May 24, 2018

The Great 30 Day Marriage Experiment

Gary Thomas — 

Are Jesus’ words worth trying out?

Seriously: do you think he has sufficiently proven himself to you to the point where you owe it to him to believe he knows what he’s talking about?

If so, let me suggest a thirty-day marriage experiment rooted in Jesus’ new commandment, given in John 15:12:

“This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”

N.T. Wright describes this love as the “self-giving of an entire life, minute by minute, day by day, year by year…What Jesus is describing goes deeper than any self-seeking, deeper than any self-serving. It simply wants the utmost possible for the beloved, up to and including the point of giving its own life.”

Have any of us ever truly tried to love our spouse like this, upping the level of our focus so that we desire to love our spouse minute by minute, day by day, with the goal of doing the “utmost possible” for the one we love? Or do we simply write off Jesus’ words as an impossible ideal that shouldn’t be allowed to trouble our minds or prick our consciences?

If unleashed, this minute by minute, day by day seeking the best for our spouse would lift our focus from our disappointments and frustrations and re-center them on something we can actually do—lay down our life for our spouses.

Why just thirty days? It might sound too exhausting to say you’re going to focus this intensely for the rest of your life, but what if we said we’d like to try this for the next thirty days and see how it goes?

This “minute by minute loving” would address so many areas of life in general. For example, in order for a husband to be able to focus on his wife like this, he’d have to get control of any bad habits that are draining his energy and diverting his focus from his family. His temper doesn’t serve his family, so that has to go, too. And he’d have to stay aware of what’s going on at home, so for the time being, even some cherished hobbies may need to be put on hold. By focusing on what’s so right, he’ll lose so much of what’s wrong. I daresay, he’d become an entirely different kind of man.

Women who embrace this call to love their husband minute by minute and day-by- day, focusing on their husband’s welfare, wouldn’t have time to gossip about others. They will be too busy looking for and implementing creative ways to encourage. Rather than be distracted by office politics or so-called “binge-worthy” shows on Netflix, they will be moved to re-engage their minds to think about how to please their husbands when they get home. This can free them from so much life drama that seems to demand our attention but ends up mentally and emotionally draining us.  

Before someone complains that their spouse isn’t fulfilling his/her role as a husband or wife, can they look at this list and ask, “Am I minute by minute and day by day making sure I don’t get side-tracked by social squabbles, don’t get addicted by personal pleasure, so that I can devote my time and energy to excel at loving my spouse?”

This love is urged on us by no one less than Jesus, yet how few of us actually ever pursue it?

When couples ask me for help with their marriages, they rarely are pursuing such a love. I don’t hear, “How do I help her heal from the wounds of her past?” “How can I understand him better?” “How can I bless her?” “How can I support him more?” Instead I hear, “Can you fix this about him?” “Can you get her to do this?”  They want a problem fixed. They want to be happier. They want the other spouse to treat them better. These are understandable motivations, but they are still inferior motivations. They address the symptoms, but not the disease: we don’t pursue the kind of love Jesus tells us to pursue.

The “new commandment” given us by Jesus is that we love as He loved. That’s what it means to be His disciple.  It’s a little shocking how few of us have ever honestly or earnestly tried to love like this. Trying to begin by loving everyone like this might be too much; but don’t you think God would be pleased if you decided to start by loving his son or daughter (your husband or wife) this way?

Here are some practical questions to ask if you’d like to launch this 30 day experiment for your marriage:

  • Is your attitude, “Why doesn’t my spouse love me better” instead of “how can I excel at loving my spouse?” If so, think of how silly it would sound for Jesus to say of his disciples, “I do miracles for them, I teach them, I feed them, I heal them, I cast demons out of them, but what do they ever do for me?”
  • Are you fighting to keep your addictions and desires under control so that you are free, spiritually, psychologically and physically, to devote yourself to loving your family?
  • Are you minute by minute and day by day laying down your life for your spouse, regularly thinking about his or her welfare?
  • Are you growing deeper in your walk with God so that you have more of Jesus’ empowering presence and ennobling truth with which to bless your family?

The experiment to start loving as Jesus loved, to actually begin taking this command seriously, may not be accomplished in a month (or ever, fully); but its pursuit will start to impact our marriages from the very first day it is tried.

Normally, I can’t keep interacting with comments on older posts, as there are just too many with which to keep up. However, for this post, I’d like us all to stick around for the next month or so in order to hear how it goes when it’s tried. If you end up with a personal testimony of how this “experiment” blessed your marriage, please come back and share it with all of us.

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24 responses to The Great 30 Day Marriage Experiment

  1. Yes….and I feel for you…
    However, constant continous persistent of humbling and being nice to the spouse at all times – whatever the issue and situation…WOG says that we ought to Praise Him without ceasing for ALL things be it issues and situations of unpleasantry…though it is difficult but it is a test of how we can belief and trust God to see us through the tough, ungly, rejection, abusive, heartbreaking, etc times. It will be good to apply 2 Chronicles 7:14-15 upon ourselves for God to heal our homeground (land) and Proverbs 3:5-6 to direct our paths when we are put into a corner…
    Proverbs 15:9b says that God LOVES him/her who pursues righteousness…Seek after God’s righteousness and truly all the desires of one’s heart shall be added onto you.
    May God bless you indeed, Whatislove…

    Amen n Shalom!

  2. I’ve tried this before. The response I got was that whether I do good for 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years, it will never be enough and doesn’t deserve grace. …got an answer for that?

  3. I do this sometimes. (Think about ways to please my spouse). I have no issue with this, but sometimes I do get tired as I also have a daughter to take care of and another little girl whose hair I braid ever weekend (her mother has left her basically in her father’s care, and well you know most men can’t braid/plait little girls hair). So often times I’m taking care of everyone else and hardly have time for myself….sigh. However, thank God for grace, mercy and strength!

  4. How does a wife show empathy without it turning into resentment when her husband’s desire is inconsistent? My desire/need for sex is stronger than his so when I approach him he considers me to be too aggressive. What would empathy look like in this situation?

  5. Darcy Laidler May 25, 2018 at 10:11 am

    Thank you for your words and the challenge, Gary. I am praying that I will effectively apply this.

  6. Gary,
    My marriage (of 30 years in June) has been a difficult and at times on the cusp of abusive. It is hard for me to read your blogs, but I do it anyway, I am not sure why, perhaps to try to get a picture of what a marriage SHOULD be.

    I agree with you that love is THE necessary ingredient in any relationship. The question that keeps coming to my mind is what does love look like? I know we have 1Cor 13 to guide us and I really did try to live like that with my husband. Believe all things, endure all things, love never fails…
    The problem was that my tendency toward “martyrdom” did neither me nor him any good. He just soaked up my kindness and my giving nature, and all I got back was criticism, anger, dependency, and other bad stuff. I got worn out and resentful and bitter. I forgave all his bad behavior 70×7, but it just got worse and worse.

    It was only when I put a stake in the ground and said “no more” and started acting in a way that I consider “unloving” toward him that he began to change.

    What I have concluded is that what I thought was “love” was not that at all. In fact my “love” seemed to do more harm than good, at least in the dynamics of OUR relationship. So when I read a blog like this I don’t know what to think. I constantly ask God for wisdom and search the scriptures for deeper understanding of this thing called “love”.

    Can anyone out there relate to what I am saying?

    • Yes! I read those things into these kinds of posts as well. Christian women are taught to believe loving is being a doormat so that’s what a lot of us hear. I get what Gary is saying and I don’t think they contradict each other! I have learned that being a doormat or a “martyr” is not loving. What you did putting “a stake in the ground and saying ‘no more’” is loving your husband too, if being led by God and not pride. “Boundaries in Marriage” by Cloud and Townsend opened my eyes to this, big time!

    • Renay Calhoun May 26, 2018 at 2:47 pm

      I can completely relate!
      My husband and I have been together for 28 years and it has been a struggle for about 20 of them. He was verbally abusive (still is at times but not to the extreme he was) and would promise me things, make plans with me and break them at the last minute to do things with his friends. He never understood why I would be (or should be) hurt about that. After all, in his words,” I come home to you every day!”
      He is an addict. First alcohol, then drugs, then gambling. At times, all together. We lost our home, my car and he has emptied our checking and savings account so many times that he can no longer have one.
      He thought as long as he was living in the house with me (albeit in a separate room for almost 12 years of that time) that I should be happy that he was bothering to come home.
      About 3 1/2 years ago, he left. Leaving a trail of ugly, hurtful words behind. He stayed gone for almost 6 months, then came home. I took him back with open arms and was so very excited that he had “bothered to come home to me”. One day, as I was getting ready to leave the house for work (he was retired, but I was still working to pay our bills), he asked if I had any money, I told him know but I got paid at the end of the week (I was a nanny and got paid once a month.) When I got home that night, he was gone. Clothes, golf clubs and all!
      I went to counseling, started taking care of me and found a church home. I started doing the love dare and praying for him and asked my friends and family to do the same. He wanted to return after a couple of months, but I told him he would have to agree to counseling first for his anger and his addiction problems. He wasn’t ready for that so stayed gone longer.
      After a couple more months, he asked to come home again and I repeated my guidelines. He would have to learn to take ownership for his actions, put God first and our marriage second. He finally agreed and came home, but refused to follow through.
      As you probably guessed.. A few months later he left a third time. This time when he came back, I told him it would be as a roommate. He would have to pay rent to me and that meant making sure that 1/2 utilities and groceries were covered as well. He was responsible for his part of the insurance and phone bill as well as having to keep his area clean and respect my boundaries.
      2 years later, we are still working on our marriage, he is going to church, gave up the addictions (still won’t go to counseling) and it is certainly a work in progress. BUT, I can see that the challenges put before me in the love dare, my friends and family and a special challenge by my son had allowed me to meat him where he is at instead of expecting him to be where I am.
      I believe it is worth the work as long as there is no physical abuse. But I do NOT allow him to verbally abuse me anymore!

    • I have had similar experiences with my husband who also has been verbally abusive. It’s confusing when I try and be compassionate and forgiving and at the first sign of a different opinion he becomes angry and critical. I am willing to try … let’s pray for each other.

    • Hi WhatisLove, I see what you’re saying. I think we are sometimes prone to focus on the softness of love and not the sternness. Jesus was kind and patient, but at times he spoke very harshly, even to the disciples he loved. I’m thinking in particular of him saying ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ to Peter. The thing Peter had said was of the devil, and Jesus did not let it slide or gloss it over.

      Obviously the relationship a wife has to her husband is not the same as Jesus had to Peter, but I think the point stands that love can be very stern. Sometimes we need to display this sternness or hardness in order to rescue our loved ones from their own sinful inclinations. It sounds to me as if you have done the right and loving thing.

  7. Speaking from personal experience as a husband, another excellent resource on this very topic is Love Dare which is a 40 day journey on becoming a better lover to your spouse. It is extremely practical and has excellent teaching too. I would encourage buying the “leather” edition so that you really treat it special and take it seriously. This resource has sold 5 million plus copies. It was made “famous” in the movie Fireproof several years ago.

    • Difficult place to be in sister. Marital discord, relational strife, and the emptiness of unfulfilled mutual love and respect simply drain one’s soul over the long run. My bottom line is to choose your partner based on whether they have a heart of gold, a heart hopefully enlivened with spiritual vitality. At some point one simply separates or divorces hopefully after trying everything or simply just hangs in there. Many cultures around the word don’t base long lasting relationships on mutual love and fulfillment but on duty and the stability of the union staying intact. In our romance-centric and selfish culture, those sentiments of duty just doesn’t resonate. My new spouse hung in there for 20 years in a mentally abusive, unfriendly, uncaring marriage. She divorced. I remarried after my first wife passed. I challenge myself every day to cherish her and love her as Christ loves the church. Gary’s books are never the full answer nor does God nesessarily change the heart of your spouse but for me, making my spouse first is a challenge I’m willing to keep praying for, reading about, and mostly communicating with my spouse about, because that’s the real tool to creating a positive marriage while embracing sanctification and moving forward with earthly and heavenly relationships. Love is the answer. Always will be. Many non Christian cultures find women in sufferage but continuing to honour their marriage as that is how they perceive their faith to have meaning and practicality – unselfish love as a way of serving God. Not my idea of ideal, but if other religions can thrive that way, one would hope as Christians we could too. In my men’s group at church, there a numerous men who claim their wives are not giving at all, and I’m not referencing sexuality. The selfishness works both ways. Oh that couples would love each other without hesitation or let-up. I’ve lost a loving wife to the ravishes of cancer. Please everyone, love the one you are with.

  8. Dear Gary, this is one of the best posts I have read here. I feel it gets at such a basic human false belief that to get is better than to give. God designed the entire universe to operate the other way; allow yourself to participate in his divine nature and become the person you never thought you could be. This is much better; not easy but better. And I am better at philosophically agreeing with these things than doing them but the more we challenge ourselves to lean into God’s ways the more the whole community of faith goes deeper, and mountains move. So thanks. Lara

    • Thanks, Lara. Appreciate the way you tied this in to Jesus’ “better to give than to get”

      • Hi Gary, I don’t want to presume to reply on every hurting woman’s comment, but wanted to offer my website up as I serve women in difficult Christian marriages.

  9. I’m in as well.

  10. Gary,

    I was actually encouraged to put a lot of those things into practice after reading your book, “Cherish”. It became something of a mission for me. I have a few observations from that experience.

    First, and foremost, it does change your perspective. Unpleasant tasks become less so if you look at them as something you are doing for someone, rather than something you “have to do”. I wouldn’t say that I was grateful to do them, but I was a lot less inclined to be resentful.

    I tried to make a point to be generous with my time, with my praise, and with affection.

    It was rewarding, but ultimately I found it to be unsustainable in some ways. Maybe that is a measure of my own self centerednes, and I suspect that we all fight that war. I have to acknowledge that we each lost our Mothers in the last year, and it became all to easy to focus on grief. Even as that was taking place, I was deliberate to be supportive and to lift up to my wife, and essentially buried self. I suppose I expected some reciprocity, which is counter to being selfless, but I don’t think I have ever felt so abandoned and alone.

    A little time has passed, and we are both reaching a peace with our losses, but I have to admit that I am a lot more guarded with my own time and my own needs.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Doug. Before you call this “unsustainable” (I get what you’re saying; I know you’re not just being critical here), re-read the chapter in Cherish on “the biblical power to keep on cherishing.” If we stop preaching the Gospel to ourselves and renew our motivation on that basis, we will lose the power to keep moving forward.You confess that one of the things that undercut your efforts was your spouse’s lack of response. But the Gospel moves our spouse’s response out of the equation. We begin responding to what God has done for us, not what our spouse has done to us. That’s the key to make it sustainable. This isn’t just theory; I truly believe it works

      • I will have to go back and re-read the entire book. I found it to be both challenging and inspiring. At the same time, it was presented in a way that made applying the principals relatively easy.

        Without patting myself on the back too much, I was able to put it into practice in a way that I know made a terribly difficult time easier for my wife. At the same time, I recognize that it was the feeling of being alone and abandoned in my own grief that largely moved me to do everything I could to lighten her load and be there for her at every step. I would not have her endure what I did if it was in my power to prevent it. In that sense, I think I did as Christ would have me to do, rather than what was “fair”. With that said, it seemed a cruel way to have to learn that lesson.

        I would encourage anyone and everyone to take the 30 day challenge. I would also encourage them to read the book “Cherish” because I think there is a lot in there that you won’t discover just by taking the challenge. A lifetime change executed imperfectly will be more meaningful than 30 days of perfection.

    • Doug, your words rang a bell for me.

      Ever since we got married, my husband has had a lot of really hard things to deal with – painful professional upheavals, deaths of his parents, health issues… that have never really gone away and left him free to focus on our marriage. Like you, I have done what I can to think of his needs before my own, but as my own needs have always been minor in comparison, he hasn’t got much practice at having it work the other way. Now, if I present even the smallest issue to him, he will tell me he can’t manage it on top of all the other stresses in his life.

      Consequently, I have learnt not to ask and not to expect support from him. I truly believe that in different circumstances he would have been a supportive husband, but as things are I have had to become accustomed to looking after myself. I suppose the positive side of this is that I have learnt to lean more on God, and consider Him to be my place of safety and understanding, but I do grieve for what our marriage could have been.

  11. A great challenge, Gary! This “all-out” love reminds me of what most of us felt when we first fell in love with our spouse. An “I would do anything for you” attitude that was probably based on infatuation — but is still a good reminder that we are capable of this kind of reckless pursuit that you are suggesting.

    Reaching back to those memories might be a good way to come up with some ideas. Ladies, do you remember when you spent time preparing to see him, choosing your clothing, lingerie, taking extra time to make sure you looked lovely, greeting him at the door with a big smile? Husbands, do you remember when you wrote love notes and called just to hear her voice, or reached for her hand when you walked together?

    Praying that this experiment has wonderful results in many marriages, Gary, including my own.

  12. I’m in! And I pray my husband will see the value of this too. Any suggested reading or guide for daily study? A book of yours? A book by another author?
    Thank you for this challenge!