November 25, 2012

Weathering the Gaps

For five out of the last six weeks we have been talking about marriage.  For all of our conversations, though, we have yet to say a word about the thing that most folks would recognize as the central, most important virtue in marriage: love.  This morning we’re going to fix that.  This morning we are finally going to devote a fair bit of our attention to how this important virtue plays itself out in the marriage relationship.  It may not be in the ways that we expect, but it most definitely has a role to play.  Now, hopefully we’re pretty clear on what at least my take on the definition of love is.  If you’ve missed it: love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God designed them to be.  This is what Biblical love is.  The next logical question, though, is what does this look like in practice?  How does love like this play itself out in our relationships?  And how does this form the final structure we need in order to be married well as opposed to merely married?

This is, in fact, what we’ve been looking at throughout this series: how can we be married well rather than merely married.  Getting married is easy.  Staying married well?  That’s the challenge.  And I haven’t been interested in this series in simply pointing us in the direction of how to stay married.  While numbers are certainly down in recent years, lots and lots of people stay married for a lifetime and hate much of it.  Although our culture is changing on this point, the covenant of marriage used to really mean something to folks.  We said, “Until death do us part,” and we meant it.  That didn’t mean we had to like it, though.  Couples hung together through all manner of challenges.  But, instead of enjoying the ride, they were only giving fidelity to the vows they had made.  They learned to live with the heartache and hardships for reasons of duty, children, image, and so on.  Now, this had some unquestionable benefits for the culture and the economy, but the cynicism with which many of these generations of folks began to view marriage was passed on to their children who increasingly view marriage as a contract rather than a covenant.  They may still say, “Until death do us part,” but what they really mean is, “until hardship or trouble or falling out of love or infidelity or illness or problems with the kids or simply convenience do us part.”  Neither of these scenarios resulted in people being married well.  They were and are instead merely…married.

We now know, though, some of the foundational truths to help overcome the inertial pull toward our culture’s marital antipathy.  The first truth we talked about dealt with just that: the foundation of our marriages.  The foundation of our marriages is Christ and the church.  No other foundation will lend us the kind of support we need in order to have much hope of being married well.  The point of this foundation is that we are to look carefully at the kind of relationship Jesus has with the church and seek to model our own marriages after this.  There is much written on this relationship in the word, but the fundamental truth presented to us by Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus seemed to indicated that one of the primary purposes of marriage is to see our partner become fully who he or she was designed by God to be: a gleaming reflection of the glory of Christ.  This is love, is it not?  With this foundation then established, we set out to see what kinds of structures are necessary for us to build in order that our foundation actually means something.  The first structure came from Moses’ summary statement on creation.  In marriage the husband and the wife become one flesh.  We are brought together in a union that is as spiritual as it is physical and are inextricably linked with one another.  We simply can’t make it on our own very well any longer when we have made this bond.  Now, make no mistake: it’s doable and it’s done.  No question on that.  But the quality of life is not what it was or could have been until some kind of restoration has happened.

The second structure we built dealt with how we use our words toward each other.  Rather than using them for our own benefit and to shape the other into our image for them, Paul called us in Colossians 4:6 to let our words be well-seasoned with grace.  By our words we can and should call our spouses into the reality of the kingdom.  We closed this particular discussion by looking at the five rules of communication in marriage: assume the best, speak each other’s language, root out contempt, make sure you actually communicate, and don’t let niceness defeat honesty.  The third structure, which we examined just last week, we found to actually be logically prior to the words we speak to our spouse.  We have to think rightly about our spouse in order that we can choose the right words in the first place.  If we want to do what Jesus did, we have to think as Jesus thought.  Without the right mental framework regarding our spouse, we won’t be able to treat her as we should.

This morning, using this last structure as a kind of jumping off point, I want to look more closely with you at this idea of having the right belief framework regarding our spouse.  Specifically, if our belief framework is to be shaped by love—and I think we would all agree this is the case—what does this look like?  What is the nature of love in our relationships?  What is the nature of love in marriage?  Again, we know what love is.  The question we’re wrestling with this morning is how this plays itself out in marriage.  The answer?  Lots of ways.  But I want to offer one in particular from Paul this morning that I think is foundational in its import.  This one ought to be very much familiar to the Kitchen Table crowd.  If we are going to talk about love, there really isn’t a better place to turn than Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13.  Rather than working through the whole chapter, through, which we’ve done before, I want to zero in on a single verse with you.  Let’s work our way there together.  If you have your Bible, open it to 1 Corinthians 13 and I’ll starting reading at v. 4.  These are very much familiar words so listen extra closely so you don’t let familiarity breed contempt.  “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”

Okay, let’s stop for a minute short of where we’re ultimately headed this morning to survey the path leading there.  What are these familiar words saying?  What’s Paul trying to get across here?  Is this not essentially a checklist for pursuing a lifestyle focused on helping others become fully who God designed them to be?  Put your name there.  It may be clichéd, but it’s effective all the same.  I am patient.  No I’m not.  Oh wait…that’s right…this is a pulpit, not a confessional booth.  Okay, going on.  I am kind.  Well, I feel like I do a little better on that one.  Doesn’t envy?  Well, it depends on what it is.  If it’s a hot gadget I can’t make any promises.  Does not boast.  I’m a little better about this one, but being an introvert helps.  Is not arrogant?  Okay, this one depends on who you ask.  I might have come off to someone in a way I didn’t intend.  Is not rude?  Well again, I may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but I’d like to think I do a little better on this one than not.  It does not insist on its own way.  Okay, that’s going to get me in some trouble.  I already said last week that I tend to want what I want, when I want, how I want.  But, love is focused on seeing others become fully who God designed them to be, not me.  I guess I have to start practicing some self-denial.  I’m a little nervous now, but let’s finish the list.  It is not irritable.  Yikes.  Can I have a recount?  I’m not very irritable unless I’m tired.  Oh wait, I have a nearly-two and a four-year-old.  Tired comes with the territory.  Certainly I’m better on the next part though.  It is not resentful.  Well, I can say that holding a grudge is not an area of sin with which I’m prone to struggle.  I forgive pretty easily.  Almost done.  It does not rejoice at wrongdoing.  What does that even mean?  I think it means that love stands against injustice.  It is saddened by injustice and works for its elimination.  Well I can gladly say that injustice does not make me happy.  But, how much do I honestly work for its elimination?  Perhaps not with all the vigor that should be due one who has claimed in the most public fashion possible that he is living in pursuit of the kingdom of God.  Dare I move to the end?  It rejoices with the truth.  As I come to understand more keenly what this means, I feel like on this one at least I’m moving in the right direction here.

So let’s see, how about a score card?  Eleven items.  I rank average on…three or four.  Above average on…well at least I only rank below average on…okay let’s forget about the scorecard for now.  Love is hard.  Living a lifestyle characterized by this intention to see others become fully who God designed them to be is a thorny beast.  Trying to put all of these things into play in marriage?  Well that goes beyond what most of us are able and, frankly, at times, willing to do.  I’ll be kind, but please don’t ask me to be patient.  I’ve been patient with people all day.  I’ve given up my interests all day whether or not the people deserved them so I am a little resentful I’m still doing it for you, thank you very much, and if this makes me irritable, you can just get over it.  In fact, on this, I’m going to insist we do it my way.  Are you with me?  Have you been there?  Were you there last night?  This morning?  What has happened in all of these times?  I’ll tell you what’s happened: there’s been revealed a gap between expectation and reality.  And gaps are not welcomed discoveries.  Gaps tell us that somewhere, somehow, something went wrong.

The other day I was putting up a new door for Noah’s room.  I’m not quite finished, but it’ll be kind of cool.  It splits in the middle so either the top or the bottom can be opened, it’s made from pretty cheap materials so he can eventually customize it to his liking, and I put a big piece of sheet metal on the inside so he can put magnets on there to play with.  (If you want the reason behind the new door, that’s a story for another time.)  Well, I got the bottom part of the door all installed.  I had to chisel the doorframe out a bit because the new hinges didn’t quite match up with the old, but with a trusted eye keeping tabs on me I got it on there.  Then I went to close it…and there was a gap.  Some investigation revealed that I had put one of the hinges on just a bit crooked and it caused a gap.  Something went wrong.  I had to weather the gap somehow.  In this case, I chiseled a bit further and now it fits pretty nicely…for a first time effort installing a custom-made door.   In the same way, in our efforts to live out Paul’s lifestyle of love in our marriages—or in any other relationship for that matter—we set about the task at hand only to discover that something has gone wrong.  We find a gap between what is and what should be.  What are we to do with this?  How does love play itself out in our marriages in these times?  Because let’s be honest: these times come with frightening frequency.  There’s a good chance you are going to discover a gap before the day is over (assuming you haven’t already).  Perhaps even on the way home from church.  Now, the gaps manifest themselves because we are broken people.  We’re broken well beyond what a straighter hinge and a tighter screw are going to fix.  So, how do we weather the gaps?  It sure would be nice if Paul had some other part of his layout of the lifestyle of love here that stood as kind of a summary and enabler of the rest.  A final scorecard item to complete the set at the nice, Biblically-complete number of 12.  Oh wait: that’s why I’m preaching this morning.  Look at verse 7 with me: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  We all know those words.  We’ve heard them before.  If you’ve been to more than one wedding, there’s a good chance you’ve heard them.  They may have been read at your wedding.  We’ve heard them, but do we know what they mean?  Well, I said last week that if we’re going to do what Jesus did we have to think as Jesus thought so let’s think on this together for just a minute.  Bearing and enduring mean kind of the same thing.  You put up with something.  You tolerate it.  You weather it.  But, there are two ways to do this.  We can bear things with hope or we can bear things with despair.  Bearing things with despair is when we just keep…trudging…onward toward our end.  Eventually we’ll get to heaven and won’t have to put up with all of this any longer.  Yeah we get through it then, but there’s no life in this.  Bearing things with hope is different.  It involves believing firmly convinced that not only is the best yet to be, but that it is coming soon.  With this in mind, believing and hoping go together as well.  They force us toward this conclusion that Paul is talking about bearing with hope here, not despair.  So what does this look like in practice?

Well, what do you do when you encounter one of these gaps in your effort to intentionally move your partner in the direction of becoming more fully who God designed him to be?  How do you handle it when you expect one thing and she delivers to you another?  I submit there are two choices before us in moments like these.  We can weather the gap with despair and assume the worst.  He’s an idiot.  She’s always going to nag me.  He’ll never really be concerned about my feelings.  She’s never going to make an effort to show some interest in the things I like.  Or, we can weather the gap with hope and assume the best.  I know she seems irritable, but she’s just tired from dealing with the kids all day and I threw one last straw on the camel’s back.  I know he seems pretty insensitive to my feelings and my needs, but speaking a relational language is still pretty foreign to him and so he needs some help translating so his messages are understood clearly.  On the one hand, we expect one thing.  On the other hand, we are faced with another.  In other words: there’s a gap.  There’s a gap between reality and expectation.  Our natural expectations are high.  Certainly these can get twisted and reduced to a shadow of their natural state, but this takes time and a lot of experience with the hardness of reality.  Have you ever wondered why, though?  Have you ever thought much about why our expectations are naturally so high?  Why do we expect so much?  I think part of the answer is that our culture teaches us pretty consistently that we can and should have everything we want.  All our desires should be met.  But I also think there’s more to it than this.  King Solomon actually put his finger on this more in the Old Testament book that is probably more relevant to the spirit of modern culture than anything else.  In Ecclesiastes 3:11: “…He has put eternity into the heart of people.”  We were designed from the beginning with a longing not only for what should be, but in fact what will be.

When we have the emotional experience of recognizing that things are not as they should be, we are right.  We long for a day when the tit-for-tat nonsense that characterizes so many of our interactions in marriage will be gone.  We long for a day when we will understand each other every time without any lack of clarity.  We long for a day when we will be able to be fully the men and women necessary to treat the people around us as they ought to be treated.  We long for a day when the gaps will be closed.  We are right to long for this.  We were in fact designed to long for this.  The design and intention of love in this life is to help bring the light of reality to this longing.  It is to move us in the direction of experiencing the content of our hope now so that in small ways along the journey, faith is becoming sight.  We can’t yet see clearly.  In fact God Himself is the one who keeps us from seeing with perfect clarity because we are not yet ready to wrap our minds around and make sense of what our eyes will take in then, but in bits and pieces He is giving us more and more of the real picture.  It’s almost like the old dollar on a string gag, but someday the joke is going to end and we’ll be rewarded with the whole vault.  Love helps us to weather the gaps so that we can keep moving onward in the direction of our prize.  Love enables us to think rightly so that we can choose grace-seasoned words so that we can enjoy the one-fleshness for which we were designed so that we can rest securely atop our foundation.  Do you see the progression here?  We’ve been taking it in reverse, but now we have the whole picture.  When we act in love, we assume the best.  We weather the gaps with hope.  This allows us to put into practice all those other eleven items on Paul’s list.  This, my friends, is the outplay of love.  Love weathers the gap between not merely what is and what should be.  Love weathers the gap between what is and what will be with hope.  Love weathers the gap between what is and what will be with hope.  And with this final structure in place, we are able to at last set the prize of our marriage firmly where it should be.  When we rest securely on each of our pillars, all rooted in our foundation, we will make the transition from being merely married, to being married well.  Love weathers the gap between what is and what will be with hope.  May you know this hope and experience it yourselves.