Friday, September 28, 2012

Don't be "on the same team"

     All my life, I have heard people refer to marriage as “being on the same team.”  While I understand the basis for that statement—working in the same direction, having the same priorities and goals, etc.—being “on the same team” falls short of God’s calling for husbands and wives.  You see, teams want mutual success, but teams don’t always work together, teams have “better players” who can develop an ego, teams cast blame when they aren’t winning.  Teams have no problem going their separate ways when it is convenient, financially beneficial, or they are just plain tired of each other.  The biblical concept of marriage goes way beyond “being on the same team.”  Husband and wife are called to become “one flesh.”

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. 
(Genesis 2:23-25)

And Jesus reaffirmed this spiritual and physical reality when he answered the Pharisees challenge to give a good legal reason for divorce:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  (Matthew 19:4-6)

To answer their question, Jesus challenged them to reorient their thinking as he took them back to creation and to God’s intent for marriage at the beginning.  Rather than looking for the “line in the sand” that it is permissible to end a marriage, Jesus wanted them see the divine mystery of marriage (Eph. 5:21-32) that transcends our selfish, fallen nature. The implication of “one flesh” is far greater than a couple "being on the same team" and sharing a home, sharing some bills, sharing a bed, and sharing an occasional day off.
     So, what does it mean to be “one flesh”?  This is a bit hard to define because it will manifest differently in different couples.  It is normally something a couple continually grows into, and the way it is lived out can change from one season of marriage to the next.  My own clearest understanding of what it means came years ago when my own Dad passed from this life and my Mom’s first words through her tears were “Part of me has just died.”  They weren’t just on the same team.  They were one flesh.
     While I can’t fully put into words a divine mystery, I think there are a couple of obvious things to help us see if we’re really trying to move toward “one flesh” or if we’re settling for just being on the same team.
     First being "one flesh" means that I would never say or do anything to my spouse that I wouldn’t want said or done to me.  This is, of course, and impossible expectation.  Even the most loving, intimate, selfless couples still have conflict in their relationship.  So “one flesh” isn’t the absence of conflict.  Nor is it refusing to say something to your spouse that might hurt him/her if it needs to be (very lovingly) said for the sake of accountability and moving toward healing the relationship.  But it is a conscious effort to do everything within your power to not use your words or actions in a deliberately selfish or abusive way toward your mate.  It is fostering a true, holistic intimacy in which you deeply feel your spouse’s joys as well as his/her pains.
     Second, it is not a romanticized relationship.  "One flesh" is not a promise that life will be filled with rainbows, butterflies, and happiness.  Instead, it is a covenant union formed in mutual joy and pain, flowing with forgiveness, and established in a mutual faith in God. No matter how well a couple gets along, if God is left out of the picture they cannot truly experience the holistic “one flesh” relationship that Jesus was pointing us toward.  We live in a fallen world, and we are fallen people, so “one flesh” always calls us to exhibit self-control, surrender ourselves to God, and to be very generous with grace, mercy, and forgiveness toward our spouses.
     There are a lot of similarities between a covenant Christian marriage and a team that functions well, but don’t mistake one for the other.  Don’t be on the same team as your spouse.  A team can split up and go their separate ways.  But one flesh stays together.

This Saturday, September 29th I will be leading a 3-hour Marriage Enrichment Workshop at the Leanna Church of Christ in Murfreesboro.  Please come and share this info with others. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

What were you really expecting?

     Who takes out the trash?  Who balances the checkbook?  Who does the yard work?  Who makes the final decision on where you live?  All relationships come with expectations, and marriage is certainly no exception.
     For most couples, the expectations of your covenant relationship were both verbalized and non-verbalized.  Think about it.  What did you promise to your spouse when you got married?  What expectations did you say out loud in your wedding vows?  To love, honor, and cherish?  For richer or for poorer?  In sickness and in health?  For better or for worse?  Forsaking all others?  You might have vocalized these or other similar sentiments. 
     But along with what you said out loud, there were probably some implied expectations for the marriage relationship.  I don’t recall ever having been to a wedding where the preacher said, “And do you Fred, promise not to be an obnoxious jerk who constantly embarrasses Jenny?  Do you also promise not to be abusive to her?” or “Jenny, do you promise not to consistently lie to Fred so that he never knows what to believe? And do you promise not to demean and emasculate him in the way you talk about him with others?”  There are (or at least should be) expectations of certain behaviors and character traits that a person should seek in a mate.*
     Because you and your spouse are coming from different backgrounds and different life experiences, and because God created you to be unique, there is often a temptation to assume or project your own expectations on your spouse.  The expectations we bring to our marriage relationships can create a harmonious home or cause constant strife.  Even after being married for years, a couple can still be at odds over how something should be done because it was done very differently in the families in which each spouse grew up.  While every couple will have to maneuver at least some expectation adjustments (hey, you have to decide if you’re going to view navigating those differences as a fun adventure and learning experience or as a constant sore spot), here are a few thoughts that might help.
     First, having unrealistic expectations will destroy a marriage relationship.  Some people have unrealistic expectations of themselves.  The desire to be the perfect wife/husband, perfect mother/father, perfect daughter/son, perfect employee, perfect church volunteer, perfect neighbor…you get the idea…can be overwhelming.  This is not to give us an excuse to shirk responsibilities or not use our God-given gifts and talents, but unrealistic expectations lead to constant feelings of guilt, inadequacy, depression, and fatigue.
     And some people have unrealistic expectations of their spouse, always bemoaning how their mate could do things more efficiently or act better.  Never forget, you are not perfect and the person you married is not perfect either.  He will make mistakes.  She will fall short at times.  Your mate will need forgiveness and empathy.  God didn’t give us all the exact same set of gifts or abilities, and just because you (or someone else’s mate) can do something, that doesn’t necessarily, mean your spouse can do the same.
     Second, having no expectations will also destroy a marriage.  All relationships carry expectations.  It is necessary for a couple to have expectations if they want a healthy marriage.  Mutually agreed upon expectations provide healthy boundaries that lead to blessings in a marriage relationship.  Where there are no expectations, eventually animosity and resentment begin to grow, as major things (and minor things necessary for daily living) begin to fall through the cracks.  A marriage simply cannot function without expectations.
     And finally, lovingly verbalize your expectations to your spouse while asking his/her expectations of you.  As I said, we often assume expectations based on our own backgrounds.  Even if it seems obvious or redundant, it is always better to actually vocalize expectations.  You cannot over-communicate.  This is especially true when significant changes happen in the marriage relationship.  Career changes, the different stages of your children’s development, major health changes, aging parents, crises with extended family, spiritual changes—there is an endless list of major and minor scenarios that can cause a couple to need to readjust and reaffirm the expectations of their relationship.  When these things happen, it is always easier to assume how your spouse will respond.  But don't assume.  Always verbalize any changes in expectations.
     As you discuss expectations with your spouse, be careful not to let your expectations slip into a self-centered, “needs”-based list of demands.  Every marriage should have expectations, but no marriage should have a tyrant who demands his/her spouse satisfy every whim.
     So, the next time you’re tempted to look at your spouse and say, “What did you expect out of me?” —take the time to sincerely ask.

*Whether they were evident before a couple said their vows or if they didn’t appear until decades later, consistently demeaning, deceitful, and/or abusive behaviors are sometimes present in a marriage.  If this is present in your relationship, immediately seek competent professional counseling and protection if necessary.  For the sake this post though, I was only addressing normal encounters caused by conflicting or unspoken expectations.


If you are in the Middle Tennessee area, please join me Saturday, Sept. 29th for a 3-hour Marriage Enrichment Workshop hosted by the Leanna Church of Christ.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Where the Grass is Greener

   “The grass ain’t always greener on the other side.  It’s green where you water it.”  Now don’t stop reading if you recognize that as a line from a Justin Bieber song and you’re not a fan.  I’m not really a fan either, and I certainly don’t have Bieber-fever.  The line is actually delivered by Big Sean in the rap section of the song As Long As You Love Me.  When I heard this on the radio for the first time (at the time I didn’t even know who the artists were or what the song was), I was struck by how profound that one simple statement was; “The grass ain’t always greener on the other side.  It’s green where you water it.”
            Have you ever thought about that within the context of your marriage?  All relationships take time and effort.  The more you invest into a relationship, the better the relationship will be.  Relationships begin to breakdown when our focus turns selfish and we no longer seek to nurture our mates and “water” our marriages.  If someone goes too long without “watering” his/her relationship with his/her spouse, then the relationship will eventually dry up and die.
          Please understand that I am not talking about a “needs based” approach to marriage that fosters a self-centered or manipulative mindset.  “Watering” your relationship is about putting God at the center, recognizing your mate as a true helpmate who completes you, and fully engaging in the divine mystery of husband and wife becoming “one flesh.”  It is about doing the things that feed a healthy, God-centered relationship.  It is also not an occasional or half-hearted effort that only surfaces when things become strained.  Instead, it is a continual desire to love and seek the well-being of your mate as the visible evidence of your love for God.  It is living lives of love, forgiveness, grace, healing, restoration, submission, and sacrificial living toward our spouses.
          Why is an 85-year-old man able to live in a very difficult circumstance, caring for his wife who is so stricken with Alzheimer’s that she doesn’t even know who he is?  Because even in his season of sadness he knows he’s cultivated a lifetime of watering his own marriage.  Why does a 28-year-old woman know she can devote the rest of her life to caring for her husband who is in a wheel-chair for the rest of his life due to a tragic car accident?  Because even in her uncertainty she’s committed herself to a lifetime of nurturing her own marriage.  How can a couple deal with a child who’s trapped in addictive behaviors?  Because even through the pain of their disappointment they don’t lose sight of what it means to make sure their marriage is secure first.
   It is amazing how many people in our world today are more than ready to give up on a relationship.  For some reason, our culture perpetuates the idea that it is easier to throw away what you have, and then put in all the time and effort needed to start a new relationship, rather than investing that same amount of time and energy into healing and strengthening your current marriage.  Instead of trying to figure out how you are going to do it different the next time, why don't you concentrate the same effort into discerning and doing what you just might need to be doing different this time.
  I understand that we live in a broken world.  So many factors play into our relationships, and especially our marriages.  Selfishness, betrayal, physical or mental illnesses, or countless other things can drastically affect spouses.  But think about whether or not you’re “watering” your marriage now.  If you’re in a good marriage, find ways to nurture and grow it and make it better.  If you’re in a strained marriage, don’t give up.  It might take a long time to repair the damage done, to regain trust, to feel like things are good once again.  Where ever you’re at in your marriage, just remember, “The grass ain’t always greener on the other side.  It’s greener where you water it.”

I am blessed to be able to present this 3-hour workshop on Saturday, Sept. 29th.  We will laugh and have fun together as we learn some powerful truths about Christian marriage from God's Word that can immediately impact your relationship for the better.  There's no cost and it is appropriate and applicable for anyone from teens who are looking toward dating and marriage in the future to couples who've been married for over 50 years.  Please be praying for this effort, come join us, and invite your friends.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Heart of Healthy Marriage

Healthy marriage is not a sociological or psychological pursuit.  At its heart it is a theological relationship.  Let me say that again.  Healthy marriage is not a sociological or psychological pursuit.  At its heart it is a theological relationship.
Certainly sociology and psychology play a part in marriage.  They play a part in every relationship.  It is legitimate to ask questions like, “How should I proceed in this relationship?  How does this benefit me? How does it harm me? What is my spouse’s role in this?”  But ultimately psychology-based or sociology-based models for marriage are individual-centric pursuits that, if left unchecked, will eventually lead toward a destructive, self-centered existence.  The questions then are no longer about my personal well-being for the sake of the relationship as a whole, but rather my personal well-being for the sake of my personal gratification.  The god of “self” rears its ugly head and everything in the relationship becomes about pleasing me, even at the expense of my mate.  The shared covenant relationship of Christian marriage is replaced by a parasitic relationship that seeks to use and devour the other partner, eventually killing the relationship.
But healthy marriage is at its heart a theological pursuit.  All that simply means is marriage defined by God has both purpose and boundaries that bless the couple.  In God, couples find a shared ministry that moves their focus beyond selfish interests and leads them to seek ways to actively participate in the Kingdom of God.  The exact shape that takes will certainly differ from couple to couple, and will likely change multiple times throughout a couple’s lifetime.  But the common element is a shared purpose that is centered in God, allows the couple to look outside of just themselves, and ultimately points the world back toward God.  The main boundary that protects the marriage and preserves its purpose in God is the same boundary the first man and woman had in the Garden of Eden; choice—the capacity to choose wisely and center your marriage relationship on God, selflessly serving each other, and putting the good of the marriage ahead of your own personal desires.  Obviously, choice can be abused and used to promote isolation and brokenness, but ultimately, as the image-bearers of God, our freedom and capacity to make the right choice (even if it is personally painful or unpleasant) is always our greatest protective boundary.
In Genesis 2, the man and the woman are described as “one flesh.”  That God-centered, holistic, unified, intentional view of marriage is often highly foreign to a purely sociological or psychological basis for marriage.  (Please don't misunderstand what I mean.  I am not at all against good, competent marriage counseling.  It is necessary for the reality of the world in which we exist.  However, good, competent Christian marriage counseling should always flow from a theological foundation and be supported by psychology and sociology, not flow from sociology/ psychology and include theology in a token way.  If you want to have a Christian marriage, you must start and end with God's Word.)
Obviously, we live in a post-Garden of Eden world.  The Edenic paradise no longer exists.  The isolation and brokenness of this world is ever-present in all of our relationships, including (and often especially) marriage.  But through Christ, God still calls couples to a covenant relationship between husband, wife, and God.  God still calls spouses to find a purpose greater than selfish personal gratification.  God still provides boundaries for healthy marriage.  Only in Christ can spouses find a holy covenant relationship rather than the relationship-destroying parasite of selfishness.  At its heart, healthy Christian marriage is always a theological relationship.

(On a side note, today Lisa and I are celebrating 16 years as husband and wife.  Proverbs 18:22 says, "He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord."  Through Lisa, God has poured out his favor on me beyond anything I could have ever asked or imagined.)