I so enjoyed writing last week's "ten things I think" post I thought I would do another. I won't be able to do these every week, a la Peter King, but when I've got something I feel strongly about maybe I'll do one. Today I'd like to offer "Ten Things I Think I Think About Marriage and Marriage Counseling."
1. I think I think that most of us are missing the boat on marriage, but then again, I have to say that - otherwise why would you want to read my thoughts on marriage if I didn't try to set myself apart as the all-wise, all-knowing, all-superior guru on matters of the heart. If you want to call me "Dr. Love," feel free.
2. But I think I think I really do mean what I said in point #1, I think. I don't know exactly when it started, but I am guessing it was around the 60's and 70's that the church woke up to the divorce epidemic and since then we have had enough books, tapes (did they have any marriage 8-tracks way back when?), cd's, DVD's, seminars, retreats and whatnot to cover Greenland in material and consume years from the life of millions of people. But I'm not sure how much of a dent all this is making.
To be fair, in many cases all of the marriage stuff does help. But I think that usually has more to do with something in the individual than the marriage stuff per se.
3. I think I think we focus too much on marriage and work too hard on our marriages to really be of any help. I suppose I'll need to explain that last point because after all, don't we all know that "marraige is hard work." Well, yeah, kind of.
One of my new favorite books is "The Inner Game of Tennis," by Timothy Gallwey. I've wrote about this before and I think that some of Gallwey's insights apply here. Gallwey has found that many of his students fail to improve at tennis because they try too hard. They work too hard on making sure their footwork and stroke are just perfect. Gallwey finds that these things actually become distractions that distract them from what needs to be done to get the ball over the net. So he finds that he needs to distract these people from their distractions. One technique he has used is to tell them to concentrate on the ball - to watch it's trajectory, it's spin, it's speed and things like that. This gets them thinking about the ball, not their technique and often this helps them lighten up on themselves and they are paradoxically better able to get the ball over the net.
You probably are thinking by now that I'm off my rocker as this has nothing to do with marriage. Also, with me being a pastor and all, I'm suppose to bring religion into this and here I am using the techniques of a who-knows-what-religion-he's-from-tennis-coach as a basis for Christian instruction on marriage.
But there is a link between Christian marriage and Gallwey's technique of "improving your tennis game by becoming less concerned about your tennis technique." It is this - the Scriptures show that God is comparatively unconcerned about your marriage and not focused on it much at all.
Granted, I know that you are supremely concerned about your marriage and many are very focused on making it a good one and my guess is that, if you surveyed most Christians and churches they would say that the crisis in marriage and family is one of the most important issues facing the church today.
But a reading of the New Testament doesn't reflect an overwhelming concern with marriage and the family on the part of it's author (God!).
Which is not to say that God is unconcerned with marriage. He does speak about it so He has some level of concern about marriage. And Gallwey has some concern about technique. If you are a right handed player and a ball is coming at you ten feet to your right I don't think he would suggest that it is indifferent whether you use a forehand or a backhand. Similarly, there is a legitimate place for concern about marriage, but it's got to be kept in proper perspective.
My reason for saying this is that as you look at the thousands of verses in the New Testament there's probably only a few dozen that have anything to do with marriage. The paucity of references to marriage do not authorize us to disobey God's standards for marriage - if there were only one verse in the bible on marriage we would be bound to obey it. But the paucity of references to marriage suggest that God has other and higher priorities than marriage.
And so should we.
4. Therefore I think I think it would be prudent for all who are obsessed with improving our marriages and "working hard" on them to rethink our priorities and align them with God's priorities. I also think I think that if we do this we will be like Gallwey's tennis students - just as those who quit focusing as strongly on their techniques dramatically improve their techniques, so those who quit focusing as strongly on improving their marriages will dramatically improve their marriages. To that end I think I am thinking about offering some thoughts on what this might look like practically. And for my first thought I'll use the book in the New Testament that gives us the most extensive marriage advice as a basis. That book is Ephesians and it gives us two whole paragraphs on the marriage relationship, along with a very short paragraph on how to be a good Christian kid and one sentence on how to be a good Christian parent. This is a veritable encyclopedia on marriage and family compared to other books in the New Testament.
5. I think I think the first thing to notice is that all of this
marital advice comes at the tail end of a long series of expositions
and explanations of vital Christian doctrine. The marital advice is
just kind of tacked on at the end as one application of the crucial
doctrinal matters that precede it. I think it is not too big a stretch
to infer from this that understanding all of this doctrine is
foundational to understanding our roles in marriage.
Ergo, while it is ok to read a marriage book and/or go to a marriage
conference, your time would be better spend reading expositional and
theological tomes and going to bible/theology conferences. Again, the
marriage stuff is good, but without the extensive biblical/theological
grounding you need to apply the marriage advice. Going straight to the
marriage advice without taking the extended time to understand the
biblical/theological basis will be like putting the proverbial bandaid
6. I think I think that, while we are focusing on other things besides marriage
in order to improve our marriages, there are other relational issues we
ought to think about before thinking about the marriage relationship,
and that form a foundation for thinking about marriage.
For instance, a husband and wife are more to each other than husband
and wife. When I am counseling couples in crisis I usually get dragged
into discussions of what it means to be a good husband or wife.
Usually it's the husband who is very concerned that we understand what
the bible says about being a good wife, and the wife is very concerned
about what it means to be a good husband.
I would be very happy if they would forget about what it means to be
a husband and wife and just begin by thinking about what it means to be
a human being, and how one human being relates to one another.
In the beginning God created two human beings and put them together
in a partnership to rule over creation. They were to be in partnership
with one another, each helping the other fulfill the creation mandate,
and they were to have dominion over the animals and rule over them.
Almost every serious marital conflict I get involved in eventually
becomes a contest of wills, and the struggle is over whose "will" will
prevail. This is a contest to rule. Mind you it is usually all
presented in the most spiritual of ways, with husbands pointing out the
woman's responsibility to submit and women pointing out the husband's
responsibility to be like Jesus, and both remaining defiant till the
other submits to their understanding of God's word for the other.
This makes marriage about dominion rather than partnership and not
only undermines the marital relationship, it undermines our identity as
humans. Humans are to rule over animals, not each other.
(For now I'll forgo the whole discussion of government - yes I believe in government and I believe that government "rules." I am also a complimentarian, believing in a kind of hierarchy in the family. But for the Christian all of that is conditioned on a prior and more important basis of a shared humanity and responsibility to serve one another.
So again, I think our marriages could be improved if we thought
about what it means to be human before thinking about what it means to
be a husband or wife.
7. I think I think that many marriages could be improved if we
could just treat each other as neighbors, before considering the
husband-wife relationship. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
You may try to sinfully justify your failure to be the husband you
ought to be based upon your wife's failure to be what she ought to be,
but even if you do that, you can't get away from your responsibility to
treat her at least as a neighbor. Even if she's a bad wife, she's your
neighbor and you are to love her as much as you love yourself. This
would go a long way to improving many marriages.
8. I think I think that we could improve many marriages if we could
treat one another as enemies. In fact, I think that in many cases the
relationship could improve immeasurably if Christians could elevate
their spouse to that of an enemy.
Biblically, the Christian is called to love his/her enemy.
According to Matthew 5 the Christian doesn't retaliate against his
enemy, gives twice what the enemy asks, works twice as hard for the
enemy as the enemy wants and blesses the one who treats them badly.
I'm thinking that if I weren't a Christian I would want to be the
enemy of a Christian, because that's a pretty sweet deal relationally.
I think I think that many Christian marriages could be a little
heaven on earth if the partners would quit worrying about what it means
to be a "Christian husband" or "Christian wife" and just learn how to
relate to one another as enemies.
9. I think I think that many Christian marriages could be
enormously more happy if the spouses would put aside the fact that they
are married to one another and just treat one another as if they were
Christians. Galatians 6:10 tells us to do good to all men, and
especially to those who are of the household of faith. In other words,
of all the relational duties we owe to each other as humans, as
neighbors and as enemies, we are to be especially careful to fulfill
these duties to fellow Christians.
If you are claim to be a Christian and are married to a Christian
you owe your spouse all of the things you owe any other human being,
just more so.
In my pre-marital counseling and marriage counseling I try to tell
people that there is no special category of counsel called "marital
counseling" it's all about basic Christian discipleship. This takes me
back to my first point where I say we are missing the boat in marriage
and marriage counseling.
Most marital advice talks about communication, roles, understanding
each other's needs and other assorted whatnot. That stuff has some
value, but the value is infitessimal compared to the importance of
simply being a Christian in marriage. To be a Christian is to take up
one's cross to follow Jesus. It is to die daily to self. It is a
lifelong process of saying no to self and yes to Christ.
John Calvin said that the sum total of the Christian life is
self-denial. That's what basic Christian discipleship is about -
learning to live a life of self-denial that we might know Christ. That
is the sum-total of Christian marriage - marriage becomes an arena
where we can practice self-denial to follow Christ. No amount of
understanding communication, roles and needs can compensate for a
refusal to die daily to ones self.
I tell my pre-marital counselees that some big fights and
disillusionment are coming ahead. Those are crucial moments that test
not so much our marriage but our commitment to Christ. When a big
conflict comes I tell them that is a good opportunity to play "who
wants to be a Christian?"
10. I think I think that the marriage relationship is the closest
thing we can get to heaven on earth, but before we can attain such
wedded bliss we have to become humans, neighbors, enemies and
Christians towards one another. Once you've got all of that down you
can move on to fulfill the most important aspect of marriage - and that
is to pursue a common calling of bringing whatever sphere of influence
you have together under the dominion of Christ.
This affirms my earlier point about losing focus on the marriage.
When God brought Adam and Eve together He didn't give them a bunch of
advice on how to relate to one another - He gave them a task, a
calling. For them marital happiness was found in their partnership in
the calling which God gave them, not in their efforts to build a happy
So there you have it. Get all of that down and there's only one thing left to do - go have s . . .