I wasn't looking for trouble. My husband wasn't around, and something enticing snagged my glance. Although I knew better, my curiosity was aroused.
His disarming introduction made me feel special, as if he'd chosen me from millions. I lingered on his seductive descriptions of escape from my commitments. I could stop any time, I justified. Would it be so terrible to respond? He was right; I deserved better.
I owed it to myself to seize this opportunity.
"It's the chance of a lifetime. You could be our next winner!"
I barely had time to wonder who wrote these sweepstakes letters before I was clasping the reply envelope and saying yes!
I was searching for a stamp, when I stopped. What am I doing? I thought, appalled at almost falling for the scheme. Sighing and ignoring the whispers that I was throwing away lifelong happiness and freedom, I tossed the junk mail in the trash, determined not to consider it again. Or so I thought.
Later that evening when my husband came home, our conversation began with our to-do list, then somehow death-spiraled into complaints about my "clutter tolerance" and the number of frozen pizzas we consumed. I retorted that perhaps he would prefer a maid to a lover—and that I deserved a husband who would better appreciate me.
What am I doing? The familiar words sprang from my memory of that morning. I was falling for it again. Only this time, it was more treacherous junk mail—it was the deceptive junk mail of marriage.
A sucker every minute
If marriage junk mail were tangible, it might be a glossy flyer or an internet pop-up featuring suggestive beach scenes. "You deserve to be happy" the tagline might read, or "Do what you want for once."
Imagine links guaranteeing an emotionally attentive spouse or freedom from your greatest worries. Would you click?
I picture the junk mail of marriage as Satan's propaganda of fulfillment found outside of God. His intended audience is couples with weaknesses that he can exploit; his goal is distraction from what's important. And just like those endless brochures and sweepstakes offers, marriage junk mail targets our natural dissatisfaction.
Why do we grasp at anything but God when our marriages demand work? The mental junk we squirrel away becomes a twisted comfort: a good-looking colleague's compliment. A competitive couple's misfortune. An intrusive in-law's embarrassment.
Even committed couples can fall for it.
"I've been working hard all day too. Why can't we go out for dinner?" I griped. Giving up a career I loved to stay home with our son, I missed the measurable success and salary. Clutching the junk mail of entitlement, I disregarded the fine print of resentment and ingratitude.
"We finally have more time together," my husband, Jay, pointed out. "Don't spend it all complaining."
As a Christian, my defenses are tested by a barrage of media messages. I choose what I allow into my mind and home, for better or worse. If I accept the junk mail's correlation between material wealth and self-worth, for example, it will manifest itself in my attitudes: I'll grow grumpier and greedier.
Discern the best from the good
The Holy Spirit started using sermons, articles, radio programs, and my Bible study to convict me of my junky habits. In an effort to scrap them, I tried immersing myself in church activities. Jay and I took on the youth group leadership and loved it—although we always needed help. It bugged me when other couples used family time as a reason never to venture out of their cocoon and serve others.
Yet at the other extreme, busyness can become a major marriage stressor. Shortly after catching up with friends who enjoyed enviable success in their careers and ministries, we learned they were divorcing. Shocked and saddened, I held tightly to Jay as he prayed for them. Was it a refusal to cherish each other? I wondered. They knew the right things to do—but it wasn't enough. They neglected the garbage until it overflowed their façade of leadership. Who would observe a Christian couple today and decide that either marriage or Christianity wasn't worth the trouble?
Determined to learn from that couple's mistakes, Jay and I decided to make some difficult discards in our schedule to increase the amount of meaningful time we had together at home. Pushing the trash out of our marriage unearthed the treasure we have in each other. Making careful and prayerful decisions about the investment of our resources is critical to keeping our purpose uncluttered and our passion unfettered.
For example, I know that to reflect God I have to spend time with him. One thing I try to do is keep an ongoing conversation. As I'm folding laundry, instead of clicking on a talk show, I take the moment to talk with God: Lord, I'm tired, but thanks for these clothes. Bless the ones who wear them.
Of course, often I allow the junk mail to distract me. And just as friendly icons prompt that it's time to organize my messy e-mail inbox, warnings that I'm straying will begin to pop up in my daily life: fatigue, irritability, nudges from the Holy Spirit to return to the Bible, and even my husband telling me so. I have to be attuned to these subtle—and not so subtle—reminders to refocus.
I know I'm overdue for some quiet time with God when Jay points out in a conflict, "I think you're overreacting," and it just makes me want to throw a chair.
In Philippians 4, the apostle Paul reveals how to redeem our junk: Pray. Remember God's nearness. Be content and grateful. Concentrate on what's excellent and eternal.
Recycle and redeem
Why should I apologize? I fumed after a recent disagreement. He's the one who … And I fumble to a stop as I try to define exactly why it's all Jay's fault. I'm just passionate, is my weak rationalization. Can I really "win" an argument? Only if I humble myself. When a discussion deteriorates, Jay or I (sometimes reluctantly) will ask, "How can we make this a better night?"
The apostle Paul tells us, "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Colossians 3:13). The cross illuminates what I really deserve. So after a recent argument in the car, I apologized to Jay and suggested he pull over for a nice, long, dating-era kiss. It worked.
Remembering that God brought us together encourages us to show appreciation for each other: touches, presents, a surprise coffee date, and my favorite—taking care of distasteful chores. I love a man who cleans bathrooms.
We draw closer when we share ourselves: confiding dreams, daily struggles, travel memories, parental pride, intimate propositions, and anything that makes us laugh. Sometimes Jay will be clacking away at his computer while I'm around the corner with my laptop. An instant messenger window pops onto my screen, and like a teenager, Jay will flirt his way into an in-person rendezvous. It works.
The closer we become, the stronger our defense against the junk mail that tells us life would be better if we had a bigger house, a better spouse, or different circumstances.
Step out, reach out
I can register for a flyer opt-out service, or adjust my e-mail spam filters. Finding a venue to serve others is like that: it reduces the junk that gets through. Whether we were stacking chairs or explaining grace to a young teen, Jay and I wanted to invest in teens' lives as our own youth leaders had in ours. We'd admired their marriages and so we became more conscious of our own example.
"Our kids" awakened our faith and creativity. Cracking open the Old Testament book Habakkuk and acting out his rants taught us it's okay to vent our frustrations to God. Several mission trips to Bulgaria jarred into focus our perspective on our possessions.
Another junk filter is the wisdom gained from sub-surface relationships with other couples. You may never realize all the benefits, subtly transferring what you learn to your kids, single friends, the teens in the youth group, or even other couples.
Achieving a junk-free, joyful marriage is a process. Jay and I still "discuss" my clutter tolerance and eat frozen pizza (cooked). But when the junk mail tempts us to cheat on our commitments or prioritize self, we send it to the trash. If I can filter and discard the fraudulent promises that get in the way of my relationships with Christ, my spouse, and others, I'll see that God has graciously given me not what I deserve, but far more.
Christa Rose Bartlett, a freelance writer and former inventor relations manager for a toy company, lives in Washington.
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