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Embracing God's Desire for Your Marriage (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date 04/11/2016

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In a discussion based on his book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas describes how God uses marriage to make us holy, not just happy. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Transcript


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John Fuller: Someone said that one of the best wedding gifts God gave you was a full-length mirror called your spouse and had there been a card attached, it would've said, "Here's to helping you discover what you're really like." Some of us may want to send that gift back, but there is a nugget of wisdom in that quote and we're gonna take a look in the mirror, so to speak, on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly.

Jim Daly: John, I think one of the reasons marriages are failing so quickly today is that we often don't like what we see in the mirror. But then we blame the mirror, don't we? And that's really blaming God or blaming our spouse for what the reflection there is, our inadequacies.

Maybe you've mistakenly embraced marriage for your personal happiness and I'm tellin' you, the longer I live, the more I see God in His purposes in marriage and I'm very excited to talk to our special guest today about the nature of marriage.

John: And our guest is Gary Thomas, who's been here before, He is a best-selling author and one of his books is called Sacred Marriage. That's what we're gonna dive into today. Gary and his wife, Lisa, have three grown children and they live in Houston, Texas.


Jim: Hey, Gary, welcome back to "Focus on the Family."

Gary Thomas: Thank you, Jim.

Jim: Let me start there with that broader question, which is, as I said, the longer I live, the more that statement by Paul rings true, that you could see God in the nature God created. And it's very simple. I mean, when you look at marriage, maybe it's not about us. Maybe it's about becoming more like Him and how does He do that in marriage?

Gary: I believe in every aspect of marriage, there's the invitation to become more like Christ. The problem is that we have to accept that as one of the purposes of marriage. I got married for an entirely opposite reason. I wanted somebody to love me. I wanted somebody to appreciate me. I wanted somebody to occasionally serve me; I'm embarrassed to say that. And it wasn't until I really began to understand that marriage is about becoming, that I really began to get a feel for why God created marriage and what it could do.

We don't have this sense that we're becoming someone. We have this sense that we want someone to be there for us. We don't even have the sense that we need to become something we're not. In fact, we kinda define love as, you're supposed to accept me as I am and appreciate me as I am and respect me as I am.

And so, we lose that whole emphasis that marriage can call us to become someone else, more importantly, call us to become more like Jesus Christ.

Jim: Well, and that's the point. Can you give me a practical example? 'Cause I understand kinda, sorta what you're talkin' about, to become something else than you are today. So, in my marriage. How would that apply for me? What would I be becoming in a healthy sense?

Gary: Let me give an example right after 9/11. They shut down the airports, we all know, for several days and I started traveling again. But when they reopened the airports, it was an entirely different experience when you were flying. It could be in the early days before TSA was up and running, it was, you know, [an] hour and a half, sometimes two hours in security, practically strip-searched, trying to get through.

And it's one thing if you do that occasionally, but when you're traveling just about every weekend and they're going through it and they weren't completely trained yet. And I don't mean to be uncharitable, but it felt like you were dealing with a Keystone Cops sometimes, just ridiculous questions and whatnot.

And I really started to get cynical. I started to get negative and I'd done this for several months and then my wife finally went on a trip with me. Our kids were much younger at the time and so, she didn't travel with me as much. And after we went through it, she just kinda looked at me and said, "What has happened?" And I said, "What do you mean?" She goes, "Well, you're cynical. You're negative. You're kinda rude." She goes, "That's not the person I've ever known you to be."

And I realized that an ugly situation was turning me into an ugly person. I was letting that situation stamp me into who I was. And here I was hopefully, going to churches, wanting to bring the light of Christ and acting like a son of Satan on my way to get there.

And I realized, you know, that's not who I want to be. That's not what God would want of me. And so, that was an example where my wife could be that God-mirror to me, saying, "You know what? This is who I know you to be. This is how you're acting here. What's going on?"

And I think there would've been a time in my marriage when I would've resented it. I might have even said defensively, "Well, if you'd had to go through the last few months like I have" and what not, but instead just accepting it as a call. "Gary, there's some issues in your life that need to be addressed. Welcome it. This is your wife, your sister in Christ saying, "I think you can do better in this area."

Now if you resent the thought that you could do better in an area, you'll resist that. But if you believe that I think Scripture calls us to become more and more like Christ, we can welcome those moments.

Jim: I'm back there with you, considering acting like the son of Satan. I mean (Laughter), but it's true. If you lose your Christ-like character in some situations, and that's probably exactly the spot where God wants to deal with you and try to get a handle on that, isn't He?

Gary: Yeah and you know, and I think one of the funnier ones in Sacred Marriage that people have talked about is how I got married thinkin' I'm just this very easy-going guy (Laughter), right. Back in junior high, I was voted "Most Polite." I'm third of four kids. I'm not a Type A personality. Jim, you have all the skills that I lack. I wouldn't want to run an organization. I don't want to be in charge. I don't want to be responsible for budgets or personnel or hire or fire or evaluate all of that. I just feel like I'm out of my wheelhouse and I really admire those administrators that can do that.

And so, I thought, you know, I'm just this laid-back kind of guy. I'm not easily irritable. And so, I was even voted that by my peers and they got it. But then when you get married and you realize the silly things that really bug you.

Jim: Give us an example.

Gary: Well, for Lisa and I it was ice cube trays. (Laughter) The family I grew up in—

John: Ice cube trays.

Gary: --yeah, in the days before, believe it or not, automatic ice makers in your freezer, the family I grew up in, if you got out an ice cube, you're supposed to refill the tray and put it back in the freezer, so the next person would have a nice full tray of ice cubes. And I'm convinced that's the biblical way to handle yourself in the kitchen.

Jim: I'm all with you.

Gary: My wife, unfortunately, grew up in a family where they'd run those things down to an ice chip, all right. If there's something you could scrape off with a knife that could conceivably be called "ice," you weren't morally obligated to refill the tray.

Jim: So, the last cube, the last man fills the—

Gary: Yeah.

Jim: --tray.

Gary: And I had a really bad habit back then. My wife has since cured me of it, but I had to have my daily Pepsi and I gotta tell you, if you've got one tiny little ice cube, the Pepsi wins every time and I hated drinking warm Pepsi.

And so, I had to deal with this frustration. How do I explain to my new bride how much of my happiness depends on having this nice full tray of ice cubes? And I just couldn't get my point across. And so, one night she was speaking romantically to me and I thought, "Here's my chance."

Jim: No!

Gary: Yeah, I know. (Laughter)

Jim: No!

Gary: I was a young husband, Jim. (Laughter)

Jim: Back off.

Gary: She said, "Gary, I'm gonna love you forever." And I said, "Honey, I don't need you to love me forever; I need you to love me for seven seconds." 'She looked. She said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "I timed how long it takes to fill the ice cube trays (Laughter) and to put 'em in the freezer." And we both kinda laughed at that. She goes, "Gary, we're at that again, seriously, at this moment? Do you realize what's goin' on?"

And it really helped me to understand that, you know, there are these issues in my life that, you know, I've never dealt with some issues that some guy[s do]. I've never been drunk. I don't use the language. I don't really blow off the temper and embarrass Lisa that way.

But you know what? I have my routines and you step on my routines at your peril. And I had to realize, that's not like Jesus. He said, He came not to be served, but to serve. And it's not about everybody saying, "Gary, what makes you comfortable? What doesn't put you out?"

And so, it really shined a spotlight on an area that I was blind to. I'm more irritable than I thought in certain areas. They might not seem like morally significant areas, but those are the root issues that really can make people around us miserable and that don't shine the light of Christ.

Jim: The ice-cube tray man. I like it. You got a new nickname. Hey, Gary, in your book, Sacred Marriage, which is a classic and you've updated it and as John, you said, it's one of your wheelhouse books.

John: Yeah, we recommend this book a lot to folks.

Jim: Yeah. You make a comment. In fact, it's the subtitle of the book where you ask what I think is the core question. It is What If God Designed Marriage To Make Us Holy, More Than to Make Us Happy?" And Gary, again, in my own relationship with Jean and the culture, in the Christian community, I'm not sure that we have a good handle on this one. It's not about holiness. It is about my happiness and I don't care.

Gary: Yeah, well, the book was first published in the year 2000, so it was written in the '90's. And what I discovered at that time is that most Christian books were focused on how can you be happier in your marriage? How can you be more fulfilled in your marriage? How can you make your marriage more pleasant?

And while I understand those concerns and I understand those desires, because I share all of them, I wanted to present this picture where God presents that holiness is the doorway to happiness. It's that by pursuing holiness that we arrive at happiness.

And when we don't recognize the challenges of marriage that are designed, I believe, to help us grow in holiness, then we undercut our own satisfaction with our marriage. We become frustrated with our marriage, because we're looking for something that God didn't create marriage to give.

Jim: Gary, let me ask you this though. Is it a new phenomenon in the last 20, 30 years?You said you wrote this in the late '90's. It was published in 2000. You revised it, but was this happening in the '60's and in the 1930's? Why are we all of a sudden going, wait a minute; something may not be right with what we're pursuing?

Gary: When you look back, not that long ago and even going 100 years ago, which isn't that far in human history, people expected that marriage was a lot of work, because it was—raising kids. And back then, you couldn't necessarily limit the size of the families the way we can now.

That people expected it's hard work to raise a family. It's hard work to meet the bills and whether you're farming or whatnot. And I'm finding with younger couples today, Jim, one of the challenges is that they just are shocked at how much work is involved in being a spouse and particularly, in being a parent.

Jim: Well, let me say "shocked" is one word. Are they overwhelmed and incapable of giving of themselves? Is that the core problem?

Gary: Absolutely. I feel like what happens if we don't prepare people with this mind-set,it's like taking soldiers straight from Wall Street or Main Street and putting them in the middle of a war zone without training them, that what's going on? I didn't expect it.

And when we get married thinking, because I want to be fulfilled, because I want to be happy and then all of a sudden, we have a spouse that has demands on us and we have to learn to give way to them and then we have kids that seem like nothing but demands early on in the years. And we're just tired and all of a sudden it's like, how did I get lured into this? Not realizing that it's one of the most glorious things. It helps us become men. It helps us become women. It helps us become who I think we want to be.

Jim: You know, when we look at it, today we do shy away from pain in our culture, almost in every way. We over-parent our kids to keep them safe. We don't want them to even scratch their knee and we laugh about that a lot. We talk about it a lot here, John.

But it's true, too in this marriage category. We focus on ourselves and what our needs are as we're doing premarital counseling, even going into the relationship. It's not so much about the art of giving and learning to be patient, kind of the fruit of the Spirit, if we could be blunt—love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, meekness, patience. Those aren't the fruits that we develop. Why? What are we missing? Why are we so self-focused today in the culture and particularly in the Christian culture?

Gary: I've grown up on the Christian classics--Christian books that were written hundreds or sometimes thousands of years ago--and that's what informed my early books. I believe it's what informed Sacred Marriage, just trying to explore how Christians have understood the faith through the centuries.

And the one thing that I think is crystal clear is, that the ancients valued holiness, while we value our salvation and that makes all the difference. There isn't this compelling desire to grow in holiness today. In fact, it's looked at with suspicion. It's almost looked at with words like "legalism" or "self-righteousness" or that we're trying to save ourselves.

And it's not that at all. You look at all of the Scriptures. I could go over passage after passage after passage. The fact is, I do in Sacred Marriage; it really calls us to grow, not to be saved, but because we're saved, learning to surrender to the work of the Spirit, learning that joy and peace and happiness are found behind goodness. It's our sin that brings so much misery into our lives.

And so, there's this essence that, we want to pursue holiness. We want to grow in holiness, just like you pursue retirement savings, just like you pursue physical fitness, just like some people in Dallas, Texas pursue trying to look younger and younger and younger (Laughter), as they get older and older and older.

Jim: That's true around the country.

Gary: That's gotta be a Houston joke thrown in at the Dallas people. But we pursue so many things in this culture and yet, it's surprising. Even in the Christian circles, it's looked at with suspicion if somebody says they want to pursue holiness. It's almost looked at as a dangerous thing, when it's what we're called to be.

John: Well, we're hearing some pretty deep thoughts about the Christian life and about Christian marriage on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and our guest is Gary Thomas and we're talking about his class book. It's sold more than a half million copies. It's called Sacred Marriage and as Jim noted, the subtitle is, What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy. And we've got the book and a CD or a download of this conversation at

And Gary, I appreciate that earlier you alluded to this, but I think it's important for us to hear, holiness is not exclusive from happiness, because if I'm in a marriage right now hearing you, I'm thinking, oh, great. I'm gonna choose to be unhappy, but holy. That's not what you're saying, is it?

Gary: No, I really believe that holiness is the doorway to happiness. Holiness is what protects our happiness. When you have two people that are fighting over selfish things and James talks about this, nobody can win. But when you're really tryin' to pursue who you are in Christ, it can really help you, I believe, understand how to resolve some of the unresolvable conflicts of marriage.

John: And so, that includes ice cubes, right?

Gary: Yeah.

John: So, fighting over ice cubes, there's a holy way to do that.

Gary: Well, it's not just wanting my wife to start filling the ice cube trays for me. It's me seeing how I can be driven by certain silly routines and like I want you to live for my comfort.

Well, if I coddle my selfishness, it's like any other lust. It can't be satisfied. If somebody's a materialist, they'll never have enough money. If somebody is selfish, they'll never have enough stuff. If somebody just lusts for appreciation, they'll never be appreciated enough. Sin can't be satisfied. It needs to be crucified.

And my marriage changed when I realized that marriage was a place where my sin could be crucified.

Gary: It really comes down to this. We can choose to let sin tear apart our marriages or we can use our marriages to tear apart our sin.

Jim: You actually made a statement that I want to repeat right here, because I think it fits so well. You said that behind every case of marital dissatisfaction lies unrepentant sin. I mean, that's a big charge and a real mind-bender. So, okay, is that true if I think about Jean and me, those areas where I'm dissatisfied, is there unrepentant sin in my heart? And the answer is yes. I mean, I would say that's true. Do you have examples of that for you and Lisa?

Gary: So, here's a classic case in point. Again, it goes back to my routines or whatnot.

But when we lived back in Seattle, Washington, I actually lived north of that and Seattle has a place called Green Lake. It's a very popular place for people to run and I loved running around Green Lake. There are just different places.

So often when I flew into Seattle and then drove up to Bellingham, I would stop at Green Lake and go for my run. But I'm still about 75 miles away, so I'd have to sit in wet, sweaty running clothes till I got home and I could shower.

Well, it just so happens, my son became employed in Seattle with his new wife, had an apartment a block and a half away from Green Lake.

Jim: Perfect.

Gary: And I'm thinkin', I can run around Green Lake and I get to take a shower before I go home. And I know this is so stupid to some people who are saying, "Gary, get a life." But you know, you are who you are.

And so, the first time we're there at his apartment, we're talking about what are you gonna do? And I said, "Yeah, but when am I gonna run?" And Lisa's tryin' to set up afternoon plans with them. "Well, then we go. "Yeah, but then how am I gonna get a run?"

And Lisa just very gently, patiently, kindly said, "Gary, maybe getting in a run isn't the most important thing this afternoon. Maybe you can run longer tomorrow, a little bit shorter today and everything will be okay."

And she did it in a way where I could say, "Gary, you're obsessing again." Again, Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. And I was sayin', I want my family schedule to revolve around the fact I can finally run around Green Lake and get a shower immediately afterwards, 'cause I know somebody who has a place right next to here.

And instead of saying, "But I want to take the shower," it's just saying, I see this marriage as a chance to grow in holiness. This isn't the kind of person I want to be. So, Gary, just receive it and accept it.

And you know what? I did get my run in and in the glorious part of it, I actually got to run with my son and listeners of "Focus on the Family" will be happy. I actually ran into Les Parrott, had a great talk with (Laughter) Les Parrott. So, it was a banner day. Of course, he lives just by there.

Jim: You can use his shower. (Laughter)

Gary: Well--

Jim: Except he won't let you.

Gary: --I didn't know him that well at the time. I bet I could now, but back then I don't know that I would've done that.

Jim: Hey, Gary, let me give you a couple of examples though or a couple of subject topics that will be a little more difficult. You know, here at Focus on the Family, when there's marital strife and people are writing us and calling us or calling our counseling department, it'll be around the area of intimacy in their marriage or finances in their marriage. How would this apply in that regard?

Let's say you have a couple that you know, he's spending money out of control. She's the saver and it's a more serious issue. They've not accumulated 20,000 worth of debt. She can't seem to get his attention on this. How does this apply in that context?

Gary: That's a classic case, where it's our sin that makes us miserable. If you don't have your spending under control, you just inject stress and fear and uncertainty and worry into the rest of your family. You put your family's future at risk. You put your family's financial stability at risk.

And so, being holy there doesn't just mean putting up with it and pretending it's not happening. It might mean praying for courage to confront and to persist and to help your spouse realize, this can't go on. It's not just about you. There are real issues here that we have to address.

And so, holiness appeals to who Christ is. Christ confronted people. Christ comforted people. Christ would convict people. Christ would heal people. So, holiness doesn't just mean putting up with our spouse's holiness. Some of us and I think I kinda fall into this, are more of a people pleaser. If I want to be holier, sometimes I have to confront more. I have to speak up more and that would be a classic case in point, where you need to do that for the same of your family, saying, this can't go on.

Jim: Gary, that sounds again, theoretically the right thing to do, the correct thing to do, but how vulnerable are we to say to our spouses, "Hey, let me know when I'm living in sin?" I mean, we don't normally sit down and talk to each other that way. We should, 'cause this is our helpmate; this is our No. 1 relationship in our life. But to say to our spouse, "Hey, point out where all my errors are," that could be really kinda dangerous.

Gary: But it's what we're called to be, because we're not just husband and wife; we're brother and sister in Christ. Paul tells husbands, "Love your wives as Christ loved the church, who gave Himself up for her and died, to make her holy."

And so, part of love is helping somebody become more like Christ. And to let things go on is to let evil reign. And the problem with evil is that it increases. It's like a snowball. If it's not confronted, if it's not arrested, it usually gets worse. That's particularly true of problems like spending. It's particularly true of things like food addictions. Certainly it's true of sexual addictions.

To turn a blind eye to that is really to put the future at risk. If I could plateau at certain sins, I think I would have been more likely to join in. But I've seen too many souls where you don't get to choose where you stop. Once you enter the road of disobedience, the brakes get weaker and weaker and weaker and you can't believe how far you've fallen.

And so, one of the most loving things we can do is call people back to life. And I would put it, callin' 'em back to happiness. Callin' 'em back to joy. They're making themselves miserable with their sin. There's a reason God is calling us out of it.

Gary: Here's an example with a woman who had legitimate complaints against her husband. He wasn't involved with the kids as he should be. He didn't go to church as often as she does. He didn't hold her hand like he used to. She just came and she was so filled, I would say even to the point of contempt, how he was failing on so many fronts.

And yet, she kind of vaguely alluded to things that she's had to deal with herself. She had an addiction to food that resulted in her gaining 75 pounds since they'd been married. She had a prior sexual addition that made sexual intimacy problematic in marriage and she knew that, that was an issue that was going on.

She admitted she had a biting tongue. She could be a little bit cruel. She's very clever and she could use that occasionally to tear him down. And yet, she was just here. "How do I fix my husband?" Now he had legitimate areas that needed to be addressed, but sometimes when you see that your spouse has legitimate areas that need to be addressed, that can somehow excuse you, we think from legitimate areas that we need to address.

And I think what we all need to do is look at James 3:2, when James said, "We all stumble in many ways." We all stumble in many ways and James had a unique perspective, growing up as the brother of Jesus Christ (Laughter) with a completely perfect Person. You can imagine what that would do to—

Jim: A bit of pressure.

Gary: --sibling rivalry. But you see, he compared himself to Jesus. We compare ourselves to the worst husbands we can find. Wives compare themselves to the worst wives they can find and say, "Look, I'm doing far better than average, so now it's your time to step up."

But if we had the attitude of James, that look, when I compare myself to Jesus, the best of us, on our best day, stumble in many ways, then we'll deal with our stuff, too. So, I'm not saying don't deal with your spouse's stuff. What I am saying is, don't stop dealing with your stuff, too.

Jim: Well, and you're really emphasizing that great Scripture in Matthew that we typically apply to our neighbor or the external world, which says, get the log out of your own eye before you get the speck out of your spouse's. Let me just put in that context and that's really what you're saying. Work on your things that you need to improve. And really when you do that, Gary, your marriage will improve, because you'll have the right attitude.

Gary: I think a positive example is the best thing for a family, parents to children and spouse to spouse. It's infectious. When you have the joy of the Lord, others are shamed when they have the negativity. When you have the peace of Christ, others are ashamed when they're wracked by worry. When you have a giving mind-set, others are convicted when they see that they're making it all about them.

And so, don't underestimate the power of positive example.And when you have two spouses that are seeking to grow in holiness, it really does become geometric. You inspire each other. You lift each other up.

Now often someone will say, but Gary, my spouse is never gonna be there. I'm not even sure they're a Christian. I believe the presence of Christ and the example of Christ is so strong, that even if only one person is doing this, they're injecting the gentleness of Christ, the hope of Christ, the courage of Christ, the kindness of Christ, the unselfishness of Christ, the service of Christ. It's still gonna make the marriage better. I'm not gonna say it's the same as if two people are doing it, but it's still gonna be much better than it would've been if one is pursuing that earnestly.

Jim: Well, it's so true and you know what. When we talk about marriage and marriage as a policy issue, if we want to change the culture, Christian marriages need to be stronger to be a good witness to everyone. Gary, I've got so many more questions. Can you come back next time and let's delve in a little deeper on some of these great topics. I want to talk about the difference between a contract and a covenant and how that applies in marriage. Can you do it?

Gary: Ah, to be honest, I was hoping you'd ask.

Jim: (Chuckling)


John: Well, it's so good to have Gary here and to see how God wants to use your marriage to make you holy and to really stretch you in your faith.

As was mentioned earlier, Gary's book, Sacred Marriage, is really a go-to resource for me. I often suggest it to friends and if you've haven't read it or you've got someone perhaps getting married soon here as we come up on the summer months, get a copy when you call 800-A-FAMILY: 800-232-6459. In fact, we'll send that to you when you make a generous donation of any amount to support our marriage outreach here at Focus on the Family. Donate when you call 800-A-FAMILY Or at When you're there, also request a CD or a download of this two-part conversation to review. It's a great marriage discussion tool and it can help you understand a little bit more how your spouse is thinking and feeling about your relationship.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time as we hear more from Gary Thomas.


Gary Thomas: And I would say to the men listening to this program, wives are often more frustrated by our hiding and our lying than they are by our sin.

End of Excerpt

John: Well, some insights that you and your spouse can benefit from, have a stronger relationship next time, as we once again, help your family thrive.

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Gary Thomas

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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,