Marriage Oneness that Lasts
What are these two people trying to do? Well, they are communicating. One is sending a message; the other one is receiving it. Here at this church, we spend some of our spiritual energy helping out in this community, meeting needs, reaching out to those who are less fortunate. Why do we do that? Partly just to ease the hurts of others, but also partly to share a loving message, to communicate with some people who may not hear it very often or very effectively: God loves you and His people love you. The Christian faith has something for you.
Do you remember going through the awkward elementary-school experience of letting some girl know that you like her? You passed a note, or tried to get your best friend to leak the announcement in a way that wouldn’t embarrass you too badly. It’s funny to see, on grown-up TV programs like Seinfeld or even The West Wing, where someone says to their best friend, “Can you find out if so-and-so likes me?” And the response usually is, “Who are we, Potsie and Ralph in high school gym class?”
But even within the ranks of Christian marriage, here in the church, in our adult relationships, a husband and a wife will so often find it difficult to do the three things we’ve continually found prescribed in Genesis 2:24: Leave . . . cleave . . . and be one flesh. It would have been a difficult stay in Eden if Adam and Eve had encountered communication barriers. There weren’t exactly any small group fellowships or seminars you could attend on learning how to open up to your wife. If Adam kept secrets from Eve, I’m not sure who he had to confide in.
Here’s a diagnosis out of the marriage syllabus we’ve been borrowing from, entitled Weekend to Remember. Genuine communication, the authors write, requires that a couple seeks to understand and to be understood. Oneness isn’t going to happen if we are communicating poorly, allowing resentments to build up, speaking past each other, using passive-aggressive techniques, withholding affection, keeping secrets. But the goal is understanding.
This same book suggests what they call the “Three T’s” of talking. The first one is Time. This means a couple of things. First, we need to commit time to our partner; there need to be times when the TV is off and the kids are asleep and we give each other face time. Many of us can testify that the hours together of simply looking into each other’s eyes and sharing from our heart—the long walks, the drives across the state, the hours sitting on the beach together—are glue to hold our relationship together.
I like the way Eugene Peterson gives us the famous soliloquy from Ecclesiastes 3. The King James begins: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. The Message paraphrase puts it: There is an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth. And the verse in question, #7, says: A right time to shut up and another to speak up. So we need to carve out specified times to talk and dialogue, and then make sure those carved-out times happen at the right time.
The second of these three T’s is Trust. I mentioned last Sabbath the wonderful relief that comes from being with a spouse you can trust, and who you can unload your hurts and worries to. I know I’m repeating myself sometimes and tell the same corny joke several times; my wife doesn’t mind. She goes on and on about this or that cherished grandbaby story, repeating favorite anecdotes; I don’t mind. I’ve learned that no matter what kind of mood my spouse is in, if I bring up the subject of grandchildren, I’m home free. She could be swinging an ax at me and screaming; if I just say, “Boy, [grandbaby’s] really cute, isn’t she?” . . . Yes! Want some ice cream? I can blurt out ideas that might have marginal value; I can brainstorm freely before her, and she’ll sift through the silliness and praise the one good observation.
In his book, Living Faith, President Jimmy Carter, makes this observation: “What makes a marriage? Is it a personal union built or strengthened mainly by dramatic events? I would say no. It’s the year-by-year, dozen-times-a-day demonstration of the little things which can destroy a marriage or make it successful. The ability to communicate is most important. In almost every marriage, times arise when the husband and wife look on the same event with different perspectives. If they can talk about their views with honesty and mutual respect—a big if—many problems can be avoided.”
But about ten pages later, he also addresses this interesting theological question. What are the two things that make us afraid, for example, of serious mistakes? Why do criminals hide? Why do we lie about our flubs in life? Two reasons. We fear punishment or we fear condemnation. We don’t want to get busted or yelled at. “For a Christian,” Carter writes, “assured of God’s mercy, this reluctance need not exist.” Why? God doesn’t plan to punish OR condemn us. Romans 8:1: There is therefore now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And if my wife and I can have a kind of closeness in our communicating where we are not going to condemn or get punitive, we’re going to experience heightened oneness.
The third T is Transparency, and I already got mentioned how Adam and Eve bared their souls—along with everything else—to one another. I won’t repeat that concept, except to point out five levels of communication that all humans experience.
First, Cliché. “How ‘bout them Lakers?” “How’s work?” The syllabus puts this graphically: “Non-sharing.” If we speak just in canned clichés to our spouse, there’s a problem.
Level two: Fact. Sharing what you know. If I hear that someone in the church is pregnant, I need to let my wife know that. “I heard such-and-such on the radio coming home tonight.” This leads to the third level: Opinion: sharing what you think. Then, four, Emotion: sharing what you feel. And five, Transparency, sharing who you are. I think we can all resurrect emotions which keep us from getting to #4 and #5, psychological barriers or background issues or long-held secrets which are challenges to be overcome. But let’s keep our focus on allowing God to mold us and move us in this direction for the sake of our marital oneness.
Let’s address one of the great challenges in communicating for oneness—and that’s Listening. In fact, consider this mandate: Listening: Seeking to Understand. Why do we listen to our wives, our husbands? Are we being courteous? Are we waiting for a break in the dialogue so we can begin to speak instead? Do we really want to understand their thoughts, their minds, their hearts? Do we want to know this person in the fullness of that biblical expression?
James 1:19 says: But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. The Message paraphrase has it: Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. You don’t have to be a philosopher to notice that we have two ears and only one mouth. It’s so much more fun to speak than to listen; that’s why a half-hour sermon goes by a lot faster for the preacher than for the restless congregation. But here at church, at our fellowship lunch and at our various outreach programs, there are many people who come and who are desperate to have somebody simply hear them. This is from the syllabus: Many people want nothing more than someone to care enough to listen to them. Some people bring insoluble problems here; they know there’s no easy answer. But they want to be heard when they cry out.
In our marriages, there’s no more generous gift than your willingness to listen with interest. With so many presidential candidates jumping into the ring almost on a daily basis, I’m reminded of a story going back to the 1972 race between Nixon and McGovern. McGovern got beat 49 states to one, although I don’t think this story is the reason why. He was at a political rally one day, crowded gymnasium, lots of people around. And when you’re running for President, you are constantly meeting people who remember you from before and who will get their feelings hurt if you don’t remember them.
So this man came up: “George, old buddy, so wonderful to see you again. Remember the good old days back in Dakota when we used to race tractors.” Or whatever. And McGovern had absolutely no clue, no idea who this guy was. So he decided to fake it, to pretend that he was interested. We often do that in our listening; we exhibit pseudo-listening, a fake interest.
And McGovern, looking for a clue, asked him: “Uh, how’s your wife?” The man shook his head. “Well, I lost her.”
Oh dear. McGovern, still completely clueless about who this was, put on a sad face. He put his hand on the man’s shoulder, almost dabbed at his eyes. “Oh, yes, that’s right. I remember hearing that she had passed away. I’m so sorry. I’ve been praying for you in these dark hours.”
And the man shook his head. “What are you talking about? I mean, I lost her in this crowd. I can’t find her anyplace!” Oh. I read during the ‘04 campaign that John Kerry had the bad habit of greeting you but already looking kind of past you to see who the next person in line was. We sometimes converse with friends and even our spouse that way: we jump past their statement to get to our own. Interviewers do that sometimes on CNN and Fox News.
Maybe we listen poorly, in a selective, faking way, because we think our agenda is more important, our ideas are more interesting or valid. We even think this way with our spouse. But I picture Jesus in conversation with His twelve disciples, or with the Samaritan woman at the well, or with the small children sitting in His lap. Jesus had a right to be bored or impatient with the insipid, vain talk all around Him; after all, He was God in human form. He had dialogued with the other members of the Trinity and commanded millions of angels. If some of you here think that today’s current praise music is a bit juvenile or sophomoric with its guitars and drums, imagine how Jesus must feel as He listens . . . and then compares what we have here to the heavenly orchestras and angelic choirs. And yet Jesus, there in the upper room on a Thursday night, just after having communion, sang an a cappella song with eleven untrained, off-key fishermen. Jesus was a master at valuing the words and the heart cries of others.
Here’s an interesting phrase: Protective Listening. That’s where we don’t hear threatening messages in a place where they don’t exist; we don’t assume the worst. We put a protective cordon of love around our marriage conversations. I got an e-mail the other day that I thought had just a tinge of resistance, of barrier-building. The message didn’t say “fence,” but I thought I sensed the first bricks going up. Instead of saying, “Well, all is lost; that friendship is over,” I sent a return e-mail, just gently asking. Are we okay? And the reply came back: Oh sure. Fine. I had imagined a threat where there wasn’t one, and we should try, especially with our life partner, to not do that.
Here’s another syllabus point: A good listener will manifest an attitude that encourages communication. Again, this calls for us to ask God to give us a new, unselfish heart, a new body English where we love others more than ourselves. Many years ago, in a church a long ways from here, I had a work colleague who was a conversational leech; you could not get rid of him. If it was ten minutes before quitting time, you didn’t want to get into a conversation with him. He was a pit bull who would follow you right into the men’s room—or maybe even the ladies’ room—to keep pursuing some mundane triviality.
I would spend entire conversations with him not listening to the conversation; instead, I was plotting my escape. Could someone call a fire drill? Should I fake a heart attack? Even a real heart attack would at least get me out of there. And I finally had to look in the mirror and say: “Why do you think you’re so wonderful? Why is your precious time so valuable that you can’t give this emotionally needy person fifteen minutes? You have the time; you can spare a bit of friendship.” So I tried to simply give this man, as a Christian moment of charity, my interested face. I looked at him; I tried to really understand him. That’s what our Christian faith calls us to do. Romans 12:10: Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor.
These four suggestions are really helpful within the marriage circle. One, Listen with the attitude that your spouse’s comments are top priority; give focused attention. If I stop and think, what my wife has to say is of top priority; if I don’t consider it that way, I’m making an error in judgment. Pastors admittedly get impatient when church members devalue eternal things and elevate minor concerns and passions . . . but how often do we all do it here? To know my wife’s heart should be a huge, daily, paramount goal for me.
Two, Listen with an attitude of acceptance and willingness to understand. I enjoy dialoguing with good teachers about their classroom philosophy. When I’m standing before a Sabbath School class, I try to make it my overt attitude that I admire and appreciate and value all questions and observations. The questions my students ask are brilliant; they are probing; they are literally saving the entire class by their unique focus. I smear a little frosting over the whole thing sometimes, but we need to admire and appreciate what our partner has to say to us. Anyone who gives Bible studies learns to often say: “Good point; I hadn’t thought of that. Excellent.”
Three, Listen with an attitude that your spouse is not your enemy. Now, sometimes she is. Samson needed a little less openness when it came to his pillow talk with Delilah, for example. But what a blessing to receive feedback and even wise criticism from supportive friends who we know are on our side in life. All through the gospels we find Jesus listening graciously to people who were on the other side of the great divide; He connected with people who came to the table with hostility.
Four – and this one is thought-provoking: Listen with an attitude of willingness to hear what God may be saying through your spouse. If I believe that my wife is God’s especially chosen gift to me, then it stands to reason that He will often communicate His will to me through her wisdom and her special insights. A good example of this would be Pilate’s wife. She had a heaven-sent dream about Jesus, and God used her to warn her husband.
Let’s study for a few minutes about what we actually say. We need to be open and transparent, but it’s also true that words can scar. There’s a story about a young groom who shouted at his wife, during a fight: “I never did like your stupid old freckles anyway!” Ouch. The fact of the matter was: he liked her freckles. They were cute. He’d always liked them. But he needed ammunition for this fight and that was the hand grenade he picked up.
What’s his problem now—besides sleeping in the garage for the next few months? He can apologize from now until kingdom come, and the wound will not heal. She will always wonder, “How does he really feel?” You can drive a nail into the wood, and then, yes, you can turn around and pull the nail back out, but what is still left there? A jagged hole. Psalm 141:3 says: Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.
A very feisty film years ago was entitled The Story of Us, and it portrayed a husband and wife, two squabbling spouses, who just said every mean thing that came into their minds. They had so much openness there was nothing to shield them from each other’s bullets. And the plain reality is that we don’t have to say every nasty thing that crosses our brains. We can control what we say; we can be gentle and careful.
We’re told there are two words we should never begin a criticism with: always and never. Start with I feel rather than You always. A pastor was doing a marriage seminar once, and he asked the group: “What word do we generally say first when we’re in a critical frame of mind?” You. Then he asked: “What’s generally the second word?” And a man in the back called out: Idiot! Which is true for Debra Barone, but I hope it’s not true in your house and in my house.
Here are two helpful guidelines from the book. A false concept of spirituality makes us hesitant to share ourselves. Maybe we’re afraid to share our true feelings because we think our true feelings are fallen feelings, wicked feelings. And yes, that should be a concern. But I was so encouraged when it was pointed out to me that people like King David, in the Psalms, do let it all hang out. Now, we should guard our angry sentences; we should weigh our words. But true Christians can get mad, cry, be frustrated, doubt God, question God, express our frustration with God. Some theologians call them “the imprecatory Psalms,” because they have a fair amount of fist-shaking. There’s an old children’s story called So Dear to My Heart, where a pet lamb gets lost. And the granny in the story, who’s served God all her life, just gets on her knees and says to God: “I’ve obeyed you for 70 years. But now I’m not kidding; I’m not hinting around. I need Your help and I’m expecting it.” She still said, “Thy will be done”—and we shouldn’t get our theology from children’s books—but the point is this: we can be spiritual people and still be open and honest and real in our talking, both with the Lord and with our mates.
Here’s another one: An angry heart sabotages understanding. It colors what we hear; it stains our comprehension.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once addressed the topic of unresolved resentment and hatred. If we nurture our bitterness, if we allow barriers to come between us and our spouse, after a while all of your perceptions will be skewed. You attitudes slowly turn upside-down. You will root for the bad to happen; you will rejoice over sin instead of victory. And the way King puts it, “After a while, white will look like black and black like white. Good will appear evil, and evil good.” If you have an enemy, you’ll be happy when he messes up again and sorry when he does something right. No wonder the Bible tells us, In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. That Letters to Philip book I mentioned has one partner saying to the other: “I’m sorry we’re having trouble. I don’t like it this way. Let’s stick together, what do you say?”
Let me close with two points. Abe Lincoln, our 16th President, communicated brilliantly with a divided nation, and endured raging, screeching communication from his own wife, Mary Todd. Right at the close of the war, the Lincolns and many dignitaries went out to visit the war theater, and the First Lady embarrassed her husband deeply by her rants and vitriolic diatribes. People watched as their Commander in Chief bore the insults, defended his wife without compromising principle, gently led her to a place of privacy. Why didn’t he fight back? Why didn’t he dump her? Partly because he was a man of greatness, but also because he knew there was a higher cause he was guarding. He was holding a country together, leading this crusade for freedom. It was his duty to go the second mile.
And God’s married people, who become husband and wife before God and assembled witnesses, communicate with each other on a different level. We don’t just forgive because it holds things together; we forgive because we’re citizens of a Kingdom where that’s the eternal policy. We seek peace because the Beatitudes command that we seek peace and make peace. We also work toward five-star marriages and Lexus-level love because we are God’s elected people; we want to sustain this church with healthy families and vibrant husband/wife teams.
Finally this syllabus point: Emotional intimacy involves expressing your feelings and emotions with someone who is committed to you. One of the most wonderful things about the permanent promises in our wedding vows is that they make this emotional intimacy possible. We’re with someone who has committed themselves to us for a lifetime.
God’s grace is an incredible and eternal gift which promises us not just everlasting life, but everlasting commitment and everlasting assurance. And within the framework of that quiet, comforting confidence, we can be free to have emotional intimacy with God. Jesus says to us in Matthew 11:28: Come unto Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Sometimes marriage is hard work, and sometimes the Christian faith is hard work . . . but the undergirding framework of these two great institutions is not work and effort and scorecards, but satisfying, elegant rest. Shall we pray?
Lord, we’ve chosen to be Christians because You have communicated Your acceptance of us. We know that You love us, and we give You our fumbling but honest prayers within the safety of that love. Please bless our marriages and our relationships here. Help us to experience oneness and pure intimacy as we learn to understand each other. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.
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