7 Ways Your Short-Term Mission Trip Can Have Long-Term Impact

Don't Let Your Short-Term Trip Be A Mountaintop Experience

mountain cross photo

For our team, it had been—quite literally—a mountaintop experience.

We had enjoyed a week of medical missions together on a mountain in Central America. God had welcomed 137 new believers into his family and provided healing for many others through our very humble efforts.

But as I stared out the window on the plane ride home, I began to feel uneasy. How could we—how could I—take what God had invested in us during our trip and continue to live that out back home? How could we apply it in our real, busy, and broken everyday lives where we so often just survive?

There’s no easy answer, but here are seven ideas that have been helpful to me that may be helpful to others returning from a short-term missions trip.

Expect Some Setbacks and Failures

Short-term trips take us out of our comfort zones, and while we are there outside the norm, we often experience a spiritual growth spurt. We learn new ways to rely on God and engage with people. But when we return, as fallen sinners it’s natural to slide back into patterns of self-reliance or simply become overwhelmed.

Recognizing and turning from unhealthy pre-trip patterns is a sign of God’s grace, but we need to have reasonable expectations for ourselves when we return. If we don’t, we may despair and fall back into doing nothing at all once we fail to integrate our new spiritual lessons into everyday life.

I had the privilege of writing this article as a guest post for IMB, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.  They have a massive vision for reaching the world for Christ.  You can read the rest of the article here.

Controversy, Cops & Black Lives Matter

4 Ways We Can Talk Even When We Disagree

yelling & controversy

Photo by global.quiz

Everywhere I went, there they were, multiplying like rabbits.

‘They’ were ‘We Support Our Police’ lawn signs.  After another highly-publicized round of controversy and tension between white police officers and black citizens, they began appearing everywhere.

Until, one day, I noticed one on my lawn.  Huh?

Turns out one of my kids had ordered it from our township, who made them available after a police wives group had donated them.

I was happy that my daughter had taken initiative, and equally happy to show support for our local police who really do ‘put their lives on the line everyday for us’, as the sign says.

A few days later, though, a question hit me.  ‘How would my black friends feel if they drove through my community?’  It’s not like they don’t support the police, but for obvious reasons their trust with law enforcement is often lower than mine.

There are (at least) two sides to the story, but our lawn only told one.

Deeper questions started flooding my mind from there.  Do I have any responsibility to tell both sides of the story?  How would I do that anyway?  And, how do I think about all this as a Christian anyway?

Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts.  If not on this issue, then certainly on others.

The Issues Behind The Issues

The questions above are (really) important ones.

But important as they are, how we deal with them is even more important.  We’re at a moment where, as a nation, we’re struggling to have thoughtful, honest, and respectful conversations on many topics, like:

  • our current political climate
  • physician-assisted suicide
  • national healthcare
  • issues of sexuality

Just try posting about any of this on Facebook, or discussing it in ‘real life’, and watch the dumpster fire begin.

I’m not okay with that.  Are you?  It’s healthy to have different viewpoints, but it’s disappointing and toxic when we can’t discuss them freely.

Salt & Light

Christians are called to be part of the solution.  To be part of shaping our culture in a more thoughtful, respectful direction.

Jesus made that clear when he said,

You are the salt of the earth… the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden... let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.  (Matthew 5:13, 14-16)

The images of salt, light and a city on a hill make it plain that Christians are supposed to impact the world in a positive way.  One that involves ‘good works’ that benefit everyone, and ultimately show that our God is great.  (Anyone else feeling convicted?)

That’s why this post isn’t really about racial tensions, politics or other hot button topics.

Instead, this post is about how we, as Christians, can engage anyone, on any controversial issue, in a way that promotes healthy dialogue.  And values the relationship with another person over being right.

4 Ways We Can Move Beyond Controversy Toward Honest, Respectful Conversation

Here are four thoughts, in no particular order.

Humility required.   Our sin was bad enough that Jesus had to leave heaven and take our place on the cross.  That should produce a humility where we ‘count others more significant than yourselves’ (Philippians 2:3).  This means listening and really considering what someone else is saying.  Not just waiting for them to take a breath so we can insert our own opinion.

Examine our anger, devastation & anxiety.  When we feel – and think – strongly about something, it reveals its importance to us.  And that’s entirely appropriate.

Sometimes, though, our reactions invite deeper self-examination.  Why do we become unglued, for example, because [insert politician of choice] didn’t win the election?  Deep disappointment, concern, fervent prayer, and appropriate activism all make sense.  But if our hope is ultimately in Christ, nasty online comments and prolonged despair don’t.  When our reactions don’t align with our identity in Christ, God graciously invites us to look for idolatry and offer that up to him (see 1 John 5:21).

Think.   Christ calls us to love the Lord with all our minds (Matthew 22:37).  When we really examine something, though, we often find that Jesus isn’t fully on our team.  Or anyone’s team.

Every person, and every culture, is a mixed bag.  When we dump the bag out, we see the good that comes from being created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and the bad that reflects our sinful natures (Jeremiah 17:9).

Practically-speaking, we should expect Jesus to affirm some of what we – and others – believe about a given issue.  But ‘until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God’ (Ephesians 4:13), we should expect to find some serious errors and blind spots, too.

Selectively engage.  It’s possible to commit two, very different, errors.  On the one hand, we can make every issue a hill to die on, burn out, and look down on those who don’t make our pet issue their pet issue.  On the other, we can get overwhelmed, cynical and do nothing.

God offers better choices.  When Christianity was young, Gentiles (non-Jews) began flooding into the largely Jewish church, and sparks began to fly.  Many Jewish believers were insisting that their Gentile counterparts must observe the law of Moses to be saved (Acts 15:1).  Gentiles, with no Old Testament background, thought that was crazy and incredibly burdensome.  It didn’t seem like there was any middle ground, and the fledgling church seemed like it would crash before it even left the runway.

But in a genius move, the apostles listened carefully, considered what God had done, and made a wise decision.  They decided to focus on just four key commands from the Mosaic law, and require nothing more from the new Gentile converts (19-21).  After all, they too were saved by grace (11).

Instead of a battle royale, the church was freed from needless controversy and spread like wildfire.  We need more wise, selective engagement like that today.

Hope For Moving Forward

I know it’s way more complex than that, and highly-dependent on the context.  But when we follow the principles outlined in God’s word, we just might experience similar results.

Not long after the police sign appeared on our front lawn, I added a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign next to it.  I want our house to tell both sides of the story.  It’s not a game-changer, but I hope it’s a small way of acknowledging the tension and saying, ‘hey, let’s talk about it’.  (Thankfully, a few people have wanted to talk about it.)

Support Our Police & Black Lives Matter yard signs.

Yard signs in front of my home.

One small action, one small conversation at a time, let’s do all we can to form relationships where trust is built even when agreement isn’t.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What issues tend to get under your skin?  To what extent do you handle them according to the principles outlined above?
  2. What one step could you take to move in a more God-honoring direction?
  3. What did I miss?

 

9 Surprising Reasons Your Wife Doesn’t Want To Have Sex With You

“Anyone who believes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach flunked geography.”

     – Author Robert Byrne

So today we’re going to talk about something really important to men.

Sex.

Man sleeping on couch.

Photo credit: bp6316 via Foter.com / CC BY

In fact, research shows clearly what the quote above suggests indirectly: that sex is the most important part of marriage for about 80-90% of men.  (No doubt many of you wives can confirm this!)

Despite Hollywood’s portrayals, though, sex is also one of our biggest areas of frustration.  For most couples, there’s a difference in sex drive, with guys typically wanting it a lot more than most women.

But you already know that.  This post is about 7 surprising reasons our wives may not be as interested in sex as we’d like them to be.  And, what you can do about it.

By the way, guys, if you’re not married yet, this post is for you, too.  I had no clue about most of these things and had to learn the hard way.  I hurt my wife along the way big-time, too.  You can avoid a lot of that by learning from my mistakes.

If you are married and experiencing some frustration in your sex life, putting some work in on one or more of these areas will help.  And, more importantly, bless your wife, too.

Seven Surprising Reasons Your Wife Doesn’t Want To Have Sex With You

You’re not spending quality time together

There are a million different reasons for this.  You (and/or your wife) might be working too much, for example, leaving little time or energy left for each other.  If we’re not regularly slowing down to talk about important things and share our hearts, our wives won’t feel connected to us.  Which means they won’t want to connect physically, either.

You’re not getting enough sleep

If you’re not getting enough sleep, your sex drive takes a nose dive.  Same thing for women.  (Oh, and it makes you dumber, more forgetful, more prone to serious accidents, and look older, too.  But I digress).

You’re being harsh

In Colossians 3:19, Paul gives husbands one piece of advice.  ‘Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.’  For the first few years of our marriage, I spoke to my wife pretty bluntly.  I didn’t understand God created her differently, and I wound up hurting her.  Think before you speak and dial back the intensity.

You’re giving into porn or an impure thought life

Sexual sin is an absolute train wreck for your sex life (see Proverbs 9:13-18, for example). When my wife and I do premarital counseling for couples, guys who are into porn or other sexual sin struggle with guilt, shame and diminished desire for their wives. Not to mention the devastation for their wives.  All of which leads to less – and less satisfying – sex.

You’re married to your work

Truth be told, many Christian men are polygamists and don’t know it.  They’re married to their wives, but they’re also married to their work.  One frustrated wife confided to my wife that ‘I feel like he’s got a mistress… his job!’  While there are occasionally special circumstances (like a medical resident), we need to remember that God has made us one with our wives, not our work (Genesis 2:24).  They need to know, without a doubt, they come first.

You’re making sex all about you

It’s so easy for us to put the focus on our pleasure.  To get lost and ‘forget’ to care for our wives during sex.  Translation: we fail to ‘look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Philippians 2:4).  So it’s no surprise when our wives gradually lose interest and resent sex.

You’re scared

You’d never guess it from movies or TV, but sex is scary.  In the best sex, both of you bring all of who you are – without anything (literally) – between you.  But that’s really hard because we’re no longer in the ‘naked and unashamed’ position of Adam and Eve before they fell (Genesis 2:25).  So we’re always hiding from one another, just like they did (Genesis 3:8).

Sometimes, men hide by being tentative during times of intimacy.  If we don’t find our identity Christ, we’ll be scared of being fully present, and failing in, the bedroom.  We’ll be physically present and emotionally absent.  That can leave our wives thinking that we’re not all that interested in them (like #5), even when the opposite is true.

You’re compartmentalizing your life

Most guys think of life kind of like the silverware dividers in our kitchen.  Everything has its place.  Knives don’t touch forks, spoons don’t touch knives, and so on.  But most women don’t roll like that.  Life is more like a bowl of spaghetti.  It’s all connected.  So when I’m driven all day, or, raise my voice with our kids, that will affect what happens in the bedroom.

You’ve forgotten what marriage and sex are all about

In Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul tells us that marriage and the gospel explain each other. When people look at the way we relate to our wives, they should be reminded of the way God relates to us.  As Tim Keller puts it, ‘The Bible views sex not primarily as self-fulfillment but as a way to know Christ and build his kingdom’.  The only way to consistently make loving choices in the bedroom is to internalize that on a growing level.

I’m Convicted!  Now What?

If you’re anything like me, you’re feeling seriously convicted right now.  We’ve spent a lot of time on the potential problems, but I want to move forward with you in a very practical way that leaves you encouraged.  Not overwhelmed.

Here’s a quick plan to get started.

  1. Scan through the list above and identify the biggest problem for you.  (Maybe it’s something else).
  2. Have an honest conversation with God about it, confessing anything you need to.  Our confession should include both deeper (‘heart’) and practical elements.  For example, if my times together with my wife tend to focus on me, I should confess that but also the deeper selfishness and fear that’s driving it.  This takes courage, but brings freedom.
  3. Based on what you identified above (#1), think and pray about what change would look like.  If I said being scared is my biggest challenge, I can picture trusting God and being okay with trying something that doesn’t work.  It doesn’t have to destroy me.  And I can take initiative instead of waiting for my wife to always come to me.
  4. Let a friend know and ask him/her to pray for you.  Not only for accountability, but for encouragement.  Change is hard, so we should ‘exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of [us] may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin’ (Hebrews 3:13).  Getting real with others helps us stay true to Christ – and our wives – for the long haul (see Hebrews 3:14).

This isn’t astrophysics, right?  It’s just the normal things that help us become more like Christ, applied to the area of sex.  The key is Spirit-empowered follow through in all its boring but-oh-so-important forms.

Over time, we will change and experience the blessings that God wants for us – and our wives – in this important area of our lives.

Let’s live it out: What’s the biggest obstacle in this area of your life?  Share it with us in the comments below.  I’ll go first!

 

5 Early Marriage Hurdles & How To Overcome Them

The early days of marriage are awesome.  You get to wake up every day with your best friend, experience physical intimacy and enter into everything you’ve been waiting for.

But it’s not all butterflies and violins.  Many couples go through some really deep waters during their first few years together, trials they were not expecting.  Let’s talk about the hurdles you can expect, and how to handle them so that your marriage thrives.  (Even if you’ve been married for awhile, a refresh never hurts!)

hurdle photo

My wife and I had a really tough time our first few years together.  We had some conflict before the wedding, but afterwards it got worse. Much worse.

We argued about which way to put the toilet paper on the rack.  Whether or not we’d turn inside-out laundry right side out.  How much time I’d spend on my studies.  And… you get the idea.

The hardest part, though, was that we didn’t expect all of that.  Older, battle-tested couples told us that it wouldn’t be easy, but looking back we didn’t really believe them.

5 Early Marriage Hurdles

But you don’t have to be as naive as we were.  Here are some of those early-days-of-marriage hurdles you can anticipate.  Later, I’ll talk about how you can handle them in a way that helps you move forward, together.

Preferences

When you live together, you find out that you do things differently.  These aren’t issues of right or wrong, but little things you’ve taken for granted (like the toilet paper) when you were single can become surprising annoyances when you have to work a bunch of them out with someone else.

How much time you’ll spend together

Almost invariably, one person needs more alone time than the other.  It gets tricky to work out how you’ll spend discretionary time you’ll spend together.

Differences in how you spend money

When you get married and share finances, all of a sudden this area comes into focus. Early on, my wife was much more generous than I was, and we had some conflict around that.  With limited resources, how we spend money reveals our differences in priorities, which can be painful to work through.

Disappointment from experiencing the other person’s flaws

The key word here is ‘experiencing’.  Before you’re married, the other person’s weaknesses and flaws can annoy you, but now there’s no escape!  Also, when you were dating, you were trying to impress each other, and willing to do the kinds of things that make a relationship great. Over time, you discover that this wasn’t sustainable, and, that you’re both more selfish than you realized.

Arguments and conflict

When you put two sinners together, fighting of one kind or another is bound to happen. If you grew up in a home where conflict was avoided or swept under the rug, this can be especially discouraging.

I’m sure you can add to this list, but these are some of the things you can expect after tying the knot.

How To Overcome Your Early-Marriage Hurdles

But what do you do about all the problems?  What difference does following Jesus make?

These are the things that helped my wife and I, and the things we share with the couples we meet with for premarital counseling.

It’s totally normal to have disappointment and conflict

In fact, if you’re not having any a few months into your marriage, you should probably check your pulse.  When two people who are deeply committed to themselves come together, there’s bound to be some eruptions.  Adjusting our expectations helps a lot.

Look for God’s work in the challenges

‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20) applies to your marriage, too.  Instead of wishing whatever’s negative would disappear yesterday, start looking for what God is doing in you and your spouse. For example, when my wife and I were fighting daily, God showed me he was exposing how much I wanted everyone (especially my wife) to like me.

Look for the issues of your hearts

In Mark 7:14-23, Jesus makes it clear that he’s ultimately concerned with our hearts – our innermost selves.  In marriage, we tend to focus on what we can see.  Like an angry comment or ongoing disrespect.  But Jesus says that these things come from a heart that is ‘evil’ (see Mark 7:21, 23).  When we own that and seek God’s forgiveness and healing, then our behavior starts to change.

Pray

We prayed before we got married, but the early challenges we experience there show us how much we really need God.  Let that lead you to ask for God’s help, on your own and together with your spouse.  It does wonders for our trust to see Him come through time and time again.

Listen first

When someone calls us out, our first response is to be defensive.  God tells us to do the opposite: ‘let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger’ (James 1:19). When we look for what’s right in what our spouse is saying, we become more like Christ, they feel loved, and our marriage flourishes.

Seek forgiveness when you blow it

Don’t let an offense blow over… it doesn’t.  Ask God to help you be truly sorry for what you did, then go and confess it as soon as you reasonably can.

Rely on your friends

God makes it clear that we need others to do life well.  Make sure you’re really connected with other couples of a similar age and marital stage.  Let them in on your joys and challenges and invite them to do the same with you.

Find an older, godly couple

Make sure you have an older couple who can encourage you, share some wisdom, and (above all) model for you that God is faithful in the ups-and-downs.  And don’t be afraid to get biblical counseling if you’re stuck.

No magic bullets

The American poet Robert Frost famously said, ‘The only way out is through’.  He was right.  The only way to get out of your early marital struggles is to go through them.  One conflict, one forgiveness, one undeserved act of grace at a time. If you’ll be faithful in the little moments, they add up and your marriage will be transformed.

Remember what marriage is all about

When things get rough, remembering the meaning of marriage is like the North Star.  It keeps you on track and serve as a point of reference when life gets disorienting. Your marriage will make you happy at (many) times, but that’s not mainly what it’s for.  God’s primary purpose for your marriage is to be a living, breathing picture of God’s love for us (Ephesians 5:22-33).

So there you have it: 5 early marriage hurdles, and 10 ways to clear them.  I hope that your early days of marriage are filled with lots of bumps in the road so that you see God at work and become more like Christ, together with your spouse.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What hurdle are you facing most intensely right now?
  2. What would help you begin to overcome it?

Masturbation, God’s Design For Sexuality, & Your Marriage

They May Not Seem All That Related, But They Are

When it comes to something as intimate as masturbation, we worry about others judging us.  We worry about what God thinks, too.  Will he be angry, disappointed, and tell us to ‘just stop’?

In my first post, I argued that we need to wrestle with whether masturbation is right or wrong.  But that wasn’t my main focus.  I don’t think it’s God’s either, or he would have made it clearer, as he has with many other things.

Instead, I believe God wants us to wrestle more deeply with several fundamental questions.  (Jesus was always asking questions; at least 135 of them.)  If we’ll answer honestly, that will open the door to some authentic conversations with God so we can give this area of our lives – and others – more fully to him.

divorce photo

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Go Somewhere That Breaks Your Heart

In Giving, We're The Ones Who Receive

Go somewhere that breaks your heart at least once a year.

— Andrew Scott, CEO of Overseas Missionary Fellowship (USA)

Just yesterday, I returned from a place that breaks my heart.  In fact, that’s partly why I went.

Crowded homes with metal roofs and beautiful mountains off in the distance.

I’m not sure about you, but every day my heart gets crusty.  Indifferent towards God, the people around me, and their physical and spiritual condition.

Can you identify?

Do you ever ‘know’ that Jesus left heaven and died a brutal death on your behalf… and yet feel unmoved toward your neighbor?

I wrestle with that kind of dullness in my heart every day.

The bigger question is, ‘What can we do about it?’  Just hearing more facts and figures about how badly other people have it isn’t enough.

We need to go and experience it ourselves.  Today, I want to challenge you to go somewhere that will break your heart.

Entering Another World

As we walked across the main road near our medical clinic, we entered another world.

Our friend and host began to tell us what life is like.

‘People who live here don’t have running water’, he said.  ‘They try to store up water during the rainy season, but it’s not enough for the other 4-5 months.  So they have to buy it from the water trucks, often at prices they can’t really afford.’

Toilets are holes in the ground, and new ones need to be dug every few years.

People who become sick have very limited access to quality healthcare.

Gangs fight for territory and young men.  Kidnappings and murders are not uncommon. Buses that travel major routes must pay extortion money.

The country is still recovering from a brutal civil war that has left deep scars. One pastor watched his parents get shot as he peered through an outhouse door, covered waist high in human waste.

I can’t even begin to say I understand.  I – and everyone on our team – cried more that week than we have in a loooong time.

God’s Heart Breaks, Too

And that’s precisely why God had us there.

Yes, we were there to provide important healthcare services.  And to assist our national partners in sharing the hope that Christ provides.

But God also fought for our hearts, chiseling away at the stony plaque that can accumulate when we live without obvious need.  He wants us to look more like him.

And his heart is torn in two when people he created live without justice and basic necessities.

  • ‘Because of the devastation of the afflicted, because of the groaning of the needy, Now I will arise,’ says the LORD.  (Psalm 12:5)
  • For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death.  (Psalm 72:12-13)
  • [Jesus] said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.’  (Luke 6:20, 21)
  • If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17)

And these are just a few examples.  Although injustice and poverty are everywhere, this is not the way it’s supposed to be!

God cares, and he is honored when we care, too.

Grieving For Our Own Culture

So far, most of what of what I’ve shared might be pretty obvious.  What you were expecting.

But seeing – and caring about – the brokenness of the culture we visit is only half the equation.

Because when we return, we come to see the deep deficiencies of our own culture, too.

Truth is, the country we visited is an absolutely beautiful place.  Not only in its lush array of fruits, birds and plants we don’t have here.  But also (mainly) because of its people.

They know they have physical and spiritual needs.  They can’t hide them, so they don’t really try to.  Relationships matter way more than stuff.  We were welcomed warmly – without exception – by everyone we met.

And our partners gave me gifts as a token of their love and hope of future partnership.

At least where I live, all these beautiful gifts are in seriously short supply.  Going somewhere they are common has opened my eyes, and now I’m in mourning for my own culture and heart, too.

And yet, not without hope.  God is equally at work there, and here, where I live.  And wherever you live, too.  His aim is ‘to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of [Christ’s] name among all the nations’ (Romans 1:5).

Three Ways To Go Somewhere That Breaks Your Heart

It’s time to begin our final descent.  Here are three ways to get your own heart broken.

1 – Take a trip somewhere in the developing world.  While it’s not about us, and we should only go somewhere we’re wanted, if we go with the right heart we are transformed.

2 – Visit a place of need near you.  You don’t need to raise money or jump on a plane to have your heart broken.  Places of need exist all around us right where we live.  For example, some friends run Miriam Medical Center in one of Philadelphia’s most underserved communities where some residents don’t even have running water.

3 – Find a ministry that deals with brokenness different than your own. Then pray, get involved, and support it.  Even if you’re not able to do #1 or #2, anyone with internet access can do this.  Ministries like Compassion, Christ Community Health Fellowship and countless others reflect God’s heart for those in need of practical help.

It takes a little effort and sacrifice, but when we go somewhere that breaks our heart, we always receive more than we give.

Questions for reflection:

  1. On a scale of 1-10, how much does your heart grieve/care about those in need (of any kind)?  For your own neediness?
  2. Consider following the pray, plan and go model.  Pray for God to change your heart and show you where to go; do some research and make a specific plan; then go, ideally with others.

 

Masturbation: Ask Deeper Questions, Receive Better Help

(Hint: Don't Start With, 'Is It Right Or Wrong?')

This blog is about to get more real.  Today we’re going to talk about…

[cue dramatic music] … masturbation.

kitten and puppy stare at each other

I know it’s off-topic, but instead of changing tabs you can pretend you were watching another cute pet video.

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Could Your Family Of Origin Ruin Your Marriage?

Getting Ready For Marriage Series #3

Imagine with me, for just a moment, your perfect wedding day.  From the moment you wake up, everything is going exactly as you had hoped.

Celebrities everywhere are seething with jealousy as your guests shut down Instagram with one perfect photo after another.

Finally, it’s time for you and your (almost) spouse to exchange vows.  You get misty-eyed as the pastor says, ‘Repeat after me…’

I, John, take you Elizabeth…

your parents and your extended family…

to be my lawfully wedded wife…

As you start to mindlessly repeat the pastor’s words, something doesn’t sound quite right… After exchanging an awkward glance at the pastor and Elizabeth, you notice that she’s not alone.

There, just behind her, are her parents, brother, sister and other relatives.  As you look more carefully, you see that each one has a heavy suitcase with large lettering.

Her father’s says ‘kind but aloof’.  Mom’s reads ‘sweet but controlling’.  Seized with fear, you frantically try to make out what the other suitcases say without looking too obvious.

After all, 200 pairs of eyes are locked in on you.

One by one, the family hands their baggage over to Elizabeth, who receives them with a bizarre mixture of eagerness and regret.

With a look of fear and hope, she tries to hide the uglier suitcases under her dress.  All of a sudden, she turns back to you, awaiting your response.

As you try to remember what you’re supposed to say, you wake up in a cold sweat, thankful it was all a dream.

Or was it?

Who Do You Think You’re Marrying?

In their book Great Expectations: An Interactive Guide To Your First Year Of Marriage, Toben and Joanne Heim write, ‘Let’s face it; you marry more than just your spouse. In a sense, you marry your spouse’s family too.’

Over the years, in our premarital counseling with couples, we have found this to be true.

Many hopeful couples are like ‘John’ above.  They’re surprised to learn that their family of origin has shaped them in quiet, profound ways that will powerfully impact their marriage.

Other couples look more like ‘Elizabeth’.  They seem to recognize that they’ve inherited a lot of (mixed) baggage from their families.  While they’re still excited to get married, they worry that the negatives will bubble to the surface at some point and cripple their marriage.

Of course, many couples contain both a John and Elizabeth.  What about you and your future spouse?

And, how should you think about the role your family of origin may play long after you say, ‘I do’?

Your Family Of Origin & Your Marriage: Biblical Insights

So which is it?

Can we easily overcome what we’ve inherited from our families growing up, and go on to have a great marriage that proves them all wrong?

Or, are we bound to eventually succumb to the damaging patterns we picked up from our families?

When we look at the ways families influence their children and future generations in Scripture, here are some quick observations.

Sometimes children follow directly in their family’s footsteps.  The Books of 1-2 Kings provide many examples of this.  For example, after Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom never had another good king.  Every son followed the bad example of his father.

Other Scriptures, thankfully, paint a more positive picture.  Timothy, for example, had a ‘sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in [his] grandmother Lois and [his] mother Eunice’ (2 Timothy 1:5).  Timothy’s strong faith appears to be – at least in part – a result of the investment these godly women made in him.

Sometimes children walk away entirely from their family upbringing.  Returning to the Books of 1-2 Kings, sometimes kings with great fathers turned out to be lousy rulers. This happened when Ahaz took over for his father, Jotham (2 Kings 16-17).  Other times, the reverse happened, as when good King Asa followed on the heels of his evil father, Abijam (1 Kings 15).

I know a million caveats are in order, but these passages show that, spiritually-speaking, our relationship to our lineage isn’t always entirely linear.  There’s a real tension here, and it’s not always easy to sort out.

So let’s look a few more verses, see if we can make some headway, then end with a quick thought or two for your future marriage.  

Your Family Of Origin & Your Marriage: Biblical Insights, Part 2

Exodus 20:5-6 says,

I the Lᴏʀᴅ your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.

Verses like these seem to say that the sin of parents can somehow (we’re not given details) become the sins of their children, too.

But then other verses, like Ezekiel 18:20, seem to contradict this.

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.

So again, which is it?

If your parents struggled with anger, are you destined to import that into your own marriage?  Or, can you pretty much leave it behind you?

While it appears – from the bible and our own experience – that the families we come from can predispose us to certain patterns of sin, God’s grace runs far, far deeper.

John Piper mentions that the bible makes this abundantly clear.  For example,

  • Leviticus 26:40-42: ‘If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers . . . if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob.’
  • Acts 10:43: ‘To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

In other words, as Piper puts it, ‘Nobody is trapped in his father’s sins — or even in his own sins.’  Is that great news or what?  

Three Takeaways For Your Future (Or Current) Marriage

As you think about your family of origin and its possible implications for your marriage, here are three observations.

  1. The key themes and patterns of your home growing up may well be the default in your own marriage.  What are three positive, and three negative, patterns from your childhood?
  2. God’s amazing grace means our marriages can be free from poor patterns we’ve inherited from others.  And, even our own!  Ask God to free you from repeating the negative patterns you identified in #1.  And, your own sin.  (See 1 John 1:9.)
  3. Because we’re broken in a broken, distracting world, we can’t assume that we’ll just keep doing whatever was good from our upbringing.  Grace is still required.  Ask God to help you see the good you’ve inherited, and pray for power to keep living it out.  

Regardless of your story, your marriage can be the beautiful picture of God’s relationship to us, his church, that he intended all along.

If you found this post helpful, you may be interested in the other posts in this Getting Ready For Marriage Series:

5 Ways To Deal With Difficult People

Are you in a difficult relationship?

Actually, the real question is not, ‘Are you in one?’, but rather, ‘How many are you in?’

And, ‘In how many are you the difficult party?’  But I digress…

The truth is, whether it’s a boss, spouse, one of our kids, or an annoying neighbor, difficult relationships will always be part of our everyday lives.  So, we better learn how to deal with them.

Let’s look at 2 Timothy 2:24-26 for some practical, biblical guidance for how to navigate those relationships we’d rather not be in.  (Hat tip to counselor Jeff Stark for sharing this framework with me. If you live near Philly or Wilmington (DE) and need a solid biblical counselor, he’s a great place to start.)

oscar grouch photo

No doubt this is someone you know (and/or you).  Photo by al.star

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Don’t Miss Your Life By Looking For Life Up Ahead

5 Ways We Can Find Joy Right Now, No Matter What

Tired and bleary-eyed, I stared at the in-flight monitor and sank down into my seat.  This was going to be a loooong trip.

Seventeen hours, to be exact.  I felt my inner five-year-old urging me to ask the flight attendant (in a whiny voice), ‘Are we there yet?’  

In my desire to land in Israel and begin what promised to be a phenomenal vacation with my wife, I was missing the small joys in the journey of getting there.  The thought of life without wifi and being surrounded by passengers who (apparently) didn’t believe in showering had me in ‘just get through it’ mode.  (I know, first-world problems.)

While we’ve all probably had flights like this, I’m not really talking about literal travel.  I’m talking about how we travel through life day-by-day.  

So often, we fixate on whatever we don’t like and begin to look beyond it to the next thing.  When life will (supposedly) be better.  But if we’re really honest, ‘better’ never comes.

How can we break free from the lie that real life lies up ahead so that we can live with joy and contentment now?  

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