As newlyweds, my husband Darius and I met with a pastor who asked us, “Did you know that God created marriage for the purpose of character growth?”
As a 23-year-old woman, I’d never thought of marriage in those terms—but I soon discovered that he was right.
In the first few years of our marriage, each time Darius and I encountered conflict, my default response was to blame him for whatever was going wrong. But, over the next few years, I came to understand that the ugliness that bubbled up out of me each time we bumped up against each other was not because of what he had done or said but because of what was inside of me.
As I slowly learned to take responsibility for my flaws, my character was formed in new ways—I gradually learned to manage my anger more appropriately, to be less perfectionistic and judgemental, to be more empathetic and to cut my husband some slack when he didn’t do things the way I did. I came to see that marriage was indeed an opportunity for character refinement and, as I slowly made progress, married life gradually became a lot less bumpy.
But then our children were born. Those character flaws that I thought were gone seemed to return with a vengeance. More than that, I learned I had more flaws than I’d realised! As my children grew from infancy to toddlerhood, I came to see how lacking in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control I really was. (These were qualities the Bible said would be the result of loving and following God.)
I would have despaired, except that it was at this time that I joined a small group. We’d just moved to a new town, and, in my effort to connect, I reached out to a church in my neighbourhood and asked if there was a women’s group I could join. They informed me that, indeed, there was a group within walking distance of my new home. So, on Wednesday mornings, I would bundle my babies into a double stroller and walk the short distance to meet with a group of Christian women from all walks of life.
I remember my first meeting—I thought I needed to put my best foot forward—however, I soon discovered that the women in this group did not wear masks. Instead, marital woes, parenting woes, in-law and other inter-personal woes were all shared in very raw and very real ways, and then bathed in prayer.
As I attended this group for the next two years, I witnessed Christians carrying each other’s burdens and gently restoring those who confessed their weaknesses. Although I did not learn to be quite as vulnerable as others in the group, I did learn that I could share some of my flaws and challenges and still be loved; that when I shared a personal or family-life burden and asked for prayer, the burden seemed to lighten; and that my need for character growth was less discouraging in the context of this authentic Christian community.
As we face the changing circumstances of life across the life span, we are given new opportunities to grow in character and to be formed in God’s image. As Christian pastor and author Bill Hull so profoundly wrote in The Kingdom Life:
“[Family life] can reveal just how much we need to become like Christ. About the time our children are raised, life surprises many of us with enlarged prostates, diabetes, aching backs and breast cancer. Our married children divorce and move back home. Resentment, disappointment and many negative emotions that we believe were gone return with a rage. What becomes so powerfully true is that all events and circumstances form us into Christ. And that formation takes place throughout life.”
When I finally understood this truth, that character development is a lifelong journey, I understood why the women in my small group all those years ago wore no masks. And while I wanted to speed up my formation, they understood that it was “not the work of a moment, an hour, or a day, but of a lifetime” (as Christian writer Ellen White wrote in Acts of the Apostles). Consequently, they felt no shame about the shortcomings of their lives.
I still have a long way to go. I’m still too focused on my own needs and desires too much of the time. But I know the work that God has done in my life. And I know that God’s work in my life and in the lives of others—my family and my faith community—is a life-long process. So I can live without pretence and without shame, and I can be patient with myself and with others, because I know His work in us is not finished yet.
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Dr Edyta Jankiewicz
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