Winston Smith sits down and discusses the role of self disclosure in dating.
What was this intelligent woman thinking?! This guy was so wrong for her! Everyone else could see it! Why couldn’t she?
It was the first time I was asked to do premarital counseling. It was also when I awoke to the stupidity of love.
My pleas were powerless. I resorted to rudeness, then begging. I think I inserted a few prayers for pre-wedding catastrophe—things like global flooding—that would keep them from getting to the church. All to no avail. They were married a few months later, separated within a year, divorced within two. Somehow, the stupidity lasted until the wedding ceremony and maybe a few hours after, which is the natural progression of stupid love. Something happened while they were driving away from the reception that cured her disease. Then all she could think was, “What have I done?”
Love, of course, is not stupid.
Chemistry, masquerading as love, is stupid.
What is chemistry? It depends on the context. It typically means that you feel something when you are with or even think about the other person. You feel more alive. More often than not, chemistry also means, “I am interested in a sexual relationship with that person.”
Lack of chemistry tells you to say “no” to a person who otherwise seems so suited to you. But its presence tells you to say “yes”—even to a person who will guarantee a difficult relationship. Occasionally, chemistry gets it right and we make a wise relational decision, but some people win the lottery too.
It is complicated. Do you encourage marriage when there is no chemistry? Perhaps. But shouldn’t we expect that a marital partner is affected by—is moved by, feels something because of—the other person? And if chemistry connects to an interest in sex, then we would hope that there is some chemistry in every marriage. I have known people who married without any chemistry, and then, later, there was chemistry—but it was for someone else, and they renounced their marriage vows. Ugh. I love chemistry…and I hate chemistry.
How to respond to stupid love
What should we do when a loved one is overwhelmed by that chemical-combustion-mistaken-as-love? Here is one answer: I don’t know. I have yet to find anything that neutralizes it. Tackle the victims, tie them down, bring in a hundred witnesses to scream at and berate them, send them to boarding school—these are all fine ideas. They just don’t work. (Yes, it is sort of like treating an addiction).
But godly wisdom isn’t intimidated when we are at the end of ourselves. In fact, that is when godly wisdom begins its work. Wisdom begins with humble dependence on the Giver of Wisdom. It could include the following.
Loved ones can get it wrong. An unwise relationship can grow into something better. But loved ones often get it right, especially if they are part of a larger chorus that is singing the same refrain. Either way, parents, family and friends will be led through suffering when someone they love is afflicted with stupid love. And hardships lead us to spiritual dependence and prayer.
This week on Help and Hope our host Andrew Ray asks Dr. David Powlison and Dr. Mike Emlet the question: “is it wrong to marry a friend (without romantic feelings for them)?”
No wedding is complete without someone saying, “I had no idea what I was doing when I said ‘I do’.”
Well, it is time to put that refrain to death. This generation is learning from its mistakes. May the next generation know exactly what “I do” means.
It goes like this. I met a girl. I was quickly attracted to her. In other words, I liked how she looked. Then I got to know her, and I had even more reason to be attracted to her. So I asked her to marry me. She said yes, though she had a few reservations that we ironed out before the actual wedding.
And I had no idea what I was doing when I said “I do.”
I thought I was saying, “I am really attracted to you. In fact, I am attracted to you more than anyone else I’ve ever met. And I am going to close the door to being attracted to other people.” That, I thought, was impressively mature. My bride hit the jackpot.
The problem, of course, began when she disappointed me and, in a moment, I was shocked by how her attractiveness made no difference. She still looked the same and had the same fine attributes, but I was no longer as attracted.
Attraction is fun, and in Western systems of courtship and marriage, it is the way couples get started, but attraction is about me. It’s about how someone makes me feel. In that sense, attraction is rubbish. It gets people together but it is powerless to keep them together. Even more, attraction, without the addition of other forms of love, promises to separate marriages and any once-close relationship.
What must supplant attraction goes by different names – commitment, faithfulness, love that only death separates, covenantal love and others. Those are all good, and I am sure they guide many people, but they all fall short for me. Commitment seems sterile, so does faithfulness – dogs can do that. Covenantal love sounds too legal.
“I love you because I love you.” That is a great one. God spoke it to the Israelites and he continues to speak love to those who are with Jesus.
The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)
But this sets the bar too high. God loves because he is love; I am not love. So I have to search for other ways to describe this different-than-attraction love.
Servant-love? No, that is an important expression of love, but servants don’t share their hearts with the one they serve. They just do what they are supposed to do. The New Testament injects servant-love with new meaning and vitality, but there are times when it feels too impersonal.
“Admire” or “enjoy” are better than attraction. They are less self-referential. They suggest that there are praise worthy features in the other person. These, however, take time. When the thrill is gone in a relationship, admiration and enjoyment won’t offer any new power to love.
What we need is something that captures the imbalanced nature of the love of Jesus for us. He loved us first and he loved us more than we will ever love him in return. In response, we too want to love others first and more. That’s the way to be fully human.
The idea of debt captures it.
Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:7-8)
When we owe someone, there is a slight imbalance in the relationship. This is what “I do” means. We commit ourselves to give more than we receive.
Sample vows could go like this.
There are a number of reasons why I am attracted to you.
Now I will move on to better things.
I am committed to learn how to love you
more than I love me and
more than I want to be loved by you.
I want this to be obvious to you.
I want this to imitate the unity we can have with Jesus.
I want this to please God.
May God show me grace and mercy.
This vow aims to do at least two things. It dethrones the usurper Attraction, separates it from Jesus’ style of love, and re-establishes the imbalanced nature of Christian love. Unity shows up, as it should. Unity reminds us that real love is not silent when the other spouse is loveless. We can and should speak out when the other person is aiming for lesser things, such as mere attraction. For example, when the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he loved them more than they loved him, but he also pleaded with them to open their hearts and love him in return. In this, Paul was not saying, “I need love.” He was saying, “As members of Christ we are called to love one another. When we don’t, someone gets hurt and the glory of God becomes veiled to the world.”
For the next generation to get it right, we must loose our infatuation with attraction. We must prefer arguments about who is in debt to whom. “No, I owe you love, and I’m not listening to one more word of your protests.” I owe you more than you owe me – that’s where we go when we meditate on the love of Jesus. Then we can know exactly what we are doing when we say “I do.”
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.
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:
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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“Should We Get Married?” Gives questions to help couples consider whether to get engaged. First, are you both Christians? This question includes not only someone’s profession of faith, but also nuances that explore whether the Lord is actually first in a person’s life. Second, do you have a track record of solving problems biblically? This explores patterns of conflict and conflict resolution. Third, are you heading in the same direction in life? This explores different ways the past needs to be left behind and whether there is a common direction towards the future. Fourth, what do others who know you well think of your relationship? Get feedback from many different people. Fifth, do you want to marry this person, accepting each other just as you are? Marriage is a choice, meant to be made in the right way.