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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.

June 29, 2018

The Worth of a Woman

Gary Thomas — 

 

If you’ve been a longtime reader of this blog, you know I don’t typically speak out on topical issues, news items, or politics. There are plenty of places you can go to for that kind of information, written by people much more in the know and more capable of immediately writing about late breaking events, scandals or controversies.

The way my brain works (slow, slower still, and then come back and rewrite), I shoot for what could be called “timeless truths.” Blog posts should hold up and be true regardless of who is in the White House or what pastor did what thing in what church, or what denomination invited what speaker to what convention.

One timeless issue we have been facing is the way women are viewed and treated, especially by men in the church. Just as important is how women are viewed and treated by other women in the church. A woman fully alive to who she is called to be in Christ makes for the best wife, the best friend, the best sister, and the best servant of Christ.

So this week I’m going to excerpt a bit from Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband. While trying to set women up to have the most influence they can have in their marriage and on their husband, I stress the need to first ground themselves in their identity in Christ—that we matter not because someone chose to marry us, but because God adopted us. That we have security not because someone else contributes to the family income but because God has promised to meet all of our needs in Christ Jesus. That we have worth not because our spouse is still attracted to us and interested in us, but because God calls us “chosen and dearly loved.” Once we know who we are in God, we are better able to handle the inevitable hurts and pains of being married to an imperfect spouse in an imperfect world.

What I set out to show in Loving Him Well is how the Bible affirms women in a way that was quite radical for the time in which it was written. Because some passages seem to suggest husband and wives share different roles in marriage, there are those who see the Bible as an accessory to the oppression of women, when in fact, even the Old Testament became an agent of radical change in a world that viewed women as children or property.

For example, the Old Testament stepped outside its cultural milieu to insist that women mirror God’s own character and image just as fully as do their male counterparts: “So God created man in his own image, he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female” (Genesis 1:27). Right from the start, we learn that women and men together mirror the image of God. Since God is above gender, males alone (or females alone) fail to adequately represent his character and image.

Just as tellingly, the admonition to shape this world and even to rule over this world is given to women just as much as it is to men: “God blessed them [the man and the woman] and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth’” (Genesis 1:28, emphasis added).

Women are not told to sit passively on the sidelines and cheer for their husbands as the men run the show. On the contrary, from the very beginning, women share God’s command for humans to rule, subdue, and manage this earth. They are co-regents.

This strong, affirming view of women continues into the first book of the New Testament, with the inclusion of women in the genealogy of the Messiah (a literary act that breaks with the tradition of the first century). Yes, there is Abraham and David and Joseph — but there is also Rahab, Ruth, Mary, and Bathsheba. Who would expect such a thing from a very patriarchal and even misogynistic culture? It took both men and women to set up the human events that led to the birth of the Messiah. God chose women of diverse personality and status to build the human line that ushered in the Savior of the world.

Rahab, of course, was a prostitute. Bathsheba may well have been raped (when the king calls for you, consent isn’t an option). Ruth was a Moabite, a tribe whose genesis came from a grotesque act of incest, and it was her taking action (“Let me go to the fields” she pleaded with Naomi) and bold proposal that set up not just the birth of King David, but the human ancestry of Jesus as well.

Including each one of these women in the hallowed ancestry of Jesus is God’s way of saying that even if you’ve been sexually abused or come from a horrific background, God still has a plan to use you mightily.

Jesus came into this world through a woman; not a single male had anything to do with the immediate conception or birth of our Lord. Mary, a woman, is the only human who contributed to Jesus’ DNA.

Jesus also elevated women in his teaching. In Mark 10:11, Jesus astonishes his disciples when he tells them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” Why was this astonishing? According to rabbinic law, a man could commit adultery against another married man by sleeping with that man’s wife, and a wife could commit adultery against her husband by sleeping with another man; but no provision stipulated how a husband could commit adultery against his wife. Jesus was telling those first-century men, “Your wife has equal value in God’s sight. It is possible for you to sin against her every bit as much as it is possible for her to sin against you.”

And let’s look at Jesus’ death. While one male disciple betrayed our Lord and the others cowered behind locked doors, some very courageous women dared to watch Jesus’ final minutes on this earth. Mark goes out of his way to emphasize the scene at the foot of the cross: “There were also women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women followed him and took care of him. Many other women had come up with him to Jerusalem” (Mark 15:40 – 41). In Jesus’ most trying moments, he was supported by many women. Modern readers might read right over this narrative fact — but in the first century, this was a startling truth and a challenge to any false view of male superiority.

But perhaps the boldest statement came after Jesus died and was raised from the dead. According to ancient Pharisaic law, a woman’s testimony was inadmissible in a tribunal as too untrustworthy. Only men could give witness. So when Jesus rose from the dead — the most important event that has ever occurred or ever will occur — who was present to give witness and testimony? Women! Jesus pointedly uses women, whose testimony could not then be heard in contemporary courts of law, to proclaim his glorious resurrection.

This elevation of women at all points in theological pronouncements, historical accounts, and practical teaching should astonish us, given the male-oriented culture in which the Bible took shape. It should form the way we respect our wives as women and teach our children to honor their moms with the respect given them by God.

We don’t have to tear down the Bible or men to lift up women; the story of God’s redemption took millennia to unfold and is even yet unfolding. What matters most is that women understand who they are in Christ, and that their husbands and fathers and sons also let their thinking be shaped by Scripture’s arc.

As much as the above Scriptures challenge me however, I still have to confess that few things have motivated me as a man more than having God reiterate to me that Lisa is his daughter and I’m to treat her accordingly. As a father with three children, including two women, this image shapes, corrects, inspires and challenges my every interaction and thought in marriage. The more I respect my wife in particular, the more I respect other women in general. I don’t want any other man sexualizing my wife, making her feel uncomfortable, or putting her in the miserable position of spending nine hours a day in a creepy environment or find some other place to work—so I’m going to go out of my way to not do that to someone else’s wife.

It would break my heart if a son-in-law was harsh or abusive to a daughter; that motivates me to be encouraging and gentle with Lisa.

It comes down to this: if we would look at people as God looks at them, and treat men and women the way God calls us to, all these news items would be resolved. They’d never happen to begin with.

I have great respect and appreciation for those who push necessary conversations, who bring abuse to the surface, and who have the fortitude and demeanor to enact change. The world needs activists and prophets, and I thank God for them. We need servants who cry out, “This is wrong.” We also need some, and I hope this blog can be such a place, to cry out, “This is right.”

Treating all women, but especially our wives, with respect and dignity, is right.

 

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.

August 28, 2019

The Remembrance of Death

Gary Thomas — 

An excerpt from Thirsting for God: Spiritual Refreshment for the Sacred Journey by Gary Thomas (Harvest House Publishers, 2011)

Living in a Dying World:
The Remembrance of Death

When sportscaster Glenn Brenner died at the age of 44 in Wash-
ington DC, the city was in shock for several days. Why? After all, the city had been dubbed the murder capital of the United States, and victims of violent crime die there virtually every day—sometimes a half-dozen a night. Yet radio talk-show hosts devoted entire mornings or afternoons to Brenner’s death. The newspaper covered it in every issue for a week. One television station ran a half-hour memorial program.

The city was stunned by the suddenness of the death. It forced people to remember that death doesn’t always wait until we’re 95. Sometimes it sneaks up on us in our forties. As people called talk shows to express their shock, they repeated a familiar refrain: “It was so sudden; so unexpected. He was so young, in such good health, and then all of a sudden…I just can’t believe it.”

Brenner had recently completed a marathon. He was young, healthy, humorous, and successful, but all of that became irrelevant when a brain tumor took his life. Death didn’t take into account his cardiovascular capability. It didn’t inquire about the number of children still depending on him or his vocational success or how beloved he was in the capital city. Death doesn’t ask questions; it doesn’t review résumés. It just comes.

The city was unsettled by death’s rude intrusion into its life. Denial was no longer possible, and people were forced to consider that maybe there’s more to life than we have been told. Maybe we need to make some inquiries and answer a few questions before death comes to knock on our door.

Every now and then we sneak a peek at the obituaries and look at the ages of those who have died. When we see somebody our own age or even younger, we involuntarily wince. We grope for the cause of death—please don’t let it be a heart attack or cancer, we hope. We want to be immune from that, at least for now.

Our denial means nothing to death because death doesn’t have to ask our permission. Death is coming. Every day is somebody’s last.

The Denial of Death

In spite of the prevalence of death, we prefer not to talk about it. In this we’re similar to previous generations. Fénelon wrote of this denial centuries ago:

We consider ourselves immortal, or at least as though going to live for centuries. Folly of the human spirit! Every day those who die soon follow those who are already dead. One about to leave on a journey ought not to think himself far from one who went only two days before. Life flows by like a flood.  1

Most of us recognize that we will eventually die—but decades from now, not today, not this week, not this month, not this year. Death is a foreigner, not a close neighbor.

We live our lives while clutching fiercely to this illusion. How else can we explain the fact that so many die without a will? We live without making a will, not because we believe we’ll never die, but because we don’t expect to die this week. Thus we have more important tasks to take care of, meetings to attend, things to buy, walls to paint.

Why do we deny death? Fénelon believed we avoid the thought of death so we are not saddened by it. But this, he said, is shortsighted. “It will only be sad for those who have not thought about it.”  2 William Law wrote that the living world’s brilliance blinds us from eternity and the reality of death. “The health of our bodies, the passions of our minds, the noise and hurry and pleasures and business of the world, lead us on with eyes that see not and ears that hear not.”  3

Part of this denial comes from the company we keep. During the seven years I studied in college and seminary, I attended a church with a congregation that was predominantly young. During those seven years, one person in the congregation died, and it was big news.

My first position after seminary was in a more historic church with a predominantly older congregation. The first church had required two rooms to break up the nursery, but this church couldn’t round up enough babies to fill more than two or three double strollers. During our first six months, we had three funerals.

Young people have a distorted view of life. They can forget that funerals are waiting on the other end of weddings and baby showers. When we segregate ourselves—when we don’t know anyone who is suffering from arthritis—we can be lulled to sleep.

Law insisted that most people will regret delaying the thought of death. When death approaches, it is often too late to make amends. Law demonstrated this by describing a symbolic character who, on his deathbed, bemoans his absentmindedness:

Do you think anything can astonish and confound a dying man like this? What pain do you think a man must feel when his conscience lays all this folly to his charge, when it shall show him how regular, exact, and wise he has been in small matters that are passed away like a dream and how stupid and senseless he has lived, without any reflection, without any rules, in things of such eternal moment as no heart can sufficiently conceive them!  4

One magazine writer told the story of a shopper who died from a massive heart attack in front of the frozen pizza section of a supermarket. The writer ruminated about the woman’s last thoughts. “Should I get pepperoni or vegetarian?” Or maybe, “How about triple cheese?” The shopper was seconds away from eternity, on the threshold of entering a new era, and she didn’t even know it. Her mind was occupied with the trivial.

This unexpectedness of death should encourage us to take a second look, to reconsider our pleasant denial, to admit that, yes, death might visit us as early as this week.

The Remembrance of Death Serves Life

William Nelson, a Union general in the Civil War, was consumed with the hostilities in Kentucky when a brawl erupted in his fort and he was shot in the chest. He had faced many battles, but the fatal blow came while he was relaxing with his men. He was caught fully unprepared. As men ran up the stairs to help, the general had just one request: “Send for a clergyman; I wish to be baptized.”

He never made time to be baptized as an adolescent or a young man, and he had too many pressing concerns while in command. In half a second, the general’s priorities had been turned upside down. The war raged on, but suddenly his interest had been captivated by another world. Who cared about Robert E. Lee now? And it was too late to bother with a doctor. Get me a clergyman! With only minutes left before he died, the one thing he cared about was preparing for eternity. He wanted to be baptized.

Thirty minutes later he was dead.

How was this general served by the remembrance of death? Hardly at all, because he remembered it too late. To help us avoid such a gross oversight, Thomas à Kempis urged, “Thou oughtest so to order thyself in all thy thoughts and actions, as if today thou were about to die.”  5 Law expounded on this:

I can’t see why every gentleman, merchant, or soldier should not put these questions seriously to himself: What is the best thing for me to intend and drive at in all my actions? How shall I do to make the most of human life? What ways shall I wish that I had taken when I am leaving this world?  6

When we find out we have only 30 minutes left to live, as General Nelson did, we can’t do much more than prepare our own souls. Even worse, the moment of death could prove that our whole life has been a lie.

As vice president, George H.W. Bush represented the United States at the funeral of former Soviet boss Leonid Brezhnev. During the secular service, Bush witnessed a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev’s widow. She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed.

Brezhnev’s widow reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest.

There, in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life and that that life was best represented by Jesus, who died on the cross. She hoped that same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.

The thought of death came too late for an American Civil War general and a Soviet head of state—will it come too late for us? When your body is lying in the coffin, when your life is being remembered, do you want your surviving spouse or kids or friends to think, “Everything he gave his life for was a fraud. It was wasted. But now, perhaps God will have mercy for him giving his life over to such useless aims, and still usher him into His eternal kingdom.”

Virtually every classic writer holds up the remembrance of death as an essential spiritual discipline. It will help us to live a life that is celebrated rather than mourned. “The man who is really concerned to live well must possess himself continually of the thought that he is not to live long.”  7

Making Death Our Servant

David is dead,” my wife said. “His parents want you to speak at the funeral. They’re burying him tomorrow.”

I had spent the day with my kids at a local fair. We had been riding kiddie roller coasters, braving gravity-busting wheels, and digesting cotton candy. We got home late at night, and the funeral—a three-hour drive away—was scheduled to take place in about 13 hours. It was difficult, as you might imagine, to shift gears so suddenly.

The funeral was a particularly sad one because David died in prison. He poked heroin into his veins once too often, and on one occasion, the HIV virus was clinging to the needle. David developed AIDS and slowly wasted away. He was in his early thirties.

I tried to comfort his parents: “God knows what it’s like to watch a son die in his early thirties,” I said.

Lisa and I decided to take our children to the funeral. On the way, we talked to them about what we could learn from this sad passing. “If somebody tells you what you’re missing out on when you refuse to take drugs, I want you to remember this,” I said. “Think of a young man giving up the rest of his life, dying without a wife, without kids, locked inside a prison cell. That’s where drugs will take you. That’s what you’re missing when you say no to drugs.”

I struggled through the service, trying to find words to reach out to those who had come to say good-bye. “David is gone now,” my talk began, and I searched for lessons we could learn. The classic Christian writers helped me by teaching me that even tragic deaths can provide valuable truths—if not positively, then negatively. In fact, these writers urge us to use death by extracting the message out of each one, thereby making death our servant. Let’s see how the remembrance of death can serve us today.

Pure Perspective

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is the image of the human condition.  1

In this quote, Blaise Pascal captured the reality of the human condition.

The remembrance of death acts like a filter, helping us to hold on to the essential and let go of the trivial. Climacus pointed out that a “man who has heard himself sentenced to death will not worry about the way theaters are run.”  2 His point, of course, is that all of us have been sentenced to death. It’s just a matter of time, so why let trivial matters captivate our hearts?

Eternity certainly does turn everything around. I’m reminded of this every year when I prepare my tax returns. During the year, I rejoice at the paychecks and extra income, and sometimes I wince when I write out the tithe and offering. I do my best to be a joyful giver, but I confess it’s not always easy, especially when I have other perceived needs and wants.

At the end of the year, however, all of that changes. As I’m figuring my tax liability, I wince at every source of income and rejoice with every tithe and offering check—more income means more taxes, but every offering and tithe means fewer taxes. Everything is turned upside down, or perhaps more appropriately, right-side up.

I suspect judgment day will be like that. The things that bother us now and force us out of our schedules—taking time out to encourage or help someone, for instance—will be the very things we deem most important. Today, we may not be too happy about having to skip a movie so we could paint an invalid’s house, or we may regret missing a meeting so we could visit a prisoner or sick person. But in eternity, the movie and the meeting will seem much less important, and we will be glad we took the time to do those acts of kindness.

Perhaps this is why Fénelon writes, “We cannot too greatly deplore the blindness of men who do not want to think of death, and who turn away from an inevitable thing which we could be happy to think of often. Death only troubles carnal people.”  3

We can maintain a pure perspective on what truly matters by viewing life backward—through the lens of the reality of death.

The Passion Filter

The remembrance of death also serves us by filtering our passions. Pascal wrote, “To render passion harmless, let us behave as though we had only a week to live.”  4 Notice the practical element in Pascal’s teaching: Remembering death can take the heat out of sinful passions.

Climacus joined him in this counsel. “You cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last.”  5 He called the thought of death the “most essential of all works” and a gift from God.  6 “The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it by the hour is surely a saint.”  7

Law suggested we make moral choices based on the way we’ll feel on our deathbeds. “The best way for anyone to know how much he ought to aspire after holiness is to consider not how much will make his present life easy, but to ask himself how much he thinks will make him easy at the hour of death.”  8

What man in his right mind would continue contemplating an affair if he really believed he might not wake up in the morning? What person would risk entering eternity in a drunken stupor? What fool would ignore his loved ones and his God for one last night so he could make another quick ten thousand dollars just before he died?

Thomas à Kempis took an even larger view, arguing that the remembrance of death is a powerful force for spiritual growth in general.

Didst thou oftener think of thy death than of thy living long, there is no question but thou wouldst be more zealous to improve. If also thou didst but consider within thyself the infernal pains in the other world, I believe thou wouldst willingly undergo any labor or sorrow in this world, and not be afraid of the greatest austerity. But because these things enter not to the heart, and we still love those things only that delight us, therefore we remain cold and very dull in religion.  9

When we schedule our priorities and follow our passions without regard to eternity, we are essentially looking into the wrong end of a telescope. Instead of seeing things more clearly, our vision becomes tunneled and distorted. We miss the big picture. Law described this skewed perspective:

Feasts and business and pleasures and enjoyments seem great things to us whilst we think of nothing else; but as soon as we add death to them, they all sink into an equal littleness; and the soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of business than the losing of a feast.  10

Only the denial of death allows us to continue rebelling against God. Only because we presume sometime in the future to set things right do we consider letting them go wrong now. Some of us will be surprised in our presumption; eventually our spirits will be dulled until we forget we are presuming, and like all the rest, death will catch us by surprise.

That’s why Thomas à Kempis urged us, “Labor now to live so, that at the hour of death thou mayest rather rejoice than fear.”  11 That hour is coming. If it comes tonight, will you be able to rejoice at your state? Or does the mere thought strike fear into your soul? More is involved than just our eternal destiny. God’s mercy may well pass us into His eternal presence, but do we want to enter heaven after faithfully serving God to the best of our ability, or after some desperate, last-minute confession, realizing we have wasted our lives?

I want to enter death tired. I want to have spent what energy God has apportioned me. The cross-country races that were most satisfying to me when I was young were not the ones I won most easily but the ones that took everything I had to win. Weariness produced by hard, diligent labor is a reward, not a curse. An eternal rest awaits all who know Christ, so why are we preoccupied with rest now?

Death’s Comfort

Death can be a consoling thought for those who face particularly difficult losses or trials in this world. Fénelon reminded us, “St. Paul recommends to all Christians that they console themselves together in the thought of death.”  12

Christians, above all people, have reason to be consoled through death. Although we are last on earth, we will be first in heaven. Those who mock our faith and have a sadistic pleasure in polluting our collective soul with their perversion won’t have a voice in heaven. The lost loved ones we miss so much are waiting for us on the other side of time. Our disabilities or broken-down bodies won’t torment us in heaven. Instead, we’ll rejoice as we meet new and improved versions of ourselves without the aches and pains and without the propensity to sin.

And even more importantly, death ushers us face-to-face into the fulfillment of the cry of our hearts—fellowship with the one true God—and this is our greatest consolation of all. All sincere Christians experience at least a bit of loneliness because we long for a more intimate walk with our God—a walk that we will realize beyond our dreams once we pass the threshold of eternity.

To experience the pain of death is normal and healthy. Jesus, after all, wept at the death of Lazarus. But death can also bring hope, not for what it is, but for what God promises us on the other side. The Christian life doesn’t make complete sense without the consoling thought of eternal life. Paul himself said we should be pitied above all others if the Christian faith is only for this temporal world (1 Corinthians 15:19). John Calvin said we haven’t matured spiritually at all if we don’t actively look forward to the day of our death.

Keeping Death Alive

When I lived in Virginia, I occasionally attended a Wednesday Communion service at an Episcopal church that dates back to the eighteenth century. As is common with many older churches, the building is surrounded by a graveyard. Every week I walked past the grave markers on my way in and out.

That short walk did almost as much for me as the service itself. I was reminded as I faced the second half of the week that one day, my body, my bones, would be lying in the ground. My work on earth will be done. What will matter then? What should matter now in light of that?

I am fond of old graveyards—not in a morbid way, but in a way that inspires me like nothing else. I want to use death the way Thomas à Kempis used it.

Happy is he that always hath the hour of his death before his eyes, and daily prepareth himself to die…When it is morning, think thou mayest die before night; and when evening comes, dare not to promise thyself the next morning. Be thou therefore always in a readiness, and so lead thy life that death may never take thee unprepared.  13

William Law urged that we make the subject of death the focus of our prayers every evening.

The subject that is most proper for your [evening] prayers is death. Let your prayers therefore then be wholly upon it, reckoning up all the dangers, uncertainties, and terrors of death; let them contain everything that can affect and awaken your mind into just apprehensions of it. Let your petitions be all for right sentiments of the approach and importance of death, and beg of God that your mind may be possessed with such a sense of its nearness that you may have it always in your thoughts, do everything as in sight of it, and make every day a day for preparation for it.

Represent to your imagination that your bed is your grave…Such a solemn resignation of yourself into the hands of God every evening and parting with all the world as if you were never to see it anymore, and all this in the silence and darkness of the night, is a practice that will soon have excellent effects upon your spirit.  14

Scupoli urged the remembrance of death by using one of the most common aspects of living: “When walking, think how each step brings you one step nearer to death.”  15

Another way I keep death alive is by living in the communion of saints. I’ll post a picture here or a quote there of someone whose faith and life has encouraged me as a reminder that work has an end. If the world can get by without a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or a Blaise Pascal (both died in their thirties), it can get by without me—and one day it will. I have a limited time to use, and it may be much shorter than I realize.

When contemporary saints die, let’s benefit from their deaths as much as we benefitted from their lives. The passing of Dr. Klaus Bockmuehl, who mentored me in seminary, gave me great pause and still touches me today, two decades later. Wise shoppers clip coupons. Wise Christians clip obituaries.

But the supreme way for a Christian to keep the thought of death alive is, of course, to remember the crucifixion of our Lord. Jesus died proclaiming, “It is finished.” What a wonderful and triumphant way to die—knowing that you’ve completed the task you were sent here for. What is your “it”? Determine what you must accomplish so that at the hour of your death you can look up to heaven and echo the apostle Paul’s words: “The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Just before my family moved from one state to another, Gordon Dunn, a dear missionary in his eighties, invited Lisa and me over for a good-bye dinner. As the night wore on, Gordon pulled me aside and opened up his well-worn Bible to Acts 26:19, where Paul tells Agrippa, “I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.”

“Gary,” Gordon said as he looked me in the eye, “at the end of your life, will you be able to say, as Paul did, that you were not disobedient to the vision given you from heaven?”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation. I particularly try to remember it—as well as Christ’s words on the cross—every time I participate in the Lord’s Supper. Every time we take Communion, we should do so with the awareness that, just as Christ’s work on earth had a beginning and an end (as He ministered in a human body), so the mission He has given us has a beginning and an end.

One of my editors told me of a fellow writer, not well known in the United States, who died at a relatively young age. He had worked tirelessly to get Christians more actively involved in the arts. His life was a testimony to God’s grace and creativity. By all accounts, this man had been a faithful husband, a good father, and an earnest servant of the gospel.

Many tears were shed at the funeral for a man most thought should have had several more decades to live. Yet as his casket was picked up by the pall bearers and carried down the church aisle, something curious happened: Mourners turned into celebrators. The crowd erupted into a spontaneous standing ovation. This was a life well lived; a life in which death revealed a victory, not a defeat; a life marked by faithfulness and service. It deserved a raucous cheer.

May we all live in such a way that our passing evokes a standing ovation, not only by believers on earth but also by the saints and inhabitants of heaven.

Keeping death alive is one of the most fruitful spiritual disciplines we can ever practice. “Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

Lisa and I enjoyed a respite from Houston’s heat and humidity in mid-August after I taped a couple shows for Focus on the Family (on the upcoming When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People) and we drove out to Glenwood Springs, Colorado for a few extra days.

Lisa’s ideal vacation means five or six events a day, while my ideal vacation envisions zero or one scheduled activities, so we usually compromise at four or five. On our last day, after three very full days, Lisa figured we could fit in a “quick walk” to go see Doc Holliday’s grave (after we picked up her morning coffee at Deja Brew, of course). I had run thirteen miles the day before and then went for a seventeen-mile bike ride with Lisa through Glenwood Canyon, but a short walk sounded like a good way to stretch out some sore legs before driving back to Denver and getting on a plane.

What I didn’t realize until we arrived is that the sign we were walking toward signified a trailhead; the actual grave, Lisa told me (after we got there) was “one half a mile up the hill.” I hadn’t realized there was half a mile or a hill, but now that we were there…

We walked straight up to some wonderful views but my runner’s sense of distance kicked in and I said, “this seems longer than half a mile.”

“Well, it’s actually seven-tenths of a mile,” Lisa admitted.

“You mean, you lied to me?”

She put on her cute face.  “I try not to.”

“How do you try not to lie?”

“It’s hard sometimes.”

I laughed because after thirty-five years of marriage Lisa knew that the OCD part of me wasn’t going to turn around until we got there. She had me and we kept walking straight up.

When we got to the top, the disillusionment set in. I’ll be honest—there was zero draw for me to visit Doc Holliday’s grave to begin with. Holliday was a gambler and dentist who became famous largely for a thirty-second gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He died destitute and alone at the age of 36. Hollywood has kept his legend alive (nearly three dozen actors have played him, and he was even depicted in a Star Trek episode) but how can a gambler and failed dentist who took part in a thirty-second gunfight be worthy of such remembrance? Is that really a life to celebrate?

So I was already skeptical when we finally got to the top of our climb and a sign pointed left. What we came to, however, wasn’t a gravesite; it was a memorial marker. Since Holliday died destitute, his grave was covered with a wooden marker that had long since disintegrated. Cemetery records were lost in a fire so nobody knows where Doc Holliday is actually buried. The monument says his bones lie somewhere in the cemetery but even that’s a stretch; he could have been buried in a nearby area called “the Potter’s Field,” so all they really know for sure is that he is buried somewhere on the mountain where we were standing.

Which means, deception got me to a place that was a huge disappointment.

Just like our end-of-vacation walk, much of life is built on deception and disillusionment. What really matters in life and marriage, and what is truly satisfying? If we don’t know the answers to these two questions, our families will suffer accordingly.

I’ve been reading William Law again and in convicting fashion he lays bare the folly of most human endeavor. Law writes about how silly it would be, and how crazy everyone would think this, if a man tired himself out, ignoring his family and compromising his health, in order to say he died owning a thousand pairs of boots-and-spurs. It’s almost funny—who needs a thousand pairs of boots-and-spurs? Then he asks (which is where the conviction gets poured in) how this is any different from someone who dies with a thousand pounds he or she can no longer spend, and it’s not so funny; it’s painful.

This is a world that tells us to value and pursue everything that doesn’t matter. It’s the great deception. We’re deceived that there is something exciting and fulfilling at the “top” if we’ll just keep climbing. The “top” could be wealth, fame, beauty, health, excitement, pleasure, romance, or achievement. It must be satisfying—everyone says it is—so we struggle through the climb to get ever closer, avoiding a lot of other things, ruining or ignoring our relationships, only to be radically disillusioned at the top when we realize it’s all an illusion.

Have you ever asked yourself why the most famous people usually end up with the most messed up lives of addiction, multiple failed marriages, and ruined health? They are the few who have “won” the race everyone says matters, but at the finish line they realize it’s not fulfilling and the race isn’t worth running, let alone winning. There must be something more, so they turn to drugs or alcohol, or another romantic tryst…

While in Glenwood Springs, Lisa and I spent an early evening at the Iron Mountain Hot Springs. In one pool, Lisa and I heard a group of women discussing an astonishing number of medical options to keep women looking young. What they did to their faces, injected into their bodies, paid to undergo treatments, and the effort they spent investigating new options (“this is what all the Kardashians are doing now,” one woman opined) was quite astonishing.

Lisa, who is often mistaken for my daughter to begin with, asked me if I wished she was more into that stuff. “What were you thinking listening to them?” she asked when we got into another pool.

“All I could think of was William Law’s admonition that women and men should earnestly pursue humility, patience, generosity, faith, compassion, courage, kindness, and forgiveness with the same intensity that those in the world pursue wealth, fame, worldly achievement, and physical beauty.”


The deception is that looking like you’re twenty-five when you’re fifty, or fifty when you’re seventy, is somehow worthy of more time and money and attention than growing in Christlikeness whatever your age may be. It’s not easy to employ self-denial and then to value the things of God more than the things of this world, which is probably why so few of us ever walk that path—even those of us who call ourselves Christians.

This is why we have to beware of disillusionment: the empty promises of the world never deliver. It’s like an infatuation that is so intense for a few months but then mocks and taunts us as it fades.

Doc Holliday is celebrated, but really, why should we care? Should we erect grave memorials to the many modern-day gang members who have survived numerous thirty second gunfights?

If you spend your life pursuing things that don’t really matter; if you think a successful life is defined by how much money you leave behind; how many people you were able to sleep with; how many dresses you wore that received compliments; how many shoes are in your closet, or how low your handicap was at golf; when you die, will any of that matter? Will you look as silly as the man who ignored his family and health to ensure he died with a thousand pairs of boots-and-spurs?


Everyone of us is being lied to. I believe if we are not “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as Jesus urges us to in Matthew 6:33, we are settling for a lesser life, a life based on deception that will result in disillusionment. When we see the glory of the Kingdom unfiltered, and the beauty of life when everyone lives in submission to God, we will ask ourselves, “How could I be enamored with any other world or any other way of life?”

The Christian classics urge us toward a spiritual discipline called “the remembrance of death.” John of the Cross, for example, lived with skulls in his cell (and even fashioned one into a bowl) to remind himself of where he was—and all of us are—headed. When we are on our deathbed, how will we have wanted to live? Will we celebrate the sins we gave into or will we mourn them? Will we regret the works of faith we did or will we be thankful for them? Will we wish we had made better use of our time or will we be grateful for the mindless entertainment and trivial conversation that took up so many of our hours? (After this blogpost, we’re going to post two chapters of an excerpt from my book Thirsting for God that covers this discipline, if you want to read further in this area).

If you want to avoid deception and disillusionment, base your life, marriage, and family on truth and hope. Jesus is the only teacher who knew what life outside of the space/time continuum that we call “earth” is like. The apostle Paul got a glimpse, but Jesus could tell us what to expect and therefore what to live for in a way no one else ever has or could. If we base our life on His agenda, seeking first the Kingdom of God, we are following the only teacher who truly knew what He was talking about, the very definition of “truth.”

If you pursue a deception, you’ll eventually wake up disillusioned. Don’t blame your marriage or your spouse for the disillusionment; just wake up to the truth. Spiritual health is cultivated by regularly asking ourselves, every day, “Is this true?” and “Is this pursuit important?”

To understand how difficult it is to be married to a certain kind of person, you need to know that the Bible was written in a desert. The Promised Land is described as a place of “milk and honey” but even the most generous of geographers would call it “arid.” Average temperatures run in the high 80s and 90s. Places like Tel Aviv aren’t just hot, they’re also very humid.

Having been a resident of Houston, Texas for nearly a decade, I don’t have to imagine how it feels to live in temperatures in the 90s with high humidity—I run through months of days like this every year. One of the best feelings in life is to come in from a long, hot and humid run and step into an air-conditioned house. If “How Great Thou Art” isn’t the first thing that comes out of your mouth, you have a calloused soul indeed.

It’s out of that context that I recently read Proverbs 25:24: “It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman.”

In a hot and humid world, the one thing I would not want to do is live outside. The second thing I would hate to do is to be exposed to the sun without shade, which this image implies. The third thing that would make it even worse is having to stay on the corner so that there are at least two sides in which I could fall off and potentially break my neck.

The writer of Proverbs has created an image that, three thousand years ago (when it was written) would have caused everybody to think “ewwwwwww….” And that’s the image he uses to picture what it’s like to be married to a “contentious” person.

If you’re single, don’t marry a contentious person. If you’re married and contentious, you need to kill this tendency before it kills your marriage.

Contentious means quarrelsome and argumentative. Synonyms include belligerent, combative, and confrontational. It exists on a continuum. Just as you can be tipsy, drunk, or passed out, so you can be consistently confrontational, full on argumentative, or contentiously toxic. Most of us exist on this dangerous spectrum at some point or other.

Proverbs was originally written for young men, so it’s only natural the writer would warn against picking a contentious wife, but it’s just as true a warning for a woman not to marry a contentious man. And the wisest man who ever lived argues that it’s so unpleasant to be married to such a person that it’s actually more pleasant to live in a hot and humid place, exposed to the sun and having to constantly guard against an injurious fall than to share an air-conditioned mansion with an argumentative person.

Here are a couple examples: one wife puts up with a husband who has strong political opinions and who loves to watch politically oriented shows. Every day he has a dozen fantasy debates against opponents who can’t even hear him. She’s embarrassed at church, restaurants, and family gatherings. One innocent “trigger word” from an unaware person, like “immigration,” “taxes,” “Obama,” or “Trump” and she tries to get as far away as possible because she knows what’s going to follow. If a pastor mutters one of those words in a sermon, that’s the only part of the sermon this man will hear—and all the wife will hear about on the drive home. He is consistently one sermon, actually one sentence in a sermon, away from leaving his fifth church.

A husband has a wife who is easily disappointed and processes her disappointment verbally. He has his feet cut out from under him several times a day. He folds the towels wrong. He buys the wrong food at the grocery store. He orders the wrong dish at the restaurant; there’s always a “better” choice. When his wife sent him with his daughter to a used bookstore to use up some store credit before moving out of town, he got yelled at for buying six books for himself and six for his daughter.

“What did you expect me to get at a used bookstore?” he asked.

“Not six books!” she said. “Maybe one or two.”

“We had $80 credit!”

You get the point. Living with a contentious person leaves you continually on edge, having to justify a dozen decisions or opinions a day. There’s no peace, little quiet or rest. It’s like living with a prosecuting attorney, without a defense lawyer, and you’re the accused. It will feel exhausting. No matter how good the rest of your life is, the fact that you married a contentious person will feel like getting splashed with cold water several times a day. It gets really old really fast.

So, if you’re single, the writer would advise, don’t marry a contentious person. If you’re dating a woman or man who is extremely opinionated and contentious, you don’t need a second date. If you’ve fallen head over heels in love but notice that he or she is contentious on the 100th date, thank God that you didn’t rush into marriage right away and can still get out of there. You’ve escaped. Good for you.

If you recognize yourself as a contentious person, don’t pass it off as just the way you are. The “way you are” may be destroying your marriage. We urge guys who are looking at porn to get help because eventually that repeated action will wreck sexual intimacy. In the same way women (and men), you need to know that if you are contentious you will wreck relational intimacy. If you want help, here are a few suggestions.

Because Christian transformation begins with the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2), remember to do what I suggest in Cherish: preach the Gospel to yourself first thing every morning so that you can extend the same unmerited grace to your family members throughout the day. The Gospel is, in part, the unconditional acceptance, love, and affirmation of your heavenly Father based in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s something you didn’t earn and therefore something you can’t lose. Your acceptance by God is rooted outside who you are and what you’ve done in the finished work and person of Jesus Christ. Give your spouse and children what God has given you.

The “Gospel” isn’t just a belief; it’s a way of life. It’s living in the awareness of our debt to God so that having received grace, we can offer that grace to others.

Second, memorize Philippians 4:8. You’ve heard it a million times, but use it as a filter. Because it’s so familiar, I’m going to write it out as a list. The apostle Paul says the only things you should think about are:

  • Whatever is true
  • Whatever is noble
  • Whatever is right
  • Whatever is pure
  • Whatever is lovely
  • Whatever is admirable
  • Whatever is excellent or praiseworthy

If thinking about the acts of the current President or Congress always make you contentious, stop thinking about him/them. Don’t let a toxic government create a toxic marriage or home. If your spouse knows only how they disappoint you, inconvenience you and frustrate you, you’re thinking about the wrong things. You talk about what you think about so stop thinking about how often your spouse lets you down and find the few things that you can praise (unless it’s abuse and you need to get to a safe place). Your marriage may depend on it. The happiness of your marriage almost certainly does.

Go on a correction fast. It’s not wrong for a person to go into a bar, but it can, under certain circumstances, be foolish for a recovering alcoholic to do so. In the same way, a contentious person should think twice about expressing any negativity or correction until he or she can get it under control. Recognize that you have a problem and respect the severity of the problem.

Proverbs 18:21 is clear: “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Men, if you have loaded guns in your home you probably keep them in a locked cabinet. Take as much care with your tongue. Colossians 3:19 is clear and extreme when it tells husbands, “Love your wives and never treat them harshly.” Did you catch the word “never?” That means it’s not okay to be harsh when you’re really tired. It’s not okay to be harsh when your life is disappointing. It’s not okay to be harsh when you’ve had a long day. Paul says we never get to be harsh with our wives.

But wives, Proverbs 25:24 essentially says that the same is true for you. Sloan Wilson, author of the best-seller The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, utilizes a novelist’s brilliant touch when he depicts a wife who cuts her husband down. Listen to this scathing indictment of a woman slowly poisoning not just her marriage, but the husband whom she once promised to cherish: “She had a high art of deflating him, of enfeebling him, with one quick, innocent sounding phrase….She was, in fact, a genius in planting in him an assurance of his inferiority.”

The famous Puritan John Owen once said, “Kill sin or it will kill you.” I’ll borrow heavily from Owen to say, “Kill a contentious spirit before it kills your marriage.”

I’m not suggesting being married to an argumentative person is grounds for divorce. If you find yourself in that unhappy place, make your home in Philippians 4:8, lest your spouse’s contentious heart turn you into a contentious person yourself. In other words, don’t treat your spouse like your spouse treats you. Fighting sin with sin doesn’t conquer sin; it multiplies it.

Instead, preach the Gospel to yourself. When we are reminded of how much God loves us, accepts us and forgives us; when we meditate on his wisdom, power and wonder, the negative opinion of a fallen human being—even a spouse—won’t define us. Live in the affirmation of God. Go back and read the blog entitled “Arise and Shine.”

And then, prayerfully consider sharing this blog with your spouse. They may not be able to hear it from you, but perhaps they can hear it from someone else. We don’t usually have a problem calling out other relationally destructive sins like addictive gambling, excessive spending, porn, affairs, or domestic violence. A contentious spirit is on par with many of these. It needs to be called out and addressed.

So, if you’re single, just don’t go down that road.

If you’re married, take a hard U-Turn. There aren’t enough riches or big enough houses in this world to make up for living with a contentious spouse.

One of the kindest words God has ever spoken to me is the word “no.”

One of God’s most effective tools to preserve my freedom and keep me out of spiritual slavery is when God says, “Don’t.”

Spoken by a supremely loving, all-wise, heavenly father who wants me to enjoy the abundant life, “no” and “don’t” are loving words, merciful words, and grace-filled words.

The great evangelist John Wesley explained why when he said no one is truly happy who is not pursuing holy. Think about it: have you ever met a truly happy addict? He may have moments of pleasure, but those illicit moments usher in much more misery, long-term. Addiction is an excruciating exercise in frustration, where you increasingly give ever more of yourself to get less and less pleasure until you don’t even like yourself very much anymore.

Have you ever known a happy man whose anger is out of control? Isn’t he miserable, destroying his closest relationships and pushing out any real chance of true intimacy and joy?

Have you ever known a woman who is negative or materialistic to be happy? Isn’t she always frustrated, disappointed, cursing under her breath, never getting to that happy place of contentment where she can breathe a sigh of satisfaction and truly rest in “enough?”

Holy leads us to happy. Holy protects happy. But pursuing happy for its own sake is to risk making unholy choices, which in the end undercuts our happiness.

A culture largely removed from a serious pursuit of God doesn’t even understand that pursuing happiness first is in one sense settling for less. Happiness is wonderful, but a life based on God’s presence, glory, and love is more wonderful still. The good news is, we don’t have to choose! We can advance beyond happiness to the God-centered life we are meant to live.

This is why singles seeking a partner and married people who already have a partner need to rethink their priorities about what they want out of marriage. If you’re pursuing what will make you happy at the expense of holy, you’re more likely to miss happy. If you pursue holiness, you’re far more likely to arrive at a happy marriage. Find a life partner who inspires you toward Christ-likeness and you’ll find the person who is most likely to make you happy.

A Holy Marriage

When my book Sacred Marriage came out with the provocative subtitle, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” I was asked where this line came from. Let’s take a journey to see how Scripture addresses marriage, looking at what it says and doesn’t say, to arrive at the conclusion that our first concern should be to pursue holiness.

First, let’s look at the creation of marriage.  Man and woman are called together to fulfill the purpose for which God created them—to be fruitful, to fill the earth, and subdue it (Genesis 1:28).  These purposes point toward a holy life—raising kids who love God, and responsibly using our talents to serve God and join with him in building and ruling this world—far more than they support the modern notion that marriage is all about individual, self-absorbed happiness. From the very start, marriage is described as a mission more than it is described as a matinee.

In the New Testament, one of Paul’s clearest recommendations for Christians to consider marriage is for the purpose of overcoming sexual temptation: “Since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2).  Paul is directly saying that one of the purposes of marriage is for the sake of living a holy life, in particular, overcoming sexual temptation. “If they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9).

Elsewhere, when Paul talks about the nature of marriage to the Ephesians, he also showcases holiness.  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph. 5:25-27)  Paul says that we should base the marriage relationship on the relationship that Christ had with the church—a relationship in which Jesus seeks the church’s holiness.  So too we love each other by encouraging growth in holiness.

Peter also connects marriage and holiness when he warns men that if they fail to treat their wives with respect and as co-heirs in Christ, their prayer lives will be hindered (1 Peter 3:7).  Holiness within marriage is essential for us to maintain an active prayer life.  Once again, this points toward holiness, not happiness.  You can pray all you want in an unhappy marriage; but prayer will be blocked solid if you’re in an unholy marriage.

The writer of Hebrews also seems to point toward holiness in marriage.  In 12:14, we’re told, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy.  Without holiness no one will see the Lord.”  While not directly addressing marriage here, the writer is clearly addressing relationships, emphasizing the role of holiness as a goal in relating to others. He doesn’t say make every effort to be happy.

Most telling of all are the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus tells us to seek first, above all else, as our top priority, “the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” He doesn’t tell us to seek first happiness, an intimate marriage, a fulfilling vocation, financial success or even physical health. Our first concern when we wake up every day should be God’s agenda, not our own, and seeking to grow in righteousness—dying to the things that offend him, embracing the life and virtues of Christ that honor him.

The Bible clearly doesn’t tell us to pursue happiness with the same force it tells us to pursue righteousness, character, holiness, and integrity. There is one exception, of course. In Deuteronomy 24:5 a young man is told to take a year off after getting married so that he can “stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married.” 

The verse in Deuteronomy clues us into the fact that perhaps God calls us to holiness because (at least in part) he wants us to be happy. He is not “anti-happiness.” Rather than pit holiness and happiness against each other, we need to understand how they support each other. In moments of decision, however, it’s clear from the biblical record that God values our obedience and character more than any emotional disposition.

Making a Wise Choice

What does this mean if you’re single? How does it impact the way you date, who you date, and who you choose to marry?

Proverbs 31:30 warns single men “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.” More than you care about what a woman looks like, incline your heart to a woman who fears God. Beauty is a wonderful thing and not to be taken for granted, but it is not the supreme thing. Date a woman who will offend you before she offends God, so that she challenges you to also pursue a holy life.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog,you probably want to be the kind of man or woman God wants you to be. Doesn’t it make good sense to date someone who will help you be that kind of person, instead of someone who may tempt you to become a different kind of person and do something you’ll eventually regret?

On one of the occasions when I refused to do a wedding, it was partly because the woman told me and my wife that she’d like to be just like her mother, whom she respected and adored. Yet her fiancé despised her mother in a condescending way. We urged her to put her romantic feelings aside and ask herself, “Why do I want to marry someone who despises the kind of person I want to become?”

If the best life is found by seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, shouldn’t our most intimate relationship be with a person who shares the same end and is determined to help us on our journey?

There’s yet another aspect to this. The writer of Hebrews says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (10:24). Good deeds will be greatly rewarded in heaven (2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 6:9; Matt. 25:21). If you marry a believer who inspires you to live a life of service and righteousness, your eternity will be different. Good deeds don’t get us into heaven, but they certainly seem to impact the color of our life there.

So, marrying for holiness will, I believe, not only give you a happier life on earth but also a more rewarding life in heaven. It’s not wrong to want to marry a beautiful woman, and/or a man you enjoy spending time with. Those are good desires. Just don’t compromise on the faith part. Marry for holiness and you’re far more likely to arrive at happiness. Marry for happiness apart from reverence for God and his ways, and you’ll likely find that you’ve built your future happiness on soap bubbles and sand.

Trust Jesus. He knows what he’s talking about and he wants the best for you. The very best is to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. Those loving, wise words should be the driving force in your pursuit of marriage.

And if you’re already married, while conflict resolution, communication skills, and sexual intimacy all have their place in rebuilding a struggling marriage, why not double down on your mutual pursuit of holiness? It’s what God designed you to experience, and it’s what, in the end, will foster and preserve the happiest of marriages. Jesus tells us that if we seek first His kingdom and righteousness, “all these things will be given to you as well.”

Singles, for more of this, check out The Sacred Search.