Naked and Unashamed—Friendship and Dating

As mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve recently had the joy of publishing, along with Jerry and Claudia Root, a book on marriage called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). For the past fifteen years now, the material at the heart of this book has been shaping and nourishing my own marriage to Liesel. It’s a huge pleasure to be able to share its blessings with more people now.

Jerry and ClaudiaLiesel and I met with Jerry for five or six sessions back in 2003. We’d come over to his house, hang out on couches, and listen to him talk about marriage. Then, we’d stay afterwards and pepper him with further questions about life, marriage, parenting, and faith. It was a fantastic series of months. Those five sessions have now become a book of fifteen chapters, digestible, straightforward, and hopefully easily accessible to couples of all types and stages of life.

In today’s excerpt, we’ve got a passage on friendship and dating. As I said last time, please read! And be encouraged! Be a little challenged! If you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Friendship and Dating”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 4)

As we hope you can see, these shared interests become the basis of your ongoing friendship as a couple. And it is important to note that a couple with good experiences together, common interests, and positive regard, is significantly buffered against the everyday stresses of life in the world and life together. A couple who commit to being and becoming friends very nearly guarantees the success of their marriage as well as a high level of relational happiness.

Why should this be the case? Consider something C.S. Lewis wrote in his book on the four loves,

Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever talk about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. (The Four Loves)

The gaze at, while wonderful, is insufficient to keep a couple throughout life—there must also be a gaze alongside. In this, the couple strive to find places of commonality—shared books, shared experiences, shared interests—which will keep them fresh and interesting as the years progress. All too often it happens that couples neglect this critical aspect of their relationship, allowing work, then children, to crowd out their investment in one another. The result, tragically, is that at some point the children move out of the home and the husband and wife discover to their mutual dismay that they are married to a virtual stranger. If you would have love thrive in your marriage for the long term, you would be wise to seek to share passions beyond simply one another.

Many couples implicitly feel that dating belongs to the time before marriage, and that once they are married they no longer need to date. Indeed, many challenges begin to arise as life becomes more complex. Finances, children, hiring babysitters—these things can make dating your spouse seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But dating clearly is a key way to continue to develop friendship and interest with one another—whether it be eating at a favorite restaurant, or seeing the latest film together, going on a walk, attending a play, sitting on a blanket together in a park, or simply getting dessert and talking. A date is an activity which bridges the gap between the gaze which looks at your spouse, and the gaze which looks together with your spouse. In the words of the author of Ecclesiastes,

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Perhaps, in this circumstance, the third strand of the cord which strengthens a couple is their cultivated interest in subjects which bring life to their relationship—in their commitment to friendship, dating, and a life together grounded in a look alongside one another.

Naked and Unashamed–“Idiot Lights”

Naked and Unashamed CoverIf you didn’t know, a few months back I published (along with Jerry and Claudia Root) a book on marriage, called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). I’m immensely glad the book is in print, and immensely honored to have worked on it with Jerry and Claudia, who married Liesel and I almost fifteen years ago now. I honestly can’t wait for people to read it and (I trust!) be blessed by what’s in it.

Jerry and Claudia have performed premarital counseling for over 1500 couples over the past 40 years, and the outline of their material was chock-full of wisdom that we felt more couples needed in hand. In the years that I was a pastor, I had used the same material when counseling couples for marriage, as well as in encouraging the marriages in my churches. Wonderfully, our experience comes together in the book and forms something fresh. While originally the material in hand was targeted specifically for couples in preparation for marriage, in Naked and Unashamed we’ve expanded it so that it can be an encouragement for marriages of all stripes—a refresher course, if you will.

Over the next few months I’ll be sharing a few extracts from the book on this blog. Read! Be encouraged! Be a little challenged! And if you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Idiot Lights”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 1)

In the Proverbs it states that “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (27:17). This is not a description of one smooth object gently sliding across another, but a process of one rough edge grating against another. The pressure of persons in close contact is the sharpening process by which we are made keen for use—by which our innermost persons are refined and made beautiful.

Conflict, then, does not mean you are a failure. When you own and operate a car, changing the oil every 3000 miles will make your car last for a long time. On many models, if the oil is not changed after a certain period of time, a light will go off on the dashboard—we call this an idiot light. When the light goes off, it doesn’t mean that the car’s owner is an idiot, merely that he or she is on the threshold of becoming one. Ignore the light, and in time you will become an idiot. Similarly, conflict in marriage simply identifies areas that require maintenance. Conflict doesn’t mean you are an idiot—but ignore the conflict, or refuse to attend to the work it asks of you, and in time you will become one.

Good marriages, you see, are never problem-free marriages; instead, a good marriage is one where the partners watch for the warning signals and grow by attending to them. A good marriage is not one where each partner has it all together, perfectly sorted, but one where they are secure enough in God’s love for them, and their growing love for one another, that they are not afraid to admit the limits of their capacities. Good marriages create space to be novices, to be awkward, to admit that none of us has very much life skill, that no one is ever ready for marriage, or children, or grows up without regrets. When a couple can operate through their conflicts from the perspective of that kind of security, then the result is always a high and steady growth curve.

We see this again in the words of Robert Browning’s poem, Rabbi ben Ezra, the opening line of which romantically invites the listener to “Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be.” Lines 31-32 have the following phrase, “Then welcome each rebuff/that turns earth’s smoothness rough.” It is easy to make judgments of simplicity—things often appear smooth. But further insight, greater perception, often challenge our initial perceptions. A cue ball to the eye and hand is perfectly smooth. Under a microscope, however, it appears pitted and mountainous. The couple that would take advantage of the opportunity offered by conflict in marriage will permit the new information brought by their spouse to alter their initial perception. Things which on one view appeared smooth on a further view become textured. Additionally, a field before being tilled is hard and smooth, but the rebuff of the spade turns its smoothness rough, preparing the soil for fresh fruitfulness. In the same way, the idiot lights of conflict, viewed properly, become opportunities for a harvest of good.

The good news, of course, is that you are never expected to resolve all of these difficulties on your own. When the idiot light signals in your marriage, seek help as soon as the need arises. Wiser people than you have covered this ground before you; call them to your aid. Consult books. Visit counselors, church groups, pastors, seminars, and conferences. Each of these is a resource—like tools and equipment in your gardening shed—that are available to help you grow, as well as heal, your marriage. Do this quickly because unchecked difficulties will compound over time. To humbly seek help is itself the process of developing life skill, and the best thing the unskilled can do is to surround themselves with wise counselors until they themselves have grown and matured in wisdom. The practice of regularly investing time and energy into this work is precisely the necessary work of your marriage.

Love and Relationship: Some Insights into Progressive Theology

If you’ve ever been out of your depth, then you’ll know how I felt several months ago, attending a theological conference whose starting points were deeply entrenched in progressive ideology. The people were friendly, the discourse was generally courteous, but I found myself holding little sympathy for the presuppositions and arguments of my fellow attendees. It was an odd experience, but probably a good one, because I think it’s really important to try to understand what makes other people tick.

one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other-feat-620x350

One moment, in retrospect, has given me quite a lot to think about. Some scholars had presented a paper, and in that paper there was a footnote which casually noted, without argument, that gay and lesbian desires were critically different from other sexual desires for things like adultery. The paper itself had little to do with these issues, but this kind of thinking was generally assumed all around, part of the progressive baggage of the conference, par for the conference course. One more traditionally minded attendee, however, chose to ask a question at this point focusing on that footnote. He pressed the presenters to clarify their casual and undefined distinction between types of sexual behaviour, which would condone one kind of sexual activity (homosexuality) while condemning another (adultery). The instant he asked his question the whole room changed. I could feel the tension visibly rise, heads shook in disbelief, a woman behind me began grumbling angrily not-quite-under-her-breath, and the cheerful congeniality of assumed liberality was swept away in sudden righteous indignation.

Another attendee offered a response, and it is her response that has stayed with me these past months. She posited that the difference between adultery and homosexual relationships is that “while marriage builds relationships, adultery breaks them.” This was met with general and widespread affirmation, and as a result the tension decreased, heads nodded in agreement, there were murmurs of assent, and the ordering of progressive assumptions had been restored for the moment. Here, I realized, is a crucial piece of logic which appears to be generally adopted by progressive-minded Christians. Naturally, I wanted to dissect it more.

underachievementdemotivator

One of my favourite demotivators, reminding me of the importance of keeping my head down.

As far as I can tell the basic premises of her logic appear to be as follows:

Premise 1: God is love.

Premise 2: Love is manifested in relationships.

Premise 3: Things that build relationships are good.

Premise 4: Things that break relationships are bad.

It seems to follow, then, that since sexuality is an expression of human desire for relationship, homosexual unions—i.e., marriages—must be good because they build relationships, which manifest love, of which God is the image. This is how adultery can be distinguished from homosexuality, because the one breaks relationship (violating God’s nature), while the other builds it (honoring God’s nature).

If, as my limited experience seems to attest, this is the logic that operates among many progressive Christians, then it makes sense of a few things. First, it explains why, for them, monogamy is used as justification for homosexuality. If the essence of marriage is found not in biology but in a concept of “committed, covenantal relationship,” then homosexual unions must be good if they are committed and covenantal. The argument makes it feel as if arguing against homosexual marriage is to argue against marriage itself, and how can you argue against that? Second, it provides a clear example of a kind of ‘Bible within the Bible’ thinking where, basically, the love commands of the New Testament trump all other laws and regulations. Beyond even this, the love commands trump the ethical teaching of the New Testament itself. Since we know that God is Love, we can use that knowledge to make judgments about all other ethical behaviors in the present, homosexual love inclusive.

Love wins 3

 

There are lots of problems with this kind of thinking. In another post I plan to spend more time with the question of ‘Bible within Bible’ (AKA, Progressive Revelation). There is also a significant problem regarding the definition of terms—what justifies the above definitions of “love” and of “marriage”? These terms have been insufficiently queried, but I don’t intend to home in on those today. Instead, today I want to focus solely on the statement I heard at the conference, that, in essence, what builds relationship is good, and what breaks it is bad.

First of all, is it true that everything that “builds relationship” is good? Let’s consider some cases. What if I profess a love for (consensual) degrading sex acts, where sexual pleasure is experienced in proportion to the level of degradation? If such a relationship is consensual, and monogamous, but degrading to the Imago Dei, can it still be a good? Or what if I profess a love for sex (consensual) with underage boys? Moreover, what if I am ‘monogamous’ in such a sexual relationship? If the concepts of ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ in a blanket sense cover each of these types of relationship, then we retain no ground from which to proscribe certain ‘loves.’

Nambla banner

Nambla is an actual organization that advocates to legalize “consensual” adult-child sexual relationships.

Alternatively, think of the following case: imagine a husband and wife in monogamous marriage. However, the husband has become convinced that he wishes to invite another woman into the relationship, thus shifting into polygamy. His motives are based on an ethic of love—I love you (wife 1), and I love you too, (wife-to-be 2), and I think that the three of us together will increase our love. The polygamous marriage, by increasing the love-quotient in the relationships, should be a relationship-building good. However, might it not follow that if wife 1 refuses to enter into the polygamous relationship, then she becomes the culpable party, choosing a sinful rejection of relationship rather than the polygamous building of relationship?

There’s more. Isn’t it the case that sin also “creates relationships”? If I commit adultery, I may have broken a relationship with my wife, but at the same time I’ve also created a relationship with another woman. In fact, in any situation where I wrong someone, haven’t I generated a relationship with that person—however decrepit? If I sire children and abandon them, don’t we still have a ‘relationship’ even if it is one rooted in my own selfish sinfulness? If I economically exploit a poor person, do I not have a ‘relationship’ with that person, even if it is unjust by nature? If a given act of sin creates relationship, then it cannot be the case that all things that build relationships are good. In fact, in many of these cases that which breaks the relationship is in fact the greater good.

Rich Man and Lazarus_Eugene Burnard

Injustice binds the rich man and Lazarus together in relationship.

In each of these cases, the concept of love has been divorced from any meaningful reference points (whether historical or scriptural) and applied to the modern world as a sign of divine approval. But the fact remains that without some concept of ordered loves, we won’t be able to tell the pedophile that he is wrong, nor he who is pleased when God’s image is violated for his pleasure, nor, for that matter, the individuals who want to commit adultery and ‘break’ relationships on the basis of love found elsewhere, or love lost in the original relationship. What, in such a situation, is the benefit of a ‘monogamous covenant’? If love adjudicates all ethical matters, lack of love becomes justification for any number of wrongs. And the crucial fact is this: unless we have a way to distinguish between good and bad loves, and unless we have a way to distinguish between godly and forbidden relationships, we have no grounds whatsoever to proscribe any relationships or any loves, however reprehensible. Love cannot be its own justification, without definition and qualification, without falling into an inevitable, slippery slope of relational chaos.

And to this, I find myself asking: If only there were a place where we could locate, and study, such a definition…

Gordon MacDonald’s Magnificent Marriage

I would like to call it "Mediocre Marriage."

Every year in order to strengthen, equip and encourage my relationship with my wife I read a book on marriage. This year I read Gordon MacDonald’s 1980 volume, Magnificent Marriage. The age of a book for me is not typically an issue—I love old books, read them all the time, and in fact I have a thorough disdain for the new as the new in pretty much all its forms. But in this case I mention the publication year because it is relevant: age has not been kind to MacDonald’s book. I found it dated, boring, and on the whole unmemorable. In fact, I am tempted to suggest as an alternate title for the book, Mediocre Marriage.

MacDonald seeks to build a lasting foundation for Christian marriages by constructing a ‘ground-up’ book on marriage. He begins by discussion ‘romance’, which he considers to be the very practical basics of liking the other person, touching on kindness and regard. After this he moves on to the nuts and bolts of ‘sharing’ with one another, touching on communication and conflict. His third section deals with the concept of developing the other person’s gifts through serving one another. His final chapter is on the physicality of marriage (i.e., sex). There is nothing wrong with MacDonald’s structure in broad terms; it is his execution that is inadequate.

A marriage book which is not practical is unusable. If you cannot, as a married person, imagine yourself in the situations described by the author, the book itself will be worthless to you. And here MacDonald’s book suffers from twin problems: first, MacDonald talks a lot. In this it’s more of a reflection on what marriage is than a book on how to have a magnificent one. That in itself isn’t terrible (other books have done it well—see below), but if you are going to write a meditation on marriage it had best be a memorable or poetic one. MacDonald’s meditations were neither. And I think the chief problem was that the book was overwritten. Consider the following paragraph, taken at random from the book:

“Servability grows a third time when a couple learns that their life together is a shared ministry and vision. As long as two people see their lives as two separate thrusts of existence where they rise or fall on their own merits, there is no marital ball game of consequence.” (127)

The combination of ‘thrusts’, ‘rising and fallings’, ‘merits’, ‘ball games’, and ‘consequences’ create quite a metaphorical slurry. And perhaps that sentence doesn’t bother you much, but after 100 pages of them, I was exhausted from reading and couldn’t wait for it to end.

The second problem, as I have indicated above, is that the illustrations are dated, and while thirty years ago it might still have been true that a man would come home from a hard day’s work and want to read the paper, while the woman needed the advice (after her long day of housework) to spruce herself up before he came through the door, these examples were dated when MacDonald wrote his book in 1980, serving as a closer fit to 1950s America than anything resembling today (and reminds me, once again, that in cultural terms the Church had three consecutive decades of the fifties). What is more, MacDonald’s illustrations often create an oversimplified sense of martial conflict; hence their temporality. While MacDonald does cover some of the deeper interpersonal elements that shape marriages, both the dated examples and overwritten responses left me with little I cared to remember from the book.

That doesn’t mean the book wasn’t without its gems, and a few sentences were worth underlining. Speaking of the leaving and cleaving of marriage, MacDonald writes a timelessly perceptive sentence: “Leaving must be done not only geographically; it must be done psychologically. And that is exactly what many young people in the process of getting married fail to do.” (8) In my (limited) experience counseling couples, the lack of leaving and cleaving is a pervasive problem. Later, considering the reason for the mysterious moments of great conversation between a couple, he writes that “they occurred when they did, not because they were planned, but because someone was aggressively listening to something another said.” (61) Such ‘aggressive listening’ is surely one of the secrets of great communication. Lastly, in his chapter on serving one another, he pens some compelling ideas about the value in searching for and developing the strengths of your partner.

If you have never read a book on marriage before, MacDonald’s Magnificent Marriage can get you on the right track. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the book, but in comparison to what is available in marriage books, there’s little good about it either. Instead of MacDonald’s book, go and find a copy of one (or both) of the following two books: first, John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which is the most practically useful book on marriage I’ve ever read. The other book is Mike Mason’s The Mystery of Marriage, which is the most theologically stirring and poetic meditation on marriage I’ve read.