Come, Follow Me: “I Can Do All Things through Christ Which Strengtheneth Me”, Philippians and Colossians

Not sure what’s happening in your home, but we’ve hit a rough patch.  Our four kids are packed pretty close together, which seemed like such a grand idea: they’ll all be best friends! They’ll all be into the same things at the same time! We’ll get out of baby jail quicker!  But as it turns out, family life is rough when kids are all hitting similar developmental milestones at the same time. (Or maybe family life is just rough no matter what.) There’s lots of fighting, competition, policing each other, pestering, mess-making, disrespect.  Or at least that’s what I’m seeing most of the time.  

In this current stage of family life I feel the need for divine guidance more than ever before.  Especially with the encouragement President Nelson has given us recently to “remodel our home” to be a “sanctuary of faith,” a place where the spirit can dwell and teach and direct.  I love this push to intentionally create homes that are holy. Right now our home doesn’t feel much like a sanctuary, in fact, it feels quite the opposite. 

This week while reading Philippians and Colossians I found myself thinking about Paul and wondering what he would recommend if he spent a day in our home.  Kind of a terrifying idea, right? What if Paul were like the Supernanny? What if he came to observe our family dynamics, the feeling in our home, our parenting, our struggles, our strengths?  With the experiences that he had in his life and his perspective, what would he have to say to us?

After letting this question ruminate and re-reading these two Pauline letters I have decided that Paul would probably tell the Shumways a lot of the same things that he told the Colossians and Philippians.   Reading through these epistles with this question in mind has helped me to take Paul’s example and admonitions to heart and see ways that I can apply them to our current family and societal needs and struggles.

Here are some of the things I’ve decided Paul might suggest in our home and our culture.

If there be any praise, think on these things.

I think right off the bat Paul would notice that we have a pretty ingrained culture of negativity in our family right now.  Somehow we’ve all slipped into this place where we’re looking for faults in each other, where we’re focusing on the things that aren’t going right, the imperfections and the beds not made, the dishwasher not loaded correctly, the fingerprints on the newly cleaned windows, the fighting and pestering and annoying noises. In an attempt to teach and train we’ve inadvertently cultivated a culture of criticism and correcting.  Not just parent to kid, but also kid to kid. There seems to be a lot of fault finding and policing and comparing.  

I think Paul would tell us to shift our focus, and, as he did to the Philippians, urge us to seek out things that are true and honest and just and pure.  Instead of obsessing about the ways people are falling short he’d want us to “think on” the lovely and virtuous. To seek out those things that are of “good report.”  

Typically we think about these 13th article of faith virtues as things we should seek out in the world, but what if we sought them out in our relationships and our emotional lives?  What if we really pushed ourselves to look for the lovely and virtuous in our children, our spouses, our parents? To seek out things of good report in our circumstances? To put on rose-colored glasses, allowing us to focus on that which is just, pure, honest and true in those around us?  

When we work on focusing on the positive in our lives and in those we love around us everything magically changes.  President Uchtdorf teaches:

“We have a choice. We can seek for the bad in others. Or we can make peace and work to extend to others the understanding, fairness, and forgiveness we so desperately desire for ourselves. It is our choice; for whatever we seek, that we will certainly find.”

In a commencement address to BYU Idaho, President Hinckley urges us to “stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight. I am suggesting that as we go through life we ‘accentuate the positive.’ I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still our voices of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment virtue and effort.”  He goes on to encourage us to  “turn from negativism that so permeates our society and look for the remarkable good among those with whom you will associate, that we speak of one another’s virtues more than we speak of one another’s faults, that optimism replace pessimism, that our faith exceeds our fears…..Look for good and build on it. There is so much of the strong and the decent and the beautiful to build upon….I am not suggesting that you simply put on rose-colored glasses to make the world about you look rosy. I ask rather, that you look above and beyond the negative, the critical, the cynical, the doubtful, to the positive and affirmative” (Address at BYU-Hawaii commencement, June 18, 1983; Church News, July 3, 1983, pp. 10-11)

A good friend of mine shared with me the story of her two daughters who were constantly fighting.  The younger daughter Emma was experiencing some health problems that made her irritable and mean, taking out her frustrations on her sister.  The older daughter, Charlotte, quickly became fed up with being mistreated and fought back. This dynamic resulted in months of extreme contention between the two that the whole family could feel.   But then, over the course of a few weeks, a dramatic change occurred. Things started to soften between the two and love and kindness started creeping back into their relationship. When the mom asked Charlotte what brought about this change she confessed that she had been prompted to start writing down 10 things she loved about her sister.  Nightly she wrote this list in her journal, keeping it to herself. This simple act of turning her heart and changing her attitude toward her sister brought about a miraculous transformation, not only in Charlotte, but also in Emma. We often underestimate the power that our thoughts, attitude, and perspective can have, not only on ourselves, but on those around us.  

I’ve experimented with this before.  When I change my attitude towards those around me, when I see the goodness in them and focus on the love that God has for them it is transformative for all involved. I firmly believe that there is a metamorphic power in seeking out the good in those around us.  Great can be brought to pass by our attitude alone.  

Paul’s life was full of trial, persecution, hard work and challenge.  Perhaps this ability to see these virtues in the world and people around him is part of what allowed Paul to continually rejoice through so much peril.  When we can train ourselves to look for the silver linings, to find beauty in ashes, to see light and divinity in the souls around us, we teach our children that what happens to us in life isn’t nearly as important as our ability to find the good in all things.   

This month, thanks to Paul, we have a family focus on positivity.  Jeff and I are committed to cut back on all the correcting and complaining and instead trying to catch our children doing good.  We’ve challenged our children to proactively find ways to show love for each other in word and in deed. We’re trying to reframe the way we’re talking to our kids, encouraging them to find seek reasons to be glad for trials and challenges.  At bedtime, we have a ritual of asking our children about their “happys” and “sads” for the day. This month we’re trying to be sure to ask them to look for virtue even in their “sads.” To help them to frame the low parts of their days as challenges and opportunities for growth.  

This teaching of Paul to look for the good has so many applications in family life, we’re hoping to be more intentionally positive this month.  To make supernanny Paul proud.

In all things to be content

The next thing Paul might notice in our family (and larger culture) is a lack of gratitude and contentment.  Somehow, even amidst the relative luxury and ease of our modern lives, it’s easy to get stuck in a place where obsessions with what we don’t have get so large that they overshadow the amazing things we do have.  It is easy to busily seek the vacuous things of this world so completely that we don’t have the space or energy to see the deep and soul-filling blessings that are ours for the taking. 

Over and over Paul demonstrates to us the power and joy that comes from gratitude and contentment in ALL things and all circumstances.  

Paul writes both of these epistles while in prison.  But that’s not the worst of it, he has undergone much more than his fair share of BIG problems: stonings, hunger, nakedness, imprisonment, shipwreck, almost every imaginable peril, yet, as he says in Philippians 4, he has learned to be content in “whatsoever” state he finds himself in.  Paul has a pattern in his letters and it usually starts off with praise, thanksgiving and gratitude.  

I think Paul might look at our families and urge us strongly to find ways to “rejoice always,” to experience the magic of giving praise and thanks in all circumstances and to learn as he did to be content regardless of our states.  

One of the most powerful things we can model for our children is how to be grateful and content.  Multiple studies have linked gratitude practices with all kinds of benefits including higher-self esteem, more resilience, grit and happiness, better sleep, less depression and anxiety, improved physical health and better immune systems, improved relationships and ability for connection.  Don’t we want all of those things for our children? And for ourselves? 

We need more than just an “attitude of gratitude,” we need to teach our children how to build in regular gratitude practices into their lives. President Uchtdorf says: “Gratitude is one of the most important human virtues and one of the most common human deficiencies. Gratitude does not develop without effort.”   

As we go into this season of thanksgiving it’s a perfect time to choose a few gratitude practices to adopt.  Perhaps have your older children read through Philippians and Colossians looking for ways that Paul praises God (there are so many!).  And then think through things you can build into your daily routine that will help you to develop this skill of gratitude.  

Here are some ideas:

  • Fall asleep at night counting your blessings.  This is so much more pleasant than worrying about what you have to do the next day, or what you haven’t been able to do today.
  • Go around the table at dinner and list the things you’re thankful for.
  • Keep a personal or family gratitude journal – write down 10 things each night that you’re thankful for.
  • Praise God by writing down the ways you’ve seen His hand in your day or your week. 
  • Notice beauty in nature and in the world around you and slow down, even stop to take it in
  • Write things you’re thankful for and post them somewhere, maybe a gratitude chalkboard or a thankful tree.
  • Write a little text or email to someone daily expressing your gratitude for them.
  • Read books, watch movies, and experience places or cultures that expose you to life different than your own.
  • Play the Pollyanna Glad Game: challenge yourself to find something to be glad about in all that happens to you.
  • See growth opportunities in your mistakes as you embrace the gift of repentance.
  • Stop to take in the good around you.  Our brains are wired to hold onto the bad and dangerous and negative and to let go of the good.  We can combat this by finding ways to be present and intentionally take in the good you feel and experience.  Stop and notice it and visualize bringing it into your soul. 

These are just a few ideas to get you started thinking as a family about the unique ways you can make gratitude a part of your individual or family culture.  

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me 

If Paul watched the way some of my children melt into puddles when they have been asked to do something hard I think he’d want to stress the reality of the enabling power of the Atonement.  He’d want us to learn that we really can do all things through Christ. The Atonement isn’t just for redemption, it also has the power to give us light and strength and ability beyond our natural capacity.  

In a BYU Idaho devotional in 2001 Elder Bednar teaches: “It is one thing to know that Jesus Christ came to earth to die for us. That is fundamental and foundational to the doctrine of Christ. But we also need to appreciate that the Lord desires, through His Atonement and by the power of the Holy Ghost, to live in us—not only to direct us but also to empower us…..Most of us clearly understand that the Atonement is for sinners. I am not so sure, however, that we know and understand that the Atonement is also for saints—for good men and women who are obedient and worthy and conscientious and who are striving to become better and serve more faithfully…….Brothers and sisters, the gospel of the Savior is not simply about avoiding bad in our lives; it also is essentially about doing and becoming good. And the Atonement provides help for us to overcome and avoid bad and to do and become good. There is help from the Savior for the entire journey of life—from bad to good to better and to change our very nature.”

This is an incredible devotional to study as a family or on your own.  It’s hard to fully comprehend the way Christ can enliven and enable us, but this talk is packed full of scriptural stories that illustrate people putting to work the enabling power of the atonement in their lives.  One of the things Jeff and I most want our children to understand is the real power that Christ can have in their lives when we follow Him, speak of Him, learn of His life and teachings and even simply just think on His name.  

Grounded and Settled in Hope

In Colossians 1:23 Paul exhorts us to: “Continue in faith grounded and settled and be not moved away from the HOPE of the gospel.”  

I imagine if Paul experienced the current culture of faith transitions and questions in the church today, particularly among the youth and young adults, he’d want to stress this idea of being grounded and settled in the HOPE of the gospel. 

We learn line upon line, precept upon precept in life and in the gospel. Therefore, at any given moment we may have big pieces of the gospel that don’t make sense, that we misunderstand, or that are just plain weaker parts of our testimonies. That’s OK–much of Paul’s writing is meant to strengthen new saints who are finding their way like we all are.

The danger comes when we expect certainty. When we expect certainty, clarity, pure direction from the gospel, the Spirit, or our experience in the Church, we can be easily disappointed and disillusioned. And when we act out of our disappointment or disillusionment, we often go astray.

If, by contrast, we are grounded and settled in the hope of the gospel, we focus our minds first on what we DO know to be true: the testimony and experiences that we have received. And beyond that, we act on what we HOPE to be true about the gospel. We hope that the Atonement will work to change us; we hope that a prayer will be answered; we hope that sacrifice will bring forth the blessings we need. When we act out of hope, it gives God the opening to bless us, to teach us, and to expand our understanding of the gospel.

Hope is resilient in the face of adversity, a comfort in the face of uncertainty, and allows us to walk the covenant path regardless of the circumstances around us.

Rejoice, be a light to the world, do all things through Christ. 

I know it’s kind of a hokey thought experiment, this whole idea of Paul coming into your house and world to suggest course corrections.  But perhaps this week challenge your children, or yourself to read through these two epistles and imagine what Paul might say if he took a close look into your unique life.  I’ve explored just a few suggestions here, but these readings are packed full of Paul’s teachings and experiences that can help us to rejoice more, to be brighter lights to the world, to come closer to Christ.