An interview with CCEF faculty member Winston Smith originally published at www.9marks.org.
9Marks: What is the conventional wisdom for having a healthy, happy marriage among evangelical Christians? Would you differ from the conventional wisdom? How?
Winston Smith: I think that the buzz word for the day—not just for Christians but marriages in general—seems to be compatibility. The idea is to locate your “soul mate” or the person who is most compatible with you.
There is something tricky about the idea of compatibility. There is an elementary wisdom that you actually see in the Proverbs concerning compatibility. Marriage is so much harder when you marry somebody you don’t like. “Like a constant dripping is a quarrelsome spouse.” You shouldn’t marry somebody that you don’t like or don’t get along with. That might sound like a no-brainer, but people do it. That’s where the Scriptures say, “Yes, compatibility means something.”
The slippery slope comes in when we go no further than a superficial understanding of compatibility—finding somebody that makes my life easy or makes me feel good. We lapse into this “relationship consumerism” where we go out in the world and look for a potential partner like we’re at a grocery store. We don’t look at others as someone that we are called to love. We tend to develop tunnel vision—looking for what is sugary and sweet. We actually make worse decisions rather than better decisions. We must be really careful about how we talk about compatibility. It’s okay to talk about it and acknowledge it as a factor, but when it stands alone, it just plays to the selfishness and sinfulness of the human heart.
Biblical Priorities and Premarital Counseling
9M: If the key to a healthy marriage is not just compatibility, what is it? Or let me place this in a real world setting and ask the question like this: What’s the most important thing to tell an engaged couple in premarital counseling? What’s the most important thing they need to get?
WS: Any time I meet with a couple who are planning to get married, one of the things I always have to keep in mind is that I’m looking at people who are bullet proof. That’s the way I think of it. In other words, by the time a couple gets to me for premarital counseling, they are often already engaged. Someone spent a few thousand dollars on an engagement ring. Sometimes the wedding invitations have already gone out, and they’re not really there to hear about their problems. They have come in to get a rubber stamp—that stamp of approval so they can go forward with confidence. My job is to help them understand that there are important reasons for them to be open to seeing their problems.
I think for the most part, young people get married because their dating experience has taught them that they are really good at having fun with each other. They have enjoyed wining and dining each other. And they want to cement that fun with marriage. It is really nice being married to somebody that you enjoy and have fun with, but ultimately marriage isn’t about fun. Fun can be one of the great byproducts of marriage, but ultimately a marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship to his bride, the church, and his love for her. It is our opportunity and our obligation in marriage to image that—to be a walking, talking portrait of that kind of love.
And you know what? That kind of love doesn’t just show up in the good and happy times. That kind of love is sometimes most visible when things go wrong. We know Christ’s love because he came to us in our messiness, our ugliness, our brokenness and our rebellion. This kind of marriage requires a couple to meet each other in those messy, scary places. In marriage counseling, I want to prepare people for this most critical part of imaging Christ. I need them to be willing to look at the messiness before they get married so they’ll know if they are making a wise decision.
9M: Is there anything else that is crucial for premarital counseling?
WS: I think the key word for premarital counseling is wisdom. The decision to marry somebody isn’t about maintaining an emotional high. It’s about making a wise decision. The wisdom of that decision is based on choosing someone to marry that you will love not only in their strengths, but you’ll be prepared to love and minister to in their weaknesses. Then, conversely, a wise decision is choosing somebody who will love you not just in the fun moments and in your strengths, but will minister to you and love you in your weakness. That’s a wisdom decision.
What I want to do in premarital counseling is not tell them whether they should or shouldn’t marry this person. They are free to marry anybody they want to marry who is a Christian. But I want to ask,
“What would a wise decision look like for you?”
“Here’s what I’m learning about you and your temptations and manner of life. Here’s what I’m learning about the other person, their manner of life, their temptations, their sins. What would it look like if you tried to minister to each other in that?”
“Here’s where your strengths would lie, and here’s where your weaknesses would lie. Here’s the way it would probably flesh out in marriage. Now you decide. Is that a ministry you’re willing to commit to for the rest of your life? That’s really your decision, not mine.”
On rare occasions, I’ve felt compelled to say, “This will be a disaster if you marry each other.” More often than not, I’ll say, “This is my realistic opinion of what it will look like and it’s up to you to decide if that’s okay with you or not.”
Cultural Change and Pornography
9M: How do you think the culture has changed over the last fifteen or twenty years? What do you think marriages are facing now that they may not have faced twenty years ago?
WS: There are probably many cultural pressures that make marriage different than it was even 15 or 20 years ago. I will just point out one because it’s one of the most insidious. I’ve seen time and time again just how powerful and destructive pornography is in marriages. Of course, pornography is more than 20 years old, but what has changed in the last 20 years is technology. In the past there was this shame barrier that you had to be willing to cross. To really throw yourself into pornography, you had to go to a different part of town. You had to get out of your car and walk into a store and be willing to be seen. Your name and your face would be associated with the material that you were handling. Now anonymity seems almost guaranteed. It’s not just available to you, it’s invading your life. It’s promoting itself. It will pop up in your e-mails. It will show up on the movie menu in the hotel room. Probably the classier the hotel, the easier it is to view pornography and the more shamelessly it’s displayed.
Pornography is on the offensive against you. It’s coming after you. So you have to have real reasons to say no to it, not just because you are going to get caught. That’s not a good enough reason because you’ll have opportunities to secretly indulge in it. The mode of pornography has changed, and the message has become amplified. Without being graphic, anybody who’s seen pornography will probably know what I’m talking about. Pornography is ultimately about anonymous, meaningless relationships where the center of focus is personal gratification.
Sex is wonderful, but sex is intended by God to communicate meaning and purpose. It is intended to communicate God’s commitment, covenantal and sacrificial love, tenderness and care. It is not intended to communicate a freedom to do what you can get away with, focus on yourself, and engage in anonymous, meaningless relationships. You take those anti-relationship messages of pornography and pair them with a physiological high and you’ve got something really nasty on your hands. It doesn’t just enslave a person’s time and thought life. It begins to invade the rest of their relationships. Those same messages of convenience, pleasure, and self-focus leak all over your life—they don’t just stay on your computer .
9M: Do you have any wisdom for pastors and churches for taking the offensive—ways they can be proactive in the battle against pornography?
WS: I think one of the ways churches should work against this threat, very simply, is to start talking about it. And don’t just talk about it as something that’s out there in the culture, but talk about it as something that’s coming after us as individuals and families in the church. Create forums/arenas where people who are battling with it can talk about it without being shamed or treated like second class citizens. Create an open conversation where this problem is treated with the same care, concern, and tenderness as any other sins and struggle.
This is a very simple but bold step. You need to say, “We’re going to talk about it like it’s a problem in our church, because it is.” It is a given. Of course, this conversation should occur as part of the larger culture of discipling and accountability that pastors should be cultivating in their churches.
Then be really practical in giving people tools to do something about it.
- If you have an Internet connection in your home, think of it as a portal to a XXX book store. You have a doorway in your house that leads to an adult book store if you have an internet connection, a cable TV, or satellite connection. So treat it like it’s a door that needs to be guarded and locked. It’s ok to be entertained with your computer, but you need to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You’re not just grazing on your computer.
- Limit private access to the computer. If you have a desktop computer, put it in a family area with the screen facing the middle of the room.
- There are all kinds of software available that are effective, but no software is foolproof. There are software options that are effective at erecting a barrier (stringing up some razor wire). If you break through, it’s because you wanted to break through – not because you were entrapped.
There are all kinds of basic things that we can do to protect ourselves, but we seem to walk around in churches with naiveté. People are assuming, “No one is talking about it so it must not be a problem.” I have seen countless examples of pastors and church administrators who’ve been ensnared by it. I have counseled people who work as cleaning staff who will log onto computers at night and look at pornography in the buildings they are cleaning. Hopefully, some of these suggestions will be helpful in battling this prevalent issue.
Building Healthy Marriages
9M: How do you build a culture of healthy marriages in the church? What are practical steps that pastors can pursue to build healthy marriages?
WS: I think any time you consider how to do something in the church, you should start off with how do I lead by example? Don’t jump to a program. Don’t jump to structure. Consider the following:
- How do I live in my marriage before my people?
- How does this show up in the pulpit?
- Do I talk about marriages as ministry from the pulpit?
- Do I talk about relationships as having a purpose from the pulpit?
- Do I help people understand from the pulpit what grace and love look like in the day-to-day details of life?
We all love preaching that has funny stories or even jokes. What we really need are applications that are earthy and applicable—down to the level of how you speak to each other. How do you fight with each other? How do you forgive? How do you deal with the day-to-day stuff where you live?
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