Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How I Almost Broke My Marriage

Hi, it’s Shannon again. Cap’s wife. Last time I wrote a guest article for Cap, the main thing on my mind was speaking to young wives about discontentment.

Many ladies wrote or spoke to me after that post and shared that they’d had the same struggle. So now that Cap’s asked me to write another post, I thought I’d share just how I came to be so passionate about battling discontentment—or in other words, how I almost single-handedly tore apart my marriage, and how God saved my marriage from me.

In August 2010 I discovered that, by misusing the Excel template of a friend who was much smarter than I, I had inadvertently been budgeting over $250 more than we could afford to spend monthly. (Math is not my strongest asset.) What’s more, we could not cut enough spending to stay within our affordable range. We had gotten married during the recession, so Cap’s company had a freeze on raises, and my grad school (in English Literature, not budgeting, obviously) hadn’t paid too well. We came to the point where we could barely afford to buy enough groceries for two meals a day.

My dreams of swiftly following my other newlywed friends into a house of our own were shattered. Heck, my dreams of Internet and meat for dinner were shattered. Here I was, watching my friends get houses and Netflix and new appliances—and I was stuck where I was with no way out.

There was a good amount of self-blame. But I had plenty of blame for others, too. How dare Cap’s company (wisely) freeze raises during tough economic times! How dare my friends (innocently) get houses and have the audacity to talk about them in front of me! How dare Cap (oh I went there) make so little money!

I became a basket case about every unexpected purchase. For example: Cap’s shoes wore out. I raised a fuss. That was $60 we were going to have to spend because he couldn’t take care of his shoes well enough. Sixty dollars because his company made him walk too much (I told you I was a basket case). Sixty dollars further away from ever getting a house. Cap never heard the end of it. I even griped when he splurged on flowers for me because they were too expensive.

Bitterness began to boil in my chest: God was to blame. He was sovereign. He caused all this.

It got to the point where there were long, frigid periods of silence between Cap and I while I “punished” him for whatever I was most recently disappointed about. It got to the point where I actually told him, “I wish I had known that this would happen before we got married.” His response: “Why, would that have changed your answer?”

I think it was initially that heartbroken question that made me realize, “You’re that woman from Proverbs 14:1: ‘The wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down.’ And you’re not the wise one.” I was tearing down my house, my marriage, and my husband’s heart.

Cap graciously pointed me to resources, one of which was Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts. In that book, Bridges mentioned a psalm that had helped him in times of trial. My razor-sharp memory catalogued it as “Psalm 30-something.” Since I couldn’t remember the exact psalm, I decided to read Psalms 30-39. I had to hit Bridges’ psalm in there somewhere.

I still don’t know what psalm he was referring to, but I found a wealth of help from the God I was busy accusing of unfairness every day. In Psalm 37, I began by scoffing at this promise: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

“Yeah, right,” I thought. “The desires of my heart are not coming true.”

Wait a minute, the Spirit broke in. Since when has it ever been good for you to get what you wanted?

Back when I was unsaved, I wanted to live my own selfish life, which led to suffocating pride and conflict with others. In college, I wanted to be a skeptic and question the Bible’s authority, which led to despair. When I first visited my church, I wanted to sit in for one Sunday and find a good excuse never to come back, not be introduced to grace and to the community that would become my family.

In saving me, God is partially saving me from what I want. I don’t know what’s good for me.

Maybe Psalm 37 is talking about the desires of my heart when I’m sane and thinking straight—that is, when I’m trusting God, who knows exactly what is best for me, to give me what He thinks I need. Maybe I don’t even know what the true “desire of my [sanctified] heart” is. Like Tim Keller says, God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.”

In a flash, I realized what had happened. For once, my desire and God’s desire had been the same: I got to marry Cap. And my immediate response to getting what I wanted? A laundry list of other things I also wanted and now expected to receive. I had torn my house down demanding those things. I was humbled to the dust, and it was the sweetest humiliation I had ever known.

The rest of that year I remember as being one of the most precious times of my life. I began every morning by praying from Psalm 30:

As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O Lord, you made my mountain stand strong; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O Lord, I cry, and to the Lord I plead for mercy.

My absolute dependence on God had never been clearer to me, and my need to trust Him with my life had never been more urgent.

Grocery shopping, which had once been the most stressful hour of the week, became a joy as I submitted to the constraints of our God-given budget. It wasn’t good for me to have all the groceries I wanted, I reminded myself throughout the store. It was good for me to be humbled and trust God with our budget. I returned from shopping exuberant at God’s grace in unexpected sales, and I discovered that the store brand is more often than not just as good as the name brand. (Kroger ice cream is way better than any of those expensive kinds, FYI. Seriously. Try Snickerdoodle.)

For the rest of that year, I received joys and sorrows happily from God’s hand. It got to the point that when Cap led us in purchasing a home the next year (yes, my worries were embarrassingly unfounded), I was the one who was sad to leave our apartment.

Even now, remembering, I am reminded to “Humble [myself] . . . under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).

I’m still tempted to be discontented for various reasons. But remembering what a mess of things I make when left to my own devices helps me accept God’s mighty hand more humbly and happily.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Three Lessons I’ve Learned in Five Years of Marriage

When you take your wife out to dinner to celebrate your wedding anniversary, you don’t necessarily plan on misspelling her name on her to-go box, taking a leisurely drive through a local cemetery, or filling up your tank at a seedy gas station. All those things did recently happen, and yet Shannon and I still enjoyed the evening. (She also forgave me for the spelling mistake—which is a big deal, coming from an English major.)

Yes, this past weekend Shannon and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. The time has both taken forever and flown by. (Not quite sure how that happens.) In this short period, a lot has transpired. I won’t bore you with the details, but I did want to share three things I have learned—or, rather, am still learning—at the outset of this lovely journey called marriage.

1. You can’t rightly love if you can’t rightly see love

The more I grow in the Christian faith, the more I see how much of a difference there is between knowing something and believing something. I know God has forgiven me, but I often think and act like He’s still holding a grudge against me. I know God is patient and longsuffering, but I often think and act like God is fed up with my imperfections and recurring sins.

When I see God in this negative and inaccurate light, my actions toward others—especially behind closed doors, when no one but my wife is present—are detrimentally affected. If I see myself as under God’s condemning gaze, I can be tempted to be unforgiving toward Shannon. If I see God as impatient toward my faults, I can be impatient toward Shannon’s. It’s not a pretty picture.

But as I’ve been slowly learning (specifically here and here), when I’m bulldozed over by God’s unrelenting, unconditional, and even joyous love for me, I am better enabled to pour out that same mercy and grace on Shannon. After all, if God’s disposition toward me is love, even though my sins against Him have been grievous, how much more can I show a loving disposition to Shannon, whose sins against me are exceedingly small in comparison? Yes, understanding and truly believing the good news of the gospel can radically change your marriage.

2. Your wife is the key to discerning the state of your relationship

There’s an almost foolproof way to test your marriage’s strength. How? By simply asking your wife how she thinks things are going. I’ve had to swallow my pride several times, but Shannon’s perspective has often led to course recalibrations that have served our marriage well.

Yeah, I know it’s easy to think your wife tends to overreact when talking about the problems in your relationship. It’s easy to dismiss many of her concerns as unrealistic or emotional. But I think God has given women the unique ability to feel a marriage’s pulse better than men.

If you really want to find out where your marriage is strong—and where it needs improvement—ask for your wife’s input. She might not always be able to explain it perfectly, but she has a valuable perspective that you would do well to consider. Otherwise, you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot. Yeah, you can still hop around, but where’s the dignity in that?

3. As time passes, good marriages only get better

When you hear older couples talk about how love, romance, and intimacy just get better and better, it’s tempting to think that’s just a quaint ruse. But even only after a handful of years behind us, we can see that those couples are right. Through God’s enabling power, we’ve seen that sowing faithfulness and devotion into your marriage reaps staggeringly good results.

Sure, there’s a sense in which our life is getting harder too, but as I’ve pointed out earlier, nothing truly worth holding onto is easy. The most rewarding things in life are those which require a lot of effort. Gold medals, financial stability, successful children—all of these things, while ultimately the result of God’s grace—come about through hard work and sacrifice.

So there you have it. Three lessons (among many more!) that God is helping me to learn in my marriage. They’ve served me well, and I hope they can serve someone else too.

photo credit: LollyKnit via photopin cc (edited for horizontal orientation)

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

It Doesn’t Matter If Actors Willingly Undress for the Camera

It’s true that some actors perform nude and/or sex scenes without any form of coercion. Indeed, there are those who almost seem to relish the opportunity to undress for the camera. As Christian patrons, that shouldn’t provide us with any comfort. When we financially support films with degrading sex and nudity, we support a subculture that abuses those actors who do have a problem with publicly disrobing and sexually acting out.

Maybe it would help to look at it in this way. Consider, if you will, two pertinent groups in this discussion. In the first group are plenty of actors—many of whom are not professing Christians—who experience serious reservations about exposing themselves to the public at large. It’s not because they are trying to glorify God with their bodies, their words, or their actions. It’s not necessarily because they subscribe to a Christian sexual ethic. Still, their consciences bother them when it comes to nudity and sex scenes.

That’s the first group of people. The second group consists of Christian patrons. These are people who are trying to glorify God with their bodies, their words, and their actions. As believers, they are bound by the Christian sexual ethic. And yet these people—those who have been delivered from darkness and transferred into God’s kingdom—are the ones saying their consciences are clear when they watch the consciences of others be violated. These Christians pay for actors to be abused and experience no qualms about it.

Brothers and sisters, this should not be!

And yet there’s more to consider than what we’ve already discussed. To continue my line of reasoning from last week: the second part of my nuanced answer to the argument that some actors do sex scenes and/or nudity willingly is this: it doesn’t matter. Not if we take seriously God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Whether or not actors agree with the nudity and sex acts required of them is actually beside the point. Why? Because it doesn’t negate the fact that they are being objectified and degraded as human beings in what is essentially a pornographic act. It is unloving of us as Christians to support such actions, even when they are free from coercion.

We see this principle at work in Romans 13, where Paul says loving your neighbor includes avoiding adultery. He’s not assuming that all adultery is rape. Some adultery—much of it, in fact—takes place by mutual consent. And in so-called “open marriages,” there are no parties objecting to adultery. Does that suddenly make the adultery excusable? Not according to Paul. By its nature, sexual perversion is sin, even if it’s consensual and socially acceptable.

All forms of immorality are inherently unloving. That’s the Bible’s stance. That should be the Christian’s stance. In contrast to this, the film industry has created a socially acceptable ménage à trois: two actors commit sexually intimate acts, and audiences sit in on the proceedings with complete approval.

It doesn’t matter if you watch a raunchy movie only for the “good parts” or the overall message. It doesn’t matter if you can watch, or ignore, a sex scene while keeping a completely pure heart. It doesn’t matter if you spend less by renting a DVD. If money travels from your account to the producer of that film, your patronage is supporting an unloving act.

The “law of love” (which we’ve talked about earlier) exhorts us to consider the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of men and women in front of the camera. Is that restricting for a movie-going audience? I suppose so. It has definitely kept me from visiting the theater on several occasions where I otherwise would have willingly and excitedly done so.

But this law of love is not “restricting” in a lastingly negative sense any more than monogamy is a negative restriction for married couples. It’s a law that protects, not harms. It’s a law that governs for good, not evil. It’s a law that helps one cultivate the greatest motive known to humankind. In the end, what is truly more freeing: living a self-centered or an others-centered life? The Bible’s answer is the latter.

Think about the implications here. How would it affect you if you put the law of love into practice? What if you refused to financially support movies that objectified actors because you wanted to treat them as real people? Would you not start viewing the actors you encounter in the movies as real people and not just potential sources of eye candy or gratification? Would the law of love not help you fight sexual lust even more effectively with gospel power? Would it not help you keep from focusing on yourself (which is what lust does) and instead focus on the needs of others (which is what a healthy, Biblically-informed sexuality is all about)? Would that not be a gloriously countercultural way to demonstrate God’s love to your fellow human beings?

I think it would. In fact, my personal experience has been that it does. I dare you (in the most positive sense possible) to prove me wrong.

photo credit: Bob Bekian via photopin cc