Heart-tenderizing Words

One day when I was feeling particularly like homemaking and child-rearing were exercises in futility, I called my mother-in-law to get a little pep talk. She had married Jim when she was 33 and he was 26, and her first of four children (my husband) was born when she was 34. Before her marriage, she had spent several years on the mission field, and she was a first-rate Bible teacher. So I called her up and told her how I felt that morning: like each day I grabbed my shovel to start moving the pile and by evening it was still there, maybe even higher and bigger.

So I was expecting a nice little word that would cheer me up. I was expecting a little sympathy. But here’s what I got instead. She told me about a missionary who was imprisoned for his faith and hung upside down in a cave. His wife had to bring him food and feed him in that condition. She brought him his books so he could continue to study while he was hanging there. Hmmm. I certainly did not have it that bad, not even on the worst laundry days. You can imagine, that was not what I was expecting to hear. I remember reacting a little bit on the inside. “Oh come on! That’s not relevant to my situation! See if I call you next time I need a little cheering up!”

She also reminded me that I had three in my congregation, three in my little Bible school at home. Now that was a new image for me. I wasn’t just running in circles. I was teaching by word and by example, every day, all day. That was both convicting and exciting for me to think about.

The unspoken message (which out of tenderness, she never would have said) was that I was having a little pity party, and I needed to get back to work with more of a vision of my calling, a renewed sense of the great potency of my calling. And a cheerful attitude. A little more gratitude. After all, my husband was standing on his own two feet. Life was not nearly as hard as I thought it was. It could be much, much harder. I needed to adjust my attitude, not my circumstances.

That was thirty years ago. If she had just patted me on the head, I doubt that I would even remember that conversation today. But I think of it often still. As her husband has said, and we have quoted often before, hard teaching makes soft hearts. Soft teaching makes hard hearts. If she had simply said, “Poor you! What a rotten life you have! You don’t need to do that. Why don’t you farm those little monsters out?” that would be soft teaching. “Take the first escape hatch! Don’t wear yourself out!” Hard teaching is about laying your life down and taking up your cross and following Jesus. Those hard words are heart-tenderizing words.

We often get this wrong. We want soft words, easy words, and not words that step on our toes or mess up our hair. Those words turn us into hard-hearted women. If you don’t believe me, look at the abortion industry. It gives women soft, easy words and creates monsters of them. Soft words can be soul-destroying.

But the hard words are the ones that get us to our knees and give us tender hearts. They remind us that God has promised us far more than we ever believe. Samuel Rutherford said that he hoped to over-hope and over-believe all his troubles. Faith gives us the will to back up and try again, full speed, to clear the hurdle. One more time.

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35 thoughts on “Heart-tenderizing Words

  1. Nancy,

    Thank you for this post. I need to keep hearing it! It surprises me still, each time a well-meaning friend or relative – somewhat older than me – encourages me to take more time for me. :) I need to hear that I should give more to my family, do more for them, and not grow weary (or self-pitying) in doing good – for in due season I will reap if I do not give up. (Gal 6:9)

    Thank you for your clear and convicting words!

  2. “hard teaching makes soft hearts”- profound and true. I have never heard it put quite that way, but you’re right – so right.
    We were able to attend part of your family conference in AL. Your story zipped straight to my heart, and your grace and gentleness in the telling was so contrary to how we often hear truth spoken. It was a gift to see and hear you speak of your own correction and doing so correcting us to look to love our families well and in the “dying to ourselves we will be the one’s most blessed.”
    Thank you for a picture of truth in grace – it is an example of godliness, and I appreciate that.
    Thank you for you true, hard words spoken in gentleness

  3. Thank you for this reminder! Pity parties are so easy, but it is so good to be reminded in a loving, yet straight forward manner. The example we show our children is HUGE, yet we can so easily overlook that when surrounded with the mounds of laundry and toys under foot. This is good stuff! Thank you!

  4. Half of me wants to cry–this is true and resonates largely enough to last months and years of the dog days of youngster raising. The other half wants to go do laundry and wipe noses and bottoms and administer discipline and mop tears and navigate sin bents with all sorts of reckless abandon! Thanks for this. I will re-visit this entry many times.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing! This will keep me going on days where I want soft-teaching too. Thank goodness God always knows how to get to our hearts better than we do!

  6. My husband is reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. As he recounts excerpts to me, we are overwhelmed with gratitude to the Lord for modern day blessings. Literature is another form of hard words which can snap us right back into line.

  7. Having raised six wonderful sons and one beautiful daughter on the “hard words” the result has been soft hearts toward our Lord, toward their spouses and children. I now hear the “hard words” coming out of their mouths as they preach to their little congregations of two and three. Once my sister said to me that I shouldn’t say those hard words to my children, they are too young to understand, but I continued year after year anyway…in faith. They all are faithful to the Lord and stand for the faith in their various professions, Praise to God for hard words that make soft hearts…for Him.

  8. Thanks for this. Missionary biographies seem to be a terrific source for a little perspective on our “trials” around the house. Jonah, my nine-year-old, was so inspired by the story of Gladys Aylward that he asked for her biography (written for kids) for his birthday. We read most of it aloud at the table, and I’m so glad we did.

    The last time I came to my husband with one of my old-woman-who-lived-in-a-shoe sob stories, he said something like, “Yes, well, remember Gladys Aylward? She had to care for 100 war orphans—in a cave—without adequate supplies and then lead them on foot through the mountains of China while suffering from an injury and being chased by the Japanese army. I’d say you’ve got it pretty easy.”

    Yep. Good medicine.

  9. This afternoon I started to complain about something to my husband. His eyebrows went up and I hesitated and then said, “I’m not hanging upside down in a cave. Huh.” Thanks for the second-hand spanking!

  10. I am crying as I am sitting here reading this. It’s been a particularly trying day as a 9 months pregnant mommy of a 2.5 year old, and I have struggled. And I want a pity party. And God in his goodness has used this blogpost to snap me back to truth and point my heart and mind toward His truths and away from my selfishness. Thank you.

  11. I pray that one day I have the wisdom of your mother in law and can speak the hard words in a way that is both gentle and beautiful.

  12. Yes, yes, yes! Hard teaching works very effectively when given with grace and charity. Because that’s how Jesus taught us. Hard teaching never works when given with scorn, sourness and a judgmental spirit. Soft teaching (which is different than tenderhearted hard teaching) never works no matter what, it just destroys. I have been so grateful for the gracious tenderhearted hard teaching I received from others, especially last year. That is exactly what God used to soften my heart.

  13. yes, thank you! that is an encouragement.
    and not only this, but if my husband WAS hanging upside down, would it not still be under the hand of a perfect, gracious, sovereign God? could i not still trust Him and serve joyfully in that?
    only by His grace!

  14. Wonderful reminder. Thank you.

    And the hard words are most effective when they come from someone who loves God and loves us. Hard words hurled at us from the stranger or the busybody are like painful darts that only hurt…but that same sting from a faithful friend is like receiving a spiritual root canal. :-)

  15. This has been an encouraging and edifying post for my life. I praise God that as a younger woman, I may learn from older women thru this blog!

    Are these words also to be spoken to friends when they ask for advice? When we do speak hard words to them should we expect that some may be very offended, harden their hearts even more and not want anything to do with us?

  16. Now that is good stuff! Thanks for sharing that. We need more Titus 2 women to help us young ones stick to the call! Thanks again for opening up your life in order to bless the lives of others.

  17. Let’s not forget that those hard words came out of what sounds like a loving and intimate relationship. Likely built to be so loving and intimate by repeated exposure to nurture, care and encouragement.

    A dear friend, former boss, and former mentor once told me that for every hard word (or constructive criticism?) that we have to share, we should be sure that there are at least 5-7 loving, encouraging, positive words that we have shared prior. He quoted a study that showed that the human brain cannot receive repeated “hard words” without a ratio like that in place.

    I try to remember that when admonishing young moms and I need to try harder to remember it when correcting my own children! Somehow, it seems easier to remember when dealing with another adult than with my kiddoes. :(

  18. Just a quick comment. Hard words and hard teaching are not always the same thing. Hard teaching is when we listen to what Jesus said. Soft teaching is when we fiddle with His teaching to make it easier to get down. I believe that when someone comes to you for advice (as I did with Bessie), then you can give them the hard teaching of Scripture, as it applies, but give it with a tender spirit. Bessie didn’t criticize me. She heard me out. Then she gave me something to think about that got my perspective straightened out.

  19. Thanks for that additional word, Nancy. When I read the post, I knew that Bessie’s wisdom had been well delivered in the right context, but I also thought of all the ways hard words can be misdelivered. Perhaps the best example of the worst delivery came from a story I heard Chuck Swindoll tell on the radio 20+ years ago. I don’t remember anything about the context of the message, but he told of a woman who said to a friend who had just lost a child: “Well, I know someone who lost twins!” Swindoll’s response was “Shut up!”

    Making comparisons is a particularly tricky business. It’s often a way of excusing ourselves from weeping with those who weep. Even worse, sometimes it’s a way of drawing attention to ourselves in the midst of someone else’s suffering by playing a game I like to call “My pain’s worser than your pain.”

    It takes a rare grace and wisdom to deliver a comparison well. Thank God for the Bessies of the world!

    Perhaps the application is to be very cautious about delivering such messages, lest I go beyond necessarily hard to unnecessarily harsh, and to be very humble about receiving such messages, even when they’re delivered imperfectly.

  20. Thanks, Amanda, for your kind words. Have you ever seen that slogan, “Lord, make me the kind of person my dog thinks I am”? Well, I’d like to become the kind of person my Internet acquaintances think I am! 😉

  21. Thank you for the insightful post – there are definitely days that it is easy to pity ourselves and direct words from a trusted friend help us regain perspective.

    I visit regularly but haven’t ever responded, but this post brought a question to my mind and I welcome your feedback:

    Comparing our situation to others only works one way – when theirs is worse than ours. But honestly, there are a lot of people who have “better” situations than I do. So how can this practice really be sustainable?

    I’m not trying to be troublesome, I’m just honestly wondering if looking at other people’s circumstances is a legitimate way to produce a spirit-filled response. It seems like it makes their circumstances the source of our contentment (i.e. I can be happy because it’s not as bad as….)

    So am I over-thinking this or does this approach encourage us to focus on the wrong object for our joy and simply set us up for discontentment when we meet somebody who has BETTER circumstances than we do?

  22. Thank you! I have four small children (2,3,5,7) and sometimes I too get caught up in all I need to get done in a day and forget my higher calling as a mom to “train them up in the way they should go”. It was a great reminder that they are my mission field above all else. Great word!

  23. I was just wondering if anyone knows the name of the missionary mentioned here. I would love to read his story. Thanks.

  24. Judge not lest ye be judged. Some of the responses on this blog make me really angry. As stay at home moms it IS important we take time for ourselves. We have to fill our own cup before we can fill those of our husband’s and children’s. It’s very easy to think “oh you have it so easy, your life is not near as bad as it could be!” The truth is you have no idea what is going on in that person’s life. I get the whole “suck it up” mentality, but you have to be careful that the person you are telling “suck it up” to is in an emotionally stable place where they can hear that and perhaps snap out of it. Otherwise they are in that dark place and now feeling even more alone. This is what can turn a lot of people against religion, when they hear stories like this. I get your point, but cannot get behind the delivery. Sorry. At least this blog is honest and not condescending.

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog/stay-at-home-moms-need-help/

  25. I appreciate this post so much. It’s the one I refer everyone I know to. Anytime I am involved in a conversation about the “hardness” of mothering small children, I use this illustration.

    It IS HARD. But, there is work to be done and it is to be done to the glory of God…and it’s not as hard as it seems in the moment.

    I am thankful for your example! As daughters of the King, we must be always reminding each other of the REAL, TRUE things.

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