Playing For KeepsDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | August 11, 2013
Selected highlights from this sermon
Happiness should not be our marital goal. Instead, holiness and fidelity should be at the forefront of our marriages. But can we love like God wants us to love? Can we be sacrificial like Christ, seeking the growth of our mates and honoring them above all others?
Let us put aside retaliation and self-justification, and begin to take responsibility for our sins, communicate with our spouses, and forgive them as Christ has forgiven us.
Well this is number ten in a series of messages entitled Fighting for Your Family. And for many of you, it may be the most important message of the series.
Because of the fact that marriage is so serious, and we know that when the fall happened (when man fell in the Garden of Eden), it affected marriage terribly and everything went wrong. And the fall still does the very same to us today. And because of the tension that exists in the marriage relationship, it has become a source of much humor. And I thought that before I begin this message, which is a very serious one that I hope will transform your life, maybe we could just relax and enjoy the fact that human nature is very interesting. So here we go.
First of all, I want to talk about the insensitivity of men. Ladies, if you say “amen,” say it quietly in your heart. There’s a story about a woman who said to her husband, “You know I love race cars. I can race them really fast here in Montana.” And she knew he had enough money to buy her one. She said, “When I wake up on my birthday, I want something on the driveway that I can make go from zero to a hundred and forty in eight seconds.” Well, she got up on her birthday, looked in the driveway, and on the driveway was a bathroom scale [laughter]. Funeral services for the husband are pending.
There was a woman who was looking into the mirror and she said, “I feel so awful about the way I look.” She said, “I’ve got weight issues. I’ve got lines on my face. My teeth are crooked. I look so awful.” She said to her husband, “Right now I need a compliment from you.” He said, “Well, dear, your eyesight is near perfect.” [laughter]
A man went to his pastor and said, “You know, my wife is trying to poison me.” The pastor said, “Oh no. I know your wife. She’s a nice woman. There’s no way she’s trying to poison you.” He said, “Pastor, there’s another side to her that you don’t know. Go talk to her.” The pastor came back later that afternoon and said to the man, “You know I just spent three and a half hours talking with your wife. I have some advice for you.” The man said, “What?” The pastor said, “Take the poison.” [laughter]
When we get married and we stand at the altar, we bring to that event the seeds of destroying any relationship. We bring to that event ourselves, the fact that we want to be the center of our own world. We long to be served and not to serve. We are selfish. We may be filled with anger. We may be filled with jealousy, expectations, uncertainties, and insecurities, and there we stand and we commit to one another “until death do us part.”
Somebody has said that getting married is taking the ego of a man and the vanity of a woman and putting them together in this intimate relationship, and it is like having heart surgery without an anesthetic. And so God puts them together and says, “Fight it out and enjoy.” It’s like somebody said, “For my birthday, somebody gave me a humidifier and somebody else gave me a dehumidifier, and I put them in the same room and just let them fight it out.”
I do believe this message is going to be transforming. I’ve been praying that couples on the verge of divorce, couples in trouble with their marriage are going to be changed because of this message. I really do believe that.
Rebecca asked me this morning how the message was coming along and I said, “If the Holy Spirit of God comes to open people’s minds and hearts, as I lay my own heart on the altar, so to speak, and as I plead with you regarding your marriage, I believe God can change your marriage no matter where you are at. And if you are in a good marriage, I believe this message will help all of us to make our good marriages better.
First of all, I’d like to deal with three lies that our culture gladly accepts. Lie number one is very clear: My happiness is number one; my happiness is most important. I had a man say to me one time, “Well, I’m unhappy in this marriage and I can’t believe God would want me to be unhappy.” What if Jesus had said that in Gethsemane? “I’m unhappy here in the garden, and I don’t believe the Father would want me to be unhappy, and going to the cross would make me very unhappy.”
My dear friend, very quickly, may I say that it is much more important to be holy than it is to be happy. And God put you in that marriage to make you holy, guaranteeing not happiness, but holiness, if you respond to it correctly.
The second lie of our culture is this: If you find the right person, you’ll really be fulfilled. What you need to do is to find your soul mate. So a married man at the water cooler meets a woman who just listens to him and just adores him, and he’s found his soul mate. Really? I remember a man in this church many, many years ago, who said, “I found an oasis; I was living in a desert and I found an oasis. And now you want me to go back to the desert?” He said this as many of us tried to convince him not to leave his wife and marry somebody else. But he chose the oasis and discovered that it was terribly poisonous. It would have been better if he just stayed right in the desert, actually.
You know, when we are in the period of romance. When we romance and when we are in romance, we are the most deceptive, lying people that we ever are in our lives because we put forth our best self. We have this shimmering image that we project, and then after we move in and we get married, we suddenly discover there’s a beep-beep and the movers move, and all of the baggage now gets unloaded. And here’s the baggage of anger, here’s the baggage of insecurity, here’s the baggage of high expectations, here’s the baggage of laziness. And after our mate’s baggage gets brought into the house, then ours comes. And there we are.
I tell young people today that it is very important to realize this—young people, write this down: It is possible for you to be madly in love with someone you should never marry. And that’s true of older people too, you could fall in love with somebody else’s wife.
The best poster child for recognizing that it’s possible to be in love with someone you should not marry is myself. You can put me up on the fridge and say, “He’s the poster child.” Before I met Rebecca, I was madly in love with this young woman, and I thank God today that I didn’t marry her. I might not be in ministry if I had married her. God wanted me to wait for Rebecca, and how glad I am I did, and that I recognized that feelings themselves and thinking you have found your soul mate could backfire.
There’s a third lie of our society: If I find my soul mate, I’m justified in breaking my vows. Like one person said, “Well, you know, even David got his Bathsheba.” I told him, “Yeah, David did get his Bathsheba and do you know what else happened? He wrecked his family and lost four sons, but yeah, he did get his Bathsheba.” The Bible says in Psalm 15, “Blessed is he who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”
You say, “I got married and now I have buyer’s remorse.” I know somebody who bought a vehicle and brought it into the garage, and the moment they did, they wished they could take it back. That’s buyer’s remorse. Maybe you think you didn’t marry the right one. Well, it’s not as important that you married the right one as it is that you be the right one—that you be a person of character.
You know it’s impossible for me to over-exaggerate the pain in this world because of divorce. A counselor was telling me how this couple divorced; this man ran off with his girlfriend. He’s living with his girlfriend, and so a divorce ensues, and now they have a little one-year-old girl, and he gets the little one-year-old on weekends. And so this mother attends a sporting event where her other son was involved, and she looks down and just in the rows ahead of her, there’s her ex-husband. There’s his girlfriend, playing mom to this little one-year-old. How much grief can a person endure anyway? I was reading something by somebody who does marriage counseling fulltime. He said that many people who divorce regret it later on because they underestimated the amount of pain, disruption, and heartache that would come to them if they were to divorce, and the soul mate turns out to be poisonous in the end anyway. There are two things that should never happen prematurely: One is embalming, and the other is to get a divorce.
Now with that introduction, what I’d like to do is to ask us to turn to the Bible for a moment, and thank you for catching on to that by the way. I debated whether or not it would float, but evidently it did.
Turn to Ephesians 5, because this is what we’re going to do. I’m going to give you three characteristics of the kind of love that we commit ourselves to when we get married. And then what I want to do is give you five principles of marriage that I hope are going to help you and keep some of you from divorce and help some of you who are in a loveless marriage to get a reboot and a restart.
Three characteristics, very quickly. And you know, as I was looking at this passage yesterday, I realized it would be worthy of several messages, but I’m simply picking out three different characteristics of love and commenting on them.
I’m going to begin in Ephesians 5:25. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” I’ll stop there. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church. How did Jesus love us? He loved us, the Bible says, even when we were His enemies. Jesus knew what it was to love us without being loved back, and then He died for us. Most wives say to themselves, “I don’t expect my husband to die for me (that’s very unlikely), but it would sure be nice if he helped with the vacuuming.” I thought I’d throw that in because I do help Rebecca with the vacuuming and I wanted to use some illustration that wouldn’t convict me too severely. [laughter]
And so that’s what the Bible says. Husbands, love your wives as Jesus loved the church. And dear wife, if you are in a loveless marriage, just know that you are positioned to be able to experience the kind of love that Jesus had, and for God to use your marriage as a laboratory where He is going to teach you about the love of God.
You know, I think of Jesus there with the woman at the well. She had five husbands, the one she was living with now was not her husband, and Jesus said to her that if she believed on Him, she would find within her a well of water springing up even into everlasting life. “If you become a worshiper of God,” Jesus said, “you’ll be number one on God’s list, even though you’ve had so many marriage failures, and the present man that you are now living with will not encourage you in your walk with God.”
So I encourage you ladies to get involved in the church, get involved in the family of God, but don’t give up even though life is very, very difficult. And the first thing we have to do is to recognize here that we have a kind of love that actually enables us to love even in a loveless relationship. And you say, “Well, that’s unrealistic.” Yes, it is unrealistic, but what if God poured His grace upon your life? What if God began to do in your own heart things that would be miraculous? The ability of God to work in the human heart should never be underestimated. This will become clear in a few moments as to the steps that you should take. So first of all, we should be sacrificial in our giving.
Secondly, we should be pure in our relationships—pure love. You’ll notice that Jesus gave Himself up for her “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
Husbands, this is God’s Holy Word. It is our responsibility to see to it that our wives are spiritually cleansed by the washing of water through the Word of God. In my opinion, this is one of the clearest references in the Bible to the fact that husbands have responsibility for spiritual leadership in the home. And we’ve talked about that in previous messages.
Oh, you say, “That’s an impossible thing. I’m not a Bible scholar. I’m not a Bible teacher.” Can you read the Word of God? Can you pray with your wife? Can you encourage her as the spiritual leader? If you want a happy marriage, there has to be a pure kind of love where there are no sensual attachments to other people. But let me ask you how you can experience the love of God and the pure love of God if the wife is reading romance novels, and if the husband is into pornography? It’s not possible. We’ll talk about that in a moment. So secondly, it should be a pure relationship.
Third, you should honor your mate. Husbands, the Bible says in verse 31, “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” You are to leave and to cleave.
I’ve had wives tell me, “My husband makes no major decision without first of all calling his mother. And he may or may not make reference to me, but he still has to be committed to his parents.” Do you realize how that devalues your wife? Do you realize how it makes her feel when you have not emotionally and spiritually left your parents? Do you realize how she feels if she is not number one in your life experience and in your relationships, and she is [not] above your family, even your children and your vocation? This is what the Bible says in 1 Peter 3:7. It says, “Husbands, love your wives in an understanding way,” and then it says, love her as one who is “the weaker vessel, as heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers be not hindered.”
You say, “Well, Pastor, long ago I’d given up on God and I’d given up on prayer.” Might it be that you are not dwelling with your wife in an understanding way, giving honor to her (That’s the phrase I missed.) as an heir together of the grace of life? Is that the way in which you treat your wife? If so, the Bible says that may be the reason why your prayers are hindered and are not answered. Would you honor her? Would you put her in a position where she knows she has your heart, and she has your honor because you let her know she’s number one here on Earth next to God?
Well now, what I’d like to do is to give you five principles. Years ago, I used to do marriage counseling. I don’t anymore because my staff is much better at it than I am. But as I was thinking about this message yesterday afternoon, the Lord laid on my heart some practical principles I think you should employ, no matter what kind of a marriage you are presently in. Would you open your heart to these principles? Those of you who are planning to be divorced, or you wish you were, or you think to yourself, “I’ve married the wrong one,” well, let me emphasize again that the one to whom you are married is now the one that God wants for you, and He has you where He wants you. And now the principles.
The first principle that I wrote down yesterday afternoon is the principle of God’s glory. If you are in pain in your marriage, the first question should not be, “How do I get out of this pain?” The first question should be, “How do I glorify God in the midst of this difficult relationship that seems to be going nowhere?” That’s question number one.
And so you really begin by giving your marriage to God and you desire His glory above your own happiness, above the situation—you desire the glory of God first. I always like to emphasize that there’s a big difference between committing your marriage to God, giving it over to God, and praying. I meet people all the time that say, “Well, you know I’m praying for him,” or “I’m praying for this situation.” It’s good to pray. And we want you to pray. And God brings us to desperation so that we do pray. But sometimes we can just pray without any faith.
I’ve discovered in my own life that when I commit something to God, sometimes it is so difficult to commit it to Him because now I know I can no longer manipulate the situation. I’m recognizing it’s out of my hands, and it is very difficult to give it to God. Why? It’s because I need faith to believe that it is in His hands and not my own. That’s what it means to commit your marriage and yourself to God.
Now furthermore, what this means in practical terms is that now you’re not going to live in retaliation. One of the great lessons we have to learn is that when we are sinned against, we should not sin in return. I’m using here the illustration of David who, when Saul threw a spear at him, didn’t say, “Oh, you threw that spear at me? Here’s one I’m throwing back.” David didn’t do that. He didn’t retaliate. Don’t retaliate. Why? “Vengeance is mine. I will recompense,” says the Lord. If you’ve given your marriage over to God, it is now His responsibility because all that really matters is His glory. At the end of the day, nothing else really matters—the principle of God’s glory.
Secondly, the principle of self-examination. We live in a culture that is filled with woundedness—woundology. And of course we live in such a culture because of the brokenness of the home, because of abuse, sexual immorality, and molestation...the list is long. Now as a result of that woundedness, which I recognize is very serious, people bring to their marriage all kinds of issues, all kinds of baggage I mentioned before, that they aren’t really willing to deal with. And the reason they aren’t, is because they reason in their mind, “Considering the way in which I was treated, I have every right to be angry. I have every right to be angry with my husband. I have every right to expect his complete affection. I have every right to be jealous.” And on and on it goes. And so, as a result of those wounds, what people are really saying is, “I want you to heal my wound. That’s why I married you. I want you to heal my wound, but if you touch it, I will scream and holler and make this the most miserable marriage you have ever possibly imagined.”
You know, I know. The reason I prayed about this message so much and gave it over to God is because I know human nature. I know my own heart. There are things in our lives we will never admit to unless God shows us. Until that time, we are fully justified. In fact, some of you, for whom this particular point is intended, right now are missing it because in your mind, you are saying, “I’m justified to be who I am. Look at the way in which he acts,” or “Look at the way in which she treats me. I have a right to be angry. I have a right to resentment. Look at the way in which life treated me, and I have entitlement considering what I have been through.”
Folks, if you don’t see that in your life and deeply repent, your marriage is always going to be in difficulty. There will always be obstacles to harmony. So the second principle is the principle of self-examination.
The third is one of individual responsibility. I spoke earlier about the fact that there are wives who come to me and have said, “You know, my husband is into pornography. What do I do?” I have a couple of comments. First of all, be assured of this: Nobody who does not want to be fixed can be fixed. If your husband doesn’t want to be fixed, most assuredly, you can’t fix him, and you can’t even contribute to his fixing (if I can put it that way), because if he doesn’t want to be fixed, he won’t be.
And now I am speaking to the wives, though it could be the other way around—you understand that when I preach this, it could be flipped, it could be the wife versus the husband, or the husband versus the wife. But the simple fact is that everyone who is addicted has one agenda and that is this: He wants to continue on in the way in which he is living without interruption and with a minimal amount of problems and hassles. That’s his great desire.
Now, what you have to do is to help him to own his own stuff, to use an expression. Because you can’t own his stuff for him, nor should you cover for him. What you have to do is to help him to understand that unless there are positive changes and accountability, not to just you but to others, that you will expose him, that you will not allow this to go on in your home. And particularly if it is an addiction, if it is abuse, you are not going to lie for him, you are not going to cheat for him. Why? It’s because you love him too much to contribute to his particular lifestyle. It must be confronted and exposed.
And so what we must do as individuals is to realize that it is so important for us to take responsibility. Alcoholics, stop blaming your employer. Stop blaming your wife. Stop blaming your parents. Stop blaming whoever you’re blaming, because I know something about the characteristics of such people. Stop blaming and take responsibility and say, “I am responsible for my attitude, for my actions; what I am doing, I resolve to own my stuff.” Would you do that please?
Number four. This is critical—the principle of communication. Years ago when I did marriage counseling, I used to say to the couple that would be in my office, “Now I want you to write down all of the faults and the problems of your mate. Here’s a sheet of paper.” Some people would say, “One sheet of paper? I need the whole notepad.” Okay. “Just one pen? It might run out of ink.” They would write and write and write...it would come like from the pen of a mighty writer.
Then I would say, “All right, now what I want you to do is to write your own faults. Here’s another sheet of paper.” “Oh let’s see, well, you know, I guess I did lose my temper one time and yeah, it’s true I hit her, but not very hard.”
My friend, do you see the problem? Do you see how we can see other people’s faults with 20/20 vision and we ourselves can be filled with pride and anger and self-serving and all those things, and we are as blind as a brick on the wall to see it. Communication.
I find it incredible to think that there are some parents who think that the way in which they really should raise their families is to be super-critical of everybody. So you have a wife who is super-critical of her husband, a husband who is super-critical of his wife, and they even bring up the children that way. Constantly, these children are making mistakes. They can’t obey. No matter what they do, it’s wrong. My friend, do you realize how you are destroying any possibility of a relationship?
Do you remember that story I told you about a counselor (an attorney) who said to a man who wanted to divorce his wife and said he hated her, “In order to make sure you really hurt her, because you do want to hurt her, why don’t you, just for one month, always say kind things, encourage her, thank her for whatever she does for you, and just don’t say a single negative thing. Then she’s going to think you really love her and so forth, so you are going to set her up and then you are really going to shove the sword in her heart by handing her divorce papers.”
The man said, “Well, since I’m getting rid of her in a month anyway, I guess I can try the experiment.” So all that he did was praise her and thank her for everything. In any area in which he wanted her to improve he would always say, “You know, this is really great.” Instead of coming home and looking at what was in the frying pan, and sarcastically suggesting that it was an unidentified frying object, he now spoke words of love and compassion. Well, you know the rest of the story. Of course, within a month, they had a second honeymoon. The words that come out of our mouths.
Now something else that is so critical in a relationship is listening. You must talk to each other and you must listen. I know I have problems with that. I think all of us as men do—to listen. One woman said to me, “My husband won’t talk to me. He sits there like the great stone face.” Yeah, I understand. I wonder why he doesn’t talk to you. I’ll bet...Wait a moment. I’m the pastor. I venture to say [laughter] that he probably talks to his friends. He probably talks to them very freely and tells them about everything going on in his life, and he gets home and he won’t talk to his wife? I have a suspicion as to why he doesn’t. It’s because he fears being judged. He thinks to himself, “She’s going to shame me. She’s going to blame me. She’s going to ask what kind of a person I am to have these kinds of struggles.”
Wives, would you be able to handle it if your husband ever became so honest with you that he honestly told you the struggles he’s going through with lust and maybe pornography? Could you handle it or would you just simply say, as one wife did that I know about, “What kind of a pervert are you?” Well, that really took care of that relationship. That was the last time he would ever talk to his wife about anything that was personal.
If your husband begins to talk to you, you need to enter into his world and realize that this talk, no matter how hard it is, is really bringing about healing. You have to be at his side.
I know of a situation in which a wife had to confess to her husband that she was unfaithful to the relationship with another man. The Holy Spirit worked in her heart and she knew she had to come clean on that, and she did. And later on, I heard that they talked from evening all the way to four o’clock in the morning, and as she spilled out her heart to him, he in turn spilled out his heart to her. And they said later, it was the first time they really connected soul to soul. Honesty in the relationship, in the communication.
Number five is the principle of forgiveness. This is a huge topic and I preached on it before in more detail. One writer says, “Couples don’t fall out of love, but they fall out of repentance.” The ability to forgive.
Now there’s a kind of reconciliation that forgiveness sometimes brings about, and then there’s the kind of forgiveness where there is no reconciliation. I’ve spoken about that kind of forgiveness, too. Because remember whatever you don’t forgive, you pass on. If you are an angry mother, your children grow up angry. If you are a person who is violent in terms of the way in which you deal with issues, you pass that on. So what you need to do is to go through this matter of forgiveness. And now we’re really at the heart of the gospel, aren’t we? Because the gospel is the message of forgiveness. The gospel says that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, and if we receive Him as Savior, we are forgiven, we are accepted by God, we become God’s children, His daughters and His sons, and God now loves us unconditionally. That unconditional love is not given to everyone. It is given to those who are the sons and the daughters of God, and now we have the privilege of knowing that, no matter how badly we mess up, no matter what kind of a past we’ve had, no matter what kind of mistakes we’ve made, no matter all of the scars we bring to the relationship because of the way in which we lived before marriage, regardless of all that, now we have a heavenly Father who goes on loving us, accepting us, caring for us all the way through. And that gives us the stability to be able to forgive others, to be able to move on in our relationships, and to grow in our love for one another. It is all there in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Which leads me to say that, if you’ve never received Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you’re listening to this and God is a stranger to you, He becomes your Father if you believe on Him, and believe that the Lord Jesus Christ died for sinners, and because of that death, we can be saved, forgiven, and welcomed into heaven.
There is a story I’d like to tell you about a man whose name is John Barger. This is taken from the book Sacred Marriage. I have no clue who this man is but he says, “My relatives grew up on the streets during the depression, learning the fury and scorn that characterizes so many people in dire circumstances, drinking, seeing women, etc.” He said, “As a result, I swaggered through marriage for many years, ruling my wife, Susan, and my seven children with an iron hand, while citing Scripture as justification for my privileges and authority. Years of dominating my wife and children left them habitually resentful, even fearful of me, unwilling to challenge me because of the fury it might provoke. I alienated my wife and my children and lost their love. Home was not a pleasant place to be either for me or for them. Susan would have walked out of the marriage were it not for the fact that we had children.”
Then he said, “A number of dramatic events occurred which wrought a profound change in my moral, psychological, and spiritual life.” And they were trials. I mean it was a stillborn baby. It was just one trial after another pounded on this man until he submitted himself to God. He said, “In the midst of these many afflictions, I found that the only way that I could learn to love and to cease being the cause of pain was to suffer, to endure, to strive every moment to repudiate my anger, my resentment, my scorn, my jealousy, my lust, my pride, and dozens of other vices. I started admitting my faults and apologizing for them.”
Now men, get this. “I quit defending myself when I was judged too harshly, for the important thing was not to be right or well thought of, but to love. It took three years of patience, listening, and growing in Susan’s trust; hundreds of hours talking until Susan’s anger dissipated. She became loving, trusting, and caring.”
Well, the rest of the story is that Susan had terminal cancer. He cared for her in the last months of her life, and later on he said he had the memory that he had experienced something that few couples do—true soul-deep companionship. God brought it about. It can’t happen without brokenness. It can’t happen unless we give up our right to always be right. As long as we still have our right to be served and the feeling that our anger is fully justified considering all that has happened to us, we can’t have that soul-deep companionship that comes only with honesty, with taking personal responsibility, and saying, “With God’s grace this marriage can make it.” Do you agree that with God’s grace, the marriage can make it? [applause]
Some of you should go home and have a long honest talk, accepting each other, connecting your souls and saying, “By God’s grace, we don’t have to divorce. We don’t have to live this way in a loveless relationship. We can have true companionship,” which is after all exactly what God intended.
Would you join me as we pray?
Our Father, however imperfectly this message was preached, we pray today that you might work in the hearts of many couples, some of whom may be in a relationship frayed with anger and resentment and mistrust. Come to us, Lord Jesus, and show your glory in the midst of our marriages. Overcome the bitterness. May there be forgiveness. May there be understanding. May trust be rebuilt, we pray.
For those who have never accepted Christ as Savior, may they do so today, knowing that they, too, can know they are loved no matter what.
And now before I close this prayer, I am talking to you, the congregation, and all who are listening. If God has talked to you, would you talk to Him right now? Would you tell Him what He has spoken to you about, and by His grace, would you agree to be obedient? You tell Him that right now.
Help us, O Father. Come to us in our need. Show us our selfishness. May grace be poured out upon our marriages and our families—abundant, matchless, radical grace because we need it. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.