, flour, and sugar and her feminine vision allows her to see a naked wedding cake with moss all over it.
This, of course, is a God-like love; one of the unique ways that women are particularly able to image God. It isn’t as if God is fooling himself about anybody at any time either. It’s that God is able to love for the sake of a thing’s eternal identity, which is derived from his own eternal worth. He looks at it with eyes for the worth that he himself bestows on it or plans to bestow on it. Obviously, a woman’s power for transformation is not like God’s; she can’t make people change by the power of her will. She can’t lend worth where none exists. But she can love with a love that borrows its spirit from this same Spirit of transforming vision.
Picking Up the Floor When You’d Rather Not
The problem is that this innate feminine ability is always working against the grain of a sin nature that is faithless, hopeless, and helpless.
When we were about to get married, my husband shared with me the idea of “picking food up off the floor.” I think he said the idea was original to Douglas Wilson. It goes like this: Every day, you are inevitably going to sin against each other in a household. The sinning will happen no matter how hard you try; you’ll “drop things on the floor” when you sin against each other. So the difference between a clean floor and a very dirty floor is repentance. Every day, you must pick the food up off the floor by repenting and making things right.
The problem is that one begins, at the end of a stingy day like today, to feel a total sense of defeat. One starts to use words like “always” and “never” the way they should never be used. “The baby never naps anymore; she’s always fussy.” “He never takes the trash out.” “He always uses that tone with me.”
And with this faithless attitude, grim predictions for the future start to set in. It is the opposite of transforming credulity; it is an incredulity at the idea that change will ever occur or things will ever be better than they are right now. The bitterness will grow—you begin to believe it is inevitable. The bitterness has its root in both of you, in your very blood, in your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, and so on until the dawn of time when Adam and Eve went crying from the garden and that first night Adam said something rude to Eve over a campfire supper of roots and berries. Now the bitter roots run through your children.
And you begin to count the reasons why, you are sure, you will never be able to see each other with fresh eyes again. The stains of sin will always be there, even after repentance, and the stains will build on themselves until everything in your life together is a muddy brownish color. And your home fellowship will be something like carpet on the floor of a 2007 Dodge Caravan owned by people with five children. Things get mashed in after a while. Nobody can remember what it used to look like before goldfish and raisins.
You carry this feeling around with you all evening, and by the time the children are in bed you have imagined all kinds of little outbursts with which you will show your husband how you feel, but in the end none of these actually occur. In the end, all you do is avoid his gaze while he reads P.G. Wodehouse, and then he looks at you for a long moment and asks you why you’re mad, and you sigh and say, “Hmmm… I guess it isn’t any one thing.”
You try to tell him what he did that upset you—a harsh word here, impatience there—and you realize it sounds exactly like a description of your own attitude all day long. Finally you stop and say, “It’s nothing spectacular. I know I sinned in all the same ways today. I just have no grace for you, that’s all. I know it’s wrong but I just can’t get soft towards you.”
You sit quietly for a few more minutes. And then—miracle of miracles—after a quiet exchange in which you both try to analyze the day without coming any closer to soft hearts… you sit and pray together. Please help us. Please forgive us. Please bring our hearts together again.
And the hearts melt.
This is what you’d forgotten—you have a Helper for when your special feminine ability to love runs aground on the rocks in your own heart. When you are no longer the sweetening fragrance in your home, it’s a reminder that you aren’t the source of sweet fragrance at all. It comes from without you, and thank goodness.
There is a person you and your husband can turn to when hearts are hard. When you turn to God in repentance, he does what you ask, because what you ask is only what he’s already commanded. “Have a heart of flesh,” he says. “We can’t,” you say (Jer. 18:12). ” “I can. Have a heart of flesh,” he says (Ezek. 36:26). And it is done. When we ask for a new heart, he complies and it is him doing for us what he had commanded us to do.
And a whoosh of the sweetening fragrance blows back into the room.
Suddenly, you look at your husband again and you can’t believe the defeated thoughts of ten minutes ago. The carpet isn’t going to get mashed-in goldfish. It is going to get cleaner, actually, as the years go by; the forgiveness available to you both is stronger than goldfish many times over. You are refreshed and invigorated, and restored to the work of loving with a woman’s love.
You are credulous again; God has promised and he will accomplish. So you lay your hands on the closest ingredients (P.G. Wodehouse) and start baking.