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Fighting For Your Family

What Marriage Is, And Isn’t

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 26, 2013

Selected highlights from this sermon

Marriage is designed to reveal God and His relationship with His people, as the couple is unified as one flesh. The purpose and substance of marriage was determined and ordained by God. It is built upon fundamental commitments that, over time, develop honor, respect, and trust between husband and wife.

Possibly the most contested issue in our day is the marital covenant. In this message, Pastor Lutzer explains why we need the marital covenant: it protects the marriage, excluding both persons from utilizing an escape hatch.

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Someone has said that marriage is like flies on a screen door. Those that are in want out, and those that are out want in. [laughter] The question I have to ask you is why is it that so many people who get married with such good intentions end so disastrously? I’ve married many people. I don’t ever recall a couple saying, “Well, our intention is to have a miserable marriage.” But I have married some people who have had a miserable marriage. I have married some people [whose marriage] ended in divorce.

Twenty or more years ago, I flew from Chicago to Tokyo non-stop. If that jet plane had been off by one degree all the way to Tokyo, we wouldn’t have ended in Tokyo, we’d have ended somewhere else in another country just like those little birds that fly from one island and they nest there and then they fly back thousands of miles. One degree off and they’d miss those islands.

Today, what we’re going to do in this fourth message in a series entitled Fighting for Your Family, is we’re going to help you regroup. We’re going to help you with a new trajectory, a new focus, a mid-course correction, and we’re also going to answer the question: What is marriage? We’re going to talk about those who say, “Well, you know, we live together but we’re not married because what’s a piece of paper?” Well, today we’re going to find out exactly what a piece of paper is.

As I’ve been meditating on this, this past week, and I’ve had the advantage of thinking about it for several days, I’m convinced that if we went back to the beginning and looked at the Owner’s manual, the Creator’s manual, and if we followed what I’m going to share with you today, we would not have any divorces. That’s a very strong statement, but after all, God did create marriage for a purpose. There are certain requirements and we’ve missed them, and so we go in the general direction and we end up in a bad place.

As you know, each message has within it an assignment, which I will be giving you a little later on in the sermon because I fully intend that your life should be changed as a result of these sermons. It is not simply that you are hearing truth. I’ve been praying that you’ll hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. And some of you have come to this with all kinds of relational issues, and you may be thinking about divorce or are even in the middle of the divorce. Maybe it’s time for you to rethink what marriage is all about. And if you’re here and you’re single there’s going to be a word for you too. Thank you for coming on the journey.

The real purpose of marriage is to reveal God. It’s to make God look good. Unfortunately, many marriages don’t do that, but that was the original intention and if we want to go back to the beginning and read the Owner’s manual we have to turn once again to Genesis 2, where it’s all laid out for us. And I’m going to follow the outline in the Bible, and not the outline I originally thought I was going to use because, at the end of the day, I decided that God’s outline was better than mine so I always defer to Him. In fact, all that we’re going to look at is one verse, and all of its implications, and then at the end, we’re going to be pouring grace into your soul. It’s going to be laced with grace. It’s going to be laced with hope, but you have to stay with me on this journey.

Well, I don’t know that I even have to read Genesis 2:24 because we all know it by memory. You remember Adam, of course, is created and everything is good, but it was not good for man to be alone. And so God creates a helpmeet. We’ve been here before in this passage. Adam names his wife, which shows the order of responsibility and role within the marriage, but then we get to verse 24. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother,” and then my translation says, “hold fast” but I like the old King James here, “cleave to his wife and they shall become one flesh.” All that today for a life-transforming marriage.

What I want to do is to give you three or four commitments that you make when you are married, and then we’ll understand the implications and why it is that sometimes people get married and they shouldn’t. I think this passage would prevent some weddings. And by the way, I’ve prevented some weddings. I won’t tell you all the details. I think I mentioned this several years ago, but our staff is not only committed to having good weddings but preventing some if they can see danger up ahead.

Well, are you ready for the commitment?

Number one: Therefore a man will leave father and mother. What that means is that marriage creates a sacred space where faithfulness can be demonstrated and where loyalty is now transferred from mother and father to the spouse. This loyalty is very strong and this couple creates this space, and they no longer look to Mommy and Daddy for guidance and direction, and are always still committed to the loyalty that they have to their family ties. It is not just geographical. You leave and you decide to live in San Francisco or somewhere else. But you know there are people who leave geographically, but they don’t leave psychologically. This has to do with a fundamental psychological commitment to leave father and mother. That doesn’t mean that father and mother aren’t involved. I’m glad that doesn’t mean that. Rebecca and I have the privilege of having eight beautiful grandchildren and we’re always invited to take care of them and to have an input into their lives, but the loyalty is to your wife, and the wife to her husband. They are the ones who make the decisions. They’re the ones who run the home according to their specifications, and that’s what it means to leave.

Now I am going to speak to you plainly today. I hope I always speak plainly. I don’t want to be like that politician who left a political rally who said, “I hope that in the excitement I didn’t happen to make myself clear about anything.” I like to be clear.

There are some parents who are control freaks, and they control by manipulation and by guilt. Like one woman said, “You know, my mother owns the Midwest distributorship of guilt.” And so they control by guilt, by manipulation, by shame, even verbally, and they want to continue that control after you are married. If you let them do that, you have not left father and mother.

I remember counseling a guy who said, “My mother wants to break up my marriage.” He said, “We have a happy marriage but she begins to meddle, she begins to talk, she begins to say things and interfere and even lies and manipulates.” I told him, “You have to have boundaries here. And you even have to say, in this case, ‘Mother, you cannot come and visit your grandchildren.’” And the reason for that is because this mother created chaos. Now there are some people who live with chaos. They cannot live without chaos, so they distribute it wherever they go. No wife should ever have to doubt whether her husband’s loyalty is to her and not his parents. 

It’s interesting that the command is not given to the woman. It is given to the man. The Bible is so accurate. It’s also true of human nature. As I have observed marriages, I’ve noticed that so often it is the man who is tied to his parents. The wife is more submissive in terms of the leadership that is given by her husband, but it is oftentimes the man. I mean I’ve heard stories about a man on his honeymoon calling his mother every day, and lots of other stories like that.

It is Dan Allender who wrote, “We can honor our own mother and our father only if we have first created the proper boundary to serve and protect our spouse.” You leave father and mother.

Do you know what you also leave? You also leave past attachments. You don’t look up that wonderful girl you dated in college on Facebook just to see what she’s up to, and begin to fantasize of how much better it would have been if you had married her. I’m speaking here plainly because counselors will tell you that Facebook is the chief way in which divorces now happen. Because of bonding, oftentimes sexual bonding, you have people going back, and they have trouble in their marriage and they are beginning to fantasize about “If only I had married my college sweetheart how wonderfully we would have lived.” When you walk down that aisle to the altar, all the ghosts are left behind and you break all those ties, including pornography, which is a commitment many people have and it’s an addiction we’ve talked about in different contexts. But the fact is that all the things that intrude upon the one-man/one-woman relationship and building a sacred space where there can be faithfulness and trust—all those relationships have to be laid aside.

Now I’m not saying you have to be perfect before you get married, or else you know what the conclusion to that is: None of us would be married today. But I also have to tell you that the courting period is one of the most deceptive periods of time you will ever go through on both sides of the ledger because everybody is at his best, and “Oh yeah, I really do enjoy football because you enjoy football; yeah, I really do.” [laughter] That’s why getting married is something like getting a phone call in the middle of the night. First of all, you get a ring and then you wake up. Okay? [laughter] And you discover there’s a lot more. The baggage car arrives after marriage and not before. And unless you take care of some of those ghosts, it’ll haunt you.

All right, the first thing is to leave. If you are not willing to leave, then don’t get married. 

Cleave. Cleave to your wife. I’m thinking of Velcro at this point. Cleave to your wife. In other words what you are saying is, “In all the world, I am honoring and committed to you.” Or alternately the wife says, “I am committed and honoring you.” Think of all the problems that would be taken care of if we simply left and cleft. I know there isn’t a word like cleft, but we’re in a good mood today. We can make up some words as we go along.

The cleaving part means that trust is now being built, to quote the words of Dan Allender again, “through many acts of faithfulness.” No marriage can ever be happy without trust. It is central to the marriage. In fact, Allender says, “A marriage without trust is an empty well. It promises satisfaction but it never delivers.” You must be able to safely trust in your mate and once that trust is lost, it has to be regained often over a period of time. And then Dan Allender says, “Trust is earned over a lifetime through small moments of faithfulness.” 

You also learn patience. You learn to accept one another. You know all those differences you intended to see— listen, the person that you will live with is the same person he was before you married him. Going down the aisle doesn’t change anybody. Ladies, especially, you need to know this. If he’s an addict before you marry him, he’ll be an addict after you marry him. 

You know, we may smile at the woman who says that on her wedding day she thinks of three things. She thinks of the aisle, walking down the aisle. Then she thinks of the altar, and then of course, she thinks of him. But actually it’s “I’ll alter him.” [laughter] Lady, let me look into your eyes. Can you see mine from where you are seated? You won’t. You won’t.

And as a result of that, of course, people have to learn to accept their differences and you have to begin to see that is where God births patience in our hearts. That’s where God begins to birth sanctification because here you have somebody who is very different from you. And the things that attracted you, that you thought were so cute, you can’t stand now. Cleave to your wife. Endure and you’ll get huge payback. You really will, and I’ll give you some examples of that in just a moment.

Well, the next thing I want to speak about, which isn’t in the text but is clearly implied here and elsewhere in Scripture, is the covenant. There are people who say, “Well, why should I have a covenant? Why this oath? You know this leaving all others, and cleaving only to each other?” I was here at a wedding yesterday. It was nice to be at a wedding that I wasn’t officiating at just to see how other people do it, but you know the vows are essentially the same: for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. 

By the way, the next message in this series is on money, so I’ve entitled it “Till Debt Do Us Part.” So you be sure to be here for that. But the point is, “What’s a piece of paper anyway? Let’s just live together.” Oh really? 

A number of years ago my wife and I bought a house. We were reputable people. We bought it from reputable people. Why do we even sign anything? Why don’t we just shake hands and say, “Okay, we’ll pay you this much and you give us the title and sign it over because what’s a piece of paper anyway?”

Well, that’s not the way it was. We had an attorney; they had an attorney. We spent about an hour signing documents that we could scarcely understand, but we signed them anyway. Why? Because everybody knows that after you’ve made the deal, you might have buyer’s remorse, and you might say to yourself, “I didn’t know that the roof leaks. I didn’t know that there were termites in the attic. I didn’t know that the windows don’t close properly, and we’re going [to have to] get new windows.” Furthermore you drive down the street, and two blocks away there is this house that you always admired but you never bought it, and now suddenly there’s a “for sale” sign on it, and you say to yourself, “Oh now what do I do?”

Well, you know life is tough. You signed the documents and what you are going to have to do is fix the roof and you are going to have to take care of the termites and you might have to get new windows, but in the process, God is going to develop you, and furthermore, you know that house down the street that you liked so much? Please be advised that actually you didn’t know, did you, but that house has a basement that is going to collapse within six months? You’re lucky, if I might use that word, you’re lucky you didn’t buy that other house. But you don’t know that, so you fantasize as to what it would have been if only you had someone better, and now you have buyer’s remorse and you don’t know where to go with it.

You know, of course, it is true that fantasy may only be a fantasy. Do you remember years ago I told you a story about a man who was walking through a psych ward? And he got to the first room and there was a man banging his head against a padded cell? And he said to the manager, “What’s his problem?” And the manager said, “Well, he was madly in love with Matilda, and Matilda jilted him and he can’t handle it, so all day long he just bangs his head against the wall and says, “Matilda, how could you do it? Matilda, how could you do it?”

When they got to the end of the aisle they noticed there was another man in a padded cell banging his head against the wall saying, “Matilda, how could you do it?” And the man said, “What’s his problem?” And the manager said, “Well, he’s the one who married Matilda.” [laughter]The minute you begin to have fantasies about what could have been, you are on very, very dangerous ground. So now there’s this couple that says, “Well, we don’t need that piece of paper.” Mixed messages are being sent. On the one hand there’s the message, “I love you so much I want to be with you.” On the other hand, another message is being sent, namely, “But I want to keep an escape hatch; I want to make sure I can get out of this without a lot of trouble, just in case you and I can’t work it out.”

Now let’s go on to the next thing the Bible mentions, and the implications of that reasoning will be even more clear. He says, “Leave father and mother, be joined together and they shall become one flesh.” Now we come to a very, very mysterious teaching in the Bible, and I don’t have time to go into it except to say that the one-flesh relationship is to mirror God. In fact, Paul says in the book of Ephesians that men are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. The marriage is to mirror Jesus Christ’s relationship to the church, and it’s not as if the apostle Paul thought, “I need an illustration for loving Christ and Christ’s relationship to the church. Let me use marriage.” The intention of marriage is to mirror God, and the oneness that comes through sexual intimacy is not just a physical, biological experience. It is really a metaphysical experience. In fact, the apostle Paul says that even if you have a relationship with a prostitute where there is no commitment, no love, nothing—just raw lust—he says, “You’re already one body.” Wow.

The implications of that which I’ve preached on in previous times are huge. It’s the most important verse in the entire Bible. It teaches you more about sexuality than all the books on the shelves of our bookstores right there. God says you become one flesh: body, soul, and spirit. But if you do it without a covenant, if you do it without commitment, you are really involved in a one-flesh relationship, but you aren’t married, and furthermore, it is an unholy relationship. The only holy relationship is the relationship you have by the protection of the covenant, a relationship that is totally and completely dependent upon this covenant.

And by the way, I was going to give you an illustration of Robertson McQuilkin regarding the covenant. His wife, Muriel, had Alzheimer’s. And he decided to resign the presidency of Columbia College of the Bible just to take care of her fulltime. The Board said, “No, we need you there. You can always hire someone else to take care of her. In fact, she won’t know who is taking care of her anyway.” But he said it was no decision at all. He said it was very clear. “I had made the promise ‘till death to us part,’” and he said he would take care of her and he did till she died years later.

Could I give you just a line of what he said? He said, “As I watch her descend into oblivion, Muriel is the joy of my life. Daily I discern new manifestations of the kind of person she is, the wife I always loved. I also see fresh manifestations of God’s love and grace, the God I long to love more fully.” That’s what “till death do us part” means. That’s the covenant you make when you get married.

Now here’s this couple that says, “We don’t need that kind of a covenant so we can escape and get out of this.” And it is an unholy relationship. Two men together cannot be one flesh. Two women together in a sexual relationship cannot be one flesh. It is the man and it is the woman, brought together by God, as indicated here in this passage of Scripture, that become one flesh, and that means that their relationship is not just physical but metaphysical. In fact, you know that the word “one” that is used there is the word when God speaks about “one” for the oneness of the Trinity. 

And how do those relationships end—those unholy relationships? You see, people get it backwards. They think, “Well you know, we can have the one-flesh relationship here and we can be intimate, and then let’s work backwards. Then we can decide whether or not we want a covenant and whether or not we are going to leave and cleave.” Occasionally those kinds of marriages work out, but with huge difficulty. Why? Because those kinds of relationships are sown in the soil of deep disappointment, hurt, and mistrust. And almost always they end by blaming and by shaming. “It’s your fault. You talked me into it.” “No, it isn’t, but look at what you did.” And on and on it goes. Why? It’s because unholy relationships, while they have a sense of oneness, they are not blessed by God.

You see, it’s within the confines of the sacred space we call marriage, it is within those confines that you have the blessing of God. And that’s why it says in the book of Hebrews that the marriage bed is undefiled, but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge [see Hebrews 13:4]. God takes it very, very seriously.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, you were going to give us some hope.” I think it’s time for us to talk turkey in terms of where we go from here. Thank you so much for asking. I can already see it in your minds.

Folks, it’s not possible to have a better marriage until you have a better heart. That’s the key. You know, I could stand up here and I could tell you about five new ways to communicate and that would last for about two days, maybe till you get home, maybe it would carry over till tomorrow. But then you’d forget about it, and a day or two later, you’d be back where you were because we always go back to the default position. So oftentimes those kinds of changes are surface changes.

What kind of a heart [do we need] if we are going to have a good marriage? Remember, my desire is to help people with good marriages become better, and bad marriages to become good. First of all, you need a new heart. Even in the Old Testament it says, “A new heart I will give you. I’ll take from you the heart of stone.” Do you have, today, a heart of stone? You are angry and you believe you’ve been a victim of so much injustice that your heart is hard toward God, toward your mate, maybe even toward your family. And the Bible says, “A new heart I will give you.”

Now that’s the gospel. Jesus said, “Except you be born again you’ll not see the kingdom of God.” And it has to do with the fact that Jesus died on the cross, not just to take our sin away, but to make us new creatures. We are new creatures in Christ. There’s actually a miracle that takes place within us that is called the new birth. If you’ve not experienced that, you have never understood the wonder of God’s forgiveness. And you may like Christ, and you may even worship Christ in your own way, but in your heart of hearts, you’ve never been changed by God. And that comes with it: a change of desire. So cry up to God to receive the good gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. You and I need, first of all, a new heart.

Secondly, we need an honest heart. This is where it gets difficult. It’s possible to have a new heart, and you’re still not honest, so in your marriage relationship you have all of these ghosts that are never addressed. There are people who have been married for 25 or 30 years and they have never addressed all of the issues that divide them, so they methodically go through— they live together in the same house, they may connect in many ways occasionally, but they already know we don’t talk about the relatives here, we don’t talk about his father, we don’t talk about his mother, we don’t talk about her parents and the bad influence they have on her kids. We just don’t go there.

Couples, I want to tell you that you have to go there. If you want not only a one-soul relationship, but you want that relationship to spill over into a caring, sensitive, fulfilling relationship, you can’t pretend the past doesn’t exist. That’s why I’ve given you an assignment this week, couples. I’ll tell you what it’s going to be. I want you to get into a safe place, just the two of you, and I want you to discuss some of the questions that are there in the bulletin. And ask yourself to what extent have the relatives influenced us. To what extent have we not left father and mother, and what impact is that having on our family? Now there’s a good question to begin with. And if you can get through that one without a fight, then you can also go on to other questions. 

What influence do past relationships still have? What influence do certain habits have on our relationship that intrude on this sacred space that has been mapped out by God for the two of us? This is hard work, but it’s promising work, and God blesses it. 

And by the way, if you’re single and you are wondering what your assignment is, actually this one applies to the married people, too. Read 1 Thessalonians 4:1–8 and ask yourself the question, “What should those verses mean to me as a person struggling with sexual issues?” Wow. A stick of dynamite. So that is the assignment. For the married, there’s one set of questions, and for the single, another. But 1 Thessalonians 4 applies to all of us: married and single. And that’s where some of you need some help. You may need to go for counseling because you may not be able to deal with all these issues without some objectivity and help.

Next, you need a forgiving heart. If you can’t ask for forgiveness and then forgive those who ask you for forgiveness, don’t get married. At this point, just break it off. I remember saying to a couple who were getting married, and I don’t know that had I ever said this before, but they were having marriage counseling before they were married, and I said to the husband, “If your wife were in a tragic accident on your honeymoon and were a quadriplegic for the rest of her life, could you handle it?” He thought about that and said, “You know what? I’m not sure if I’m ready for marriage.”

Well, here’s another one. Do you remember that I told you years ago about Rebecca and me being at the airport in Minneapolis, and she was getting me a sandwich as she lovingly always does, always looking out for my needs. I wish I looked out for hers as well as she does for mine— but somebody was watching us. There was a woman just across the way at the terminal and she said, “You know, I noticed that the two of you get along very well.” And I thought, “Well thank God for that. That’s wonderful.” And then she said this. “I am going to be married soon. What advice do you have for me?” And you know, I’m looking around and thinking, “Oh, I’m a preacher. I should be able to answer this question.” [laughter] It’s the kind of thing that I’m supposed to be able to answer. Rebecca didn’t have to roll her eyes. Instantly she said, “Have the ability to forgive.” I thought, “Well, thank you, Rebecca. [laughter] I appreciate you so much. Considering who you live with, yeah, the ability to forgive.” 

If you are not quick to ask forgiveness for your wrongs and to humble yourself and then to receive other people’s forgiveness and grant them their forgiveness when they ask for it, I don’t see how this marriage can make progress. God wants us to change the way in which we live. Every marriage becoming better, and bad marriages becoming good, but oh, what He has to sometimes take us through before we get the message—the lowest depths.

Last week, I received a letter from a couple here at The Moody Church, and I received their permission to read parts of it to you. Obviously, I wouldn’t do it without their permission. It was a letter of thanks to the church, but you’ve got to hear this. He said, “My wife and I descended into what seemed like a bottomless pit. Worse than our marriage being in tatters was the condition we were in physically, mentally, and spiritually. One long year led to two long years, and two to three, and at that point it was too much to bear. I would say that we were like a man who was struggling to stay afloat without drowning, but we did go under and drown on many occasions. For a guy like me who likes to control and have a certain pride in playing my cards right, I can only describe the totality of our situation as an utter and complete train wreck. There was carnage everywhere and I was praying that God would take one or both of us from this planet to end the pain. By the grace of God, our loving, heavenly Father was there working all along. At first, perhaps not perceptibly, but over time as we persevered, and persevered a little more and a little more, God showed up. He showed up because we ceded to Him the proper authority He deserves. He showed up because we began to ask Him to deal with our own hearts rather than that of the other person.”

Do you realize what you are hearing today? Wow. 

“He showed up at 2:00 a.m. as we were singing hymns in our bedroom during a bout of demonic activity in our house.” 

And by the way, the devil wants your marriage to break up. 

“God showed up through the hands and feet of you and many others at Moody Church who diligently stayed close to us in prayer. I don’t know if there are other couples at Moody Church that have their own days of prayer and fasting but we did because we needed it. We needed a big God for our big problems, and He showed up in a big way. The other day I asked my wife if we have it as good as ever and she corrected me and said, ‘We have never had it this good. What we have now is much better.’”

Now they go on to point out they aren’t perfect, obviously. He says, “We do have fights, but they don’t escalate, [and they] end in genuine seeking of reconciliation.” And now catch this line. “Not only do we love each other, but we actually like each other as well. For a while, we neither loved nor respected each other, and now we do both. In fact God has even granted us a ministry.”

And then he goes on to thank all the people at The Moody Church. He mentions some specific names that I won’t name who stood with them, and then he ended it, “Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe. Sin has left a crimson stain. He (and then in parenthesis he adds the words ‘He really’) washed it white as snow.”

Did you all hear what God can do [applause] when He shows up in a marriage? I don’t know what God talked to you about today. Some of you have to receive Christ as Savior so that you might get a new heart. Some of you have to go home and you have to begin to listen like you’ve never listened before, without judging, just listen. You need to talk. You need to deal with these issues. Painful. Oh my, are they painful. But in the end, when there is reconciliation and forgiveness, it is all worthwhile. 

And then some of you have some huge forgiveness issues, but all of us need God to show up, and He is there if we are willing to pay the price of honesty and commitment. That’s what marriage is. Begin there.

Would you join me as we pray together? And even as we pray together, I am reminded of the last line of this letter. “Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe. Sin has left a crimson stain. He makes it white as snow.” Can you accept the fact that your first responsibility is to deal with God, and then after you have dealt with God, to deal with the issues. And we can’t do that here. You need to go home. You need to draw a circle around the two of you. You need some long talks.

Father, however imperfectly we have spoken today, my heart cries out for marriages that are so painful, so hurtful. Oh God, we pray that you might rescue them. Show up maybe at night, maybe during the day, but we ask, Father, that you will come and rescue. We thank you that no matter how dark it gets, you also throw us a rope. Oh Father, do that in our lives even as we sing together about your love. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen. 

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