I once considered myself pretty patient, compassionate, and loving—perfect husband material. Then a funny thing happened.
I got married.
I managed to convince a sweet, vivacious girl from Texas to walk the aisle and accept my hand in marriage. All of a sudden, I was forced to live side-by-side with another human being—another flawed, yet graced child of God like myself. And I realized that I wasn’t really as great as I’d thought. Marriage brought to the surface all of my sinful patterns as no other human relationship could. Holy matrimony exposed the areas of my heart that had been buried untested, hidden from the light of day.
Then another crazy thing happened. After a few years I became a father. Then I became a father again. And again. And again. Before having children, I had worked out a very straightforward, biblical, fail-proof parenting approach. I would not make the mistakes my parents made. I would avoid the pitfalls of all those hapless young families I’d witnessed in my chin-stroking single years of observation.
But when four sinful little human beings were suddenly thrust into my life, I realized I was not the patient, fun-loving sage I’d envisioned myself to be. No, this man was replaced with a short-tempered, lazy, sometimes unscrupulous dolt. I found myself making the same parenting mistakes I’d mocked in others.
Human relationships are not a problem to be solved. They are a grace given to us by a loving God.
Nothing caused the scales to fall from my eyes more than these close human relationships. It’s not that I was a great guy before I got married and had children. I was simply untested. The crucible of relationships reveals what is really there in our character. Human interaction—God’s hidden hand of sanctification—is one of the special tools He uses to bring about change in His children. The trouble is, we often miss what God is doing in the people around us, especially those we are forced to live with, tolerate, and love.
This isn’t true only for family life. It’s true in every walk of life. As a pastor, I found that the cranky old complainer in the back row was God’s instrument in teaching me patience. The know-it-all with the highlighted Bible and hair-splitting theological questions forced me to more thorough study and a discerning temperament. The tattooed and indifferent teen helped soften my apologetic.
We often pray, “God, make me holy. Make me more like your Son” but resist the tools He uses in the process, as if sanctification happens in a prayer closet or monastery. But isolated acts of personal piety, while beneficial for certain seasons, don’t form our character like daily, incarnational experiences with real people. It could be that God is teaching us the real problem in the world is not the wife we married, the kids we raise, or the employees we manage. Perhaps the biggest problem in our world is the person looking at us in the mirror. God might just be using the annoyances, habits, and even sins of someone else to forge us into the image of God’s Son, to equip us to live out our unique callings in the world.
When I look back on my life, I have to admit that without the relationships God has given me, I’d be much less of a man. I can’t imagine who I’d be without the patient, steady love of my wife. I can’t imagine the pride and arrogance I’d display without the humiliating yet rewarding experience of fatherhood. And without the collection of interesting individuals I’ve had the joy of leading in ministry, I might treat people as masses to move rather than souls to love.
Human relationships are not a problem to be solved. They are a grace given to us by a loving God. For it is in community, in the rough and tumble of daily life, that we are molded by the Spirit, conformed to the likeness of the Son, shaped skillfully by the Father.