Gary Thomas: The best marriages I’ve seen are marriages where the two people live for something outside of themselves and that’s the kingdom of God. They have purpose. They don't let the small stuff become the big stuff. Look, if you're working on a task, if you're seeing people's lives change, these little things that husbands and wives so often fight about, they just don't matter.
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John Fuller: That's Gary Thomas and you'll hear more from him today on Focus on the Family about finding that common purpose with your spouse. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly, and I'm John Fuller.
Jim Daly: Uh... most of us get married because we want to be happy and we want to be loved. It's very normal. God wants that for us, too. But He also wants so much more for us in our marriages, and that is to spur one another on in our relationship with God.
One reason marriages get stuck is because we want our spouse to change. To meet our needs instead of changing ourselves to meet our spouse’s needs. And that is the simple beauty, and the truth of marriage, in my opinion.
Today, Gary is going to challenge us to take hold of a bigger vision for our marriages and become the husband or wife that our spouse needs. I think that's a bold statement. Um... here at Focus on the Family we want to help you thrive in your marriage. We have so many articles, resources, and downloads to help you in your marriage, as well as a team of caring Christian counselors that are available on staff to talk with you and help you walk through whatever situation you may be facing.
John: Yeah. Our number, if you'd like to talk to somebody, is 800-A-FAMILY. 800-232-6459. And online, you'll find these great resources at focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And Gary Thomas is typically, one of the most popular guests we feature here on Focus on the Family. He and his wife, Lisa, live in Houston, and have three grown children. He is a best-selling author of a number of books including A Lifelong Love: How to Have Lasting Friendship, Intimacy, and Purpose in Your Marriage. And with that, let's go ahead and hear how the conversation got underway.
Jim: Gary, let’s start right there. It is a pretty uh … veiled selfish act, isn’t it? We marry people ‘cause they’re making us feel so good about ourselves when we’re courting.
Gary: Right. And in one sense, the … that’s understandable and I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. But I look at it like this. That’s the whipped cream. Uh … go back to one of my favorite desserts, an ice cream sundae. They didn’t start building the ice cream sundae by saying, what can I put under the whipped cream? Or what could I put under a cherry? And then under the whipped cre … ? It starts out with an ice cream sundae is built on ice cream.
And I think our happiness and our fulfillment is sort of the whipped cream. But I want to call people back to the ice cream, which I actually think is worship. I think that’s the best foundation for a fulfilling life and a fulfilling marriage. So, we’ve taken the whipped cream and made it the main thing. I want to go back to the new substance that we sustain our marriages primarily through worship.
Jim: Before we really get there though, you had a … kind of a dramatic “ah-ha” moment in your own marriage. Describe how this revelation came to you.
Gary: I was praying one time and it … it was like a 2 x 4, Jim, when I realized I’d gotten married for primarily selfish reasons. [I] liked the way my wife looked. Uh … we laughed together. I thought she would be a good mom. And it’s understandable. You’ve gotta make those decisions when you’re deciding who to marry.
But when I looked at the fact that it was getting married because this is what you’ll bring to me and talking to so many couples, nobody has really questioned me. I said, “Didn’t you get married for primarily selfish reasons? You thought you’d have a better life married to this person than not, or married to this person instead of that person.”
And when we realize that selfishness is what draws most marriages together, and what I’m gonna suggest is, that perhaps God designed marriage to attack our selfishness. That’s when we realize we need to get on God’s page to really go deeper into our marriages and appreciate the fullness of marriage. Otherwise, what happens is, we have a great three years, while we fulfill our selfish needs and then a frustrating 30 years as we say, “What happened to what we used to have?”
Jim: I … you know, I’ve uh … realized that and I’d say only in the last couple of years, that idea that … that selfish core, that … what … maybe what God did here--and I always say it in a sense of humor-- is bringing two opposite people together and then it helps you to work on your selflessness, to make us more like Him. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?
Gary: Absolutely. When I got married, I thought my greatest need was to be loved. I wanted to find somebody who would always have my back, who would always be there, who would always look well, who would never say a … a hurtful word or do a hurtful thing, because I thought that was my greatest need.
And when my marriage changed is when I realized that God has already met that need. I’m loved as well as anybody could be loved. I’m loved as well as it’s possible to be loved. God has created me. He adores me. He knows me. He has saved me. He has redeemed me. And so, my greatest need isn’t to be loved any more than somebody who’s just pushed back from a Thanksgiving table, has the greatest need to be fed. I mean, love is a need and being fed is a need. But when the need has been met, your greatest need is something very different.
And for me, I realized, now my greatest need is to learn how to love. And I started going through the Scriptures and I … I … and we could go through dozens of passages. Love extravagantly. Love your enemies. Your love for each other should be increasing, so many passages where the Bible says, your greatest need is to learn how to grow in love.
And when I realized my greatest need wasn’t to be loved, but to learn how to love, then I looked at my days very differently. When I thought my greatest need was to loved, a good day was when I was noticed, appreciated, cared for and shown affection.
Now a good day, if I believe my greatest need is to learn how to love, is when I can notice, when I can show affection, when I can serve. So, it completely changed the grid by which I look at my marriage or what constitutes a good day in marriage.
Jim: What keeps us from that revelation? I mean, why don’t most of us understand this? Is it be … simply because as human beings, we’ve very selfish?
Gary: I think selfish is a big one. I think pride is another. I honestly think most of us and I … look, I’m including myself here above all of this. I learned most of this stuff by messing up in the (Chuckling) area first. And—
Gary: --for me … well …
Jim: I want a story.
Gary: Well, for … for me, it was … is pride. It was thinking that my marriage will be better when my spouse gets her stuff together. (Laughter) And … and most couples I talk to, Jim, uh … in pastoral counseling, that really is the moment where we have to come to that revelation. They come saying, “Will you please straighten out my spouse?” Instead of, “How can we bring God into this situation?”
Jim: In your book, A Lifelong Love, you talk about something. I love the term. It’s “magnificent obsession.”
Jim: Uh … it’s not a perfume. That’s good. (Laughter) But what uh … what do you mean by “magnificent obsession”?
Gary: The reality that we are married as two people who stumble in many ways, according to James 3:2 and that we have a lifelong love, addresses I think the two biggest challenges of marriage and that is frustration and boredom. Frustration that we’re called to love somebody who stumbles in many ways, not just a few ways, but in many ways. And then boredom, just because it’s the reality of human condition that frankly, none of us are so fascinating that we can keep somebody enchanted for five or six decades. (Laughter)
And a magnificent obsession lifts our marriage up to another level. It’s going back to the ice cream instead of the whipped cream, where the more I have this Matthew 6:33, seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, my marriage just has a whole different tenor, because now my marriage is connected to worship.
And here’s what I found. Worship has become more important to me every year that I’ve lived. Uh … it becomes a part of who I am. I … I see God’s glory. I think the more you begin to taste and see God, the more you want of Him, the more you realize He’s even more beautiful than you imagined 10 years ago and even yet, more inviting. And so, when my love to my wife is connected to something that’s growing, i.e. worship of God, then my love for my wife grows.
Gary: Now the part about boredom is just as simple. When Jesus says, seek first His kingdom, you can’t be satisfied with a selfish life, because we were created for more than that. If I got married for somebody to fulfill me, that’s even gonna get boring. Even if they’re fulfilling me, it’s gonna get boring. The way our brains operate, we just want something new.
But if we’re joined together to seek first God’s kingdom and we’re seeing God use us that that’s what we were made for, there’s no boredom in that. That’s as exciting as a marriage can get. Because if you accomplish the aim that God gave you, He’s got 100 other things He’s doing. He’s such an active God. He’s such a loving God.
The best marriages I’ve seen are marriages where the two people live for something outside of themselves and that’s the kingdom of God. They have purpose. They don’t let the small stuff become the big stuff. Look, if you’re working on a task, if you’re seeing people’s lives change, these little things that husbands and wives so often fight about, they just don’t matter so much.
Jim: Gary, we’ve gotta connect some of these dots, because you’re really … you … you put so much out there in just a few minutes. But uh … for that person that doesn’t understand that worship connection, uh … you need to describe that in terms of practical application. Uh … there have been times I know, especially in my 20’s and 30’s, when I just felt down and experienced that kind of worship and it brought my joy up. It brought my hope up. Um … you know, the Lord met me there in that point of need. Um … is that where you’re talking about, but to do it as a couple? What do you mean by worship in order to make your marriage healthy?
Gary: There was a moment in my marriage when I was not acting well as a husband. And I went to prayer and God Himself was convicting me, brought to mind, 1 John 3:1. “How great the love of the Father is for us, that we should be called children of God.” And when I realized that Lisa wasn’t just my wife, but she was His daughter that, that’s how He looks at her and that’s how He loves her and that’s who I was married to, from that moment on, everything about my marriage began to change.
Now having two daughters in their 20s, knowing how the greatest desire of my heart would be that they are loved well, knowing that I’m fully aware of how they stumble in many ways, the attitudes they can have, the actions that could be trying, if I saw a future son-in-law loving them in the midst of their faults, in the midst of their attitudes, literally nothing would please me more. There’s nothing they could do for me more than to love my girls, ‘cause they’ll always be my little girls.
And for me, when I realized how much God has given me, that I owe Him not only my life, but my new birth, my vision, my purpose, the grace that I live in so that I can look in the mirror even in the midst of all I’ve done and then God says to me, “And Gary, what I want you to do is love My little girl, like I’ve loved you.” How can I say no?
Jim: It changes …
Gary: I’m loving her out of reverence for God.
Jim: And it changes your perspective. I mean, that’s what you’re saying. It … it changes the way that you view that relationship, doesn’t it, profoundly.
Gary: I … I lost my earthly father-in-law and it was a terrible long drawn-out ordeal. He died of … of cancer, uh … which can be a terrible death. But the one thing cancer can give you, if I could put it this way, is you know it’s coming and you can have those conversations as opposed to an immediate heart attack or stroke.
And so, we would have conversations as the day was drawing nearer. And one I’ll never forget is actually a conversation we ended up having on the day he died. But before that he was talking about the rehearsal dinner that Lisa and I had had. Bill wasn’t a particularly sensitive guy. He didn’t cry a lot, but he broke down weeping at our rehearsal dinner.
And I had never seen him cry before that or really much after that and so, I was asking him about that. And he said, “Gary, when I looked at you standing next to Lisa at that dinner, I said to myself, ‘I don’t have to worry about Lisa. She’s gonna be okay. She’s found a man that’s gonna stand by her.’”
And now that I have two daughters in their 20’s. I … I get that. That’s the wish I think of every father. And so, when Bill asked to speak with me on the day he died, he … he literally asked me to pray that he could go home that day. He was just tired of fighting it. I just reminded him of that conversation, because I know as he knew, his eternal destiny was secure in Christ. If I was leaving that day to go with … be with Jesus, my one concern would be the family I’m leaving behind.
I reminded him and I said, “Bill, you don’t have to worry about Lisa. I’m gonna take care of her. I’m gonna love her. I’m gonna make sure she’s okay.” And realizing that, that’s how God looks at the wives that we married as His daughters. And women, that’s how God looks at your husbands who are His sons. Just as you so want your sons to be loved, not just in a stingy way, but generously, that’s how God wants your husbands to be loved through you. And so, when we worship a God Who is perfect, we’re motivated to love a spouse who’s imperfect out of reverence for the perfect God.
John: Well, some great thoughts from Gary Thomas on today’s “Focus on the Family.” And uh … this is the kind of program you’re going to want to get a copy of on CD or the download, so you can review it. Uh … I think, Jim, if … if I were to listen to this again, I’d glean all sorts of new insight that Gary is sharing here. There’s just so much.
Uh … the book that he’s written that addresses what we’re talkin’ about here today is A Lifelong Love. And you can find out more about it at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio .
Jim: Speak to that person who doesn’t know how to get unstuck. I mean, maybe he or she … they are bored. They are hitting that point in their marriage where it doesn’t seem to have the romance and the zip and you know, just the emotional connection anymore. Working hard, maybe they’re trying to save money, they just bought a house, whatever it might be, it just seems now to be the grind of life. Um … how do they lift their heads up and have their epiphany moment to say, “We could be living for so much more?”
Gary: What has helped me is to realize that even if I stop caring about my marriage, God cares about my marriage, because God cares so much about who I’m married to.
And so, it’s recognizing how dear my wife is to God. And you might be married to this common woman or this common man and you seem ‘em in their most common moments, when they get out of bed and when they’re tired at the end of the day. But when you realize how dear they are to God, and it’s fine to say, “Lord, I need to recapture your heart for this person. I need to recapture your wonder for this person.” And God will help us do that when we understand God’s role, not just as our heavenly Father, but as a heavenly Father-in-law, because that’ what He is.
Jim: Gary, you talked in your book about the prosecuting attorney, you know, in relationships. Man, that … that resonated, because so often couples, and I do it, too, you get into discussions with your spouse and you do, you turn into the prosecuting attorney. What did you do? Why did you do it? How much did you spend? I mean, there’s so many ways to fill in the blank there.
Jim: Um … again, it seems so natural—
Jim: --to our flesh to fall into that. And I would say some people would probably say, sometimes it’s practical. You have to have those discussions. How could you spend that much money on X? But um … you’re saying, refrain from doin’ that. Become the defense attorney. Talk about that.
Gary: I … I preached a sermon out at Second Baptist, Romans 8:31, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” And my goal in marriage is that I be as “for my spouse” as God is for me. And God is for me in the midst of my sin. Now He hates my sin. He wants the sin to stop, but there is never a moment when He stops being for me.
He’s a healing physician, not a prosecuting attorney. And so, He’s trying to woo me away from my sin. He’s convicting me in my sin. He’s saying, I don’t want that for you. It will destroy you. It will destroy your relationships. But He does it because He’s for me, not because of what it does to Him or for Him. And so, in the midst of my wife’s struggles or in the midst of my kids’ struggles, it’s how can I show you that I’m for you here? That I’m not lookin’ at this as how it aggrieves me or how it inconveniences me or how it embarrasses me, but because I want the best for you, as God wants the best for me.
And again, the only way I can get that is when I’m going to prayer and God forgives me and when I’m loved by God, I see how He loves me, which is why 1 John 4:19, we love … why? Because He first loved us. And when I realize, I have to bathe myself in God’s love. If I’m scrimping on worship, I become a much more demanding husband, because I’m not then living in the magnificent obsession. I’m like, look, I’m not getting what I need from God, so you’ve gotta start filling it up. And then it’s like, how do I fix my wife instead of how do I love my wife?
Jim: How do we close that gap though? I mean, you’re describing something that within Christendom particularly, there is what we want to be and then there’s reality when it comes to our Christian expression.
Gary: One, we have to be reminded of some of the same truths. One time uh … look, my wife and I have an agreement. When I give a marriage anecdote, I’m the bad guy. I mean, I … I would hate being married to a Christian writer or speaker (Laughter), because all your private stuff becomes public. So, usually when I give an analogy, it’s I’m the bad guy. But there’s one time when I was just frustrated with what my wife was doing. I … I could hear God’s voice so clearly. This is how your wife stumbles.
And I teach this. I preach on it just about every weekend, James 3:2, “We all stumble in many ways.” And God was saying, “Look, do you really believe this? I mean, you say you know it and then your wife stumbles and you’re like, why can’t I have a perfect wife?” And I would just say, look into your heart. Don’t you kind of resent the fact that your spouse isn’t perfect? Most of us do, but if we accept the scriptural reality, that we stumble in many ways and our spouse stumbles in many ways, it was helpful for me to say, okay, this is how my wife stumbles.
So, how do I help love her in the midst of that? Not denying it, but being sort of a healing presence in the midst of it. And I think that’s where love is built. I mean, love is built in understanding. Understanding isn’t blind. This is where we’re weak.
Uh .. one of the healthiest men I know, he’s really one of my best friends, he’s just so matter of fact. He goes, “Gary, that’s why I’m too harsh and that’s why you’re too passive.” You know, he just (Laughter) … he just throws that down. He didn’t sugar coat it and that’s why I still respect you. It’s just, look, I … I know you’re too passive. But he loves me and I respect him for it.
And I … I think that’s where you see real love in a marriage, when a husband can say, yeah, this is where my wife stumbles. Or a wife says, this is where my husband stumbles. But we love ‘em in the midst of it, because we know there are no perfect spouses to be found and so, then how do I be your partner in the midst of that?
Look, if I catch my now daughter-in-law, love and support my son in the midst of his stumbling, she still forgave him; she showed him grace. She lifted him up. She honored him. That would please me as much as anything that she could do. And that’s what I’m saying that we’re called to do for our own spouses. God looks at our spouses as His children and that’s really one of the best ways to honor Him, to worship Him, to serve Him, is to take care of His children. Nothing is dearer to God’s heart than His children, and we get the pleasure of being married to those children.
Jim: To be able to do that though, Gary, it’s helpful to understand what’s causing us to be so quick to write a ticket for our spouse. I mean, why are we so quick to write a ticket when we’re not happy with an action of a statement or a purchase or whatever it might be. We’re quick with the ticket book. Why?
Gary: It goes back to, I believe, what we said earlier, that we think our greatest need is to be loved instead of to learn how to love. And when our spouse does something, we feel like, that’s not what I signed up for. You’re supposed to be fulfilling me. You’re supposed to be making me happy. If that’s why I got married and it’s not happening, then I’m frustrated.
If I get married thinking my greatest need is to be loved and I’m not being loved, if my wife is having a bad day, if she’s tired, if she’s depressed, if she’s sick, I might even resent it. Jim, I’ve literally talked to husbands whose wives were laid out with a medical issue, feeling sorry for themselves, not for their wives, ‘cause now they have to step up to the challenge. That’s how selfish we can be. That’s how radical the love is that Jesus calls us to.
Gary: And where this will cut so deeply for some of the listeners, where it will seem so pie-in-the-sky, is that Jesus just looks at our needs and our life so radically differently than we do. But here’s the thing. You can’t dress up selfishness. You can’t put a good coat on pride and say it looks attractive. Jesus wants to crucify our selfishness. He wants to crucify our pride. Until we want to crucify our selfishness and pride, we’ll resent when marriage puts a spotlight on it, rather than grow in the midst of that.
Gary: In addition to recognizing our spouse stumbles in many ways, uh … the second question we need to ask is, why is my spouse the way they are? One woman one time was so frustrated with her husband the way he was acting. And she just went into prayer with that and at first, her prayers were, “Lord, why does he do this? Why is he that? Why is he this?” And she just finally … when she got to the end of her questions, she got to the beginning of God’s.
And she was blown away when God said, “Have you ever asked yourself, why he’s this way?” And she went back over his history, his recent history, how when they got married, his mom died soon thereafter, how he was in a successful business and his partners made some bad decisions that left him penniless and starting over and he was so humiliated he even had to move at middle age back into his dad’s house. And … and all of the things that happened and then she became disabled and she couldn’t help with the family budget and what not. And then all of a sudden, she said, “Of course, he’s acting out of stress. Of course he’s this. Of course he’s that.”
And I think so often that’s what we do. We become the prosecuting attorney and God wants us to be the defense attorney, where He’s saying, “Have you ever thought why they’re acting this way? What led them to …? Think about their parents. Think about their upbringing. Think about their hurts. Then we become part of the solution. Rather than laying down a sentence, we can be a healing presence in their life.
So, we recognize that every spouse stumbles in many ways. This is how my spouse stumbles. And then I have to ask, why does my spouse stumble this way, so that I can have the compassion and empathy, rather than resentment and frustration.
Jim: Well, and what we’re hearing is that heart. You have a heart. The Lord has opened these perspectives to you. Um … you know, there’s a couple of other concepts out of your book, A Lifelong Love, I’d like to cover, one which I think is funny, “A Monk’s Marriage.” And I’ll leave that there for next time, because I want you to come back next time to find out with me what a monk’s marriage analogy is all about. I’m intrigued by that. I didn’t know monks could be married. How about you, John?
John: (Laughing) Well, that could be the hook?
Jim: (Laughing) And then also the uh … the effect of the Holy Spirit in our lives, particularly in this of marriage and how we need to lean into the Holy Spirit. Um … so, let’s come back. Could we do that, Gary?
Gary: Yes, absolutely.
Jim: Let’s do it, come back and uh … talk about those concepts next time.
John: It's always enjoyable having Gary Thomas in the studio with us. And if you've been inspired by the conversation to work on your relationship both with God, and your spouse, then we're going to suggest you pick up a copy of A Lifelong Love, which weaves together historical understandings of marriage, as well as scripture, and some real wisdom applied to relationships.
Jim: Now, John, our conversation with Gary today, highlights why we exist here at Focus on the Family. Simply because, we want you to thrive in your marriage. We think it's a wonderful testimony when Christians have that kind of marriage that others admire.
Maybe you've been listening along today and your marriage is in a bad spot, or a tough spot, and you don't know what to do. We have caring Christian counselors available on staff here, for free. They can give you an initial consultation, then refer you to someone in your local area.
They can also tell you about our Hope Restored program. This is a marriage intensive for couples on the brink of separation. Maybe you've even signed the divorce papers. Four out of five couples who go through this program, when surveyed two years later, are still together and doing better. So, it's worth it to invest in your marriage if you're in that spot.
John: Yeah. Take a step of faith if you're struggling and call to find out more about Hope Restored or to talk to one of our counselors.
Our number is 800, the letter "A," and the word family. 800-232-6459.
Jim: And then for those of you who regularly appreciate and listen to the broadcast, would you make a donation for our work here? We have about six million listeners, and about 184 thousand folks support the ministry.
So, if you're listening and you haven't supported Focus, can we count on you to help us? The money all goes back to producing programs like this one, and creating resources, including the counseling department, to be there for those couples who are hurting.
So, if you can, join our ministry team. Be part of what God is doing through Focus on the Family.
John: Make your donation. Join our team. And uh... help families world-wide. And uh... we'll say "Thank you" by sending a copy of Lifelong Love to you.
Our number is 800, the letter "A," and the word family. Or online, you can donate and get resources at focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Join us again, tomorrow, when we'll hear more from Gary Thomas about how you can put God at the center of your marriage.
I'm John Fuller, and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team here, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. Join us next time as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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Gary ThomasView Bio
Gary Thomas is an international speaker and best-selling, award-winning author whose books include Pure Pleasure, Holy Available and Sacred Marriage. He has also written numerous articles for several prominent national magazines. Gary and his wife, Lisa, reside in Texas and have three children. You can learn more about Gary by visiting his website, www.garythomas.com.