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I lost my sister in January. She was 33. Those are nine words I never imagined myself writing at this stage in life. They’re the words you write after you’re retired, after you’ve lived a very full life, the words you write in the sunset of your life, not at high noon.Read More
Luke and Tina sat across from me and my wife and asked the question: “What’s your best piece of advice for marriage?” They were fresh out of college and their wedding was fast-approaching. Their question is a common one, but it’s also a tough one. We get it a lot from members in our small group who are newlyweds or when we do pre-marital counseling, like we were with Luke and Tina.
I wish I could give a quick, simple answer. But I can’t.
In fact, I find it better to sometimes talk about what something ISN’T instead of what it IS. Here’s what I mean: marriages are made up of two, unique sinners that have their struggles. The “best piece of advice” for one couple, might not be what another needs to hear. BUT, I think if we talk about those things that can destroy marriages — what marriages should avoid — those are more universal principles that can help all marriages.
That’s how I want to answer the question.
So as my wife and I have counseled others, walked through marriages that suffered from infidelity, and sought counsel for our own relationship, here are the three things that I think you should avoid with fervor in your marriage.
I recently heard someone call selfishness the “mother problem.” It’s so true. And it’s backed by the Bible: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” Every is a strong word, but it’s there for a reason.
Dennis and Barbara Rainey from the well-respected marriage organization Family Life put it like this: “Selfishness is possibly the most dangerous threat to oneness in marriage. It affects how we talk to each other, how we divide responsibilities in the home, how we resolve conflicts, and even how we spend our time.”
This has been so true in my marriage. Recently, after a very busy week of work, I wanted to take the weekend “for myself.” I wasn’t looking to be a hermit, but I did treat the weekend like I “deserved” some “me time.” Of course, I didn’t communicate any of this (in a healthy way) to my wife. I just started acting like it. So when she asked me to do some projects around the house, I quickly became annoyed: “I’ve been working hard all week,” I told myself. “It’s only fair that I get to do what I want.” Needless to say, it wasn’t soon before an argument ensued.
You know what the conclusion was? I was being selfish. What if my wife took the same approach? She had been working hard all week, too. What if she just decided to have “me time,” didn’t communicate with me, and walked around entitled all weekend? I don’t think I have to answer that question.
In other words, if my marriage is like a bucket and my wife and I are both pouring ourselves into that bucket, we’ll always have water. We won’t be thirsty. But if we’re both taking from that bucket, the water runs dry quickly and dehydration sets in. And likewise, if one person is pouring water in, and the other is taking water out, you never get a full bucket.
Don’t let marriage dehydration set in. By modeling Christ’s sacrificial love and constantly looking for ways to serve, you’ll find quickly that you’re getting a lot more joy and a lot more “me time” than if you approach it in an entitled way.
One of the most beautiful moments in my marriage happened four years ago when I confided in my wife about something I had been needing to tell her for seven years. It was tough, there were tears, and there was pain. But by the end of the night, she told me something that still makes me emotional: “I forgive you.”
Chelsea Cameron has said (and I paraphrase) that we are never more like Christ than when we are forgiving. That was true that night with me and my wife.
Let me add this: Forgiveness is not just a set of words. Forgiveness isn’t as much something you say, but rather something you live out. My wife’s forgiveness didn’t begin and end that night. She has proved to me, in ways I could never imagine, that she forgives me. And even when I continue to mess up in many areas of my life, she lives out Luke 17:3-4.
Why? Because unforgiveness is an internal destroyer. Unforgiveness does more damage to you than it does to others. Sure, it still affects those around you, but the internal destruction is far more devastating than the external.
“One way to lose heaven is to hold fast to an unforgiving spirit and so prove that we have never been indwelt by the Spirit of Christ,” says John Piper.
Paul Tripp talks about how unforgiveness is a dark, evil tool that we use to turn people into “debtors” and demand what is owed to us.
“This is nasty stuff. It is a relational lifestyle driven by ugly selfishness,” he says. “It is motivated by what we want, what we think we need, and by what we feel. It has nothing to do with a desire to please God with the way we live with one another, and it surely has nothing to do with what it means to love others in the midst of their struggle to live God’s way in this broken world.”
What kind of life is that?
There’s a fairy tale in Christian circles that I think needs to be destroyed. It’s a lie. And it’s a lie that a lot of us fathers are guilty of telling our daughters. It involves convincing our children that there is “the one” out there. In fact, we tell them to make a list of all the characteristics this “one” should and will possess. And then we tell them to wait for that person, and when they find the person that checks all those boxes, you’ve found your soulmate.
It’s a downright, destructive lie. I’ve talked about this before in-depth. Here’s why it’s destructive: Because it creates a set of expectations that are impossible to live up to. And those expectations can ruin a marriage, especially when they are unspoken.
Your husband or wife is not and will never be a perfect person. The world has only ever seen one of those, and He doesn’t share your last name. And according to Liz Wann, the Devil uses these unmet expectations to drive a wedge between you and your spouse:
Satan wants us to think marriage is about fulfilling our unmet needs and desires, living the dream sold in romance novels, checking off a box, or finally getting our lives together. He’s slowly, gently rocking us into an apathetic sleep, so that we’ll settle for less. We must wake up and see how our unrealistic expectations set the bar way too low. Our desires are too small when we place ultimate hope in our husband or marriage itself. Our expectations should rise as God uses our unmet expectations — and the resulting disappointment and hurt — to drive us to himself. Marriage is a road that brings us to the greater destination: God himself.
Here’s the irony: These expectations can also take the form of unrealistic standards we set for ourselves.
Dennis Rainey calls these expectations “phantoms” and warns: “Phantoms are an unattainable standard by which we measure our performances, abilities, looks and characters, and they can derail marriages.”
He continues: “Within your mind you have a picture of how you should act as a husband or wife, father or mother. And chances are this image is so perfect, so idyllic, that it is completely unattainable.”
You know what you should expect in marriage? That it’s going to be hard. That you’re going to have to fight for it. That God is going to use it to refine you, transform the world, and bring Him glory. And through that process you find something so much better than temporary happiness, you find joy.
These three things are just as prevalent in seasoned marriages as they are in new ones. In fact, I think sometimes it’s the couples that have been together for a while that can be more susceptible to letting these marriage-killers creep in. But here’s the good news: Even if they’ve taken over your marriage, even if you have dubbed your marriage lifeless, there is still hope! It’s never too late to make a decision to change. There are resources out there to help you.
You will go through droughts in your marriage. But that’s normal. It’s really about what you do to find the water that’s important.
“If the old fairy-tale ending ‘They lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,’ then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were,” C.S. Lewis writes.
“Love […] is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God.”
That’s the kind of love that Christ modeled and that can save a marriage.
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This is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.
I’ve learned something about addiction recovery: It’s rarely a fairytale and it’s almost never linear.
Ten years ago I embarked on a difficult journey involving forgiving my crack-addict sister, Jenny. She made life growing up for me and my family sheer hell. And it took something, and someone (mainly God), outside of myself to do it. But that’s not where the story ends. I thought it did at the time. I thought my sister and I were only going to improve on the relationship we rekindled back then. For a while that happened. But the truth is, some of the worst was yet to come, and I would need to constantly remind myself of the commitment I made to forgive her.
I can still remember my mom crying about the decision. She was so torn up, so heartbroken. And while it had to be done, it’s a decision no parent should ever have to make. And a decision that now that I’m a parent gives me anxiety just thinking about.
That decision? Turn your own daughter in to the police in hopes of saving her life.
See, during the height of my sister’s cocaine addiction she would do anything to pay for dope. That included selling herself and also dancing at a local strip club. She had stolen things, too. One day, she took my parents’ checkbook and began writing bad checks.
When my mom figured it out, it was devastating. That’s when the decision came: Turn her in, have her face a felony, but end the destructive cycle, or let her off the hook, keep her out of jail, but let her keep killing herself.
That’s when the decision came: Turn her in, have her face a felony, but end the destructive cycle, or let her off the hook, keep her out of jail, but let her keep killing herself.
Mom chose to turn her in.
That’s the end, right? In the movie version, Jenny gets a wake-up call and realizes she can’t keep going. She has two kids and while initially she can’t believe her own mother turned her in to the police, she thanks her once she sobers up.
The judge in Jenny’s case went light on her. (And if you’ve watched the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” you know how surprising that is, considering my family is from that same town and Jenny faced both judges that “star” in the documentary.) She got a differed sentence and probation: If she could stay out of trouble and away from drugs for a certain amount of time, the felony check charge would go away.
She stayed out of trouble for a bit. But eventually, she fell right back into the habits that were tearing her and us apart. I think it was my brother who called and told me the news. I’m not sure how soon it was after her probation, but it wasn’t too long.
“Well, Jenny’s in jail.”
“What?” I said.
She had violated her probation. Not long after that, I returned home for a visit. I took Jenny’s two kids to the jail with my parents so she could see them. It’s exactly like the movies: A long line of stools, zero privacy, bullet proof glass, and inmates in orange jumpsuites. But what the movies can’t capture is the oppressive depression and gloom that hangs over both sides of the glass. It’s thick. I can still transport myself there and feel it. There were kids, so many kids, running through the visiting room. But their laughter and voices did the opposite of bring joy. Instead, it added a sense of sadness; it was a reminder of what the inmates were missing.
Conversations through a jail phone are like no other conversations I’ve ever experienced. The person is a foot away from you, but yet you’re miles apart.
Conversations through a jail phone are like no other conversations I’ve ever experienced. The person is a foot away from you, but yet you’re miles apart. The interaction is cold and stale because everyone has an elephant in the room they can’t talk about. See, because the conversations are recorded, no one really talks about why they’re in there. No one can be honest or vulnerable. No one talks about their mistakes, because doing so is an admission of guilt. Everything is sterile, surface-level, and fake.
The enduring image that sticks in my mind still breaks my heart: At the end of the visit, Jenny told her daughter, Emily, that she loved her through the oversized phone hanging by Emily’s ear. Jenny then pushed her palm up against the reinforced glass, fingers spread apart. Emily knew the drill. She mimicked the motion and left her hand there for a little bit: “Love you, too, Mom.”
It was in and out of jail for Jenny. Small stints, numerous chances, more promises. Until the judge finally had enough.
During a traffic stop, the police found prescription pain killers. She was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. It was the last straw. Her felony charge was reinstated and she was sentenced.
One year in prison. Forever a felon.
When I got the news a lot of the emotions from years prior — the unforgiveness, the anger, the hate, the disappointment — began creeping back in. She had promised it wouldn’t happen. She made a commitment to her kids, to us. She even tattooed the name of her young son on her wrist so that every time she lifted the crack pipe she would be reminded of why she had to stay clean. It didn’t work.
After a year behind bars bartering for toiletries and fending off advances from other inmates, she got out. Again, this is where in the movie version she walks out as the sun sets, embraces her kids, picks up the pieces, and starts a new life with some Brad Pitt character that loves her for who she is not what she’s done, and who has always dreamed about being a dad to now three kids by three different guys.
That was about seven years ago, and it hasn’t played out at all like the movies.
The reality is, it’s been hard for her to get job interviews and even harder for her to stay put once she lands a job. She’s restless. Anxious. Depressed. She gravitates to men who treat her like a rusted used car. And the accommodations she had in prison are probably better than the apartments she bounces between far too frequently. She’s no longer a crack addict, but she hasn’t become much more than that.
And it tears me up to watch from afar.
And that’s where I find myself today. Torn. My relationship with Jenny is better than it was back when I refused to even acknowledge her existence. But if I were being honest, I’d say it’s hard for me to be around her. She still has the ability to go from zero to what-the-hell in about two seconds. She’s unfulfilled. There are people she lets into her life that have no right being there. Family get-togethers with her puts everyone on edge. It’s not because of what she’s done or that we haven’t forgiven her, it’s that she still hasn’t discovered how to pursue more. But I love her. I want more for her. I care about her.
Jordan Rogers’ film on addiction has forced me (uncomfortably, if I’m honest) to think about all this again. And one of the things that I keep asking myself is, “Why?”
Why can’t she do better?
Why can’t she do more?
Why doesn’t she see she can be something different?
I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers. And I don’t think it’s as simple to find them as people think. But here’s where I keep landing: Not only is recovery not linear, but I truly believe that you can’t just run from something and think it will be better — you also have to run to something. To someone. To God.
I think what Jenny hasn’t quite realized is that life can never just be about “not doing drugs.” It can’t even be about “not doing drugs for my kids.” That becomes real lonely really quickly. It has to be about more. There has to be a replacement for that longing. Jordan Rogers found it. Jenny’s still looking for it. Still searching. I want desperately for her to find it.
I still get disappointed. I still get angry and frustrated. I even tense up from time to time. But I love her. I care about her. I want more for her. And when and until she finds what I know she needs, I’ll still be here.
Maybe there’s a fairytale in there after all.
Jonathon M. Seidl is the editor-in-chief of I Am Second. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@jonseidl) and like him onFacebook. This post originally appeared on iamsecond.com and was republished with permission.
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