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GROW IN CHARACTER AS YOUR MARRIAGE GROWS

Would you like to have such a good marriage that others will study yours so they can have one just as good? If you apply what you read here, you can have just that. Why would anyone want to live with less than the best—two highly effective Christians living and growing together?

God wills healthy and affirming marriages. His Word gives instructions about how to build them. We can allow our marriages to be a workshop for spiritual character development and the marriage partnership—a ministry team. Good marriages are built; they don’t just happen. Maintenance and improvement are continual, lifelong projects. Char and I have learned to “turn to” instead of “turn against” each other. Marriage is a diamond with many facets worth polishing. In the following pages, you will read some of what we have learned in our thirty-two years of growth together.

Marriage and Cultural Issues

Consider marriages in Confucian family systems. Char and I served eighteen years in Asia where we lived with the subtle remnants of family traditions in which deceased ancestors are perceived to remain active in the daily lives of living descendants. They are believed to be able to bring good fortune or punishment to the living. This is the rationale for veneration of ancestors. Ancestor worship and the accompanying emphasis on respect for parents, produces a vertical family structure. Sons serve their fathers. Parents choose the marriage partners of their children. And wives do not change their names when they get married. They remain outsiders in their husbands’ families.

In such a patriarchal and vertically-oriented family system, daughters-in-law serve mothers-in-law and, most unfortunately, love for one’s wife is perceived to be an insult to one’s parents. The reason to get married is to use one’s wife to produce descendants. Marriage is a means to both please the ancestors and also to have worshippers in the future. The reason to serve parents is to gain their favor, with an eye toward avoiding future catastrophes after Mom and Dad are “gone” (but not gone in this worldview). In this environment, wives resent being used and live for the day they can use their own daughters-in-law. As an understandable and unfortunate result, romance is often lacking in marriages, but flourishes outside of them!

In 1996 we returned to the United States where, in the national culture, marriage is under another type of attack. Young adults often feel that romance is the only basis for marriage; when they no longer feel romantic, they think they have fallen out of love. American culture has lost sight of the fact that to love or not to love is an act of the will and that marriage is a contract for a lifetime. Breaking that sacred covenant has become so much the cultural norm that even believers are breaking it. The divorce rate for Christians is no lower than that of the non-Christian sector. In the northeastern states, where the percentage of born-again believers is lower, the divorce rate is the lowest; in the Bible Belt and south, where the percentage of born-again believers is higher, the divorce rate is the highest!

This chapter is not an anti-divorce tirade. We will think more deeply than that and illustrate how we can grow as our marriages grow. If we are fine-tuning our character in our marriages, we experience one of the strongest developmental processes woven into human social fabric. Over time, we change and change and change, and so does the situation. No one can know what the spouse or the situation will become with time. But contracts remain in force. Our romantic dreams of marriage may have become a mirage. Our plan for a sweet dessert may have become a dry and parched desert. But if we get the emphasis right, mirages can become marriages again, and deserts can become desserts again. It is all a matter of correct emphasis!

Asian marriages are pressured by vertical family problems and American marriages are too lightly entered and too often broken. The Bible provides many healthy instructions for personal character development, equal partnerships and useful service to God through our marriages. Furthermore, as a bonus, we get to really enjoy romance too! According to surveys, it is the Christians who have the highest rate of enjoyment of physical intimacies. Non-Christians talk more about it, but we Christians enjoy physical intimacy more with no regrets, guilt, or misgivings. Char and I, like hundreds of others, have learned how to be good friends in marriage and enjoy a better party than anything Hollywood has to offer. Like other mature Christians and happily married partners, we too joke, romp, play, talk, and listen, rake leaves, and wash dishes like young people in love. And you can, too!

The Reciprocity Principle<

To reciprocate means to pay back in kind. Verbal exchanges are continually occurring between married partners. They can be good or bad. Satan wants to undermine our joy by sowing seeds of discord in marriages. He tries to drive wedges between husbands and wives, to divide and conquer, to destroy the strength they could gain from unity and purpose in the marriage. He seeks to begin what are called negative reciprocal cycles. God wants to help us maintain positive ones. Behavior in any close relationship is much affected by the principle of reciprocity. You have heard spouses exchange pleasant and affirming words. “That looks nice.” “Thanks, you look good to me, too.” We have also heard negative cycles. “That was a klutzy move.” “Well you were in my way, jerk.” We humans naturally are inclined to return good for good or bad for bad, and both the size and speed of the exchanges can be increased or decreased. The goal is to slow down, reduce the size or even abort the negative cycles, and, at the same time, start and increase the speed and size of the positive cycles.

Scripture says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you don’t like the treatment you are receiving, review the treatment you are giving! It is not likely that a partner will consistently return bad for good. If you are not receiving courteous respect, it may be because you are not giving courteous respect. God’s rules are good for us. The above verse could say: “It is good for you to do to others as you would have them do to you.” Plant seeds of courtesy, honesty, affirmation, and care, and one of the ways this is good for you is that you yourself will reap the blessing of courtesy, honesty, affirmation, and care. Be a good spouse, and you will find you have a good spouse. Keep the positive reciprocal cycles going in your marriage. For those not yet married, evaluate the relationships with the person you are dating according to their potential for partnering in a mutually affirming reciprocal relationship. A good married life, including good physical experiences, is built on this kind of maturity. When I come home from work, I like to announce my arrival as I come in the garage door and walk down the hall, by singing out something like the “oldie but goodie,” “Hey, hey, Baby, I want to know if you’ll be my girl.” This sets a good tone for the entire supper hour and evening because Char responds in kind.

The Role Model Principle<

Marriage roles are largely unconsciously learned by long-term observation. My dad’s greatest gift to me was to treat Mom like a queen. He was always saying something good or kind to or about her. He never allowed us children to be critical of her. Some of us, sadly, must overcome the disadvantage of poor models. After all, we did not choose our parents. But be of good cheer; there is a solution to the role model problem! We are to honor our parents, but if they are inadequate marital role models, you are free to find another model, a better example, and follow the one you choose to follow.

What is the best gift you can give to your children? The daughter who grows up watching a respectful relationship between her parents will not settle for less herself—she is safe. You don’t have to worry about her getting in with the wrong crowd; she has seen the good model, knows the respect with which she has been treated at home and which she has seen her mother receive, and won’t settle for less. The son who grows up watching a respectful relationship between you and your spouse will know the role of a kind married partner. He will also want a wife who has potential for a mutually affirming and respectful marriage. He, too, is safe.

Find the Strength Behind the Weaknesses

We all have strengths and weaknesses. But there is often a strength on the flip side of our weakness. A merciful person may appear weak, but she is good at sympathy; a disciplined person may seem mechanical, but he is dependable; a flexible person may not reach his goals quickly, but he can adjust to a variety of situations. The problem is that weaknesses are often more obvious than strengths, especially if the strengths have not yet been encouraged. Consider this your invitation to find in your spouse the strength that is on the other side of whatever “weakness.” When we do that, we can begin to encourage and develop it. Let’s learn to capitalize on our partner’s strengths, while we help compensate for their weaknesses. Does this remove the weakness? No, but it changes the focus and therefore greatly alters the relationship from a war of criticism to a mutual appreciation of strengths.

Char is creative. She seems to brim over with good ideas. So much so that she does not have the energy to complete all her ideas. She gets started on one good idea for helping someone and then thinks of a great idea for making something for a grandchild. For a long time, I complained about all the unfinished projects laying around the house, or hiding in closets, boxes, and drawers. Then I learned to appreciate her creativity! Now, sometimes I help her finish them and other times I simply give her “space” to finish them herself. Identify weaknesses and strengths; compensate for weaknesses; utilize strengths. If you do this, the level of peace in your home will rise more than just a few notches.

The Equal Partner Principle<

This could also be called the Mutually Submissive Principle. Marriage is a blend of equal partnership and mutual submission. Wives are called “heirs with you” in I Peter 3:7. God is my father-in-law! God won’t answer my prayers if I don’t take good care of Char. When I pray, God asks, “How are you treating Char? How are you taking care of my daughter?” When our marriages are balanced by scriptural guidelines of respect and equality, in honor preferring one another and bearing one another’s burdens, our competition becomes cooperation. Your spouse is a child of God; don’t violate one of God’s kids! Before she is my wife, first (and eternally), Char is my Christian sister.

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” is written at the head of the section on marriage instruction in Ephesians 5. Many Bible publishers make the mistake of inserting the heading “Wives and Husbands” after this phrase, thus excluding this verse from the section on wives and husbands. I believe this heading should come before it, thus including it. Paul didn’t put the heading there; we did. In other words, the first phrase in Paul’s section on the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5 is: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Wives are not the only ones to submit; both are. The mutually submissive principle works in all family relationships, including, especially, the husband and wife partnership. It is not the weak person who can understand this; it is the strong. Weak people are afraid to make themselves vulnerable; they want their own way. The strong know when to yield and have character to do it.

Caring Enough to Confront<

Of course, we are to be tolerant and patient with each other in marriage, but too much tolerance and patience with another’s faults can become a problem. God can give us the wisdom and grace to know when we should yield to our partner and when it would most honor Him, and the partner, to kindly confront them. We should not be hypercritical, but we should love enough to confront. In the interest of your own continued development, create an atmosphere where your partner can feel free to confront you when you have a blind spot. Furthermore, don’t let your partner get away with repeatedly doing something seriously wrong. Lovingly and tactfully confront them; otherwise, you are permitting the behavior and giving the appearance of approval by passively allowing it. This is sometimes referred to as codependency. When we become too tolerant, one partner loses the opportunity to learn how to confront politely, and the other partner loses the opportunity to grow through having his faults confronted. Anyone who always gets his own way repeatedly becomes less flexible. Unfortunately, I have seen some marriage relationships in which, as the years go by, one partner becomes more and more passive and the other becomes more and more stubborn. This is good for neither one—nor their friends!

Growth in marriage is an exciting life-long, gradually developing process. Caring enough about our development that we welcome criticism, and caring enough about our mate’s development that we are willing to confront them, are parts of that process. Have courage, not only to save your marriage, but also to grow in it. It is possible, for example, to kindly and firmly resist—confront—the controller by asserting yourself. I read about a man who year after year got so tired of taking the kind of vacation his wife wanted that he finally took an entire vacation by himself—after putting his wife on the plane for the vacation she always wanted. I didn’t have to get so radical, but this past summer, while vacationing with the family, there were several times I felt pressured towards activities I did not want to do. Remembering the principle I am dealing with here, I said I would, “sit this one out.” I finished my time in prayer, read a book, and ran a training run. When the whole family was together again I was glad to see them.

The Headship Principle<

The idea of headship in marriage has been severely criticized, mostly because it is incorrectly understood. Headship is not a grasp for authority on the part of the husband; it is a matter of responsibility for the husband. Headship is an awesome responsibility, not a head trip. Headship involves the responsibility for maintaining unity, care, provision, and nurture for the body—in this case the wife—and sometimes acceptance of guilt when something goes wrong. It also produces order, which entails someone leading and someone following, but the major feature of headship is responsibility for caring for another. There is a world of difference between “lording it over” and “responsibility for the well-being of.”

Healthy headship involves a lot of free discussion of plans while they are being made. A smart and loving husband involves his wife’s counsel and prayer in the planning process. Plans birthed in discussion and prayer together are more easily implemented because both parties “own” them. Before we went to China in 1991, I wanted to go, Char didn’t. I knew she didn’t want to go, so I told her we wouldn’t go if she didn’t want to. Meanwhile, she knew the disappointment I would experience if we didn’t go, and was willing to go. Her rationale was based on the Living Bible’s: “Wives fit in with your husbands’ plans” (I Peter 3:1). This principle for wives is the counterpart of the husband’s duty to love, protect, and cherish wives as Christ did the church, giving Himself for her salvation and eternal comfort. These two sets of duties can work well together, but the key is for husbands to not demand submission. It is not something we demand; it is something they give. When we do our part well, our wives’ parts become much easier. This sobers me greatly. When Char knows what I want, she tries to fit in with those desires, just as when I know she has a need, I try to provide it. Often she is more successful than I.

The head is responsible to protect the body—the wife. We husbands must protect our wives from outside dangers, even our children. I would not allow our sons to speak disrespectfully to Char. That is probably the easiest one. We must also protect them from ourselves. Protecting them from ourselves is more difficult. Char is susceptible to my attack, because she trusts and loves me, and her defenses are down when I am around. Our wives need our support—not our attack. Yet there is a third danger we must also discern. We must learn to protect our wives from themselves when they get down on themselves. Sometimes Char becomes discouraged and begins to overly criticize herself. I have to tell her to not be so hard on herself and find ways of encouraging her. This is part of my responsibility as head.

Husbands are to love their wives like Jesus loved the church and gave Himself for her. Not only are we to nourish and protect, but also to maintain the unity of the marriage. That, too, is entailed in headship. Jesus was willing to take on guilt to save the church, and He was guiltless! To follow His example, we husbands must sometimes “take on” guilt—bear the blame—to save the marriage. How unlike our Model we often are. When we blame our wives instead of defend them, when we put guilt on them instead of take guilt on ourselves, we fail in our headship responsibility. When husbands are “man enough” to admit they are wrong or Christ-like enough to take on guilt instead of blaming, then the marriage relationship can grow. The six most difficult words are sometimes the most important: “I was wrong, I am sorry.” Taking guilt, like Jesus our model “head,” brings comfort to the body and unity to the whole. In Jesus’ case, the Church enjoys the comfort of forgiveness and unity with Jesus. In our case, true headship, responsibly undertaken, means our wives experience freedom from blame and both parties enjoy wonderful unity in the marriage. This is headship: “I didn’t realize I was expecting too much. I am sorry. How can I help?” The warmth created by this kind of responsible headship, is delightfully carried over into other aspects of a loving marriage. Gentle and loving touches are more joyfully received when preceded by gentle and loving words.

Marriage is a highly symbiotic relationship—two dissimilar organisms in a mutually beneficial relationship. As each partner does his or her part better, it becomes easier for the other. It is easier to submit to a husband who admits his mistakes than to a husband who has to be right all the time. It is easier to want to protect and nourish the wife who is trying to work with your plans. That’s been my experience. What I have never experienced, but observe would be more difficult, is to want to protect and nourish the wife who is rebellious. This would be true whether she were actively rebellious or even if she were only passively rebellious by giving reluctant or no cooperation. Wives, your slow or begrudged cooperation is dangerously close to passive rebellion. Instead, help your husbands. We need it. Husbands, making demands of your wives is a departure from the nurturing type of headship Ephesians talks about. Our “headship” can deteriorate into something more like patriarchal tyranny all too easily.

Don’t Let One Apple Spoil the Bushelful<

When one apple in a basket is spoiled, it has the power to spoil the other apples. Soon the whole basket is spoiled. There are six apples in marriage’s basket. These are the major areas in which agreements or disagreements may occur in a marriage: philosophy/religion, use of leisure time, parenting, finances, intimacy, and education. When married partners have a difficulty in any one of the areas, it is best to isolate it; draw a circle around it. A problem in one of these areas does not need to affect the other healthy areas. Keep the other healthy areas healthy. This gives the relationship the strength it needs as it works on the unhealthy area.

Some partners deny the other intimate physical pleasure if there is a problem in another area of their marriage. Both lose, however, when one apple spoils another; emotions build up instead of dissipate. Some of us think more holistically than others, so, typically, if one such partner’s emotional needs are not met in a specific area, it may be difficult to avoid his feeling prostituted in another. Nevertheless, to the degree that you can keep the other “apples” healthy, a good environment for problem solving is maintained, and eventually both partners win.

Since I had my first paper route at age eleven, I have carefully tithed, saved money, and controlled debt. Char, however, had a different background and has always been more generous than I. I am the saver, and she is the spender in our family. For thirty-two years we have discussed this—sometimes at length and sometimes with considerable heat! Thirty-two years and counting and still no great landmark-breakthrough-comprehensive-everyone-wins-solution!

However, I am becoming more liberal, and she is recognizing the wisdom of good fiscal policy. We both are winning—gradually. This apple in our basket has had the potential of spoiling the other apples many times. We have never allowed that. We have refused. We have a great time with the other five apples. When decisions must be made about money, we carefully work it through. What is the apple that could spoil your basketful? That apple could hinder you from being your best possible self, but if handled correctly, can help you become your best possible self. You choose. Meanwhile, don’t let one of your difficult areas spoil the other great ones. Enjoy the good areas. Grow in character as you work on the potentially difficult ones. You both can become your best possible selves.

Learn How to Argue<

Why do we assume we should be polite in every other relationship, but fail to recognize the importance of courtesy in this most important relationship? We all enjoy being treated politely, and it is more fun to be polite than to be unkind. Therefore, we should maintain order in our arguments. Get ready, you will argue over something. Marriage is designed to be a developmental process; it is a vital arena of character development. So learn how to argue. When one partner has an issue to discuss, make an appointment, cool off, and discuss just that one issue.

Char and I have agreed that if one partner wants to bring up another issue, that needs another appointment—or we could agree to discuss that one next. The point is that each issue should be solved through discussion; bringing up other issues is fighting. We are not competing; together we are looking for resolutions to problems. The goal of the argument is to find what is best for the marriage, what is best for the couple. Counter- attack, addressing another problem in another area, is not good argument and is only counter-productive. Furthermore, we should learn to argue the issue, not attack the person.

Opinion A and opinion B might seem to be best for partner A or partner B, but agreement C could be the best for the relationship—which is good for both partners! A variation of opinion C is to agree to use opinion A this time and opinion B next time. If you always follow opinion A, however, two unfortunate things happen: A becomes more obstinate, and B does not develop. He may sulk or quietly rot. Neither can fully develop if either is stubbornly predominant. Let us be more interested in growing up than trying to prove we are right all the time.

The word compromise may imply losing. “Compromise” suggests that neither party got what he or she wanted. That is a false perception. Both got what they really wanted. The phrase “negotiated settlement” is much better. Negotiated settlements are good for the relationship and therefore good for both parties. Both win when a negotiated agreement is reached.

Several months ago, when I was through preparing breakfast, I called Char to the table. She was, at the time, in the next room reading an article in the newspaper out loud to me. I called her the second time and put the finishing touch on preparations. She read on. I called her the third time at a higher pitch, and she finally came. “I was reading an article to you,” she said. “And did it occur to you that maybe I didn’t want to hear the article?” I asked. I had been unkind. We ate our breakfast with less than our usual friendly chatter, and I went to the university.

Later when I returned home that afternoon, Char lovingly confronted me. “You offended me by the way you called me to breakfast. I was sharing something with you.” She then told me calmly that she had been upset at breakfast, but chose to wait to speak with me about it. She reminded me of the times I had lingered at my e-mail when she called me for supper. In the calm of the afternoon discussion of the breakfast misunderstanding, we agreed I would come to supper, and she would come to breakfast more quickly. We have learned that postponing the confrontation for a short time is not avoiding the problem issues; it is a way to handle them without trying to do so in the heat of the moment. We both win.

Clean Out The Garbage<

Don’t let a day pass without clearing the air of any grudges or unresolved issues. “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Eph. 4:26). Char and I don’t want any unresolved issue to fester. We have agreed that we would rather talk it out than put a bandaid over an infected wound.

Praying together at the end of the day is a good time to clear away the rubbish, if there is any. Couples should pray together as well as individually. In our family, we each have our time of prayer alone in the morning, but pray out loud together before we go to sleep. We also like to share insights from our individual Bible reading. This way, both are contributing to the spiritual growth of the other, while at the same time growing through the experience of sharing. This helps make the Word the standard for behavior in marriage.

At night in prayer, I love to thank God for Char and her godliness and pray that God will bless her in each phase of her work. I love that almost as much as I love to hear her pray for me, thanking God for a loving husband, praying for me and with me about whatever issues I may be facing on or off campus. It makes me feel strong, loved, and appreciated. Whenever she thanks God for some aspect of my character, it makes me try even harder to live up to her expectations.

Shoulder to Shoulder

No marriage partner can meet all the needs of the other. Many think that the most healthy stance of marriage partners is to always face each other. I used to want all my activities and Char’s to be totally intertwined. I now believe that the most healthy stance is for both partners—hand in hand, heart with heart, and shoulder to shoulder—to face, not each other, but God, others, service projects, and life’s mission. So that we may face those things shoulder to shoulder, we must often face each other, but the couple that only faces each other doesn’t do God or anyone else much good. They get tired of each other! We should release each other at times and at other times focus on each other. Happy the couple that has found some project which is bigger than both of them! They can become strong together, happy and more useful to each other, God and others.

I now encourage Char to develop her own circle of friends and activities. She releases me to do the same. At the end of each day, we share from our experiences, and both of us are enlarged. I learn from what someone said about the artwork she did, and she learns from my experiences in the classroom and on the basketball court. We love sharing life, but have learned not to smother each other. We both are growing more.

Put Jesus at the Center

Strong, fervent love for Jesus makes married partners attractive to each other. A professor friend invited me to speak at her Old Testament Theology class a few years back. In my remarks, a student picked up on my love for Char. Later, that student met Char in the library and discovered that she was the Char that I had talked about. Then he and Char exchanged thoughts on Char’s love for me. Still later, the student met me in the copy center. He told me that as he turned away from talking with Char, he asked himself the question, “Why do those two love each other so much?” He said the Lord told him at that moment, “It is because they love me.”

Because I love God first, I love Char more than I would if I loved Char first. Because Char loves God first, she loves me more than if she loved me first. That is a paradox, but part of the explanation is that when we love God most, our capacity to love others increases. Here is another paradox: We enjoy physical expressions of love and have greater romantic pleasure and satisfaction when we have sought a mature friendship and marriage relationship first than if we had sought those physical pleasures and satisfaction first. This is true because a mature friendship in marriage is the basis for good, long-term, intimate experiences. A mature friendship here maintains the trust which is necessary for a full and free physical relationship. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things [friendship, companionship, love, romance and intimate physical pleasure, and satisfaction] will be added to you.”

Begin Now To Prepare Your Attitude

You may not be married. You may be reading this so that you can help some of your married friends. Or you may intend to some day get married. If you intend to marry, preparation for your marriage and attitude toward character development in marriage begins long before the wedding. Let’s not focus only on staying sexually pure. Yes, we should stay pure, but there is a deeper line of thought we can take as we prepare ourselves for a mutually affirming and character-developing marriage. We should build respect and understanding and, kindly and intentionally, test each other during courtship. Remember, you don’t own, nor are you owned by, the one you are dating; treat the other respectfully and require respect. Treat every person you date with the same respect you want those who are dating your future mate to exercise. If the person you are dating regularly is not willing to seek a mature and maturing relationship, kindly and firmly terminate the relationship. It could be the best thing you ever did for yourself—and a reality check for the other party!

While you are courting, keep your wits about you and your eyes open. Look inside the heart, mind, and spirit of your partner. What makes you think that the disrespectful person you are dating will suddenly turn into a respectful person when he marries you? He probably will not. Learn to know a person’s spirit. Don’t let today’s culture press you into its mold. Increasingly, throughout the world, marriage candidates have a voice in marriage choices. In the United States, you have a choice of whom you date and whom you marry. It is better to not marry than to marry the wrong person. By paying attention to how your courtship partner treats parents, siblings, and waiters and responds to offenses and interruptions you can learn of his character. Keep your head about you; don’t let your heart run wild—yet. It is not unfair to the partner to do this; you are unfair to yourself if you don’t. After marriage, you are under a lifetime contract, according to the Word of God; marriage is for keeps.

Marriage is a great and truly wonderful experience! No one should have to experience the insecurity of always wondering if the marriage is going to last. It will; it must. You will try harder to develop yourself and your marriage if you know that marriage is permanent. Marital happiness is God’s idea! His plans—and rules—are best. It is only when we do not keep God’s rules that our marriage relationships are robbed of the joy and character development God intended.