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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Today, my one true love and I celebrate 30 years of marriage!

That’s a bit of a mind-boggling number, because in some ways the marriage journey that Jenni and I have traveled together has flown by. In other ways, I feel like we’ve earned every one of those 30 years.

What’s Our Secret?

It’s hard to point to a single thing that I would say is THE key to keeping your marriage strong and healthy, because a great marriage takes time and attention to a lot of little things every day. But if I had to pick one thing, it would be Jesus. He is the foundation of our marriage and our example of relentless love and grace. It is the love he displays for his bride (that’s you and me, by the way) that has taught me most about how to love my bride. It’s what I refer to as the bridal paradigm.

If you want to know more of our “secrets” to a long, happy marriage, I have a new article up on Your Tango called “Why After 30 Years Of Marriage, The Best Is Yet To Come.” It talks about the importance of always believing that the best years of your marriage are still ahead of you.  

If you want to know a bit more about our history, which started way back when Jenni and I met in sixth grade, you can read it in the post called “Our Love Story.”

Let me close by saying a public thank you to the love of my life. 

I am so thankful for you and for our marriage. I can honestly say that I could not be the man I am today without your love, encouragement, support and patience. You bless me more than I can possibly describe. You still capture my heart with one glance of your eye.

Here’s to another 30!  The best is yet to come!
Saturday, June 23, 2012

In my last post, “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions,” I made the provocative assertion that in the rare case when prayer, discussion and waiting has not resulted in agreement on a decision, the husband should take the responsibility to make the call, using his best judgment, which includes consideration of his wife’s needs, opinions and expertise. I see that as part of his leadership role. 

If you recall, the quote that got me talking about this topic is something that Dr. Willard Harley (author of “His Needs, Her Needs”) calls his cardinal rule of marriage: Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse.

I have just a few more thoughts to share on this important and somewhat controversial topic of decision making.

The Problem With a “Rule” of Joint Agreement

Let me reiterate that joint agreement (even enthusiastic join agreement) is a great goal and is something to strive for, but I have a problem with the idea that you should do nothing without it. 

My principle objection is that such a rule gives all the power and authority in the relationship to the one who says no. Essentially, one can prevent the other from deciding anything or doing anything simply by disagreeing.

For example, say the car breaks down and needs an expensive repair. He thinks they should fix it; she thinks they should operate with one car instead.  The rule of “do nothing” without agreement means she holds all the cards.

Here’s another example where the rule of joint agreement doesn’t make sense. He wants to go the beach for vacation; she misses her parents and wants to go see them instead. Assuming they can’t do both, do they simply stay home because they can’t agree?

Let’s say she wants to put $200 a month into savings, but he doesn’t. The do-nothing rule says he gets his way. Similarly, let’s say he wants to have a regular, active sex life but she couldn’t care less about sex.  If the couple subscribes to the idea of doing nothing without enthusiastic agreement, then he is doomed to a sexless marriage.

I realize that these are somewhat simplistic examples and that I didn’t give any background, but hopefully you see how a universal policy of joint agreement seeds the balance of power to the objector. While I don’t think that’s Dr. Harley’s intent, my concern is that it could easily be the result.

Can’t We Just Compromise?

I’ve read quite a bit about what Dr. Harley says about his POJA (see more on his POJA here),  and I realize that his point is to get couples to consider each other’s needs, negotiate in good faith and find a compromise that both parties can get behind wholeheartedly. These aren’t bad ideas, but I don’t think they always necessarily lead to the best solution. 

I’ve said before that I’m not a big believer in compromise, at least not as it is defined by caving in to keep the peace or backing down simply to keep your spouse from being unhappy. That kind of compromise is an intimacy killer, because it requires you to forgo your personal integrity, to pretend be someone you are not or feel something you do not. I think this is probably why Dr. Harley added the “enthusiastic” qualifier to the need for agreement. Shrinking back from expressing what you really think is not sustainable in the long run and will eventually lead to a relationship explosion.

In the case of an impasse on a decision, the better course is for both husband and wife to state their positions and reasoning clearly and without pretense, being careful to avoid using accusation or shame to try to manipulate each other. If however, through discussion and prayerful consideration, neither is convinced of the other’s position, ultimately the husband has to take the responsibility to decide the matter based on what he thinks is best. I see this as part of a husband’s mantle of leadership in the relationship. As I said in my previous post, he is scripturally required to do so in a way that maintains intimacy and protects the relationship – that’s what Christ-like love dictates.

You may think my stance is unfair and disempowering to wives; that rather than empowering the objector, I’m simply empowering the husband to make all the decisions.  Let me state clearly that I do not see the husband’s God-given role as “decision maker in chief” or the “master of all decisions.”  He is principally called by God to be “lover in chief” who occasionally will be required to break an impasse by deciding a matter, which is something altogether different than making every decision. And even in the one or two percent case where the decision is his to make in the face of disagreement with his wife, the basis for that decision still has to be love and has to protect the intimacy in the relationship

I honestly expected to get more resistance to my post than I have received so far. I have also received some good feedback via  Facebook and Twitter, but I’m still looking to hear from more couples about how they resolve the issue of making decisions when there is disagreement. 

So please leave a comment and let us know how do you and your spouse resolve an impasse over a decision?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

If you read much around here, you already know that I’m not afraid of stepping on toes. Today I was given a writer’s challenge to write something controversial to provoke my readers, so I decided to write a post I’ve been putting off for a long time.So here goes.

Many of you have heard of, if not actually read, the popular book His Needs, Her Needs by Dr. Willard Harley. I highly recommend this book for couples, because it does a good job of explaining common differences between the needs of men and women.

I read something a while back by Dr. Harley that he calls his cardinal rule of marriage:
Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse.
Sounds reasonable, right? Seems fair and logical, doesn’t it? 

Except it doesn’t really work.

Now before you start yelling, let me make it clear that I certainly think the best scenario is to gain agreement in all decisions. That said, however, I don’t see any scriptural basis for making agreement a universal “cardinal rule.” A worthy goal, yes. A doctrinal absolute, no.

At the Point of Impasse

In a healthy relationship, reaching the point of impasse, where agreement simply cannot be found, should be a rare thing. For most decisions, prayer, conversation and a willingness to serve and support each other will lead to agreement. That should be the 98% case. 

But what do you do when you’ve both prayed and received different answers?  What do you do when you genuinely disagree on the best way forward because a consensus could not be reached?

It seems to me there are several possible default approaches to such a situation:
1.    Do nothing
2.    Flip a coin
3.    Wait for someone to change his or her mind
4.    Somebody gives in just to keep the peace
And here is the point at which I provoke you:
5.    The husband takes the responsibility to decide the matter by his convictions

Authority and Responsibility

As near as I can tell from my study of the scriptures, God ordained marriage as an ordered partnership, where husband and wife are equal in value, but each has differing roles.  That means that the position of authority (call it headship or leadership if those words are easier for you) is assigned to a husband at the wedding, regardless of whether he recognizes it and regardless of his apparent worthiness to carry it out. Let me be clear; this position does not in any way lessen the value or worth of his wife or diminish her role or importance in the marriage. It’s just the way God chose to set it up. “The husband is head of his wife, as Christ is head of the church.” (Eph 5:23 NIV)

At the same time I believe that husbands are held accountable for walking out their authority in a Christ-like manner, with all love, strength and sacrifice that entails. The authority granted to husbands comes with an undeniable mandate.  “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph 5:25 NIV)

(If you are new here, I would appreciate it if you would take the time to explore why I believe what I believe about the role of husbands and wives and the implications of those beliefs, which I don't have room to reiterate here.  You can read more on the husband’s role in my posts “Husbands, Lead with Love” and “The Question of Authority.”  For more on the wife’s role read “Love, Respect and Submission.”)

Getting to the point, what does this kind of ordered partnership mean in the very small minority of cases where you are unable to agree upon a decision?  I believe the husband should man-up, take the responsibility, and make the call. Right or wrong, the consequences are on his shoulders. But read on!

Decisions like these should never be made lightly or without a careful eye to preserving the connection in the relationship. That means reassuring his wife that he has her best interest at heart and that of the family, that he has listened carefully to her input and understood it, and that he bares the responsibility of his decision. If he does not take care of her heart in a Christ-like fashion, then by default he has made the wrong decision, regardless of whether it turns out he made the right call for the situation or not.

My stance on this raises lots of questions, and I’ve got more to say on this controversial topic, which I will cover in my next post.  But I will stop here and (hopefully) leave you provoked.

Let me hear your feedback in the comments.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This is my fourth post in this series on grace in marriage.  You can read it as a stand alone, but if you want the context, I encourage you to catch up on the whole series starting here.

Today I want to tackle another misconception about grace in marriage. I’ll pose it in the form of a question:
Does showing grace to my spouse over their mistakes, shortcomings and annoyances mean that these things shouldn’t bother me??
It’s a good question and probably a common one for many who are seeking to grow in grace.  What do you do when your husband makes a bad financial decision that genuinely impacts you negatively?  Do you just shrug it off and hope for the best? Are you supposed to pretend you don’t care when your wife consistently refuses you sexually?  What do you do with the negative emotions that rise up when your spouse does that thing they know grates on your nerves for the tenth time, seemingly on purpose? Do you just stuff it down or suck it up and pretend it doesn’t matter to you?

My short answer is no. Stuffing it down and sucking it up do not fit with my understanding of grace. 

A Few Reminders

It’s important to keep in mind that grace, by definition, is undeserved. The very fact that you are choosing the way of grace indicates your willingness to let go of your justification for offense. That’s hard, but that’s grace.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are showing grace simply by suffering in silence or by hiding your ill feelings from your spouse.  True grace requires that you be willing to lay down your rights for the good of your marriage. If you are just keeping quiet, eventually things are going to boil over or explode in a flash of emotion.  Stuffing it down isn’t grace, and it doesn’t work in the long run.

So what do you do when you are genuinely bothered by something your spouse does?  How do you approach a matter in which you are struggling to find the grace to forgive and forget?  

Seek a Heart Change

For some things, especially those that are merely an annoyance or inconvenience, my first suggestion is to ask God to change your heart.

Do you recall how in my “Grace and the Big But” post I suggested that you “let grace work on you” as the first important step in getting to a grace-full marriage? It’s true that as we more fully understand the grace we have been shown by Jesus, we are more able to give the same kind of grace to others, especially to our spouse.  Remember that marriage is designed to reflect our relationship with Jesus, and that includes the same kind of grace.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:32 (NIV)

What Stands in the Way of Love?

Does God care when we mess up? We know his grace is sufficient to cover all of our sins, past, present and future.  We know that when he looks at us through the finished work of the cross, he sees us in perfection.  Jesus won for himself a pure and spotless bride. Awesome and amazing truth!

So does God care about our shortcomings, mistakes and ungodly habits?

The key to understanding grace in marriage is to understand that the fiery and passionate love of God does not wax and wane with our behavior.  He is love. Period. It’s who he is.  He cannot help it.  By grace we are covered by that love.

But remember what I said at the beginning of this series: the real purpose of grace is intimacy.  So that’s God’s only agenda in response to our mistakes.  He wants to get rid of everything in our lives that hinders love and intimacy with him. Everything. He is a zealous and a jealous lover. He wants nothing to stand between us and him, and is relentlessly in pursuit of intimacy with us. He wants to have all of us.

So when you are seeking the answer to the question of whether or not you should care about something your spouse is doing, the real question is whether or not that thing is a barrier to intimacy. Does it hinder your love relationship or is it just a personal preference you’ve clung to selfishly.

The key to understanding grace is that it should come freely and automatically, without any conditions attached. It should be made clear to your spouse that their mistakes and foibles don’t change how you feel about them. Let love and forgiveness be complete and unconditional, then focus on whatever hinders intimacy, and make it clear that your marriage relationship is the only motivation for seeking solutions to these things.

Be a relentless pursuer of intimacy with your spouse.

The Role of the Holy Spirit

As I’ve said, we aren’t as good at grace as God is. We get tangled up in our human emotions, and that can make it hard to see clearly past the issue and into the true heart of the matter. Our vision gets clouded and we can’t see who our spouse really is in God’s eyes.

That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. He guides us into all truth. So when you are faced with something your spouse has done or continues to do that is hard for you to accept, ask for the Holy Spirit to show you what is really going on.  Is it simply a pet peeve that you need to let go of?  Is it something that is limiting intimacy in your relationship (spiritual, emotional or physical)? Is it motivated by selfishness or by love? Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how God sees your spouse and the situation. 

You’ll be shocked how things can become so much clearer when you step back from your emotions and ask for heavenly insight.

Natural Consequences

Some mistakes your spouse makes will result in natural negative consequences.  Mistakes with money or that involve other people certainly can.  A car wreck, a bad investment decision are minor examples.  More serious matters, like infidelity or drug use, also carry significant natural consequences. 

Regardless, the thing to remember in working through the consequences, is still to stay focused on what really matters: wholeness in your marriage, which necessitates wholeness in the individuals. Focus on eliminating everything that hinders love. Your relationship matters most above all else.

Getting Unstuck

I understand the fear that by giving grace you’ll be stuck with your spouse’s bad behavior forever. But the truth is that grace can actually be the very mechanism to get you unstuck! 

Grace, as a component of unconditional love, is a compelling force.

Of course your spouse still has free will to ignore the love and grace you show. It’s not a guarantee, but grace is the most likely course to getting and keeping your marriage strong and growing in love and intimacy.

Grace doesn’t mean you don’t care. It just means you care about something different: intimacy.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

This is the third post in my series on grace in marriage.  Because these build on each other, I encourage you to catch up on the other posts, Introduction and The Big But, before you read on. 

Today I want to expand a bit more on grace and law and how those work in marriage. 

Biblical Warning Bells

We have trouble apprehending the radical nature of the Gospel of grace.  Apparently the early church did too. Much of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is dedicated to the grace vs. law debate. Perhaps this one verse sums it up best:
You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Galatians 5:4
The law says we have to earn God’s love, acceptance, blessing and forgiveness based solely on what we do or don’t do.  Grace says we have God’s love, acceptance, blessing and forgiveness regardless of what we do or don’t do. A right understanding of grace allows us to do for God out of a place of total being totally loved and accepted.

Between law and grace lies a dangerous middle ground, a toxic wasteland which says that even though we have God’s forgiveness, our standing with him is only as good as our human efforts to “live right.”  Do you feel like you can’t go to church until you clean up your act? Are you hesitant to pray when haven’t had a quiet time in a week? Do you feel less “spiritual, because you haven’t read your Bible like you feel you should?  Does shame over sin in your life cause you to run away from God instead of running to him for mercy and strength? Is your ability to engage with God in worship on Sunday affected by how “good” you were during week?

All of these are signs that you are stuck in the toxic wasteland between law and grace.

What’s the problem, you ask?  The problem is that all of our law-based behaviors destroy intimacy with God.  They focus us on our shortcomings instead of Jesus’ provision for them.  They cause us to try to hide from God instead of embrace him. They leave us trapped by fear and shame.  They keep us from living in the fullness and abundant blessing that Jesus died to give us. 

The Law/ Grace Mix in Marriage

This toxic mixture shows up in marriage all the time with the same kind of harmful effects.

We all know that a law-based marriage is wrong.  It’s the kind of legalistic relationship where one wrong move sends you to the proverbial doghouse.  A law-filled marriage is full of harsh judgment, retribution and fear. Living in that kind of relationship is exhausting and fruitless.

But almost equally as bleak is a relationship where law and grace are mixed together; where we speak grace, but hold the law in our hearts; where we give grace to an extent but still base our actions on what our partner does or doesn’t do or how much they give to us.

For example, as you are doing an unusually kind deed for your husband, are you simply delighting in how much it will bless him or are you secretly thinking about the leverage it will give you in getting him to do the dishes later? A grace-filled perspective allows you to give without the expectation of getting something in return.

When your wife says something to you that feels disrespectful, do you immediately shoot her a comeback line or withdraw in frustration and hurt? Or do you stay engaged with her, gently bring it to her attention and seek to understand the why behind her comment?  Grace assumes the best, forgives quickly and maintains your connection above all.

What is your first instinct when you do something stupid that is going to negatively impact your spouse, maybe even as result of directly going against his or her wishes? Do you want to hide it for fear of judgment and retribution? Or do you want to quickly go to them, repair the damage and make it right? If your marriage is grace-based, you know that the relationship matters more than being able to follow all the rules.

When you have been unable to stay connected for some reason, physical separation, busyness, disagreement or whatever, do you feel like you have to “earn” back your intimacy?  Do you wait for the other to make the first move? Do you need things to “feel” better before you act on the intimacy that is yours by virtue of being one flesh?

When your partner does something out of character that hurts you, do you react with anger or fear or judgment?  Or are you able to love them “as if?” Can you love them for who you know them to be despite their behavior?  Do you lovingly work to understand the why behind their behavior?  Are you willing to seek to make things right, even if your spouse doesn’t initiate the reconciliation?

Here’s a quick side-by-side comparison of the grace-law paradigm and the grace-full paradigm:

Law/Grace Mix Marriage

Grace-Full Marriage

I will only show love to you in the proportion you show love to me

I will show love to you freely, regardless of the love you show me in return
I will withhold intimacy from you until you do the things I expect

I desire intimacy with you more than I desire your perfection
We need a 50-50 relationship
with everything split down the middle

A 100-100 relationship means
we both give 100%. All I am is yours.
I love you because of what you do for me and what I get out of our relationship

I love you because of who you are and because we are one

Living a grace-full marriage 100% is neither easy nor natural. Our reactive, self-protective and selfish instincts will fight grace all the way.  We aren’t going to be as good at grace as God is because we are fallible people, with flaws and wrong thinking that will try to get in the way of grace. Yet grace should be our goal.

I’m convinced that God’s intention for our marriages is that they be entirely grace-filled and that we should shift our thinking toward grace and away from the toxic mixture that is law and grace. 

How does this resonate with you? 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Today I’m continuing my series on grace. As we explore grace and its implications for marriage, keep in mind my message from the Introduction, which is that grace is an invitation to deeper intimacy in your marriage.

In a spiritual context, the number one concern I hear, the "big but” referred to in the headline, is that a grace focus will leave people to do as they please, without regard to sin or displeasing God.  Logical, perhaps, but completely wrong!  The book of Romans addresses the issue clearly:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
Rom 6:1
The next verse answer with an emphatic, “Of course not!!”  Paul then goes on to explain that grace makes us one with Christ and so we are dead to sin and our old nature. “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (v. 11)  Paul concludes this discussion on the radical power of grace this way, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.”

Can people still sin? Of course. Do people still sin? For sure. But the answer is not to reject grace and go back to the law! The answer is still grace. Remember, “It is His kindness that leads us to repentance,” or as The Message puts it:
In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.
Romans 2:4b
I realize that God’s grace is somewhat confounding, even a little counter-intuitive, but that’s also true about so many Kingdom principles. It doesn't make them any less true.

The Marriage ‘But’

But if I show grace to my husband/wife, won’t he/she just keep on doing all the stuff that annoys me so much?”

But if I go the grace route, how am I going to get my husband/wife to do what I want?”

These are common and understandable reactions to the grace message in marriage. The problem is that these questions miss the point of grace entirely.

Grace is not about getting someone to do the right thing; grace is about intimacy and relationship. Grace is given by God, not in order to gain your obedience or conformance to a bunch of rules, but to gain your heart. Obedience follows out of the love relationship we have with Jesus, not the other way around. We get that backwards sometimes.

Remember that intimacy comes from being fully known and yet completely loved.  When we come face to face with the unconditional, unyielding, passionate love of God, even though he knows us to our core, we are completely transformed.   

These same principles apply to grace in marriage. I don’t show my wife grace in order to get her to stop doing things I don’t want or to get her do the things I want.  I show her grace in order to ensure intimacy between us, to strengthen our relationship and to keep us deeply connected. Out of the place of feeling completely loved and accepted, she is much more willing to do things to please me than if she feels judged and criticized by me. 

When you express grace in your marriage (unmerited blessing and favor, undeserved kindness and forgiveness) you are, in effect, saying to your spouse, “I want intimacy with you more than I want your perfection.

No Fuss, No Muss

Cherl, a commenter on my introduction to grace, put it this way, “So should I fuss and tell him the little things or work on grace???”

My answer?  Neither one. 

First of all, fussing at your spouse about the things that annoy you isn’t likely to do much for the intimacy level in your marriage. They may stop doing that one thing you fussed about, for a time, simply to start doing that same thing again later or something else even more annoying and frustrating. 

Better than fussing is to show grace, true grace, meaning a desire to be as close as possible, a genuine desire to be one.  I’m not saying you should simply ignore the mistakes and frustrations you face in your relationship, thereby allowing the resentment to fester and build to the boiling point.  I’m suggesting, rather, that you show mercy, kindness and love to your spouse, with the goal of deepening intimacy (truly knowing each other).

When you choose to bless your husband or wife in face of their shortcomings, it speaks loudly to their heart that they are loved and accepted.  In a healthy relationship, their natural response will be to want to bless you back. Then you have the opportunity to tell them what that looks like to you, giving you an invitation to address, in a loving way, whatever it is the issue or concern is. 

Let Grace Work on You

So do you instead need to “work on grace?” as Cherl asked in her comment?

Nope, not exactly.

Rather, I say, let grace work on you. 

What I mean by that is to press into a deeper understanding of the grace that you have been shown by God in Christ. Apprehending God’s grace will empower you to show grace to others, including your spouse. Get it in your heart and mind the extent to which grace is about intimacy and relationship, and let that knowledge fuel the response you have to your spouse in the face of his or her failings or shortcomings.  

Let grace work on you and on your heart, thereby allowing grace to work its way into your marriage.

So, have I dealt sufficiently with your “but” or do you still have some doubts about this whole grace thing?  Let’s talk. Leave a comment.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Today I’m kicking off a new series on grace in marriage.

I’m taking this deep dive into grace for several reasons.  First of all, though grace is simple in concept, the implications of grace for marriage are enormous. Second, even though I’ve touched on this topic in previous posts, I have never given grace the attention it deserves.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, grace is just as critical as love is to strengthening and sustaining your marriage.  Grace and love are like the bookends that keep your marriage together.

What is Grace?

Grace is simply unmerited favor, mercy and kindness. Grace is at the core of the Gospel.
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.
Rom 5:1-2
We know that God’s unbounded grace comes to us through faith in Jesus, and we know that He is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). 

Grace is our way to forgiveness for all the wrongs we have done or that we will ever do against God, and thus our way to eternal life. Grace also brings us God’s favor and blessing, even when we don’t deserve it.  

An Invitation to Intimacy

As true as all this is, I believe that grace actually has its deepest roots in intimacy.

God didn’t crush his Son simply to gain our forgiveness and eternal life or just to bless us.  He did it because he desires intimacy with us, both now and for all eternity.  Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross gives us unprecedented face-to-face access to the Father.   

Grace is God’s invitation to intimacy with him, because most of all, God is a zealous lover. He desires to have all of you and all of me for himself, for all time.

As we reflect on grace and marriage in this series, keep in mind that a grace-full marriage is really about a path to deeper intimacy between you and your husband or wife.

Next up: Grace and the Big "But"

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