The months of my engagement were spent reading every Christian-marriage book I could get my hands on. I learned about buying flowers and date night and sharing your feelings. I learned about leading a bible study for my wife (who would be desperately in need of my seminary education). I learned how to love the woman that the books said I was marrying—a white, middle-class, protestant American girl. My wife fit each of those categories in name, but experience taught me she was not the stereotypical evangelical wife I was prepared for. Six months of scraping change together to buy flowers on Fridays taught me that my wife thinks flowers, though beautiful, are frivolous. “They’re so sweet,” she once told me, “but they’ll be dead in a week…” Rather than taking her out on the town like the books suggested, my wife preferred foot rubs and movies at home. My family “devotionals” felt belittling to her and actually discouraged her from reading the Bible. To make matters worse, it’s taken me five years to realize that the problem is not my wife’s depravity, it’s mine. I came into marriage determined to be the best husband in the country. I passed my time in History of the Baptists II by daydreaming about the two of us sitting on a stage at a conference, me smiling and nodding while she waxed on about what an amazing husband I was. In my passion to love her right, I have failed to love her. To make matters worse, I have responded to my failures by returning to the advice of the very books that got me into this mess to begin with.
As I consider the description of milk-drinking Christians I proposed in my previous post, I see how the problems of my marriage mirror the problems of my union with Christ. The problem we face is our failure to do the activities married couples should do (i.e. devotionals and date nights). My plan for addressing it was becoming a more competent husband. My posture in this plan was willfulness—I’ll simply try harder. When an issue resurfaces, we must have failed at one of the previous steps so we should return and double down our efforts. The “dark night of the soul” in my marriage came sometime in year three. After rehashing the same problems we had approached solving in the same way we had before, my wife looked at me with tear-filled eyes and said, “I just can’t see how this will ever get better.”
How many of us, smothered by the same old melancholy as before, oppressed by the same feelings of guilt as always, enslaved by the hidden shame we’ve carried since childhood, have blankly stared at our bibles and said, “I just can’t see how this will ever get better”? When I feel especially guilty and defeated, I like to read Psalms of David because he was a bigger failure than me and he made it into the Bible. One of my favorite resting places is Psalm 51, the song by which David famously repented of sleeping with his friend’s wife and then covering his tracks by having his friend killed.
Lately, I skip past all the flowery words of contrition and regret. I know the “if-you-get-me-out-of-this-I’ll-never-do-it-again” prayers all too well. My favorite part is an almost afterthought tucked at the end of verse 12: grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
It’s as if David is saying, “listen…she’s still going to be beautiful tomorrow and I just don’t know what I’ll do next time. But if you make me willing God, then maybe this will work.” Have you ever asked God to make you want to stop sinning? That’s a real prayer. “I know this is wrong, but I kind of like it. If you want me to stop, you’ll have to make me want to stop…” Paradoxical as it may seem, this is a meat-eaters prayer. Consider again the prayer of Paul from Romans 7. He laments his inability to do the things he wants (what he should do) and his ever-present desire to do the things he shouldn’t do. He does not pray, “give me strength to change, Lord!” He does not commit to never sinning again. His eyes are opened to the reality that I believe God is slowly but surely showing each of us—what you do is not the problem. Who you are is. And so Paul cries out, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24) His answer is wonderfully simple: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ the Lord!” The prayer is not “I will change!” It is a broken, defeated, desperate, “Please SAVE ME!” Romans 7 gives us crystal clear insight into the difference between the infant and mature in Christ outlined in Hebrews 5-6. For the mature, the problem is not our behavior, it is our crooked hearts. The Plan for addressing it is not our competence as Christians, it is our communion with Christ. The posture amidst the plan is not willful striving, but willing surrender. See the difference in the chart below:
I am convinced that it is when I’m more concerned with getting marriage right than I am with knowing and loving my wife that my marriage gets hard. I am convinced that Jesus’ yoke becomes heavy when we are more intent on getting Christianity right than we are on being with Jesus. I am convinced that God’s big plan for us is not to check boxes on the long evangelical to-do list enshrined in small groups and Sunday schools across the country. In the final post, we’ll take a closer look at the rhythms of mature Christianity. For now, I encourage you to take a few moments and find where you are on the journey from infant to mature. Pray for the courage to be honest, for the faith to be freed from the itch to call yourself mature because that’s what you should be. Perhaps you need to let God know how exhausted and guilty you are…how you feel like such a phony…how defeated and trapped you feel or maybe even how good you think you are at Christianity. Wherever you find yourself, God’s posture towards you is one of invitation. He is calling you to come to him, to see his Son more clearly and genuinely experience his love for you. So, wherever you are, come to him. Come to him with pathetic prayers like, “help me not like sin” or “help me not settle for simply doing life right.” After all, God promises us that he will never turn away a broken heart filled with regret. Wherever you are, maybe even right now, take him up on that promise.