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November 29, 2016

Enough is Enough

Gary Thomas — 

Abusive Men

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26

What does it mean to “hate” someone we are elsewhere called to sacrificially love? We are told to love even our enemies, yet Jesus here tells us to hate some of our closest family members. What could that mean?

Hatred here is Semitic hyperbole. In essence, it means “love less than.” There are times when our love and allegiance to God may be at odds with human loyalties; in those cases, love for God, His light and the way of truth, must always prevail.

It’s okay (actually, commendable) for me to love the Seattle Seahawks. But if my wife needs me to take her to the hospital in the middle of a game or needs me to pay her some attention, I have to act like I hate the Seahawks and not even consider my love for them in service to my wife.

Let’s apply this principle in regards to how the church views marriage and divorce.

I recently spoke at a long-standing North American woman’s conference and was overwhelmed by the quantity and horrific nature of things wives are having to put up with in their marriages. Between sessions, I was bombarded by heartfelt inquiries: “What does a wife do when her husband does this? Or that? Or keeps doing this?” It broke my heart. I felt like I needed to take a dozen showers that weekend.

This may sound like a rant, but please hang with me, as I think this conference was a divine appointment. I can’t get this out of my mind.

One wife began our conversation with, “God hates divorce, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “I believe He does.”

“So I’ve just got to accept what’s happening in my marriage, right?”

When she told me what was happening, I quickly corrected her. “If the cost of saving a marriage is destroying a woman, the cost is too high. God loves people more than he loves institutions.”

Her husband is a persistent porn addict. He has neglected her sexually except to fulfill his own increasingly bent desires. He keeps dangling divorce over her head, which makes her feel like a failure as a Christian. He presented her with a list of five things he wanted to do that he saw done in porn, and if she wasn’t willing, he was through with the marriage. She agreed to four of them, but just couldn’t do the fifth. And she feels guilty.

God hates divorce, right?

This is monstrous and vile. This woman needs to be protected from such grotesque abuse, and if divorce is the only weapon to protect her, then the church should thank God such a weapon exists.

A young wife, barely in her twenties, held a baby in a blanket and looked at me with tears. Her husband has a huge temper problem. He’s made her get out of the car on a highway with her baby, twice. “But both times he came back for us,” she said in his defense when I looked absolutely appalled. They were separated and she was living with her parents. She wanted to know if she should take him back because his psychiatrist supposedly said there wasn’t anything really wrong with him. Her husband doesn’t think he has a problem that, in fact, the problem is with her “lack of forgiveness.”

They had been married only three years and she had already lived through more torment (I’m not telling the full story) than a woman should face in a lifetime. My thoughts weren’t at all about how to “save” the marriage, but to ease her conscience and help her prepare for a new life—without him.

Church, God hates it when a woman is sexually degraded and forced to do things that disgust her. It should also make us want to vomit.

When a young man is so immature he puts his wife’s and baby’s life in danger on a highway (amongst other things), the thought that we’re worried about the “appropriateness” of divorce shows that our loyalties are with human institutions, not the divine will.

As Kevin DeYoung so ably puts it, “Every divorce is the result of sin, but not every divorce is sinful.”

Another woman told me about putting up with her husband’s appalling behavior for over forty years. I was invited to look in her face, see the struggle, see the heroic perseverance, but also be reminded that counsel has consequences. So when I talk to a young woman in her third year of marriage and it’s clear she’s married to a monster, and someone wants to “save” the marriage, I want them to realize they are likely sentencing her to four decades of abuse, perhaps because of a choice she made as a teenager. When these men aren’t confronted, and aren’t repentant, they don’t change.

Jesus said what he said about divorce to protect women, not to imprison them. Divorce was a weapon foisted against women in the first century, not one they could use, and it almost always left them destitute if their family of origin couldn’t or wouldn’t step up.

How does it honor the concept of “Christian marriage” to enforce the continuance of an abusive, destructive relationship that is slowly squeezing all life and joy out of a woman’s soul? Our focus has to be on urging men to love their wives like Christ loves the church, not on telling women to put up with husbands mistreating their wives like Satan mistreats us. We should confront and stop the work of Satan, not enable it.

Look, I hate divorce as much as anyone. I have been married for 31 years and cannot fathom leaving my wife. I have prayed with couples, counselled with couples, written blog posts and articles and books, and have travelled to 49 of the 50 states and nine different countries to strengthen marriages in the church. By all accounts, I believe I’ve been an ambassador for improving and growing marriages.

The danger of what I’m saying is clear and even a little scary to me, because no marriage is easy. Every marriage must overcome hurt, pain, and sin. No husband is a saint, in the sense that every husband will need to be forgiven and will be troublesome and even hurtful at times to live with. I’m not talking about the common struggles of living with a common sinner, or every man and woman could pursue divorce. (There are many men who live with abuse and could “biblically” pursue a divorce as well.) Charging someone with “abuse” when it doesn’t truly apply is almost as evil as committing abuse, so we need to be careful we don’t bear “false witness” against a spouse to convince ourselves and others that we can legitimately pursue divorce to get out of a difficult marriage.

That’s why I love how some churches will meet with a couple and hear them out to give them some objective feedback, helping them to distinguish between normal marital friction and abusive behavior. Some women need to hear, “No, this isn’t normal. It’s abuse. You don’t have to put up with that.” Others need to hear, “We think what you’re facing are the normal difficulties of marriage and with counseling they can be overcome.” There’s no way a blog post (or even a book) can adequately anticipate all such questions.

I love marriage—even the struggles of marriage, which God can truly use to grow us and shape us—but I hate it when God’s daughters are abused. And I will never defend a marriage over a woman’s emotional, spiritual, and physical health.

I went back to my hotel room after that woman’s conference and almost felt like I had to vomit. I don’t know how God stands it, having to witness such horrific behavior leveled at his daughters.

Enough is enough!

Jesus says there are “levels” of love, and times when one loyalty must rise over another. Our loyalty to marriage is good and noble and true. But when loyalty to a relational structure allows evil to continue it is a false loyalty, even an evil loyalty.

Christian leaders and friends, we have to see that some evil men are using their wives’ Christian guilt and our teaching about the sanctity of marriage as a weapon to keep harming them. I can’t help feeling that if more women started saying, “This is over” and were backed up by a church that enabled them to escape instead of enabling the abuse to continue, other men in the church, tempted toward the same behavior, might finally wake up and change their ways.

Christians are more likely to have one-income families, making some Christian wives feel even more vulnerable. We have got to clean up our own house. We have got to say “Enough is enough.” We have got to put the fear of God in some terrible husbands’ hearts, because they sure don’t fear their wives and their lack of respect is leading to ongoing deplorable behavior.

I want a man who was abusive to have to explain to a potential second wife why his saintly first wife left him. Let men realize that behavior has consequences, and that wives are supposed to be cherished, not used, not abused, and never treated as sexual playthings. If a man wants the benefit and companionship of a good woman, let him earn it, and re-earn it, and let him know it can be lost.

Enough is enough.

I know I’m ranting. But I don’t think it was an accident that I was constantly stopped at that woman’s conference and forced to hear despicable story after despicable story (“forced” isn’t the right word. I could, of course, have walked away). I think God wanted me to see the breadth and depth of what is going on, and in this case, perhaps to be His voice.

Message received! We are called to love marriage, but when marriage enables evil, we should hate it (love it less) in comparison to a woman’s welfare.


We have to cherish

My last post “Enough is Enough” crashed our website several times. We’ve had to upgrade our website platform and pay for the frantic efforts to keep the blog up in the midst of the overload. We’re so sorry for the frustration you’ve had and the ensuing issues that followed (like earlier blog posts not being immediately available).

It’s at least a hopeful sign that many Christians are apparently resonating with the thought, “It’s time to stop the abuse.”

But stopping the abuse is just the first step. Now it’s time to address the second. Christians shouldn’t be known for merely avoiding evil. We’ve got to celebrate the excellent, the good, and pursue the high call of a truly biblical love.

In other words, it’s not enough that a wife not feel threatened. A Christian wife (and a Christian husband) should be cherished. (I trust it’s obvious that this is not a word for those wives who need to escape an abusing husband.)

 Reading the testimonies of so many women from the blog made me want to redouble my efforts to treat Lisa in a special manner. I don’t want her to just feel “safe.” That should be a given. I want her to feel really and truly cherished.

“Cherish” is, after all, what the vast majority of us promised on our wedding day. We promised to “love and to cherish until death do us part.” It’s what we said we would do in front of a lot of human witnesses and, even more importantly, in front of God.

To say, “I didn’t really mean it” or “Hey, that’s just what the pastor told me to say,” isn’t good enough. If we’ve let this promise slip, we need now more than ever to pick it back up and pursue a cherishing marriage. Besides, we’d be eager to practice cherishing each other if we truly understood the benefits of doing so.

If your heart was broken over the stories of pain so many spouses face, one of the things you can do in response is to raise the bar for what is considered acceptable behavior. Your marriage—how you treat your spouse, talk about your spouse, cherish your spouse—can actually change the climate of many other homes. You can bless other husbands and wives. You can make life so much more pleasant and feel so much more secure for so many children (other than your own).


Personal witness and transformation is the Christian model for societal change. Paul says “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He told Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely and to persevere in them so that everyone could see his progress—and so that others could be saved (1 Tim. 4:15-16).

High ideals need fleshly models. Gregory the Great wrote “Almighty God [gives us] examples, so that we may more easily hope for everything we believe to be impossible, the more that we hear that others have already accomplished it.”

Is a cherishing marriage possible? You can show others that it is. And when you do, others will take notice and perhaps be convicted. When a husband cherishes his wife he raises the bar for other men who are entrenched in their selfishness and apathy. Christian husbands who treat their wives like Eve, the only woman in the world, challenge men to see that simply not lusting at other women isn’t enough; on the contrary, in a cherishing marriage we look at our wives in a cherishing way, truly seeing them (they are never invisible to us) and searching them out, celebrating their beauty. Such a wife feels pursued, adored, valued, and affirmed.

When wives cherish their husbands other wives will see that laughter gained at a husband’s expense costs too much. Such a wife can challenge other women with the rare satisfaction that she enjoys in her marriage (because cherishing leads to increased satisfaction). She can raise the bar for how a woman looks at, touches, treats and talks about her husband.

I’ve had so many goals in life: wanting to publish a book, finish a marathon, and many others. One that I am now determined to chase is that my wife will know, in the bottom of her heart, that I cherish her. Perhaps our marriage could kick-start other marriages that have grown a little cold or tired or selfish.

Will you and your spouse make a commitment to pursue a cherishing marriage? Some of you may have to start unilaterally—your spouse may not “awaken” toward you until you start cherishing them on your own. It may take some time. But you can part of those who seek to raise the bar of what is possible in marriage. Not only will you be blessed by doing so (because a cherishing marriage is much more pleasant to be part of), but you can inspire other couples around you. You can set a higher bar for your own children.

You see, I believe a cherishing marriage can be learned and chosen. A person might “fall in love” but they have to choose to cherish. There are attitudes we can adopt and habits we can practice that groom our minds and hearts to cherish our spouse. It’s something God wants for us and if we will just look to Him and His wisdom, He’ll empower us and guide us and help us to get there.

Let’s not stop at “I don’t abuse my spouse.” Let’s pursue, “I want to cherish my spouse.”

My book on cherishing your spouse will be released in just a few weeks now. You can pre-order it here, and get a lot of free stuff thrown in as well (including the first three chapters, immediately):Cherish

Imagine if men ordered this book for themselves and their wives and said, “I want to build a cherishing marriage in 2017. I want you to feel even more cherished by the time 2018 rolls around.” Husbands, how do you think that would make your wives feel?

What if women decided to study together how to cherish husbands who stumble in so many ways? What if they said, “Being negative and complaining hasn’t gotten us anywhere. Let’s see what happens when we choose to follow through on our promise to cherish our husbands”?

Early reviewers have told me that they believe this book delivers on its promise. I hope you will give it a chance.

And just to cut off potential criticism before it gets to the comments: I have a chapter in this book that says spectacular advice for some can be spectacularly bad advice for others. I am not calling wives who are married to husbands they should separate from to cherish their abusers. If, however, you are convinced God wants you to stay in a difficult marriage—as should be true for the vast majority of us—cherishing is a tool and an effective strategy to make whatever marriage we have even better.

This blog is not written for women in abusive marriages. The advice offered in these posts will challenge both husbands and wives, but the advice could be counter-productive if it is applied in an abusive relationship.

November 20, 2019

Walk Away in Ministry

Gary Thomas — 

When we started the “Walk Away” series, we highlighted the 41 citations in the Gospels where Jesus walked away from someone or let someone walk away from him. Last week, we looked at numerous examples from the life of Paul.

This week we’re picking up another deleted (for space) chapter excerpt from When to Walk Away to explore how the other apostles took the example and words of Jesus to heart, and how later, throughout church history, leaders have sought to apply them.

Let’s begin with the scathing words of Peter who calls out the toxic people who preyed on the early followers of Christ. He begins by warning his readers “there will be false teachers among you.”[1] And he’s not worried about hurting those feelings: “They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done.”[2]  He even refers to them as “blots” and “blemishes” (v. 13).

It’s particularly interesting that in Peter’s view, these toxic teachers were once “among them”: “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.”[3]

What this tells us, for our purposes, is that the organized church isn’t always a safe refuge from toxic people. But we knew that already, didn’t we?

Even John, the “apostle of love,” warned Gaius and an entire church to watch out for a specific toxic individual: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us.”[4]

According to Irenaeus, who was discipled by Polycarp (and who, in turn was discipled by none other than the apostle John himself), John so opposed another toxic person, Cerinthus, that if Cerinthus walked into a bathhouse, John ran out. He didn’t even want to be seen to be in the same place. Polycarp said John shouted, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!”

Jesus, Paul, Peter and John all understood the concept of a toxic opponent and they all, accordingly, talked about walking (or even running) away.

Following the In the Footsteps of the Apostles

Richard Baxter, a beloved Puritan pastor from the seventeenth century, warned young pastors that when it comes to toxic people, “Your first responsibility is to preserve the church from such people.” Notice, it’s not to “save” the toxic person. It’s to protect the other people from the toxic person’s corruption. He seems to think that “converting” them is a lost cause: “If you try to correct them of their false ways, they will only turn to some other error.”

When I’ve seen ministries try to accommodate toxicity rather than confront it, the head woman or man usually goes. The situation becomes so messy and chaotic that the leader feels she or he has to assume responsibility and resign. Toxic people will murder their boss’ jobs if they’re not dealt with. Baxter understood this: “When a fire is kindled, try to stamp it out from its inception. Do not even allow the smallest spark to blaze before you snuff it out. So go at once to all persons that you suspect of being infected. Counsel with them until you are sure that they have recovered from their bad spirit.”

This is Baxter’s way of saying to walk away from the toxic person, and then invest your time in the reliable people. Spend more time caring for the infected than the infector.

Baxter also suggests, as we have, to not make it a personal vendetta against the toxic people. That just riles them up. “See that you do not preach against them from the pulpit. It is wise not to name them specifically…in general such people will be sensitive, proud, passionate, and rash. They will hate and fly upon you as an enemy and accuse you of un-Christian railing. So instead of naming them, state clearly those truths which fully refute the errors they are teaching. If you do your work effectively, the error will collapse under its own weight.”

Baxter’s final words on the subject are the most difficult to apply. The best way to demonstrate the toxicity of toxic people is to pursue and model the holiness of God ourselves. Instead of becoming fixated on how evil they are, we must set our hearts on who Christ is in us: “Be loath to let the dividers outdo you in the practice of a righteous and holy life, any more than you let them outdo you in sound, diligent teaching. Let us be lovers of all, and especially of all saints. Do good to all as we have power. Let us be more just than they, more merciful, humbler, meeker, and more patient. ‘For this is the will of God that by well-doing we may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men’ (1 Peter 2:15).”

You’re Just One Among Many

When it comes to ministry, I’ve been in maybe a dozen situations in various ministries with people I’d call truly toxic. If you can think of a hundred such people, you might be defining “toxic” too broadly. Toxic doesn’t mean merely “difficult” and it certainly doesn’t mean “different.” Toxic is a mean, anti-God (though they may claim to be God’s), controlling and murderous kind of spirit of someone who wants to hurt you and bring you down.

Following my blogpost “Enough is Enough,” a male-oriented blog launched an attack (I actually got attacked from both sides on that one, but that’s another story for another day) where I was likened to female genitalia, ridiculed for being bald (which proves, in their minds, that something is wrong with my head), and even had my sexual orientation questioned. That kind of language—even if their point was correct—has no place in God’s Kingdom, and we can pretty much drown out such drivel without feeling like we need to engage with it.

I fared much better with a more recent toxic person I faced than I did with the prior ones because I was more experienced and had better counsel. In the latter case, two wise brothers told me, “Gary, do not engage him.” This guy was clearly enthralled with everything Paul and Peter tell Christians to shun: anger, rage, slander, malice, filthy language and lying (Colossians 3:8ff.; Ephesians 4:31; 1 Peter 2:1).  

If you’re a leader, you should take action against the toxic person and thus must engage him or her. But if the authority above you doesn’t and it’s not your place to correct it (and if your advice wouldn’t be welcomed), you’re going to have to work around it. Only engage the toxic person when you must and to the extent you must. Keep it professional and pray that God would open the leader’s eyes to the vortex of chaos the toxic person is spreading in the office.

For me, my best defense was praying for the toxic people. It’s what Jesus calls us to do: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”[5] I prayed that God would convict them. I prayed that they would be so overwhelmed with God’s presence that they’d thirst after love and grace instead of anger and malice. I also prayed that they’d learn how much more satisfying it is to encourage, serve and build up instead of gossip, demean, and tear down. We should all pray for more workers! Jesus asks us to (Luke 10:12). Even better than seeing a toxic person defeated, humiliated and dismantled is to see them transformed into a loving servant of Christ. For the Kingdom’s sake we should hope for one more faithful worker rather than one less enemy.

I’m not advocating that we hate toxic people or stop caring about their souls. Stepping away from them is a strategy, not an act of spite. Walking away isn’t the same as “writing off.” 

I have also prayed, on behalf of the ministries involved, that if the toxic person’s soul remained resistant, God would open up the leader’s eyes to what’s really going on and, for the sake of the work, remove the toxic offender. That’s not a selfish prayer, because if they are attacking you, I guarantee you they’re attacking others. So feel free to pray for the toxic person, “God, please change their heart or change their platform.”

Remember, Paul expressed a rather shocking “wish” for one toxic group when he told the Galatians, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”[6] There comes a moment when being “nice” to the toxic people is to be cruel to their victims. It’s not gossip or mean-spiritedness to actively warn potential victims that they are being preyed upon.

Here’s what you need to know about the psychology and spirituality of toxic people: they like conflict. It feeds them. And they have a voracious appetite for it. Sin rots the fruit of the Spirit, including self-control. Toxic people feed off increasing conflict, causing more trouble, and attacking more victims. They get a taste and become more rabid. They live for division in the same way a true believer delights in peace.

Engaging them only riles them up and puts their focus on you. What I’ve found is that when you stop playing along, when you’re willing to walk away, they have to find another victim. They can’t stop being toxic, so they’ll find someone else to engage. I guarantee you this: if you’re being assaulted by a toxic person, you are not the first victim. There are probably dozens. One woman who I had to block on Twitter bragged on Facebook about how many ministries and “well-known” Christians had blocked her. It was a point of pride to her.

It might sound selfish to suggest that you should let them go attack someone else, but the fact that they are attacking others isn’t your fault. You’re not forcing them to attack, and it’s not like they’ll stop attacking others if they can also attack you. It doesn’t work that way. You might merely serve as their dessert. By walking away, you’re just being faithful and focused on fulfilling the important work God has called you to do. And it’s just possible that your walking away may be one way they learn they have to eventually change their ways. Allender and Longman counsel, “One of the greatest gifts one can give a person inclined to evil is the strength to frustrate their attempts to dominate.”

As far as it depends on you, don’t let toxicity succeed. Confront it when you can if you’re the leader. Walk away when you must. But don’t let it take you down. The more you understand the psychology and spiritual bent of a toxic person, the quicker you’ll be to disengage and, by your silence, let them move on to someone else. Just like Jesus, Paul, Peter and John, learn how to play defense and walk away.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (2 Pe 2:1). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The New International Version. (2011). (2 Pe 2:12–13). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] The New International Version. (2011). (2 Pe 2:21). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The New International Version. (2011). (3 Jn 9–10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The New International Version. (2011). (Lk 6:28). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] The New International Version. (2011). (Ga 5:12). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

March 27, 2019

The Ongoing Sin of Divorce

Gary Thomas — 

Heather married a Christian man who seemed zealous to serve God. He gave generous amounts of money to God’s work and even dreamed of eventually doing a reverse tithe—giving away ninety percent of his income and keeping ten percent for himself.

Today he’s still involved in missions work, still gives away a lot of money, but he sins against God in a particularly painful way every single day of his life. I don’t think he realizes it, but he does.

You see, he had an affair fifteen years ago, divorced Heather, and married the woman with whom he had the affair. Over a decade later, he and his new wife look like a model Christian couple and command a lot of respect, at least from humans. No one wants to judge them because the divorce happened so long ago.

From God’s perspective, things might look a little different.

Heather lives in a modest apartment and now must keep working well into her sixties. Understandably wary because she thought she already had married a “solid Christian man,” she has lost confidence in dating guys that seem fine on the outside because who knows what’s within?

Every day that she is alone in that apartment the sin of divorce hits her afresh. Every day she has to keep working into her sixties, the sin of divorce is renewed. Every day she tries to navigate the pain of adult children who have to “split” time between their parents—meaning she sees them about half as much as she otherwise might—the sin of divorce keeps hurting.

Heather is God’s daughter. Do you think God looks at what has happened and keeps happening to his daughter on a daily basis without anger? This is not to suggest that divorced women are helpless, weak, or unable to fend for themselves. Many do quite well for themselves and even thrive. In other instances, however, divorce can essentially create a “social widow” who becomes newly vulnerable. Her financial options are limited. Her ability to remarry may be compromised.

In the cases of these “social widows,” ex-husbands should take note: according to Scripture there are two demographic groups you don’t want to mess with or oppress, and one of those groups is widows. “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.  If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.  My anger will be aroused…” (Ex. 22:22-24a)

When a divorced woman, a social widow, cries out to God, “He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice” (Deut. 10:18).

Society has changed quite a bit in the past four thousand years, often for the better, so not all women feel so vulnerable in the face of divorce. But God isn’t just about his daughters surviving; he wants them to thrive and anyone who stands in the way of his plans can expect appropriate discipline and opposition.

Men, when we marry a woman when she is at her youngest, strongest, and healthiest, and then pursue a divorce because we’ve gotten bored with her or think we’ve found someone more compatible, or younger, or any frivolous reason, it’s not one sin. It’s a daily ongoing sin. Every day you leave your ex-wife in less than cherishing circumstances is a day you have reneged on your vows and newly offend not just your Heavenly Father, but your Heavenly Father in Law.

Women, the same is true for you, as you’re married to one of God’s sons. The man may have disappointed you, but he’s still God’s son. He may have earned less than you thought he would or had more baggage than you realized, but there is no unbiblical divorce that’s a single sin; it’s a daily, on-going sin. While the Bible doesn’t have the same verses about widowers as it does about widows, it does paint Christian husbands as “dearly loved” by God and therefore under His watchful eye.

I mention “unbiblical divorce” because I’m not talking about those forced into divorce to flee abuse and behavior that was slowly destroying them. In those cases, divorce is a cure, not a weapon. In my upcoming book When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom From Toxic Relationships my friend Megan Cox describes her divorce from an abusive and unfaithful husband as a “gift from God.” I don’t want this post to add to the hurt divorced women and men already feel when God has given them refuge. This post addresses a particular kind of divorce, when divorce is used as a weapon instead of a cure.

It’s like chemotherapy: I hate that anyone has to undergo such drastic treatment, but I thank God for the lives chemotherapy has lengthened. It would be the height of cruelty, however, to give chemotherapy to someone who didn’t have cancer and who didn’t need it. Divorce is just like that: terrible, but sometimes necessary, and outright reprehensible if used when not needed.

We live in a culture of binary thinking—when I challenge divorce, I’m going to get pushback from those who feel I’m challenging them because of their own divorce. I’m not. I’ve spoken plenty about the church standing up for women in abusive marriages, in my books and several blog posts such as Enough is Enough. But sometimes, to be honest, anti-abuse advocates are so (understandably) sensitive about defending divorced women they become angry when I mention that most divorces are still a sin, as if I’m judging them. I’m not.

What I am saying here is that unbiblical divorce isn’t just a sin—it’s an ongoing sin. It’s the difference between an unmarried couple that gives into passion one night and has sex and the couple that decides to live together. Spiritually speaking, those are two different situations. Divorce is like the latter.

So, just as I advocated for those who have needed to find refuge in divorce, let’s remember that unbiblical divorce isn’t without consequences. I hate seeing women (and some men) left lonely and aching while some other spouse has “moved on” and finds full acceptance and respect without honestly considering not just the harm they’ve done, but the harm they keep on doing.

Ann Wilson, co-author with her husband of The Vertical Marriage, mentions several conversations with people who got divorced rather young, remarried, and now, looking back, realize they could have and should have made the first marriage work. They were just frustrated and disappointed, and the second marriage convinced them that no marriage is easy. We need to find a way to gently encourage such couples to hang in there and make it work. Without shaming abused women to stay in a destructive marriage, we also have to remind couples that the marriage covenant is a serious one that is designed by God to be broken only by death. We’re in a new phase of the church where, in order to avoid appearing judgmental, we may be becoming too lax and too “tolerant” of divorce for reasons that could and should be fixed. This grieves the heart of God and makes us weaker people while creating a weaker church and hurting children who grow up in broken homes.

So what if you’re that guy or that woman, who divorced your spouse when you know you shouldn’t have? If reconciliation is possible (i.e., if remarriage hasn’t occurred), you work your way back, as much as your ex is willing. If they’re not, you wait. How long? I can’t answer that in this blog, but any responsible answer is measured in years, not months (again, I’m not talking about those who escaped abusive marriage or sexually unfaithful marriages when it might be unwise and unsafe to ever return).

Men, if remarriage isn’t possible, I believe you owe it to your ex to make sure you’re not living better than she is. If someone has a bigger house (or a house instead of an apartment), it should be her. If someone drives a newer car, it should be her. If one of you has to keep working later in life, it should be you. You made a pledge that was between you, your wife, and God. The state’s legal dissolution doesn’t negate a covenant made in the sight of God. Repentance isn’t just about feeling sorry; it involves making things right, as much as it is in your power to do so.

I still stand by my blog post “Enough is Enough,” on not shaming women to stay in abusive marriages. In rare circumstances divorce can be a cure, but far more often it is used as a weapon without considering the ongoing sin that such a divorce represents. As people who made our pledge before a God whose memory is long and whose passion for his children is fierce, let’s live our lives accordingly.

February 20, 2018

Why are Christians so Mean?

Gary Thomas — 


Dallas Willard was once asked, “Why are Christians so mean?”

His answer was up to the task. He said that Christians are mean in proportion to when they value being “right” over being “like Christ.”

It’s not enough to simply believe correct doctrine; as God’s chosen people, we are asked to behave a certain way, particularly as it relates to others: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:12-14).

The book of Romans also sets up a high standard for believers, telling us to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (12:10), “never be wise in your own sight” (12:16) and keep in mind that “love does no harm to its neighbor” (13:10).  No harm. To anyone. So, in our relations with anyone we are to be devoted to their overall welfare, to not be overly confident in our opinion, and to never do anyone any harm. There’s no room here for any “Bible believing” Christian to be mean.

What a different world this would be if, indeed, we were “devoted” to everyone’s welfare, if we were humble in our own opinions, and committed to not do anyone harm—no gossip, no mean-spirited denunciation, no slander. Doesn’t that sound like a nice world to live in?

The new life of believers envisioned by Paul in Colossians 3 basically prohibits three things: sexual immorality, greed, and being mean. Sexual immorality is denounced in many ways and greed with one word: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed…” (v. 5)

This denunciation of sexual misconduct is perhaps what the modern church is known for. But in Paul’s way of thinking, we should also be known for not being mean. Being mean is denounced as extensively and vigorously as sexual sin: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (v. 8).

Put all this together, and Christians aren’t to be involved in any form of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or sexual immorality of any kind, but we are also to shun any aspect of being “mean”: domestic violence, emotional abuse, bosses mistreating subordinates, bullying or ridiculing gays, violent rioting, and social media trolling. Just as the #metoo movement is challenging the notion that “authority” gives someone the right to be predatory, so the Bible teaches us that “right theology” doesn’t give us the right to mistreat others even when we think we are in the “right” and they are in the wrong.

Consider the life Paul calls us to in 1 Corinthians 13, a life of love. Love is patient when others mess up. Love is kind. Love isn’t rude or easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love always protects. There’s no attack in love.

If you are arrogant, harsh, impatient, unkind, and judgmental instead of compassionate, patient and gentle, you are not acting as one of “God’s chosen people” regardless of how many graduate degrees you have, how many Bible verses you know, how many books you have published, how big your church, organization, or social media impact is or even how well you control yourself sexually. It doesn’t even matter if you are “right” on the issue if you are acting in a wrong manner. You’re adding to the overall problem rather than being part of the solution.

One of the greatest temptations to be mean, of course, is when we catch someone else in a sin. We’ve all read of the Pharisees who caught a woman in the act of adultery (obviously and discriminatorily letting the man go!) and demanded she be publicly shamed, which Jesus refused to do. The Pharisees were right in thinking adultery is wrong; they were wrong in that they were acting in a mean instead of a redemptive way. This mob mentality currently has the Internet on its side, so public shaming can now be national and even international.

Anger over a sin is appropriate. A group of believers saying “Enough is enough, this kind of behavior can’t be tolerated anymore” is doing the Lord’s work. That’s what societal change is all about! God hates sin, and so should we. There’s a time and place to repudiate evil acts. But the way we talk about individual sinners, especially when we don’t know the full story, is the portal to us being lured into sin by adopting a mean-spirited response to sin.

There’s a fascinating reality about the way Jesus touched lepers. People were astonished that he could touch them without becoming leprous himself. Can we touch hateful people without becoming hate-filled? Can we stand against abuse without becoming abusive? We never feel more justified doing evil than when we are self-righteously confronting evil. Remember, it’s not just about being “right.” It’s about responding like Christ.

There is a group of people I would love to work with, support, and publicize because I believe in their cause. But their bullying behavior makes it impossible for me to join them. They carry the right message—a minority message, unfortunately, that needs to be heard—but simply changing who you bully doesn’t mean you’re not a bully, and I can’t join that. Methods matter.

This aversion to the growing meanness I see all around me (from both liberals and conservatives) explains why, if you look through my Twitter and Facebook feed, I doubt you’ll find me denouncing a single person (I’m leaving a tiny door open in case I’ve forgotten something from years ago). For starters, I usually don’t know the people I’m called to denounce and I don’t know the facts. And secondly, the people I do know who are caught in a sin I will treat according to Galatians 6:1: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.

Arrogance moves us to want to be heard rather than to be helpful. Pride makes us want to feel like we are on the “right side” while humility wants us to serve as God’s voice of healing to those who are on the wrong side. Self-righteousness gathers around common hatred and judgement of the fallen; grace gathers sinners together around the foot of the cross. Does what I say publically or privately help bring someone back, or does it push them further down? I’m grateful that God has and still does win me over with the kindness that leads me to repentance (Romans 2:4) and figure I should have the same attitude toward others.

What holds me back from commenting about individuals on Twitter, Facebook, and this blog is the awareness that I may be wrong. I may not have all the facts. When I don’t know the particular individual or situation or wasn’t there, I’m more likely to be wrong than right. And my uninformed opinion really shouldn’t matter to anyone, least of all myself.

This isn’t to challenge the courage of someone like Rachel Denhollander whose courageous speaking up finally brought an end to gross, evil abuse. Her testimony wasn’t mean—it was necessary and beautiful. I understand the concern some have that “silence is complicity” and if speaking up stops evil rather than just piles onto the evildoer, it’s a holy charge. The challenge today is that, with social media awareness, if I denounced every evil act in politics and the church, that’s all I’d be doing. And why some people get singled out and others don’t is a mystery to me.

John the Baptist righteously called out Herod. But he’s not writing this blog and you usually won’t find such a message here. You won’t find me addressing the “scandal of the week” as it pertains to Christian leaders or politicians. This blog will urge each of us to individually examine our own hearts. 

Remember: the same Bible that discounts sexual immorality also discounts meanness. Let’s be consistent. No hateful speech toward anyone, Christian or non-Christian, the “pure” or the fallen. Challenge misbehavior, but realize that God specializes in redeeming people who have misbehaved.

The people of God are to be different, in every way. Not just in our sexuality, but in our speech, in our temperament and manner, and in our love of grace and mercy. Let us be truly devoted to each other’s welfare, not overly wise in our own sight, and committed to doing no harm to anyone.

Let’s be different. Let’s not be mean.

[Note: I owe a big debt to a fellow writer/blogger who graciously gave much time to help me hone this message. I don’t want to mention her name because I’m not entirely sure she fully agrees with everything I say here and thus don’t want to embarrass her, but S., before God, thank you for being such a precious sister in Christ and courageous leader in God’s church.]

Many marital problems arise not because of an issue between a specific couple— say, Jack and Jill or Larry and Sherry— but because of a breakdown in understanding between a male and a female. In the next three posts, I hope to offer wives some insight into the intricacies of the male mind so you’ll learn how to better communicate and live with your husband. But there will be plenty of helpful information for husbands to understand themselves, so men, please stick around!

The last several decades of neuroscience have demonstrated that well before a baby comes into this world, while it remains safely tucked inside the mother’s womb, the brain of a male baby gets bombarded with testosterone, while a female baby receives greater quantities of female hormones. Between the third and sixth month of that unborn baby’s life, hormones begin to shape the tiny brain, influencing how that individual will interact with the world. Yes, males receive some female hormones, and females receive some testosterone, but the quantities of these hormones (males have up to twenty times more testosterone than females; females tend to have much more oxytocin than males) will stamp that child’s brain by the sixth month of pregnancy—three months before any mother or father has a chance to “socialize” it.

Admittedly, there exist what neuroscientists call “bridge brain” males and “bridge brain” females. Our tendency toward masculine or feminine brains occurs on a continuum, resulting in various degrees of stamping. But even here, a “bridge brain” male will have more testosterone than a “bridge brain” female.

The male brain therefore functions much differently than the female brain. Dr. Louann Brizendine, who studied at Yale and Harvard and is now on the faculty of UCSF Medical Center, states, “The vast new body of brain science together with the work I’ve done with my male patients has convinced me that through every phase of life, the unique brain structures and hormones of boys and men create a male reality that is fundamentally different from the female one and all too frequently oversimplified and misunderstood.”

While our brains are more “plastic” (that is, moldable) than we used to think and therefore susceptible to socialization, according to Dr. Brizendine, “male and female brains are different from the moment of conception.” Since brains develop by degrees, stereotyping can lead us astray, but certain things tend to be true. For example, male brains usually have less serotonin than female brains. Since serotonin calms people down, men are more likely to act explosively and compulsively. Surprised? Probably not.  (Of course, as I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, this doesn’t excuse or diminish abusive behavior by a husband. I’ve addressed this here: “Taking Non-Physical Marital Abuse More Seriously, here: “God Hates Domestic Violence” and here: “Enough is Enough”, among other places.)

Here’s another example. Men also have less oxytocin in their brains. Oxytocin has been called the “cuddle chemical” as well as the primary generator of the “tend- and- befriend” instinct. In general, the more oxytocin someone has, the less aggressive he or she is likely to be. On the positive side, more oxytocin usually means more empathy, making the person more likely to notice how you’re feeling and more likely to inquire about it.

Why is your husband less likely to tune in to your emotional pain and verbalize his concern than, say, your sister or your best friend? His brain doesn’t work the same way a female brain does; it just doesn’t occur to him to connect his affection with verbal inquiry. The “mirror- neuron system” of your husband’s brain, which Dr. Brizendine calls the “ ‘I feel what you feel’ emotional empathy system”— the system that helps a person get “in sync with others’ emotions by reading facial expressions and interpreting tone of voice and other emotional cues”— “is larger and more active in the female brain.”

Remember, this is true not only of your husband in particular; it’s true of men in general. Be careful that you don’t fault or resent your husband for being a man!

If you want to motivate your husband and communicate with him, as well as enjoy a fulfilling marriage with him and raise healthy kids with him, stop expecting him to act or think like a woman. He can’t do that. Nor should he.  I’m not saying empathy doesn’t matter. As I write in Cherish, “Emotional abuse is also the withholding of love, encouragement, and support. It can be a sin of deprivation every bit as much as a sin of commission.” But as you’ll see in the next post, the way a man expresses empathy can be different than the way a woman often expresses it.

Rid yourself of every tactic and skill you use in talking to your sisters, best friends, and mother, and realize that a man’s mind functions very differently. Some similarities exist, of course, so a few things will interrelate. But if you expect him to talk to you like your lifelong best friend does or your sister does or your mother does, and evaluate him on that basis, you’re being unfair. And you’re going to be disappointed.

This post is all about understanding that your husband is biologically wired to relate to you differently than you relate to him or your female friends. Influence begins with understanding, and in the next two posts, we’ll seek to delve into how you can make this work in your marriage’s favor.

If you want that information sooner, this post is adapted from my most recent book Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband. Loving Him Well is a substantial rewrite of Sacred Influence, with about fifty percent of it being completely new. I’ve worked with many more couples over the last decade-plus that Sacred Influence has been out. For instance, there’s an entire chapter helping the church deal more appropriately with abusive marriages (though the book isn’t written for women in abusive marriages). Due to my own ignorance and lack of experience, I wasn’t sensitive enough to that issue when Sacred Influence first came out. And whereas Sacred Influence had a few paragraphs about wives dealing with porn-watching husbands, there’s now an entire chapter (in fact, now the longest chapter in the book) devoted to that subject. High speed Internet access has changed everything in this regard over the past decade and a couple paragraphs will no longer suffice.

I didn’t recommend any one buy revised editions of Sacred Marriage, Sacred Parenting or Sacred Pathways if they already had the originals, as these were rather light glosses, mostly tightening things up, clarifying a bit, and updating cultural references. But Loving Him Well is more than a rewrite—it’s a substantially different book (with about half the content being the same as its predecessor, however).

You can check it out here:

“You know, your prayers are pretty shallow. Why don’t you pray a real prayer?”

The young man was reeling—was she really going to leave him because his prayers weren’t “good enough?”

“Why are you in this lane? Why are you going so slow? Don’t you think we should have taken the other highway?”

I read a book by an author where the wife was so contentious early in their marriage that my heart just sank. Decades of working with couples has demonstrated to me the damage a critical spirit can unleash in any marriage. In a wedding, you’re proclaiming that your spouse is so excellent you choose him or her above all others. It’s an astonishing declaration of a person’s worth. But from that day forward, some husbands and wives spend the rest of their days trying to “fix” everything that they find displeasing in their spouse, proclaiming to their spouse and the world (whether they realize it or not) that for all practical purposes they entered into a “mercy marriage” with someone they felt sorry for who just needed their help.

Lots and lots of help.    

Ten years later, the husband described an ongoing issue in his life that would be troublesome for any wife, and the wife responded with such grace and prophetic (I don’t use that word lightly) truth that I was blown away. She got an A+ as a wife that day; such love and truth-telling mixed with grace and hope. It was amazing.

I took two lessons away from the story of that marriage:

First, spouses can grow. The undercutting spouse who gives himself or herself to the Lord can, a decade later, be a prophetically inspirational, encouraging spouse. Because of Jesus and the promised Holy Spirit, we don’t have to remain trapped in destructive behaviors and attitudes that bring misery to ourselves and others. This wife had earnestly pursued a passionate devotion to Jesus and a life of prayer, and it showed. I’m sure the change wasn’t overnight, but even in the context of a decade, it was dramatic. The wife got very serious about connecting with God, and that helped her reconnect with her husband.

Which means you can have justifiable hope even if you begin noticing some less than pleasant attributes in your spouse after the wedding. Just know that it may not be a marriage book you need as much as a book on spiritual growth. As we draw nearer to Jesus and mature in Him, our marriages will benefit accordingly, as this one did. Find a church that your spouse can enthusiastically participate in. Read good books together. Encourage every step your spouse takes toward Christ.

Second, witnessing the same wife display destructive behavior and supernaturally kind behavior reminded me that even the most excellent of spouses have their weaknesses, and even the weakest of spouses have their strengths. The only one who can love us perfectly is God. Nobody gets to marry the fourth member of the Trinity because that person doesn’t exist. I know your spouse “stumbles in many ways” because the Bible tells me that (c.f. James 3:2).

When a spouse stumbles, we tend to define our spouse by that stumbling; all we see is whether they are still stumbling in that way. But every spouse is stumbling in some (in fact, many) ways. If your spouse stops stumbling in one particular area, all that will do is free you up to see how they are stumbling in a different area.

When we recognize that marriage is the joining of two sinful people serving one perfect Savior, we can maintain a healthier perspective. We won’t let the stumbling blind us to the evidences of God’s healing grace. Every spouse has strengths and weaknesses, and every Christian spouse still pursuing God is growing. We live in a fallen world, but God’s redeeming touch can reach into every crevice and every soul to display the fruit of His Spirit.

In other words, a Christian worldview helps us be thankful for an unfinished product as we trust in the “author and perfecter of our [and our spouse’s] faith” (Heb. 12:2).  We need the same perspective for our spouse that Paul had for the Philippians: “I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

So keep your head up. As a Christian, your marriage can get better, especially if you and your spouse commit yourselves first to the Lord, and then to each other. And the fact that you still have something you and your spouse are working on and trying to work out doesn’t mean you married the wrong person; it just means you got married. Every marriage requires this kind of spiritual and relational work.

Emily is a gifted interior design artist. After the birth of her third child and her decision to homeschool her children, she decided to sell off all her design books, close the business bank account, and focus on her family.

When Chip and Joanna Gaines became household names, Emily and her husband Doran watched Fixer Upper religiously. Emily began missing the life she had left behind. She told Doran one evening, “I have this dream: when the kids are older and I can get back into interior design, I want to start a company called Woods Design House” (Woods is their last name).

Doran listened attentively but soon redirected the conversation. He’s tech savvy, so following the date he went online, found that the website for that name was open, bought it, and even designed a rudimentary site. He also went on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest) to find “handles” compatible with Woods Design House.

“I captured Woods Design House everywhere I could,” Doran told me.

On their next anniversary, Doran brought up Emily’s dream. He wondered aloud whether the website would even be available, so he said, “Why don’t I check?”

After opening the search engine on his phone he said, “Oh, I guess somebody already owns it…”—pregnant pause—“we do” and he showed her his phone.

There wasn’t a better gift Doran could have given to his wife that year.

The plan was that they could sit on the website and social media handles for years until the kids were fully grown or at least done with homeschooling, but when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017 and thousands of homes flooded and needed to be rebuilt, Emily agreed to do one house as a favor for a friend at church. Word got out and the demand became so intense the business started before they became empty nesters, but I like the principle: a husband appreciates the sacrifice his wife is making while the kids are young and plans for the day when he can help make her original dreams come true.

We need to think seriously about how to prepare for and enjoy the “second half of marriage” because life is much different for us than it was for our great-great-grandparents. In 1900, life expectancy at birth in the United States was just forty-seven years old. Most people felt blessed to live long enough to even become empty nesters, much less enjoy several decades as empty nesters. Today (2020), a child born in the United States can be expected to live about seventy-eight years.

This exploding lifespan gives married couples a chance at two lives, one of which their ancestors could only have dreamed of: a life spent raising children, and a life spent after the children are raised. How do we prepare for this second half of marriage?

Two Childhoods

Expanding lifespans means many of us not only will see our children become parents, but we can watch our grandchildren become parents. We get to live through parenting twice. Grandparents can play a significant role in a child’s life; because we don’t have to (and shouldn’t try to) do the discipline and training, we can be the encouragers, the cheerleaders, even the fun oasis in a life of disappointment and expectations.

Doug and Julie have been retired for some years and moved to Florida to be near Doug’s aging parents. After both his parents passed, they found out their son and daughter-in-law (and just as importantly, their first grandchild) were moving to Boston. Guess where Doug and Julie packed up to move during the quarantine?  

Young families often feel like they are under assault today; supportive grandparents can be a lifeline. While it may take some relocating and life organizing to stay close to our grandchildren, some of the happiest empty nesters I know are the ones who have doubled down on this role. Laura and Curt have made Valentine’s Day an annual ritual where each one of their children get to go out on a romantic date while Laura and Curt set up a special Valentine’s Day evening for all the cousins. Skip passes on his love of reading by taking two of his grandchildren to Barnes and Noble every Sunday afternoon. He pays for the books, a small price for a lifetime memory of sharing a passion with your grandchildren.

Just about every parent, in retrospect, wishes he or she could have spent more unfettered time with their children. We can get a second chance with grandchildren.

Resurrect Stalled Dreams

As Doran and Emily discovered, some dreams need to be paused as we parent, particularly when the kids are very young. Most young parents I know would pay for more sleep if they could. But when you get to that point where there’s a little more free time, pause to reconsider if it’s time for a “big change.” A few years ago I told Lisa, “You’ve sacrificed so much for this family. Now, whatever you think God is calling you to do, let’s do it. If you want to go back to school; if you want to start a business; if you want to vacation more or get more involved at church, I’ll support whatever you want.”

In our case, Lisa decided she wanted to work more with me. When the kids were young, she travelled with me about ten percent of the time. Now, she’s with me about eighty percent of the time. If it’s a trip to New York or Florida, she’s with me. If it’s a short stop in Winnipeg during the Winter, she’s probably not. But it’s her choice.

Did your husband give up regular rounds of golf? Did your wife put off that trip to Europe? Did the two of you spend your remodel money on college tuition? Now is your chance to take what was paused and move it forward.


Perhaps even more important than what you do with your new time is what you become in your new time. The empty nest years give us an opportunity to reconnect as a couple. I’ve watched a lot of couples go through this and I urge you to make this a top priority. If you don’t choose to move toward each other right away, you may fill up the free time with independent pursuits instead of each other.

Instead of asking, “what can I do with all this free time,” ask “What can we do with the extra time?”

Admittedly, I’m able to work longer hours now but still spend more time with my wife. With just one person to focus on, I’m more aware of how crucial it is for Lisa and me to connect meaningfully at the end of the day. When the kids were young, I’d come home and think, “Okay how’s Graham doing? What’s Kelsey’s up to? Is Allison all right? Amber (our dog) needs to be walked, and Lisa looks a little tired. Better try to help out more.”

Now that it’s just Lisa, I can come home an hour or two later and give her four times the attention. I’ve got to be honest—as a guy with a strong work ethic, it feels great to have more guilt-free hours to work and still have more quality time with my wife.

What Lisa and I have found is that moving toward each other instead of filling up the time with other things has made this time one of the sweetest seasons of our marriage. We loved being active parents and wish we could have raised more (we had three). But we are enjoying the renewed friendship and the renewed freedom to reconnect.

I’d encourage every empty nest couple to discover one or two of your spouse’s natural passions and start joining in. Just try a shared activity, without making a lifelong commitment. If it doesn’t fit, try doing something else you both enjoy together. But make that initial investment—think, “What can we do together?

We read a lot about “gray divorce” (divorce after 50) but much of the cause behind gray divorce stems from the fact that couples have lived as strangers for years. They think they’ve become estranged because there’s something wrong with each other rather than the simple fact that the relationship is starving. It’s often a “software” problem, not a “hardware” problem. Instead of getting a new marriage we can invest the same time and energy into feeding the old one. In the end, that’s the truest road to happiness.

A New Challenge

One of the things Lisa and I have become fond of as empty nesters is international travel. It does something to your marriage when you’re in a completely foreign place you’ve never seen before and you’re dependent on each other. Lisa and I will never forget trying to figure out how to pay for and thus get out of a parking garage in the Netherlands. In the United States, there are red buttons (cancel) and green buttons (enter). Imagine finding yellow and blue buttons surrounded by a foreign language. We eventually got out, obviously, and then lived through my enjoyment of some of the best stew I had ever tasted. It was sold as the town’s signature dish so I thought I’d give it a try. It was so delicious I wondered aloud what was in it and the person sitting next to us (in pre-COVID-19 days the restaurant put you right next to fellow patrons) overheard us talking and asked me, “Do you really want to know?”

Yes, I did.

“Horsemeat,” she replied.

I couldn’t take another bite.

When the kids were young, Lisa and I couldn’t have imagined getting away to other countries. We didn’t have the time or the money. Part of your joint journey might be finding ways to slowly save up for a trip together. If you can afford it, we highly recommend it.

Seek First

More than we think about old dreams or new experiences, however, empty nesters should consider our Lord’s call who tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). Here’s the marriage miracle I’ve seen when couples embrace joint ministry in the second half of marriage: new respect and appreciation for someone you’ve known your entire life.

You think you know all about a person. You’ve been together for three or four decades and it’s easy to assume you’ve got everything figured out; there’s nothing more to share, nothing more to discover, nothing more to talk about. Ministry of any significant kind raises a whole host of other issues; you see a side of yourself and each other that you never knew existed.

The other factor is that the Holy Spirit equips those he calls. If you want to impress your spouse, tell the Lord you’re available to serve him.

Lisa now sometimes joins me when I counsel a premarital couple. After one session, two very serious issues arose. I helped them think through them, and urged them to talk and think about these issues in light of their faith.

As we walked away, Lisa hugged my arm and said, “Huh. You’re pretty good at this!”

Anyone who offers herself or himself to God will find out that when you step out in faith, God gives you words, insight, and caring abilities that you don’t possess on your own. That’s why serving the Lord together can bring new respect, appreciation, and admiration.

My friend Sheila is a Canadian blogger, speaker, and book author. Her husband Keith is a pediatrician who got his dream job at a teaching hospital just three years before they became official empty nesters. As Sheila’s platform grew, they found it difficult to connect relationally.  Keith believes Sheila has a vital and unique ministry, so he quit his “dream job” to go part-time in their hometown, freeing up his schedule to travel with and support Sheila. They came to the conclusion that “we don’t need the money, but we do need the marriage.”

Kevin and Karen Miller write these powerful words about rediscovering joint ministry: “We hunger for this today: cooperating together, meshing, working like a mountain climbing team, ascending the peak of our dream, and then holding each other at the end of the day.  God has planted this hunger deep within every married couple.  It’s more than a hunger for companionship.  It’s more than a hunger to create new life.  It’s a third hunger, a hunger to do something significant together.  According to God’s Word, we were joined to make a difference.  We were married for a mission.”

Being “married for a mission” can revitalize a lot of marriages in which the partners think they suffer from a lack of compatibility; my suspicion is that many of these couples actually suffer from a lack of purpose. Jesus’ words given to individuals is perhaps even truer in marriage: when we give away our life, we find it. When we focus outside our marriage, we end up strengthening our marriage.

The second half of marriage provides a wonderful opportunity to “recalibrate” and rebuild your marriage on the back of shared mission. Whether you seek to become the sports/coaching couple, the Bible study leading couple, the local school mentors couple, or the hiking club couple, using extra time for a divine purpose refuels marriage, passion, appreciation, and fulfillment. It can revolutionize a marriage. You know you can’t “re-create” the initial infatuation you felt thirty-five years ago, but you can create and re-create the even more powerful bond of purpose and spiritual mission.

A woman once told me, “I have found that when my husband and I focus on our own needs, and whether they’re being met, our marriage begins to self-destruct.  But when we are ministering together, we experience, to the greatest extent we’ve known, that ‘the two shall become one.’”

Many Paths

None of these callings are necessarily exclusive. You can resurrect paused dreams, carve out time for grandkids, double down on your work for God’s Kingdom, and still take an occasional trip overseas. But if, while you were reading the above, you felt your heart “spike” at the mention of one of them, go with that first and reach out from there. Read this article together and talk about which point made you spontaneously respond, “We need to do that…”

Because I think God’s work on this planet is paramount, I do hope that every empty nest couple will eventually find their way to the last point, investing their time in a new or more focused mutual ministry. As empty nesters, we can step in where younger parents can’t and end up renewing our own mature marriages even while serving younger marriages.

The danger of using the “empty nest” moniker is that it defines this season of our lives as devoid of something (i.e., “empty”); once our kids are grown, our marriage isn’t just empty of kids; it’s full of promise for a new future. Let’s take advantage of that.

April 23, 2020

A Fruitful Life

Gary Thomas — 

When I start writing a book, I wear the hat of an explorer. I have a general destination in mind, but I don’t always know where I’ll end up until I get there. Sometimes, it’s only until after a book is finished and I start regularly teaching on it that I finally understand the implications of where I tried to point readers to.

Such was the case when I wrote When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. While I briefly mentioned how important it is to live a “fruitful” life in the book, as I’ve taught on it in live sessions and sermons, I’ve emphasized this issue a whole lot more. One of the primary (though not the only) reason we need to feel free to walk away from toxic people isn’t just because they bug us, abuse us, discourage us, or hurt us (though those can be good reasons). It’s also because they keep us from doing what we are called to do: bear fruit. And bearing fruit is what we were saved to do.  

I grew up in a Christian tradition where “being holy” meant not doing a lot of bad things. The mind change we need is that being holy isn’t primarily about not doing sinful things; it’s about being set apart for glorious eternal things. Jesus said, ““My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). He didn’t say God is glorified when I manage to not do the sinful things that many others do, but rather when I am faithful to do the holy and good works God has created me to do.

As a boy, I was terrified of being cut off by “sinning away” my faith. Ironically, when Jesus talks about something being “cut off” it’s not because of what someone did, but because of what they didn’t do: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” John 15:1-2

A similar sentiment of Jesus’ can be found in his famous Sermon on the Mount: “So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 7:19) I thought the “fire” was reserved for those who said bad words, looked at bad movies, took bad drugs, or did bad things. No one that I can remember ever told me that Jesus’ anger is aroused when we fail to produce good fruit.

The need to create and preserve a fruitful life becomes passionately important when we read of Jesus’ plaintive request for his disciples to pray to the Lord of the Harvest for more workers (Luke 10:2). Why? Obviously, because there aren’t enough! There will be never be enough. Which means all of us who do consider ourselves to be workers need to make the best use of our time, making every minute count. Instead of “spinning our wheels” with toxic people who will never be pleased and never be helped, we can walk away to a situation where God has prepared a person’s heart for a rich harvest.

If we value fruitfulness as much as Jesus does, then all of us—literally, all of us—will need to be more intentional about cutting some less than fruitful encounters and relationships out of our lives from time to time.

It’s not that we don’t want to be bothered; as Christians, we live to be bothered! It’s rather about taking yourself and your calling more seriously. If someone is making you less fruitful than God calls you to be, walk away. That’s what Jesus did, and it’s what we should do.

You were saved for a mission

When Jesus spoke the famous words of Matthew 6:33—“Seek first the Kingdom of God,” he wasn’t talking to people who were paid to do Christian work. He was speaking to farmers, parents, grandparents, carpenters, laborers. He was telling some very seemingly insignificant people that they could and should live a life of profound eternal significance.

In one of his final addresses to his disciples before His ascension to the Father, Jesus helped them understand one of the best ways to seek first God’s Kingdom: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). This is an explicit commandment to find people who are willing to learn what it means to live a life of obedience to God. If someone doesn’t want to live such a life, they can’t become a disciple.

This was the clear message of the early church following Jesus’ ascension. The apostle Paul mirrored Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount with this sentence in his letter to the Corinthians: “Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Christ didn’t die just to save us from our sins, but to save us from lives without purpose or passion, self-centered lives of no account.

Paul’s “great commission” that so closely resembles the language of Jesus prior to his ascension can be found in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”

Jesus and Paul agree: the focus of Christianity isn’t on not doing bad things; the focus is on investing in good people. Christianity is an endless, persistent and sacrificial pursuit of investing in reliable people

By extension, we are not called to invest in unreliable or toxic people. Instead we should be investing in people who are willing to obey everything Jesus commands.

Here’s the rubric through which you understand whether you need to walk away: what’s keeping you from bearing fruit?

Is it a toxic relative? A toxic co-worker or boss? Satan may tempt you to stay in a situation that is destroying your ability to produce fruit by getting you to think it’s a “sin” to walk away from someone who seems so needy. In fact, what if the sin is staying in a place that is undercutting your self-confidence (so that you don’t believe you have anything to share with anyone), destroying your joy (since the joy of the Lord is our strength, letting someone destroy our joy is to let them make us weak) or destroying your peace so that you are not free to dream of how God wants to use you?

Frequent readers of this blog know I am not saying sin doesn’t matter. I am saying that if you grew up with the same baggage I did, you might want to think less about potentially sinning by not being “nice” to a toxic person, and more about how wasting your time with that toxic person is keeping you from living the life God created you to live.

Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and learn when to walk away.

When doing premarital counseling, I’ve found that the session when I take couples through their “Prepare and Enrich” test results is often the most helpful and revealing session of all. The test tells couples where they are likely to stumble and serves as a general measure of overall compatibility.

As a tool, it can be very revealing:

“Oh, that’s why she responds that way.”

“That makes so much sense. Now I understand why he does that.”

It also warns couples where hot-button items might threaten their relationship and suggests various points in the relationship that need to be addressed.

I’ve since come across an assessment that works for couples who are already married. Lisa and I recently took the Relate test that asks you to evaluate your spouse’s personality, temperaments, and relational strengths and weaknesses. It helped give us a glimpse of what seems to be working in our relationship but also what needs to be worked on.

It’s so, so easy to just start coasting in marriage. Taking a test was a gentle wake-up call that could guide us out of our well-worn ruts.

I’ve gotten to know a couple guys on the PGA tour, and one of the things that struck me most was how many “coaches” they have: a strength and conditioning coach, a swing coach, a nutrition coach, often even a psychological coach. They seek help not because there is something “wrong” with their game—they are literally among the best players in the world—but because “good” isn’t enough in their competitive field. They want to be among the very best.

I wish we’d look at marriage the same way—not viewing counseling or tests as something to do when things have fallen apart and we need to put them back together again, but in an effort to take our marriages to the next level.

Because so many couples are spending so much more time alone during the Covid-19 shutdown, I thought, what if we took a little time to work on our marriages? In less time than it takes you to watch a single episode of Tiger King (not counting the amount of time it’ll consume to take a shower afterwards because you feel so dirty), what if you joined Lisa and I and took the Relate survey? If you use code “GARY” you get 20% off.

I suspect for many of you, you’ll intuitively know the results, even if you’ve never seen them on a graph before. Others of you may be led into a new season of discussion and discovery. Each one of you will probably come up with at least one area where you know you can grow individually.

I frequently tell my premarital couples that they shouldn’t put so much work into the relationship before marriage (we typically meet for ten to twelve hours before the wedding) and then stop cold-turkey after the wedding. Great marriages aren’t just planted; they’re cultivated and maintained. Now there’s a tool to help couples do just that.

If you do decide to take the Relate survey, would you please come back and leave your thoughts? I’d love to get feedback as to whether this is a tool we should keep promoting to help marriages continue to grow stronger. Let us know what you found out!

To take the Relate survey, go here (and make sure you use code GARY to get 20% off).

If you’re interested in the book I use for premarital counseling, you can get it here: