My dad believed that one of his responsibilities as a father was to teach his three sons how to work. Moving a yard of dirt from one side of the house to the other or digging out the stumps at the root was not an everyday request, but happened often enough to develop a pretty good work ethic. We learned to roll up sleeves, ignore our desire to quit and work through the pain. Good lessons to learn for any young man.
Then one day, dad brought home a saw that demanded two people work together to accomplish falling a particularly large tree in our backyard. He handed it to my brother, Daryl, who was two years younger than me and told us to go out and cut the tree down. Now, as most brothers close together in age, we were very competitive with each other. Cooperation between us was as common as the smell of ocean air in the Ohio Valley in West Virginia. There were lots of smells, but that was not one.
What followed was a lot of arguing and frustration. We both knew how to work alone, but not together. We both had our way of doing it and were barking orders to the other about how they were to manage their side of the saw. Needless to say, what should have taken 30 minutes, took us at least two hours. Our knuckles were bloody from beating them against the tree. Our palms blistered from working the saw way too hard. The tree fell and we never picked up the saw again. Oh, we cut trees down again. But it was just easier to make it a one man job as far as we were concerned.
Part of our problem was that we never really saw each other as part of a team. I was the oldest, so he should have followed my direction. I outranked him. He was the youngest, so he had to prove he was as qualified to be the boss as I was. As long as we fought over who was going to call the shots, the only thing that was getting cut down was each other. Sarcasm and insults filled our backyard that day… more than usual.
Many couples are just like Daryl and me on that cool fall day in our back yard; two individuals seeking only to outrank the other. No teamwork. In fact, as Daryl and I didn’t figure out that day, we were really on the same team. Competition had no place in the activity of the day if we were going to accomplish our task successfully.
Ephesians 5:21ff is a great passage that points to a whole different way of doing life together in marriage. Instead of trying to outrank or “out do” the other, we are to really try to out serve the other. This is a real challenge because this demands that I have my partner’s best interest at heart… not mine. If I serve my wife in order to get something else, I’m really controlling or manipulating. If I serve her the way I would like to be served, I still don’t have her best interest at heart. It is like that power tool I bought her on her birthday that I couldn’t wait to use. Nor can I demand to be served. Whoa! That is about as selfish as you can get.
When two people are striving to serve each other, the team wins. The tree falls. Vicious words are not spoken or even thought. Knuckles might still get bruised but it was all part of completing the task. The relationship and the task at hand become the priorities, not proving to the other that your thought or needs out rank theirs.
John Gottman, in his book The Science of Trust, discovered that trust is when you believe that: #1, you can count on the other person to be there and #2, you know they have your best interest at heart. That sure sounds like Ephesians 5. It sure sounds like a team. It sure sounds like I need to check where my heart is. If I really have the best interest of my spouse at heart, then I am going to listen to her, work with her and move toward her in cooperation. If I can be counted on by her then I need to stay reliably engaged with her and resist the temptation to throw up my hands and withdraw. This is the opposite of taking charge, getting what I want; arguing that my way of thinking and doing is the best.
If Daryl and I had only trusted each and put our own selfishness and agendas to the side, the victory we felt when the tree finally did fall would have been much more celebratory. We would have accomplished a great victory and our relationship would have become even stronger. Instead, when the tree fell, we walked away glad it was over and the tension between unresolved. What a stupid way to do life!