When you first become a parent, you notice the 4,300 ways your child could meet an untimely death. Every package of wipes, every jar of baby food, and all toys carry some kind of ominous warning label.
If you took all the warnings seriously, you'd put your child in a hyperbaric chamber and wait till they grow up.
But now with three children and one on the way, I'm a hardened skeptic when it comes to warnings. At this point, if the kid isn't guzzling CLR, we're figuring he's okay.
But while I eschew the lawsuit-ready labels on my children's toys, I'm wondering if the Federal Trade Commission should look at another prominent product in our home: marriage books.
Not because Gary Chapman and Kevin Lehman and the Raineys are dispensing damaging information. It's because they are giving great advice I'm often tempted to misuse.
I'm the Expert.
I like to read a lot of books. I like to read books on marriage and family and relationships and leadership. As a pastor, it's actually part of my job. As a husband and father, well, it's just a good idea.
My wife, Angela, on the other hand, is busy raising three young children, cooking five-star meals, cleaning up after me, and making sure our house doesn't fall in. She doesn't have much time to kick back and enjoy the latest marriage tome.
So I do the reading for both of us. That's good, except my internal marriage meter tends to take good advice and fashion it into an effective weapon against Angela.
In fact, there isn't a more dangerous man in the world than me after polishing off the latest marriage bestseller. I'm particularly apt at focusing in on my own unmet needs and diagnosing Angela's inefficiency in meeting them.
Take Love and Respect, the classic by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs. I loved that book, because it offered me great insight into the very real differences between men and women. Men, I realized, are not the thick-skinned Rambos we portray. We're really fragile souls with engines that run on respect.
But I conveniently missed the first part of this book. That whole "love" part. After downloading such great spiritual insight from Dr. Eggerichs on the "respect" part, I began a not-so-stealth mission to extract more respect from my wife.
I'm finding that this "respect" card is a handy tool. Especially when delivered in the pious tone of someone who is now an expert, having just finished the latest marriage book. A book Angela didn't read.
The message I was sending to Angela was simple: I'm the expert at marriage. I'm the noble one who's actually seeking personal growth. What's your problem?
I actually convinced myself that the real problem in our marriage wasn't my selfishness, inattentiveness, or tendency to shrink from leadership. It was her lack of giving me the respect I was due!
I'm discovering that this marital blame-shifting isn't unique to me. It goes all the way back to the first man, Adam. There he stood before God, his sin exposed. Yet his answer was something you could cut and paste from a typical husband's heart. God, this woman. She's the problem. I'm the good one here. Don't you see?
A few years ago I read a book that hit me square in the blame-shifting center of my brain. When Sinners Say I Do by Dave Harvey boils marriage down to its ugly nucleus: the knitting of two imperfect, selfish, flawed hearts.
Our natural instinct is to assume the one in the mirror is okay and it's the other person who needs change. This tendency colors even our pursuit of spiritual growth.
Mirror to the Soul
Ironically, it was the unmarried Paul who offers a better way to pursue oneness in marriage. At the end of his life, he shared his heart with his young protégé, Timothy. He gave him great advice on relationships, church, and leadership. But perhaps his most powerful wisdom came from a simple statement: "I am the chief of sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15).
Paul was speaking about his own recognition of sin, but it was a subtle message to Timothy. Begin every human relationship realizing that it is you who is the sinner. You are the problem.
What a paradigm shift. Imagine if we began every day of marriage with such nakedness of soul? Imagine if we internalized the truth from every piece of marriage and family advice we received?
Where does this reset begin? It begins at the foot of Jesus' cross. There we stand guilty before a Savior who took on our blame and endured its heavy punishment.
There is such a freedom there. When we acknowledge the depravity of our natural state, Christ's powerful grace flows in our weakness. Suddenly, we're not drawing on our own perceived reservoir of goodness to sustain our marriages. We're falling down in humility before God, seeking his strength.
Humility then becomes the catalyst of real relationship wisdom, driving truth from the head to the heart. Now every message, every book, every article becomes a mirror to the soul, allowing real spiritual transformation.
Perhaps the most poignant words come from the old spiritual song, "It's me, it's me, it's me, oh Lord, standin' in the need of prayer."
I'm amazed how simple humility alters the dynamic in our home. My wife's weaknesses are minimized. Her strengths are magnified. And my deep reservoir of needs seems less full than my desire to love and care for my wife.
And suddenly those books written to build up marriages are not so dangerous. Instead of sledgehammers on the spirit of my wife, they become chisels on the rock of my own soul.
Which means we can probably peel the warning labels off.
Daniel Darling is the senior pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He is the author of Teen People of the Bible, Crash Course, and iFaith. He and his wife, Angela, have two daughters and a son. www.danieldarling.com.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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