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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.

May 8, 2019

More than Mothers

Gary Thomas — 

My goal in this week’s blog is simple: I want to help us guys (me first) to celebrate our wives and moms on Mother’s Day without being narcissistic. If we’re not careful, we can value our moms primarily for what they gave us and our wives for what they give us, but this pegs their worth to how they impact us, which is basically the very definition of narcissism (not in the clinical sense, but in the popular usage of the word).

I wrote in A Lifelong Love that if I love my wife because she’s kind, I don’t necessarily love my wife; I love kindness. If I love her because she’s a willing participant in sexual relations, I may not love her as much as I love having sex with her.

Biblical love is the love of God that loves because it loves, a unilateral commitment that proclaims the worth and excellence of its beloved because it has chosen to. God loved us while we were yet sinners—not because we deserved or deserve it.

The reason it’s necessary to point this out and pursue this kind of love is because there will be times in any marriage where the wife or mother may not act in a “lovable” manner. She may not be kind and she may even be a chronic or bitter complainer. The Bible promises you that your spouse will mess up regularly and creatively (James 3:2). If your love is pegged to how your spouse treats you, it’s being held up by thrice-used tape.

A Better Way

A better way to celebrate our wives and moms is to remember how the Bible affirms women for who they are, not what they do for us. Just as we need to meditate on the goodness and wonder of God to maintain a worshipful heart, so we need to meditate on the wonder of women in general to cherish our spouse in particular.

Without attacking or even diminishing motherhood, the Bible brilliantly portrays women as much more than mothers. Women are God’s daughters, God’s servants, and leaders in their own right apart from their ability to give birth.

This proclamation begins at the beginning. It’s quite astonishing how even the book of Genesis steps 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). Our original creation proclaims 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 shocking, 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).

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, whose courageous stand against her own country earned her citizenship into God’s people; Ruth, who broke with the idolatry of her homeland to enter the faith and “salvation history” of the Jewish Messiah; Mary, given news that could have seemed like a death sentence, whose response implies consent (“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled”) and whom God used to bring our Lord and Savior into this world. There’s also Bathsheba, a woman whose consent didn’t matter when she was “summoned” by the king. Though once a victim, she is remembered for playing a crucial part in a story that leads to the birth of Christ. Rather than being forever tainted by what was done to her, she is beloved for what God did through her.

Just as significantly for Christians, 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. Instead, 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.”

When a woman called out to Jesus in praise of Mary, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27–28). Back then, a woman was valued primarily for what her children accomplished; Jesus directly refutes this as a woman’s only value, saying he also exalts women who embrace his truth and go to work on behalf of his kingdom.

And let’s look at Jesus’ death. While one male disciple betrayed our Lord and ten 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 Pharisaical 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.

Though the apostle Paul is often called a misogynist because he seems to suggest that there is a difference between the genders, and that gender may impact the relationship and even leadership within a marriage (Col. 3:18, 1 Cor. 11:3, and Eph. 5:22, among several others), he still “got” the transformation Jesus imparted when it comes to gender when he urges some widows in 1 Corinthians 7 to seriously consider staying unmarried so they can more fully devote themselves to kingdom work. This underscores Paul’s belief that a woman’s highest call isn’t to find a husband to help but rather a Savior to serve.

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.  

What this Means for Husbands and Sons

The best marriages will be shaped by husbands who live in the truth proclaimed by both Jesus and Paul: before your wife is a wife, before she is your kids’ mom, she is God’s daughter and God’s servant. She wasn’t put here on earth to make us happy and our kids comfortable; she was created to be the woman of influence God created her to be.

I can’t love my wife well if I have a faulty, narcissistic view of women in general. If we love our wives primarily as our wives and as our kids’ moms, we’re defining them in a very selfish, even narcissistic fashion. Jesus tells all of us to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33).

The key for me is remembering that Lisa’s first role and her first identity is being God’s daughter and God’s servant. I can’t respect her if I don’t respect (and release her for) that. From this foundation, making a big deal out of Mother’s Day with loads of dark chocolate (for Lisa, “dark” starts at 85%) and hipster indie coffee is a great idea. We can and should celebrate their service to us.

Let’s just not stop there.

Note: a large portion of this post is adapted from my book Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband

What if one of the most dangerous attitudes for believers is self-righteousness?

What if it’s possible to be “right” and toxic at the same time?

What if, in the name of doing God’s work, we find ourselves furthering the cause of Satan?

I’ve been reading through Thomas Brooks’ Christian classic Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. It’s a book I’d recommend every Christian read. Precious Remedies may remind you of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, though in a vastly different, point-by-point Puritan style of presentation. Brooks (a 17th century English non-conformist Puritan preacher) presents Satan’s methods (“devices”) and then “divine remedies” to counter them.

One of the most vicious and subtle attacks on God’s church, according to Brooks, is Satan’s determination to destroy the saints by dividing them, until we “bite and devour” one another (Gal. 5:15). One of Satan’s favorite tools to accomplish this aim, according to Brooks, is the saints’ own self-righteousness. We catch somebody doing or saying one thing wrong, and then use that as license to destroy them and everything they are.

Brooks quotes Erasmus who showed how silly self-righteous judgment can be. Erasmus chastises a scholar who “collected all the lame and defective verses in Homer’s works—but passed over all that was excellent. Ah! This is the practice of many people, that they are careful and skillful to collect all the weaknesses of others, and to pass over all those things which are excellent to them.”

Homer’s writings are widely regarded as foundational works of great literature, but if you focus on his worst passages, you miss the beauty, power, and poetry of the best.

It would be like someone collecting videotape of Tom Brady’s worst plays, weaving them together, and putting out the video with a caption, “Tom Brady is not a great quarterback.” You ignore his nine Super Bowl appearances and six Super Bowl rings because, well, in a January 2010 playoff game against the Ravens he threw for just 154 yards and had three interceptions.

The chronicler reveals himself to be an absolute fool. Brady had a bad day, but he’s still a great quarterback.

Yet how many of us treat family members this way, looking for the worst and defining them by their worst? And how many of us treat Christians with whom we disagree this way?

Self-righteousness shame casting gets us angry and vindictive and then it snowballs. We look for more that is wrong, more to chastise, more we can use to “shame” who has now become our enemy as we “bite and devour one another.” We forget the human condition—that every person has strengths and weaknesses.

Dare I say it? Every ministry has truth and lies. The only perfect sermon was the sermon on the Mount. The only perfect book is the one God wrote. The only perfect spouses (Adam and Eve) didn’t stay that way for very long. This is the lesson I take from reading the Christian classics: there are often many nuggets of gold occasionally surrounded by a few pieces of excrement. I am most dangerous and most deadly when I become a stranger to humility and make myself the arbiter of all things true and moral and good.

Brooks asks why we “enjoy” self-righteous diatribes: “Tell me, saints, is it not a more sweet, comfortable, and delightful thing to look more upon one another’s graces than upon one another’s infirmities? Tell me what pleasure, what delight, what comfort is there in looking upon the enemies, the wounds, the sores, the sickness, the diseases, the nakedness of our friends?”

If we gather in groups to share our spouse’s shortcomings; if we meet after church to chastise the sermon’s weaknesses and the church’s failures, if we gather in blogs or on Facebook to organize and execute the most recent take down of the next victim, we may be giving way to one of “Satan’s devices.” Self-righteousness is like a snowball rolling down the hill that gets larger as it rolls, picking up momentum and force as others join in. Now, imagine an entire church or online community pushing that ball. I’ve seen some get so frenzied in their zeal they’d roll that snowball right over Jesus to attack the object of their disdain.

It’s Personal

What if Jesus views that “object” of your scorn as his son or daughter? If you have kids you know they aren’t perfect. You know they make mistakes and occasionally do or say stupid things. But you can’t stop looking at them through the eyes of a parent, can you? You are still for them even when you are against what they do or say. That’s the attitude of a graceful Christian—you remain for someone even when calling them into repentance.

God looks at every Christian you attack as his son or daughter. When we must disagree and confront sin and false teaching, we should do it with reverence. Christ died for the person you are attacking. Christ wants that person’s best. If we had to be perfect to merit God’s favor, no one would be left standing in the church.

I’ve said time and again that the biggest mind-transformation for me was when I “got” that Lisa is God’s daughter (1 John 3:1) and that as his daughter she is dearly loved (Ephesians 5:1). Any correction, any challenge, has to be done with the understanding that I am talking to God’s daughter. That calls me to more than respect; it calls me to reverence and divine gratitude. Her heavenly father has given me everything, and how I treat her says as much about how I view Him as it does about how I view her. If one of my children mess up, I know they need to be challenged, but I want it to be done with grace and understanding and good will, not hatred, malice, slander, or making them sound worse than they are.

It took me a little longer to extend this beyond my family to other believers. But this is why you won’t find me attacking books or people in this blog. I don’t know how to do it with reverence. I’ve seen my mentor J.I. Packer do it (just read Keep in Step with the Spirit). I’ve listened to another mentor, Dr. Klaus Bockmuehl, do the same with theological “opponents.” But it’s so difficult to do and it’s so easy to go from being right to being self-righteous, and that tiny gap is where you go from serving God to perhaps unwittingly furthering the cause of Satan who seeks to divide us by inciting us to bite and devour one another. “They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim cruel words like deadly arrows” (Psalm 64:3).

The world’s hostility toward the words and people of Christ grows daily; how much must it grieve our heavenly Father when he sees his children adding to this hostility?

The Gospel is What we Receive and Share

Brooks says something shocking: “Does not God look more upon his people’s graces than upon their weaknesses?” Consider how God describes David as “a man after my own heart.” James reminds us to remember the “patience of Job” (5:11), ignoring the twenty chapters of Job’s impatient ranting. Rahab the prostitute isn’t remembered and condemned for sleeping with hundreds of men; she is celebrated for hiding two of God’s chosen. In some Christian quarters today, any individuals who did what these three did would be defined by their worst moments, cast out, and banned.

Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous is a hero to many who never met him but often felt like a train wreck waiting to happen to those who did. Wilson’s associates often lamented how such an unworthy man was the figurehead for such a worthy mission. Bill’s frustrated addiction to alcohol became arguably an addiction to sex, making him chronically unfaithful to his wife. The transfer from alcohol to sex addiction isn’t uncommon; in AA circles it’s derisively described as “thirteenth stepping,” and Wilson was one of the most prolific thirteenth steppers who ever lived. A long-term mistress, Helen Wynn, was actually a beneficiary in his will. And (this is particularly sad and heart-wrenching), in the last few weeks of his life, as Bill Wilson lay dying, nurses recorded three separate times that Bill demanded a drink and became furious when they didn’t comply.

Knowing all this, any fame-thirsty blogger could have written a good “take down” of Bill; his hypocrisy, his unworthiness to be a figure of renown. How could AA or its message be any good when its founder was so “bad”? But the program Bill launched—though imperfect—has benefitted tens of millions of people, helping them find the freedom that he never entirely did.

Can I be honest with you? If you get to know any of the people behind the headlines, they are all broken people with broken pasts. And broken people usually still have a limp. Some, like Beth Moore and Bob Goff, have bravely shared glimpses of their painful pasts. Others don’t have the strength or desire to share so freely (perhaps for some good reasons) but if you dug deeply enough, you wouldn’t find a single public face without some private shame.

We are all messed up, in some way. Stepping out of the sewer is a universal human condition. To step out in the public and be used by God, we might have washed our face but forgotten to wash behind our ears or still have something sticking in our hair. As a person saved by grace I want to extend grace myself and try to whisper to the person, “You’ve got grime on your neck” rather than laugh out loud, point it out to everyone, and make the person feel shame because even though they’ve left most of the sewer behind, a little stink is still sticking with them.

Here’s a warning: when God loves someone as a daughter or son and you tear that person apart, now you’ve got a problem with God. Read the book of Job; God was angry with Job for getting things wrong, but he grew even angrier with Job’s friends for the way they responded to Job’s errors.

Let me be clear: if my son or daughter was doing or saying something heinous, and another believer found a way, with grace, to confront and correct them, I’d be grateful for the person doing the correcting. My heart would be filled with love and gratitude for them. If they did it in a self-righteous way, however, destroying and attacking their person, even if I agreed with what they were saying I would hate what they were doing. Job’s accusers said many true things, but being against Job, even in his ranting, made God stand against them because “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

God has one church—a very imperfect church. If we tear that one church apart, what’s left? An open playing field for Satan.

The Essential Ministry of Confrontation

 As a postscript, I want to make clear I don’t discount the sometimes necessary ministry of confrontation, otherwise you’d have to throw out the entire book of Jeremiah and the ministry of John the Baptist (but notice how both ended clarion calls of judgment with gracious invitations of healing). There has been some very necessary deep cleansing in the church. If men won’t treat women with respect out of reverence for God, perhaps at least they’ll now start doing so out of fear of the world’s shame and reprisal. The church is commanded to protect and stand up for the vulnerable and oppressed (Prov. 24:11) and to “gently” restore those who have sinned (Gal. 6:1). We have a very difficult time balancing these two charges, but we must find a way. We can fall off on either side.

Tim Challies’ sometimes negative reviews of books help me clarify my own thinking. Scot McKnight is someone I occasionally check out to help me think through controversial issues (I love the way he usually waits and reflects instead of commenting off the cuff). Sheila Gregoire offered some much-needed corrections to perhaps unforeseen horrendous implications behind the good intentions of the purity movement. Deb Fileta wrote True Love Dates to correct some faulty thinking on dating and was so successful, Josh Harris pulled his book from publication and ended up endorsing Deb’s. I may not always agree with Tim, Scot, Sheila or Deb, but I’m frequently listening.

It’s clear from the words of Jesus (Matt. 7:1-5) and Paul (1 Cor. 11:31; Romans 14:3, 10, 13) that we should spend the vast majority of our time judging ourselves first and encouraging others rather than attacking them (1 Thess. 5:11). That’s the practice that sets up a healthy foundation with which to confront the weaknesses of others, but it’s the first practice the self-righteous man or woman leaves behind. Pointing out the wrongs of others or the false-teaching of others doesn’t, in itself, absolve you from searching your own heart for evil and your own words for untruth. If you’re reading a blog or listening to a podcast or following someone on twitter that attacks more than it encourages, be careful. Seriously—if you’re in a tribe, online or otherwise, known more for what it opposes than what it is for, you are extremely vulnerable to being drowned in your own self-righteousness, and all the agreement you’re collecting will only push you further in that direction.

If someone actually takes glee in taking someone down, that may say more about their soul than the person they are attacking. Opposing someone who is wrong doesn’t make you right. There are two ways to miss a target.

This is why we need to be aware of the danger, even the demonic allure, of self-righteousness. “There are no souls in the world who are so fearful to judge others—as those who do most judge themselves; nor so careful to make a righteous judgment of men or things—as those who are most careful to judge themselves” (Brooks).

After reminding us that God looks more on our “graces” than “weaknesses,” Brooks writes, “Ah, saints, be like your heavenly Father!  By so doing, much sin would be prevented, the designs of wicked men frustrated, Satan outwitted, many wounds healed, many sad hearts cheered, and God more abundantly honored.”

God, please grant me the grace to correct others as you have corrected me—being for me even as you are against what I am doing; offering hope for the future more loudly than condemnation about the past; affirming me as a person even as you challenge my errors. Let me be so enamored with the perfect righteousness of Christ that I become dead to my own self-righteousness and treat others with the grace you have shown to me. Have mercy on us and please heal our broken and divided church with grace, humility, truth and compassion. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

January 23, 2019

No Spouse is Everything

Gary Thomas — 

Don’t you think it would be cruel to ask your spouse to hold down five jobs?

Let’s say your wife is a university professor, but you expect her to also serve as a detective in the police department, an investment advisor at a local bank, a case worker for child protective services, and sell new cars on the weekend.

That would be insane, right?

Or say your husband operates a Chick-Fil-A, but you expect him to also coach the high school football team, be a plumber on the weekend, serve as head librarian at the local seminary, and inspect houses during his “free time.”

Hopefully, no one would ask their spouse to hold down five jobs, but many of us ask our spouses to be five different people.

And that’s just as cruel as asking them to hold down five jobs.

Can we accept that given the human condition, no spouse is the “total package?”

Louis of Granada (a sixteenth century Dominican Friar) paints a beautiful portrait of how we must learn to honor God as creator by pointing to the variety we find in nature. God doesn’t use a cookie-cutter to shape his world. Every creature has certain weaknesses and strengths. We honor God when we learn to celebrate the beauty of one creature without asking it to have the strengths of other creatures. Those worship God the most who celebrate the frailty of a hummingbird and the bulk of a rhinoceros.

Here’s how Louis describes it:

“We find beautiful variety in the works of nature, where the Sovereign Creator wisely apportions all gifts or qualities so that the lack of one perfection is compensated by the possession of another. The peacock, which has a harsh and displeasing voice, possesses a beautiful plumage; the nightingale delights the ear, but has no charms for the eye; the horse bears us where we will and is valuable in camp and field, but is rarely used for food; the ox is useful for farm and table, but has scarcely any other qualities to recommend him; fruit trees give us food, but have little value for building; forest trees yield no fruit, but afford us the necessary material for erecting our dwellings. Thus we do not find all qualities or all perfections united in one creature, but that variety among them which constitutes the beauty of nature and binds them to one another by a mutual and necessary dependence.”

So what’s “better”—a nightingale or a peacock? There’s no objective “correct” answer to that question. Should you celebrate fruit trees or forest trees?  That depends. Dogs, of course, are superior to cats in every instance, but other than that comparison, God’s brilliance as Creator is seen in the variety of his creating. There are four seasons, seven continents, and eight planets in our solar system and none of them are exactly the same.

God’s creative variety is perhaps most marked by the vast differences among people, and that means spouses, too. Physically, emotionally, and intellectually, God comes up with countless combinations, and for a spouse you get to choose just one. Is an extrovert “superior” to an introvert? Is IQ more important than EQ (emotional awareness)? Is an engineer a better spouse than an artist? Is a mechanic a better spouse than a poet?

Maybe you married a “peacock:” he or she looks great, but they couldn’t pitch a tent if their life depended on it. Maybe you married an ox; he or she gets a whole lot of work done but can’t carry a conversation. Maybe your spouse couldn’t hit a nail with a hammer but he or she makes a good enough living to pay someone else to swing that hammer.  Rejoice in who they are instead of pining after what they’re not.

Wanting your spouse to be an ox, peacock, horse and nightingale all wrapped up into one amazing person isn’t just cruel, it’s insane and actually a bit freakish.

If you’ve read Cherish then you know that a cherishing marriage is based on viewing your husband and wife as “Adam” or “Eve,” the only man or woman in the world. When we choose to marry someone, we choose to cherish someone (“I promise to love and to cherish until death do us part”) and cherishing necessitates training our minds and hearts to be satisfied and even enthralled with our choice. A $10,000 two carat diamond seems beautiful, but if you’re a castaway on a deserted island, you might prefer a butane lighter that costs $2.99. Value can be relative to the person who holds it, so once the marriage vows are said, we don’t expect our spouse to be anything other than what they are. Who they are must also become what we need.

There is an entirely new satisfaction in marriage when you learn to enjoy your spouse as they are instead of forever plotting to change them into someone else.

This isn’t just about your own satisfaction in marriage, however. It’s also about worshipping the God who created your spouse. If He has given you an ox, thank Him for the ox! If He’s given you a peacock, become the world’s number one fan of peacocks. You’ll be happier, your spouse will feel cherished, and your God will feel worshipped. Everyone wins.

Hopefully, you’d never ask your spouse to hold down five jobs. In the same way, don’t ask him or her to become five different people.

Single women, take note: every married Christian woman I’ve ever met who married a non-believing man has said, emphatically, they would tell every other woman not to do it. They wouldn’t wish away the children they’ve had, but as a general rule, I’ve yet to find a woman who thinks it’s worth the risk going in.

Catherine found that out the hard way, and spent over two decades gradually wooing and praying her husband into the kingdom. As we finish off our series focusing on the content from my book, Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband, we’re going to explore the “takeaway” principles Catherine found helpful in being married to an unbelieving man (men, the same principles apply if you’re married to an unbelieving wife).

I hope you’ll check out the entire book, as this chapter in particular has a very touching story behind the teaching that makes it come alive even more. These lessons follow that story and include insights from John given after he was converted.

Building Bridges

Catherine often wondered how two people who shared so little in common could ever make it. Sometimes she even asked John, “Are we going to make it? We have so little in common. My faith is so important to me, but you don’t even share it!”

John would say, “Catherine, where our relationship is good, it’s very good. Let’s concentrate on that.” John wanted Catherine to concentrate on the good places in her marriage rather than become consumed by her disappointments.

Catherine honestly admits she endured a trying and difficult season that went on for decades. “Being unequally yoked is extremely lonely,” she says. “You’re guiding your children by yourself. You try to stave off resentment and build a good marriage— it’s just very, very difficult.”

Most women in such a situation will, like Catherine, find themselves tempted by self- pity. Philippians 2:14 gives some help here: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.” The word everything includes marriage, even marriage to a nonbeliever. Resentment and bitterness will only keep us from being spiritually productive in that relationship.

Catherine realized that since she and her husband didn’t share a faith in Christ, she would have to work extra hard to find other things to share. Unfortunately, John was most excited about things in which Catherine had little or no interest— like riding bikes, for example.

“I had to make the decision,” she says. “Would I start riding bikes with him, or would I sit home by myself and let the gap between us widen?”

Catherine’s initial attempts didn’t encourage her. She says, “It was ridiculous. I was so out of shape. But you know what, a year and a half later, I loved it more than he did! We did ‘Ride the Rockies’ together— that was four hundred miles through the Rocky Mountains, a seven-day bike ride with two thousand other people. It was a blast, and we spent hundreds of hours together training for the ride.”

Catherine just kept focusing on the positive. “We didn’t have a family together at church,” she admits, “but we did have a family together on bicycles.”

Some wives might be tempted to punish their non-Christian husband by becoming even less accommodating, thinking, If you won’t share my faith, I won’t share any of your interests. But such pettiness, while understandable, does nothing except widen the gap. Catherine adamantly counsels other women married to nonbelievers, “You must find out what he loves doing and learn to do it with him.”

That’s not a bad lesson for spouses in general.

Being Realistic

Catherine warns, “Wives can be so dominated by thoughts of ‘This won’t work; we’re too different. We have different ideologies, different passions, even different ways of looking at things.’ Ultimately, we have to learn that we’ll never have some of the things we’ve yearned for, but God will give us ways to develop strengths already there—strengths we may not be recognizing. Along the way, we slowly mature and figure out that Jesus is the one we delight in. My greatest pleasure is my relationship with God.”

Catherine had to realize that God never intended John to meet all of her needs. Even if John had been a Christian for their entire marriage, some needs would still go unmet. No husband, Christian or not, is God.

How will you face disappointment with your husband? Will you allow bitterness, resentment, and anger to slowly poison your home, or will you learn to delight in what you already have? Consider this. As a Christian married to a non-Christian, you are much better off than being a non- Christian married to a Christian. You have your faith, the Holy Spirit, the hope of salvation, God’s grace, your ability to worship, and a love of Scripture to fill your soul and season your mind. Realizing how rich you are spiritually can help ease the frustration you’re enduring relationally.

Changing with John

Catherine eventually realized that, as she puts it, “this waiting period for John to become a Christian was about me too.” She wasn’t waiting just for John. “The whole process was as integral to my growth in Jesus as it was for him. God made it very clear that I was not to consider myself a spectator or a martyr or someone who was just waiting. God had lessons for me to learn too.”

Even if you’re further along than your husband, spiritually speaking, you still haven’t fully arrived. None of us have. Your own character and maturity must continue to grow. Paul told Timothy, “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15, emphasis added). Perfection lies beyond us in this world, but every maturing believer should be showing some positive spiritual movement.

God used Catherine’s marriage to teach her how to better handle fear— in her case, the fear of a failed marriage— and how to be less controlling. As Catherine grew in these areas, God did something wonderful not only in her life but in her family as well.

When your husband isn’t a believer, one of the biggest spiritual traps you will face is being more concerned about his conversion than your maturity. Why is that a trap? Because your increasing spiritual maturity can help foster his conversion (1 Peter 3:1)! Whenever you find yourself obsessing over your husband’s spiritual state, say a prayer for him but then pivot into this: “And Lord, please show me where I need to grow to be the kind of person who makes faith attractive to her husband.”

Being Honest

Catherine found it extremely difficult to learn how to, in her words, “live two lives”: “You have two things that are passionately important to you— your relationship with God and your deep desire that your marriage be viable and strong. It’s very difficult when you can’t merge the two. You feel divided.”

Financial giving to the church presented a particularly thorny issue. Catherine wanted to give money to her church, but she didn’t work outside the home, and initially she feared what John might say. So she began saving the change from the grocery money and giving that as a contribution— something she now regrets.

“Finally, I just had to tell John how important giving was for me,” she says. “I’d tell young wives to be honest about the things that are important to you instead of hiding them.” Once Catherine explained why she wanted to give and how much it meant to her to be able to do so, he agreed that she could donate a hundred dollars a month. Catherine wishes she had been more up- front all along.

Being Patient

Some foolish women greatly wounded Catherine when they told her, “Your husband should have been saved long ago. What are you doing wrong?”

Yet when you talk to John, he keeps coming back to how much he appreciates Catherine’s patient spirit. If she had tried too hard, if she had kept pushing, she most likely would have moved John further away from the faith rather than closer to it.

Keep in mind that a cosmic spiritual battle rages inside your husband. Eternity is at stake. In the light of eternity, one or two decades aren’t all that long (even though twenty years can seem like forever). John remembers times when he saw Catherine and the kids getting ready for church and then pulling out of the driveway, and something inside of him would be saying, Go after them— but he didn’t know how. It took time. If Catherine had tried to force the issue, she would have made things worse, not better. Jesus tells us in Luke 8:15 that “by persevering [we] produce a crop.”

The Ultimate Surrender

Few things present more difficulty for a bride of Christ than being the wife of a man who is outside the faith. Catherine admits to feeling pulled hard in two directions. She loved her husband and wanted her marriage to work, but she also loved God and wanted to put him first. It hurt deeply when she couldn’t immediately bring the two together.

The reality is, no easy answers exist. I can’t give you an ironclad recipe that will guarantee your husband’s conversion— and anybody who tells you differently, frankly, is lying. But a gentle and quiet heart— mixed with a patient spirit and a growing, flourishing soul fixed on worship and emboldened by the Holy Spirit, resulting in a woman who keeps praying and who finds ways to connect with her husband— greatly increases the possibility that she will one day pray to the God of her dreams with the man of her dreams.

I can tell you this: The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God does not desire anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), and 1 Timothy 2:4 declares that our Savior “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” When you combine the favor of God, the guidance and conviction of the Holy Spirit, and the persevering love of a believing wife, I like that man’s chances.

God bless you in this glorious task! The most important place you can ever move your husband toward is God. When you consider the eternal benefits and your husband’s spiritual health, nothing else comes close. It’s not an easy battle, nor is there a guaranteed victory— but in the end, it’s a fight worth fighting.

Some desires in marriage are never going to be fulfilled and need to be “crucified.” In fact, various studies have suggested that more than fifty percent of marital issues will never be resolved. You can fight against this all you want. You can resent it. You can say it’s not fair. But it won’t change what is. If you want your marriage to move forward, you have to live with what is.

Fortunately, life in Jesus provides a brilliant but severe remedy for living with unfulfilled desires and unmet expectations: the cross. We need to constantly remember that our lives shouldn’t be defined first and foremost by our marital happiness, but by seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness. That pursuit will, in the end, produce happiness, but we have to keep first things first.

So here’s the spiritual trick. Transform the focus of your expectations from what you expect of your spouse to what your God expects of you. We can’t make any one person do what we think they should do (that just leads to futility and frustration), but we can surrender to what God would have us do in light of that (which leads to peace with God and divine affirmation).

Patricia Palau discovered that accepting the role of the cross in her life helps her check her own desires.

“Perhaps some things are improved by a lack of inward focus. Instead of focusing on our marriage or our desires, Luis and I have focused on the call of God on our lives. We have lived for a cause that’s bigger than both of us. And after forty years, we like each other, get along well, and have fulfilled one another as much as is possible.

Our fulfillment is doing the will of God. Our heart prayer is, Not my will, Lord, but Yours. This focus kept me from saying ‘I deserve more help than this’ when Luis has been gone for two weeks, leaving me with four little boys. I didn’t think, I can’t believe Luis has to leave again so soon, two or three weeks after his last trip. For me, the Lord’s command to ‘take up your cross and follow Me’ has meant letting Luis go while I take care of things at home. No, it isn’t ‘fair,’ but it brings life— eternal life— to others. And I gain peace, contentment, and satisfaction.

Patricia’s attitude works just as well for wives married to construction workers as it does for wives married to famous evangelists. Patricia surrendered to God’s will, whatever it was. Raising children, supporting a husband, running a small business, staying involved in one’s church— all of these activities can constitute a call “bigger than both of us,” even if such a call will never get celebrated in a history book.

Feel free to say, “This stinks!” but then add, “And Lord, how would you like me to respond in the face of its stench?”

Regardless of your situation, the Christian life does require a cross. Your cross may look different from Patricia’s, but you will have a cross to bear. Resentment and bitterness will make each splinter of that cross feel like a sharp, ragged nail. A yielding, surrendered attitude may not make the cross soft, but it will make it sweeter, and at the end of your life, it may even seem precious.

When Patricia as a mature woman married for more than four decades testifies that she has gained “peace, contentment, and satisfaction,” she means she has found what virtually every woman wants and yet very few find. Why? Because so many women look at the cross as their enemy instead of as their truest friend.




In a woman who raised four boys with an often absent husband and who endured two years of chemotherapy? How can this be? Patricia understands something the world mocks: “In the end, nothing makes us feel as good as does obedience to Him.”

If you don’t die to unrealistic expectations and if you refuse the cross, you’ll find yourself at constant war with your husband instead of at peace. You’ll feel frustrated instead of contented, and disappointed instead of satisfied. Why? We often forget that both partners in a marriage have their expectations, and sometimes these expectations conflict.

Martie found this to be true in her own marriage:

“When Joe and I became engaged, I had a set of assumptions about how our married life would be. One of those was that Joe would be home most evenings and we’d spend hours together talking, sharing activities, and dreaming together, just like we did when we were dating. But those expectations didn’t materialize. After we were married, Joe juggled school and a full-time job in addition to his commitment to me as his wife. He often came home late and I would be upset about having to spend the evening without him after working hard all day at my frustrating job. I felt Joe was breaking some unspoken promise about spending time with me. But you see, that was the problem: I never spoke with him about my expectations. In my mind he was breaking a promise, but in his mind he was simply fulfilling his responsibilities.”

Eventually, Martie talked to Joe about her desires, and the two of them worked out an arrangement to spend some evenings together. Because of his vocation, Joe is not home every night, as Martie once dreamed he’d be. But he is home more evenings than he probably envisioned as a single man. Neither received all they wanted, but both bowed to something bigger than themselves. That’s why I say that harmony, joy, and peace will never grace a home ruled by expectations instead of by the cross.

In her book It’s My Turn, Ruth Bell Graham got pretty blunt in this regard: “I pity the married couple who expect too much from one another. It is a foolish woman who expects her husband to be to her what only Jesus Christ can be: always ready to forgive, totally understanding, unendingly patient, invariably tender and loving, unfailing in every area, anticipating every need, and making more than adequate provision. Such expectations put a man under an impossible strain.”

And men, we can do the same thing with our wives, can’t we? We take little parts of every “all-star” wife we know, then cut and paste them into some Frankenstein fantasy, and expect our wives to be all of them in one person. This wife earns more than her husband, why can’t you? That wife wants sex even more than her husband does. What’s your problem? That wife has Bible study and prayer every morning before her family wakes up. How come you’re always the last out of bed?  That wife works out six days a week. When’s the last time you’ve even broken a sweat?

The foolishness of these expectations is that they always make us feel worse about our marriage and never encourage our spouse to “improve.” We feel worse and worse, and a “picked on” spouse tends to become more and more stubborn.  That’s a losing game, far more foolish than the victory of the cross.  Marital hope is found in a glorious but bloody solution: crucifying our expectations. Sometimes, the choice comes down to this: crucify our desires or “crucify” our spouse for not meeting those desires.

If you choose the latter, ask yourself in advance how well a pilloried spouse will be able to suddenly start meeting those desires, or even want to?

If you want your marriage to survive, crucify the desire and resurrect your marriage.

This is the fourth post in an ongoing series featuring the message of Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband.

May 17, 2018

The God Who Sees

Gary Thomas — 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep looking at Jesus, not at the cross.

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