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The Question that Can Destroy Your Marriage-“Did I Marry the Right Person-”

One of the least productive, and indeed most destructive mental exercises in marriage is to spend any time asking ourselves a spiritually dangerous question: “Did I marry the right person?”

This question saps energy from something that can be done—focusing on taking a less than ideal situation to a better place—at the cost of solving a “problem” that can’t be solved: rewriting history.

Once we have exchanged our vows, little is gained and much harm can be done by asking this question. A far better alternative to questioning one’s choice is to learn how to live with one’s choice. A character in the Anne Tyler novel A Patchwork Planet comes to realize this too late. The book’s thirty-year-old narrator had gone through a divorce and now works at an occupation that has him relating almost exclusively with elderly people. As he observes their long-standing marriages, he comes to a profound understanding:

“I was beginning to suspect that it made no difference whether they’d married the right person. Finally, you’re just with who you’re with. You’ve signed on with her, put in half a century with her, grown to know her as well as you know yourself or even better, and she’s become the right person. Or the only person, might be more to the point. I wish someone had told me that earlier. I’d have hung on then; I swear I would. I never would have driven Natalie to leave me.”

People dwelling on rewriting history usually do so selectively, ignoring even obvious benefits that have arisen from their first choice and naturally assume that virtually any other choice would have been easier or better. I’ve talked to too many people in second marriages to believe that this is always true. Second, it ignores a rather huge issue: if you had married someone else, your children wouldn’t exist. I’d put up with a lot of disappointments in marriage if that was the price I had to pay for my kids to be alive.

Instead of wishing you could do something that can’t be done—rewriting history—why not put all that energy and focus into trying to make tomorrow’s history a little better? That’s achievable, at least.

The root of this question, “Did I marry the right person?” usually flows from an examination of “compatibility,” which, though it can definitely make life more pleasant, can also be over-rated.  Our kids sometimes laugh at how incompatible Lisa and I seem. I doubt either of us would be the “perfect” person for each other if we were matched by a computer. But it’s a relationship that we cherish and thank God for every day. Rather than spending time wondering if we married the right person, we can take all that energy and work on creating a beautiful story of how two imperfect and at times somewhat incompatible people made their marriage into something wonderful — creating kids, finding purpose, worshiping God, and being loyal to each other to the very end.

Besides, learning to cherish a woman who is amazingly like me sounds almost narcissistic and shallow, maybe even creepy. Learning to love a woman who is so unlike me in so many ways has made me a better man, a better Christian and given me a much more varied life. If you think life would be better and the world would be richer if only everyone was more like you, to be honest, I feel a little sorry for you.

In regards to the struggles of “incompatibility,” look at it this way: what’s more inspiring—the story of a man who climbed a mountain without breaking a sweat, never encountering bad weather, never slipping backwards, never fearing for his life—or a climber who battles the elements to reach the top? Isn’t there a certain nobility in struggle?

There’s a very popular British novelist who, believe it or not, has never received a single rejection letter from a publisher. Not one. Her first book submission got accepted, the book sold well, and she’s had a long and successful career. Well, good for her. But it’s hard for me to relate when I went through an 8-year journey of over 120 straight rejections before I got a magazine article—just a single magazine article—published. Yet today, there are over a million books out there worldwide with my name on the cover. And that story has inspired a lot of would-be writers whenever I’ve shared it.

In the same way, there may well be some marriages that, from the outside, may appear to be unusually easy—the couple made a wise choice, are compatible in all areas, and have never struggled significantly. Likewise, good for them. Do their lives inspire others, or just make others envious? Isn’t there room in the world for all kinds of marital stories? Some Christians have been through a metaphorical hell on their way to salvation, while others seem to have grown up Small Sacred Marriage Image - Croppedfollowing Jesus. The church needs to hear from both.

Half the victory in marriage, then, is just keeping our particular marital story alive, refusing to quit, believing that if we keep hanging in there, we’re giving God more time and more opportunities to work his grace into our lives—and we’re contributing another unique marital story that God can use to inspire others. Some couples grow together easily, some seem to struggle all the way, but everyone has a lesson to teach and people to inspire.

I love how author Jerry Jenkins encourages us to revel in our own marital story:

“Tell your [marital] story. Tell it to your kids, your friends, your brothers and sisters, but especially to each other. The more your story is implanted in your brain, the more it serves as a hedge against the myriad forces that seek to destroy your marriage. Make your story so familiar that it becomes part of the fabric of your being. It should become a legend that is shared through the generations as you grow a family tree that defies all odds and boasts marriage after marriage of stability, strength, and longevity.”

Don’t abort your history with the spouse whom God now calls you to love. Don’t short-circuit growth today and happiness tomorrow by trying to recreate a yesterday that can never be rewritten. Look at your marriage now like a novel where the hero and heroine get into a seemingly intractable mess—but then thrills every one of us by how they emerge victorious, triumphant, and faithful together to the very end.

The same God who resurrected Jesus can resurrect difficult marriages. Resurrection is dependent on a prior death. Simply wishing you could rewrite difficulty out of your past could inadvertently cause you to short-circuit a glorious finish.

Building a Home Our Families Want to Return To

I don’t know if anything has ever touched me as much as when my oldest daughter returned from her first year of college and explained how she got through some lonely moments. She told me she’d go into the bookstore (it was a Christian college), find one of my books, look at my picture on the back, read a few paragraphs, and walk out. “It always made me feel better,” she explained. A classic introvert (like her dad), Allison sometimes felt like an outcast in her dorm or classroom; but that picture reminded her of where she was from, who loved her, accepted her, and affirmed her. From that foundation, she could return to a sometimes lonely world.

Few things my kids have said have ever touched me more than that one conversation. Don’t all of us want it to be the case that when our kids think of home, they remember it as a place of grace, acceptance, and affirmation rather than yet another list of the many places where they feel they don’t quite measure up?

Lisa and I have been in so many small groups, and each time when personal stories come out, we are reminded of how messed up every one of us is.

The woman seated across from me seemed to me unusually pure, with light radiating from her face. As she recounted her life story, however, we all learned how she had debased herself (in her own words) to capture the interest of many men whose names she could now barely remember.

The thirty-something man two people over seemed so solid, someone you could count on in the worst of crises which made it all the more surprising to learn of the secret sin that he has been struggling with his entire life.

At the end of these exercises, one always senses awe at the pain everyone has felt and oftentimes caused—yet joy at God’s redeeming, accepting love: “God proved His love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Yet some parents still manage to seem genuinely surprised when sin and “common weaknesses” manifest themselves in our children. Spouses seem shocked when a partner stumbles in any number of ways. Though a world population that now exceeds 7 billion people proves to all of us that no one other than Jesus has ever reached moral perfection—that, in fact, few could even claim to reach moral excellence—we still are tempted to resent each other for falling short of perfection and even begin to define each other by our sin.

This stops family celebration cold.

Many Christian homes become places of judgment, accusation, and pronounced disappointment. The standard is perfection, so anything less is one giant disappointment.

Here’s the stark reality: If you can’t love, celebrate, and enjoy raising a sinful kid, then you can’t love, celebrate, and enjoy any child. If you can’t love and play with a sinful spouse, then you’ll never be able to take pleasure in any spouse, for the simple reason that you can’t find any sinless kids or spouses.

Let’s not allow sin and our universal brokenness to impair our ability to take pleasure in the company of each other. Parenting books stress the need to raise responsible kids, to teach them discipline, respect, self-denial, faith, and self-control—all good things. But families begin to break down when parents see kids only as projects to be improved rather than real people to be enjoyed, to laugh with, to play with, to relate to; when kids see their parents primarily as providers and disappointments; when family life offers little laughter but much criticism, plentiful stress but almost no play, a pressure-cooker of activities and obligations but no pleasure; then few families will survive, much less thrive, in such an oppressive atmosphere.

Can your children ever relax in your presence? Does your spouse ever get the luxury of having a bad day, without you immediately calling him/her on it? Do your family members feel as though they receive constant correction, constant teaching, and constant rebukes? If so, then don’t be surprised if your kids eventually seem perpetually eager to get away with their friends or your spouse finds a dozen other places to return to than home.

Who wants to hang around a place where they never quite measure up?

What strikes me as so amazing about God’s love is that I never feel like a project or even a disappointment. Since God sees all, He has plenty of raw materials with which He can judge me and make me feel like a failure. Yet even when He convicts me, it’s somehow an affirming, intimacy-inducing spiritual hug.

The one thing that marks every Christian family should be the same thing that marks each one of us as God’s sons and daughters: acceptance and affirmation, bathed in grace and truth.

February 6, 2016

Why Men Don’t Change

Gary Thomas — 

Why Men Don'tChange

What if your husband isn’t motivated by your pain?

What if he’s only motivated by his?

Many wives live with great frustration because they keep telling their husbands that something he is doing (or not doing) is causing them great pain, but the husband never changes. This confuses the wife. She thinks, “If I knew I was doing something that was really hurting him, I’d stop it as soon as I found out. Why won’t he?”

The answer, according to my friend Dr. Melody Rhode (a gifted marriage and family therapist), is “functional fixedness.” This phrase describes a man who will never be motivated by his wife’s pain; he’s only motivated by his pain. For change to occur, he has to feel his own discomfort. He doesn’t like hearing you tell him you’re not happy; in fact, it probably irritates him. But if the pain necessary for him to change is greater than the pain of putting up with your occasional expressed frustration, he simply endures the verbal outbursts as “the cost of being married” and will put the entire episode out of his mind as soon as it’s over.

Why?

Because it’s painful for him to remember the conversation and he wants to avoid pain at all costs!

(For the men reading this post, it’s certainly true that women as well as men can fall prey to functional fixedness. The reason I’m describing husbands here is because I first broached the issue in my book Sacred Influence and have since had women write to me for more clarification. So don’t be insulted. Just flip the gender and the principles will be roughly the same.)

According to Dr. Rhode, men don’t normally change if what they’ve been doing appears to work for them. For example, when a woman allows her husband to treat her with disrespect, he has no motivation to change—and so it’s unlikely he ever will.

“There’s a simple question I ask wounded women who seek help to endure belittling or degrading treatment from their man: ‘Why does your husband treat you badly? Answer: because he can.’”

This is not, in any way, to blame a woman for the abuse, but to develop a new understanding in order to map out a different future.

Melody continues, “If what he’s doing is working for him, why change? He needs a compelling reason to change and it needs to be more compelling than your unhappiness or private misery with the situation.”

A God-fearing man would be motivated to change simply by understanding that his actions or inactions hurt you. But you may be married to a man who doesn’t care if his actions hurt you, so long as he gets what he wants. In such cases, allowing the behavior while complaining about it won’t change anything so long as the husband keeps getting his way. Remember, with such men it’s not your pain that motivates him, it’s his pain.  You have to be willing to create an environment in which the status quo becomes more painful than positive change (we’ll discuss suggestions for doing this in the next blog post; this post is focused on the spiritual dynamics behind the problem).

Here’s what’s going on spiritually. Melody points out that “functional fixedness” in men is rooted in the fall–our remaining selfishness and sin nature. Many men never connect their spiritual conversion with how they relate to their wives. “For the most part men do not experience a conversion, transformation, a renewing of the mind, in their relationship to Jesus and the Holy Spirit that changes the way they see their wives and themselves in relationship to their wives. In the old nature men are desensitized to their wives, clued into their own natures and the fallen bent toward wanting their own way. This could mean simply ignoring their wives or being unresponsive to their wives’ feelings and needs, or it could expand to the extreme of dominance, oppression, and abuse.Untitled design

“Functional fixedness might be equivalent to what the Bible calls being ‘stiff necked’ people or ‘darkened in their own thinking,’ even ‘hard hearted.’ Having eyes, they don’t see the woman in front of them except in relation to their own feelings and needs (i.e. is she sexy or fat?). Having ears, they don’t hear the woman they are married to except as it pertains to them (is she nagging or affirming me? Saying something I want to hear or something I want to shut out?). The real problem here is that women can’t change this. The problem lies with the man. It is his uncircumcised heart and unrenewed mind that sees his wife as a ‘self-object’ and her pain as something to be avoided, silenced, ignored, or even harshly treated.”

Do you understand what Melody is saying? You’re thinking, “How can I get my husband to be more sensitive?” while your husband is thinking, “How can I end this conversation that is causing me pain?” He doesn’t want your pain to stop; he wants his pain to stop. This is because his heart hasn’t been renewed. He is a stranger to agape love. Putting someone else’s needs above his own doesn’t even occur to him because he does not have a sacrificial heart or mindset. Your call for him to sacrifice simply because something he is doing hurts you is like asking a soldier to fire a weapon he doesn’t possess.

If your husband is mired in functional fixedness, any appeal to empathy is futile. He is spiritually incapable of empathy. Again, he will be motivated by his pain, not yours.

Here’s what Melody says needs to happen spiritually: “Christ calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, which means to take on the suffering of others, particularly wives who we are told are members of our own body. We see very clearly the depth to which Jesus Christ has taken residence in a man by the sensitivity he develops towards his wife who is different than him and has a whole world of pain and feeling that he is naturally unresponsive to. This whole interface reflects how thin or superficial many Christian men’s relationship with their savior is. I think it is a cry for help we women are sounding to herald the need for flaming revival in the hearts and minds of our men.”

Men, let me talk to you for a second here: let’s take Melody’s words to heart. The depth of God’s work in our souls is demonstrated by the level of compassion, concern and care we have for our wives and their pain. To be hard-hearted toward our wives reveals a hard-heartedness toward God.

I agree one hundred percent with Melody that the problem isn’t marital; it’s spiritual. The husband’s conversion hasn’t affected the way he looks at himself or his wife. He is still motivated by selfishness.

What can a woman do? Melody (who has specialized in working with women who are married to narcissists) suggests the following: “Women need to quit being bent to their husbands for their worth and validation; that’s the female result of the fall.  They need to be helped to know God as their husband, provider, and protector and not to be expecting this from their husbands. If they believe in the Kingdom of God, they need to pray blessings on their spouses and that God will captivate them, wrestle them down by the brain to transform them from being selfish peacocks or thugs to love the Lord and then demonstrate that love by being kind, gentle, sensitive and compassionate to their women.”

To the men reading this, we can construct a helpful grid. How close are you to God? How godly are you? We can measure it by asking how kind are you to your wife? How gentle are you with her? How sensitive and compassionate are you at home? These are the markers of God’s Spirit in a man’s soul. To receive Christ is to receive the spirit of the suffering servant who puts others’ needs above his own. To not care about another’s suffering or to increase another’s suffering isn’t the work of Christ; it’s the mark of his enemy.

For women, this spiritual reality means that you need to adopt a long-term view of change that will be internal and spiritual before it is external and marital.  More than simply praying for a change in the way your husband treats you, pray for a change in his heart toward God. In the end, that’s the most effective way for him to change the way he treats you and looks at you. He’s spiritually bent, so that needs to be your focus before God. Instead of trying to “fix your marriage,” ask God to overwhelm your husband’s soul with the presence of the Suffering Servant, Jesus.

Take your focus off yourself for just a moment and place your energy and efforts on how you can you influence your husband to go deeper in the Lord. Can you encourage him to get involved in a circle of men who will challenge him? Can you help him find a local church that impacts him? Are you just attending the church you like, or is it a church where he feels at home, where he can connect with the teachers, where he comes alive spiritually? That might mean changing churches.

Can you ask him to read a Christian book that will kindle the fire in his soul, promising him something special in return? Maybe he won’t read a book—will he occasionally read a blog with you, as long as you find a way to make it interesting? He may not be seeking spiritual inspiration, so you may have to do it for him.

There are so many gifted teachers today online. If you can’t find one in your hometown who motivates your husband, go to the digital world and see if there is one with whom your husband can “connect.” Personally, I listen to about three to five sermons on any given week. You don’t, as a couple, have to put God “aside” when you get home from church on Sunday afternoon. As you’re driving, doing the dishes together, and just sitting having a cup of coffee on Saturday morning, take 35 to 40 minutes (most sermons last no longer than that) and get a special “boost” from God’s word.

If your husband won’t do any of this, then you have to keep praying (not as a last resort—I’m recommending praying as a first response, too) for God to soften his heart. Join with other women to plead with God to bring a revival amongst the men in your community.

Also accept some responsibility. When you marry a man with a hard heart, it might take a long time for the heart to soften, but don’t forget—you chose this man. It won’t serve you at all to accuse God for choosing this man for you. I’ve addressed this in other blog posts. (God Didn’t (and Won’t) Tell You to Marry Your Spouse)  You need God on your side as an encouragement; nothing will be gained by becoming His accuser.

Settle in and take the long-term view. In Sacred Influence, I tell the story of a woman who was married to an unbeliever for over two decades before he became a Christian. In some cases, a husband’s heart may never soften. Choices—including the choice of who we marry—have consequences.

I sincerely hope that offering such a stark description of the spiritual heart of a man won’t discourage you; in reality, nothing is as discouraging as empty promises designed to sell books and tickle ears. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Trying to get a dead or luke-warm spiritual heart to be white hot requires a deep spiritual transformation. If a man is infatuated and the sexual chemistry is high, he’ll change. But it will last only as long as the infatuation and sexual chemistry does. Many of you have witnessed this firsthand (and often the change is superficial, lasting only as long as it takes to get married).

Having said this, there are a few practical things you can do in your marriage to help address functional fixedness while you wait for a spiritual transformation. That will be the subject of my next blog post. For this one, I just want to statesacred-influence the problem and emphasize that it’s spiritual. Until you understand what’s really going on, you won’t be able to address it in an effective way. Put your effort into pursuing a spiritual change for your husband (or your wife). That’s where you need to start.

I know there’s a lot of pain out there. Before God, I pray that these words will bring a little bit of healing at least in the way of understanding what’s going on, even though they will not resolve the problem.

In the meantime, if you’re into books and want a longer discussion of this issue, check out Sacred Influence: How God Uses Wives to Shape the Souls of their Husbands

Somebody could be beautiful, funny, a pleasure to be around, and even be active in their church but still not be good marriage material. A few relational “infections” can all but erase many good qualities.

Put it this way: a gregarious guy could be a lot of fun to have in the dugout of a baseball team, but if he can’t hit, throw, or catch a baseball he’d be a poor choice to join your team. In the same way, someone could be wonderful in the context of dating and still be sorely lacking when it comes to the “game time” issues of marriage.

I’ve seen the following six major character weaknesses become significant hurdles for marital intimacy and satisfaction and even take down some marriages. This isn’t, by any means, an exhaustive list. There are many more. But each one of these is significant enough that if the person you are dating displays several (or even one or two to a deep degree), they may not be emotionally or spiritually ready for marriage—regardless of how much fun it is to date them.

1.He or she is a “taker”

The sad reality is some people are givers and some people are takers. Givers don’t always mind being in a relationship with a taker because they like to give; it brings them joy. But there are times when the giver will need to receive. For instance the giver gets really sick or is laid off, even though he or she provided the bulk of the income or just goes through a discouraging time and suffers things she has never known before, like depression or anxiety.

In those instances, can your taker learn to give? In many cases, sadly, the answer is no. The taker freaks out, abandons the relationship, or just runs around in an emotional and relational panic wanting everyone to feel sorry for them, only adding to the giver’s problems rather than alleviating them.

If you marry a taker, you’re sitting on a relational time-bomb, because you’re making the bet that, as a giver, your fallen body and your fallen soul won’t ever get so fallen that you’ll someday need help, even for a season. You’ll have better odds trying to win the lottery.

It is not selfish to want to marry a giver. It is wise. It is being a good steward of your time and life. It is a gift to your future children (just think about it).

How do you know if you’re dating a taker? I have an entire section on that in my book The Sacred Search (pages 203-208).

2. He or she is lazy

Many particularly younger couples are often surprised at how difficult life can become. It’s a lot of hard work. Raising kids is exhausting. Taking care of a house, working, and being married will sometimes push you to the limit of your energy. Unless you have unlimited funds and can pay for your house to be cleaned, your kids to have a full-time nanny, and your spouse to stay home (if he or she wants to), you’ll run into serious problems if you marry a lazy person (and if you are a married person you won’t be able to afford any of that).

It might seem like a holiday when your boyfriend or girlfriend is all about play and always trying to take you away from work, but if they do that to an extreme and never demonstrate self-discipline and initiative that carefree spirit will grow very tiresome, very quickly.

3. He/she lives primarily in the virtual world instead of the real one

I’ve talked to couples where the wife spends too much time on Facebook or Instagram, or the wife is so invested in her blog about her marriage that she barely has time for her marriage.

I’ve also seen many occasions where the husband can barely restrain himself from getting into his video game seat for eight hour sessions. I’ll grant that a man or a woman without kids can enjoy a four or five hour round of golf on occasion and still be a rather responsible adult. But when someone is playing video games, or is online several hours a day every day, or eight hours at a time it has become an escape. Worse, the more we participate in an escape, the hands on computermore tempted we are to double down and do it even more. The real world loses interest and the virtual world becomes our passion.

If your guy plays a little too much gaming now (or has to play on Christmas and Thanksgiving or is inflexible to be with you at an event that’s important to you because he doesn’t want to let other gamers down), it’ll frustrate you even more when kids come along or household tasks get ignored. If your girlfriend regularly loses herself in ten-hour Netflix marathons of Gilmore Girls or Grey’s Anatomy, ask yourself a simple question: “If this is how she escapes from pressure while single, why wouldn’t she do the same after we are married?”

And if you’re thinking, “Hey, if she watches ten hours of Parks and Rec then I can do ten hours of gaming!” you’re accepting a very low level of intimacy in marriage.

4. They’re not kind

A study listed kindness as one of the top two qualities contributing to marital happiness, and I believe it. Kindness never gets old. Bodies may deteriorate, mental functioning may slow down, beauty may fade, but a kind person usually becomes kinder. Your happiness will increase if you marry a kind person.

If you choose a kind person, you’re going to be blessed by their kindness for the rest of your life, maybe even every day. Kind persons love being kind; it gives them joy to be kind. Does your girlfriend look for ways to encourage and bless others in their discouragement? Does your boyfriend go out of his way to make people feel better rather than worse in social situations? If there’s a need, is your significant other someone who is often the first to step up?

Why stress kindness when so many other issues could be mentioned? Kindness is one of those qualities most associated with happiness, and most people desire a happy marriage. If that’s you, choose someone who is kind and drop someone who is unkind.

5. They’re addicted to porn and not dealing with it

I wish this wasn’t true, but the devastation I’m seeing from it has to be stated: women, if you marry a man who is an out of control porn addict, he won’t be able to be a satisfactory lover in marriage for very long (if ever). He will lose interest in you. He will face ED issues decades before men normally do. He will fight the urge to use you in bed instead of bless you. He will be comparing you with women who are acting according to script, not real life.

Infatuation can temporarily “cure” men of porn use for about nine to twelve months. But once the marriage settles into routine, many men go right back to the easy sexual fix. High speed internet pornography will literally re-wire your man’s brain, affecting how he gets aroused and his ability to handle that arousal. Google it. Study it. Look it up. Don’t just take my word for it! The results will and should concern you.

Some of you will say, “Isn’t this true for women, too?” Yes, though it appears to affect their brains a bit differently. But as a man, you should be equally concerned.

Women, be wary of allowing a man to rush you into marriage in hopes that this will take his struggle away. Marry a healthy man who wants to have an intimate, mutually satisfying sexual relationship not a man who wants to use you to overcome a habit that he hasn’t been able to cure on his own. Marriage alone never cures pornography use.

Since porn use is now virtually universal among younger men, you’ll be hard pressed to find a man who has no history with this or even one who doesn’t still occasionally struggle. Just be wary of a man who has never found any freedom in this area for any significant period of time. There’s a huge difference between marrying a man who has some accountability in place, people he talks to, and long stretches of obedience, and yet still occasionally stumbles and someone who has never been able to live without porn for any appreciable length of time.

I have worked with some young men with good hearts and a sincere desire to follow God who have struggled with porn to various degrees—and yet I was able to recommend them to marriage with no hesitation. They may yet struggle, but they are fighting the battle instead of simply surrendering to the desire, and they are intent on living without it. They’ve demonstrated obedience and wise living and I believe they will be honorable husbands. I don’t want you men to think I don’t have any empathy for you—I do. And I admit that there is a difference between a guy whose brain is being shaped by this who in fact has no history apart from this, who settles into hours-long porn sessions as his brain is sadly re-wired away from real-life on a regular basis, and a man who earnestly struggles because of his past but is seeing far more victory than defeat.

Any defeat represents future vulnerability, however, women do need to be careful and wise—that’s simply the nature of addiction. Porn certainly isn’t the only sin, but left unchecked, it can be among the most destructive.

6. They’re not humble

Humility is sadly under-rated. The Christian classics call it “the queen of the virtues” for good reason. Humility is the foundation for virtually every other positive character quality. It’s what spawns kindness, service, generosity, and confession.

Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but less about yourself. If you marry an arrogant person, every time there’s a conflict he/she will expect you to change instead of examining their own heart to see what they need to change. That gets really old.

A proud person will choose to live where he/she wants to live. They will spend their holidays with whom they want to spend their holidays, and they will find ways to punish you if they don’t get their way. They will spend money as if their needs and wants are more important than anyone else’s. And you will feel as if you matter less and less as the years go by, instead of mattering more and more.

If you want a few tests for humility, I’ve got a few sections on this in The Sacred Search (see especially pages 127-128 and 134-136).

A lot of married readers who follow this blog still read the posts intended for singles, so other married readers, help me out: what important warning signs did I leave out? Do you agree with the ones I mention here?

Let’s start a conversation.

October 17, 2015

6 Marks of Healthy Sexuality

Gary Thomas — 

6 Marks of a Healthy Sexuality Final

What are the marks of a healthy sexual relationship?

It’s not inappropriate to ask what is most pleasurable or most exciting for married couples, but meaningful lovemaking is so much more than creating greater sexual arousal and climaxes. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to also ask “What are the markers of a wholesome sexual experience that is accomplishing God’s relational intent?”

In my view, “healthy” protects happy pleasure it doesn’t threaten it.

I write this post with a bit of pastoral concern: Lisa and I have met some wives (and the occasional husband) who felt tempted to compromise their faith and even their own sense of sanity because they realized after getting married that their spouse has some sexual hang-ups. At first, they thought the best thing to do was to “go along.” Going along never works; it just prolongs the inevitable crisis. Nursing an unhealthy inclination never makes things better; it just makes the way back a little longer and ultimately more difficult.

Seeking a healthy sexual relationship is a fair and good and wise and holy pursuit.

These six marks aren’t exhaustive; I’m sure there are many more, but here’s a short, non-scientific test to see how you and your spouse are doing in regards to sexual intimacy.

  1. Christian sex is always relational sex.

Any sexual experience divorced from relational connecting isn’t healthy sex. Pornography, voyeurism, predatory touching, any form of paying for sex, exhibitionism, group sex, anonymous sex, or objectifying marital sex all have the same common denominator: sex divorced from relational connecting. Most forms of sexual deviancy include a separation between sex and emotional connection.

In a biblical view of sex, physical intimacy draws husband and wife ever closer together. After the intimacy is over they smile, hold on to a very pleasant shared memory, and their bond is deepened accordingly. Unhealthy sex further isolates an already damaged person. They “wake up” from the sexual experience, feel increased shame (making him/her a little less capable of authentic intimacy) and want to hide what just happened from everyone instead of remember it fondly with a special someone.

Healthy sex says to each (willing) participant: “You matter. You are desired. You are cherished. I am not having sex with a body but making love to you as my special 3-dimensional (body, mind mixed with emotions, and spirit) spouse. I affirm you and want to please you.”

Be wary of any form of sexual excitement or fulfillment that is separate from appropriate relational connection. If it’s not drawing husband and wife closer together, it’s not healthy.

  1. Christian sex supports a relationship rather than being the relationship.

Healthy sex serves a relationship; unhealthy sex becomes the relationship which is asking too much of sex. Sex should be an expression of what is, not a way to momentarily and artificially create what you hope to be true. Our culture tries to make sex the pathway to intimacy, rather than healthy sexuality flowing out of an expression of intimate connection.

By nature, sex can last only so long and be performed only so often and sexual chemistry eventually slows down. Sexual desire simply cannot sustain a lifelong marriage. But an intimate sacred marriage can sustain a tremendous lifelong sex life.

When sex becomes the relationship it’s like trying to support a fifty story hotel on a foundation made of toothpicks. You build a healthy sexual relationship by building a healthy marriage on all levels: emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and relationally. As Dr. Harry Schaumberg so ably puts it, “To be spiritually mature, you must be sexually mature; to be sexually mature, you must be spiritually mature. And I’d say that to be spiritually mature, and sexually mature, you need to be relationally mature. In other words, a mature marriage is a three legged stool of spiritual, relational, and sexual maturity.”

My friend Dr. Mitch Whitman points out that the absence of healthy sexuality sometimes increases the aggrieved spouse’s focus on sex almost to an obsession, so that it becomes practically the only thing that matters to the frustrated spouse.

If one spouse says, “The rest of our relationship is so strong you shouldn’t need sex,” that’s tantamount to the other spouse saying, “Our sex life is so good you shouldn’t need anything besides sex.” In other words, we can fall off the rails on either side of the equation: asking sex to do too much, or not taking advantage of its power at all.

  1. Christian sex confronts rather than perpetuates sexual brokenness

Be careful here—this discussion may hurt some people, but I pray it’s a therapeutic hurt that gently confronts and leads to healing rather than further shame. I don’t want to shame anyone. I write as a Christian who respects God’s creational intent and accepts the Bible as the best expression of that intent. If you disagree with that, you’ll disagree with these conclusions.

Many of us stumble into marriage as sexually broken people. We think marriage will cure our sexual brokenness, but problems re-arise when we want to express our sexual brokenness as part of our marriage. That’s like asking a doctor to serve your addiction instead of curing it.

Beware of coercive marital sex. Some men and a few women will use their spouse to serve a sexual addiction—let’s watch pornography together. Let’s swap partners. Sometimes, men will use sex with their wives to deaden their own pain—anesthetizing themselves—and thus put inordinate physical demands on their spouses. Men who insist on daily sex (I’m not talking about the honeymoon phase here) may be using their wives to fight back an addiction or an intimacy problem rather than cherishing and affirming their wives by giving her pleasure.

Women, you’re not helping your husband if he tries to fight the urge to cross dress by openly doing it with you. A potentially ruinous desire will grow not diminish by being indulged.

In our culture today, the most common silly notion (not even questioned by many) is that all desire must be legitimate, equally respected, tolerated, and even indulged. That’s foolish, ruinous, and not true in any other life experience. It’s possible to desire something that is harmful. You can eat yourself sick, you can spend your way to bankruptcy, and you can “sex” your way to disaster. So no, you are not obligated as a spouse to indulge every one of your spouse’s desires.

As one example: specialists who I respect have told me that in their work with men who demand anal sex, there are usually two reasons: they are trying to re-live sexual exploitation from when they were young (but now they have the power by demanding it, instead of being the victim hurt by it) or they are acting out a desire that was cultivated through pornography. Neither is helpful; neither should be indulged. I’d be at least suspicious about ever wanting something that the medical community generally says is not healthy for a woman’s body.  Healthy sex is mutually affirming in all aspects: spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

Dr. Douglas Rosenau stresses that a poor body image, sexual shame, repression of healthy sexuality, and sexual immaturity are also aspects of sexual brokenness. In other words, not wanting to do something that is holy can be every bit as much evidence of brokenness as does wanting to do something that is wrong.

Sex outside of God’s lines is like a snowball. If sexual coercion, obsession, or immaturity is allowed to “roll” it only gets bigger, not more manageable. By giving in to your spouse’s unhealthy urges, you’re not “managing” anything; you’re creating a snowball that may bury you, your marriage, and your family. The sooner we stop the snowball from rolling, the better chance we have to attain sexual health. Allowing your husband to wear your undergarments or indulging some other fetish so that he’s not shamed by it is sort of like holding a needle while he injects himself with heroin. He’s no longer doing it alone, but he’s still doing it. It’s still harmful and the longer he does it, the more harm it does.

One of the most common ways for women to let marriage perpetuate sexual brokenness is by being non-sexual. Instead of challenging deep-seated feelings that sex is “nasty,” she expects her husband to develop and share her aversion to sex rather than develop a mutually satisfying sexual relationship. If she allows past sexual abuse or faulty thinking to undercut or even annihilate sexual activity in her marriage, she’s perpetuating her brokenness, not confronting it. In such instances, she will want to talk to an experienced, professional counselor who has dealt with this issue—few women can just “get over this,” any more than they could give themselves a kidney transplant.

When the marital sexual relationship reveals an ongoing weakness that a change of mind simply cannot heal—whether it be desires for unhealthy activities or aversion toward healthy activities—it’s time to seek help. (Resources are listed below.)

  1. Healthy Christian sexuality is about mutually shared pleasure; perverse sexuality is about numbing the pain with selfish indulgence.happy couple4final

Sex was created by God to (in part) produce offspring and renew intimacy between a husband and a wife. It offers a very pleasurable moment for husband and wife, helping them to cope with (and giving them a vacation from) mundane or difficult duties in life. It is also comforting, and naturally reduces anxiety. These are all wonderful byproducts of healthy marital sexuality. Sex is not meant, however, to be used like a drug.

Unhealthy sex seeks to numb pain rather than serve your partner with true pleasure. Instead of enhancing the present life of your spouse, unhealthy sex tries to escape your past life or selfishly use your mate’s body for personal and ultimately unfulfilling sexual gratification.

I was fascinated recently reading a classic book on sexual addiction (Don’t Call it Love by Patrick Carnes) that’s twenty years old. It describes (as almost pathological) the kind of activity that The Fifty Shades trilogy and movies have tried to de-stigmatize. Carnes warns against “the use of pain to escalate sexual excitement. Chains, whips, sadomasochistic games, self-torture, self-strangulation—how can these be pleasurable? The answer is that often they are not. But the associated emotions of fear, risk, danger, and rage are very mood altering. We can make fun of people who are ‘into pain’; media portrayal of ‘S and M’ roles often involves humorous exaggeration. Grim reality exists that we in our cultural denial attempt to avoid and deflect with humor. For most of us, the combination of pain and sex is as repugnant as violence.”

That quote, just a couple decades old, is already outdated, isn’t it? Our culture no longer laughs at S and M, nor does it make it seem repugnant. Instead, the agenda seems to be to tell us that we are missing out on something if we’re not practicing it. I emphasized the phrase “very mood altering” because that’s the marker of unhealthy sex–using it like a drug (as opposed to an expression of relationship). It’s not even pleasurable. It just puts us in a trance.  Healthy sex affirms lasting pleasure; its focus isn’t to feel less of something negative, but to experience more (and help our spouse experience more) of something positive.

A due warning here: Our Christian culture has often promoted a husband’s selfishness by stressing the wife’s duty to serve her husband sexually, rather than discussing how together a couple can create the mutually shared pleasure of a healthy sex life. Dr. Rosenau, Sheila Gregoire, and others have been strong dissenting voices against this vicious strain, for which I am very grateful.

  1. Christian sex is based in truth

Christianity is about authenticity, reality, truth, being connected to a real person, and giving real pleasure. The world keeps promoting sex that is all about artificiality, fantasy, deceit, and escaping from reality.

“Looking over your shoulder,” lying, afraid of being “caught,” not wanting anyone to find out—these are all markers of sex that is based on subterfuge and deception. No married couple need be ashamed if others think they are being sexual. Nor do they have to pretend they are something or someone else in order to desire and please each other. I’m not suggesting all forms of fantasy (within marriage) are wrong; just that the sexual experience should serve a real couple in a real relationship who know each other, value each other, and are truly present for each other.

To mentally imagine yourself making love to someone else while your spouse thinks you’re focused on them is one of the worst forms of fraud imaginable. You’re sinning against your spouse even as you are using him/her. As they give themselves to you, you are taking what’s offered to you and handing it over to another.

A man who wants to dress like a woman to get sexually excited (there may be other reasons; I’m focused on something specific here) misses the point of biblical sexuality that affirms a man as a man. He will be most satisfied and his wife will be most satisfied when he embraces who God made him to be. If you have to pretend you’re something you’re not in order to experience pleasure or be fulfilled by definition you will never be fulfilled, because even doctors can’t turn you into something other than what your Creator made you to be.

The same is true for a wife who believes she has to turn herself into a “centerfold” to keep her husband’s attention. She deserves to feel cherished and desired for who she is not who her husband wants her to be.

Healthy sex isn’t just about excitement or reaching a climax—it’s about the two of you relating, connecting, knowing, and authentically being there for each other. Of course, finding legitimate ways to enhance pleasure and serve each other is relationship-enhancing; planning something special, being creative, even searching for something “new” can be a generous act of love.

  1. Christian sex affirms your sense of self

In a healthy sexual relationship, you feel that the sexual experience affirms who you are: as a spouse, as parents raising kids together (and protecting/serving their family), as a believer in Christ (sex should never feel as if it is asking you to compromise your faith but rather be an expression of your faith), as a person who is cherished and loved. In unhealthy sexuality, the sexual experience leaves you feeling empty, alienated, almost like you’re role-playing or an object.

You may realize that, for any number of reasons, your sexual sense of self has become distorted. Maybe from a hook-up culture that promotes porn, a repressive upbringing, trying to medicate pain, or hoping sex can create a shortcut to intimate connection. If sex doesn’t affirm who you are, there’s a good chance you’re not being made love to; you’re likely being used. Perhaps you feel like you have to be someone you’re not to keep your spouse interested or from acting out inappropriately. That’s manipulative sex; that’s co-dependent sex, it’s not healthy sex.

Sex should affirm and reaffirm who you are, your sense of worth, your sense of being valued, and your sense of relationship.  A healthy sense of your sexual self will promote both a profound sexual intimacy and an amazing sacred marriage full of deep connecting moments.

As a side note, one of the ways it does this is to remind us who we are as people on the way to eternity. As wonderful as sex can be, as intoxicating as marital passion can feel, we were made for more than this world, and the fact that something as marvelous and even transcendent as sex doesn’t completely fulfill us reminds us that healthy sexuality actually points us toward heaven as our ultimate destination.

Resources

If after reading this list you sense you are in an unhealthy or coercive sexual relationship, please note that you’ll want to receive some professional care. There’s nothing I can say in the comments section of a blog to solve or even adequately address your problem. This post is to unmask unhealthy relating in order to point you elsewhere toward a place of healing and redemption.

So, for help:

  • Harry Schaumburg’s website http://stonegateresources.org/ offers many additional articles and advice for those facing sexual brokenness and addiction (including articles and information about intensive programs). His offices are in Wisconsin.
  • My friend Dr. Mitch Whitman mitchwhitman.com specializes in helping men and couples overcome sexual brokenness; he lives and works north of Seattle, Washington, but often counsels via remote website connections.
  • I’ve referred several couples to Dr. Doug Rosenau, whose office is near Atlanta, and who co-founded the organization Sexual Wholeness (.com). Doug is a Christian sex therapist and author. You can find more information about Doug at http://dougrosenau.com/.
  • My friends Dr. Juli Slattery and Linda Dillow have a wonderful site geared for women that can be found at http://authenticintimacy.com. I’m also a fan of Shelia Gregoire’s blog: http://tolovehonorandvacuum.com/2012/10/where-to-find-specific-marriage-advice/  Though Sheila doesn’t exclusively address sexual intimacy, she frequently does, and her advice is well thought out and biblical.

Please understand that I’m neither qualified nor able to deal with specific questions here or via email or Facebook.  I would be interested, however, in general posted comments related to other markers of healthy Christian sexuality. Please help us have a redemptive conversation in the comments below.

And if you disagree with me or my conclusions above, please don’t take offense. I don’t have any authority over you, and my intention isn’t to slander anyone—it’s just to offer sincere help to genuinely confused couples where one partner senses something is wrong but isn’t sure why. You are free to disagree with any of the “lines” I’ve drawn—I’m just trying to respond to those who have raised genuine issues and have sought my opinion. I write as a Christian who believes our authority is found in Scripture—if you don’t accept that belief system, or if you think I’ve handled Scripture poorly, I don’t expect you to understand or accept my conclusions.

I’d like to thank Dr. Doug Rosenau, Dr. Harry Schaumburg, and Dr. Mitch Whitman, who all made many helpful suggestions for this extended blog post.

 

May 6, 2015

Despair or Depend

Gary Thomas — 

DespairorDepend final

 

“I’m done with this marriage, Gary. It has exhausted me, and I don’t have what it takes to make it work.”

Though they didn’t realize it, Alice and her husband Ian were on the precipice of a really good place, perhaps even a divinely ordered one. Sometimes, God has to take us to the end of our strength to do what He truly wants to do.

You are blessed indeed if your marriage is more difficult than you can handle on your own. You are in a good place when you come to the realization that you simply cannot do it on your own.

Let me explain.

When writing to the Colossians, Paul throws out an intriguing line: “May you be made strong with the strength that comes from His glorious power.” (1:11).

When Paul writes that he wants us to be made strong, the assumption is clearly that we’re not strong already, at least not on our own. In Paul’s mind—and since this is inspired Scripture, in God’s opinion—we are not strong enough on our own to do what God wants us to do. We need the strength that comes “from His glorious power.”

Paul’s observation is written in the context of reminding us how Christ holds everything together through this power: “For in Him all things in heaven and earth were created…whether thrones or dominions and rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…” (Colossians 1:16ff.)

Since in Him “all things hold together,” we can assume marriage is one of those “things.”  What if God allows marriage to be so difficult in part to reveal to us the real power He makes available to us in Christ—to teach us how to access this power, to depend on this power, to put us in a difficult situation so that we learn the truth of allowing Christ rather than our own resources to hold our marriage together?

If I can lift a table on my own, I’ll do it. If it’s an ultra-heavy chest of drawers and Lisa wants to see what it looks like on the other side of the room, I’m going to have to call my neighbor over to help me. In the same way, if I can be married in my own strength, with “natural” patience and “natural” kindness, I’ll do it. That’s just human nature, isn’t it? But if it requires me to tap into a power greater than I possess, then I’ll be all but forced to look elsewhere, to Christ alone who can hold all things together.

The sad reality for many, if not most of us, is that we don’t turn to God unless we have to. We expend all our human effort and only after that fails, for perhaps the hundredth time, then we say, “Well, that didn’t work. Maybe I should try God.”

What if God wants to reverse this process and teach us to turn to Him first?

Learning to rely on God isn’t just for difficult seasons of marriage by the way. God has made achieving the biblical ideal of marriage impossible on our own.  I love the way Rob Rienow puts it in his book Visionary Marriage: “If you think you have it in you to be a godly husband, either you don’t know what God desires, or you have set the bar way too low.” God calls me to love my wife like Christ loves the church. What man truly does that?

And for wives? Paul says older women should train younger women to love their husbands (Titus 2:4). This assumes that the ability to love an imperfect man requires training, study, intention, and purpose. It doesn’t come naturally to any woman. No man is entirely easy to love, because all of us stumble in many ways (James 3:1).

So, yes, marriage may be difficult, but that’s its glory! It forces us outside of ourselves, to a spiritual dependence that sets things right—recognizing Jesus as the only uniting factor between a husband and wife, supplying the power to hold all things together.

Begin each day with an earnest admission and request: “God, I don’t have what it takes to be married today, but I’m placing myself before you. I’m on my knees admitting my need. Renew my desire. Set my sights even higher than I could dream. You want me to have a more intimate marriage than I’ve ever known—to better reflect Christ and the church, to be a witness to the world, to have a happy and spiritually rich home for our children. So here I am, with all that I’m not, asking you to fill up what I lack.”

After confessing our lack, we ask to be continually filled with His Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).  “Lord Jesus I need your power right now. Power to listen. Power to forgive. Power to be sensitive and kind when I want to be hurtful and harsh.”

This attitude—humility and dependence—and the practice of beginning each day imploring God for His fresh filling doesn’t come naturally. Our greatest sin is often our default practice of seeking to live independently of God. So if God is letting you be continually frustrated with your marriage, it might be because He wants to remind you to be continually filled with His Spirit.

You can face the rest of today and tomorrow with one of two choices: keep on despairing or learn to depend.  Which one will you choose?

April 21, 2015

A Lifelong Love

Gary Thomas — 
LLL Paperback


Buy Now

 

Live Out a Sacred Marriage

You believe your marriage has eternal purposes. You long for it to reach beyond your home and encourage others. But what does it look like to have a spiritually intentional relationship in the midst of dirty dishes, work deadlines, and car pools?

In Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas showed us that God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy. Now Thomas gives us the practical tools to craft our marriages into inspiring relationships that breathe spiritual life to others.

Whatever season of marriage you are in, A Lifelong Love gives you the practical help you need to infuse your marriage with a spiritual passion that will not only change you but will change the world around you.

 

Radio Interviews:
http://andysavage.com/listen#!/swx/pp/media_archives/160172/episode/55914
https://soundcloud.com/audioaviators/why-marry-secrets-to-making-marriage-last

2016 Love Like You Mean It Cruise®:
Honesty, Blessing, and Protection
I Was Born for This

Endorsements

“This book is incredible. Consider it your road map to obtaining all that God designed your marriage to be. You absolutely don’t want to miss out on this life-changing message.”
– Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts

“Gary’s words carry some needed encouragement, instruction, and hope. This is not just another marriage book; it lifts marriage back to the noble place where it belongs… one of transcendent and magnificent glory.”
– Dr. Dennis Rainey, host of FamilyLife Today

“Marriage is the most important relationship we have apart from the one we have with God. I am thankful for Gary’s passion and commitment to help us experience growth, no matter if we’re newly married or married many years.”
– Dan Kimball, pastor and author of Adventure in Churchland

A Lifelong Love is a powerful reminder that marriage is more than just a social construct or a legal arrangement.  It is a deeply spiritual act ordained by God Himself.”
– Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family

“A profound, beautiful, and lifelong love in a marriage is anchored in our relationship with God. This book takes you there!”
– Dr. Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so many of his works through the years, such as Sacred Marriage and Pure Pleasure, and I am thrilled that he’s contributed yet another marriage-building, affair-proofing, family-strengthening, God-honoring book to guide those of us who take marriage very seriously!”
– Shannon Ethridge, author of the bestselling Every Woman’s Battle series and The Passion Principles

“Gary Thomas has written another deep and powerful book full of biblical wisdom and practical suggestions for a loving, lifelong marriage that is more than simply staying together, precisely because it is God-centered and empowered by the Holy Spirit. A must-read for every married couple!”
– Siang-Yang Tan, professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary and senior pastor of First Evangelical Church in Glendale, CA

“Regardless of the state of your marriage, this book will challenge and encourage you!”
– Dr. Juli Slattery, psychologist and cofounder of Authentic Intimacy

“Many marriage books focus on skills, but this book builds skills on deep theology.”
– Ted Cunningham, pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church and author of Fun Loving You

“If you need a renewed sense of hope and purpose for your marriage, or simply long to become a couple that is more surrendered to God, devoted to one another, and engaged in the world, this book is for you!”
– Dr. Michael Dittman, director of Haven for the Heart

A Lifelong Love is deeply rooted in the Word of God as the ultimate guideline for marriage and is a must-read for everyone: married, thinking about it, single, or struggling in the marriage they are in.”
– Cheryl Scruggs, Hope Matters Marriage Ministries, Inc.

“Gary Thomas builds on the brilliant and challenging message of Sacred Marriage as he helps us discover God’s pathway to “a lifelong love.”
– Kevin G. Harney, lead pastor of Shoreline Community Church and author of Empowered by His Presence and the Organic Outreach series (www.kevingharney.com)

“No other author I’m aware of offers such a spiritually rich framework for understanding and thriving in marriage.”
– Jud Wilhite, senior pastor of Central Christian Church and author of Pursued

February 17, 2015

The Watch Dog Fights

Gary Thomas — 

The Watch Dog Fights Final

“The watch dog fights while the wild dog runs away.”

When danger confronts a wild dog, the wild dog runs away. It’s not tied to the home because in its heart, it doesn’t have one; it’s tied solely to its own self-interests.

When danger confronts a watch dog, the watch dog doubles down, as if its life depends upon protecting the home, because it does. It has no other home, no other place to go to. The watch dog’s self-interests are tied to the home, and it will fight or die.

In your heart, in regards to your family and marriage, which kind of dog are you?

We so value our independence that it’s easy to slip into the heart of a “wild dog” even while living the life of a watch dog. It’s possible to have a home but not treat it as a home. Some people can treat their marriage and family as a hindrance, or shackles, even a prison. They secretly want to get out, but are too ashamed to admit it, so they sleep in a home, but their heart roams far and wide. Some “wild dogs” have confessed to me that they have prayed for years that their spouse would have an affair so that they would be free to leave.

A watch dog senses danger and flies into action.  He/she doesn’t play with danger, doesn’t welcome danger, is singularly focused on scaring away the danger as soon as it’s seen, and if the danger doesn’t leave, he/she will fight it. The heart of a watch dog is tied to its home.

When you see distance coming in your marriage, do you call it out and fight it, or do you seek to find enjoyment and amusement outside the marriage? If you do the latter, you’re a wild dog.

When you feel tired or discouraged, do your fantasies roam to another life, dreaming of being married to another person in another house? If so, your heart is that of a wild dog.

When anything threatens your marriage—another affection, another relationship, a busy schedule, a job, you name it—do you stand up and fight, do you say, “This can’t last,” even if you know those words will launch a battle? If so, you have the heart of a watch dog.

Where is your heart? Do you long to be free, but are too ashamed to leave? You must be miserable indeed. You have the constrictions of a watch dog, but the heart of a wild dog, and that’s as frustrating a life as anyone can live. The answer can’t be, if you’re a Christian, to become a wild dog in fact; it’s to humbly repent and seek the heart of a watch dog, someone who is newly refocused on and reinvested in their home.

There is no satisfaction in someone who is living a watch dog life with a wild dog heart. You can’t be satisfied, as the satisfaction you seek—being free from your home—by definition requires the destruction of your home. No true watch dog could take joy in that outcome. You need a change of heart.

My wife and I recently heard yet another story about a man who had a middle-aged affair, fathered a daughter outside of wedlock, but eventually stayed with his wife. The mistress never got remarried and the father of her child actually loved his wife heroically through a later life medical situation.

Why do I tell that story? A watch dog got to “taste” the wild dog life, but then found it so wanting he returned to the watch dog life, even when it was less pleasant and more demanding. When you’re a watch dog dreaming of the wild dog life, you romanticize it. You idealize it. You see the pleasure, but not the pain. You see the freedom, but not the loneliness and alienation. You see the opportunities, but not the isolation.

If you are living a watch dog life, ask God for a new watch dog heart. Fight for your marriage. Fight for your home. Be fully, 100% invested in it. Make it so dear to your soul that you wouldn’t leave your home if it was surrounded by the entire Russian military.

If you have a wild dog heart, I guarantee you that your marriage will crumble. There are so many threats to a marriage nowadays—spiritually, relationally, sexually, financially, time-wise—that if we don’t fight to the death, the marriage will in fact die. Very, very few couples have the luxury of having a “take it or leave it” attitude toward their marriage. And who would want to be in a marriage like that, anyway?

No, the only path to true satisfaction if you’re living a watch dog life is to cultivate a watch dog’s heart.

How, you might ask?

Start fighting, and keep fighting. Refuse any thought of any other solution than victory. The heart follows commitment. Confront issues as they arise.

“But I already have done all that!” some might say, “and the fantasies are so much sweeter.”

A watch dog doesn’t just try. A watch dog starts and never stops. He or she is too busy saving the home to even contemplate leaving it. Every second spent in contemplation of a different life is a second lost in improving your real life.

Never, ever believe the world’s lie that the watch dog lives a “small” life. It is much larger than the wild dog’s life, by far. If a man or woman ferociously fights for his or her marriage and each of their children, if he or she wages war against their own sin that seeks to destroy not just their own souls, but that of their home, they are fighting a cosmic battle over something that truly matters. It is a focused battle, but not a small or meaningless one.

What does the wild dog fight for? His or her own pleasure, happiness, and security. If you think you can be satisfied living for yourself, giving your entire life for the good of yourself, you haven’t contemplated either your own mortality (when your battle will surely and ultimately end) or the emptiness, indeed, the impossibility, of finding satisfaction in a self-centered life.

God has called us to be watch dogs in fact, so let’s be watch dogs in heart as well.

P.S. for singles:

I want to add a quick word for the singles out there—it’s certainly possible to have a “watch dog” heart when you live a single life. There is much fulfillment to be found if God has called you to the single life when you have a watch dog heart for your church and God’s mission and those friends with whom God has called you to be in community. This is a blog focused on marriage and family life, but in respecting that I’m not in any way undercutting your call in life or suggesting that the single life is a lesser life. I’m just trying to encourage those God has called into marriage and family life to be obediently and faithfully invested in that life.

June 5, 2014

A Mom’s Eyes Opened

Gary Thomas — 
By: Photostock; freedigitalphotos.net

By: Photostock; freedigitalphotos.net

Liz cringed when her daughter lost the election to become student body president just as she had cringed when her daughter didn’t get chosen as a cheerleader.  But this rejection, one year after the election loss was more difficult still. in spite of high grades, a decent SAT score, and after carefully logging her volunteer hours the young woman received a small envelope from her college of choice.

“This has to be a rejection,” Liz thought, but she knew her daughter would want to open the letter herself.  “This is going to devastate her.”

Liz spent the entire day in a state of turmoil.  She couldn’t get anything done.  She found herself crying.  Her daughter had tried so hard, and she wanted this so much.  It just wasn’t fair.

When her daughter got home Liz handed over the envelope, fighting back the tears.  The young woman took the envelope and from the expression on her face, Liz could tell her guess had been correct.  Without saying anything other than, “Oh, well,” the daughter went up to her bedroom, closed the door, and stayed there for a good hour.

Liz was beside herself.  What could she do?  What could she say?  Finally, she knocked on her daughter’s bedroom door.

“Honey?  Are you all right?”

Her daughter opened the door with car keys in her hands.  “Yeah.  I’m going over to Katie’s.  Bye.”

Later that night, Liz called Katie’s mom, as her daughter still hadn’t said a word about the rejection other than to confirm it.  Katie’s mom happened to be a trained counselor and Liz thought that perhaps, with her daughter having spent the afternoon at her house, the counselor could give some tips to help Katie get over the disappointment.

“Liz, can I be honest with you?”  Katie’s mom asked.

“Certainly.”

“Your daughter is a happy girl.  This wasn’t a big deal to her.”

“She must be in denial,” Liz answered.  “I know how much she wanted this.”

“No, you know how much you wanted it.  The only thing that bothers your daughter is that she feels like she’s let you down, but it’s really not a big deal to her.”

Liz was flabbergasted.  “Are you telling me she really doesn’t care?”

“I’m telling you that she doesn’t feel like a failure.  She just feels bad that her mom thinks she feels like a failure.  She’s happy and even excited about the other schools she did get into it, but she doesn’t think you are so she doesn’t feel like she can celebrate with you.”

This became a life altering moment for Liz, an opportunity to critique herself and her emotions, her sense of self and security, her view of her children, God, and life in entirely new ways.  She came to realize she wasn’t raising her daughter as much as she was depending on her daughter, for her own sense of self-worth, feelings of accomplishment, and her belief in her abilities as a mother.

Perhaps what hurt Liz the most was her friend’s observation that, “your daughter doesn’t feel like a failure.  She just feels bad that her mom thinks she’s a failure.”

Parents, it’s wonderful to have big dreams for your kids but do they see you celebrate their successes—however limited they may seem to you—every bit as much as they see you hurt over their disappointments?  Do our kids see us deriving joy from childrearing or do they more frequently notice our pain, disappointment, hurt, and fear?

Parenting has a knack of making every parent come face to face with our true motivation, shaky sense of self-worth, and conflicted beliefs about what really matters.  One of the greatest spiritual challenges we will ever endure is watching a child fail.  Just the threat of such a failure can paralyze us.

I want to leave an inheritance to my kids but not the inheritance of fear and not the inheritance of disappointment.  I’d like to give them an example of faith, a model of peace, remembrance of courage, and perhaps a few extra dollars to give their bank accounts a little boost.  I hope they don’t inherit my self-absorbed fears.

If I don’t intentionally rein these fears in; however, they will.  Jesus was adamant: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

Did you catch the “do not let…” part?  Can we model that to our kids?  “Whatever the disappointment, we won’t let our hearts be troubled…”

This might be a good verse for some parents to memorize.  It’s normal to have dreams for our kids, but let’s not burden them with our own disappointment when our dreams for them do not come true in the way we want them to.

 

April 7, 2014

God Oases

Gary Thomas — 

oases

Up until I wrote this blog post, only two people, other than Lisa and me, knew this story, and one of them is dead.

Lisa and I had been married for just a couple months. There was a spiritual crisis of sorts, not threatening our marriage, but freaking us out. We went and visited my boyhood pastor. We talked and prayed with he and his wife and even spent the night at their house. Something about Pastor Boggess made his house (even his presence) seem like a place of refuge, a “God oasis.”

It’s the kind of ministry I pray every Christian couple will aspire to. Consider this prophecy from the book of Isaiah:

Each man will be like a shelter from the wind

and a refuge from the storm,

like streams of water in the desert

and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. (Isaiah 32:1-2)

Notice the power of these lives! A holy man or woman, and certainly a holy couple, is a spiritual force, a “God oasis” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the way they listen and the way they use their eyes to love instead of judge, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy women and men are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation tears this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God-oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out—and they will have something to say.

What happens when people find their way to these God oases?

Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed,

and the ears of those who hear will listen.

The mind of the rash will know and understand,

and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. (32:3-4)

Our faith isn’t about us. It’s about setting our roots down deep, learning to drink from God’s well, and letting the overflow of that spiritual life and vitality become a place of refuge for the hurting, the sick, the discouraged, the ignorant and the tired.

When you work on your heart and then on your marriage, you create more than just a home or a relationship—you create an oasis to which God can direct people who need to feed upon your strength.

Before Gene died a few years ago, my dad met with him as Gene reminisced about his ministry. While many pastors go from small church to medium church to large church, every church that God called Gene to was smaller than the one he left behind. Gene felt a little humbled by this, but he told my dad, “If someone like your sons could come out of my ministry, I guess I did something right.”

My dad handed Gene my latest book, not knowing the crisis point that Gene had shepherded Lisa and I through. That’s the thing about oases. They don’t get credit. No one applauds the hotel or the rest stop that a famous singer or politician passes through on their way to the stage, but whatever they do would be much less if the oasis didn’t exist.

Will you and your spouse seek to build a God oasis in your neighborhood and church? Will you so invite the presence of Christ into your heart and home that when people really need to be touched by God, they come to you? Will your kids’ friends think of your house as a respite? Will your pastors look upon your house as an outpost for God’s work in your area?

You may never get credit, and you may never even see the full fruit of your ministry. But it’s a glorious ministry to inhabit.