1 Timothy 4:7
Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness . . .
It started out one kind of an evening, and it ended up another.
Anne and I were out for dinner. It was a pleasant time with a couple who periodically attended St. Andrew’s and another couple who were hosting the four of us in their home.
The hors d’oeuvres were tasty and the conversation sprightly. We sat down at the dining room table, so artistically set, and continued our wide-ranged conversation over a delicious meal.
Then, suddenly, it happened! As we nibbled away at our cheesecake and sipped our coffee, the host looked up, with his eyes riveted first on mine and then on Anne’s and then back at mine. With emphatic yet puzzled inflection, he articulated the big question: “Why are so many marriages of people who seem so together so successful at breaking up? We are so shocked when friends of years, with whom we have been together so frequently socially, who seem so happy together, suddenly announce, ‘It’s over!'”
I stumbled around for some answers. After all, that’s my business, isn’t it?
Anne also tried to answer. After all, she’s been to seminary and is a practicing marriage and family counselor, as well as psychoanalyst.
We both gave our answers. Frankly, some of them were very good. But ever since that evening in which the conversation suddenly shifted gears, making it one of those never-to-be-forgotten occasions when the six of us got right down to basics, I have been searching my brain, searching life, asking questions of others, and asking questions of God. Through prayer and through the searching of Scriptures, I have endeavored to figure out just why so many marriages of people who seem so together and so successful are breaking up.
I believe that I have come across some answers and also some solutions. These are not final answers; nor are they final solutions. Relationships do not lend themselves easily to once-and-for-all, true statements that guarantee happiness and wholeness. At least I am able to share some insights to challenge you and me to further reflection.
I am convinced that many marriages break up because they are built on mythical foundations.
What do I mean? There are myths, generally accepted statements or propositional foundations for life, that are accepted by some of us that can gradually work away on our inner psyche, ultimately causing us marital disruption.
The Bible is God’s Word to you and me. It doesn’t tell us everything about God. It doesn’t tell us everything about ourselves. It doesn’t tell us everything about each other. But the Bible does tell us everything we need to know about how to get along with God, with ourselves and with each other. The Bible is a textbook of reality therapy. It is not a compilation of naive idealisms that spiritualize life, painting fantasies that do not square with reality.
The Bible is an earthy book. It has a lot to say about domestic ugliness, marital violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, adultery, dishonesty, ambition, exploitation, manipulation, arrogance and pride. These are only a few of the themes spoken to with great specificity and elaborate illustration.
Not only is ideal marriage described, so is divorce. It notes allowances made for divorce under certain extreme circumstances. However, Jesus reinforces God’s intention for marriage to be a vehicle that enhances the welfare and happiness of humankind. He notes the painful disruption that comes emotionally, physically and spiritually when that intentionality gets ripped apart by either a marriage lived out in a contentious disharmony or one that ends in divorce.
My basic thesis for today does not come from a biblical text dealing specifically with marriage. It is actually a word of advice from the Apostle Paul to his young friend, Timothy, who was pastoring the church Paul founded in Ephesus. We looked in detail, a few months ago, at those two letters. Paul noted in his travels through the Jewish, Greek and Roman world that all people have a weird vulnerability to untruth. We humans are easily deceived by quack remedies and vogue ideologies that come and go at a fairly rapid pace. He urges Timothy to concentrate on the truth that has been revealed to him through the Holy Spirit. He writes:
If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:6-8)
Ever since that dinner conversation, as I have been reflecting on this whole matter of marital disharmony and divorce, these words have kept throbbing in my heart and mind: “Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness . . . “
The whole attitude of the Apostle Paul, as he shares his concerns with Timothy, is one of nurturing, one of caring, one of counsel, one of advice. It was a gentle, humble word. He wants Timothy to process his instructions in a way that will help him deal healthfully with the believers at Ephesus. He wants him to exhort those for whom he bears pastoral responsibility in a gentle, humble, counseling mode. It is not to be an authoritarian expression that puts people down.
How presumptuous it would be of me to stand in the pulpit and pretend personal exemption from the stresses and strains of my own marriage. I dare not bully you into truth. Instead, I must admit that I am a person just as much in process as are you. I must be fed from the Scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so as to be able to share with you the discoveries that I am making. What I say to you today, within days of my 65th birthday, hopefully has a depth to it that it would not have had forty years ago, or even twenty years ago. What I do have is a responsibility that is clear and urge you to apply that truth to what may not be as clear.
Paul urges Timothy to avoid “profane myths and old wives’ tales.” The NIV translates this as “godless and silly myths.” He is warning them to remain at the center of the faith. How easy it is to be indoctrinated by a society that does not take seriously the truths of God’s Word and wake up discovering that something about us is being destroyed by these godless and silly myths. Instead, we are called to train ourselves in godliness.
I would like to identify several profane myths and old wives’ tales that can literally destroy marital harmony and actually break up your marriage.
Myth #1 is the Perfect-Person myth.
It goes like this: Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. They marry and live happily ever after. This myth says that if you marry the right person, you will have a wonderful life together. Your problems will be minimized. Yours will be a storybook love affair, different from what it would be if you happened to marry the wrong person.
These kinds of marriages are peopled by handsome men and beautiful women who have darling little children. These people live in lovely homes. They have substantial incomes. They are successful in their work. They are physically agile and enjoy sports. There is plenty of money to do all the things that happily married couples do. Harsh words are not spoken. Disagreements are few and far between. If both are Christians, God will see to it that nothing extraordinarily bad will happen to this family.
Anne and I married right into this myth. We had an ideal courtship. It was storybook stuff. There was no question that she was the right person for me and I was the right person for her. People loved us to tell the story of how we met in Taiwan and again in Hong Kong, as she was on her way to teach for the summer in Cambodia and I was leading a tour around the world for Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. The story surrounding our meeting in 1963 and wedding in 1964 could provide material for a romantic novel.
But the facts are that Anne and I had our problems, and those problems emerged not too long after the honeymoon. The sad thing was that Anne and I lived with the myth for a prolonged period of time, at varying degrees of confusion and frustration, wondering why, since we knew we had married the right person, we were both in pain and causing pain for each other. It took us quite a few years before we were prepared to get the help we needed because we were caught up in the “perfect-person myth.”
The truth is that every couple is going to have some problems of one kind or another. Our problems will be different from yours, and your problems will differ from those of others or of your friends. Whenever you get two people together, given the many differences in family backgrounds, cultural expectations, and finely tuned differences in individual temperaments, there will be marital difficulties. The sooner you and I discover this truth and put away the myth, the better off our marriages will be. I am not saying that God did not want you to marry your spouse. I am not saying that there is not a right person for you. What I am saying is that there is no such thing as a perfect person, just as there is no such thing as a perfect family. You and I are sinners saved by God’s grace. When we marry, we are still sinners saved by God’s grace, and every couple needs God’s grace to survive one day at a time.
I will be the first to admit that Anne and I were quite well suited for each other in many, many ways. In other ways, we weren’t. We have had to learn how to cope with this. I thank God that He brought us together, but the proverbial “storybook marriage” is actually that–just a story, fictional in nature.
Myth #2 is the There’s A More Perfect Person Out There myth.
This is a natural extension of the first myth. When you discover that Mr. Perfect isn’t so perfect and Mrs. Perfect isn’t so perfect, there is a human tendency to wonder if perhaps one married the wrong person.
Think back to the circumstances under which you married, if you are or have been married. I am speaking now primarily to persons who are married or have been married, although there are very serious implications for those who are in the process of selecting a mate. The reason I am reserving this to those of us who are married or have been married is that hindsight brings with it an amazingly accurate insight, compared to feelings of the present.
Be honest with yourself. Why did you marry that man? What did you think you could get from him? Why did you marry that woman? What did you see in her? What could she give you? Some of us will have to scratch our memories a bit. We are now 10, 20, 30, 40 to 50 years beyond that important decision. You see how culturally conditioned that decision was. He met a role expectation, didn’t he? She met a role expectation, didn’t she? He looked like he would be so successful. She was so pretty. He was such an athlete. Your mother said he was better for you than the other guy. Your parents said that she came from such a good home. Think of all the bartering that goes on in our minds. For some of us, we lived in a time when couples just naturally got married at the time they graduated from high school or college. So what did they do? Some just married the person they happened to be going with at that point in life. Just think of what that is. Here we are between age 18 and 25, seeing the world from that limited perspective and blurred somewhat by that crazy mix of hormones.
Twenty-two years ago, I returned to my 25th reunion of my high school graduating class. It just so happened that my daughter, Suzanne, attended it with me. Two of my old girlfriends were at the reunion. Was it ever embarrassing for me to try to explain to Suzanne why I had broken up with one girl for another. She had heard me talk about both of them. After seeing them both, 25 years later, it was quite clear that good old Dad didn’t have his head screwed on quite as straight as the family folklore he handed down had implied.
So, perhaps years later, we wake up to the reality that we married a person for the wrong reasons. We can equate that fact with the myth that we, therefore, married the wrong person. Out there somewhere is Mr. Perfect or Ms. Perfect. At the earliest opportunity, we will find that one. In the meantime, let’s get rid of this problem character who wasn’t right in the first place, who was chosen for some very wrong reasons.
That is what is happening to the woman who has quite bluntly told her husband of some fifteen years, “You’re a nice guy. I like you a whole lot. You’re just not successful enough for me. You don’t make enough money. I’m going to find someone who can provide the lifestyle I deserve.” Don’t get shocked. I know a woman who said exactly those words to her husband, and I watched her walk away, leaving the one she called “Mr. Wrong,” thinking she had found “Mr. Right.” Actually, she was not much more aware of what was attracting her to him than she was to what had attracted her to her first husband. And how my heart broke as I watched those kids, the puzzled expressions on their faces, watching Mommy take off with this new guy. She wants them to call him “Daddy,” when they know who their real daddy is.
And I don’t need to reverse the story, talking about men walking off and leaving their wives of many years for newer and younger models. We see plenty of that.
The truth is that we may very well marry for the wrong reasons. The truth is that we may very well do it over again, and even again, in a restless search for the perfect person.
Another sad truth is that our society has now begun to endorse this as a valid way of doing business. Careful studies show that each subsequent endeavor to find the right person only exponentially increases the potential for divorce.
Myth #3 is the Everyone Who Looks Happy Is Happy myth.
Not everyone who looks happy is happy. You know that. I know that. We know that in general, don’t we? It certainly is so easy to be jealous of another couple’s apparent problemless existence. Isn’t it amazing how green the pasture looks on the other side of the fence?
I remember a couple of whom I was jealous. He was handsome and well-educated. She was physically gorgeous and seemed to be the perfect mother. They had a beautiful house, cars and an airplane. Wherever he went, doors of influence and power were opened to him. They took exotic vacations. They were able to charter their own yachts with full crew. They were Christians, active in their church and generous with their money.
Little did I realize that these two, who looked so happy on the surface, were caged in a relationship of mutual misery. His success orientation was devouring him. He didn’t have the time for intimacy. She, hungry for attention, hungry for caring, began to find solace in that discreetly hidden bottle of wine, from which that equally discreetly hidden glass was kept perpetually filled, and from which she ever-so-discreetly sipped through the long, lonesome hours, day after day, when the kids were at school and the husband at work. Little did I know that this couple was so unhappy.
What had made her attractive to him made her attractive to other men. The affirmation that she used to get from his compliments about her beauty she began to find from another and yet another. Ultimately, ever-so-discreetly, she ended up in the arms of another, not his. When he found out, it was over! For, as he saw it, she was the bad person. He was the good person. He demonized her, excusing himself because he had been faithful to her. He wasn’t about to go for counsel, and the marriage broke up. For years now, he, having learned the hard way, is scared of commitment and goes from one woman to another. And she from the arms of one man to another. Those of us who thought they were so happy and wished we had all they had going for us, said, “Isn’t that too bad.” And we found another couple to idealize. We settle in, wishing we could have all the happiness they have, and we will continue to hold them high until something happens to burst our new fantasy bubble.
The truth is that every married couple has enough problems to break up a marriage if they allow it. Satan would love to get you to throw in the towel. He would love to destroy your marriage by urging you to compare yourself to someone else. Every couple has their moments of happiness and every couple has their moments of pain. The truth is that no one has it all. The truth is that there is a built-in law of compensation. What looks good and attractive has its flip side of pain-producing potential. How much better it is to work with what we have, however limited that may appear, than to dream about having what someone else seems to have, only to discover that they don’t really have it.
Myth #4 is the Religious myth.
There are variations to this myth.
One is that whether you marry a Christian or not doesn’t really make any difference. It will all work out OK. How many young persons get burned in the process of buying into this myth!
We preachers hesitate to speak on this because we don’t want to be judgmental. We know what the Bible teaches, that we are not to be “unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” It seems, though, to be such a hard teaching. Does it mean that one should never date a nonbeliever? So, we back off at that point, forgetting that seldom does a person marry a person that they have not dated. We then try to give the warning to the two who are in love. But then it is too late. The Christian partner kids oneself into thinking that it really doesn’t make any difference: “I’ll lead my partner to faith in Jesus Christ after we get married.” Sometimes that does happen. Those of us who are parents of children who make such a decision dare not be, by our judgmentalism and insensitivity, obstacles to this happening. But often it doesn’t. I could give you case history after case history of Christians married to nonbelievers, some wonderful and some not-so-wonderful, who yearn for that oneness that could have been theirs in a truly Christian marriage.
Another variation on this religious myth is that all you need to do is to ask Jesus and your problems will disappear. How much blame Jesus has received from people who somehow think that He runs around with a magic wand, instantly healing everything He touches, without us respecting certain emotional, spiritual and physical laws that have direct consequences attached to our breaking of them. Granted, Jesus does, in supernatural ways, on occasion intervene, bringing miraculous healings to bodies, emotions and relationships. However, I have discovered in the majority of situations, He works in quiet, gentle, gracious ways, according to the teachings of His Word, making available to us the resources of His power through that sanctifying process of gradual growth towards wholeness in Christ.
The truth is that coming to Jesus isn’t going to automatically solve your marital problems. Don’t blame Him for them. Don’t blame Him for not taking them away. The truth is that you and I are privileged to appropriate His power to solve those problems over which we have control and to live with those over which we have no control.
Myth #5 is the Media myth.
It has some similiarities to the “Everyone Who Looks Happy Is Happy” myth. No society in history has been exposed to the extent our society has to the bombardment of visual stimuli that is so fraudulent. Every society has those who make the same false promises. Every society has had its soft-core pornography that produces its visual fantasies. But none has ever made these quite so readily available in quite such dramatic ways.
Lights. Camera angles. Body building machines. Beauty aids. Cosmetic surgery. Artistic airbrushes. Exotic music. Virtual reality. All can make a mere mortal man look like a god and a mere mortal woman look like a goddess. Body odors disappear. Disease is covered up. Facial blemishes are glossed over. Emotional breakdowns are hidden. So we live in the creation of a fantasy world to the point that we actually believe that the rock stars and movie stars are real people. We do the same with our so-called “men of God” and “women of God.” Watch out if you have too much of a fixation on a particular religious leader. Watch that person closely enough and you will see his or her feet of clay.
Through the media, we make superheroes of mere mortals, and then we are crushed when we see our fantasies fall before our eyes.
Normally we discard our media creations, forgetting that they are still alive, when they are no longer useful. Where now are the Playboy and Penthouse centerfolds of the 1960s and 1970s? Most of them are still alive somewhere. They are all still human beings, created in the very image of God. But we made them out to be so much more than human, while at the same time so much less than human, that they are turned into commodities and thrown away when they are no longer useful. Somewhere they sit, wondering what happened, why no one calls anymore, looking on in broken cynicism as new subjects are made into objects and rocketed into prominence, only to be discarded when their usefulness is over.
The truth is that every one of us is life-sized. Every one of us has our needs. Every one of us battles with weight–too little or too much. Every one of us is either too tall or too short, has too much hair or too little, is too rich or too poor. Every one of us yearns to be accepted by God and each other. The truth is there is nothing ultimately lonlier than the media myth, as the biography of Marilyn Monroe states so clearly. Linda Evans, Madonna, Sharon Stone, are all aging. Jennifer Aniston will too. We all do, don’t we?
Myth #6 is the Incompatibility myth.
Granted, there is alcoholism, child abuse, husband and wife beating, bankruptcy, unfaithfulness, and all those other distortions of relationship to which we have alluded. These are all awful things. Granted, there are personalities suffering from pathologies of all sorts that make them, or perhaps us, almost impossible with which to live. So we come to the conclusion that person no longer deserves us. Or perhaps that person should have someone better for them than us, so we do an end run around the hard work of resolving our differences.
The truth was so succinctly stated by Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier when he said there is no such thing as incompatibility. Incompatibility is a word that we have created to give us an excuse to get out of relationship in which we are unwilling to work. So we continue one end run after another, avoiding that privileged fulfillment that comes from working a problem through, a problem that usually involves me just as much as her.
Myth #7 is the Hyped-up Romantic Love myth.
Some couples have sneered at romantic love because of its unrealistic proportions. In 1908, George Bernard Shaw wrote:
When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.
And, H. L. Mencken, in 1919, wrote:
To be in love is merely to be in a state of perceptual anesthesia — to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek god or an ordinary young woman for a goddess!
These two men, in their cynicism, saw through this hyped-up kind of romantic love. This isn’t true love, the biblical understanding of agape love. But unfortunately, too many of us think that there is something wrong if we can’t perpetually sustain that high-octane emotional intensity, which one wag says “involves every part of the body except the brain.”
The truth is that love mellows with time and deepens as we increasingly become aware of so much more that could mark our relationship.
Myth #8 is the Low Self-Esteem myth.
Granted, this is a problem for some. I don’t deny the importance of us dealing with low self-esteem. Each of us has experienced this to some extent. It is very difficult to think well of yourself in a balanced sort of way. I will grant that. We have all carried self hate from our childhood into our adult years. We see ourselves as gangly, awkward, fat, skinny, stupid, smart, selfish, arrogant, insensitive or whatever other adjectives or verb was used to describe us as a teenager. We carry those pictures into our adult years, failing to integrate into our understanding that it is not really where or what we are today. But I am afraid that we can spend the rest of our lives striving for healthy self-esteem in counterbalance to some of those childhood memories in ways that only accentuate that which destroys healthful relationships. We are determined never to be put down again. We are going to fight for our rights. We are going to have that which we earned. “No husband has the right to whittle away at my self-esteem.”Or, “No wife has the right to put me down.” We declare, “I’m going to be me! I’m going to assert myself and get what I rightly deserve!”
That’s the spirit of our day, isn’t it?
But what about the biblical teaching that instructs us to “count others better than yourself?” How do we deal with those passages that tell us to treat our wives as we would treat our own bodies? How do we handle those passages that, no matter how freed up we’ve become in man-woman roles, do call for wives to be adaptable to their husband’s leadership and do call for us to be subject to one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ? We are called to serve each other. The truth is that much of our talk about self-esteem can become an introverted narcissism. It can be the same old selfishness revisted with more acceptable nomenclature.
This myth cries out, “I have the right to be happy!” The truth is that you do and you don’t. You have the right to be joyful. That is true. No other person has been given the right to rob you and me of our joy. But divorce is never the best route to true happiness. It may happen. It may be inevitable. There may be nothing you can do at this point that will restore that breaking or broken marriage. That’s why we at St. Andrew’s give such attention to our Divorce Recovery Workshops, having ministered now to over 13,000 persons in the last quarter century. That is why we are here to minister God’s grace and the assurance that there is life after divorce. That is why we are here to do all we can to bring healing and new beginning to those who have suffered and caused suffering that has led to a final severing of vows.
The truth is that divorce need not destroy joy. The truth is that your healthy self-esteem can never ultimately be broken by another human being or ultimately be found in another human being. Your ultimate self-esteem is made in right relationship with God in Jesus Christ. The truth is that true happiness is found in Him. The reality is that He offers joy to those of us who seek our joy in Him.
One of the more touching moments on our daughter Janet’s wedding day was a toast that her sister, Carla, her maid-of-honor, gave at the reception. She talked with great insight about Janet and Ryan, their relationship and her love for them. She then ended with a quote from the writer, Madeleine L’Engle, from her book titled Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage:
Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, depended too much on each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis. Which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.
I hope today some common myths have been identified and labeled for what they are. In contrast, I hope that some truths of an eternal nature have been stated. The Bible is filled with them. I trust that I have hinted at a realistic approach to life that urges you and me to stick with something or someone faithfully, working through the problems instead of avoiding them. Divorce isn’t the real answer. There are myths that can break up your marriage. But there is an alternative way through which comes from an honest, straightforward appraisal of who you and I are and what God can enable us to be in our relationships!
John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.