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.

I was wrong about musicals

Note: This post is an expanded version of a devotional I wrote for our twice-weekly First Moments series.  If you’re not getting First Moments in your inbox, click here.  

I love movies, but I’ve always said I don’t like musicals.

I’ve watched my share, including innumerable Disney cartoons with those wretched songs that emblazon themselves on my brain and haunt me when I’m trying to get to sleep.  My standard line was, “I liked the movie, except for all the singing.”  It’s not that I dislike music.  Quite the contrary.  And I certainly appreciate the immense talent it takes for people to write or perform in musicals.  But it seems so artificial.  People in the real world don’t burst into song at random moments (try it sometime, and see what happens to your social life).  Whenever an actor started singing in a musical, I would find myself inwardly squirming, partially embarrassed for them at how ridiculous they looked, and partially impatient, wishing I could fast-forward and get back to the story.

I admit there were exceptions.  I like Fiddler on the Roof, but it’s one of my Dad’s favorite movies.  I love my Dad, and he taught me to love good movies, so it reminds me of him.  And I really enjoyed Les Miserables a few years ago.  I love the way grace transforms a bad man into an exceptionally good one, and how a “good” man who can’t accept grace becomes utterly ruined as a result.  But I could tell myself that it was the beautiful theological truths of the movie that I loved.  I could enjoy it and still proclaim myself a musical cynic.

But now, I am beginning to think I was wrong about musicals all along.

Recently, I took my wife and daughter to see La La Land, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s the story of a young jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) and a struggling actress (Emma Stone) who are both trying to find their dreams in modern-day Los Angeles.  They meet, fall in love, experience pain and victory, sorrow and laughter.  There’s nothing much unique about that plot.  And Gosling and Stone aren’t exceptional singers.  But the entire thing is done with such skill: The funny moments are truly hilarious, and the poignant moments truly heartbreaking.  You truly want to see these two appealing people succeed.  I enjoyed it so much, I found myself looking up the soundtrack online so I could hear the songs again.  Later, I listened to an interview with the director, Damien Chazelle.  He said he made this movie to appeal to people like me, the musical cynics. His mission was accomplished, in my case.  I will no longer immediately write off an upcoming movie just because it’s a song-and-dance extravaganza.  I might even revisit some of the musicals I once found so cheesy, to see if I can appreciate them more now that I have been “enlightened.” Maybe.

He also said something I found profound: “Songs are…an expression of inner feelings that you can’t articulate any other way…It’s a beautiful, powerful idea to me, that if you feel enough you break into song.”  I think God must agree.  After all, the book He inspired is quite musical.  The largest book of the Bible is the Psalms, a collection of hymns.  In Scripture, we are commanded over a hundred times to sing praise to the Lord.  Here’s one, found in Psalm 5:11, Let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy.  So, does that verse mean should we sing when we’re joyful, or does singing produce joy in us?  I think both are true.  This is why singing praise makes so much sense.  If we love Him, music gives us the perfect way to articulate it.  As CS Lewis said, it’s why a man in love says extravagant things to his wife about her beauty, wisdom, character; praising the person He finds wonderful completes his enjoyment of her.  When we praise God, we love Him all the more…and we enjoy His greatness completely.

But just like I was a musical cynic, plenty of us are praise cynics.  What about the person who can sit in a room full of people who are praising God with eyes closed, hands raised, tears running down their cheeks, and feel nothing?  Perhaps you’re one of those people.  Is there something wrong with you?  No more than the rest of us.  Eugene Peterson (the man who paraphrased the Bible into The Message) heard from his daughter years ago that she was expecting a baby.  It would be his first grandchild.  But curiously, he felt no real excitement about this, and that bothered him.  He asked his wife, who was ecstatic about the baby, what was wrong with him.  She said, “Well, you’ve never been pregnant. No wonder you’re not excited.”  She encouraged him to build a cradle for the child.  So he did.  It took him weeks.  He picked out a pattern, selected wood and supplies, crafted that cradle carefully, polished it to a fine sheen.  Through the long process, he found himself getting excited about the baby that would lie in that cradle someday.  He realized that most of us can’t really worship God because we haven’t built Him a cradle in our hearts yet.  We haven’t done the long, careful work of preparing ourselves to get into His presence.  Instead, we just show up at a worship service and say, “I’m here.  Impress me.”  But if we will take time in His Word daily, serve our neighbors, confess our sins, and most of all, pray for God to give us a hunger for His presence, we will clear away the space in our hearts that only He was meant to fill.  And fill it He will.

Perhaps you’ve been wrong about worship all this time.  Could that be?  Prepare your heart, and see what happens.

The Reason for Thanksgiving

No, I’m not talking about the story we all learned in elementary school, about the starving pilgrims and the friendly Indians who saved their skins that first winter.  I’m talking about why God commands us to give Him thanks. It does seem a bit odd, on its face.  Why would a supreme deity need thanks?  Is He that desperate for affirmation?  Yet there it is, over and over again in the Scriptures….

In Colossians 3:15-17, Paul writes, Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.   Three separate times, he refers to gratitude or giving thanks.  It’s almost like he’s your mom, reminding you three times before you go to spend the night with a friend, “Make sure you thank his parents for having you over!”  1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. We may be tempted to say, “I don’t really have anything to be thankful for at the moment.”  But God won’t accept that excuse.  We should be thankful in “all circumstances.”

Psalm 100:4 says, Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. So God is telling us that when we come into His presence for corporate worship, we don’t come with an attitude of “Entertain me; instruct me; inspire me…I paid good money for this.”  No, we come into corporate worship with an attitude of thanksgiving.  Everything we do here should be done to express our appreciation to Him.  Some of us learned that entire Psalm in the King James, where it starts with those famous words, Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the Earth.  In the modern translations, it says “Shout for joy to the Lord.”  That’s a pretty good translation, because the Hebrew word literally means “a sound that splits the ear.”  God doesn’t care primarily about how you sound.  He cares mostly that you sing to Him out of a heart of sincere gratitude and joy.

Then there’s Psalm 50:23, He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.  When God established the nation of Israel, He gave them a system of sacrifices they were to perform.  Some of these sacrifices were called sin offerings. If you sinned against God and wanted to get right with Him again, you took the best animal in your herd or flock, and brought it to the priest to be sacrificed.  As it says in the book of Hebrews, Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. But there were other offerings that God wanted His people to give.  The thank offering was one example.  If you had experienced the blessing of God in some profound way, you would offer a sacrifice just to say thank you. It was a way of saying, “Without you, I wouldn’t have anything.  So I am going to take something valuable to me and give it over to you.  Not because you need it, but because it does my heart good to say thank you.”

So back to our question: Why does God insist on thankfulness from us? It’s not because God needs to be thanked.  It’s because gratitude is good for us.  There has been an incredible amount of study on this.  I won’t take time to cite the individual research studies, but you can look them up on your own.  Just go to your search engine and type, “benefits of gratitude.”  But let me just sum up some—not all—of the good things that happen when we’re thankful:

Studies have found that thankful people feel better, exercise more often, visit the doctor less, are more optimistic and cheerful, have better marriages, have better relationships with everyone, and if they are in a position of managing employees, their employees produce more work. You are literally a better boss if you display gratitude to your workers.  Not only that, but kids who are thankful get better grades.  People who have suffered the loss of a loved one have an easier time overcoming grief if they have established the pattern of thankfulness in their lives.  Thankful people have healthier heart rates, stronger immune systems, and get better sleep.  In one specific study, researchers took a group of 411 people and wanted to see what made them happiest.  For weeks, they gave their group assignments that were supposed to produce happiness in their lives, and then at the end of each week, the research group reported how that week’s assignment made them feel.  One week, their assignment was to write a letter to someone who had been meaningful in their lives, expressing thanks for the way that person had helped them.  The group reported that out of all the assignments they did, that week produced the greatest surge in happiness.

There once was an old man who ran a gas station in one of those little bedroom communities near a big city.  His young granddaughter was working in the store with him one day, when a man came in to buy a few things while his car was gassing up.  The man looked at her grandpa and said, “What’s it like living in this town?”  The old man asked, “Well, what is it like where you come from?”  The man replied, “It stinks.  Literally.  The air is foul.  And the houses are rundown, there’s crime everywhere, the schools are terrible.  And worse, it’s so political.  If you don’t know someone in city government, you never get anywhere.  I want to move, so I was wondering if living here would be better.”  Grandpa said, “Sorry, friend.  It’s pretty much like that here, too.”  Later that day, another man came in.  As he was paying for his Snapple and almonds, he asked, “What’s it like here?”  The old man again asked, “What’s it like where you live?”  The man replied, “It’s wonderful.  People have a lot of pride in the town, so the schools are great and homes are really well-maintained.  The police do a good job, too.  And everyone is so friendly, it’s like a small town in a lot of ways.  I hate to think about moving, but my work might move me to this end of town.”  The old man said, “Well, you ought to move here.  It’s a lot like what you described.”  After he left, the granddaughter asked why he had given the two men such different answers.  He said, “Because one thing I’ve learned, sweetie, is that wherever you go, you take your attitude with you.”  The old man is right.  Granted, some places are better to live in than others.  But if you think you can’t possibly enjoy life under your present circumstances, why not first do something about your attitude?  God commands us to be thankful because gratitude makes us happier and healthier.

So this week, my challenge to you is to give a thank offering to God.  No, I am not telling you slaughter any livestock.  Jesus died for our sins once and for all, and that brought an end to the Old Testament’s sacrificial system. So the sacrifices we bring now are different.  What would a thank offering look like today?  I have two suggestions.  You pick the one that works for you.

Tell someone how they’ve blessed you.  When I look back on my life, I see a huge number of people who have invested in me, supported me, mentored me, and helped me get to the point I am today.  I think about the man who taught me Sunday School when I was a teenager.  When I felt called to the ministry, he committed to send us $35 a month until I graduated.  For three years, he sent that check.  It doesn’t sound like much, but it made a difference to us, economically and emotionally.  I think about my fifth grade teacher, who had a profound impact on me, spiritually as well as academically.  I think also about the minister who performed our wedding.  As my wife’s youth minister, he had a powerful influence on her becoming the kind of woman, wife and mother she is.  And the summer before our wedding, he and his family hosted me in their home, rent-free, for the entire summer.  I think about a woman at another church who was a constant friend and encouragement to me and my family.  I don’t have contact with any of these people anymore, but two years ago, I wrote them each a letter telling them how much they mean to me.  I heard back from each of them, and they told me what a blessing it was.  But I didn’t do it just for them.  I did it as an offering of thanks to God, who brought them lovingly into my life.

Pay God’s love forward. We are all rich in some way. As you make a list of the things God has given you, and given in abundance, ask Him to show you a person who doesn’t have as much.  Give that person a gift.  It may be that you have enough money to help someone out with a gift card to a grocery store, or help with one of their bills.  Or maybe you can offer them the gift of some quality time; take them out to lunch one day.  Invite someone who will be alone on Thanksgiving to join your family for the day.  Or maybe you can pay forward the gift of the Gospel; find some organization that is taking the good news to unreached people and bless them.  After all, if you’re a Christian, that means that at some point, someone told you about God’s love and the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Why not make it possible for people around the world to have that same blessing? God won’t love you any more if you do this—it’s for the purpose of expressing thanks to the One who said, “whatever you do for the least of my children, you do it for me.”

Try it, and just see if it doesn’t turn out to be even more of a blessing to you than it is to the people you reached out to.  Gratitude, you see, is a gift; a gift from the God who can’t stop giving us stuff.

Good news about the election


In a recent sermon, John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, told the following joke: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are stranded in the middle of the ocean in a small boat.  Suddenly, the boat springs a leak. Who is saved?  America.

In light of how many of us feel about this election, that is the very definition of gallows humor.  We laugh to keep from crying (or throwing a brick through your TV screen, depending on your personality).  I am not here to offer an endorsement.  Many thoughtful people who are more politically astute than I have written about which way Christians should vote (Here’s a series of short articles that argue for three possibilities).   Either way, and I cannot sugar-coat this, it’s hard to be excited or optimistic about the next four years of our nation’s political life.

However, I still say it is the responsibility of all Americans–especially we Christians–to vote.  Whether  you choose one of the two major candidates, or a third option, don’t waste your opportunity.  Besides, the down-ballot races will affect our lives in more direct ways than the presidential race, so don’t miss the chance to vote in those. But what is the good news that the title of this post promises?  There are three reasons I am hopeful about this election:

1. Our political system.  Thanks to the genius of our founding fathers, we are electing a president, not a dictator. He or she will oversee one of three branches of our government.  That means that even if our next president is the worst person we’ve ever elected, the damage to our nation will be limited.  Another great thing about our political system is that it is adaptable.  The current primary system is less than a century old.  Now that it has produced arguably the two most uninspiring, untrustworthy candidates in our nation’s history, I have hope that the process will be amended to produce better, more qualified nominees for our highest office.  I am not a political scientist, so I don’t know what a better process would look like.  But I have faith in this country’s ability to make positive change for the future.  In other words, I am looking forward to better options in 2020.

2. The renewal of God’s people.  Many of us have been praying for a revival of the American Church for many years.  Wouldn’t it be just like God to use an event like this election to spur that long-awaited revival?  If it happens, I believe it will be because this election will finally wean us away from our idolatrous relationship with politics.  Please understand, I believe Christians should be involved in the political process, particularly in a democratic republic like ours.  But when the Church becomes just another political voting bloc, whose loyalty to one particular party is unquestioned, it loses its prophetic voice.  In my experience as a pastor, too many evangelical Christians are more likely to memorize the words of Hannity and O’ Reilly than the words of our Savior; too many of us are quick to jump into a political debate, but slow to share the Gospel that can change a person’s eternity.  Perhaps an election like this will finally show us that our nation’s hope is not in electing the “right” candidate; it’s in people coming to know the One who loved them enough to die for them…and our job as Christians is to help make that happen.  If we repent of our political idolatry and take responsibility for our true mission, I believe God will do amazing things.

3. Our Amazing God.  Earlier, I referenced a joke in a sermon by John Ortberg (Click here to watch the entire sermon.  It is well worth your time).  In that same sermon, Ortberg pointed out that the most important election in human history took place over 2000 years ago.  In that election, the people of God chose between two candidates: On the one hand, there was Jesus of Nazareth, who had spent three years feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and helping the poor, while also sharing the most beautiful platform for peace and justice the world has ever known.  In addition, He was the absolute fulfillment of the Scriptures they revered and had memorized.  On the other hand, there was Barabbas, a murderous thief and assassin.  The people of God chose Barabbas; they called for Jesus to be crucified.  Yet God took their wrong choice and turned it into the greatest event in human history, an event that led to our eternal redemption.

Many of us feel a strong sense of fear regarding this election.  I hear Christians say, “This is the most important election in our history.”  We seem certain that if the wrong candidate wins, it could lead to the speedy downfall of our nation. But God is not bound by our electoral choices.  God is not the least bit worried about who will win on election day.  The outcome of our decision will not affect His ability to accomplish what He desires.  That doesn’t mean that everything is going to be okay in the short term.  Our next president is certain to make some decisions that make life harder for us, and others that history will judge to be huge mistakes.  But guess what? That would be true even if we were electing a candidate who embodied all the best qualities of Washington, Lincoln, Reagan and both Roosevelts.  That candidate would still be human.  But God is not.  And no matter what happens on election day, His primary occupation is still the redemption of human beings, and we are still His primary tools to accomplish that.  So whatever happens, ask Him to use you, to use our church, to use all His churches to be the light this nation needs.

And say hallelujah for this: The people of God chose wrong on Good Friday…but three days later, there was a divine recall election that changed everything.