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Friday, March 25, 2011

In my last post I covered the importance of forgiveness and getting over past hurts. If your view of your marriage is dominated by the past wrongs, be sure to check this post.

Today’s post goes hand in hand with the last one, but I think that letting go of and getting healed from past hurts is somewhat of a pre-requisite to what I’m covering today: finding the good stuff.

If there is truth in the principle that “we become what we behold” then the things you choose to focus on in your relationship with your spouse are important. If it is true that we tend to be shaped and transformed by whatever we choose to fix our hearts and minds on, then what you “see” about your spouse and your marriage will significantly impact the strength and depth of your relationship.

To be clear, I’m not talking about becoming like your wife or husband in the way that desire to become like Jesus by drawing close to him and knowing him intimately. No, when I think of the becoming/beholding principle as it applies to marriage, I think in terms of our choice to either focus on the problems and pitfalls or to focus on the pleasant and praiseworthy.

Focusing on the Good Stuff

Marriage blogger Stu Gray, now blogging at his new site, has an audio presentation  that addresses of the importance of focusing on the “good stuff” in your marriage. It’s so true that for many of us, our human nature is to focus on what we don’t have, what we aren’t getting, what is lacking or missing in our lives.

Maybe you are like me. I am a problem solver by nature and by training as an engineer. My tendency is to look for the problems to be solved. What need fixing or improving? What is not done or done well enough? I tend to look for the lack and the need.

In engineering that’s a good thing. In a marriage? Not so much.

If you find yourself continuously looking at the negative side of things, seeing the problems and issues and the ways in which your needs are not being met, you are going to be stuck with a pretty dim view of your marriage. And that’s going to not only impact the atmosphere between you, it’s also going to hold you back from what is possible for your future.

If you keep looking for the faults and deficiencies in your spouse you will certainly find them. We all have plenty of flaws. But if we are to have a Christ-like love for one another, which we certainly are, then that love “covers a multitude of sins” and a multitude of flaws. Weak and broken though we are, when God looks at us through the covering love of Jesus, he sees us as perfect and flawless, a radiant bride “without spot or blemish.”

I’m not saying this is easy. No, it takes lots grace and love to see past the spots and blemishes of your spouse. But there is something profound that happens when you learn to love your spouse “as if” they were more ideal than they are today: they will tend to become that person. On the other hand, if you look mostly at the blemishes and failings, especially if you become accusatory, your spouse will tend to remain trapped in their flaws, or perhaps you’ll even push them in the opposite direction. .

This is Not Living in Denial

Now I’m not saying to just ignore the problems in your marriage and they will go away - quite the opposite in fact. Rather, what I’m saying is that you can either choose to focus in a frustrated and hopeless way on the problems in your marriage and the deficiencies in your spouse. Or you can simply acknowledge the issues for what they are, but choose instead to love your wife or husband in spite of the things they have not yet become. If you believe that God is loving them into their created destiny and into their full potential as a human being, why should you love them any differently?

To love your husband or wife into what you believe they can be, you must first believe what they can be. This means seeing them as God sees them. If you are going to strive for something in your marriage, rather than striving against problems, strive instead for an understanding of Gods view of your spouse. It has a miraculous power to propel your marriage forward and to help propel your spouse into their destiny in Christ.

As Stu reminds us, there’s a terrific Bible verse that gives us some good advice on the topic of what to focus on about your spouse and your marriage. :
Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious - the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.
Phil 4:8 (MSG)

Think on these things.

Sunday, March 20, 2011
Maybe you have heard this saying before.  I'm sure I've said it here in the past, maybe more than once.

It's a powerful scriptural principle that basically says we will tend to be shaped and transformed by whatever we fix our hearts and minds on.

One verse captures our spiritual transformation this way:
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
2 Cor 3:18

As we fix our gaze upon Jesus, his glorious nature is revealed to our hearts. As we behold his infinite and unstoppable love, his everlasting faithfulness, his generous goodness, and on and on, as we see him as he really is we become more like him, which is the goal of Christian maturity and the very definition of intimacy with Jesus.

Not surprisingly, there are marital implications to this spiritual truth.

What are you beholding?

When it comes to your spouse and your marriage, what is it you have your heart and mind most “fixed upon?” More than you know, your answer to that question tells a lot about the direction your marriage is most likely headed.

Are you fixated on past hurts? Do you spend more time thinking about your spouse’s shortcomings than about their strengths? Are you absorbed by self, by your needs, be your desires, by what you are not getting?

Getting past the past

If you are dealing with issues of unforgiveness in your marriage, chances are these things are still causing problems in your marriage today and will continue to do so until they are dealt with.

I strongly encourage you to face reality and do something about any lingering unforgiveness with your spouse.  To start with you might want to check out these links:

Marriage counselor and author Emmerson Eggerichs, of “Love and Respect” fame, has an excellent six part series on forgiveness:
  1. Firgiveness and ending the “crazy cycle”
  2. Forgiveness and loss of fellowship
  3. How does one forgive?
  4. The importance of sympathizing.
  5. Letting go and letting God.
  6. The final step: anticipation

Author and blogger Sheila Wray in a YouTube video entitled “Forgetting what lies behind” explains the freedom and forgiveness we can find when we choose to focus God instead our past hurts and pains.

Releasing bitterness, resentment and pain to the Lord is not easy. But any other way keeps you trapped in the past. Fixation on past hurts keeps you ensnared in pain and resentment and prevents you from moving into intimacy and oneness with your spouse.

Is there stuff from the past in your marriage that has never been adequately dealt with? This is stuff that will likely poison your future until it is forgiven and healed. Deal with it today!

Next time: Learning to focus on the good stuff

Thursday, March 17, 2011
This is the third in a series of reflections on a recent marriage study “The State of Our Unions 2010” published by the UVA National Marriage Project (NMP). Catch part 1 here (shifting attitudes on premarital sex and cohabitation) and Part 2 here (my hope for marriages in the church to be a beacon of marital hope).

This is the final installment of this short series, not because there isn’t more good stuff to be gleaned from this study, but because I’ve got so many other posts I want to get to - I just need to move on.

The concluding statement from the study reads as follows:
But if we seek to renew the fortunes of marriage in Middle America and to close the marriage gap between the moderately and the highly educated, we must pursue public policies that strengthen the employment opportunities of the high-school educated, cultural reforms that seek to reconnect marriage and parenthood for all Americans, and efforts to strengthen religious and civic institutions that lend our lives meaning, direction, and a measure of regard for our neighbors—not to mention our spouses.

The alternative to taking economic, cultural, and civic steps like these is to accept that the United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly edu¬cated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones.

I’ve already examined two of the study’s three primary negative marriages factors, which leaves the economic issue. Essentially the study concludes that the stresses of limited financial prospects caused by a limited education have a negative effect on marriage:
Thus the shifting economic foundations of American economic life—especially the fraying connections of moderately educated Americans to the world of work—have played an important role in marginalizing marriage in Middle America

But a more recent NMP study, The Great Recession and Marriage, released in February, examined the effect of the recession on marriage. And it seems to draw an opposing conclusion. The second study says that in recent years, as a result of the recession, many couples report deepening their commitment to marriage. In addition, a large minority of couples who were considering divorce say the recession has caused them to postpone their plans.

Then, on the heels of that study, NPR produced a story claiming that “In a grim sign of the economic recovery, the divorce rate, which dipped during the recession, appears to be on the rebound.” Their use of the word "appears" is key. The evidence to support their claim is mostly anecdotal in nature, attained through the comments of a few divorce lawyers and goes on to theorize why it "might" be true. The last line of the story mentions and links to the NMP study. But the NPR story completely misses an important aspect of the second NMP study.

The important finding here really brings me back to my previous post. That is, marriages for whom faith is a central part of their marriage the recession actually reported less financial stress and a deeper commitment to marriage when compared to those who do not share a deep faith.

That’s not to say that marriages in the church are immune to economic influences. I’ve certainly observed first hand the martial stress that results from long-term unemployment and deep debt. But what’s encouraging to me is that there does seem to be at least some mitigation of the influence of the bad economy for those who can lean on their faith in such times.

What is the “so what” of all this. I would put it this way:
When your life is built on the shifting sands of your financial prospects, your marriage will wax and wane with the thickness of your wallet. But when your life and your marriage are founded on the solid rock, Jesus, financial storms will have a much smaller negative impact. And for some it may even have a positive impact.  (Matt 7:24-27)

What are you building your marriage on?

Saturday, March 12, 2011
This is the second in a series on a recent marriage study “The State of Our Unions 2010” published by the UVA National Marriage Project.  If you missed it, you can catch part 1 here, where I examine the influence of shifting attitudes on premarital sex and cohabitation.

Changes in religious practices is the second factor the study reported affecting the state of marriages among the moderately educated, which the study defines as having a high school diploma, but no college degree. Here is a telltale chart:

The report describes the trend this way:
Over the last 40 years, then, Middle America has lost its religious edge over their more highly educated fellow citizens.

So in a striking turn of events, highly educated America is now both more marriage-minded and religious than is moderately educated America—in some important ways. Accordingly, Middle Americans are now markedly less likely than they used to be to benefit from the social solidarity, the religious and normative messages about marriage and family life, and the social control associated with regular churchgoing, especially in comparison with their neighbors who graduated from college.

I understand that the report is written from a secular viewpoint, but it doesn’t exactly stir up my passion for seeing the church be a radical source of hope for marriages. What they say sounds more like a bunch of religious platitudes: social solidarity, positive marriage and family messages, and social control. What the heck is social control anyway and what does it have to do with Jesus?

Anyway, it makes me want to jump up and down and shout, “There is so much more to it than that!!”

On the surface, there is clearly a correlation between the dramatic decline in regular church attendance and the shift in sexual mores that I discussed in my last post. With the shift away from faith in the vast middle there is a corresponding dramatic increase in the acceptance of pre-martial sex and cohabitation. This is bad news for marriages. Now, I’m not naïve enough to claim that those who simply attend church will automatically follow the biblical path of abstinence before marriage.

But truthfully, where else besides the church are people going to hear hope-filled, marriage-positive messages? Nowhere else.

But the sacramental and covenantal nature of marriage is not just a bunch of religious rules. It’s totally not about the “thou shalt nots.” God’s design for marriage is not intended to rob you of pleasure or passion. NO! It is exactly the opposite. The fact is that God designed it the way he did in order MAXIMIZE pleasure and passion for a lifetime.

His way is the surest foundation for a lifelong marital bliss.

My feeling is that the church, in general, puts to much emphasis on the sinful nature of premarital sex and cohabitation, wagging a religious finger in the face of young adults. And while I do believe that these things go against the heart of God and can reap future damage to both our souls and our bodies, the greater tragedy is that we often miss the chance to portray the beauty and power of God’s intended design by focusing too much on the avoidance of sin. Accusation doesn’t very often bring people into the light or change their behavior.

Instead let the church paint a clear picture of a more excellent way, a way that results in better marriages, deeper marital intimacy and more fulfilling sex lives. Let’s have millions of examples of terrific marriages in the church be a shining light that not only wakes people up to the hope that is God’s design for marriage, but even draws people back to Jesus by the beauty and passion in the Christian marriage they observe.

Let us be an amazing, powerful and compelling living picture of Christ and the Church!!

This is my hope. Yes, I dream big.

Saturday, March 5, 2011
I alluded to some recent marriage statistics in my last post on the relative health of marriages inside and outside the church. More specifically, I pointed out that for marriages where religion is an important element and joint church attendance is regular (as apposed to those who simply claim some sort of faith), marriages are, in general happier and less prone to divorce. That’s the good news.

Now for the bad news

I’ve been trying to digest the recent marriage report entitled “The State of Our Unions 2010” published by the UVA National Marriage Project.  There’s a lot of very detailed information in the 108 page report, which is largely an examination of marriage trends by education level.

The principle conclusion of the research is that the institution of marriage is encountering a great assault among those whom they define as “moderately educated,” those with a high school education and perhaps some college. In this group, which accounts for 58% of the US population, “rates of non-marital childbearing and divorce are rising, even as marital happiness is falling.” The principle driving factors, they conclude, are “shifts in marriage mores, increases in unemployment, and declines in religious attendance.” In my next few posts I plan to examine some of these factors and discuss the implications. We'll start here:

Marriage-Related Values

A bit of encouraging news is that the report finds the vast majority of people still report marriage as being either “very important” or “one of the most important things.” The difference across educational levels is nearly insignificant (75% for the lease educated, 76% for moderately educated, and 79% for highly educated). This is consistent with the findings of a recent controversial Pew Research study that I reported on back here. Though most headlines from that report mistakenly touted that “marriage is obsolete,” if you dig into the report you find that 67% of those surveyed report that they are optimistic about the future of marriage and family.

So marriage is important to so many and seems to hold such a bright future, but there are two troubling findings we’ll look at:

So we see here that over the course of 30 years a dramatic shift in the acceptance of premarital sex, leading not only to increasing prevalence of premarital sex but in the number of people opting for cohabitation instead of marriage. What is interesting, as the study points out, is that among the highly educated, fewer people are accepting of the idea that pre-marital sex is okay, whereas for the less educated, more are. Despite this fact, however, every group has an increase in cohabitation, though the increase is most pronounce in those with less education.

What is the fruit of this shift in attitudes and behaviors? As the study shows, there is a corresponding increase in rates of divorce and higher degrees of marital dissatisfaction, and as the rest of the study shows, these effects are decidedly more pronounced for those less educated.

While the study does not claim a direct cause-effect relationship between the increase of premarital sex and cohabitation and marriage problems, to me the implications are pretty clear. The lie of the “sexual revolution” is that there is no reason not to enjoy as much sex as you want, with whomever you want. What’s the harm? Who are you hurting? The truth is that you are hurting yourself and your future spouse. Not to mention that whole STD issue.

The other lie is that cohabitation is a valid way to test-drive your partner for marriage. Marriage researchers have shown that shacking up actually results in higher rates of divorce and more single-parent families.

In summary, then, it appears that although many people believe in marriage and have high hopes for themselves in that regard, more and more are behaving in a manner that lessens the likelihood of reaching their aspirations.

What can we do?

As unpopular and difficult as it is, we need to do a better job of resisting the “new normal” and proclaiming the truth in a loving but loud and clear manner that God’s way is the best way, even if you put religion aside. Although it provides no guarantee of future married bliss, it is clear that waiting to sleep together until you are married greatly improves your chances of reaching your dreams.

Do you think I am being unrealistic in this?  Is the increasing trend toward cohabitation and premarital sex inevitable and hence are marriages doomed to further decline?  What are your thoughts?

A while ago Kathleen at Project M posed an interesting proposition:
Solving the Worlds' Problems Through Monogamy

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