Enrolling in God’s School of Love
About the Guest
Why did you marry your spouse? Gary Thomas explains that he, like most, married in order to be loved and have his needs met. After 20-plus years of marriage, however, Gary realizes that his greatest need isn't to be loved, but to learn how to love, since God already loves him so well and so fully. Gary reminds us that it's better to give than receive, especially when it comes to love.
Gary Thomas explains that he got married to be loved and have his needs met. However, after 20-plus years of marriage, Gary realizes that his greatest need isn’t to be loved, but to learn how to love.
Enrolling in God’s School of Love
Bob: Do you want to be a godly husband or a godly wife? Author and speaker, Gary Thomas, says, “You can’t—at least, not on your own.”
Gary: God sets the bar so high in marriage. Marriage teaches me, “Be more dependent on God.” We can’t do it on our own! We might be tempted to love if it was just: “Master these five skills / use these ten principles.” We could do that on our own—but the love that the Bible describes—that takes the Holy Spirit. That takes somebody carrying us. We can’t do it on our own.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, April 7th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. There is a connection between how you love God, and how you walk in the Spirit, and how you’re doing in your marriage. We’ll explore that connection today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’m thinking back to when I first got married, and I remember people talking about having the long perspective in mind when it comes to marriage. I was thinking about, “You’re talking about like the whole year; right? Long perspective is like the whole year,”—that shifted over time. I began to see what they had in mind when they were telling me about the long term.
Dennis: Yes; and a lot of that has to do with why we get married in the first place. I want to ask our guest on today’s broadcast—because I don’t think I’ve ever asked Gary Thomas, who is back with us—welcome back, Gary.
Gary: Thank you.
Dennis: Gary is a pastor at Second Baptist Church in Houston, is a writer of a number of books, and has written a book called A Lifelong Love.
If we could go back to your wedding—and catch you, right before you and the pastor walked out up front in the church, and said, “Gary—Gary, why are you getting married?
What’s the purpose of your marriage?” What would you have said?
Now, I want our audience to know this is the author of A Sacred Marriage and has written a number of books around really the deep theological meaning of marriage and why God created it in the first place.
Bob: And you want to see how much he had—
Dennis: I want to know, at the beginning, what did you have in place, Gary?
Gary: What I would have said, then, would appall me now—I’ll be honest. I was 22. What I would have said is this: “I want to be loved. I want to find someone who will always have my back, somebody who will support me, somebody who will always be there for me.” I would have been filled with very selfish thoughts of all that I was getting.
Dennis: And what would say now?
Gary: My greatest need isn’t to be loved. My greatest need is to learn how to love. When I look at the weight of Scripture—the dozens of passages that say: “Love extravagantly,”—the love that everyone should have for each other should be increasing—“love without ceasing”—“love,” “love,” “love.”
There’s not a single passage that says, “For a successful life, I need to find another human to love me.”
So, the weight of Scripture is directly contradictory to what I thought. I thought my greatest need was to be loved; but Scripture says: “No, Gary, I’ve loved you so well you couldn’t possibly be loved better than you already have. So, now, your greatest need is to learn how to love.” That would have changed every day of my marriage if I would have embraced that truth.
Dennis: I can’t agree more, Gary. I feel like I enrolled in the first grade of God’s school of love when Barbara and I got married. It has been one grade after another, now for 42 years. Hopefully, I’ve passed a few of those grades and haven’t had to repeat the class, but I really do think you are right. I think we are in the process of learning what it means to love as God loves us.
Bob: But here is the thing that folks—they hear you say that and they go: “I know that’s the right Sunday school answer—
—but to love somebody else feels draining and to be loved feels like it is fulfilling. So, when you say, ‘Your greatest need is to love somebody else,’ you’re saying, ‘My greatest need is to drain myself’’? I mean, I’m already feeling drained. I just need—I want somebody to fill my tank rather than my whole job filling somebody else’s tank!”
Gary: I used to think that too—but what I found is that what Jesus is quoted as saying in the Book of Acts is true—“It is better to give than to receive.” I can’t explain it; but here is what I found—when I think my greatest need is to be loved—it’s a lust, Bob, that can’t be satisfied. If money is your lust, you can never get enough money. If pleasure is your lust, you can never get enough pleasure. If being noticed and appreciated is your lust, you’ll never get enough of it.
But there’s this fulfillment when I realize I’m doing what God created me to do. The reason this is so important is this—
—if I think my greatest need is to be loved, and I’m not loved like I think I should be that day, what does it lead to?—bitterness, frustration, and resentment.
Dennis: And further self-absorption.
Gary: Absolutely. If I think my greatest need is to learn how to love, show me one day of marriage when you don’t have an opportunity to grow in your need to love. I’d like to use the example of going to the gym. You see guys going to the gym / you see women going to the gym. They don’t complain when lifting weights makes their arms hurt—that’s why they are going! They expect it to hurt because they think, “My greatest need today is to become stronger.”
If I begin the day saying, “My greatest need is to learn how to love,” then, I don’t resent the hurt of dying to my pride, dying to my selfishness, dying to my sense of entitlement—learning how to be kind / learning how to be gentle—but if I don’t have that bigger vision that that’s really my greatest need, then, I resent all the hurts.
It’s like lifting weights and wanting to get stronger, saying, “Why am I hurting?!” You’ve lost the purpose behind what’s going on.
Bob: Are you saying, in marriage, “No pain / no gain”? Is that what you are saying?
Gary: Exactly; [Laughter] exactly!
Dennis: And you are also saying that, in order to do this, you have to lean into Christ.
Dennis: You have to lean into who God has provided to you to help you be a great lover. That really leads us to a little bit of a discussion, I think, about what Francis Chan called “The Forgotten God”—the Holy Spirit. Explain the Holy Spirit’s role in taking us through this grade school experience of learning how to love and really being able to love as God has commanded us to.
Gary: A couple of years ago, my family went on an extended family cruise—my mom wanted to do it—it was one of the last vacations with all of the kids and grandkids together. I’d been on one before—so, the first day, I wanted to do a little bit of calorie deficit before I added to the weeklong buffets.
I got up early before everybody. Now, running—one of my favorite possessions is a GPS watch. They’re amazing to me! They tell me how fast I go / how far I go—they’re just wonderful!
I set my watch, going; and it beeped rather suddenly. I looked down, and it said I’d run the first mile in 2 minutes and 38 seconds. I thought running in Houston’s heat and humidity made me fast, but I just set a world record! I couldn’t—I thought, “Well, maybe, I’m not picking up the satellite.” I didn’t know what was going wrong. So, I kept running around, pretty consistently—I’m doing about 2:35 a mile. So, “Let’s see how long it takes me to run a marathon.” I pushed it, but I thought I’d break an hour in a marathon. Actually, it took 1:03:48; but that’s still a world record for the marathon.
I went to breakfast, and I was talking to my son—Notre Dame grad / far more intelligent than I am. I said: “Tomorrow, I’m going to have a power breakfast. I’m going to try to break one hour in a marathon.” He looked at me with a distain that young men often have for their dads.
He said, “Dad, if you want to break an hour in the marathon, you’ve got to talk to the Captain.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “If you are running, even laps around a ship that’s moving faster than you are, the GPS is picking up the ship, not you.” I was like—my natural response, “Dream stealer!” [Laughter] But he was right—I never did break an hour in the marathon.
But I thought, “Isn’t that the Christian life, as the Bible presents it?” I think of all those marathons—when I have labored, trying to qualify for Boston—leaving everything out there, trying to get a certain time so that I could get there. How fun it would be to go on land and get credit for this movement of this ship. Now, I’m still running—I’m still sweating / I’m still breathing hard—but I’m being carried by the ship that goes faster than I am. For me, that’s the picture of Ephesians 5:18, when Paul says, “Be filled with the Spirit.” To be more true to the Greek, “Be continually filled with the Spirit.” We work, we labor, and we offer ourselves to God—
—but the Spirit take us farther and faster than we could ever go on our own.
How I love the way that this relates to marriage—is this—it is so difficult for me to love because of my selfishness / because of my own issues, and weakness, and self-centeredness. So, every day of marriage casts me on a new dependence on God. Marriage teaches me: “Be more dependent on God.” God sets the bar so high in marriage we can’t do it on our own. We might be tempted to love if it was: “Just master these five skills / use these ten principles,”—we could do that on our own. But the love that the Bible describes—to really live the way, like Bob said—that seems so absurd / that takes the Holy Spirit. That takes somebody carrying us—we can’t do it on our own.
Dennis: And so, when your wife is late again to go to an appointment / maybe it is church—so, you’re publicly walking in late.
You’re saying that you lean into the Holy Spirit to help you keep your mouth shut and not point out to her on—maybe it’s not your GPS watch—but it’s your regular watch: “Hey, Sweetie, here we are again. We’re late again.”
Bob: Wait. Where did this illustration come from, Dennis? [Laughter]
Dennis: From—oh, from someone I know. Yes, it sure did come from someone I know. You could almost set your clock at church by when the Rainey’s arrived at church, with our six kids. I mean, it wasn’t like it was a small happening for us to arrive at church; but this is the practical stuff, Gary, of where we all live.
Gary: Absolutely. I need to learn to love my wife more than I love being on time. But I’m with you—when I got married, it was such a revelation because my dad drove it into me that you’re there ten minutes early.
Dennis: You know—there are certain things you are going to carry to your grave—weaknesses—husband and wife / it works both ways.
It’s why you have to learn what you’re talking about here—to lean into the Holy Spirit and say, “Would You help me know how to love in this situation?”
Gary: What is so amazing—John 13, in many ways, is such a sad chapter for Christians. You could just see Jesus’s sense of hurt over the impending betrayal of Judas. You’ve got Peter promising that he’s going to be faithful and Jesus telling him, “No, you’re not.” If you love Jesus, you read that chapter and you just—you feel kind of sad—but, in the midst of that sadness, He drops the most amazing three sentences, I think, ever uttered or said on this earth: “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this will all men know that you are my disciples.”
Jesus basically said to them, “It’s all about love.” It’s not about being on time, it’s not about having your makeup done, or driving a certain car. He says, “In the end, what people will know, about whether or not you’re My disciples, is if you have love, one for another.”
That has to begin in our marriages. They should be able to look at our marriages and say: “They must be Christians. The way he speaks of her / the way she speaks of him—they must be Christians!”
Dennis: I had a young lady tell me, not too long ago: “I’m in college. I’ve got a bunch of friends. We were talking the other night how many of us knew anybody we’d like to have a marriage like they have.” And she said, “Mr. Rainey”—she said: “I was the only one who came from an intact family. I was the only one who could name two couples that I wanted to be like.” She looked at me, and she said, “You and Barbara are one of those couples.”
There was a moment, where there was kind of a smile and feeling good that:
“Wow!—that you’ve been up-close and personal and seen enough of our marriage you’d want to have it.” But then, there was another moment, where there was sadness that there are really so few couples today—and I didn’t use the illustration to put our marriage on a pedestal—that’s not the point of it.
It’s that—in this culture today, marriage has fallen out of favor. I mean, we do have a generation of young people today who desperately need to see somebody who is married as God designed it—and in their brokenness, in their imperfection, in their failures with each other—they’re still hanging in there, and they are enjoying the journey.
Bob: I think there are a lot of couples who are trying to go the distance and love one another with empty cisterns. The illustration there—
Bob: —is they are trying to love one another out of the reservoir of whatever love they can manufacture on their own. If a couple says to me, “We’re just struggling to love one another,” I will often say:
“The cistern of love in your life gets filled up by the Holy Spirit / by the Creator God. If you are having a hard time loving somebody else, it’s because you have not been tapped into the supply.” If you’re receiving the love of God in your life, it overflows in your marriage; doesn’t it?
Gary: Absolutely. What I say in here is: “Ask less of your spouse and more of your God.” So often, we say to our spouse: “Love me more. Appreciate me more. Notice me more,” and it never works!—but what if we were to say: “God, help me to love more. God, help me to notice more. God, help me to care more.”
Some of us even, at times, need God to give us the motivation. Some people out there may say: “I’m done with this marriage! I can’t care about this marriage anymore,” or “We’ve talked this issue to death—how can I care about it another day?” That’s where we have to recognize that God is real.
The Holy Spirit is a powerful presence in our life. When Ephesians 5:18 says, “Let your self be continually filled with the Holy Spirit,” Paul is essentially saying: “God isn’t Costco—that you go to once a month to get the major things. It’s like the farmer’s market—you go every day and buy the vegetables for that day.” We need God on that kind of a basis to live the kind of marriages that people are inspired by.
Dennis: And yet, I think, Gary—a lot of people, who follow Christ, forget who they have—forget who indwells them.
Dennis: The same power that raised Christ from the dead—the Holy Spirit—lives in you. He can give you the ability to love somebody when they are ornery and even when they are evil. Now, what that might look like in both those situations might be totally different.
Bob: Yes, there might be some boundaries—
Bob: —of love in somebody’s life—
—with an evil person; right?
Dennis: Exactly, but the point is to intentionally lean upon the God who lives within you. The very word, “Christian,” means “Christ in one.” You’re not alone—He did not leave you as an orphan—He has taken up residence in your life. He has given you the Holy Spirit, as well, to teach you how to love if you’ll be teachable, and learn, and allow Him to love your imperfect spouse through you, as an imperfect spouse, as well.
Bob: So, if somebody is listening to us, with this conversation, and they say: “You know, I’ve not been loving well. It feels like my cistern is empty. I just don’t have it in me to love my spouse, and I know I should; but it’s not there. Can you tell me anything I can do today that will help me get there?”
Gary: 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.” We have got to be overwhelmed by the kindness, the mercy, and the grace of God.
To be short on worship—to be short on time, where God feeds us with His Word—is like holding your breath. You can do it for a little bit, but you’re not going to go the distance. You’re not going to go, lifelong, without regularly breathing.
Second, I think we let God be the engineer of our marriage in the sense of dealing with those issues that we can’t deal with. Here’s how it worked out practically with one woman—she kept going to her pastor, saying, “Look, my husband does this / my husband does that.” Finally, after a while, he said: “I want you to stop. You’ve been complaining about your husband. I want you to go back in prayer, and I want you to listen to the Lord why your husband is the way he is.” She thought: “Well, pastor is a man. He’s taking my husband’s position. That’s what pastors do; right? They’re all alike.”
So, she went and she spent the first part of her prayer time, laying out all of her problems with her husband: “How come he does this? How come…” but she ran out of them, finally. Decided to do what the pastor said, “Lord, why is he acting this way?”
God just brought to her mind all the disappointments and challenges that he had faced / her husband had faced after they’d gotten married. She became disabled a couple years later. So, all of the revenue for their family was now on his shoulders. His mom had died. He’d been cheated in his business by some partners; so they had to sell the business, at a loss. He was literally penniless—had to move in with his dad, which was a huge blow to his sense of who he was—he felt like an utter failure.
And just as God said, “This is what happened / this is what…” she started weeping for her husband and said: “I’d forgotten! I mean, I lived that with him—I was blind to it. I just didn’t see.” By going to God and saying, “Lord, why is my husband the way he is?” her eyes were opened up to: “There’s a reason.” Now, she wanted to help him and encourage him instead of resenting that. That was—she felt an act of revelation, just sitting before the Lord.
I would say to those out there that feel very frustrated in your marriage: “You’re very good at saying what you are frustrated about but, if you want to get to the solution, spend some time, saying, ‘God, why is my husband the way he is?’ / ask God: ‘Why does my wife respond that way?’ and just listen and think. Let the Holy Spirit work and, then, you can really get at the root of some of your marital issues.”
Dennis: In other words, ask God: “God, why did You make my husband in the first place? What’s he about? What do you want me to add to his life / to build into his life to help him to become all that You made him to be?”
Instead of praying a prayer list of things that need to change—instead, you become obsessed more with: “How can I be the right helpmate? How can I be the right spouse for the one I’m married to?” and get your eyes off of them, critically, and more on the God who can instruct you and will show you how you can do that.
I promise you—if you pray that, He will show you some practical ways that you can build into your spouse’s life.
Gary: That’s the whole point of this. I know talking about worship and all of these things sound so hopelessly religiously idealistic—that it doesn’t really come down to real life—but when this is applied, it really is practical. When I go to God in the morning—and I let God love me, and I’m reminded of the gospel—that He loved me when I was in the midst of my rebellion, that He saved me, that Christ died for me, that Christ even now intercedes for me, and I know that I am completely cared for by God—I just come out of that devotional time, eager to meet the needs of the world, beginning with my wife/beginning with my kids—it’s just practical.
I realize, “I need to get my own spiritual needs met.” Then, it’s just like being launched: “Okay, I’ve been loved. I’m reminded:
‘My greatest need is to be loved,’—that’s been met this morning. Now, how do I spend the rest of the day learning how to love?”
Bob: Yes, but before you can apply that, you’ve got to understand it. That’s where I think listeners need to get a copy of your book because you do a great job of laying out for us how we need to see marriage in a transcended context. Gary Thomas’s new book is called A Lifelong Love. It’s a book that we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. It really does elevate the whole issue of marriage. If we’re going to have a lifelong love, it’s probably going to require that our understanding of marriage gets elevated a little bit.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll find information about Gary Thomas’s book, A Lifelong Love, and his other book, Sacred Marriage. We’ve got both books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order from us, online, if you’d like. Again, the website—FamilyLifeToday.com—
—or call if you’d like to place an order at 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
You know, I often wish that our listeners could just spend a day, here at our headquarters at FamilyLife, and get a chance to sit where we sit—and read some of the emails that come in, take some of the phone calls we get each day, read the evaluations that come from folks who have been through a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway, talk to the folks who are using our resources like Passport2Purity® or The Art of Marriage® or the Stepping Up® video series. I think if folks could have a day, doing that, they would be as fired up as we often are, working here. I mean, it’s really exciting to see how God is using this ministry in significant ways in people’s lives.
And some of our listeners are a part of that because they make this ministry possible. More than 65 percent of the funds we need to operate the ministry come from listeners, like you, who say: “We think what you are doing is important. It’s important for our family, for our marriage, and we think it’s important in our community. We think it’s important, in our nation, for this issue to be addressed.”
Our goal, here at FamilyLife, is provide practical biblical help for marriages and families. We want to see every home become a godly home. And we’re grateful for those of you who share that vision with us and who help support it through your donations. You can donate to FamilyLife Today, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Just click the link in the upper right-hand corner that says, “I CARE,” to make an online donation. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make a donation over the phone. If you’re interested in becoming a Legacy Partner and making donations on a monthly basis—that’s the team that really provides the core financial support for this ministry—
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk with Gary Thomas about what it means to have a missional marriage. We’ll explain that term tomorrow and talk about how it applies to a marriage relationship. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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