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.

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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.