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.