In 2009, Laura Munson wrote a remarkable reflection on the near dissolution of her marriage for The New York Times titled “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” She recounts a painful afternoon when her husband of thirty years came to her, out of the blue, to tell her that he didn’t love her anymore and wanted out of the marriage. She writes, “[My husband's] words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, ‘I don’t buy it.’ Because I didn’t.”
Instead of rising to his hurtful words and responding in kind, she surprised even herself by holding her tongue. She knew that her husband was going through a tough time in his career, feeling less than good about himself, and more than likely transferring that inadequacy onto their relationship. But it’s one thing to understand these things intellectually and another to in the moment:
You can bet I wanted to sit him down and persuade him to stay. To love me. To fight for what we’ve created. You can bet I wanted to. But I didn’t. I barbecued. Made lemonade. Set the table for four. Loved him from afar. And one day, there he was, home from work early, mowing the lawn. A man doesn’t mow his lawn if he’s going to leave it. Not this man. Then he fixed a door that had been broken for eight years…He mentioned needing wood for next winter. The future. Little by little, he started talking about the future. It was Thanksgiving dinner that sealed it. My husband bowed his head humbly and said, “I’m thankful for my family.” He was back.
Reactivity would have killed the marriage. But by some miracle, Munson did not give her husband what he was asking for, which was a fight and a way to scapegoat her for the pain he was feeling. Nor did she try to make him pay for the hurt he was causing. Instead, for all intents and purposes, she turned the other cheek. And it was the key to their recovery. If you’ve ever been in her situation, you know how miraculous it is that she was able to stay quiet. But if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of such an act of mercy, you know it can move mountains.
The gospel announces that we have been.
Excerpted from One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World
When it comes to the raising of children, one-way love is both the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. How many of us have responded to the experience of becoming a parent for the first time by saying, “I finally understand how powerful and profound of a thing it is that God considers us His children!” The relationship we have with a baby, after all, is about as one-way as it gets. They need and we give, period. They have no illusions about their own power. The very idea that a baby might do something to deserve our love–other than exist–is laughable. It’s no coincidence that Jesus speaks so highly of children; he praises their ability to receive love.
It’s once our kids grow up that understanding the difference between law and grace becomes so difficult—but also so urgent. I’ll give you an example.
My wife and I had a rough year last year with one of our sons. His hardheartedness and willful defiance was not only affecting the rest of the family (sound familiar?), it was breaking our hearts because he was enslaving himself and he didn’t know it. Needless to say, he was not as convinced of the gravity of his misbehavior as Kim and I were. His unrepentant attitude was driving us crazy, so it was decided that he would be put on social lock-down. No car, no phone, no nothing. If he wasn’t at school, he was to be at home. No exceptions. The law had to do its crushing work. He needed to realize the seriousness of what he had been getting involved in. Being the social butterfly that he is, social lock-down was his worst fear, so that was what we chose. To make things even worse, we sold his smartphone.
He wasn’t happy about any of this, and it wasn’t a walk in the park for Kim, me, or the other kids either. It actually made things harder. Without his phone and his friends, he haunted the house like a drug addict going through detox. He couldn’t help out by giving his brother and sister rides, so Kim and I had to go back to serving as chauffeurs.
A month or so after the clampdown had gone into effect, I was traveling back from speaking at a conference. Before I left, I had told my son, in my most earnest, authoritative-father voice, that there was only one thing he needed to do while I was gone and that was to not give his mother a hard time. If he didn’t give her any unnecessary headaches, when I got back, we might revisit the phone issue. Midway through my 48 hour trip, I received a call from Kim, who told me that my request was not, shall we say, being respected. I couldn’t believe it. One thing. 48 hours. He couldn’t do it. I was furious.
I spent the plane ride home battling with God. I mean, really going back and forth with Him about what I should do. I knew I had to deal with the situation as soon as I returned. I was angry with my son for putting me in this situation, and I was tired of dealing with his ingratitude. Clearly my son had not learned his lesson. As far as I was concerned, more law was needed. Yet as I prayed about it, I had this haunting sense that God was telling me it was time to relent. Time to, at least, give the boy his phone back. What? No way, God. Every fiber of my being was resistant to that idea. Not only did the law afford me control over my son (a boy who had proved that he didn’t know how to handle his freedom), he didn’t deserve to get his phone back. The one thing I had asked him to do, he hadn’t done. He’d understood the condition before I left: be good, and you’ll get a phone. Well, he hadn’t been good. So no phone. Very reasonable to me. I was looking for an excuse, any excuse, to keep the handcuffs on. That I was flying back from a conference where I had spoken about one-way love was not lost on me.
Well, I got home, called my son out of his room, and told him we needed to talk. I reminded him of everything I’d said before I left—the conditions under which he would get a phone. He looked at me very sheepishly, knowing he was guilty—again! I talked to him for a while about life and choices and sin and how much we loved him. He listened intently–really listened. In fact, it was the first time he had looked at me in the eyes and really paid attention to what I was telling him. I could tell that what I was saying was finally making sense to him. After we were done talking, we prayed together. First me, then him. When we finished praying, I looked at him and said, “Now go put your shoes on, and let’s go to the phone store and get you a new phone.” He was completely shocked. His lip started to quiver, and he finally burst into tears. In the months since we first caught him doing the stuff that originally got him in trouble, he had shown no remorse, no sorrow. This was the first time I had seen tears. Real tears. I asked him what was wrong. With tears streaming down his face, he looked at me and said, “But, Dad, I don’t deserve a phone.” He was right. He didn’t deserve a phone. He didn’t deserve a pad of paper and a stamp. His words revealed that God knew a lot better how to handle my son than I did. The contrition was genuine. The law had leveled him. It had shown him who he was in a way that left no doubt about his need. It was time for a word of grace.
Notice that his humility did not precede the invitation. The chronology is crucial. His admission was not a condition for mercy; it was its fruit! I looked at him and said, “Listen, son. God takes me to the phone store ten thousand times a day, and I have never ever deserved one…so go get your shoes on and let’s get you a phone.”
It was a happy day.
Now, before you line up to give me the father-of-the-year award, know that the reason I tell the story is because it was such a surprise to me too. My son had come by his rebelliousness honestly, after all. One of the main reasons his behavior bugged me so much was that he reminded me so much of myself when I was his age! I only tell the story for three reasons: One, it illustrates that the law is useful. Grace could not have done it’s curing work if the law had not first done its crushing work. But two, it illustrates how resistant we are to grace. We feel much safer with our hands on the wheel. I was so afraid that he would go nuts, that he would prove himself to be his father’s son once again. It was as hard for me to give up the sense of manageability the law provided as it was for him to lose his phone. It had to be taken from me. And three, the emotional response at being let off the hook was a powerful reminder that only grace can inspire what the law demands. The law was able to accuse him, but only grace could acquit him. The law was able to expose him, but only grace could exonerate him. The law was able to diagnose him, but only grace was able to deliver him.
God showed me one more time that, when it’s all said and done, love (not law) is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience.
[Excerpted from One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World.]
William Graham Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Visit his website at www.liberatenet.org. and follow him on Twitter @PastorTullian.
A marriage is a like a petri dish for the weight of conditionality and the beauty of one-way love. Husbands and wives are often so hard on one another, merciless with their demands and expectations, their criticisms and silences. I’ve seen husbands and wives keep score on one another for the most ridiculous things, from the way they chew their food, to the way their voice sounds when they’re speaking on the phone, to the type of presents they give each other. And yet what brought the couple together in the first place was almost always an experience of grace, some connection that transcended their worthiness. As Southern novelist Walker Percy writes in Love in the Ruins, “We love those who know the worst of us and don’t turn their faces away.”
You and I both know that beneath our happiest moments and closest relationships inevitably lies some instance of being loved in weakness or deserved judgment. Someone let you off hook when you least deserved it. A friend suspended judgment at a key moment. Your father was lenient when you wrecked his car. Your teacher gave you an extension, even though she knew you had been procrastinating. You said something insensitive to your spouse, and instead of retaliating, she kept quiet and didn’t hold it against you the next day. One-way love is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience—a person who is loved in their guilt and weakness blossoms.
A marriage flavored by one-way love eschews score-keeping at all costs. It is not a fifty-fifty proposition, where I scratch your back and then you scratch mine. A grace-centered marriage is one in which both partners give 100 percent of themselves. They give up their right to talk about rights. This means that a grace-centered marriage, in theory, is one where both parties are constantly apologizing to each other, asking for and granting forgiveness. No one is ever innocent in a grace-centered marriage. If original sin is as evenly distributed as the Bible claims it is, then both parties have some culpability. Every marriage is the union of two selfish people, fighting for their way, desperate to win. That’s why an apology so often feels like we are betraying ourselves. We would rather see a marriage fall apart than cede any ground in the “war of the roses.”
The world tells us to stand up for ourselves, to stick to our guns. But the Gospel frees us to lay down our arms. There is nothing at stake, and therefore nothing to fear, ultimately. Our righteousness, which we are often hell-bent on protecting in a marriage, has already been secured, and it is not our own. No more having to win, no more having to be right, no more fighting to secure love and extract affection. Because everything I need and long for I already possess in Christ, I am now free to do everything for you without needing anything from you. The fire to love unconditionally comes only from being soaked in the fuel of being unconditionally loved.
For the marriage grounded in one-way love, there is always hope, always a way forward.
Excerpted from One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World
Below is an excerpt from my book One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World.
Critical environments are contexts which (while never explicitly stated) shout: “my approval of you, love for you, and joy in you depends on your ability to measure up to my standards, to become what I need you to become in order for me to be happy.” It’s a context in which achievement precedes acceptance. We’ve all felt this. We’ve felt it at school, in churches, in the workplace, with our friends, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and most painfully, at home with our spouses, our children, our siblings, and our parents. One-way love is often what distinguishes a warm household from a cold one. Children often move across the country to get away from a toxic home life where two-way conditionality has come to rule the roost via the judgments of parents and other siblings. A house full of conditions feels like a prison. Rules are one thing—take out the trash; don’t hit your brother. They govern the day-to-day and protect us from one another. Conditions are different and more emotional in nature. “If you really loved us, then you wouldn’t spend so much time with those people.” “We will approve of whatever career choice you make, provided it’s between medicine, law, and business.” “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Even small differences between family members can be the source of tremendous friction. Yet grace has the power to bind generations together. I was blessed to have experienced the power of one-way love not just from my parents but my grandparents as well.
Whenever people learn that I was kicked out of the house at sixteen, they invariably ask how my grandparents responded. What they usually mean is “How did Billy and Ruth Graham respond to actual sin in their midst?” People looked up to them, not just as spiritual leaders, but as role models for how to raise godly children and grandchildren. “Weren’t you shaming the family name?” The truth is, my grandparents never said a single word to me about getting my act together. They never pulled me aside at a family gathering and told me what I needed to do or stop doing, how I was squandering all that my parents had given me, and how my hard-hardheartedness was hurting others–especially those who loved me most. Only God knows what they were thinking or feeling, but I never picked up on a shred of conditionality from them: “If you want our approval and affection, you have to get your act together.” They treated me exactly the opposite of how I deserved to be treated.
For example, I wore earrings back in those days. One in the left, and one in the right. It used to drive my parents nuts. Every time my grandmother—Ruth Graham—came down to visit, she would bring me a fresh set of earrings to wear! They were always funny. At Christmastime, she would bring me ornament earrings and make me put them in and take a picture. At Thanksgiving, she brought fork and knife earrings, and she took a picture. She made light of it. She would often tell me with a twinkle in her eye that I was her favorite granddaughter. She wasn’t making fun of me. She was saying, “This isn’t that big of a deal. He’s going to grow out of it.” It may sound pretty trivial, but it meant the world to me. Everyone else was on my case, and instead of giving me one more thing to rebel against, my grandmother drew me in closer.
Of course, I eventually did grow out of the “earring wearing” stage–a stage my oldest son just entered (I guess what goes around really does come around). But thanks to Tai Tai’s (what we called my grandmother) unconditional posture towards me 25 years ago, I won’t be making an issue of it. In fact, they actually look really good on him.