In my marriage preparation classes, we, of course, deal with the expected issues. Like the importance of love, trust and hope: Nurture those qualities. Like children: How many? Or do you want any? Have you discussed the matter between yourselves? Like adultery: Don't do it. Your marriage may be able to survive adultery—the way you may be able to survive a head-on collision. But I don't recommend it.
What we actually spend a lot of time on is constructive communication. Unless you are both telepathic, you need to learn how to communicate your thoughts and feelings to your spouse and how to listen to your spouse communicate his or her thoughts and feelings. You need to learn how to express yourself in a way that is honest but not inflammatory. You also need to know how to disagree in a healthy way so that you can, as a team, attack problems and not each other. This might seem like common sense but you need to be reminded of certain basic truths from time to time.
This Lent we are going to be talking about 7 elements of following Jesus. They shouldn't surprise you or sound exotic. But they are basic ways of maintaining your relationship with the person we call our God and king.
And the first thing we are going to look at is prayer, which is communicating with God.
Most of us think that prayer is just asking God for stuff. But that would be like thinking you only talk to your spouse or a friend when you need something. Think of how you would feel if the only time someone who supposedly loved you spoke to you was to ask for something. You can't build a good relationship on that alone.
My granddaughter, who is at an age when she needs to ask for things frequently, also discusses things that matter to her with me and sings for me and asks questions and says, “I love you.” That's how we should talk to our heavenly Father.
Nevertheless it's perfectly acceptable to ask God for things. In the Lord's Prayer we say, “Give us today our daily bread...” (Matthew 6:11) So we are encouraged to ask for our needs to be met. Jesus also said, “...I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:13) Which sounds pretty sweeping. The only conditions are to ask (1) in the name of Christ and (2) that it may glorify the Father. Both of those can be taken to mean we should not ask anything contrary to his Spirit or which will do the opposite of glorifying God. Given how self-indulgences by televangelists like million dollar mansions and private planes and gold-plated bathroom fixtures have been occasions for deriding and mocking the gospel, such things fall outside Jesus' promise, as would asking for God to harm others. Again Jesus said, “Is there anyone among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Of if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11) God is not a genie granting us every crazy desire but a loving Father who will not give us what is bad for us no matter how hard we ask.
What else do you talk about with someone you love? The things that concern you. And sometimes you don't want the other person to start brainstorming solutions for you to implement but just listen and empathize. We can do that with God as well. If it is important to your child, it is important to you. And so it is with God. And one of the things that is great about Jesus is that he understands what our lives are like because he is one of us. He worked for a living; he lost a parent; he had problems with his brothers; he was misunderstood; he got tired; he got thirsty; he got sad; he was betrayed by a friend. We can say, “Jesus, I know you know what this situation is like. Help me deal with it.”
Another thing you do with someone you love is tell them that. You compliment them. And you do it to express your love. In fact, it is good to say out loud what we appreciate about the other person, because otherwise, after a while, we take them for granted. And it is good to remind ourselves why we got into this relationship in the first place. It also feels good to praise your spouse or child or parent. So we don't praise God because he needs it. We do it because we need it. We need to remind ourselves of God's good qualities and why we love him.
Another thing you talk about with someone you love is things that anger or upset you about them. Believe it or not, this is OK with God too. The psalms and the prophets have passages where they are honest with God about the problems they are having with him. They say things like “How long will this continue?” regarding God's anger (Psalm 6:3) and “Yes, my spirit was bitter, and my insides felt pain” and other troubling thoughts when seeing the wicked prosper (Psalm 73:21). Our God is big enough to deal with our negative emotions, even when they are directed toward him. The essential thing is to keep the connection open. One of my favorite passages is Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. (Genesis 32:24-30) The key part is when Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He comes out of it with a limp—and a blessing. The worst thing to do is to walk away and not try to work out the problem in the relationship.
Another thing I tell couples to do is admit when they are wrong and to be ready to forgive when the other asks for it. It's really hard to keep a relationship going if there are unresolved wrongs, or when one person is sorry but the other won't forgive them. Probably one of the least popular ideas in Christianity is that of repentance. As I've pointed out before, it doesn't necessitate tears, sackcloth and ashes; it means to turn your life around and to rethink what you're doing. Even though this is essential to having a relationship with God, just as forgiving or asking forgiveness of your spouse is, these are the most difficult parts of those relationships. It's right up there with “We have to talk.” Nobody likes to be in the wrong. Nor, in the rare case where you are entirely in the right, do we like forgiving rather than gloating over the person in the wrong. But it is as necessary to the life and health of the relationship as first aid is to the life and health of a person. When something's wrong we need to get it repaired, even though that is no fun.
Prayer is simply talking with God. We need to do it every day; we need to compliment God as we would our spouse; we need to ask for what we need; we need to fess up when we are in the wrong; we need to ask for help in doing things we can't do alone or well, like forgiving others.
Jesus prayed a lot. It was his habit to get up early and go off by himself, away from distractions, so he could pray. If you're a morning person, you should emulate him. If, like me, you are most assuredly not a morning person, find a time that works best for you. But prayer is not an optional part of following Jesus. When you love someone, you should love talking to them.
You should also love to listen to them. And we will look at that Sunday.