Psychiatrist William Frey spent years studying the dramatic impact that laughter, humor, and joy have on our lives. He found that joy increases our pulse rate, blood circulation, and oxygenation. Joy causes remarkable relaxation. Frey discovered, "Humor banishes the tightness and the severity necessary for anger. If mirth is experienced, rage is impossible."
Joy is a kind of relational glue. It gives us intrinsic motivation to pursue intimacy and oneness in marriage. Bill Bright says it this way: "As long as you're going to be married the rest of your life, you might as well enjoy it." In other words, marriage is supposed to be a source of joy.
And it's God's plan for marriage. Throughout the Bible marriage is used as a picture of joy that God feels for his people. For instance, the prophet Isaiah tells us, "As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so God will rejoice over you" (Isaiah 62:5).
Joy does two things for our marriages. It causes us to remember the good. When something wonderful or fun or funny happens, as we go through the years together, we often look back on that experience and have almost as much joy reliving it. But joy also causes us to live in the present. That's a place far too few of us live often enough. For just a moment when we're experiencing joy, thoughts of what's to come and all the things we need to do vanish. That's a great gift to give our marriages.
How does joy come? It comes by making a pledge to pursue oneness in marriage. Through commitment and fidelity. Commitment isn't just about avoiding divorce. The kind of commitment God calls people to make isn't just to say, "I'll try to get to the end of my life without having had sexual relationships with somebody other than my spouse." It's a commitment every day, every hour, every week and month and year to pursue greater oneness. And in the commitment to pursue oneness is also a commitment to pursue joy.
Make joy your goal
In Philippians 4:4 the apostle Paul tells us, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" It's a command. Often we take that verse in an individualistic way and think, I'm supposed to rejoice through the day. Although that's certainly true, Paul also aimed it at the community—of which marriages are a part. As a married couple part of our job is to pursue joy, to rejoice together, and to bring joy to each other.
Often we run across articles that ask, Are you intentional about saving enough money for the end of your life? You know the kind of stories, where you're supposed to put so much money aside per month, and if you don't you're going to end up on the streets.
Rarely, though, will you see an article that asks the question for you as a couple, Are you invested enough in joy? Are you setting aside enough joy so that when you get to the end of your life you'll be able to look back and say about it what God said about his creation—it's very good?
Recently a newspaper ran a letter a wife wrote to her husband reflecting on the fact that in one month was the date he'd always said, This is when I'm going to retire so I can enjoy my family. Only he passed away three years earlier. That date came and it brought great pain to her. Her husband had waited for the end of his life to make a commitment to pursue joy. And it was too late.
We want to challenge you as a couple to make your life-goal to become the primary joy-giver in your spouse's world.
We often get caught in a vicious circle, which goes like this: How can I get my spouse to make me happier? With that mindset, I keep track of what my spouse does for me and what I do for my spouse. It's a game where I'm motivated not to do more for her than she does for me.
The challenge is instead to make it a benevolent circle, where we say, How can I give more joy to my spouse? And then your spouse's response will probably be, How can I give more joy back?
Last week Nancy called me (John) during the day and said, "There's a surprise waiting for you on the kitchen counter." I couldn't wait to get home—the thought of my surprise brought me such joy! When I walked in the kitchen that evening, there was a newly published book by one of my favorite authors. Nancy knew that would bring me joy.
Joy flows out of a commitment to bring a gift to another person.
Be willing to laugh—at yourself
If there's going to be joy in your relationship, start with yourself.
We have funny things in our family that have become traditions now as a result of stupid things I (Nancy) have done. I'm notorious for whipping up a loaf of banana bread, which my family loves. But I've been known many times to put a loaf in the oven and leave the house, only to come home several hours later and wonder why all the firemen are there.
When my family looks to see how I will respond, I've learned the importance of laughter. So now if somebody is doing something that isn't well thought out we say, "I think you're leaving your banana bread in the oven too long." It's a way to laugh at myself and then make it something that can bring joy to the rest of my family.
When you poke fun at yourself, you're saying to your family, I'm not the center of the universe. I'm not even the center of this family. This situation I'm in is not going to change my life, so let's all laugh about it.
We can find such joy in simple pleasures. If we find joy only when we experience lavish, expensive outings, then the amount of joy in our life is going to be greatly reduced.
The first year John and I (Nancy) were married we lived in Scotland. He was going to graduate school. I got on the bus every day and worked as a maid. We had no money. We had no car. We were in a foreign country. And every weekend with the few pence I made scrubbing other people's homes we'd take the bus downtown and wander through stores we couldn't afford to buy anything from, then order take-out Chinese food, and go back to our dorm room. Those were times of great joy. We were experiencing a new adventure together.
Sometimes we'll take a picnic to a lake, go to a three-dollar matinee, and end the day with dogs and suds. Those simple pleasures allow us to experience joy in the moment. They have a profound impact on our relationship. They communicate, I love you. I love being with you. This is fun.
Create a culture of two
In Genesis, the author tells us that a husband is to leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh. This means we create a culture of two. You pursue joy by pursuing a private world the two of you alone share that helps make you one.
A culture is a combination of languages, rituals, activities, values, and pastimes that creates a common environment and allows people to interact with and relate to each other. In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken recalls the early days of his marriage when he and his wife would focus on what they called "the shining barrier"—this wall that at a certain level would separate the two of them from the rest of the world. There are a variety of ways to create a shining barrier.
Nicknames. Often when couples fall in love they give each other nicknames. It's a way of reinforcing the idea that the two of us know each other in a way that nobody else knows us. We have an identity that nobody else can share.
Shared rituals. Some couples have breakfast together on Saturday mornings at a special place, or they have a night in the week that's their date night, or one weekend a year that's a special weekend. Some couples read together. Sometimes the rituals are goofy. For instance, if we're walking and Nancy trips, we'll kiss each other. It's just a silly, almost embarrassing thing, but that little ritual infuses moments of lightness into the routine of life.
Memories often have that kind of impact. That's why couples will talk about their song or a particular restaurant that's special to them. It's creating their own world, a culture for two.
Sexuality intimacy. In the Old Testament, in the Hebrew language, one of the words for sexual intimacy is to know someone. In that kind of sexual intimacy there's a way of knowing the other person, of experiencing him or her physically that's reserved only for a husband and a wife. Nobody else can share that, and it has, among other things, this power to help make two people one.
Marriage is one of our first steps into the kingdom of God. It's well and good that we do kingdom work for other people, but if we don't do it for our spouse, we need to question the good of what other things we do in God's kingdom. Are you in the kind of relationship where you love without thought of return? Where you rejoice in your mate? Ultimately, when we pursue joy, we move toward oneness and intimacy, and we more clearly see who God is. That was his idea in the first place.
John Ortberg is author of many books, including his most recent, The Me I Want to Be . John is senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, where Nancy provides leadership direction and oversight. The Ortbergs live in California.
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