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August 27, 2015

The Only Woman in the World

Gary Thomas — 

The Only Woman in the World

Men, if you would like to have superlative satisfaction in your marriage, if you would enjoy a love for your wife that has no comparison, go back with me to the beginning of time—when Adam walked the earth by himself with God. Adam watched little animals and bigger animals, he discovered a wide variety of plants, and he talked to a God who was beyond imagining.

But there was no one like him.

No one.

He lived like that for a while. How long was that “day?” We don’t know.

But then Adam was put into a deep sleep. When he woke up, he could hardly believe his eyes. Before him stood Eve, like him in the most important ways but also so unlike him in even more important ways.

There she stood with eyes that seemed curiously soft, legs that were like his but somehow gloriously different, soft lips, and breasts!

And she was his, as he was hers.

What made this moment especially powerful, momentous, and even enthralling?

There was no Holly, Shanice, or Sofia.

There was just Eve.

Adam couldn’t compare Eve’s shoulders to Camille’s or Eve’s back to Emma’s. He couldn’t say “Eve is kinder than Janet,” or “Eve isn’t as sensitive as Claire,” because there was only Eve, in all her glory, the woman who defined “woman” to the first man. He couldn’t imagine any other woman, because there wasn’t one. He couldn’t wonder what it would be like if she were taller, heavier, slimmer, darker, or lighter.

She just was.

The only woman in the world.

And Adam couldn’t have been happier.

If you want to be fully satisfied in your marriage, treat your wife like Eve. Let her be, in your mind, the only woman in the world.

Pray a prayer that I talk about in Sacred Marriage, one that I prayed early on in my own marriage: “Let my wife define beautiful to me. Let her be the standard for what I find most attractive.”

Do you think that’s a prayer that God will have to think about answering? “Hmmm, not sure I want to do that.”

Not a chance.

It is stunning to me that yesterday, after 31 years of marriage, my wife was standing in front of me feeling all stressed out, talking about how tired she felt, and how frustrating certain aspects of her day had been. While trying to respond with empathy on the outside, inside I was thinking, “She is gorgeous. Still gorgeous.”

I don’t compare my wife’s occasional frustrations with another woman’s peace just as I won’t compare my wife’s face to another woman’s eyes. If I want supreme satisfaction in Lisa, she must become to me like Eve and be the only woman in the world. The only one I will ever look at in that way.

I defy any man to honestly say he has derived any lasting, godly satisfaction from looking at another woman the way he should look only at his wife; after the short moment of excitement, there will be a much longer season of frustration and discontent. Has looking at another woman or comparing your wife to another woman ever led you to more joy, a happier marriage, or more peace with God?  Of course not.

No man’s marital happiness has ever been served by comparing his wife’s weaknesses to another woman’s strengths. That’s how you create discontentment, assault any attitude of cherishing your wife, and how you ruin your own happiness.

It’s a choice, men—it’s a choice. I have a choice to look at my wife like Adam looked at Eve, the only woman who matters. I have a choice to fill up my eyes and be so taken with her that there is no Juliet, Jada, or Anna.

Just Lisa.

Have you ever lived that way husbands? Do you think you could pray this week, “God, let me start looking at my wife like Adam looked at Eve—as the only woman in the world?”

It’s a prayer first, then a choice, then a recommitment. You will stumble. You will have to go back and pray again. You will have to choose again.

But if you keep doing it, eventually, it happens.

Your wife is cherished.

Your wife isn’t just your first choice, but your only choice.

You become happy, satisfied, and fulfilled.

Because your wife defines beauty for you, your picture of the most beautiful woman in the world ages with your wife. You won’t be a sixty-year-old man pining after a 25-year-old centerfold. Who wants to be that guy, anyway?

You’ll eventually be a sixty-year-old husband who is enthralled with his sixty-year-old wife and still finds his heart skipping a beat when she smiles in her own particular way, or she stands in front of you in that dress and the sun hits her just right and you forget about everything else, including time.

You want this men. Trust me. You do. It is one of the supreme blessings of marriage that is often overlooked.

It takes vigilance.

It takes intention.Small Sacred Marriage Image - Cropped

It takes practice.

But when it arrives—when your wife is Eve and there is no other—you will feel like the most blessed husband alive.

Your wife will feel cherished, because your adoration will be as genuine as the beginning of time. Your heavenly Father will experience joy because He delights when his daughter is richly cherished. Your kids will feel secure because their home is protected.

Everybody wins. Everybody.

But Adam wins the most.

Would you like to be particularly happy in your marriage?

Do you want the security of knowing that no matter what happens the two of you will face the future together, and that nothing will tear you apart?

Do you want the feeling of being truly and finally married—no doubts, no re-evaluations, no “what-ifs,” just daily growing closer together?

It’s possible.

It will require both of you to adopt a new mindset, to in fact go back to the very beginning of time and recapture that special intimacy experienced by Adam and Eve.

Have you ever wondered why Adam and Eve were initially so happy in their marriage? What was unique about their experience so that they could know perfect paradise while being together?

Of course, there was no sin yet, but there was something even more specific than that which led to Adam and Eve’s sense of satisfaction.

It wasn’t just about being naked and unashamed.

It wasn’t about being free from children (most of us don’t want to be free from our children.)

It wasn’t even about the fact that they lived in a rich, lush garden.

It was the fact that when Adam was first introduced to Eve, there was literally no other woman in the world to whom he could compare her. When Eve first saw Adam, she didn’t know what a man was “supposed” to be like or how he was supposed to act.

Eve defined woman to Adam, as Adam defined man to Eve.

When you’re with the only woman in the world, you don’t expect her to be more intelligent, less sarcastic, lighter or darker, thinner or curvier, she just is—Eve, the only woman in the world. The person who defines woman to you.

That led to quite the happy union, and it’s a mindset we can cultivate today.

Comparison Kills

Have you ever visited a friend’s house who just had their kitchen remodeled? New appliances. A new floor. Marble counter-tops. A brand new island with pot fillers!

After a lovely dinner you return home and turn on the lights and see your same-old kitchen, with the slightly worn cupboards, the out-of-date refrigerator, the floor that makes you wonder why you ever chose that tile in the first place…

It’s the same kitchen that four hours prior you didn’t think twice about. Now it looks so bad that it even makes you sad.

What happened?

Comparison.

You saw what a kitchen could be and yours feels so awful in comparison.

Too many spouses do that with their mates.

Adopting an “Adam/Eve” “Only man/only woman in the world” mindset recognizes this spiritual and psychological reality and chooses to let your spouse define what a man or woman is supposed to be. Comparison loses all of its negative force.

When cherishing becomes the new standard of marriage, exclusivity reigns. My wife becomes the only one I will let myself think about sexually. She’s the only personality I’ll care to make my best friend. I will figure out how to make this marriage work with her because she is my only option, the only woman in the world.

The foundation of a cherishing marriage is something I wish every husband could say and every wife could hear:

“My dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (Song of Songs 6:9).

Daily Walking Down the Aisle

It used to be that, when the wedding march began playing, every eye in the church looked back to see the bride walking up the aisle, but more recently I’ve noticed how this has changed. Because of some Internet memes, more and more people want to catch the face of the groom. Is he smiling? Crying? Looking nervous?

Men, try to remember that moment when your bride walked down the aisle and you lost your breath seeing her in all her glory. No one else existed for you at that moment. No other woman came to mind.

This doesn’t have to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It can be a daily reality.

To cherish our wives this way, we have to mentally choose to not look at any other woman that way. If you compare a two-carat diamond to a three-carat diamond, it will look small in comparison even though it’s bigger and more expensive than 99% of the wedding ring diamonds out there.

I prayed early on in my own marriage: “Lord, let my wife define beautiful to me. Let her be the standard for what I find most attractive.”

God has answered that prayer, and it’s so affirming to my wife. However she is, is what I am most attracted to. She is the “plumb line” of beauty for me, a plumb line that ages with her.

Cherishing goes far beyond physical appearance. I don’t compare my wife’s occasional frustrations with another woman’s peace, just as I won’t compare my wife’s skillset to another woman’s gifts. If I want supreme satisfaction in Lisa, if I want to truly cherish her, she must become to me like Eve, the only woman in the world. The only one I will ever look at in that way.

No man has ever derived any lasting, godly satisfaction from looking at another woman the way he should look only at his wife; after the short moment of excitement, there will be a much longer season of frustration and discontent, followed by anger and marital distance. Fantasizing about another woman is the highway to discontentment and marital separation. It never leads you to your wife; it carries you away from her at seventy miles an hour. That’s how you create discontentment, assault any attitude of cherishing your wife, and how you ruin your own happiness.

Adam was so blessed—and so happy, accordingly—because there was literally no one else to compare Eve to. And while the world is now populated with billions of other women, we men can still make the choice to look at our wives as Adam looked at Eve, the only woman who matters in that way.

To fill up our eyes with only her.

To be so taken with her that there is no Juliet, no Jada, and no Anna.

Just Eve.

It’s a prayer first, “Lord, let me look at my wife as the only woman in the world.”

Then it’s a choice.

Then we guard our hearts and keep our focus.

It requires a recommitment when we stumble. We will have to go back and pray again. We will have to choose again.

But if we keep holding her dear, mentally reserving our focus exclusively for her, eventually, it happens: our wife is cherished. Our wife isn’t just our first choice, but our only choice.

We become happy, satisfied, fulfilled.

You’ve taught yourself to cherish her and it’s worked. You’ve become enthralled with her, as you are with no other woman.

You want this, men. Trust me. You do. It is one of the supreme blessings of marriage that is often overlooked. When it arrives—when your wife is Eve and there is no other—you will feel like the most blessed husband alive.

Your wife will feel cherished, because your adoration will be as genuine as the beginning of time. Your heavenly Father will experience joy because he delights when his daughter is richly cherished. Your kids will feel secure because they spiritually feed off their parents’ affection.

Everybody wins. Everybody.

But Adam wins the most.

The Only Man in the World

Women can take the same journey. Divorce statistics reflect that women tend to be more dissatisfied in their marriages than men. Wives may have to fight more fiercely against the onslaught of disappointment lest they be tugged toward frustration, collapse into bitterness, and find themselves captive to contempt.

How can you fight contempt? How can you learn to cherish your husband as if he were the only man on earth?

Here’s the spiritual choice you have to make: when any woman gets married, she agrees (consciously or not) to a “commitment of contentment.” She forever resets the boundaries for what makes her content. She doesn’t get to compare her husband to other husbands because to her, he must become the only man in the world. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).

You’ve already made your choice, in your ideal world you have no intention of ever starting over with someone else, so why not put your energy into and your focus on building on the strengths of that choice, and making yourself ever more grateful that you made that choice? Think of yourself as Eve in the Garden of Eden, standing before the first man Adam. Eve didn’t have anyone to compare Adam to. All she could possibly think was, “This is what a man is like. This is what my man is like.”

No man can be everything. A successful long-distance cyclist can’t be a body builder. A handyman may be able to fix a lot of things, but he may view exercise or long talks as chores rather than something he relishes. Though there are exceptions, dedicating one’s time to becoming exceptional at one thing usually means not being exceptional at a whole lot of other things.

Since no one man can be everything, one of the best gifts a woman can give a man is to tell him with her eyes, attention, words, and acceptance, “You don’t have to be anything other than what you are. You are my Adam, the only man in the world. I cherish you.

With such an attitude, anything your husband isn’t becomes irrelevant—your guy isn’t that, so you don’t expect that and there’s no point in fretting over that. If you marry a guy who isn’t a handyman, you don’t judge him for not being a handyman. If you marry a guy who is a bit silent, you don’t brood over the fact that your best friend’s husband will sit and talk to her for hours.

Instead, you think of your man as Adam—the only man in the world. You cherish him for what and who he is, you don’t expect him to be anything else, and you never compare him to anyone else.

At some point, if you want marital happiness, if you want to learn how to cherish a real man instead of longing for an imaginary composite, some “Frankenstein” husband who somehow has it all, then you have to own your choice and even learn to cherish your choice. “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself” (Song of Songs 8:12).

It’ll take biblical understanding to do this, then prayerful supplication to God (“God, help me do this”), then an intellectual consent (“I want to do this”), and finally a determined act of the will (“I’m going to do this”) to fully go through this process, resetting your brain to think of your husband as Adam.

It’s not a one-time deal. You’ll catch yourself slipping back into comparison at times, and then you’ll have to go back to square one and set the process in motion once again. Over time, it will just become the way you look at your husband. Thinking of him as Adam will be your default mode.

When that happens, you’ll find that you cherish your husband instead of having contempt for him. You’ll discover that you are grateful for his strengths instead of bitter about his weaknesses. You’ll experience the joy of your heavenly Father, who delights in seeing his sons cherished, encouraged, and respected. You’ll be a strong witness to Christians and non-Christians alike. You’ll provide one of the best parenting role models a mother could ever provide for her children.

But just as importantly, you’ll find more contentment, enjoyment, happiness and intimacy in your marriage. Your heart will swell with pride and you will be the envy of all your friends—the one woman in their circle who is utterly and contentedly in love with her husband and can’t even imagine being married to any other.

That’s a very pleasant place to live.

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.

September 1, 2015

The Only Man in the World

Gary Thomas — 

The Only Man in the World

Women, the door to true happiness in marriage—the key to becoming the most pleased and happiest of wives—is to begin viewing your husband as Adam, the only man in the world.

When you get married, you agree (consciously or not) to a “commitment of contentment.” You forever reset the boundaries for what makes you content. You don’t get to compare your husband to other husbands (that’s what girlfriends should do with boyfriends, but not what wives should do with husbands) because to you, he is the only man in the world.

Think of yourself as Eve in the Garden of Eden, standing before the first man Adam. Eve didn’t have anyone to compare Adam to. She couldn’t think, “His arms look below average, but at least he doesn’t have a unibrow.” All she could possibly think was, “This is what men are like.”

The “new boundaries” of your new commitment to contentment once you get married means that anything your husband isn’t becomes irrelevant—your guy isn’t that, so don’t expect that. If you marry a guy who isn’t a handyman, you don’t judge him for not being a handyman. If you marry a guy who is a bit silent, you don’t brood over the fact that your best friend’s husband will sit and talk to her for hours. If you marry a guy who thinks exercise is picking up the game controller, you don’t think about what it would be like to marry a guy who does triathlons.

Instead, you think of your man as Adam—the only man in the world. You love him for who he is, you don’t expect him to be anything else, and you never compare him to anyone else.

This might sound extreme to some of you but tell me, what have you ever gained by comparing your husband’s weaknesses to another husband’s strengths? Has it ever made you happier, more content in your marriage, or a more loving wife? Has it ever made you feel closer to your husband or given you more joy?

Of course not.

If you want to be married to a man who reads books then marry a man who reads books. Marrying a man who doesn’t read books and then faulting him for not reading is your problem not his. You made a choice and now you are second-guessing it. The problem isn’t with your husband—the problem is that you made a poor choice establishing your boundaries of contentment.

When you can finally see and agree that the problem you have with contentment is thus yours, not his, everything about your marriage will change. Everything.

I promise you, you will be so much happier in your marriage. You will become a much better wife if you simply pray through the creation account in Genesis and begin thinking of your husband as Adam—the man who defines all other men for you—and then start treating him that way. It’ll take biblical understanding to do this then prayerful supplication to God, then an intellectual consent, and finally a determined act of the will to fully go through this process resetting your brain to think of your husband as Adam.

It’s not a one-time deal. You’ll catch yourself slipping back into comparison at times, and you will have to go back to square one and set the process in motion once again. Over time it will become the way you look at your husband. Thinking of him as Adam will be your default mode of thinking and relating.Small Sacred Marriage Image - Cropped

When that happens, you’ll find that you cherish your husband instead of having contempt for him. You’ll discover that you are grateful for his strengths instead of bitter about his weaknesses. You will experience the joy of your heavenly Father who delights in seeing His sons cherished, encouraged, and respected. You’ll be a strong witness to Christians and non-Christians alike. You’ll provide one of the best parenting role models a mother could ever provide for her children, boys, and girls.

But just as importantly, you’ll find more contentment, enjoyment, happiness, and intimacy in your marriage. Your heart will swell with pride and you will be the envy of all your friends—the one woman who is utterly and contentedly in love with her husband and can’t even imagine being married to any other.

That’s a very pleasant place to live.

March 18, 2014

The Ballet is Woman

Gary Thomas — 
8405185756_4a470484ea_b

photo: Kryziz Bonny, Creative Commons

There’s a saying that “the ballet is woman.” Male dancers recognize that their role is all about showcasing the female dancer’s beauty. In the words of Sarah Jessica Parker (who recently put together a documentary on the New York City Ballet), “When a male dancer is paired with a ballerina he can support, stabilize, lift and turn her, allowing the partner to perform feats she could never do alone.” (You can see a clip on the partnering aspect of ballet here: http://tinyurl.com/n7lusu9)

Isn’t this a marvelous description of marriage? Together, we can be more than we could on our own.

What if we husbands took the attitude of male dancers, seeking to showcase our wives’ beauty? It may be the beauty of wisdom, and in social settings we do our best to see that she is heard. It may be the beauty of leadership, and we support her life so that her gifts can be performed. It may be the beauty of hospitality, and we buy the things she needs and open up our homes (when we might prefer to be left alone with our sporting events) so that her beauty can be on full display. A biblical husband “praises [his wife]. ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.’” (Prov. 31:28-29)

What if wives adopted the same attitude, helping their husbands perform feats they could never do on their own? What if a husband knew—in the deepest part of his soul—that his wife was his strongest support, his most encouraging partner? What would that do to him? What if he was willing to risk failure out in the world because he knew in his wife’s eyes he would always be the courageous champion? She supports him, she stabilizes him, she binds up his wounds—spiritual and emotional—and she turns him so his strongest side is always showing. Instead of ridiculing his social awkwardness, she finds a way to help him fit in. Everyone starts to think more of this guy when they look at him through his wife’s eyes.

Marriages turn on one axis: am I trying to showcase my spouse, or am I fixated on how my spouse is not showcasing me? You can’t control the latter; you can only control the former.

One thing I like about this is that it forces me to meditate on my wife’s beauty, identify her strengths, and then plot how I can help those strengths be showcased. How many times do we do the opposite? We obsess over our spouse’s weaknesses and then meet with others to gossip about them.

I want to sit with God and ask, “How do I showcase my wife’s beauty?”

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).

How?

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

http://www.garythomas.com/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.

May 17, 2018

The God Who Sees

Gary Thomas — 

After having escaped cruel and harsh punishment, pregnant without any support from the father of her child, Hagar felt helpless and alone. She didn’t have a single earthly friend. Grown up enslaved, she had been owned, ordered about, abused and forced to have sex with a man she didn’t love in order to bear a child for a woman who had contempt for her.

This is about as low as life gets. It might seem a bit strong to call what happened to Hagar “rape,” except for the fact that she had no possibility of refusing her master’s and mistress’s orders.

If you’ve been owned, raped, beaten and abandoned, it’s not surprising that you would come out of that experience not just thinking that the world isn’t fair, but that God isn’t fair. At the very least, you might think he is blind or unfeeling.

So it’s touching and moving and profound when God visits Hagar, assures her of His own protection and blessing, and this simple woman responds by naming God “El-Roi,” the God who sees (Genesis 16:13).

Just knowing that God saw her gave Hagar the strength to return to her abusive mistress. “God sees me,” she surely said to herself, “So even when I am not treated fairly, I’m not alone.” God essentially told Hagar that while people plotted to make her miserable, He had plans to bless her beyond all belief. She felt powerless and forgotten, but God promised her she would be remembered and the powerful ancestor of a people so numerous “they cannot be counted” (Gen. 16:10).

In the same way, God may not remove all our difficulties. He may ask us to persevere in a deplorable situation or marriage without promising that the evil people in our lives will suddenly change (I’m not suggesting physically or sexually abused women are called by God to stay in their homes—Hagar’s was a different time and a particular situation. When women can get away from evil and toxic treatment, they should get away). His only promise may be, “I see what’s going on and I have chosen to bless you in the midst of their cursing.”

Will we accept God’s promise of blessing even when it must come wrapped with the hatred and mistreatment of others?

William Gurnall, the seventeenth century Anglican clergyman who wrote the classic, The Christian in Complete Armor, helps bearing the cross sound a little more realistic when he urges believers not to look at the cross but to look at Jesus who bids us to bear the cross. The beauty of Jesus overwhelms the ugliness of the cross.

In fact, Gurnall surprisingly gets a little earthier than that. When God bids us to pick up the cross, we should have the same attitude as a lover taking us by the hand saying, “Come with me.” Our love for God should be so strong that we would rather follow Him into a painful situation than live in comfort without Him.

If it is necessary for us to persevere in a situation in which others disrespect us, take us for granted or just plain ignore us, looking on Jesus is our best form of self-defense. If I think, “How can they treat me that way?” I’ll start to hate them. If I think, “Why am I putting up with this?” I may start to hate myself. If I look to El-Roi, the God who sees, I’m able to either endure the mistreatment with a holy spirit or grow the courage to confront and leave it. Either way, it’ll be because I’m responding to the God who sees instead of reacting to the person who hates.

Perhaps more than in any age in history, today’s church is plagued with “fair weather followers,” utterly devoid of any notion of even looking at, much less carrying the cross. Yet Jesus made it as clear as possible when he said there is no Christianity without the cross: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

In spite of this clear instruction, modern believers frequently assume that they have a “special contract” with God obligating him to remove all opposition and hurt, based in part on the verse I hear misquoted and misapplied more than perhaps any other verse except for “Judge not lest you be not judged”: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11).

Is the removal of all opposition and hurt a realistic request this side of eternity?

I said in a sermon once, “I wish I could stop everyone from being mean to you, but I can’t. But I can point you to the God who chooses you when others reject you, who loves you dearly when others mistreat you (c.f. Col. 3:12), and the God who sees you when others ignore you.”

God’s blessings are so rich, personal obedience is so powerful a force in the Christian’s life, the joy of fellowship with God is so real and animating, that just knowing God chooses us, sees us and loves us dearly is all we need to keep moving forward.

Can you survive in a lonely marriage? Can you keep parenting a rebellious child? Can you find joy with an apathetic spouse? Is there freedom when your vocational situation feels oppressive? The answer is “yes” if you know God chose you, sees you and rewards those who remain faithful, and if you draw your worth and fulfillment from the fact that God has called you to do this rather than someone else is forcing you to do this.

Keep looking at Jesus, not at the cross.

The key to living in a world with toxic people is relating to worshipping, and spending time throughout the day finding your refuge in El-Roi, the God who sees.

When we forget that evil exists within our own hearts; indeed, when we stop ordering our thinking and feeling around God and begin to live to please ourselves, we open the door to all kinds of evil in our marriage, especially the evil we are most likely to be unaware of or excuse: the evil of self-obsession.

We don’t like to talk about this evil as it pertains to us (though we’ll talk plenty about our spouse’s failures in this regard), but silence and ignorance is where evil grows. If we don’t recognize the existence of evil and guard against it we’ll never find a cure for it.

Instead, we’ll just explain it away or blame others for it.

Dallas Willard talks about how “We are like farmers who diligently plant crops but cannot admit the existence of weeds and insects and can only think to pour on more fertilizer. Similarly, the only solution we know to human problems today is ‘education.’”

Educating an evil person without regard to evil doesn’t remove the evil; it simply makes him or her cleverer in spreading their evil.

If I get all kinds of marital education and knowledge but never confront the evil self-obsession that lies within my heart, I’ll use that knowledge (my spouse’s love language, for instance) as a weapon rather than a blessing. I’ll employ her love language to get my way rather than to bless her.

Denial

The most popular path among Christians to deal with our evil self-obsession is to deny that it exists, or at least that it is motivating us. In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard warns that “denial—usually in some form of rationalization—is the primary device that humans use to deal with their own wrongness.”

This is universal. Every married person reading this is in some way a bit in denial about the evil lingering in their heart that is negatively affecting their marriage.

Personal evil is so painful and difficult to admit that we are tempted to transfer the evil to others. We don’t think of ourselves as angry spouses; we think our spouse is wrong in lighting the spark that makes us angry.

A man doesn’t think of himself as lustful and unfaithful. He thinks of his wife as cold or preoccupied or neglectful.

A woman doesn’t think of herself as critical. She just thinks of her husband as a doofus.

The Cure

Evil is best confronted by ordering our minds and hearts around the presence and will of God. Evil is coddled when we forget God is God and try to set ourselves up as God.

This is where self-obsession assumes its throne. It is nothing less than evil for me to try to turn my wife into a “love Gary as he likes to be loved” machine. That’s narcissism. God calls her to seek His kingdom first (Matthew 6:33). Here’s the question to ask if you want to know how much you are directed by God and how much you are motivated by hidden selfish evil in your marriage: do you spend more time praying for your spouse’s relationship and service to God or more time praying about how they need to become a better spouse to you?

Edith Schaeffer wrote, “The philosophy of living with an underlying motive of doing everything for one’s own personal peace and comfort rapidly colors everything that might formerly have come under the heads of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’… If one’s peace, comfort, way of life, convenience, reputation, opportunities, job, happiness, or even ease is threatened, ‘just abort it.’”

When my life isn’t ordered around God, I fiercely resent being inconvenienced. I’m driven to do what I want to do, what I think is best for me, and my wife will pay the heaviest price for my evil self-obsession.

According to Dallas Willard, “Self-idolatry rearranges the entire spiritual and moral landscape. It sees the whole universe with different eyes…The fundamental pride of putting oneself at the center of the universe is the hinge upon which the entire world of the ruined self turns.” He quotes John Calvin, who said that “the surest source of destruction in men is to obey themselves.”

Husband and wife: will you realize that self-obsession may be the biggest threat to you and your marriage’s happiness? If we do not admit that this is evil, if we are not aware of and do not actively confront the evil of self-obsession, that evil will make us and our marriages miserable. It is so much easier and feels so much safer to talk about the evils of others rather than our own. Dallas Willard again: “It is common today to hear Christians talk of their ‘brokenness.’ But when you listen closely, you may discover that they are talking about their wounds, the things they have suffered, not about the evil that is in them.”

When I understand how evil I am and how evil I can yet be, and that evil begins with self-obsession, I am more determined to order my life around God’s word and will and, just as importantly, release my wife to do the same. I will seek out the Scriptures to understand his heart. I will submit my thinking and actions in a way that proclaims in fact, not just in word, “You are my Lord and my God” and “You are my wife’s Lord and God.”

One of the best gifts you can give your spouse is to be ruthless about admitting and discarding the evil in your own heart, beginning with the evil of self-obsession.

 

[Note: this post could be harmful to men and women married to abusive spouses who have given themselves over to evil. While all of us need to explore and discharge the evil in our hearts, some spouses need to be saved from an evil, oppressive situation. If you suspect that may be the case with you, please seek other counsel. This teaching is for those who want to save their marriage, not for those who need to be saved from their marriage.]

March 23, 2018

Taking Action

Gary Thomas — 

When Your Marriage is Going in the Wrong Direction, Doing Nothing is Usually Your Worst Choice

[Note: this week’s blog post is an adaptation from my newly released book Loving Him Well: Practical Advice for Influencing Your Husband, which is a rewritten version of Sacred Influence. For this reason, it primarily addresses women and wives, but men and husbands should feel free to change the genders and apply it accordingly. Nothing stated here isn’t also true for men. In fact, I’d love to hear in the comments how men reacted to this.]

When a marriage is going “south,” one of the worst things you can do is…nothing. People in panic often fear making the wrong move but sometimes “no move” is the worst move. Not doing anything will get you just what you’ve got.

The first thing so many women (and men, for that matter) in the Bible had to be told was to stop being afraid and become bold. When Hagar was abandoned by her husband and exiled to what looked like her and her son’s slow starvation and death, God’s angel encouraged her: “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 21:17). When the women who had been faithful to Jesus were beside themselves with grief, wondering what had happened to the body of their precious Jesus, an angel admonished them, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:5).

Because of God’s Spirit within us, we are sometimes called to bold action. The “safe” path is sometimes a slow drift toward destruction. One of my favorite Christian philosophers, Elton Trueblood, put it so well:

“The person who never goes out on a limb will never, it is true, have the limb cut off while he is on it, but neither will he reach the best fruit. The best fruit which human life offers seems to come only within the reach of those who face life boldly . . . with no excessive concern over possible failure and personal danger. The good life is always the gambler’s choice, and comes to those who take sides. Neutrality is seldom a virtue.”

Fear gives birth to paralysis—and sometimes inaction is our greatest enemy. Marriages can slowly die from years of apathy. I’ve seen many relationships wilt from unhealthy patterns that one or both partners refused to address until they became “calcified” and thus were ten times more difficult to break. This is true of addictions, unhealthy communication, and disrespect. The longer a bad situation goes on, the more ingrained it becomes and the more difficult it is to fix.

If you always play it safe in your marriage, you’re going to end up in some ruts. What I believe will give you the most boldness and courage to address issues that need to change is understanding who you already are in Christ.

The Spiritual Platform to Influence Your Spouse

Let’s apply some simple theology here. Who does the Bible say is your refuge — God or your husband? Deuteronomy 33:27 provides the answer: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

In whom does your hope lie? Your husband’s continuing affection? First Peter 1:21 says, “Your faith and hope are in God.”

Where will you find your security? You and your husband’s ability to earn a living and your husband’s commitment to stay married to you? Philippians 4:19 answers, “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

Where will you find supreme acceptance that will never fade or falter for all the days of your life? “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,” replies Isaiah 62:5, “so will your God rejoice over you.”

If you’re trying to find your primary refuge in your husband, if you’ve centered your hope on him, if your security depends on his approval, and if you will do almost anything to gain his acceptance, then you’ve just given to a man what rightfully belongs to God alone.

And that means you’ve turned marriage into idol worship.

When you do that, both you and your husband lose. How will you ever find the courage to confront someone whose acceptance so determines your sense of well-being that you believe you can’t exist without him? How will you ever take the risk to say what needs to be said if you think your future depends on your husband’s favor toward you?

Your future depends on God, not on a fallen man. Your security rests with your caring Creator’s providence, not with your husband’s paycheck. Your acceptance as a person became secure when God adopted you, not when your husband proposed to you. If you truly want to love, motivate, and influence your husband, your first step must be to stay connected with God. Find your refuge, security, comfort, strength, and hope in him.

Armed with this acceptance, security, and empowerment, you become a mighty force for good. You can then claim the power of Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 31:8: “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

Fear and discouragement create stagnancy and persistent disappointment in marriage. If you’ve had your fill of those, why not try God’s path of faith and boldness? When you begin taking initiative instead of simply feeling sorry for yourself, you become an active woman, and active women mirror the active God who made them.

An Active God

The first thing God wants us to know in Genesis chapter 1 is that he is an extraordinarily active God. In Genesis chapter one, thirty-eight active verbs describe what God does: he creates, he speaks, he separates, he calls, he blesses, he gives, and much more—all in just one chapter. Then—and this is key—he tells the woman and the man to do the same: “God blessed them [male and female] and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ ” (Genesis 1:28).

God made you, as a woman, to rule in this world, to subdue it, to act according to his image. Sin often drags us back toward sluggishness, despair, and despondency—giving in to life as it is rather than remaking life as it could be with God’s redeeming power unleashed. People give up on their marriages, give up on prayer, give up on their churches, give up on their kids, and eventually even give up on themselves. They say, “It’s no use,” and start to sulk instead of painstakingly remaking their marriage—simply because their first (or even tenth) attempt failed.

Initial romantic intensity is unearned; it seems to fall on us out of nowhere. But a solid, lasting marriage has to be built (and sometimes rebuilt) stone by stone. You married a fallen man and that means the time will come when you need to become an active woman to confront the weaknesses you see in yourself and your husband.

As daunting as this might seem, here’s the hope behind it: the current challenges in your marriage may well be God’s vehicle for you to become the strong woman he created you to be. Maybe you grew up with an overly passive view of being a woman. Maybe you’ve always let people run over you and allowed things to happen rather than to rise up and unleash the power that is yours as a woman not only created in the image of God, but filled with His Holy Spirit.

This challenge, as scary and painful as it might be, could be the doorway to new growth, new maturity and a new woman who more closely resembles the character of Jesus Christ.

For more teaching on this topic, check out Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband: http://www.garythomas.com/books/loving-him-well/

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 http://www.garythomas.com/marital-abuse/, here: “God Hates Domestic Violence” http://www.garythomas.com/god-hates-domestic-violence/ and here: “Enough is Enough” http://www.garythomas.com/enough-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:

 http://www.garythomas.com/books/loving-him-well/

In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis shows how wide-ranging the word “love” is. It is used to define many different notions and mind-sets.

What if you can take your marriage up a level this year?

The first form of love (according to Lewis) is Need-Love, which is today what we call infatuation. “I need you, therefore I love you. I want you to meet my needs. I crave you. I can’t make it without you.” It looks so romantic in the movies, but when you look at the base psychology behind it, it’s actually a bit unnerving. Need-Love creates a high level of desperation and resentment. You can’t build a marriage on it.

The second form of love could be called “Sacred Marriage” love; Lewis uses the phrase “Gift-Love,” but it basically means wanting to serve, even to the point of suffering or sacrifice. It’s a noble love, always putting the other’s best (as God defines “best”) first. It remains, I believe, the foundation of a God-honoring marriage.

The third love, “Appreciative-Love,” is the same concept I write about in Cherish. It’s about celebrating, appreciating, and adoring.

Here’s how Lewis ties all of them together: “Need-Love says of a woman, ‘I cannot live without her’; Gift-Love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection—if possible, wealth; Appreciative Love gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist…”

We can’t choose “Need-Love”—and looking at what it actually is, who would want to? Infatuation just seems to happen. It’s something we should probably want to get out of sooner rather than later so that we can move on to choose Gift-Love. Gift-Love is easier to attain than cherishing love in that it’s all based on actions. We can choose to serve. We can choose to sacrifice. We can choose to put someone else’s welfare above our own. We just have to act.

The third kind of love, what Lewis calls “Appreciative Love” and what we will call “cherishing love” isn’t as easy to apply as Gift-Love because rejoicing and adoring isn’t solely an act of the will. You have to develop a heart and mind that fosters it, which then gives birth to it. It goes beyond action to the heart.

What I discovered in Cherish is that such a love is attainable, if you’re willing to adopt a long-term program. It begins with following through on a commitment (made in my marriage vows to love and to cherish until death do us part, covered in chapter 1), adopting a cherishing mindset (the “only man or woman in the world” analogy, chapter 2), and then learning to showcase my spouse (chapters 3-4), changing the way I speak to and about her (chapter 8), reveling in her uniqueness (chapter 9), fighting off contempt (chapter 5) and applying grace to go the distance (chapter 10), applying some tried and true practices (chapter 11), and then going back to the truth of the Gospel so that I could keep doing all the above (chapter 13). The entire program can eventually create that once illusive but oh so rewarding “third love.”

If you feel your marriage is mired in a stand-still, where selfishness reigns and you don’t even know if you want to go on, you need to lay the foundation for your marriage with the message of Sacred Marriage. If you feel committed to the marriage but it’s a struggle to stay connected, then you’re looking at the area covered in A Lifelong Love. But if you’re eager to experience marriage at its best, to taste a Song of Songs kind of relationship to reach that “third love” stage, Cherish is the book for you.

Lisa gave me a tremendous gift this past year. She made artwork out of one of the main Bible verses behind Cherish: “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (Song of Songs 6:9). But I asked her to make it smaller, and to put it beside or above one of my favorite photos of her. I can already tell that it will become one of my most prized possessions because it celebrates “my only one.” Under my fascination with God, nothing quite moves my heart like thinking about Lisa.

Here’s another secret I’m learning: cherishing grows. When you enter it, you eventually discover it’s not a park, it’s a large country with many meadows and streams and forests and caves and rivers to explore. Infatuation collapses in on itself; cherishing expands. There is more to explore in cherishing love, in fact, than this life gives us opportunity to, which has led me to believe that cherishing love provides us with one of the earliest glimpses of heaven we can ever experience this side of eternity.

Note: Focus on the Family is re-airing my two-day interview on Cherish Thursday and Friday, December 28-29, as part of their “Best of 2017 re-broadcasts.”

On December 28 and 29 you can listen to the interviews here:

www.focusonthefamily.com/radio

After the airdate, you can listen to them here:

http://www.focusonthefamily.com/media/daily-broadcast/cherish-your-spouse-change-your-marriage-pt1

http://www.focusonthefamily.com/media/daily-broadcast/cherish-your-spouse-change-your-marriage-pt2