Marriage Magic that Lasts
They say that “I am” is the shortest sentence in the English language. What’s the longest sentence? “I do.” I hope none of you feel that way, but it’s kind of funny.
How many of you here today have enemies—would you raise your hand? Ouch. Almost all of us. I hope you are not married to your enemy. Are you and your spouse, as you sit here this morning, part of the same team? Do you root for each other; are you striving for the same goals? Do you defend one another? Do you share an indissoluble bond?
We can all think of marriages where the husband is a fan of the Dallas Cowboys while the wife spends her days and nights thinking about and praying for the success of the Denver Broncos. And the friction on the field is mirrored in that home! Of course, there are times when the players on a professional sports team end up with internal friction instead of unity. Instead of fighting the other team, they fight each other.
A few Octobers back, as the Dodgers got ready to face the New York Mets in the playoffs, an L.A. reliever named Joe Beimel went out alone to a bar, got drunk, dropped a shot glass and badly cut his hand. Ashamed, he lied to his teammates and the press, and was unable to play. The Dodgers lost that first round in three straight games, partly because Beimel wasn’t available. Trust me, there was not unity between him and them at that point. Dishonesty had invaded the organization and brought resentment and distrust—which are fatal in sports and more fatal in Christian marriages.
In a marriage conference manual entitled Weekend to Remember, we find a powerful summary of the biblical principles God has given His people for their blessing. We all know that marriage is a divine institution, that God created it on the sixth day in Eden, and that it was His plan for Adam and Eve to experience perpetual unity.
Genesis 2:24: A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife—“cleave” to his wife—and they will become one flesh. My NIV text notes add: “The divine intention for husband and wife was monogamy. Together they were to form an inseparable union, of which ‘one flesh’ is both a sign and an expression.’” The Adventist Commentary here talks about the “deepest physical and spiritual unity of man and woman.”
All of us can remember times when we felt in perfect harmony with our spouses. What they wanted, we wanted. We wished for their success; we rejoiced in their individual accomplishments. Our two heartbeats throbbed as one like a radio dedication on KOST 103.5.
But I’m sure we can also remember times when, in our selfishness, we felt a stirring of rivalry even with this person who shares our bedroom. Where we secretly gloated when they made a mistake which confirmed some petty statement we had made.
Almost the first eight words in this 254-page marriage manual are these: Maintaining oneness is the critical issue in marriage. A couple with oneness is not going to get a divorce. A couple with oneness is not going to go through the hurt of extended division or hurt feelings or isolation. A couple with oneness is going to know what it’s like to live in Eden. But a couple with oneness is also going to face every conceivable incoming attack arrow from Lucifer, who hates oneness in marriages as well as oneness in the church.
I remember a Bible passage in John 17, which is the Gethsemane conclusion to a four-chapter soliloquy by Jesus, where He tells His disciples His vision for the infant Christian church. And most of the final chapter has Jesus saying again and again: Holy Father, protect them by the power of Your name so that they may be one as we are one. He says the same thing again in verse 21, then 22, and closes with this in 23: May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me. And just as a church which seeks unity brings glory to God, so does a married couple which learns to surrender selfishness and keep the importance of this bond front and center in their relationship.
I’d like to give you, with some commentary, the five unity threats that this book suggests are out there today, five ticking time bombs which are enemies of your marriage relationship right now. I’ve already mentioned that the devil loves divorce, so he is the principal author of all five of these.
1. Difficult Adjustments Threaten Our Oneness.
In his book, Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn writes about the fact that we live in a world today that has undergone a radical cultural shift in the past 50 or so years. He quotes from a Daniel Yankelovich survey which shares this comment: “Until the late 1960s, being a real man meant being a good provider for the family. No other conception of what it means to be a real man came even close.” People got married thinking of it as permanent. Men and women made babies together with the idea that they would stay together, no matter what, and raise them. The James Bond, Playboy magazine, easy-divorce disintegration of families didn’t really come in until about 40 years ago, and today’s Jerry Springer / Oprah culture is not a helpful force in teaching us that it’s important for a man and a woman to seek unity above all else.
And the point is this: society today doesn’t strongly encourage couples to work their way through the hard times, through the difficulties, the adjustments, the times of give-and-take. Here at this church, many of us have sat through board meetings, and there are often times when two strongly opposing views are out there on the table. It’s not a case of “Do we do ‘A’ or do we do ‘B’?” It’s more like A versus Z, and somehow we have to come to a consensus, and have all parties emerge supporting the compromise measure.
This manual observes that a man and a woman come to the wedding ceremony with different backgrounds, with childhoods and teen years that are going to bring conflict. But in these seven categories, all of us have felt the sandpaper rub of having a spouse raised in a different way than we were: Values, Vocations, Religion, Finances, Family history, Past relationships, and Painful experiences.
My heart aches sometimes when people I love go through pain today because they had unrelated hurts 15 years ago. They have the skills and resources to move past the old pain, but they keep paying the prior price over and over again. The devil collects from them five times instead of one. A pastor once said: “It’s my job as your minister to help you to give up . . . the idea that you can have a better past.” But if you and I want to experience unity in our marriage, we have to work through the hard potholes in this road of getting past our differing backgrounds.
Now, with tongue in cheek, this same team of writers tells us that we who are married also have to make adjustments due to this stinker: Superficial Motivations for Marriage. In other words, we get married for shallow or misguided reasons sometimes, and then have to settle in and build a better foundation in the rain. James Dobson once asked a baby-faced kid, newly married, why he had tied the knot after such a short courtship, and he said with a red face: “‘Cause I didn’t know about that wavy line until it was too late.” His roller coaster of emotions hadn’t even gone through the first dip yet before he said “I do.”
Here’s the official list of four: Feelings, Sexual attraction/involvement, Cultural or family pressures, and Escape. Dr. Ruth Chung, an Adventist educator at USC, was the contributor to a 1999 book entitled Struggle For Ethnic Identity: Narratives by Asian American Professionals.Her chapter has a section literally entitled “I Was Told That I Couldn’t Marry a Non-Korean.” Her father threatened to disown her over the issue, and she concludes by saying: “My research . . . [reveals] that the issue of dating and marriage is one of the greatest sources of conflict between college students and their parents.”
A sociological Neil Simon story came out a good 30 years ago, entitled The Heartbreak Kid. The lead character is getting married, and even during the reception, his face reveals a dissatisfaction. Something’s not quite there, not quite perfect. He’s not sure what, but the champagne glass isn’t quite full.
They go on their honeymoon, and he immediately begins to see his wife’s little flaws, the irritants. His new bride gets so sunburned the very first day on the beach that she’s confined to the hotel suite. Down under a beach umbrella, he meets a pretty blond girl and begins to flirt. Long story short, within four days, he likes this new girl better. So he wants out of the marriage. He tries to tell his wife this over dinner. “I want a divorce.” “What do you mean, divorce? We’re on our honeymoon.” “Well, sorry . . . I just want out. You can have everything. I’ll sign everything over to you.” And she says again: “What are you talking about? We’re on our honeymoon. ‘I can have everything’? All we have here are two suitcases.”
But he dumps her, signs the papers, and proceeds to marry the pretty blond. “Till death do us part.” Another reception, another cake, another band playing. And the camera comes in close on his face, and we see the same look again. This is okay, but it’s just not . . . something. It’s not enough. I don’t know what, but there’s something missing again.
And if we come into marriage because our family pressures us or because we think the sex will always be great, there are going to be some hard adjustments. And the tag line in this marriage manual is the same on page after page: When couples fail to make necessary adjustments to move toward oneness, isolation is inevitable. We begin to put up a wall and hide behind it, and soon learn to be comfortable alone in the shadows.
I’m going to save a category here and point out that not only do difficult adjustments threaten our oneness, but a failure to anticipate those adjustments and work through them is an equal danger. “Difficulties do not mean something is wrong with your marriage,” these authors point out. That’s true. All good skiers wipe out on the slopes sometimes. The book of James tells us that God allows hard times for some very helpful and character-building reasons. Perseverance makes us mature. But the ways we choose to face these adjustments are going to either drive us closer to each other or apart.
You think about Israel and Lebanon, who have to live right next to each other, with all of the years of pent-up trouble. But they must live as neighbors. Not so long ago, they blew up all of each other’s highways and hospitals. Now they have to sit down, rebuild the highways and hospitals, pay for that, and then also solve the same problems that they had before. And married couples have to have a firm knowledge of how they are going to solve problems, resolve arguments, and still live in the same house. We have to get through the hard times without rejecting our spouse or withdrawing from them.
2. Entering Marriage Equipped Only With the World’s Pattern. We live in a society of 50/50 performance relationships. I work; you pay me. You do well; I praise you. Everything must be earned, and all mistakes must be punished. The scales have to balance. As the manual puts it: “Acceptance is based upon performance—‘You do your part, and I’ll do mine.’” This is the human and worldly way of our society. We give to others based on their merits. In the words of these writers: “Affection is given when one feels it is deserved.” And when there are little, invisible scoresheets all over the house, our unity is going to be threatened.
Jesus clearly teaches in Matthew 18 that keeping score and forgiving others only when they deserve it are alien to the kingdom of grace. If we keep score with our spouses, it is clear that we have not understood what happened to us at Calvary. We’re like the man who got forgiven ten billion dollars, and then choked his cousin over a 20-buck dinner check.
And when we focus on this worldly pattern of keeping a ledger, we soon get consumed with what? Our spouse’s faults. Their mistakes are ammunition for our side. “I’m entitled to do this because she always does such-and-such. I owe myself this.” We become disappointed in them, which has the effect of paralyzing our own performance as we sabotage the relationship. Eventually, we get into a revenge mindset whenever we are wronged. And the seminar conclusion: The Logical Result of the World’s Pattern for Marriage Is . . . Isolation.
3. The Failure to Anticipate Selfishness in Marriage Threatens Oneness. And they quote Isaiah 53:6: All of us like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way. And again, the mindset of the world is nonstop serving of self, promotion of self. TV commercials tell us: “Buy this kind of hair-coloring product because you’re worth it.” Credit card ads tell us: “Get it now because you deserve this pleasure today without waiting.”
Jerry Seinfeld has a routine where he talks about seeing a TV commercial for something like soda, and even as you see it, you’re already drinking that exact kind of drink. The can is in your hand. And on the screen, people are snowboarding, jet-skiing, spiking volleyballs on the beach with pretty girls in bikinis. And you look at your drink and think: I must be putting too much ice in this. I’m not getting that effect. But the world around us shapes us into selfish people who want what we want, and we want it right now, with no delay.
And of course, we often do not court our potential life partners in a manner which will help us to grapple with this reality. Selfishness doesn’t manifest itself too much in the dating process. And it can be a huge emotional adjustment when we go from the lovely flow of compliments and chocolates and midnight kisses . . . and then move into a relationship where the garbage disposal breaks and the sink backs up, and you both think the other person should deal with it.
C. S. Lewis writes about how all of us have to move past this time of giddy love, of breathlessness, and into the quieter and lasting world where giving is more important than taking and where we have to combat our inbred selfishness. And consider this reality: unresolved selfishness will, in the long run, rob us of the romance which masked it in the first place. “Our disappointment and disapproval of our spouse leads to feelings of rejection, discouragement, anger, and bitterness, resulting in even lower performance.” And then this capper: “Our selfish nature even seeks to justify our rejection of our spouse.”
A pastor once had a visitor come up to him after church and simply unload. She gave him this long laundry list of all the ways her husband had failed her, all the reasons why she deserved to get a divorce. She was three-fourths of the way out the door. To be honest, her list was a devastating one—and to some extent, there was selfishness on both sides. But she was clearly taking the view: “Because of his mistakes, I am owed freedom. His failures justify my departure.”
He countered her thought processes by conceding that her list was a formidable one. But then he asked her: “What if your marriage vows were truly binding, ‘as long as we both shall live’? What if, no matter how long this list grew, you simply were required to stay? In that case, these problems would be challenges to solve instead of Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free permission slips.” She was allowing selfishness to turn her decision processes upside-down.
Again we have the conclusion: The Devastating Result of Selfishness Is Isolation.
Here’s the fourth and final threat to our oneness:Extramarital “Affairs.” Now, the quote marks there indicate that these affairs may or may not involve a motel room. But here’s the syllabus definition: “An extramarital ‘affair’ is an escape from reality or a search for fulfillment outside the marriage.” God designed Adam and Eve to get their highest sense of satisfaction and wholeness from each other. Borrowing from the classic movie line, “You complete me.” I can say that in my own life, there are shortfalls here and there. I have pastor friends who lead bigger churches, friends who got better grades in college, colleagues and acquaintances who are better looking. But when I’m with my spouse, I am content. Any man married to her has a great life even if nothing else good ever happens.
But here are five classic detours, five false avenues of happiness-seeking. The Activities Affair, The Materialism Affair, The Career Affair, The Family Affair, and The Love Affair. I’ll comment on that last one. There are people—and I’ve seen this happen—where someone simply liked a different person more than they liked their spouse. There was no physical contact that I was aware of, but they savored the presence of this third person more than they enjoyed being around their own wife. We might call this “an emotional affair,” and in some ways its results are more devastating than if a husband simply strays while on a business trip and has a one-night stand that just involves a meeting of the bodies and not the minds and hearts.
Again, society programs us toward a fantasy: you deserve to be happy all the time. Your life should be fun all the time, pretty all the time, stress-free all the time, filled with toys all the time, satisfying all the time. It has taken me a long time to occasionally look at my day and say, regarding work: “All jobs have a few lousy hours every week. And right now, boy, I’m in those hours.” We don’t get to always have fun. We don’t get to buy everything we want. We don’t get to always have our wife look fantastic. All of life is not like a Victoria’s Secret catalog.
The key word of these extramarital “affairs” is this: escape. Husbands and wives escape from their real life and slip away to this fake one where toys and temptation are in abundance. We listen to society, we get wrong ideas about reality, we embrace fantasy—always comparing fantasy to the real problems around us—and in the end, we find ourselves in isolation.
A recent Christian book tells the sad story of a believing woman whose husband was seriously addicted to pornography. Now, he didn’t just feast on magazines, DVDs, and CD-ROMs featuring “Virtual Valerie.” He was so immersed in it that at any time, he could simply close his eyes, glaze over, and be in that world of flesh. It got to where, whenever he and his wife would go somewhere in the car, he would want her to drive . . . because he would mentally blank out and be with Virtual Valerie again. True story: this man became so dysfunctional in his escapes to the fantasies of hard-core porn that he went from being a $75,000-a-year engineer to finally stuffing chocolate candies into bags for $7.50 an hour. That’s what happens when we embrace fantasy instead of life.
This is one reason why I embrace the presence and the vision of the Christian Church. Atheists and secularists would disagree, but I think the church is here to talk to us about reality. Selfishness is a facade; materialism is a false journey. Jesus invites us to keep our focus on real things, heavenly things, and not the things that pass away.
Sometimes when I give Bible studies, we think together about how people want to communicate with their departed loved ones. They crave that fantasy connection, that ghost-like dream. I can understand that. I’ve had loved ones die too. But the Bible and the church protect us from slipping into demonic deceptions by giving us clear Scriptural truth. The dead know not anything. And it’s my prayer that as we study together how God is anxious to give us community, to shield our marriages with oneness, to keep us from the hurt of isolation, I hope each of you will sense the friendship and intervening interest of your heavenly Father.
Let us pray. Dear Lord, we want for our marriages, our relationships, and our church to be models of oneness, of chosen and disciplined unity. Bless us as we seek heaven’s ideal. Bind our hearts together, we pray. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.