Don’t Burn Down Your Marriage

If the tongue is a fire, then the world is filled with arsonists (James 3:6). Perhaps you’ve met them — men and women who seem to grab their flamethrower when they wake up in the morning. They look for villages to burn, and they don’t care if they light themselves on fire in the process.

Perhaps the worst arsonists are those who torch their spouses, taking every opportunity to inflict third degree burns on the person they claim to love the most. 

When my wife and I were newly married, we knew a young man who seemed to relish burning his wife in public. If she said something that he considered unintelligent, his eyes would roll back in his head, his mouth would curl into a sneer, and he would correct her in the most condescending way possible. We watched her face flush with embarrassment, while her eyes turned toward the floor. Over time, she grew quieter, as if she started to believe that she was as stupid as her husband told her she was.

Since then, I’ve seen this pattern time and time again, and not just from angry husbands. Arson is an equal opportunity sport. Some couples live on a battlefield, throwing Molotov cocktails across the dinner table along with the biscuits and gravy. They don’t even notice the burn marks they leave on their children, since they wrongly believe that fire damage can be limited to the intended target.

In premarital counseling, they often say that three issues are at the root of most marital conflicts: money, in-laws, and sex. Over the years, though, I’ve learned that the way people argue is more important than what they argue about. Consistently expressing contempt for your spouse, with your words or your tone, is the quickest way to burn down your marriage.

No matter how hard it seems, try to say something nice. Even when tempers are flaring. Reassure your spouse that your love for them is still intact, even in the middle of the fight. Surely there is some reason you married this person, some small character trait you can affirm. Surely there’s no need to light up your spouse like a Roman candle, especially in the presence of witnesses.

If you find yourself unable to be kind, at least try to be quiet until you can be kind. And pray for the fruit of kindness to permeate your marriage again, through the power of God’s Spirit.

Pray you’ll use your tongue’s fire to create warmth and heat instead of destruction. The wonderful thing about words is that they work both ways. They have the power to heal, as sure as they have the power to destroy. Even today, God can give you the ability to start rebuilding the ruins of your torched marriage. He delights in repairing what is broken, and He’s the only one who can. No man can control the tongue, but the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is able and willing to do what we cannot.

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You’ll Love Her More and More

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe two began in a small pond, in a small boat, rowing with separate strokes. The banks were well-defined, the waters were shallow, and the current was non-existent. It was easy. Like a kiddie pool without the kids.

“You’ll love her more and more,” they said. I imagined growing old together in this pond, rowing in ever-increasing unison. The joys of our pond would multiply again and again and again. More fish, more toys, maybe a child or two to play by the bank while we rowed. An inflatable raft to soak in the sun when we tired of rowing the boat.

You’ll love her more and more.” And I knew it was true.

But the pond began to change. At first it grew a little bit deeper. The bottom wasn’t so easy to see anymore. The banks also widened, and I couldn’t reach the edge from the boat anymore. Our pond was more dangerous, but it was somehow more appealing. I had the sense that there were nooks and crannies I would never explore, even with a lifetime to row and swim. It wasn’t so much like a kiddie pool anymore, but it was strangely better.

Then the currents began to flow. The pond became a creek, then a stream, then a river. A few of the currents even threatened to toss one or both of us overboard. There were currents we seemed to generate: Fear, Anger, Pride, or Selfishness. Others blindsided us from beneath and beside the boat. They had awful names like Poverty, Loneliness, Sickness, and Death.

You’ll love her more and more,” they told me. And I knew it was true, but it wasn’t how I imagined.

I loved you more because you stayed in the boat with me and kept rowing, even when the currents were swift. Sometimes, in my selfishness and anger, I rowed against you, in the opposite direction. But you stayed in the boat anyway.

Your arms and my arms grew tired, but they also grew stronger. We did row in ever-increasing unison. It’s a strange thing, but once the currents were behind us, we laughed at them sometimes. Not because they were easy, or even particularly funny, but because we’d rowed through them together and they didn’t seem so terrible anymore. We laughed in delight because we were alive. And because neither of us had jumped overboard.

We looked back upstream and remembered the perils we had passed. I marveled at the depth of this woman sitting in the boat with me, this creative and lovely and wonderfully strong woman, whom I once thought I knew but didn’t really know. My understanding had been as shallow as that little pond, as narrow as its banks.

As the river got deeper, so did our love. As the currents grew stronger, so did our love.

And we increasingly noticed another Current, stronger than all of the others. Sometimes we’d missed it as we rowed, but it was often visible when we looked back. Sometimes the Current seemed to move us toward the terrible rapids, and sometimes away. But the Current was always there. The Current was alive, stronger than us both, and He –yes, it was a “He” — gave us His strength. He taught us to row, not only in sync with one another, but in sync with Him.

“You’ll love her more and more.” And it was truer than I’d imagined. Loving you more didn’t mean endlessly rowing around and around, in an easy little pond, watching the toys and shiny rocks multiply. Loving you more meant seeing your beauty and strength and grace, even as the water splashed up around us and we faced the ever-present realities of fallenness, sin, and death.

Loving you more meant watching carefully as you learned to row in sync with the Eternal Current, the One who made the river and the boat and these two feeble people inside. The One who made our love to be a dim reflection of His own.

Loving you more meant rowing together as we learned to row with Him. And it meant deciding every day that we’ll keep rowing together, until our boat reaches that junction where every river driven by the Eternal Current flows together, and His love overshadows and consumes our own. We’ll land on the shore at last, with every traveler and lover who rows on His river. We’ll lie down and bask in the light of His love, His perfect and ever-blazing love. The Tree of Life will line the shore and the light of God will never end.

“You’ll love her more and more,” they said. I believed them then, and I believe now more than ever.

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Do High Wedding Costs Reflect Our Beliefs About Marriage?

While preparing for a sermon about marriage and sexuality, I ran across an interesting statistic done by a company that does wedding venues near Charlotte that the average cost of a wedding in the US is now more than $28,000!

In the UK, couples are more than doubling their engagement times (to 3 years!) in order to save money for the big weddings they’re planning.

My wife and I recently caught an episode of Say Yes to the Dress, and I was stunned at the costs of the dresses the brides were casually purchasing. $10,000 and up seemed to be the normal cost. I know that “reality” TV is anything but real, but the fact is that many people take their cues from the media. The wedding industry has effectively convinced most of us that a good wedding needs to be extremely expensive.

So here’s my question for you: What does the rising cost of weddings say about our cultural views about marriage?

Do people believe that an expensive wedding is necessary in order to represent the depth of their love? Do people overemphasize the wedding day itself, while underemphasizing the years of work and ordinary life that will follow? Is it possible that rising wedding costs indicate that we think marriage ought to resemble a fairy tale or a Disney princess movie?

Or is all of this normal and within the bounds of reason? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Who Owns Your Body?

You don’t own your body. 

To most Americans, that’s a dangerous and offensive sentiment. If there’s one principle that seems to undergird our political discourse, it’s that nobody should be able to tell you what to do with your own body.

Whether the issue is abortion, marriage, or drug use, our political philosophy is generally driven by the idea that individual rights are absolute. Nobody should tell me what to do with my body (or for that matter with my money or my stuff). If my activities don’t hurt anybody else, and only affect me directly, then who are you to tell me to stop my behavior?

From a political standpoint, perhaps governmental non-involvement is the best policy. After all, governments don’t have the best track record when it comes to setting appropriate boundaries, respecting human rights, or spending tax money wisely.

From the perspective of Christian theology, however, there’s no question that our bodies don’t belong to us.

The reason I bring this up is because many Christians are unable to give a good answer when a friend or family member asks, “If my relationship/eating habits/drug use/other private sin doesn’t hurt anybody, then whose business is it anyway? And why is it wrong?”

The biblical answer, of course, is that God owns your body. He owns everything. There’s no such thing, then, as a private sin. God’s standards of holiness do not hinge solely on whether or not our behavior hurts somebody else. The issue, instead, is whether our behavior upholds and proclaims the character of God.

Therefore, any use of my body that doesn’t accurately reflect God’s character is sin. God made me to be a vessel of his holiness, love, purity, and goodness. It’s not enough to get through life “without really hurting anybody that badly.” Instead, I’m called to positively imitate the character of God.

So, for example, if I fill my body with harmful substances, and hinder my ability to serve and love other people, it’s sin.

If I engage in sexual relationships that don’t fit the boundaries of the Bible, then I’m not accurately reflecting God’s character with my body.

If I fill my mind with immoral or vacuous entertainment, then I’m not using my brain to further God’s purposes in the world.

If I eat to the point of gluttony and render my body ineffective for serving God and others, that’s sin.

Recovering a biblical understanding of our bodies will help us understand why the Scripture disapproves of certain behaviors that seem harmless from the standpoint of American individualism. I realize, of course, that we way we approach political issues might vary from the way we approach the spiritual life. It may be that there is an unbridgeable gap between our society’s understanding of moral issues and the Christian perspective on such things.

However, too often we Christians believe the prevailing lie that sin is only sin if it hurts another person. The truth is that hurting myself is sin, because hurting myself is dishonoring to God. When I fail to use my body appropriately, I’m failing to exalt God as He made me to do (and therefore engaging in sin). If sin means “missing the mark,” then it’s possible to miss the mark badly without visibly harming somebody else.

When we understand that we are accountable to God even more than we’re accountable to other people, then some of the more puzzling Scriptural commands begin to make more sense. My body belongs to God, not to me, and He will hold me accountable for how I use it. 

So the next time somebody says, “Whose business is it anyway,” simply answer, “It’s God’s business. And God has made you and me to reflect His character. That’s what’s best for us, and it’s what He requires of us.”

It’s also why He bought us with the blood of His Son and gave us His Spirit, because we are incapable of reflecting His character without the power He provides (1 Cor 6:19-20). He’s given us a standard to keep, and even provided the means for us to keep it. And He calls us to a life so much greater than one that simply tries to avoid hurting people. He calls us to life that demonstrates the glory and grace of the One who made us.

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Is It Wrong to Desire Marriage?

Last week I sat with a group of college men as they were talking about relationships, personal purity, and marriage. In the context of the discussion, one young man asked, “Is it wrong for me to desire marriage? Is it alright that I think about marriage and hope to get married one day?”

I found the question itself to be illuminating. Is it possible that we Christians, in our zeal for purity, have communicated that all sexual and relational desires are somehow wrong? If so, that’s tragic, because the absence of desire is not a Christian concept. It’s true that certain passages in the New Testament tell us that for some people in some contexts, it’s better to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:24-35). However, the Bible simply never says that a desire for marriage is wrong. The Scripture speaks highly of marriage as a gift from God (Gen 2:18-25; Prov 18:22; 19:14).

What is wrong, of course, is misdirected desire.  When we desire marriage (including its emotional, spiritual, and physical components) as an opportunity to display Christ’s love (Ephesians 5:21-33), it’s perfectly legitimate. God made us with a desire for intimate relationships with others; we see that desire displayed from the very beginning with Adam and Eve. However, when we begin to seek marriage — or any other relationship — for strictly selfish reasons, we have a problem.

In other words, if I’m seeking marriage solely as a means to satisfy my sexual cravings, or to fill an emotional void in my heart, then I’m not looking at it as God intends. But the desire for sex or love or emotional intimacy, in a relationship that is centered on reflecting Christ’s love, is perfectly legitimate.

Desire turns into sin when we seek the fulfillment of the desire for our own purposes, rather than for God’s purposes. That principle holds true whether we’re talking about money, sex, physical health, success on the job, or anything else.

Often, our problem is that we believe that the fulfillment of a particular desire will satisfy us in a way that only God can satisfy. We seek earthly treasures for their own sake, rather than seeing them as mere reflections of the much greater treasures promised to those who know God (Matthew 6:19-21). C.S. Lewis put it well (see The Weight of Glory, pp. 3-4):

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord fins our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is really meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Far too easily pleased, indeed.

Do you struggle with the concept of desire? Where does legitimate desire turn into sin, and how do you avoid going down that path in your own life?  

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The World’s Worst Marriage Proposal?

A friend alerted me to a recent story about a young man who faked his own death as part of a disturbing marriage proposal to his girlfriend. I’ve heard of bizarre proposals, but this one tops the list.

Men, don’t try this at home. If you are so insecure in her love for you that you need to fake your own death, your marriage is starting off on the wrong foot. What could you possibly do to reassure yourself the next time you wonder if she really loves you? After all, pretending to die only works once.

Ladies, if a man ever does this to you, run the other way. I mean that quite literally. Don’t stop to say, “Why did you that?” Don’t try to convince him it was a bad idea. Turn around, run to your car, and just drive in the opposite direction. You will never fill up his needy soul, so there is no real point in trying. Marriage is challenging enough without a spouse who fakes injury and death to make sure you’re still interested.

What is the strangest marriage proposal story you have ever heard? Do you think men should shoot for the biggest and most elaborate proposal possible, or should they just ask nicely?

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Is Something Wrong With Me?

If you’re involuntarily single, you’ve almost certainly asked yourself that question at some point. College students and young singles regularly tell me they struggle with insecurity. I remember struggling with it myself during a prolonged period of singleness (with no apparent prospects) in my early 20s. “Why can’t I find a date/significant other/spouse? Am I too short or tall or quiet or loud or unattractive or intimidating or picky?” It doesn’t help that those around you often ask the same questions. “Why are you (still, after SO long) single? Are you not trying hard enough? Do you think you should get out more and stop being so picky?”

We all know people who are clearly wonderful — attractive, godly, normal — and yet remain single for a long time. (For that matter, we also know unattractive, worldly, and strange people who get married young). From a logical perspective, most of us understand that singleness isn’t always — or even often — caused by a person’s defects. There isn’t any discernible rhyme or reason to who gets married at 22 and who remains single at 35. You probably know that in your brain, but it’s hard to apply personally when you’re sick of being single. The temptation is to try to isolate what’s “wrong” with you, thinking that once you can isolate the problem you can fix it.

The truth is that human relationships are complicated and often mysterious. They don’t lend themselves to simple evaluation or pat answers. Every relationship involves the personalities, feelings, and desires of two complex human beings. Not only that, but as Christians we have to take into account the work of God in each person’s heart and mind and life. We don’t always understand God’s plans, and sometimes we don’t even like them. That’s a hard truth, so it’s easier at times to seek out factors we think we can control — maybe if I lose 20 pounds or tell funnier jokes or just stop being so picky, I can fix this pesky singleness problem.

But relationships with God and others just don’t work that way. Seeking change and growth is appropriate and good and a necessary part of the spiritual life. However, it’s not a guaranteed means of finding a spouse, and as long as you view it that way you’ll be in danger of minimizing or missing the real work God wants to do in your life. For all of us — whether we’re waiting for a relationship or a better job or a child or something else altogether — God is simply more concerned with our character than with giving us the life circumstances we would prefer.

So is something wrong with you? Sure. Me too. Lots of things. We’re sinners in need of God’s grace. But your personal deficiencies probably aren’t the reason you are single. I don’t know exactly why you’re single, but it probably has something to do with God, who arranges the circumstances of your life so that you can know Him and pursue Him (Acts 17:26-27). So instead of agonizing over questions that can’t be answered, turn your eyes toward Jesus and follow Him with everything you have.

(And as a postscript, those of you who are married can certainly help your single friends in this regard. Resist suggesting easy “fixes” for their singleness or implying that if they would only do x or y or z then they could make everything better. Although we usually mean well, such advice is rarely helpful, often demoralizing, and always distracting).

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Listening to Your Loneliness

When I feel lonely, oh that’s only a sign,
Some room is empty, 
That room is there by design,
When I feel hollow, 
That’s just my proof that there’s more for me to follow,
That’s what the lonely is for.

(David Wilcox)

We tend to think of loneliness as something we need to escape. Many of us have ideas about what would truly cure us of loneliness once and for all. College students and single adults often think that marriage will cure loneliness. Married people often think that a better spouse will cure loneliness. From time to time we all believe that popularity or fame would cure our loneliness. In the words of Adam Duritz, “When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely.”

Except, of course, you can. To be honest, some of my loneliest moments have been in the presence of crowds, people who know my name but don’t really know me. Maybe you can relate to that. I think loneliness is often most acute when we finally achieve what we believe would be the cure for our loneliness — a spouse, a date, popularity — yet we realize we’re not cured after all.

What if we’re thinking about loneliness incorrectly? Maybe we shouldn’t try so hard to avoid loneliness, but should instead carefully consider what it means. Perhaps loneliness isn’t located “out there” somewhere but is really located “in here,” inside our hearts and minds and spirits. Loneliness just might be God’s way of reminding us that the ultimate source of acceptance and comfort isn’t found in anything this world can offer.

Don’t get me wrong — we’re designed to be in community with others, and to some degree we even need it. We aren’t made to walk through life totally alone. On the other hand, we aren’t made to be completely satisfied with the sort of imperfect relationships that this present world provides. Even in the most intimate relationships, people still hide from one another and hurt one another and fear one another. Until Jesus returns and makes us new and perfect and complete, we just won’t be able to avoid the pain of loneliness.

But when Jesus returns, loneliness will disappear. We’ll have perfect relationships, free of sin and doubt and fear of abandonment. Free of the need to hide from Him and from one another.

So right now, our loneliness serves as a sign to remind us that all is not well, but one day it will be. Instead of trying to escape it, let’s allow it to draw us closer to the One who can remove it permanently. Let’s also use the loneliness to remember that others are lonely too. Just like us, they need to hear the life-giving message that it won’t last forever.

How do you handle loneliness in your own life?

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When Should You Share Your Past Sins With Your Significant Other?

Many (if not most) Christian young adults enter into dating relationships with some baggage from their past. It’s quite common for people to worry about how their past sins will affect their future relationships, especially as they approach the point of marriage.

Should you tell your current boyfriend or girlfriend about your past sexual sins? If so, at what point in the relationship is it appropriate?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, since every couple is different and every person has different needs. However, I think some general principles apply:

First, past sexual sins ought to be discussed at some point prior to marriage. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, marriage requires trust. It’s hard to enter into a relationship of trust if one or both parties are hiding information about themselves. As painful as it may be, honesty is the best policy. Second, the possibility exists that your potential marriage partner could find out about your past anyway. It’s much better if they hear it from you rather than from a third party.

Second, choose your timing carefully. Don’t unload everything on the first date. That’s awkward and unnecessary. On the other hand, you don’t want to spring the information on your fiance the night before the wedding. That’s unfair and overwhelming. Simply wait until the relationship is seriously progressing toward marriage. That doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re engaged. Again, every couple is unique. As a general rule, though, once it’s clear that you’re both seriously contemplating the future, go ahead and discuss your past.

Third, you don’t need to share every graphic detail. Be truthful without being explicit. Don’t paint a high resolution picture for the other person. That isn’t helpful. Just share the basics of your past in an honest and tactful way. Ask forgiveness for any behavior that could negatively impact your future marriage and commit to being faithful to your future spouse and to God from this point forward.

The result of this conversation ought to be increased closeness and trust between you and your potential marriage partner. By the way, if you happen to be the person on the receiving end of this conversation, remember that we’re all sinners in need of forgiveness. Assuming we’re talking about sin that is truly in the past (before you two were dating) I strongly urge you to offer forgiveness and acceptance. If necessary, take some time to think and pray before you respond.

Would you add any suggestions or ideas to what I’ve written here? I’d love to hear your input!

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What’s the Perfect Age to Get Married?

Over the past 60 years, the average age of first marriage in the United States has been steadily climbing. In other words, people are generally waiting longer before getting married. In 1950, the average man was 22.8 years old at first marriage, and the average woman was 20.3 years old. In 2011, the average man was 28.7 years old, while the average woman was 26.5 years old.

Most of the reasons for the change are obvious. First, in the past six decades, people have extended the length of their education. It wasn’t uncommon in 1950 for a woman to get married shortly after high school. Today it’s much more common for her to pursue an undergraduate degree and even a master’s degree prior to getting married. Second, young adults tend to express more of a desire to “experience life” a bit before getting married. Third, the high divorce rates of the Baby Boomer generation have convinced young adults that they shouldn’t be in a big hurry. Waiting and trying out different dating partners is viewed as a way to make sure they marry the right one.

However, all of this poses a challenge for young adults who want to get married young. Sometimes college students ask me about the benefits and drawbacks of getting married before completing college. Those who choose that path often receive resistance from their parents, their friends, and society in general. So is it a bad idea? Should everybody wait until they’re 25 or 30 before pursuing marriage?

If you’re thinking of marrying during college, how do you know if you’re ready? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Have you prayed and sought advice from your parents and other trusted advisors? This is necessary at all ages, but particularly if you’re young. Don’t rush into a lifelong commitment based on a few awesome dates. Take your time, pray about it, talk to some wise people, and make sure you’re thinking straight. (Actually, you’re probably not — the hormones and emotions that accompany attraction muddle everybody’s thinking. That’s why this step is so critical.)
  • Are you prepared to be financially independent of your parents? Your parents might be extremely generous and willing to help support you after your marriage. Nonetheless, marriage ought to entail what the Scripture calls “leaving and cleaving” (Genesis 2:24). If you’re not prepared for financial independence if necessary, then you should wait to get married. Why? When push comes to shove, if your parents are still supporting you financially, then they have the right to exercise authority over you. If you get married, you and your spouse might need to make decisions that conflict with your parents’ desires. You’ll need to listen to them and to honor them, but ultimately you’ll need to be free to decide before the Lord what’s best for your family. You can’t do that if Mom and Dad are still paying the bills.
  • Do you have a plan to finish school without incurring an enormous debt load? Massive amounts of debt can prevent you from pursuing the path God has for your future. Getting married during college might require one or both of you to work full-time in order to make ends meet and avoid debt. Spend some time thinking about how you’ll finish school and move forward after that. Plans can and will change, but a wise person will at least try to prepare a bit.
  • Are you prepared to shoulder the responsibility of a child if pregnancy occurs? I’ll be direct: There’s no such thing as birth control that’s 100% effective. Whatever you believe about the ethics of birth control and whatever you plan to do, be prepared to have a baby. Trust me on this one.
  • Are you generally prepared to spend the rest of your life living with this person and caring for him or her? Marriage often presents unexpected challenges. Conflicts pop up about family relationships, financial decisions, sexual intimacy, career choices, and a host of other things. I would strongly recommend pursuing premarital counseling at your church prior to marriage. An experienced and wise older couple can get to know each of you and help you spot potential red flags before you move forward.

If you can answer yes to these questions, then you might be ready to get married. Everybody’s experience is different and every person is different, so these are just general guidelines. On the whole, I don’t think 21 or 22 is way too young for marriage. I would simply urge caution and prayer.

What have I left out here? Also, do you disagree with any of my points above?

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