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Rules to Live By
As I write, a new self-help book is high on the charts. The title is The Rules for Marriage, and its two authors are making the talk show rounds.
I've not read the book. I just caught a few minutes of the authors' latest interview. One rule, I think it was number twelve, reads like this: "Don't compare your mate to someone else's."
Good advice. Mention to your husband, no matter how sweetly, that Sally's husband cooks dinner several times a week, and you can expect a tough evening. That's true. That's how things work.
But tell him you appreciate how hard he works to support his family, even though it means he drags himself home late, slumps on the kitchen stool, and in five minutes wolfs down a dinner it took you three hours to create, and there will be less conflict. You might actually feel good about yourself for encouraging your weary husband rather than complaining, and--who knows?--he might aim a smile your way and help clear the table. At least for that evening and perhaps longer. If you consistently follow the rules for marriage, you'll likely enjoy a better life.
But you'll be farther from God. Not because you were kind, but because your kindness was directed toward a goal that you valued more than intimacy with God. You wrongly defined life.
Your kindness was a power play. You decided what you wanted and you went after it. You neither depended on resources the Spirit provides nor placed top priority on glorifying God. He was not the center of your affections, neither the source nor goal of your movement.
He Wants Something More
Some would critique your kind affirmation of your husband differently. The problem, they would say, is cowardice, weakness, a fearful refusal to risk conflict for the sake of something even better than a tension-free evening. According to that thinking, a better rule to follow might be "Air your feelings honestly but not antagonistically. And do it to help your husband become a more sensitive person."
Those familiar with their Bibles might claim divine support for such advice: "Speak the truth in love," an inspired author once wrote. This rule, it could be argued, has a chance of generating a closer relationship, a real meeting of souls. Notice, however, that the formula remains the same: Decide what you want, then figure out how to get it.
My concern with The Rules for Marriage is not whether the rules are good or bad, whether they're effective in reaching a truly better life or effective only in reducing conflict. It isn't even whether the rules are Christian or unchristian. And my intention is not to suggest a better plan to secure a better life. I have no strategies in mind to give you a better marriage, better kids, a more complete recovery from sexual abuse, or quicker healing after your divorce. Nor, I believe, does God.
I want all these things for you. So does God. And I want a better life for myself. So does God. But He wants something more for both of us. And only when we pursue the more will He grant the less. Or He might not, until the next life.
I'm troubled by how unquestioningly we live out our determination to make this life work. All our hopes for happiness are bound up in it. It's as if we believe this is the only world we ever plan to inhabit.
And I'm troubled most by the often unstated and unrecognized assumption that lies beneath our resolve to experience a better life. The assumption might be called the Law of Linearity. It goes like this:
Choose what you want out of life, figure out what you have to do to get it, then follow the rules. Select the B you desire, then perform the A that leads to it. There's an A--a strategy--that leads to every B--a goal.
That's the Law of Linearity. Let me offer a few examples.
* Do you want to be spiritual? Then practice spiritual disciplines, not to create space for a merciful and sovereign God to work in the depths of your hungry, humble soul, but rather to generate the level of spirituality you want. There's a line between the practice of spiritual disciplines and the experience of spirituality, an arrow pointing from the practice (A) to the experience (B). You are in control. B follows A.
* Do you want this crisis with your daughter to resolve itself well? Consult with a seasoned counselor who specializes in adolescence, not to discern where the Spirit is moving through this trial in both of your lives, but rather to build a bridge between you and your daughter that will allow the two of you to soon meet in a healing and warm embrace. There's an A that will lead to the B you desire. Don't be concerned that reconciliation with your daughter has become a priority higher than drawing near to God. Go after the better life you want.
* Do you want to overcome your sexual addiction? Join a recovery group of men who are serious about moral purity, not to revel in God's grace and to discover how badly you long to know Him, but rather to find the help you need to keep you away from pornography. The point is getting your life together, not getting closer to God. And there's a way to do it. The Law of Linearity says so. Be practical. Figure out what it takes to solve your problem.
Let me put it more generally. We all want our lives to work well, to become better than they are or to remain as good as they are. When that desire becomes our goal, the objective we most value, then we like to believe the Law of Linearity is operative. We want to believe there's an A we can do that will lead to the B we want. Our lives then become a sustained effort to discover and follow whatever principles will provide a life that lets us feel pretty good.
And it sometimes works. Stay calm rather than ranting when your teenage daughter tells you she's pregnant, and you may preserve a good enough relationship to weather the crisis. Be honest with a group of men about your sexual struggles, and you may find yourself better able to resist temptation. Spend time in contemplative prayer and lectio divina (a special way of listening to the Spirit as you read the Bible), and you may feel closer to God.
But you might end up farther from God. And you will end up farther from God if you think of these principles as methods to produce the better life you want.
Isn't That the Way Things Work?
The Rules for Marriage is a new bestseller. The Bible, the best-selling book of all time, is thought by many to offer the Rules for Life. We think it teaches us how to depend on the Law of Linearity to get the life we want. It offers principles to follow to get what we want out of life. That's what we think. No wonder it's so popular. And no wonder it changes so few lives of those who read it.
When we live to make this life work, whether we follow natural wisdom or biblical principles, we become either proud or discouraged, self-congratulating or self-hating.
Christians are no exception. When a Christian parent consistently practices a godly approach to raising children in order to see them turn out well, and when it works, that parent becomes more proud than grateful. But the pride is disguised.
"Yes, my children have turned out as I'd hoped. But I'm not surprised. I spent quality time with them. I prayed for each by name every day. And God is a prayer-answering God. I know we must do our part. By His grace, I think I did, not perfectly, of course, but pretty well. I set clear boundaries. I was involved and fun-loving, but they always knew who was in charge, I was their parent, not their buddy.
"And kids want that. They feel more secure when they play in a fenced yard. God is so faithful. He's so good. I trained my kids according to His wisdom, and He saw to it that they became fine young people. That's how it works."
The worst sermon I ever heard was delivered by a middle-aged man who made me think of a strutting peacock when he spoke. For thirty-five minutes, he explained how he'd driven foolishness out of his children with the rod of correction and had planted wisdom in them through regular family devotions. The message was clear: I did what I was supposed to do. God blessed my efforts. I now enjoy the better life of having godly children.
When the law works, we become proud, though we disguise it as gratitude. And we profoundly discourage the parents who tried just as hard to "do it right" and now ache over a drug-abusing son and a rebellious, sexually active daughter.
When the law doesn't work, we assume we simply didn't follow it well enough. We believe someone failed, usually us. We become more defeated than trusting. It doesn't occur to us that the law might no longer be in effect.
Marie's husband left her ten years ago, after twenty-two years of marriage. She was devastated. She never thought it would happen. After hearing me lecture on the Law of Linearity, she wanted to speak with me. Here's what she said:
"I never realized it before, but my thinking is governed by that law. Ever since the divorce, I wake up every day wondering what I did wrong that resulted in my sleeping alone. I've been so puzzled. I've never been able to believe I was that bad a wife. I wasn't. I really think I was a darn good wife. Lots of women I know aren't half the wife I was--and they're still married, some of them happily. I've been so confused.
"I try to convince myself it was all him. And he really was a stinker. But now I can see that whether I blame him or me, I'm looking for an explanation. And that's linear thinking. What A wasn't followed that would have resulted in B? And that question creates such pressure. I've blown it once. Now I've got to get it right."
Then she added, "But isn't that the way things work? Are you saying there's no linearity, no cause and effect? If the Law of Linearity isn't the basis for how we live, what is? Is there another way to think?"
There is. As we'll see, the Rules for Life have been replaced by the Opportunity to Live.
The pressure's off!
Excerpted from The Pressure's Off Workbook by Larry Crabb Copyright © 2002 by Larry Crabb. Excerpted by permission.
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