Recipe for a Happy Minister

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.  

So reads Hebrews 13:17 (NIV).  Based on context, we know he is talking about spiritual leaders (some translations say, “they keep watch over your souls”).  Let’s be clear about this: We shouldn’t see earthly ministers as infallible or God-like.  Jesus told His disciples multiple times that greatness is found in humility.  Peter and Paul, James and John, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of our Lord were all petty, insecure, fallen humans just like you and me.  For that matter, so is the pastor of your church (especially if you attend First Baptist, Conroe).  Therefore, we do not accept their every utterance as the WORD OF GOD.  We check their teaching, instead, against the actual Word.  We hold them accountable when they fail to live up to their callings.  We worship one God, and Him alone.

On the other hand, here and elsewhere in Scripture, we are commanded to treat our spiritual leaders with respect.  I love the way the author of Hebrews puts it in the verse above: “Make sure they enjoy leading you; If you make them miserable, it won’t make your life any better.”  (my paraphrase)  By the way, in case you think the Word of God needs some empirical backing, here’s a relevant quote from an expert on church health: “The length of a pastor’s tenure…was found to have a direct correlation to the health of a church. A church’s likelihood to be healthy was much greater when the pastor had served there between five and 20 years.”  Would you like to attend a healthy church?  If so, keeping your ministerial staff at your church as long as possible is a good way to make that happen.  And ministers who love what they do tend to stay a long time and do a better a job of serving God’s people.  So what can a church do to “make their work a joy”?

First, this DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not some passive-aggressive cry for help on my part.  In all the categories I will list below, I feel absolutely blessed by my church.  However, when I taught on Hebrews 13 recently, I mentioned some ways a church could encourage their ministry staff.  I had people ask me to put this in writing so they could remember it and share it with others.  So that’s what I’m doing, in hopes it will bless some minister who isn’t as fortunate as me…

Pray for them.  Years ago, a good friend called me nearly in tears.  Her new pastor was terrible, she said.  “He is an awful preacher and doesn’t seem to love us at all.  I have a hard time even talking myself into going to church on Sundays.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way, either.  I’m afraid if he sticks around for long, our church is going to die.”  She asked me what to do.  I said, “I assume you’re already praying for him, right?”  There was a pause.  Then, sheepishly, she said, “No, I haven’t been.  I guess I’d better start, huh?”  It made me wonder: If my friend, one of the more devout people I knew, wasn’t praying for her pastor (who clearly needed it), how many other Christians fail to do this?  Friends, pray for your ministers.  I could write another blog post about why ministry is so difficult, emotionally draining and spiritually demanding, but take my word for it: Your ministers need daily prayer for wisdom, spiritual power, guidance, joy in their work, and other things specific to their own situations.

Encourage them.  Aside from politicians and football coaches, I doubt there is anyone who hears more criticism and complaining about their job performance than ministers.  It comes in loud pronouncements in church gatherings; quick, biting comments just before worship begins; gossip that finds its way to their ears (“Pastor, people are saying…”); and the dreaded anonymous notes.  No matter how secure your ministers are in themselves and the Lord, that stuff can take the joy out of ministry, fast.  They need people to build them up.  Try to catch them doing a good job, and point it out to them.  Even better: Praise them in front of other people.  Best of all: Send them a note of encouragement.  Believe me, they will keep that note, and pull it out someday when they feel like quitting.

Love their family. Someday, I’ll write another blog post about why being a minister’s spouse or child is at least as hard as being a minister.  But for now, trust me when I say the minister’s wife is often the loneliest woman in the entire church.  And the minister’s kids feel a pressure no child should have to deal with.  So go out of your way to show love to them.  In fact, if you have only enough time and emotional bandwidth to focus on either the minister or his family, choose his family.  They need friends, so make sure to include them.  They need to feel that the church is their spiritual home, not just the place where mom or dad works.  They need to know it’s okay to be themselves.  Pray for them as often as you pray for the minister.  Take time to do something considerate for them: A note, a gift card, an invitation to a play date, an offer for lunch, free babysitting so Mom can get away.  Don’t put unreasonable expectations on them: The minister’s spouse may not want to be involved in your favorite ministry event, and that’s okay.  The minister’s little girl may have a screaming fit in the preschool hall on the same Sunday his teenaged son shows up with a purple mohawk; treat them the way you would any other kid who’s far from being emotionally mature.  Don’t be offended that the minister’s family has issues, just like yours does.  Pray that they would all be thankful God brought them to this church.  If they feel loved, it will bless your minister, and he will not want to leave.

Pay them well. It’s not about the money.  Really.  I don’t know anyone who went into ministry to get rich.  And most ministers I know have the skills to make a lot more doing something else.  But if the minister and his family are struggling financially while most church members are doing well, it can be discouraging.  If it’s been a while since she’s seen a raise, even though the church’s finances are strong, it’s hard not to be resentful.

Get along with each other.  Psalm 133 begins with the words, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”  God loves it when we get along; so do His ministers.  On the other hand, if you want to burn out your ministry staff, force them to constantly grapple with petty conflicts among church members.  If you are at odds with someone right now, make things right.  Do it because it will please the Lord.  It will make your own life less stressful, and it will make your minister’s job easier, too.

Choose your gripes wisely.  Earlier, I said ministers hear a lot of criticisms and complaints.  I didn’t mean to imply that they should only hear positive comments.  After all, a church is a hospital for recovering sinners, and that’s going to be messy at times.  What’s  more, ministers make bad decisions, miss critical details, or just need to be made aware of certain unstated realities.  When I was younger and still fairly new in the ministry, I heard that a woman in my church was in the hospital.  I called her on the phone and asked if I could come visit. She said not to worry about it; she was just fine.  A few hours later, a man in the church called me.  He said, “Pastor, I am telling you this for your own good.  No matter what she says, you’d better go visit her.  If you don’t, she’ll feel like you don’t care.”  I made the visit, and after that, we had a great relationship.  I appreciate that man making me aware of what I had no way of knowing otherwise.  Consider, before you say something negative out loud, “Is this really necessary?  Will this help anyone?  Does this address an issue that’s really important?”  If the answer isn’t a resounding “YES!” keep it to yourself.

Confront the bullies.  Every minister has a bully or two at some point in his ministry.  Some have more than one or two.  A bully is someone who does everything in his/her power to make the minister’s life miserable: Treating her rudely, criticizing him before others, starting unfounded rumors, complaining about any new idea he attempts, even scheming to get her fired.  Why does this happen?  Maybe the minister followed someone the bully was loyal to; maybe the minister offended the bully in some deep, personal way; maybe the bully is just emotionally damaged and is taking it out on someone.  Often, good people in the church are aware of his actions, but do nothing.  Church people tend to be nice; they don’t want to get involved in the affairs of others uninvited.  They certainly don’t want to offend a longtime church member by telling him he is out of line.  But that’s exactly what they should do.  Confronting a bully is an act of love and mercy; love for your minister, who will owe you a debt of gratitude he’ll never be able to repay…but also love for the bully, who needs to read the book of Exodus and remember what happens to people who mistreat a servant of God.

Most of all, love the Lord and His Kingdom.  Sadly, I have met dozens of people who once were in vocational ministry, but aren’t anymore.  A large percentage of them aren’t even involved in church today.  They still believe in Jesus; they just don’t associate with His people anymore.  They didn’t leave because of the money, or because they got fired, or because they had some moral failure that disqualified them.  By and large, they left because of disillusionment with the Church.  They went into ministry with a sense of excitement and idealism; they felt a call from God to change the world.  Then they got their first church job, and quickly found that their biggest obstacle wasn’t the village atheist, the cult around the corner or the Devil Himself; it was the people in the pews.  They found that otherwise good Christians weren’t really interested in changing the world.  At least, not if it meant changing their routine.  What they wanted from their minister (“What we pay you for…”) was to be a personal chaplain to themselves and their families, and to efficiently run the church programs they enjoy.  I am not trying to denigrate either chaplaincy or church programs.  But when a pastor gets criticized by his church because he is spending too much time winning souls in the local prison…when a youth minister who is reaching unchurched teenagers hears more complaints about their clothing than hallelujahs about their salvation…when a music minister is told he cannot start a second worship service designed to appeal to younger people, then is criticized because the church is getting older…when a children’s minister can’t convince long-time church members to volunteer for Vacation Bible School, but she’s still expected to reach young families….they start to wonder why they are in the ministry in the first place (Those aren’t hypothetical examples, by the way.  They are all based on ministers I know.).  Sadly, many of the best, most passionate and brilliant people who feel called to ministry today start their own churches instead of taking a position at an established church because they don’t want to fight the battle of “We’ve never done it that way before.”

Am I saying that you have to agree with every idea your minister proposes?  Of course not.  Even if you think his idea is all wrong, recognize what he’s trying to get done.  If it has anything to do with loving people, especially people outside the church, help him brainstorm how to do it well, and jump on board the train.  Even if the idea fails, thank God that you have a minister who hasn’t lost sight of his calling, who still believes God’s primary work is changing lives.  The more you allow–I should say encourage–your ministers to focus on reaching people for Christ, the happier they will be.


Marriage 101

In just three weeks, Carrie and I will celebrate 25 years of marriage.  It’s been a great journey; I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but there have been struggles, too.  I’ve learned a lot. So far, I’ve shared some of the things I’ve learned in the following articles:

The Soul Mate Deception

Your marriage’s worst enemy

When a man loves a woman (and vice versa)

The Reason for Marriage

Carrie and I had a long engagement (over a year and a half).  I wouldn’t recommend that.  During that period, I received so much advice from so many sources: Ministers at my church, friends in my dorm, a guy at the gym, even a random salesman at Payless Shoes.  Looking back, most of the advice I can still remember turned out to be utterly useless or downright wrong.  It figures; many of the people who had the strongest opinions about marriage had never actually been married.

At the risk of making the same mistake those overly confident advice-givers made, I’d like to share with you the things I would say to an engaged couple before their big day.  Twenty-five years in, these are some of the essential lessons I’ve learned:

Choose your battles wisely.  If you’ve read these articles so far, perhaps you’ve been frustrated by a pattern in them: None of them deal with how to change your spouse.  There’s a reason for that.  Trying to change your spouse doesn’t work.  Instead, it makes both of you miserable.  But there are times when you must take a stand.  No one is perfect, and no matter who you marry, there will be annoying habits, personality quirks and weird physical stuff that you discover after the “I do.”  He snores like an overweight Grizzly bear; she picks lint out of her toes on the couch; He likes to use the bathroom with the door open; she squeezes the toothpaste from the middle instead of the bottom; he yells at the TV during football games; she takes too long to get ready in the mornings.  If you nag your spouse about everything you find annoying, you will be fighting constantly.  Instead, choose to accept them as they are, but determine the few things you simply can’t live with: “I can handle the fact that she doesn’t like Mexican food, but I can’t have her talking about my mom that way.”  “I’ll learn to live with dirty underwear on the bedroom floor, but his sarcastic comments are really starting to hurt.”  Then, don’t wait until you’ve HAD ENOUGH!!!  Instead, sit down with your spouse when you’re completely calm.  In fact, pray about it beforehand to make sure your emotions are in check and he/she is receptive.  Then just share how much you love them, but this is something you wish they would work on, for you.  Ask them if there’s anything you could work on, while we’re on the subject.  Don’t expect this to be easy, especially early on.  But as you grow in love for each other, you’ll learn how to do this without overreacting.  And you’ll both be happier for it.

Leave your parents (and everyone else) out of it.  The story of the first marriage in Scripture ends with these words: Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife…(Genesis 2:24).  Of course, these days most people have long since moved out of mom and dad’s house by the time they get married. But the point is still the same.  From now on, this is your most important human relationship.  Don’t do anything to make your spouse feel they come in second to your parents or anyone else.  Of course, you still need your extended family and other friends.  If your spouse tries to keep you from them, that’s not love; you need to take a stand (see the point above).  But your first loyalty is to the one you married.  When he/she makes you angry, don’t tell your family or friends.  Don’t make things awkward between your spouse and his in-laws.  The exception, of course, is if there’s abuse.  In that case, you MUST tell someone…and get out of the house immediately.  And don’t criticize your spouse’s family or close friends.  If your spouse is angry at them, let him/her vent.  But don’t put your spouse in the position of having to choose between defending those closest to them, or agreeing with you.

Get help when you need it.  On the other hand, most marriages need help at times.  There are fantastically talented, wise and empathetic men and women whose calling in life is to help couples walk through their difficulties.  I’m so glad we have a counselor on site at my church; He has helped so many individuals and couples.  For years, there was a stigma about counseling of any kind.  Fortunately, people are beginning to realize their mental and relational health is just as important as their physical health.  You wouldn’t try to “tough out” a broken arm, and you shouldn’t expect deep disagreements in your marriage to magically work themselves out, either.  Spend the money, take the time, humble yourself, and get some help.  And don’t wait until you’ve got your bags packed and the divorce attorney on hold; sit down with a counselor when your issues are fresh.

Find role models.  Reading books and blogs, attending marriage enrichment events are all fine.  But they aren’t as effective as spending time around a couple that has figured out some things that still have you and your spouse stumped.  Look for couples that really seem to love each other, and do whatever you can to hang out with them.  This is why it’s so helpful to not only be active in a church, but to be part of a small group in that church. What better place to meet good “couple friends?”  And don’t restrict this to couples your age.  Find a husband and wife who’ve been married for decades, the kind who seem to always want to be together.  Ask them if they’d like to meet for dinner sometime, so you can hear the story of how they got together, and what they’ve learned so far.  My bet is they’d be thrilled…and you’d have a great time.  (There’s a better than average chance they’ll pick up the check, too.  But don’t quote me on that.)

Avoid money mistakes.  This could be a blog post–actually an entire book–of its own, but I’m not the guy to write it.  What I know about finance is very little.  But here’s what has worked for Carrie and me:

–Tithe faithfully.  It’s counter-intuitive, but if we give 10% of what we make to God (as His people have been doing for centuries) it actually reduces our financial stress. It helps us realize our money and possessions actually belong to Him; it makes His Kingdom our focus (For where your treasure is, your heart will be also); and He has promised to provide for us if we obey Him in this.

–Keep your finances together.  I’m sure there are convincing arguments for maintaining separate bank accounts.  But I’ve never heard one that convinced me.  There shouldn’t be secrets in your relationship, not even (especially) when it comes to money.

–Set some boundaries, and stick to them.  For instance, “Neither of us will spend more than $______ on any purchase without consulting the other first.”  Sticker-shock is not good for your marital health.

–Decide from the start who pays the bills, and let them do their thing.  I would say, “Set a budget and stick to it.”  But then I would be a hypocrite.  We’ve never actually done that.  I know we’d be better off financially if we had; but this much we’ve done: We gave Carrie the job of overseeing our finances (between the two of us, she’s far better at accounting, management, and, for lack of a better term, “adulting.”).  Every month, she pays all our bills, including our credit card balances. Only then do we know how much we have to play with.  That has brought us great peace, even when we were making very little.

Pray for each other daily.  This one should be obvious, but I know it’s not.  And I don’t mean “pray that God would straighten out your spouse and make them into the person you need them to be.”  I mean pray for your spouse to have peace and joy in life.  Pray about whatever stresses them out.  Pray that they would become the person GOD wants them to be.  And pray that God would help you encourage them in that direction.

Avoid porn.  I cannot overstate this: Pornography is killing marriages. I cannot tell you how many Christian men I’ve met in the past ten years who are addicted to porn.  In fact, I’ve had that conversation so many times, when a man asks to speak to me privately, I expect it to be about that.  I’ve read studies that indicate porn use is rising among women, too.  None of this should surprise us.  It’s so accessible these days, and our culture says it’s harmless fun.  I disagree.  It is inherently disrespectful to the humanity and dignity of women, warping your relationships with every female in your life.  It creates sexual expectations that no actual relationship can fulfill.  And it is ruthlessly addictive.  Avoid it like the plague that it is.  If it’s already part of your life, deal with it now.  Call me if you need help.

Team up on your kids.  It’s funny; I can remember a time when I was practically a parenting expert.  Then our first child was born, and I wondered where all that knowledge went.  If you think building a strong marriage is hard, wait until you have kids.  Parenting is rewarding indeed, but it is also very humbling.  If your marriage is struggling, adding a child into the mix can be the final straw.  Even if your marriage is solid, if you and your spouse aren’t on the same page in your parenting philosophies, a good relationship can be strained in a hurry.  Communicate with each other.  Back each other up; don’t fight in front of your kids.  Present a united front.  Carrie and I have a weekly breakfast together, and we’ve spent many of those breakfasts going over “parent strategy.” We’ve made our share of mistakes, but we’ve stuck together so far.

Pray for your own faithfulness.  I adore my wife.  She is so much more than I deserve. And I would rather die a violent, agonizing death this instant than be unfaithful to her.  When I think of the betrayal she would feel, and how it would devastate my children, and how it would hurt our church, and what it would do to people to whom I’ve ministered through the years… Yet at the same time, I dare not think I am incapable of adultery.  I’ve known too many good men, many of them ministers, who have stumbled in this way.  So I pray often that God’s Holy Spirit would guard my heart.  The fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness, after all (Galatians 5:25-27).  There are other “moral fences” I set up to protect our marriage, but it starts with prayer. I would encourage you to do the same.

So those are the most practical lessons I’ve learned.  What can you add to the list?

The Reason for Marriage

As Carrie and I approach our 25th anniversary, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about marriage so far.  In my three previous articles, I’ve talked about the myth of the soul mate, the issue inside each of us that sabotages our marriages, and how understanding your spouse can make all the difference.

I had a friend who was single well into his late thirties.  One day, an older man in our church said, “Son, you should get married!  No man deserves to be happy his entire life!” We all laughed, because 1) The room was full of men, and 2) everyone knew the man speaking had been happily married for over fifty years, so it was truly a joke, not a comment spoken out of bitterness.  The idea that marriage and happiness are mutually exclusive is a familiar comic trope (“Take my wife…please!”  Rimshot!).   But in the years since, I’ve known too many people stuck in unhappy marriages to find it funny anymore.  It’s soul-crushing to wake up day after day, realizing you are yoked to a relationship that sucks the happiness from your life.  Often, you live with it, assuming this is how everyone’s marriage is.  But sometimes, you see a seemingly happy couple together, or you get a flash of memory to the days when you still had hope for your marriage, and the pain is intense.  You can’t help thinking, “I’d be so much happier if I weren’t married anymore.”

Despite what you’ve been told, marrying a Christian and being active in your faith actually DOES make your marriage stronger, and divorce less likely.  But it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be happy.  Truth is, if you are a Christian who wants a happy marriage, I believe the first step is to realize that marriage was never designed to make you happy.  That’s a confusing sentence, I know.  You can read it again, but it probably won’t make any more sense the second time. So let me explain what I mean.

According to Genesis, the first marriage came about because God looked at the first man and said, It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him (Gen 2:18).  By the way, that term “helper” doesn’t imply any inferiority on the part of women, or that women exist to serve men (as a man, if that were what it meant, I’d be happy to tell you so!).  The Hebrew term “helper” is most often used in the Old Testament to describe God Himself, after all (see Psalm 54:4 for an example).  So how did God plan for men and women to help each other?  Why did God create marriage in the first place?

I like the answer in Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Marriage.  The book is built around a single question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”  Early in his book, Thomas tells of a conversation with his brother, who was single.  Thomas told him, “If you want to become more like Jesus, I can’t imagine any better thing to do than to get married.  Being married forces you to face some character issues you’d never have to face otherwise.”  So Thomas would say (and I now believe) marriage “helps” us by exposing the changes we still need to make in order to be the people God created us to be.  Of all the marriage books I’ve ever read, Sacred Marriage may be the most important, specifically because it’s not about how to be happier.  It helps us see our marriage through God’s eyes, and realize what He is trying to accomplish in our relationship.  Let me give you an example of why this is so important.

Early in my marriage to Carrie, my anger was one of the big sources of our conflict.  I had never really thought of myself as being an angry person.  In fact, I was quite proud of my own patient nature; I hadn’t been in a fistfight since I was twelve, and I was pretty good at putting up with difficult people, letting hurtful comments roll off my back.  Of course, I did lose my temper at times, and my philosophy was that anger was like pressure in a valve; it needed to be released as harmlessly as possible.  So I would occasionally flip out, scream and yell, throw things around, and be over it.  In many ways, that’s how our culture teaches men to handle anger: Note how a baseball manager behaves when he disagrees with a call on the field, for instance.  That was fine…until I got married.  My wife is a gentle soul, and doesn’t want to be around a person who acts like a raving lunatic.  Of course, my moments of “pressure release” always happened at home, when my defenses were down and I didn’t have to be on my best behavior.  She hadn’t really seen this side of me before marriage.  So a particular scenario would play out in our relationship: Something would set me off (the lawnmower wouldn’t start, or my wife would do or say something I found irritating) and I would blow my fuse.  I would be over it in a few moments, and ready to move on.   She would be angry at my outburst, and her method of handling anger was quite different from mine.  Rather than screaming at me or throwing things, she would simply want to get away from me until she had gotten over it.  This baffled me.  Why didn’t she let me express my anger once in a while? And why did it take her so long to get over being mad at me, when I was able to move on much more quickly?  I would ask her these questions.  Somehow the implication that my way of handling anger was better than hers didn’t expedite reconciliation (shocking, I know).  I would apologize, but that seemed more like a manipulation on my part than a sincere regretting of my actions.  I would then get angry with her for not accepting my apology.  And the cycle would continue.  Rinse and repeat…that was the story of much of our early marriage.

Finally, it dawned on me.  Maybe I DO have a problem with anger.  Maybe there is a more mature way to deal with my frustrations.  I began to notice how many Scriptures talk about patience, including James 1:19-20, Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.  For man’s anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.  And Proverbs 29:11, Fools give full vent to their anger; but a wise man calmly holds it back.  I also spent time around Christian men who were gentle and patient with their wives in situations that would have set me off.  I began to think my philosophy on expressing anger was all wrong.  I started to pray that God would teach me patience (I know people say never to ask God for that, but they are wrong.  It was one of the best prayers I ever prayed).  I started to consciously choose patience instead of anger in situations where I wanted to yell, wanted to throw things, wanted my wife to know just how angry I was.  Guess what happened?  Nothing.  The pressure didn’t build inside me to a bursting point.  I didn’t develop intestinal ulcers.  Instead, I would hold my peace, and a few minutes later, I would realize how small and petty that source of irritation really was.  Psychologists would perhaps say that I had re-conditioned my thinking.  I had trained myself to react differently.  But it wasn’t me; it was the Holy Spirit, who used my marriage to show me a part of my character that I would never have dealt with otherwise.

Of course, my battle against anger wasn’t over; there were more tests, especially once we began to have children.  But I now knew that was a battle worth fighting, and I knew with His help, it was a battle I could win.  The point is that God and my marriage teamed up to change my character in a way I will always thank Him for.  Let me say this a different way: In the early days of my marriage, I prayed often that God would make us happier, would bring peace to our relationship.  I expected Him to simply make the conflict between us go away.  But instead, He used the conflict between us to show me how I needed to change (I assume He did the same for her).  I actually thank God now for those miserable days in our early twenties when we filled our small apartment with the toxic waste of our own immaturity, because without that, I never would have confronted my own sinfulness.

Eventually, Thomas’ book helped me see this as the purpose of marriage.  He didn’t give me a wife just to make me happy; He gave me a wife so I could be holy (a word that means “set apart” for Him; the person He created me to be, a person who shows the world His glory).  That means that tough times in our relationship are just as beneficial to me as the happy times, because it’s through those struggles that I was forced to confront the parts of me that I wanted to ignore.  Here’s another way to say it: If God had revealed to me in some other way that I had a problem with anger–for instance, through a male friend taking me aside, or an employer sending me to anger management classes–I would not have taken it seriously.  I hate to admit this, but I probably wouldn’t have dealt with my anger simply because God wanted me to. But when I realized my marriage would happier if I did, it increased my motivation to do God’s will.  I would be making both God and my wife glad.  That’s what I mean when I say my marriage and God teamed up to change me.  They continue to double-team me to this day, and I am grateful.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that, if you are in a desperately unhappy marriage, God is the cause of your unhappiness.  He wasn’t the cause of our fighting; our sin was.  I am certainly not saying you should ever put up with abuse in your marriage (or any other relationship) in the hopes it will strengthen your character, or because you “deserve” it. That’s a lie straight from the pit of Hell.  If you read the Scriptures that talk about marriage, it’s clear God meant that relationship to be a source of joy, comfort, and protection for us.  He also meant it to be a profound picture of Divine love (but that’s for another article).  My point is that loving another human being is the hardest thing we will ever do.  It exposes our selfishness and our other many flaws.  That’s more true in marriage than any other human relationship.  If your marriage isn’t as happy as you think it should be, you’re right…but the answer isn’t to highlight all the ways you wish that parasite on the other side of the bed would change.  The answer is to ask yourself, “What am I contributing to our unhappiness?”  Let marriage do its work of exposing the parts of yourself that you’ve always ignored or rationalized away.  Confront your sin in all its ugliness, and and ask Him to help you become the person your spouse needs. Dedicate yourself to that task.

What if you began to grow so much in Christ, you were able to truly love this imperfect person you married, overlooking his or her flaws?  What if the struggles of married life were far outweighed by the consistent joy and sense of purpose you felt each day? What if your spouse saw the change in you, and eventually decided to join you there?  Marriage is a sacred thing, not just because God created it; not just because most people get married in a church; but because God can use it to change human lives.  Give Him that chance.

When a man loves a woman (and vice versa)

Note: I am not a psychologist or a trained marriage counselor.  I don’t even play one on TV!  But I have been married for twenty five years.  Between that and twenty-plus years in the pastorate, I’ve learned a few things about marriage that I’d like to share.  You can read my first two articles in this series here and here.  

The comedian Jim Gaffigan has a bit about the saying, “It ain’t brain surgery.”  He speculates on what brain surgeons say instead.  Perhaps, “It ain’t like trying to talk to women.”  Then there’s the old joke about the guy who manages to conjure a genie, who offers him a wish.  He says, “I’d like a bridge from California to Hawaii, so that I could drive there anytime I want.”  The genie replies, “Come on.  Do you know how impractical that is?  Think of the wasted resources, not to mention what it would do to the environment.  Choose something else.”  So the man thinks a moment.  “Well, I’ve always wanted to understand women…”  The genie quickly says, “So you want two lanes or four on that bridge?”  Just this morning, a friend sent me a clever saying in an email, “Women spend more time wondering what men are thinking than men do thinking.”

It’s conventional wisdom that men and women cannot possibly understand one another.  People often validate this idea by saying, “After all, as the book says, Men Are from Mars, and Women Are from Venus.”  I highly doubt these people have ever read said volume (full disclosure: neither have I), but they take that title as a documented fact.  I say baloney.  I’m not saying that I understand women—as if all women have the same thoughts, desires or goals.  I am saying that it’s possible for a man to understand a woman, and vice-versa.  Actually, without that understanding, it’s nearly impossible to have a happy, healthy marriage.

Perhaps you’re skeptical.  You’ve looked with bafflement at the opposite gender for years, or perhaps you’re married and think that your spouse is the most inscrutable oddball on the planet.  Maybe I am just a hopeless romantic.  But I tend to believe there is something to the fact that in Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), the word used for sexual intercourse (the act that consummates a marriage) is a word that means “to know.”  (As it happens, the Hebrew word is yada.  Seinfeld fans might find that humorous) God didn’t create marriage as a relationship in which two people share a home, produce some offspring, and tolerate each other.  It’s His desire that I truly know my wife and am known by her, in a way that isn’t true of any other person on earth.

How do we get there?  Two books have helped me immensely in understanding my wife and the way I respond to her.  The first is Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.  According to Chapman, every person has a primary “language” that helps them feel loved.  That language is also the way they show love for others.  If you understand your spouse’s love language, you then know how to make them feel loved.  And, Chapman asserts, a spouse who truly feels loved will love you in return.  The five love languages he identifies are:

  1. Words of affirmation
  2. Physical touch
  3. Acts of service
  4. Quality time
  5. Receiving gifts

I had a friend whose marriage was crumbling.  He could not understand why his wife was so unhappy with him.  “I bring her flowers constantly.  We’ve got pots lined up in our kitchen cabinets from all the bouquets I’ve brought home to our apartment.”  Gently, I said, “Maybe she doesn’t want flowers.  Maybe she just wants you to try harder to get a job.”  My guess was that his wife’s love language was something other than receiving gifts.  It’s not that she hated the flowers; They just didn’t make her feel loved.  Since reading Chapman’s book, I have found his ideas incredibly helpful in understanding my wife, and also my children and other people I spend regular time with.

The second book is Willard Harley’s His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage.   Harley is a long-time marriage therapist who saw many couples dealing with unfaithfulness on the part of one spouse or the other. In his experience, most affairs occurred because the straying spouse saw a chance to meet some key emotional need that was going unfulfilled in marriage.  He compiled a list of the top five emotional needs men and women seek in these affairs, and based his book on helping couples understand and fulfill one another’s needs (hence creating “an affair-proof marriage).  As Harley sees it, women seek the following emotional needs in marriage (The terms are his, but I’ve included explanations in my own words where I think they’re needed):

  1. Affection: Both physical (hugs, holding hands) and emotional (writing a note, arranging a date). Basically anything that says, “I care about you.”
  2. Conversation: Talking to her is important. Listening to her is even more so.
  3. Honesty and openness: She needs to know she can trust you, that you have no secrets from her.
  4. Financial support: Will you do all you can to provide for the family? Will you spend money with them, and not just your own desires, in mind?
  5. Family commitment: She wants her husband to put his wife and children first.

He sees the men’s needs as follows:

  1. Sexual fulfillment: He certainly can’t fulfill this need apart from you.  At least, not as far as God is concerned.
  2. Recreational companionship: He wants his wife to enjoy his hobbies with him, or at least not resent them.
  3. An attractive spouse: He wants to be physically attracted to you.
  4. Domestic support: He wants an orderly home.
  5. Admiration: He needs a wife who believes in him even if no one else does.

You and I may quibble with Harley’s list.  Perhaps you are a successful woman who scoffs at the idea of a man “providing” for you.  Or you may be a man who lived comfortably for most of his adult life in a smelly bachelor pad, and you couldn’t care less about domestic support.  Even so, my guess is that most of the items on the list resonate with you.  It probably wouldn’t take you long to rank them in order of which needs you feel most profoundly.  Discovering your spouse’s list gives you the answer to that awful question, “What do I need to do to make you happy?”

What it boils down to is something I say every time I officiate a wedding: Love is a choice.  We usually speak of love as an emotion.  Being “in love” is indeed an emotion, and a powerful one.  If you’ve ever been in love, you remember the intoxication of it.  But emotion won’t sustain a marriage.  Love is a decision; it’s an act of the will.  Interestingly, the Bible never says Jesus likes us.  Instead, it says God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  There was nothing in us that compelled Jesus to do this.  He loved us when were wholly unlovely.  And that love was more than sentiment.  He met our deepest need–the need for redemption—not with words but with an action.  He gave Himself up so we could live.  That is love.  Hallelujah!  By the way, I am fairly certain Jesus does like you; after all, Ephesians 2:10 says you are His masterpiece, created for good works which He prepared ahead of time (my favorite verse).  But it wasn’t your sparkling intellect, your solid moral foundation, or your minty-fresh breath that led Jesus to die for you.  He chose to do that, even though it wasn’t in His best interests to do so.

Therefore I, as a Christian husband, should choose to learn how my wife receives love.  I should choose to learn what her main emotional needs are.  This idea has helped me immensely in my own marriage.  Now here are a few thoughts on how it can help you.

–How can you discover your spouse’s love language and emotional needs?  Reading these books together and discussing them is a great step.  But whether we read a book or not, we need to spend time together.  Observe what makes him light up with joy, or what brings her down.  It took me years to realize that my wife appreciates kind words, but they aren’t really what she is looking for from me.  I could make some grand romantic gesture, but she’d rather I mow the yard without being asked.  I could spend hours trying to sculpt my abs into a six-pack, but she’d prefer I spent those hours with our kids.

–Learn to receive love from your spouse in his/her language.  It took me years to realize that Carrie expresses love in acts of service.  Because that’s not my language, I didn’t adequately appreciate all the things she does for me and for our children.  I always thought she just liked a clean house, a well-dressed family, and utilities that are paid on time.  In reality, those were all ways of loving me.  (Now that I think about it, what DO I contribute to our home?)

–Let your spouse be who he/she is.  My friend who I mentioned earlier had a pre-conceived idea: “Women love to get flowers.”  When I told him she may have different needs, he couldn’t accept that.  Their marriage didn’t make it (though it certainly wasn’t all his fault).  You may not understand why your husband loves golf so much.  But chances are, you knew that when you married him.  Why did you expect him to change?  You may not understand why he hates your flannel pajamas; you know, the super-comfortable ones that Grandma gave you, that button up to the chin.  Why does he care what you wear to bed?  He wants to find you attractive; remember when that mattered to you?  You may not understand why it hurts him when you criticize him.  Aren’t men supposed to be tough and unfeeling?  Sure, but since his emotional need is admiration, you can hurt him in a way no one else can.  Instead of trying to change your spouse’s love language and emotional needs, accept them and choose to love them in those ways.

–Most of all, don’t focus on your own list, your own needs.  If you choose to love your spouse in the way they feel loved, chances are very good they will return the favor.  But even if they do, they won’t meet your needs perfectly.  There is only One who can do that.  And if they don’t even try (which is possible, since you are in fact married to a sinner), there is One who loves you in a way no human spouse ever could.  That love brings joy that outstrips the best and worst of any marriage.  More on that in a future post.  Until then…choose to love.

My thoughts on Tres Dias spiritual retreat

Thursday afternoon, my friend Jim Gentry took me and two others to Sandy Creek Bible Camp for Tres Dias.  As the name implies, this is a three-day experience that focuses on drawing closer to Jesus.  I had no idea what to expect from this retreat.  I knew that Tres Dias is a sister organization to Walk to Emmaus, and that Jim had attended and highly recommended it.  But I couldn’t find much information about what the experience would be like.  The stuff I found on the Tres Dias website seemed intentionally non-specific.  In fact, I did find another web page that deemed Tres Dias a cult-like organization because of its secrecy and its insider jargon.  But I chose to trust Jim.  I needed some time away from the busyness of daily life and church ministry, to refresh my relationship with Christ.  I needed something different from the typical ministry conference.  So I said yes.

We were told to leave our cell phones, watches, and computers at home.  That, in itself, was a challenge.  We were totally disconnected from the larger world for 72 hours.  We were given an emergency number at which our loved ones could contact us just in case.  Otherwise, we were totally off the grid, unaware of what was going on in the news, unable to manage our daily responsibilities at home or at work, and even completely oblivious to what time it was.  Tres Dias invites 42 people to each conference (there are separate conferences for men and women), and over twice that many former attenders come back to volunteer at each conference (in fact, they pay for the privilege). These are the men who woke me up in the morning, guided me from meeting to meeting, prepared my meals and taught from the Scriptures.  Basically, Tres Dias is a series of Scripture-based talks about what it means to follow Christ, delivered by men who have been through Tres Dias in the past, and punctuated by moments of worship and other spiritual events, plus several surprises.  In addition, each participant sits at a table with 8-9 other men the entire weekend, and they share thoughts and questions with each other, building a bond among the group.  Here are my thoughts on the weekend:

Great planning and care goes into each element of the weekend, and it shows. I was impressed by how smoothly things went, and how carefully and thoughtfully done each moment was.  I can’t overstate that point: I found myself touched that so many people went to so much trouble (keeping in mind these men are almost all laymen with day jobs) so that I could have an experience with Christ.

The talks are very basic.  Most of the speakers are not professional preachers.  As a guy who has spent most of his life in Church, I didn’t learn anything “new.”  But that didn’t mean the talks were ineffective.  The speakers often illustrated their points with personal stories of ways God has transformed their lives.  This produced some of the most memorable moments in the weekend, and also helped inspire an air of total openness that was key to the retreat.

Throughout the weekend, I was out of my element.  I kept trying to check for the time on my empty wrist; I also thought several times, “I should google that,” or “I should text Carrie to see how she and Will are doing,” only to remember that I had left my phone at home.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I had that moment of panic that says, “I’ve lost my phone!”  In addition, the planners of the weekend kept things unpredictable.  Anytime we thought we knew what was going to happen next, we were wrong; when we expected the heat, they threw a curve every time.  It was rather a helpless feeling.  Most of us construct our lives around the illusion that we are in control.  Suddenly, I had no say over my own schedule.  As uncomfortable as that was, I think this was an important aspect of the weekend.  It helped me to focus my thoughts on Christ.

The secrecy surrounding this event is probably the most controversial thing about Tres Dias.  When I told a friend about it before the weekend, he joked, “Are you sure you aren’t going to end up in the Klan when this is over?”  But I now understand the point of the secrecy.  There are several big surprise moments that would be spoiled if anyone shared.  In the same way I hate to have the twist ending of a great movie ruined by that chatty jerk who saw it before me, I would hate to ruin this experience for anyone who may attend…even if, right now, they are sure they never will.

Here’s my warning, however: If you come, be prepared to be flexible.  Go with it; you will enjoy the experience so much more than if you dig in your heels and refuse to participate.  Don’t bring anything for your down time…there is no “down time” at Tres Dias.  For 72 hours, you will be either sleeping, eating, or learning about Jesus.  It is an exhausting pace.  That’s especially true if someone in your dorm is a snorer (and, let’s face it, someone in your dorm will absolutely snore like a chainsaw…it’s some sort of corollary to Murphy’s Law).  So bring ear plugs.  If you can take the day off after you return, arrange to do that.  I couldn’t, and the Monday after was tough.  Several church members who saw me Monday asked if I had gotten rest, and I laughed…no, I certainly didn’t.  But it was worth it.  Rest is important, but there are moments when you can put off rest for a good cause, and this is definitely one of them.

The main thing that struck me at this weekend was the incredible power of Jesus Christ to transform human lives.  I saw so many men change over those 72 hours. Big, tough men wept freely as they shared how the Holy Spirit had drawn them out of their pride and stubbornness and made them brand new, determined to love their wives and children more unselfishly, to lead their homes more gently and spiritually, to serve their churches and communities and take God’s love to their neighbors boldly.  It made me long to see that kind of transformation happen more often in ordinary churches.  That’s what the next Great Awakening in this country will look like, when God chooses to grant it to us.

I also was reminded of the power of raw, honest friendship.  Forty-two men came to this retreat as strangers.  For three days, they shared authentically, wept together, embraced each other, and left as brothers.  Again, I am hungry to see this happen in churches.  I long for the day when churches become places where people are open about their struggles, where relationships are real and love goes beyond a “Hey, how are ya?”  I long to see us do life together like the original church did (see Acts 2:42-47).  Then we will truly look like the Body of Christ; then the world will see His glory in us.

Who should attend this event?  Anyone who hungers for personal growth.  Anyone who desires to know Jesus, or to renew their love for Him.  One of the leaders said it best: “Tres Dias doesn’t change anyone; Jesus changes people.”  True, but a weekend like this can certainly help you get beyond all the noise that blocks out His still, small voice and give you a compelling vision of a better life.

Your marriage’s worst enemy

Note: As my 25th wedding anniversary approaches, I feel compelled to write down some of what I have learned.  I don’t consider myself an expert on marriage by any means, but if perhaps these thoughts help someone–married or hoping to be married someday–it will be well worth my time.  I welcome your comments as well. 

In my previous article, I talked about how there is no “soul mate” for you.  Even if you find the person who most perfectly matches your criteria for a mate, marriage will still be hard work.

But why?  Why is it so difficult for two people to live together in a love relationship for a lifetime?  In my experience as a husband and a pastor, I have seen one factor more than any other divide husbands and wives.  You might think it’s money, workaholism, intrusive in-laws, one spouse’s wandering eye, bad temper, or ESPN.  Okay, in my opinion, Lifetime Network and HGTV are far worse for a marriage than televised sports  But I digress. None of those forces equals the sheer destructive power of this one thing.

Would you believe that your marriage’s worst enemy is you?

Specifically, your tendency justify yourself, to see yourself as the only reasonable person in the relationship, while casting your spouse in the role of the stubborn fool, the mentally delusional nutjob, or the garden-variety jerk.

Here’s a confession: I stink at marriage counseling.  It took me a while to realize this, because I love being a pastor.  I love most parts of my job so much, I’d do them even if I wasn’t paid.  So when married couples have approached me, asking if I could help them work through some problems they were having, I’ve always been glad to do what I could.  But afterwards, I rarely felt I had actually helped them.  Often, I knew these people well. They were friends.  I liked and respected them.  Surely, I thought, this will be simple, just letting them talk things through, offering a few pieces of sage advice, and praying for healing.  They would thank me and walk away, with their love for each other renewed.  It never seemed to work out that way.  Instead, I would find one partner tearfully, bitterly rehearsing the offenses she has had to put up with, the Hell on Earth she has been experiencing.  Meanwhile, the other spouse looks absolutely astonished.  He can’t understand why she gets to play the victim, when she is far from perfect herself (It wasn’t always the wife accusing and the husband on defense, but for ease of reading, I will leave the gender pronouns this way).  He offers semi-sincere apologies, promises to try harder, and basically minimizes her complaints .  They leave angrier than they were when they arrived.

After years of this, I finally realized something: By the time couples came to me for marriage counseling, they were already past the point of wanting to “work on their marriage.”  They had each dug a foxhole, and their relationship had degenerated into lobbing occasional grenades at each other.  Her motive in coming to me for counseling was simply an attempt to get a third party to confirm what she had been saying to him all along. She wanted me to say, “No woman should have to put up with what you’ve gone through.”  Whereas he was hoping I would join in with his self-defense, telling her, “Get over it; he’s not so bad.”  Each wanted me to climb into their foxholes and fight alongside them.  Any advice I offered would be politely received.  But I got the distinct feeling that they both were thinking, “Preacher, you obviously haven’t been listening to me.  I’m not the one who needs to change, my spouse is.”

I want to make something clear: I am not diminishing the pain these people felt.  The problems they expressed were real (Another point of clarity: We weren’t talking about abuse), and the pain they felt was profound.  Tears were shed.  These conversations were agonizing, for them and for me.  But in every case, I walked away thinking, “Surely two people bound together by a common commitment to Christ, who’ve raised children together and had years of experience with each other, can work through this.”  And often, the answer was no, they couldn’t.  Or perhaps wouldn’t.  They had crossed some threshold.  Their separate foxholes were too well-fortified.  Only unconditional surrender on the part of their spouse (adversary?) could possibly stave off the inevitable divorce.

Side note: Another thing I learned from this experience–and which I am anxious to share with you–is that a trained counselor is worth every dollar it would cost you to see him.  Your pastor, a family member or trusted friend can listen, offer advice and prayers, and there is value in that…but it’s not a replacement for someone who does this for a living.  Find a professional to talk to, and do it BEFORE you’ve got one foot out the door.  

I recently read something that distilled these scattered, frustrated thoughts for me.  Someone expressed what I’ve been feeling perfectly.  In their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson write:

The vast majority of couples who drift apart do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification. Each partner focuses on what the other one is doing wrong, while justifying his or her own preferences, attitudes, and ways of doing things. … From our standpoint, therefore, misunderstandings, conflicts, personality differences, and even angry quarrels are not the assassins of love; self-justification is.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve seen this in my own attitude toward my wife.  When I am upset with her, my frustration feels like the most legitimate, reasonable emotion I could possibly feel.  There’s a voice essentially saying, “You SHOULD be mad!  Anyone else would be!  In fact, anyone else would have been fed up long ago!”  (By the way, if you’re thinking, “I know Carrie. Buddy, you should NEVER complain,” you’re right…dangit)  On the other hand, I see my own faults as a husband as no big deal.  I’ve got a boatload of excuses: “Your expectations are unreasonable.” “You knew I was that way when you married me.”  “All things considered, I’m still a lot better than most guys you could be married to.”  I guess you could say I’ve spent time in both foxholes.  I’ve played my share of offense and defense.  My marriage’s worst enemy is me.

So what is the answer?  Simply put, the only sure answer is the Gospel.  I don’t mean that converting to Christianity will fix your marriage.  Christians have this problem just as much as non-Christians do. I mean we, as Christians, have to let the Gospel take over our marriages.  Here’s what I mean:

Most of us know the story Jesus told (in Luke 18:9-14) about the morally upright, devoutly religious man who went to the temple to pray, and happened to see a notorious sinner there, a man who made his living scamming his own people.  The pious brother prayed a pious prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, adulterers, evildoers–or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  That man was doing what we do in marriage–self-justifying.  He was saying, “I’m not the problem, HE is.”  He was saying, “I’m so much better than most men, my flaws aren’t even worth mentioning.”  He was playing offense and defense.  But Jesus told us the prayer of the other man, too: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”   The Lord then said something that must have astonished his hearers: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  It’s a little known fact about our faith: Christianity doesn’t make us perfect (at least, not yet).  It makes us repentant.  Christians aren’t better people than non-Christians; but they should be much more aware of their own failings than others.  That’s how we are saved in the first place; not by promising to try really hard to be good, but by admitting we’ve failed and asking Him to take over.  That’s how we grow into the people we were made to be.

So how does this work in marriage?  Whenever we feel ourselves moving towards “It’s HER fault!” or “Why does she always overreact?” we must recognize that as self-justification.  That’s the voice of the Pharisee, drawing us further away from God…and further away from our spouse.  I discovered years ago that the more I focus on things I’d like to change in my wife, the unhappier I am.  After all, a self-centered eye can find fault in anyone, and can magnify those thoughts to the point of making us miserable.  But when I begin to focus instead on overcoming my own flaws, working against my selfish, lazy tendencies, and trying to be the man she deserves, I am happier.  Counterintuitively, I begin to see in her all the reasons I married her in the first place…and discover some new ones I never noticed before.  Here’s another way to put it: If your main goal is to turn your spouse into the person you want him/her to be, it will always end badly.  If your main goal in marriage is to learn to love your spouse as he/she is right now, you will succeed.

If you are struggling in marriage right now, my words may seem trivial.  Consider this: What would it look like if you climbed out of your foxhole and met your spouse on neutral ground?  Imagine what might happen if you sat him/her down and said (without mentioning any of your grievances), “Here are the ways I know I have let you down.  And here’s how I want to improve.”  Or even, “If I could do anything to make our marriage better for you, what would it be?”  Does that sound impossible?  It probably does.  Getting out of a foxhole in the middle of a war zone always does.  But it’s the only way to make peace.  Someone has to take that risk.  Everything within you will resist; we enjoy feeling like the victim.  But when you first fell in love, you had dreams of building something wonderful.  I believe those dreams are still worth fighting for; only the enemy is not the person in the other foxhole, it’s our self-justification.

The “Soul Mate” Deception

In May, Carrie and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary.  That certainly doesn’t qualify me as an expert on the subject of marriage.  But I have learned so much through the process of building a family with her, as well as observing (and sometimes awkwardly trying to help) the marriages of friends, family members, and people I’ve ministered to.  A handful of good books have helped clarify things for me, as well.  I wish I could go back to that naive, love-smitten kid I was in May of 1992 and tell him what I know now.  But, since I possess neither a DeLorean nor a Flux Capacitor, time travel is impossible (and even if I did, there’s that whole “messing up the time-space continuum” thing).  So I thought I would write down the lessons I have learned so far, just in case they might help someone struggling in marriage, or someone planning to be married in the future. I know I have a lot still to learn; I pray that I have over 25 years left with her to learn those lessons.  But for the next several weeks, I’ll share here the most meaningful things I’ve learned.

I’ll start with this: There is no such thing as a “soul mate.”  There.  I said it.  The twenty-one-year-old me would have disagreed passionately.  In my young adulthood, I thought with all my heart that there was one special woman God had chosen for me…just like there was one special person for everyone.  Furthermore, I was absolutely certain I had found her.  And since God had brought us together, we would have a marriage so blissful, so perfect, the world would stand amazed.

Where did I get such an idea?  Believe it or not, the idea of a soul mate comes not from Scripture, but from ancient Greek thought.  As Plato put it,”…and when one of them meets the other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment…”  I found that quote on a website called “The 45 Best Soulmate Quotes.”  Yes, apparently that’s a thing.  Our culture loves the idea that there is a perfect person for each  of us out there somewhere.  It’s the main idea behind most romantic movies; note that movies almost never focus on what it takes to make a relationship last. Instead, they tend to be about the obstacles a man and woman have to overcome in order to find each other and fall in love. It’s all about the dashing Prince placing the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot, not on what life is like for Cindy and her man five years later, when there are bills to pay, kids to feed, and the Fairy Godmother is nowhere to be found.

Our song lyrics buy into the notion as well. The most common theme in popular music by far is the notion of “true love,” which means finding that person you were destined for, who makes life worth living.  Talk to unmarried people, and you’ll see we have completely bought into this idea.  In our minds, the soul mate we’re looking for is someone who will meet all of our expectations in a lover, without asking us to change in any way.  We’re looking for the ideal version of ourselves, only in the body of an attractive member of the opposite sex…who also happens to be crazy about us.

For twenty-one-year-old me, it was even worse, because I had made this idea part of my theology.  In my defense, I had some help with that.  My engagement and early marriage days were during a time when Bible-believing Christians were so eager to build up the institution of marriage, our leaders over-sold some ideas.  One was the idea that Christians, especially committed believers, and ESPECIALLY Christians who had put off sexual intimacy until their wedding day, had happier marriages (including more torridly satisfying sex lives) than unbelievers.  Joel Gregory in his book  Too Great a Temptation tells the story of his predecessor at First Baptist, Dallas, the legendary WA Criswell, preaching a sermon on this very subject.  He referenced some recent studies about marital satisfaction among Christians, baptized it in Scripture, and his takeaway line was, “Young men, marry a First Baptist woman.  She’ll love you so good, they’ll have to carry you off in a wheelbarrow.”  The huge congregation was initially stunned at hearing such saucy stuff from their white-haired patriarch, but after a moment’s silence, the place went up in laughter.  That message was forevermore known as “the wheelbarrow sermon.”  Interestingly, Gregory reports that when people asked Mrs. Criswell what she thought if it, she said, “WA doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

But I thought I knew.  I had found a godly woman who had agreed to marry me. We had done everything right, as far as I could tell.  We were destined for marital greatness.

And then we got married.

I won’t go into detail about the first year of our marriage.  I will simply say this: I was devastated at how hard it was.  So much so, I questioned God.  How could He do this to me?  I had tried to do things His way.  Didn’t He owe me happiness as a result?  We had rarely argued during our 2 1/2 years of dating and engagement; now we fought almost daily.  For years, she had been the person I couldn’t do without.  I had driven an hour each way to see her three times each weekend.  Now, we often couldn’t stand the sight of each other.  It’s almost as if getting married was the worst possible thing that could happen to our relationship.

I learned two invaluable lessons that year: One, in order for this marriage to work, I had to change…and so did she.  We both needed to grow out of our selfishness and pettiness, and the sooner, the better.  Two, I couldn’t look to her as the source of my happiness.  Marriage doesn’t work like that.  The infatuation of the early days of falling in love is thrilling.  So is the anticipation of an engagement.  But those kinds of feelings are temporary.  It’s like eating the most spectacular dessert ever; it tastes amazing, but you can’t live on it long-term.  I knew then that I needed to deepen in my relationship with Jesus, the actual Bread of Life…only He would give me the joy, purpose and identity I was foolishly looking for in marriage.  The good news is that, as I did this, the growth I would experience would (hopefully) make me a better husband, too.

I’ll talk more in a later blog post about how things changed (both in me and in our marriage) after that, but for now, I’ll just say that it was a long process of learning what it meant to be a good man.  I’m still working on that.  So is she.  (Okay, that last sentence was a joke…sort of).  The good news is that, over the years, we have built something wonderful.  I look forward to seeing her each day, and the high point of my week is our Friday breakfast date.  I look back over these twenty five years, and see so many ways she has supported me, helped me choose the right path, and filled my days with joy and laughter.  It took work for us to get to this point, but it has been well worth it.

I remember seeing a published study in the years just after I stopped believing in soulmates.  It said that people who were in arranged marriages had far greater marital satisfaction than people who chose their own mates.  It’s hard for us in the Global West to believe such a claim.  We think freedom is always best, including the freedom to choose one’s own spouse.  But as I thought about it, it made sense.  A man in an arranged marriage knows that he is stuck with this woman, so he might as well learn to love her for who she is.  He has no reason to compare her to some mythical person who meets all his needs; he went into the relationship without those overly romantic expectations.  So whereas the American model leaves him thinking, “My soulmate is out there somewhere.  I just married the wrong person,” his actual situation leaves him with one viable option: Love the one he has.  And build something beautiful with her.

I’m not arguing that we should begin arranging marriages for our kids (although as a Dad, the idea is appealing).   But here’s what I am saying:

If you’re not married, choosing the right person to marry is crucial.  A life of singleness is not an empty life (see 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul calls his singleness a gift), and is far better than marrying someone for the wrong reasons.  Before you marry, ask yourself, “Does he/she make me a better person?”  From a Christian perspective, that means “Does he/she draw me closer to Christ, and to becoming the person He is trying to create in me?”  Ask someone who knows you well that same question–your parents or a close friend who will definitely tell you the truth.  If the answer is no, walk away.  If the answer is yes, and you choose to marry…it will still be hard work!  I absolutely married the right person, and it has still been incredibly difficult!  But the work will be so very worth it.

If you are married, there is a person God has in mind for you to love, to believe in, to support, to pray for, to seek to please, and to enjoy completely.  That person is the person to whom you are currently married. If you are unhappy in your marriage, unless you are being abused by your spouse, leaving them won’t bring you the happiness you yearn for. Ask God to help you love them as they are, to love them as He does.  In other words, ask God to help you love your spouse the way He already loves you…He sees all the flaws, but He chooses to love you anyway.  In fact, against all the odds, He delights in you.  And He can produce that kind of love in your marriage, too.  Give Him that chance…and then go to work building something beautiful.