Work on Your Marriage at Home

Marriages regularly fail.

At the same time, most people who are getting married think that their marriage is the exception. They don’t see a big threat. Even those who are in higher risk groups for divorce don’t think that their marriage is a high risk marriage.

If we are going to avoid failing, we have to recognize that it could happen. We have to believe the threat in order to avoid it.

On the other side, there are many marriages that do not end in divorce that are not going well or are on life support. The husband and wife are essentially roommates.

How do we move past these threats to flourishing marriages? We have to work at it. It won’t change overnight, but it can happen with time and effort.

Here are a few things that you can study and talk about at home that I believe will help you move toward a flourishing marriage.

I organize this material into three sections: awareness, negotiation, and marriage virtues. The first section includes some exercises you can do to help you come to more awareness about who each of you are and where you come from. The second section includes the main questions that have to be negotiated as a couple comes together. The third section is instruction on how to become better marriage partners through trust, love, and respect. Continue reading “Work on Your Marriage at Home”

Love Is Patient

[Listen to an audio version here]

Imagine a community that is deeply divided. There are numerous factions all vying for their interests. This confused state allows some people to break the rules in the most flagrant way and other rules to be enforced with exacting rigor. Everyone wants their gift to be recognized. The rich feast, and the poor go hungry, even in the same church.

Such a place was the church of Corinth. It was a highly polarized church. It was out of control. What did they need?

The Apostle wrote his first letter to the Corinthians to help them work through all these issues and try to bring about some semblance of order. It was clear that there were two things that would make a huge difference: to find their boast in Christ not in themselves and to let that shape them into loving people.

Paul calls love “the most excellent way,” the surefire way to restore community. He refers to three great virtues: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these, he says, is love.

Paul writes about love in 1 Corinthians 13. It is justly one of the most famous chapters of the Bible for its beauty and power. We should remember that he wrote this to a congregation that was deeply divided. He wrote it to a community that needed to be restored.

When community needs to be restored, we can turn to this chapter for wisdom on how God builds community. And how does God build community? He creates the virtues within people that build the community. In this series, we are considering some of these virtues: being a listener, being patient, being humble, and being a servant. In 1 Corinthians 13, we discover the importance of patience.

Love is patient
In 1 Corinthians 13, there is a beautiful description of love. We can define love as an affection for someone and desire for union and communion with that person.

If you wanted to describe love, what word would you use first? The Apostle Paul begins, perhaps surprisingly, with patience. “Love is patient.” He says.

Patience and love are deeply connected in Paul’s mind. He says elsewhere: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). Love and patience go together.

This fits well with the rule that we discussed last week. James says that every one of us should be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. What this means is that we can’t rush getting our ideas and thoughts into a conversation. We have to go through the process of carefully listening, understanding, and interacting. This takes time. This requires patience.

Why does it require patience? Because the reward of community doesn’t come immediately, and there are obstacles to bringing it about. We will have to work through them. For this, we need patience!

We have opportunity to grow in patience every day. It took me a long time to realize that when you work with physical objects like putting a desk together or fixing a printer, nothing fits together exactly right. You’ve got to have the patience to overcome these obstacles. I’m still learning that. Relationships are no different. It takes time to build relationships, and it will involve obstacles.

Can we accept that community is a process and embrace it? When we do, we will have learned that love is patient.

Love is a process
What I mean is that love is not a mere feeling. It’s certainly not a one-time thing. It is a process of bringing people together. Relationships aren’t built overnight.

Aristotle said that to have a good friend, you have to eat a pound of salt together. He did not mean that you could magically build a friendship by sitting down and eating a pound of salt together in one sitting. He meant that you had to have enough meals that the salt added together would add up to a pound. Relationships take time. They take patience.

Our expectation is so often that relationships will come quickly. We come to a new place or church or family, and we expect it to be like the place we left. The trouble is that we have forgotten how much patience it took to build the relationships we had before. We’ve forgotten the process. We’ve forgotten how many pounds of salt we ate together to get the relationships that we have.

James warns us against being quick to speak and slow to listen. Sometimes, we think we can get heard quickly. This is not true. It’s a process. With people, fast is slow, and slow is fast. Relationships take time. Are we willing to engage in the process?

To do this two virtues are necessary. The first is perseverance. Perseverance is the virtue that enables us to continue doing good in spite of the fact that it gets boring or hard. It means that you keep doing your devotions, even when you don’t feel like it. You keep going to small group. You keep practicing an instrument. You keep exercising. The virtue that enables us to do this is perseverance.

Patience is a little bit different. Patience is the virtue that enables us to put up with obstacles and pain in pursuit of something good. Patience enables us to stick with people even when they disappoint us. It enables us to continue serving a community, even when it hurts us. It enables us to keep playing the guitar, even when we can’t seem to hit the F chord correctly. That’s patience. It is crucial for community. Why? Because love involves pain.

Love Involves Pain
When we enter into the adventure of community, it will involve obstacles, and it will involve pain. This requires patience, a willingness to endure for the good goal of community.

Let’s be honest, though, many of the things that hurt us aren’t because people do us wrong. Community is a challenge because people are different. They have different views that they come to at different rates than we do. They have different gifts that lead them toward different activities. They have different priorities. This requires patience.

What helps us with patience? It is re-envisioning the community. Differences are actually an asset not a hindrance to community. We are a body with different parts. Our differences show we need one another, not that we should break up into factions. Here’s how God shows us this in 1 Cor. 12:18–20:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

It’s a familiar image, but one we need to take in deeply, if we are going to develop the patience we need.

But we will not only experience differences. We will experience offences large and small. Coming together will hurt us. This requires patience. A willingness to forgive and bear with wrongs is going to be a big part of building community. This is how the Bible speaks of these virtues in Colossians:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Col. 3:12–13).

People will say things that hurt us. They will disappoint us. Can we move forward in the face of these and keep going? Sometimes we should confront, but sometimes we should forgive and just move forward.

One of the most challenging and rewarding examples of this came within my former Presbytery (a regional group of churches). The Presbytery was completely polarized. At the heart of it was the disagreement between myself and another Pastor over important theological issues. It started there, but it spiraled out of control.

After a time, the Lord did some things in me that caused me to look at that relationship differently. At one meeting, we were able to talk. Over the next year and half, we entered into the process of slowly unraveling several years of hurts and mistrust. Eventually, we became close friends and are to this day (you can read the whole story here). It took a lot of patience, on both our parts. I need to remember this lesson as I engage in a variety of relationships, even in ones where there has not been as much polarization.

Love Is Rooted in God’s love
So, how do we get the strength to patiently endure? How do we get the strength to love?

When the Apostle Paul thought of patience, I imagine the first thing he thought of was God’s patience. Here’s what he said to his associate Timothy:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Tim. 1:15–16).

When we consider our own guilt before God, we know our own sin better than anyone else’s. This can lead us to see ourselves as “the chief of sinners.” When we see ourselves this way, it will cause us to be amazed at “His immense patience.” This amazement will make it easier to be patient with others.

In this world, there are many righteous causes. We need to stand for righteous causes. It is important to fight for justice and righteousness. However, we also need to recognize the imperfection of our own righteous causes. The doctrine of justification by faith alone teaches us that both we and our opponents stand condemned before a holy God and are justified only by grace. This should moderate our feelings of antipathy to a degree and give us a feeling sympathy for our fellow human beings. We need both perspectives to retain balance. In this way, as Reinhold Niebuhr said, we can be both in the battle and above it.

When we understand our own sin, we can grasp that God has been more patient with us than we will ever be with others. Can we bear with others as He has born with us?

So, here’s what I would like you to do and what I will endeavor to do by God’s grace. First, I will recognize that building community is a process. This mean that I will try to do the little things day by day that will build the community and that I won’t be deterred because it takes time or is difficult.

Second, when I encounter obstacles or differences in relationships, I will not give up. I will remember that love is patient. Obstacles are part of the process not an end to it.

Third, I will believe that patient building of community will produce fruit. I will believe that God wants to use me to build community, and I will submit to His process of doing that with full hope that it will make a difference.

Finally, I will take in deeply of how many obstacles our Lord Jesus overcame to bring us to Himself, remembering these words:

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Heb. 12:2–3).

Quick to Listen

[Listen to an audio version here]

In light of the pandemic, I have thought more about the flu than I have at any time in my life. I realized Sunday that I need to think about it a lot more. As I described my understanding of the flu to a friend, she realized that I had confused what is called “the stomach flu” with the actual influenza virus. She told me that the flu vaccine does not help with the stomach flu. I had a brief moment of pain and flash of embarrassment as I realized that I had assumed something to be true that was actually wrong.

I quickly recovered and did a little reading on the subject. It turns out that the stomach flu is not a flu at all. It is caused primarily by what is called a norovirus. It is spread through surfaces and not primarily through the air.

This was a good thing to know because I’ve actually experienced the debilitating effects of this disease, gastroenteritis, many times, and it was horrible. When I had it, I felt like I was on the edge of death, even though I wasn’t. So, I am happy to gain clarity on it and be better empowered to avoid it.

Now, here’s the point of all this. I have many gaps in my knowledge like this. I have all sorts of things that make sense to me but aren’t true or aren’t clear. This is why it’s so crucial to listen! Our knowledge is really quite fragmentary, and we have to listen to God, to other people, and to reality in order to gain knowledge. There is much more that we don’t know than we do know. So, listening should be the fundamental stance of the human being.

There are other tremendous benefits to listening. Nothing builds connection and community like listening. When people listen, they show they care. When people feel heard, they feel that they are part of the community, even if people disagree with them. Listening builds the community. When people are listeners, they are community builders.

Quick to Listen
In light of this, I want us to consider a wonderful rule and aspiration from the Epistle of James: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). This little phrase encapsulates tremendous wisdom for individual growth in wisdom and community building. It is a sort of summary of everything we find in the wisdom literature of the Bible.

The importance of being a listener is stated throughout the Bible. Here’s just a few examples. “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice” (Proverbs 12:15). “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Proverbs 17:28).

Being slow to speak is necessarily connected with being quick to listen. The Bible continually warns about too many words. James has some of the strongest warnings. “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:27). He goes on to say, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). Wow.

Now notice here that this does not mean that we should be silent. We should be slow to speak but not refrain from speaking. There is a problem of speaking too much, and there is also a problem when a person is not allowed to speak. When someone is constantly forcing their viewpoint forward, interrupting and not listening, this must be confronted. A relationship requires both sides to communicate their thoughts. What this verse means is that each of us should show deference to God, to others, and to reality as we formulate our thoughts. Listening first. Quick to listen; slow to speak.

When we hear something that doesn’t seem right or seems like an attack, it’s easy to let our anger take over. That’s why this passage urges us to keep control of our anger, be slow to anger. There is nothing wrong with anger in and of itself. It is an emotion that helps us respond to injustice. However, we need to be angry at the right things, for the right reason, to the right degree, and for the right time. All of these things must be in accordance with godliness, reality, and righteousness. When anger gets out of bounds (quick not slow), as our text warns us, it does not bring about the righteousness of God.

Why Such Bad Listeners?
If listening is such a good thing, why are we such bad listeners? Well, in many ways, we are not. When things are calm, we can listen, though even here we can all stand to improve.

The problem comes when things get intense and anxiety goes up. As anxiety goes up, the brain shuts down. As the authors of the wonderful book Crucial Conversations put it, when we need to be at our best, we are at our worst.

Why can’t we listen when our anxiety goes up?

We feel insecure. When your boss calls you in and criticizes you for the job you are doing, it may make you feel like you could lose your job. This may make you wonder, how am I going to take care of my family? This makes us want to defend ourselves or withdraw rather than listen carefully.

We feel attacked. If someone says, Donald Trump is a terrible president, you may feel attacked personally, if you support him. If someone says, Donald Trump is a great president, you may feel attacked, if you disagree. What’s our first inclination? To immediately say why he is or isn’t. It’s not to ask that person to explain their thinking.

We feel pressed. When we feel like we don’t have much time, we feel like we want to make sure we get what is important to us heard. This leads us to try to force our view into the conversation. The problem is that with people fast is slow and slow is fast. You can’t rush the process of mutual understanding.

We feel out of control. When we feel that we understand things, then we feel in control. When someone questions our understanding of things, it’s easy to feel as if our hold on the world is slipping. When we don’t know what’s going on, we feel much more afraid. It’s easy to view a different perspective or a questioning of our perspective as a threat to our control. That’s one reason we hold onto our ideas more tightly than they deserve.

Our feelings of insecurity, fear of rejection, impatience, and lack of control all make us less willing to listen. So, what are we to do?

Listen to the Gospel
We’ve got to listen to God. We’ve got to listen to the Gospel. We need to find our security in Christ not in circumstances. We need our identity to be rooted in Christ not other people’s view of us. We need to rest in God’s control not our ability to manage and understand things.

The world’s provisions, other people’s approval, and our own understanding are flimsy foundations. There are too many contingencies, too many disagreements, and too many gaps in our knowledge. When we see that God is in control, then we can be OK with not knowing. We can be OK with not defending ourselves. We can be OK with not getting our point across.

Again, this does not mean that we should be doormats. For the good of a relationship, we need to be able to speak. If others won’t let us speak, we should confront this issue. We just need to be willing to submit to the long, slow process of listening and building trust that is community building. We don’t need to rush it because we know that God is in control, and He will provide what we need.

Our anxiety makes this very difficult. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put this well: “Without freedom from anxiety man is so enmeshed in the vicious circle of egocentricity, so concerned about himself, that he cannot release himself for the adventure of love” (The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2.272).

How do we get over our anxiety and stop trying to force people to listen to us? Listen, listen, listen to the Gospel. Hear from God that He loves us and will take care of us. Hear from God that He is in control for our good. Hear that we can wait because God is bringing good things. That’s how we find power to listen. That’s how we let go of our anxious desire to be heard.

Applying It
Besides listening to the Gospel, let me suggest two things that will help us become quicker at listening and slower at speaking and getting angry.

First, become more self-aware. Try to notice when you become angry. Pay attention to when you stop listening. Notice what sets you off. Notice when you start thinking you have to take control of the conversation.

Other people can help us with this. I remember at a Session (church leader board) meeting, one of the elders told me, “When elder x said this, you changed. I could see it in your face, you went into defensive mode.” That was great. I didn’t see that clearly. It helped me become more self-aware. It didn’t cure me, but it made me more aware that this happens. Now, I can look for it and take steps to calm myself.

Second, approach people with curiosity rather than judgment. When someone says something that is different, that is an opportunity to learn. If we ask for help in understanding, we open the door to a relationship. If we respond defensively or attack, we further the polarization.

Let me say something here to my primarily white Christian audience on the subject of race. Like you, I struggle with the issue of race, and I often feel like I don’t understand the issues. I also wonder, what can I do that really makes a difference? Here’s what we can do, listen.

Many of our Brothers and Sisters in Christ in this country have very different perspectives on race than many of us do. Can we approach that fact with curiosity? Can we listen? Can we make an effort to be quick to listen on race issues? We can listen today, even if we don’t have an opportunity to have an actual conversation. Pick up a book. I would suggest starting with the Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Curiosity won’t solve all the issues, but it’s a start. And it will make a difference.

I remember a woman said to me about Tennessee, “I love the place. I can’t stand the religion and the politics.” She was from New York, and she did not know I was a Pastor. I told her that I was, and I said, “I’d love to hear more about your struggles. I’d love to get your perspective. It would help me.” And she told me. I listened. Then, she wanted to hear what my thoughts were. I didn’t convince her to embrace evangelical Christianity that day, but I think we made one small step away from polarization and toward community.

That’s what God can and will do through us, if we become a people who are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Amen.


Photo by Joshua Rodriguez on Unsplash

Building a Better Community

When we look for community, our basic tendency is to ask, what will this community do for me? Will they like me? Will they accept me? Can they help me?

The biblical approach to community is very different. Instead of asking, what can this community do for me, it asks, what can I do for this community? How can I love it, serve it, and accept it?

A great description of this perspective is found in Romans 15:1–13. It was a community with significant differences based on the different perspectives of Jews and Gentiles who both believed in Jesus. There was significant reason to think that either this community would not be good for them or to think that everyone had to be the same in order to make it a supportive community. Instead, God told them how to do it.

  1. We bear with each other (v. 1). Every person we meet will be at a different place than us. On a variety of biblical issues, moral issues, and character, there will be significant differences. We need to recognize that people progress at different levels at different rates with different thinking and bear with others. Love is patient.
  2. We seek to please others (v. 1b and 2a). We should not approach things in such a way that wants everything to be our way. We should be ready to yield, especially in matters that are indifferent. It is a totally different perspective to ask, what would please others here rather than, what would please me?
  3. We seek to build others up (v. 2). We don’t merely want to leave people where they are. We want to help them grow, to build them up. We should ask not merely, what do I need for my growth, but what would help others grow? We should encourage them when we see them doing good and making progress. We should use words that will help them take the next steps.
  4. We accept people. “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you.” So often our basic attitude toward others is judgment. What if our basic attitude was acceptance? I think it’s important to see that this not only means that we love people. We like them. We appreciate them. We value the gifts and good things they bring to the table.
  5. If we followed these prescriptions, this would make a better community. Everyone would be loved, everyone would be cared for, and everyone would be encouraged.

    So, where do we get the idea that this is the way we should build community? Jesus.

    Jesus led the way. That’s how He lived. He thought of others and their good. He did not please Himself. He was willing to bear with people and move toward them, even when they reproached Him (v. 3).

    It’s important, however, that we see how Jesus was able to live this way. He was able to live this way because His life wasn’t centered in other people. His life was centered on His heavenly Father. He was filled with all joy and peace because He trusted in His heavenly Father. And that’s how we can get the power to build a better community. We need to love people, but we need to be centered on the Father.

    From our perspective, we are centered on a relationship with the Triune God. We are centered on the fact that we as believers have a loving relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    Note what God says to us in Romans 15:7, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” When we believe that Christ has accepted us, then we will be in a position to accept others. And note, Jesus not only loves us, He likes us. He made us and values who we are and the gifts and good things we bring to the table. He gave Himself on the cross to cover our sins. When our lives are centered on this fact, then we will be in a position to build a better community.

Respect, No Matter What

One of the basic conditions for communicating with others is respect. When we honor who people are as human beings and what they can contribute, then we open to the door to communication.

Respect is easy as long as the temperature is low. When the temperature rises, insults come, and disrespect rears its ugly head, then it becomes extremely difficult to continue to show respect.

And that’s precisely what Jesus did. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23).

And that’s precisely what Jesus has called us to do. “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:20).

Yet as soon as we hear negative comments, experience distancing from people, or find out that others are talking behind our back, we forget: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

Why in the world, though, would we want to maintain respect when others show disrespect?

Here are a five reasons:

  1. You can win people. “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives” (1 Pet. 3:1). This is true not only for wives but for everyone. You can win people.
  2. You can be blessed. When we return insult for insult, we harm ourselves. When we keep ourselves from bitterness and anger, we keep ourselves. To do what’s right, even when it’s hard, is a great blessing and its own reward.
  3. You can trust God. Jesus did not return insult for insult when people attacked Him. However, that did not mean that He saw these things as fine or not wrong. “Instead, Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” God frees us from the burden of righting all wrongs by ensuring us that He will make all things right.
  4. You can be like Christ. Whenever Peter thought about Christ, he could remember His sufferings. Peter also saw him rise from the dead and ascend to heaven. Following Christ means experiencing the suffering Christ and afterwards sharing in His glory.
  5. You are the beloved. Peter begins his exhortation with the word, “beloved” or “friends” (1 Pet. 2:11). When we suffer, we should remember that we are the “beloved,” friends of Peter and friends of God. We are chosen by the Father, sprinkled with the blood of the Son (for forgiveness and renewal), and transformed by the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:2). We are called and empowered to live a life that rises above the tit for tat that dominates human life.

When others cause us to suffer, it’s so easy just to see us and them. But there are bigger issues at play. Our own conscience is at stake. Winning others is at stake. Glorifying God is at stake. Advancing God’s kingdom is at stake. The well-being of our soul is at stake. Showing the pattern of Christ to the world is at stake. If we can keep these larger issues in mind, we can maintain respect, even when we suffer. We will all have to suffer, the question is whether or not we will suffer well.