Christians in Relationship 2

In the first post (Christians in Relationship 1) I presented an overview of Ephesians 4:17-32 as the heart of developing Christian relationships. This also forms the basis for marriage relationships. In other words, how do Paul’s words apply specifically to those who plan to marry or who are married and are struggling?

I use the following diagram as a starting point and work through the relationship from two perspectives.

Marriage01

On the left side is the worldly pattern of establishing and building a relationship; on the right is the Biblical perspective for doing so.

Left Side: Worldly Pattern

Dating: In a worldly approach to relationships the dating phase is physically oriented, most often focused on outward appearances. There is an attraction of some kind on the part of both people. In today’s world that often means the beginnings of a sexual relationship.

As many point out to me, sexual intercourse is the expectation very soon in a relationship. If that doesn’t happen, then questions arise about the other person, and most often about the person himself or herself. Performance becomes critical. In my work with couples the issue is not about the other person, but “How am I performing?” (with the fear of being compared to others).

Engagement: As the couple moves into the Engagement phase, then the focus is on mind, will, and emotions. Here the people begin to know each other in various situations. One learns what makes the other happy, angry, how they speak to and treat one another. During this phase, there can be some heated arguments, what I call “knock-down, drag out fights” (not physically but emotionally). The method of “resolving” the conflict is often by having passionate sex. This leads to the assumption that things will work out because “we have found how well we work through our problems.”

Marriage: In the marriage phase the focus is on the spiritual. Will we have a church wedding? Will the sanctuary be beautiful enough for lasting memories. The first 2-3 years seem idyllic. But then move five years into the future, and see what changes take place. At that point what happens when there is a “knock-down, drag out fight”? Now instead of sex being the soothing balm to reconcile, it becomes the weapon: “You think we are having sex after that? Not on your life!”

Sadly, the pattern that seemed so exciting, soothing, and satisfying now sets the pattern for frustration, anger, and separation. In my experience, such emotions and responses are the stepping stones to divorce.

In my work with married couples on that side of the diagram, they look at me with surprise. Why? Because they recognize the pattern they followed in their relationship. Many times I have heard them exclaim “How did you know?”

Marriage02

Right Side: Biblical Pattern

Then I follow the right side of the diagram and walk them through the same three phases. In this perspective Ephesians 4:17-32 plays the crucial role. The assumption on this perspective is that both people have a right relationship with God, knowing that they are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

At the very beginning, then, the relationship involves three, not two: man, woman, and Christ. The one person recognizes that the other person is perfectly holy, righteous in God’s sight because of Jesus Christ. They both recognize that they are also 100% saint and 100% sinner. Sin is not absent, but it is dealt with in a Biblical way:

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9 NAS)

and especially in the context of Ephesians:

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Eph. 4:32 NAS)

Such an approach then is not demanding or expecting the other person to meet your needs. Rather, you help the other person find their spiritual and emotional needs/desires in Christ. This approach gives freedom to both and the best way to resolve problems.

Dating: The relationship develops on the basis of how to speak to one another, and about one another. Respect, appreciation, and concern for the other person comes first. Thus, according to Eph. 4:25-27 anger is not resolved by having sex, but speaking the truth in love. That means addressing both the anger and the underlying issue.

Of course, this approach requires listening to each other, not just to words, but emotions/background as well. The other key point about speaking and listening is how far do the boundaries of the argument extend. In other words, Paul writes:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,a but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Eph. 4:29 (NIV)

Thus the argument is not helped by bringing in family or friends. That only compounds the problems and leads to distancing rather resolution. If sin is involved then each person goes back to 1 John 1:8-9 and Ephesians 4:32.

Engagement: In this phase, the process of developing relationships is strengthened and tested. In other words, the proverbial “knock-down, drag out fight” is met head-on with confession and forgiveness (liturgically, absolution). Resolving is not achieved through someone winning, but through Christ and forgiveness. This frees up the couple to deal with the hard issues of mind, will, and emotions that can be debilitating.

Marriage: Now the relationship moves to the joining of husband and wife physically. In this approach, sex becomes a reflection of the love they have for each other based on their relationship to Christ. Now five years later when another major “knock-down, drag out fight”occurs, the resolution is confession and forgiveness. This, then, frees up sex to be not a “solution” but a demonstration of the solution of forgiveness and love in Christ.

So what?

About this time the couple (whether married or considering marriage) begins to despair. The usual question is: “What can be done, since we began on the left side, following the worldly model?”

Here is the astounding good news for them: No matter where they are on the left side of the diagram, confession and forgiveness bring about a new reality; they start over on the right side. Many pre-marital couples then commit themselves to not having sex again until marriage. A few will say “But we love each so much, how can we do this?” That question actually is “me-directed” not “you-directed.” So I ask, “How much do you love this other person?” The typical response is: “I love her/him so much!” Then I ask, “Do you love the person enough not to have sex?” Notice that moves the love from self-centered expression to other-centered.

Over the past 28 years I have seen couples moving to the divorce court who have come through this process, and the divorce court no longer becomes their solution. I continue to work with couples as they learn to develop a love based on confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. So also, with those contemplating marriage.

This approach takes time, because the world pattern and influence is invasive, persistent, and seductive. This means that not just the pastor but every Christian has to encourage, support, and teach the Biblical pattern. And if sin is involved, then we don’t hold it over someone’s head, but forgive, restore, and continue to help them grow in their relationship with Christ and one another.

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Christians in Relationships 1

This is a two part blog on Christians and Relationships. We will end up considering marriage as a special subset. In this blog our focus is the background to relationships among Christians. The second blog will focus on marriage and the relationship within marriage.

Marriage: What comes to mind? The beauty of a wedding ceremony? The attacks on marriage in recent news? The factors within marriage that threaten marriage? Or something else?

Are our views on marriage influenced by the culture in which we live? Is marriage even viable in our culture? Listening to many, we might get the impression that marriage needs to be “expanded.” For some, “other arrangements” are equally viable.

Marriage can be a hot topic, even a painful topic for many. Even if your own marriage is solid, you are probably related to someone of friends of someone who is divorced on moving in that direction.

What is the Christian response to all this?

Many times Christians will point to Ephesians 5:22-33 or 1 Peter 3:1-7, as if such texts solve the problem. In Ephesians 5 Paul wrote about the relationship between husbands and wives, which reflects the relationship Jesus has with the Church. What kind of relationship do you have with Jesus? With your spouse? With family members who are married, divorced, separated?

Ephesians 4:17-32

As pastor I use a different starting point, namely Ephesians 4:17-32. Why? Because there Paul lays the foundation of all relationships (among Christians). The text in Ephesians 5 is one premier example of that but not the entirety of relationships.

Ephesians 4:17-24 (NAS)

17 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Notice that Paul identified that the new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5) has implications for the person. On the negative side many things are left behind.

“no longer living in futility,
darkened understanding,
excluded from the life of God,
hardness of heart
callous
given to sensuality
greed”

On the positive side, something new comes in place of all that:

“heard Jesus
taught in Him
lay aside old self
renewed in the spirit of your mind
put on new self
created in righteousness
and holiness of the truth.”

Thus, the change from the old person to this new person is not just a temporary fix of a situation. It is not a solution to “make it work” with this person. The change Paul described elsewhere is more dramatic: the old person being put to death, a new person brought to life.

Romans 6:4-6 (NAS)

Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.… knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin;  7 for he who has died is freed from sin.

11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 4:25-32 (NAS)

Paul continues in Ephesians 4 to describe that change from death to life.

Therefore, laying aside falsehood, “speak truth each one of you with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. 26 “Be angry, and yet do not sin”; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not give the devil an opportunity. 28 He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. 29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. 30 Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Paul covers four items: speaking (25, 29), anger (26, 27), work (28), and forgiving (32). Each of these receives special mention because it is in the abuse or neglect of these that we run into problems.

Speaking the truth: Sadly, even in churches we fail to do so. We hedge our words, we want to criticize but not seem like we are. We want to “share the latest” but really want an excuse to gossip. If we can put someone down (just a little) then that seems to raise our estimate of our own worth. Rather as a new person in Christ, we speak the truth, and we do so in love, genuine God-implanted love. Speaking in such a way shows that this person is indeed a sister or brother in Christ.

Our speaking is not flavored with “spicy/racy” words, a practice all too common among some Christians and even pastors. Rather our words are meant for building up one another. Whoever listens to you will receive grace. In other words, if someone hears you speaking about a fellow Christian, what is the response that will be triggered? Rudeness, vulgarity, anger, sarcasm, bitterness, slander? If you address another Christian about a sin, i.e. Matthew 18:15-20, then that speaking is done in private, not where someone else may overhear.

Do we show love when we speak? Do we show respect? What will your children hear when you speak about your spouse? What about the person you’ve been witnessing to? How will he or she respond to what is heard? As Christians we speak words that encourage, uplift, support, and strengthen others.

Anger seems a way of life for people; some seem to claim that it is “just my nature.” No, that is part of the old nature, the anger that drives and festers and causes wounds. Rather, righteous anger, anger that reflects God’s kingdom is different. This is not a “offense-against-me” kind of anger that is selfish. Rather this righteous anger sees the world falling further into separation from God, the uplifting of sin and what happens to people and the devastation of sin. Thus, Paul can write that “be angry… but do not sin.” Yes, righteous anger, but never an excuse for sin in either unrighteous anger or righteous anger.

Work also shows the change from living dead to living alive. The repentant one will not only desire forgiveness but also what can be done to change the behavior. Thus, the one who had been stealing changes so that instead she or he can work and give to others, i.e. the reverse of stealing.

Forgiving—

Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a Christian is forgive. When someone sins against us, the effects are often greater than the sin. The wounds can be very deep and forgiveness may seem impossible.

Paul wrote this radical solution to sin: Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Read previous posts on forgiveness:

Forgiveness in the church

Liturgy — Response to Forgiveness

Liturgy — Brokenness, Forgiveness

God Has Amnesia

Liturgy—Confession and Absolution

Forgiveness for the Fallen