The #1 thing for couples to do
Healthy relationships were already hard enough.
Creating and maintaining a you-first, quick-to-listen, how-can-I-help relationship took effort and energy like few other things in our lives. For many of us, the daily choice to love our significant other like Jesus loves us was one of the hardest/most beautiful choices we had learned to make.
And then the coronavirus hit.
In just weeks, what already was hard got harder. Couples were squeezed into small spaces, breathing the same air a bit too often. Gone was the high speed internet of the office, replaced by the plodding pace of our homes’ Wi-Fi, which spun in nauseating circles as she Zoomed with her coworkers and he tried to upload a work video to Google Drive. New questions filled our home-sweet-homes: Who gets to use the comfortable chair for their “office”? Who has to be quiet for whose video chats? Which parent has the responsibility to read all the emails about sixth-grade virtual learning? What does sex look like in a world where the kids can’t leave the house (and we fear the germs carried home on the bodies of essential workers)?
I could go on.
If you’re in a relationship, this is a scary new world. There are new questions, new conversations, and new challenges to work through.
Which is exactly why I wrote these devotions. My hope is that the next few days are a spiritual crash course so you and your ________ (fill in their pet name here) will not just survive the coronavirus but thrive in the midst of it.
So here’s my first encouragement—Seek God.
Back in 2003, in the days when corona was just a beer, I stood before the altar with my bride as our pastor painted a simple yet profound picture of a healthy marriage. He said something like, “Imagine a triangle with God at the top and you two down at the lower points. As each of you personally gets closer to God [his fingers followed the angled lines toward the top of his imaginary triangle], guess what happens to you? You get closer to each other. Closeness to him brings closeness for you.”
Brilliant. And experience has taught me that he was so right.
The closer you and I get to God, the more grace transforms our lives. When we seek him in his Word, we find out that our God is loving, gracious, forgiving, kind, patient, holy, humble, good, and glorious. Through quiet times with chapter and verse, we become thrillingly convinced that we are adored by our Father, made pure by our Savior, and filled with his Spirit. Day by day, God becomes enough for us, satisfying our souls and freeing us from the ugly need to get what we want, when we want it.
King David once wrote, “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
And that, it turns out, is what makes marriage good. Especially in seasons like this.
We will dig into this idea in the days to come, but for now, let me encourage you with my pastor’s advice and David’s inspired words—Seek God. Delight in him. Meditate on who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. Schedule and prioritize time away from the to-do list in order to move one step closer to your Father’s heart.
I know that your world has been shaken up. Old routines were infected and now lay on life support. You are probably scrambling just to get through the day. But when you seek God first, you find out that your heart already has what it needs. Through faith in Jesus, you need to be saved—and you are. You need to be loved—and you are. You need forgiveness for your sins—and there is. You need there to be a plan—and there is. You need hope that things will work out—and they will. You need supernatural power to check all the boxes that God has on his to-do list for you—and you have it.
That’s why I am so grateful that you are reading these words. It means that, even in the midst of the madness, you care about your connection with God. Keep reading. Keep delighting in his promises.
Jesus once said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Because seeking the God of love leads to love. Love for Jesus. Love for one another.
And that is what we need to thrive.
How can I help?
“Booze sales are booming!” the internet headline reported.
“Did you see the report on porn use during the pandemic?” a friend texted.
Why do you think so many people, even Christian people, are turning to short-term pleasure during the coronavirus? Besides drunkenness and sexual immorality, many of us are tempted to cross moral lines with online spending, gambling, gaming, and eating. Why might you? Why might your significant other?
According to many experts, addicts are likely to relapse when they’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired, and/or bored (HALTB, as some describe it). I have a hunch that acronym applies to all of us as Christians.
And the coronavirus has created a uniquely tempting time. Many of us are angry about all the uncertainty in our lives. Social distancing has made us lonely while solving work/church/family problems through a buffering video feed that has left us tired. We have played more board games than ever, yet our brains are bored.
No wonder sin seems so appealing.
But this is one of the wonderful blessings of marriage. Right by our side, under our very roof, is a companion. A fellow human who (1) can totally relate and (2) cares about us deeply. As God originally put it, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’” (Genesis 2:18).
This is one of our greatest callings—to help the one we are with.
Unlike God, our significant other is not all-powerful. They are weak, frail, and easily tempted. They feel the weight of situations they can’t control and the anxiety of problems they can’t solve. That is why they need so much help, both from God and from us.
So let me offer two encouragements today:
First, ask honest, specific, and safe questions of your significant other. “How are you doing today? Really?” “Lots of people are struggling with this and are turning to alcohol or food or porn. How has that been for you?” Whatever their answer, don’t get angry. (Angry people aren’t good helpers.) Remember that your spouse is a fellow human, perhaps even a fellow brother or sister in Christ, and they need your help. So offer to help. Ask them how their soul is holding up under all this pressure.
Second, offer to pray. You can’t snap your fingers and fix all their problems, but you can talk to the One who can. Tell them that you will pray specifically for their struggle. Write down their request and promise to pray over it during the upcoming day. Put it on a sticky note and stick it to the bathroom mirror so you both see it. Even better, offer to pray right then and there. Thank God for his mercy at the cross. Beg God for a spirit of self-control.
That will help. And this is what we are for one another—helpers.
Especially during a time like this.
“You First!” makes us blessed
A few years ago, I grabbed a fat black marker and decided to “decorate” the two white throw pillows on our bed.
(I probably should have checked with my wife before unleashing my D+ artistic skills . . .)
On one pillow I inked “You” and on the other “First.” I wanted our bedroom, a symbol of our life together as a couple, to have that message front and center—You First.
After 16 years of marriage, God has taught me (often the hard way) that “You First!” makes us blessed while “Me First!” makes a mess. Whenever I get caught up in too much me—my wants, my preferences, my opinion, my plans, my schedule, my timing—our marriage is a mess. But when I put my wife first, we both end up so blessed.
That wisdom is vital as we all try to make it through the coronavirus.
Because corona has presented us with all kinds of new things to disagree about. What precautions should we take with self-isolation? Should we gather with a few family members for a birthday? Who gets to work where in the house and when and for how long? How clean should we keep the place when we’re in it 24/7? Who has to help the kids with their schoolwork while taking care of their own work? How often will we be intimate given the stress we’re dealing with? When do we all put the screens away and just talk? And who will cook this never-ending, God-help-me-make-it! string of meals?
You been there?
Every difference of opinion is a slow pitch for you to either (1) make a mess or (2) make you blessed.
Listen to God’s guidance: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3,4).
I know that can be hard. The selfish part of our hearts can always find a reason or two (or 128) why “me” should come first this time. But God wants the long-term blessing that comes out of short-term sacrifice. So he calls us to choose and live a “You First!” life.
But don’t worry—you have Jesus to help you. Immediately after these challenging words, we hear about the Savior who put us first. Read Philippians 2:5-10 for proof. Despite being in very nature God, Jesus humbled himself and became our servant. He loved lowly people like you, took time for insignificant people like me, and eventually hung on a cross to put us first.
And that makes us so blessed!
Because Jesus put us first, we have God with us wherever we hunker down. We have his wonderfully stubborn love that refuses to let us go, even when we have to keep our distance from one another. In the room where you are (I’m talking to you, child of God!), there is the very God who created the universe! He’s that close! That glorious God is with you!
Because Jesus put you first.
How can we ever thank God for love like that? Here’s one suggestion: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).
How blessed you both will be when you fix your eyes on Jesus and then say to your significant other, “You First!”
The Ten Commandments of communication
“Pastor, after six years of marriage, I need a reminder of the Ten Commandments of Communication. That might keep us from attacking each other.”
“Pastor, maybe sometime you can go over communication rules with my husband and me. I think that would be good for us.”
Those two messages showed up on my phone just one day apart. I wasn’t surprised.
As the coronavirus continues to affect our lives, our communication skills become even more critical. Increased pressure and heightened stress put the Christian quality of our words to the test.
I think that’s why these wise Christians reached out for help. They wanted to get back to the basics, to push “reset” on their conversational patterns so that their words would speak life and not death.
“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21).
Could you use that help too? Whether you’re hoping to lovingly communicate with your spouse, your kids, or the people on the other side of the screen, these Ten Commandments of Communication are a great place to start. I encourage you to read them over, pray about each one, and then prioritize one or two that you would like to work on this week.
May God draw you closer together as you do!
- You shall not try to “win.”—Our natural/sinful reaction to any argument is to win at all costs. Therefore, mentally remind yourself that this conversation is about loving, not winning. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight” (James 4:1,2).
- You shall never say, “Never.”—In our desire to win an argument, we often lie. How so? We use words like always and never. “You always say that!” “You never think about what I do.” “You always bring that up!” Unfortunately, these are blatant exaggerations that only make the other person defensive (Exodus 20:16).
- You shall not interrupt.—When we want to win an argument, we feel the need to interrupt each other. We want to negate the other person’s point by jumping in with our version of the truth. But love is patient and is willing to wait (1 Corinthians 13:4).
- You shall pick your battles.—Sharing every single thing that bothers you is the quickest way to become a constant critic and a nag. Cast all your troubles on God but choose which troubles to share with your spouse. “Sin is not ended by multiplying words” (Proverbs 10:19).
- You shall resist OCD (Obsessive Comparison Disorder).—When we are criticized, our hearts obsessively compare our behavior to our spouse’s. Is he serving me? Is she always grateful for what I do? Why doesn’t he remember the stuff that I do right? Did she forget the time that I . . . ? Sadly, OCD is a guaranteed way to continue the crazy cycle, miss your spouse’s point, and make your marriage worse. Instead, listen, empathize, and ask, “What can I do to help?” (Philippians 2:3,4).
- You shall stick to the subject.—Our hearts hate being called out. Therefore, they desperately search for any other subject to redirect the conversation (“Well, you’re not so perfect either!” “You bring this up after the day I had?”). There might be times to address other issues, but this is not one of them. Focus on the subject that’s troubling your spouse, and you both will be happier faster.
- You shall not text (or watch the game or play video games or scroll on your phone . . .) and talk.—Love gives its full attention to another. Since no one likes being half listened to, God wants us to give our full attention to our spouse. Consider saying, “Let me finish up this text, and then I’ll give you my full attention.”
- You shall repeat thy spouse’s point.—When we want to win an argument, we are waiting for a pause so we can jump in and throw a few verbal punches. Don’t! Instead, make sure to repeat, in your own words, the point that was just made. Don’t add your opinion. Don’t agree or disagree. Just prove that you were listening and you understand exactly what your spouse is feeling.
- You shall admit thy sins.—In order to “win,” we have to justify our wrongs. “I exaggerated because you . . . I interrupted because what you said wasn’t true . . .” etc. But that only fuels a crazy cycle of hurting each other. Instead, admit, with no strings attached, your sins. You’ll be surprised how often your confession prompts theirs. And even if it doesn’t, it’s the righteous thing to do.
- You shall argue at the foot of the cross.—Bringing Jesus’ love into any conversation changes everything. Look up and see the Savior who speaks patiently and graciously to you at your worst moments. Then look out at your spouse. That will give you the humility to speak as a fellow sinner, instead of a holier-than-thou saint (Hebrews 12:1,2).
Strong couples rely on community
I deeply miss my friends.
The coronavirus has blessed me with more time than ever with my bride and my daughters (which I adore), but it has left me with less time than ever with my friends (which I abhor). A year ago, my wife and I made a commitment to have dinner with three other couples whose faith and marriages we admire. During those monthly meals, we share lots of laughter (most of it appropriate 🙂 and ask lots of honest questions.
How is your marriage doing? Are you choosing “You First”? How about the issue you brought up last month?
As painful as it can be to admit the truth about the current state of my humility, I treasure those questions. They allow my friends/fellow believers to encourage me, pray for me, and lead me to the cross of my Savior, who died for sinful spouses too. I have experienced the truth of James’ words: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
Have you experienced that healing too?
If not, reach out to community. Find a couple whom you know and love, one who knows and loves you back. Ask them if you can be honest about the ups and downs of your relationship. Trust me, they will understand. As perfect as they might seem, every couple struggles, even in the church (it’s a hospital for sinners, after all). Be real with them, and ask for their prayers and their advice.
God would love to help you and heal you. According to James, he will most likely do it through them. Not through some Holy Spirit fire descending from heaven, but through the loving response of those who’ve heard your confession of sins.
The enemy would love for that not to happen. He hates spiritual healing. He despises couples who put each other first because they know the Jesus who put them first on the cross. He would adore it if you would just finish this reading plan, check that final box, and keep doing life alone.
So let’s frustrate the devil today and live in community. The Christian faith is not about impressing others with our strength but about relying on others in our weakness.
Because those “others” know exactly where to lead us. Back to Jesus. Back to the cross. Back to the love that never fails.
I pray that this encouragement, and all the ones that came before it, allow you and your family to survive the coronavirus. In fact, I am praying today that you do more than survive.
I pray that you thrive. In Jesus’ name.