11 July 2014

When "I tried that" is a problem

by Dan Phillips

[NOTE: to avoid having to fiddle with pronouns, I'll use the standard generic "he"/"his"/"him" throughout.]

Hearing a person in a troubled marriage say "I tried _____" raises a red flag of concern to me.

Why? Surely all the person is doing is sharing his frustration, his disappointment, his hurt. It isn't necessarily a claim of self-righteousness, or an attempt to build a case against his wife. He isn't necessarily trying to make me think he's the good guy, and she's the bad evil vixen. Oh, it can be any or all of those things; but not necessarily.

So I will of course start talking about ways to implement what Scripture says to do, and he will say, "I tried that."

And that's a problem.

How? How can "I tried X" a problem? If a doctor said "Take two ibuprofen" or "Have a hot bath," and the patient had already done so without any relief, wouldn't "I tried that" be the perfect answer? Isn't it both honest and diagnostically helpful?

In this case, no. It is helpful, but it is not a good sign. It is helpful, in that I've come to see it often as a clue to how the person approaches marriage, and his role in it.

Here's the reality: as I remarked more times than I can count when teaching on the Biblical doctrine of marriage,

"Marriage is like being a Christian
 — only more so." 

In other words, everything I am called to be as a Christian, I am called to be in my marriage. I am called as a Christian to love, to be patient and longsuffering, to be gracious and kind, to be ready to forgive, to be devoted to serve the other for his good. I'm called to seek to embody these graces towards all.

But in just about every relationship I have, if tension arises, I can walk away. I can go home, I can go to bed, I can get distance from the locus of the tension. For that matter, I could move to the other side of the globe from it. And I'm not called by God to be everyone's close friend. It isn't a moral obligation.

None of which is true with marriage.

With marriage, I have all the same obligations, and more — and it's 24/7/365, it's right up there in my face, and I can't simply walk away if it gets rough.

But go back to other relationships. What is God's command to us, for those relationships? Are we called to "try" loving each other? Then, if it doesn't work, we stop, complain, do something else instead? Are we called to "try" being patient, kind, devoted to their good? How about our relationship with God? Are we to "try" holiness, see if it works for us or not? Righteousness? Faith?

You all know the answer: "Of course not." These aren't methods offered to us on a trial-basis, for us to test-drive and evaluate, then reject or embrace depending on outcome. It's not a negotiation. These attitudes and actions are our lives, as Christians. We're called to grow this fruit, period (Gal. 5:22-23). If Paul could say there is no law against such graces (Gal. 5:23b), he could not say there is no law calling for them. This is what we are called to be, not to "try."

So: God doesn't call me to "try" loving my wife as Christ loved the church as a tactic. He doesn't call me to run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes. He doesn't invite me to see how that whole love-my-wife-like-Christ business works out, then to keep it up or drop it, depending on whether it "works." He doesn't call spouses to try not gossiping and complaining about each other. He doesn't call wives to try being respectful and submissive, any more than He calls children to try honoring their parents — or believing in Christ.

And so I say it is a red flag, because I've found that it often is a symptom. It may indicate that the spouse holds as the paramount value — not glorifying God and enjoying Him forever, but — being treated as he believes he deserves. That is the first and great unwritten commandment. So when his wife doesn't treat him as he deserves, that's wrong. She needs to change. But she doesn't want to. How to get her to change?

Well, he could try various things. He might yell at her. Or he might freeze her out. Or he might ignore her. Or he might talk her down to others.

Or, if he's really pious, he might "try" loving her.

See what I did there? The objective is to get her to behave right. (And, for the record, she should: she should love him and honor him, and do her best to make him glad he's married to her.) In pursuit of that objective, he tries various things. This tactic, that tactic... God's commands might even be among those things he tries — in pursuit of his objective: getting her to treat him right.

So here comes the obvious rub. What if it "doesn't work"? What if she's still a merciless shrew? Well, he tried, you see? It didn't work. So he has to try something else. Like complaining about her to everyone who will listen. Like self-pity. Like growing increasingly bitter and resentful. Like wearing the martyr's robes for everyone to see. Like trying to get kids and friends to see her as he does, see how bad she is and how nobly he suffers.

Suppose, though, he realized that being a Christian who actually practices what he professes — which is, after all, what we're talking about, right? — isn't something you "try." It's something you do, come what may, and God helping you, you don't let all the powers of Hell stop you. Much less a grumpy, sharp-tongued, ungrateful spouse.

What then, when his wife responds to his love with contempt, scorn, or even abuse? What if his coming close to love and serve her just gives her a better and crueller shot at him? What then?

Let me ask you: Does the Bible say anything about how Christians should respond to verbal abuse? To ingratitude? To false accusations? Anything in there at all? Anything? Bueller?

I'll wait for the light-bulbs to finish flashing on.

See, marriage in that regard is not  a different category of life, as if I need to treat other people by unchanging standards, but my wife is different. It isn't as if I have 66 books of direction for all my relationships, but only a few chapters that apply to relating to my wife. She's only different in that she will always be there for me to practice these graces, and I can't walk away if it gets rough.

Because being married is like being a Christian.

Only more so.

And in that life, what gets "tried" is us and our faith (1 Peter 1:7) — not God's commands.

Dan Phillips's signature


VcdeChagn said...

Fantastic. As someone who has a wife who is easy to love (her name is Valerie, so go figure :)) I realize what a rich blessing that is.

Andrea said...

Thank you very much for this, much needed this morning and always.

I hope that it is a better symptom to say, "By God's grace, I keep trying, and will continue to do so with all my heart."

J♥Yce Burrows said...

Convicting. Confirming.



Even So... said...

I am currently in the midst of two different counseling "situations" where this applies directly.

So while this post is the same in essence as this prior post…


I think it wise to repeat such instruction often...

"To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you." Philippians 3:1

Thx Dan

Grace and peace

FX Turk said...

I thought marriage was a contract and my spouse was a contractor? Don't I have rights here which allow me to be happy with the work being done?

Randy Talley said...

"The objective is to get her to behave right."

Bingo. The wrong objective makes staying on the "I tried that" treadmill so easy... with the end result being a mountain of resentment and bitterness.

I won't claim perfection on dealing with relationships or circumstances that present obvious temptations to focus on the wrong objective, but I try to counsel others (and myself) to plead to God for the wisdom and grace to pass that test that's before me.

Randy Talley said...

Isn't "Fiddling With Pronouns" the new CD by Steve Martin's bluegrass band?

Robert said...

If we're modeling Christ's love for the Church this is a no-brainer. There is no way any of us would feel God's grace, mercy, and love if Jesus just up an ran the first time we didn't respond correctly to Him loving us as He does.

Terry Rayburn said...

Really good article.

I'm not sure I've ever read such a simple "analogy" of living in marriage like one is called to live as a Christian.

Yet the similarities are obvious, when attention is called to them.

The concept of "martyrdom" comes to mind (don't laugh).

Not the drab dull concept of a so-called "martyr complex" on the part of a marriage partner who miserably endures their awful spouse -- a picture the world paints.

But the joyful WITNESS (the biblical concept of "martyr") of a life lived in and through Christ.

A life so enamored by one's Lord and Savior, that it's not really a burden to do His will, but actually enriching, enlivening, even joyful -- whether appreciated or repudiated.

And if both marriage partners are martyrs in the biblical sense, witnesses to the glory of the Lord and living accordingly, some really wonderful things can result.

Even if you get killed.

Which of course has become the pop meaning of martyr.

Pastor Greg Lawhorn said...

Such a lovely truth! There is a world of difference between using specific means to alter circumstances, and being different. "I'll try forgiveness" is attempting to change circumstances. "I'll forgive" is a commitment to being different.

Terry Rayburn said...

Surprised no one has mentioned Yoda yet. I know I won't.

Michael Coughlin said...

Aye. I wonder if you have seen a shift in this in your time pastoring; that is, are you seeing a lot more of this type of attitude today than 20 or 30 years ago?

My guess would be yes, but maybe I'm wrong. It just seems like this is another form of worldliness Xians are adopting.

Also, LOL @FrankTurk

donsands said...

The other saying is, "you have no idea."
I hear that from time to time.

Great word Dan. Good to take in and keep in the heart, right next to the Spirit, who intercedes for us with groanings.

Have a joy-filled week in our Savior's love and promise that all the sin and cursed world will one day be made righteous and good.

Feather Blade said...

Now, repost this with the nouns and pronouns switched and watch the "Christian" women scream. ^_^