As a full-time comedian, Kenn Kington works hard to see the funny side of life. Whether he’s traveling by plane or by car, situations arise that can produce frustration or laughter, and Kenn tries to choose joy whenever possible.
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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 (laughs) instead of changing ourselves to meet our spouse’s needs.
Jim: And that, 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. 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 speak with a counselor, is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Or we’ve got details at Focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
We can also tell you about the resources Jim mentioned, and our guest Gary Thomas, who is a popular author and speaker. And he’s been on this program a number of times. Gary wrote a book called 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 on today’s episode of Focus on the Family.
Jim: Gary, let’s start right there. It is a pretty 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, 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. 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 cream?”
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 a new substance, that we sustain our marriages primarily through worship.
Jim: Before we really get there, though, you had a kind of a dramatic “aha” moment in your own marriage. Describe how this revelation came to you.
Gary: I was praying one time, and it, it was like a two-by-four, Jim, when I realized I’d gotten married for primarily selfish reasons. I liked the way my wife looked. We laughed together. I thought she would be a good mom.
And it’s understandable. You’ve got to make those decisions when you’re deciding who to marry. But when I look 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 going to 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 (laughs) and then a frustrating 30 years as we say, “What happened to what we used to have?”
Jim: Mm. I, you know, I’ve 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-
Jim: … more like Him.
Jim: 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 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 the Thanksgiving table has a greatest need to be fed. Love is a need, and being fed is a need. But when they need has been met, your greatest need is something very different. And for me, I realize now my greatest need is to learn how to love.
And I started going through the Scriptures, and 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 needs 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…
Gary: … then I looked at my days (laughs) very differently. When I thought my greatest need was to be 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 simply because, as human beings, we’re 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 area (laughs) first. And for me-
Jim: I want a story.
Gary: Well, for me, it was, is pride. It was thinking that my marriage will be better when my spouse gets here stuff together.
Gary: And, and most couples I talk to 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.
Jim: 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.
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. 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. And 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 going to get boring. Even if they’re fulfilling me, it’s going to 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, and 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 a hundred 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.
Gary: 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-
Gary: … so much.
Jim: Uh, Gary, we’ve got to connect some of these dots-
Jim: … because you really, you, you put so much out there in just a few minutes. But for that person that doesn’t understand that worship connection you need to describe that in terms of practical application.
Jim: There have been times, I know, especially in my 20s and 30s, when I just felt down and experienced that kind of worship. And it brought my joy up, it brought my hope up. You know, the Lord met me there in that point of need.
Is that what 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, 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.
Gary: 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? Uh, I’m loving her out of-
Jim: It changes-
Gary: … 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.
Jim: Doesn’t it?
Gary: It does.
Gary: I lost my earthly father-in-law, and it was a terrible, long, drawn out ordeal. He died of, of cancer at, 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 near, 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.
Gary: 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.’”
Gary: “… ‘She’s going to be okay.’”
Gary: “… ‘She’s found a man that’s going to stand by her.’”
And so when Bill asked to speak with me on the day he died, he, he literally asked me to pray (laughs) 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.
Gary: I reminded him and I said, “Bill, you don’t have to worry about Lisa. I’m going to take care of her. I’m going to love her. I’m going to 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: Some great thoughts from our guest today on Focus on the Family, Gary Thomas. And he’s sharing concepts from his book A Lifelong Love. We highly recommend you get a copy of that from us here at the ministry. Stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast, or call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY.
All right. Here’s more from our conversation with Gary on today’s Focus on the Family.
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, the, 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.
Jim: 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 (laughs), 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 see them 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-
Gary: … because that’s 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.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
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 doing that. Become the defense attorney. Talk about that.
Gary: I preached a sermon out at 2nd 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’s never a moment when He stops being for me.
Gary: 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 looking 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, you know, 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-
Gary: … 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 got to start filling it up.” And then it’s like, How do I fix my wife?,” instead of, “How do I love my wife?”
Jim: H- 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: Yeah. Okay.
Jim: How does a couple really close that gap? I hear you. I want to apply the Scripture in that way. I want to live that way. But there’s like a drain that keeps pulling me over here-
Jim: … to react and to act in a way that isn’t that. Now, I feel more guilty. But how do I get out of this rut? How do I not behave the way my flesh causes me to behave, and behave in a different way?
Gary: Yeah. One, we have to reminded of some of the same truths. One time… Look, my wife and I have an agreement. When I give a marriage anecdote, I’m the bad guy (laughs). I mean, I, I would hate being married to a Christian writer/speaker-
Gary: … because all your private stuff becomes public.
Gary: So usually, when I give an analogy, it’s I’m the bad guy. But there was one time when I was just frustrated with what my wife was doing. I could hear God’s voice so clearly, “This is how your wife stumbles.”
Gary: 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? Uh, most of us do. But if we expect 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.
Gary: 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. I… One of the healthiest men I know, he’s really one of my best friends. He’s just so matter-of-fact. He’s goes, “Yeah, that’s why I’m too harsh and that’s why you’re too passive.”
Gary: You know, he just, he just throws that down. He didn’t sugarcoat it.
Jim: Yeah. Right (laughs).
Gary: 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 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 them 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.
Gary: 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 or a statement or-
Jim: … 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. Like, Jim, I have literally talked to husband whose wives were laid out with a medical issue, feeling sorry for themselves, not for their wives (laughs), ’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 lives 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 that our spouse stumbles in many ways, a, the second question we need to ask is, “Why is my spouse the way they are?”
Gary: 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 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.
Gary: 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 whatnot. And then all of the 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 hurt.” 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, and what we’re hearing is that heart. You have a heart. The Lord has opened these perspectives to you. You know, there’s a couple of other concepts out of your book, A Lifelong Love, I’d like to cover. One (laughs), 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: (laughs). Well, that could be the hook.
Jim: And then also, the, um, the effect of the Holy Spirit in our lives, particularly in this area 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 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: And John, let me illuminate for all of us, you know, that, that great group of people that are helping to pay for everything. We have about six million listeners a week. So think of a given week of Focus on the Family broadcasts. Out of that group, roughly about 3800 will donate to Focus.
Jim: And I’m, I’m just trying to bring this to the surface, because that’s a big burden on a relatively small number of the listenership. And that’s about half of one percent. I would love to ask for those who may listen regularly, and that’s good, we love that. And hopefully, we’re providing you with terrific content to apply to your marriage, to your parenting. But if you could help us, if we could move that number to one percent of the listenership actually financially helping Focus, that would be tremendous for this ministry.
The best way to do that is a monthly pledge. That’s how Jean and I support the ministry. John and Dena-
John: We do as well.
Jim: … that’s how you do it.
Jim: And, uh, it just evens out the cashflow for Focus, and we know how to budget and plan for the months ahead. If you’re in a position to do that, we would encourage you to be part of the ministry. The Lord sees the big picture.
And if you can’t afford it and a one-time gift is what you can do, that would be great, too. And if you’re in such a place that you just can’t, we love you, we respect you. But I hope we can move that to one percent. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
John: Yeah. That would be tremendous. And we’d love to hear from you today. Donate when you call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459, or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: And John, like we often do, if you can do that, if you can join us in ministry, we’ll send you a copy of Gary Thomas’s wonderful book, A Lifelong Love, as our way of saying thank you for being part of the ministry.
John: And we’ll have more from Gary Thomas next time describing how you can put God at the center of your marriage.
For now, on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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