Monday, August 24, 2009

What Kind of Marriage Advice have You Heard?

I love my wife and I love finding ways to serve her as a husband ought. So I like to read material that has particular insight in this area. There are sundry articles entitled things like "Ten Things Your Husband Wants You To Know" or "What Your Wife "Really Needs From Her Husband". There are books by Christian and secular authors with all kinds of good or okay teaching and advice.

I've read enough of these that I have a categorization system for the advice and teachings I find. I have four categories, or echelons, of increasing insight. The first echelon comprises behavioral advice. The second echelon comprises emotional insight. The third echelon comprises instruction in worldly wisdom. The forth echelon consists of insight into spiritual wisdom. Interestingly, each one is predicated on the conditions of the echelons above it such that one must be spiritually wise in order to adequately evaluate worldly wisdom, a couple must be steeped in wisdom to meet each other's emotional needs, and a couple must practice meeting emotional needs in order to produce ideal behaviors.

The behavioral advice of the first echelon generally consists of the typical admonition to only have sex with whomever you are married to and be nice to each other. For many people this is the only echelon with which they are concerned, and even still they struggle with it. It's not enough to simply be told not to commit adultery. It's not enough to be told to be nice to each other, even though particular ways of doing this are iterated. So the commercial comes on the radio and you hear people telling how they have made their marriages better and I hear people say things like, "I talked to my wife on the phone from work and listened to her. She likes it when I listen."

The fact is that we each go through periods of bad behaviors. Ok, cheating on your spouse may be a deal breaker for most, but spouses may get grumpy or snap at each other. A fellow I know is married to a woman who is manic-depressive. Most of their married life is spent at odds with each other as a result. But the trust he has for her extends to the point of understanding that she doesn't really want to be the way she is. And her trust in him is an understanding that life with her is difficult and he sometimes gets upset as a result.

As for not cheating on your spouse or not being abusive, the only way to have self-control is to be spiritually wise. It's part of the gift of the Spirit. You won't want to do what's right if you aren't motivated by the Spirit. Otherwise, you are only motivated by the desire not to lose your spouse and that only lasts as long as you really want your spouse around.

The emotional insight of the second echelon usually contains therapeutic information with heavy doses of the author's personal experience as examples. Emotional insights focus on spouses being more sensitive to each other's emotional needs resulting in specific behaviors. For example, typical insights are for husbands to help their wives out around the house and listen to them without offering solutions because that's what women need. Wives are admonished to try to have more sex with their husbands and act like they admire them because that's what men need.

The insights here are typically not biblically found, but where there are biblical references, they are often contrived. I hate when I read otherwise good therapeutic insights from Christian counselors with attempts to back it up with biblical references that would be recognized as poor hermeneutics by any decent theologian. For example, Ephesians 5 doesn't instruct a wife to love her husband. This doesn't mean that she shouldn't love her husband and there's nothing in the text from which to reasonably extrapolate anything supporting the observation that most men are wired to yearn for the respect of their wives. Now it's good to observe that most men have some motivation in a marriage to be respected by their wives, but no Christian teacher should use a passage from the Bible just because he thinks he needs to find one to support an empirical observation. Sheesh.

Between the third and fourth echelons, I draw a distinction between worldly wisdom and spiritual wisdom. This is an important distinction, but without clarification, it may be lost on many people. Worldly wisdom is the wisdom of experience and practicality. It's the realm of common sense and is limited in its scope to the immediately observable. Worldly wisdom is not intrinsically bad, but not intrinsically good either. Worldly wisdom is passed along in humor where mixed motives serve to neutralize any impact of informing the attitudes of listeners. As such, these nuggets of "wisdom" can be apprehended by people with both good intentions and bad intentions.

This worldly wisdom of the third echelon can range in depth. On the lower end, a husband may make a comment dismissing his buddies when wife calls him by saying, "I better get this, the boss is calling." In the middle are such cute sayings like the old couple when asked if their marriage is "fifty-fifty" by smiling coyly and saying "seventy-thirty". You don't usually get much of an explanation as to what they mean by that. But on the upper end, you may get a serious author who seeks to enlighten couples that their "differences are meant to compliment each other." That they each have strengths and weaknesses and where one is weak, the strengths of the other exist to cover for them. No mention is generally made of the reasonable supposition that both may be strong or weak in some of the same areas. Nevertheless, it can be a fruitful teaching if the couple takes it and earnestly tries to work together as team as such, trusting each other's strengths and handling each other's weaknesses with grace.

The fourth echelon is lost on most people and most authors never truly address it. The reason is that they presume that if you read their book or article, that you already have some desire to work on your marriage and therefore already love your spouse on some level. They are content to leave it at that. But such is only a prelude to spiritual wisdom. Good marriages are predicated on Truth, but Truth is more than mere facts.

The cornerstone of all truth is the gospel itself and Christ himself is the Truth. This is why in Ephesians 5 Paul links marriage first and all human relationships to the gospel of Christ in his submission to meeting our need for salvation by his submission to death. The unity of the trinity is the submission of each person of the trinity to each other in such perfect unity as to demonstrate their absolute union: He is indeed one God and this is the love of God. Our created purpose is to demonstrate this love in communion with him as well as with our temporal relationships with each other.

This is my spiritual wisdom with regard to my wife, that I see her as God sees her. Christ gave himself for her while she was yet a sinner and the Holy Spirit now lives in her sanctifying her daily. It is therefore my purpose to cooperate with God with regard to the sanctification of my wife, building her up as a child of God and not tearing her down. Whether she returns the favor or not has no bearing on my submission to her spiritual needs, except that learning to similarly submit to my needs is a part of her sanctification, not that she should find frustration and discontentment in submitting to my needs, but that she should find fulfillment and satisfaction in it. This is spiritual wisdom.

Looking back, therefore, I could never have married a perfect woman. It's not that there really are such people who are perfect, but rather that too many people either unrepentantly believe that they need no forgiveness for anything or that they are caught up in the trappings of always appearing to be perfect. For perfection is to be complete, needing nothing. If I find fulfillment and satisfaction in meeting my wife's spiritual needs, then what use would a perfect woman have with me and how could a perfect woman give me any fulfillment? Likewise, my submission to my wife's needs also entails being able to be transparent with my own needs to her and vice versa.

Are you married? Do you consider yourself integral to your spouse's sanctification?

Are you single? Don't presume that you will find fulfillment in a perfect spouse, for we don't gain perfection aside from the cross of Christ.

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