Sometimes, I’m reading one of the Christian classics and I find myself saying, even out loud, “Ouch.”
That happened to me once when I was spending time with John Wesley. His insight was so heavy and so unique, it just about knocked me out of my chair. In his essay on “perfection,” John Wesley (18th century) spends a good bit of time talking about how Christians are not perfect. He goes on to state that we are not free from temptation, but then there’s a marvelous twist dropped right in front of us, like a cat presenting us with a dead mouse.
It startles you.
Wesley points out that one of the reasons some of us are “not tempted to gross forms of sin” is because “Satan, in his evil wisdom, has perceived them to be fast asleep in dead forms of godliness. He does not tempt them to gross sin, lest they should awake from their dead, faithless, state.”
Here’s what Wesley is saying:
imagine a spouse who has only a dead religious faith. Because there aren’t any gross sins in their life: extravagant financial fraud, or drunkenness, or adultery, or racism—something most people would recognize as flat-out wrong—they don’t realize they are living in a dead religious faith. They have a form of religion. They are a decent person. But the Spirit of God is as far from them as possible. They have no joy, no peace, no love, no gentleness. They thirst after disputes. They are arrogant. They live for themselves. They gossip, continually, in such a way that they don’t even recognize it as gossip.
They are, in fact, dead in their sin, but because it’s not “gross obvious sins,” they don’t realize they are dead in their sins. They think they are alive in their limited piety, so they don’t seek after God as their savior.
Satan treats these people with a “light hand,” because if they were to fall into a much more obvious sin, they might wake up to their spiritual poverty, cast themselves on the grace and mercy of God, and be changed.
Marriage can help us see past just the “sins that offend piety” to the sins that offend the Holy Spirit.
When we are led by the Spirit, the question isn’t, “Did I murder or hit anyone today?” The question is, “Did I love and serve others today, beginning with my wife?” When led by the Spirit, I’m not encouraged by the fact that I didn’t get drunk; I’m inspired to consider whether I treated my body as God’s temple, nurturing it as an instrument for His service.
When the Spirit has control, I’m concerned not with whether I was a “nice” person today, but with whether I loved and served even my enemies. Did I love my children enough to confront them lovingly, or was I more concerned about being seen as a “cool” parent? Did I take advantage of an opportunity to serve my wife, or did I just listen to her and say, “Yeah, well, I’ll pray about that.” When I live to please God, it’s not about whether or not I committed fraud in order to close a business deal; it’s about whether I’ giving sacrificially to seek first the Kingdom of God.
This standard is so different. Do I operate with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control?
These are the real issues in which marriage calls us to grow. It’s rather obvious if I commit adultery against my wife, but perhaps less obvious if I am not treating her with gentleness and kindness and patience.
The thought that Satan wouldn’t want to tempt me with any “gross” sins lest I wake up to how far away from God I truly am—letting me “sleep” in my limited, religious righteousness—is a frightening thought.
When we talk about God designing marriage to make us holy even more than to make us happy, this is the kind of holiness we seek—a holiness born of the Holy Spirit, not a “holiness” concocted by religious men and women.
Marriage is such an ideal place to practice kindness and patience and mercy and gentleness and faithfulness. It’s okay if it occasionally “feels” like we are merely practicing. None of us are naturally good at being like Jesus. But we can learn to invite God into those challenging moments, surrender to the work of his grace, and become truly righteous in our actions—not the righteousness of the Pharisees, but the righteousness that is a fruit of God’s Spirit, dwelling in us.
[photo: Creative Commons, U.S. Army]