Conflict (3)

Discovering the 'Marriage Matrix'

My good friend Ron is at it again. Still agonizing over what went wrong with his marriage, he wants to make sure he doesn’t make the same mistakes if he finds a new wife.

“After all these years, women are still a puzzlement to me,” he told me. “Even if God sent me a great woman to marry, at this point I’m not sure I would even know the necessary ingredients for a happy marriage.”

Ron and I had often lamented that good marriages are in short supply these days. But attempting to give my friend some guidance, I tried to offer some hope by demystifying the subject.

“Have you ever heard of the Marriage Matrix, Ron?” I asked.

“I think I may have seen the movie years ago,” he replied.

“No, Ron, I’m pretty sure there’s never been a movie on this yet,” I laughed.

Sensing a teachable moment for my good friend, I set out to describe the 6 key components of the Marriage Matrix.

“Okay, Ron,” I began, “the starting point is the principle of ONENESS. From the very beginning, God’s plan was to make the man and woman so united that they could be described as truly ‘one.’”

“Not an easy task,” Ron muttered.

“Humanly speaking, it’s an impossible task,” I chuckled. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 says we need God Himself to be the ‘third strand’ that holds our union together.”

“So how’s a guy supposed to figure out whether someone could be a suitable partner?” he asked. “Sometimes I think men and women are fundamentally incompatible!”

“You’ve definitely got a point there, Ron. That’s where the Marriage Matrix comes in. When we recognize the six necessary areas of compatibility for a happy marriage, at least we know what we’re shooting for.”

I proceeded to draw a six-pointed star on the napkin at our table and began to explain what each point represented.

“The first 3 points on the star stand for the 3 fundamental areas of the human design: spirit, soul, and body. Each of these areas is a crucial part of a strong marriage foundation.”

At first Ron thought I was just giving him a bunch of religious platitudes. “That sounds nice, but how does a strong marriage reflect those 3 things?

“Each of us is a spiritual being, Ron, and a healthy marriage acknowledges and cultivates that aspect of each partner. Although it’s not always easy for a couple to pray, study the Bible, and worship together, that spiritual component is important glue in holding the relationship together. That’s why it’s generally true that ‘The couple that prays together, stays together.’”

“Okay, so all I need to do is be more spiritual, and my next marriage is guaranteed to work?” he queried with considerable skepticism.

“No, there are 5 other ingredients, Ron!” I reminded him. “For example, our soul is the area involving our mind, emotions, and personality. In terms of a marriage, it means maintaining a healthy friendship, good lines of communication, and a strong foundation of trust.”

Ron was eager to jump ahead to the next ingredient. “Okay, I think I’m beginning to get it, Jim,” he assured me. “So I guess the ‘body’ part is all about sex?”

“Well, sex is part of it, Ron,” I patiently explained. “But physical touch can involve expressing affection in a wide variety of ways, not necessarily involving intercourse at all.”  

“Spirit, soul, and body…” Ron interrupted. “Those are only 3 areas. I thought you said there are 6.”

“Glad you’ve been paying attention, Ron!” I complimented him. “The first 3 areas are foundational. But the next ingredients are also important, dealing with 3 practical pressure points that undermine many marriages today: finances, fighting, and fun.

Ron readily acknowledged that financial problems were one of the biggest causes of his marriage breakup. “I was a miser, and my wife was a spendthrift,” he shared. “I was a fan of Dave Ramsey’s philosophy of frugality, but she hated to be confined to any budget. We also disagreed on our charitable giving and the proper amount to spend on vacations. It seems like we could never get on the same page in our handling of money.”

“Ah…conflict!” I observed. “That brings us to the fifth component of a happy marriage: fighting,”

“Don’t you mean that happy couples try to avoid fighting?” he protested.

“No, Ron, you’ve got it wrong,” I challenged him. “A couple that never fights is often in big trouble! Disagreements are an inevitable part of any relationship. So the goal is not to sweep disagreements under the rug, but rather to learn to ‘fight fair’ and come to healthy resolutions of your conflicts.”

My friend suddenly began to realize another destructive aspect of his failed marriage. “I see what you’re saying, Jim. When conflicts arose in my marriage, I tended to clam up, but my wife tended to blow up. Neither of us were very good at talking things through.”

“Well, another important part of ‘fighting fair’ is learning to forgive,” I added. “How did you and your wife do with that?”

“Not very good!” Ron confessed. “I guess we were both pretty stubborn. Sometimes we gave each other a cold shoulder for several weeks after a fight. The sun went down on our anger far too often.”

“Fighting and forgiveness definitely go together, Ron,” I pointed out. “Are you ready now for the sixth and final component of the Marriage Matrix?”

“Sure!” he encouraged me. “This has been pretty interesting. My wife and I clearly violated many of the principles you’re sharing. I just chalked it up to a ‘personality conflict,’ but it was a lot more than that.”  

“Even though friendship, trust, affection, and forgiveness are all important, the final component of the matrix is also crucial to the overall health of the relationship,” I offered. “Yet it’s something many couples – especially Christian couples – easily tend to forget.”

“I think you said the final component is about having ‘fun.’ Tell me what you mean by that.”

“Remember how we said, ‘The couple that prays together, stays together’? I asked. “Well, the other side of the equation is also true: ‘The couple that PLAYS together, usually stays together.’ Having fun and enjoying recreation together is a vital way to bond, and it also helps to replenish our emotional tank.”

“My wife and I had lots of fun and adventure before we got married,” Ron reflected. “But once we had kids and got busy in our careers, the fun was replaced. Instead of enjoying life together, we became more like business partners.”

Before praying together and asking the Lord for His help in all these things, Ron and I took a few minutes to review what we had discussed. I decided to put the 6 attributes of a happy marriage in slightly different terms:

  1. Spiritual
  2. Social
  3. Physical
  4. Financial
  5. Confrontational
  6. Recreational

As I described my discussion with Ron about these 6 principles, what did you learn about the strengths or weaknesses of your own marriage or past marriage? Remember: The oneness God planned for your marriage is a supernatural sort of thing, only fully possible when you die to yourself and seek His help.  

Psalm 127:1 says it well: Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” Not only is He the architect of happy marriages, but He wants to be the builder as well.

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A Miracle -- 25 Years in the Making

How long does it take for God to do a miracle? In some ways, that’s a trick question. He made the entire universe in just six days, so He certainly has no trouble doing things quickly. The Bible also describes many of the Lord’s supernatural interventions as happening “suddenly,” and Jesus typically healed people’s long-standing medical conditions “immediately.”

However, while it’s good to know that God can give us instantaneous, sudden, supernatural breakthroughs, that’s not always how things work out. For example, one of my favorite Bible verses illustrates a different kind of miracle: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9 ESV).

Rather than being immediate, this other kind of miracle involves a process, and Paul aptly describes this in terms of sowing and reaping. As any farmer knows, seeds inevitably take some time to grow. Even though the farmer’s eventual harvest could be deemed a “miracle,” he must patiently wait in order to see it happen.

Paul adds an important warning to those of us who don’t receive our breakthrough as quickly as we would like: Don’t lose heart and give up!

Let me share a recent illustration from my own life. I truly feel like God did a miracle of sorts for me…but it was a miracle 25 years in the making.

A few days ago, I received the first copy of a new book I’ve written: The Church Split Cure: How to Prevent, Survive, or Recover from Congregational Conflict. I write lots of books, so this may not sound like any kind of miracle to you. But let me explain the context…

When I held the first copy of this book in my hand, I was overwhelmed by the goodness of God. Suddenly I realized (yes, suddenly…) that exactly 25 years ago I was a pastor in Ohio, undergoing a church split that would eventually cause more than half of our congregation to leave. Still to this day, it was one of the worst ordeals of my life. Long-time friends no longer trusted me. Some blamed me for the split, and it was heartbreaking to know that people I loved now considered me an enemy.

If you asked me at the time, I would have adamantly told you that nothing good—absolutely nothing—could come out of this painful and bewildering situation. Hundreds of people were hurt and disillusioned to one degree or another, and some of the greatest agony was suffered by my own family.

So, until recently, I would have said the devil won a great victory 25 years ago. The “accuser of the brethren” had his way in our church, and we all experienced a devastating defeat.

But God revised my perspective as I held that copy of The Church Split Cure in my hands. Although I still hate how the enemy divided our church, once again I can testify that God is able to redeem even the most traumatic circumstances and turn them around for good.

You see, through the anguish I experienced during that horrible church split, a seed was sown in my life that would ultimately sprout 25 years later in the form of this book. The insights contained in my book were gained “the hard way,” and I believe God will use them to help thousands of pastors and parishioners who are dealing with church conflict today.

Paul told the Corinthians he was able to impart “life” to them because of the “death” he had experienced through life’s crushing circumstances (2 Corinthians 4:12). If you’ve gone through some distressing experiences, keep Paul’s words in mind. Your pain can bring great gain to the lives of others who now can benefit from the lessons you’ve learned and the healing you’ve received (2 Corinthians 1:3-6).

What kind of miracle is God working in your life today? I hope it doesn’t take 25 more years for you to find out. But no matter how long the harvest takes, you can be sure it will be worth it all. Someday you’ll be more convinced than ever of the amazing truth Paul finally discovered:

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28 NIV).

Yes, you read that right. Paul declared that ALL things can be turned around for your good and the fulfillment of God’s great purposes. That’s wonderful news, isn’t it?

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Defusing Your Emotional Land Mines

My friend Ron is a divorced man in his 50s who has ventured into the world of online dating the past few years. He’s a good man who sincerely would like to find a new wife. But although he’s met a number of good prospects, each new relationship has exploded after a month or two, often suddenly and unexpectedly.

Ron typically explains the breakup in terms of “overemotional” or “hypersensitive” women. “They all say on their online profile that they’re baggage-free and drama-free,” he tells me with a grimace, “but they all have issues. They’re either kidding themselves or outright lying.”

Hmmm…interesting that guys always think it’s the women who have all the baggage.
While pondering Ron’s puzzling experiences, I remembered a news report I saw on the problem of land mines in Cambodia and Vietnam. Although the wars there ended decades ago, numerous land mines still remain, maiming and killing many innocent people each year.

The more I thought about these hazardous military land mines, the more I understood about the emotional land mines contributing to Ron’s situation.

A land mine is defined as “an explosive charge concealed just under the surface of the ground, designed to be detonated by pressure.” A minefield typically looks like an ordinary, harmless piece of land. It’s only when pressure is applied that the hidden mines are detonated, usually by completely innocent people who’ve unwittingly entered the danger zone.

So why haven’t all the unexploded bombs in Southeast Asia been removed by this time? Unfortunately, the people who laid the mines have often forgotten where they are. It’s a slow process to detect the unexploded mines with metal detectors or other devices, and great care must be taken not to unintentionally detonate the bombs while attempting to remove them.

Poor Ron, I thought to myself as I understood what had been happening. And even worse, I felt extremely sorry for the women he had dated. None of them deserved any of this.

But here are the sad facts about emotional minefields…

Just as the unexploded mines in Cambodia and Vietnam are the result of wars occurring 30, 40, or 50 years ago, we’ve all sustained emotional scars as we’ve walked through life.
Many of them happened during our childhood, sometimes so early that we don’t even consciously remember the event. Other scars happened in our teen years or through shrapnel from a failed marriage.

Just like military land mines, our emotional land mines are detonated by pressure. At times the pressure comes through something like a health crisis, lost job, or financial setback. But as in Ron’s case, emotional land mines are frequently ignited when a person embarks on a close personal relationship.

Usually everything seems fine in the early stage of a relationship. But greater intimacy brings greater pressure. Like a ticking time bomb, the relationship is destined for detonation unless it can successfully cross the minefield of unresolved issues of the past.

Nothing is more bewildering than to detonate a land mine. One minute you’re walking innocently on a seemingly safe roadway, and the next minute you find yourself bleeding from an unforeseen explosion. You didn’t anticipate it…didn’t deserve it…but it happened anyway.

Although I’ve usually seen myself as an emotionally healthy person, I’ve been deeply jarred by Ron’s story. I’m horrified by the thought that my emotional land mines could detonate unexpectedly, doing great damage to someone I care about.

If you’re like Ron, hoping for a healthy new relationship, you should pray to find someone with lots of unconditional love. Why? Because land mines will inevitably be exposed in time. And to paraphrase 1 Peter 4:8, “Love covers a multitude of land mines.”

Also take some time, as I’ve been doing recently, to let God search your heart and expose hidden scars and forgotten minefields. You owe this to yourself and to those you love. Don’t let past wars and traumas sabotage the happiness of your present and future relationships.

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