My wife and I were out of town, visiting the church where my son and his wife attend. I had just spoken at a marriage conference at a different church, so we stayed over another night to visit with our children.
After the service was over, a sixty-something man came up to my wife and me and said, “I don’t normally stare, but I do like to look, and I’ve got to tell you, sitting a few rows behind the two of you: I love the way you smile at her (pointing to my wife), and I love the way she shows you such affection.”
This is the second time something like this has happened. The first time was at my home church. When I preach at Second Baptist in Houston Texas, I often travel from the Woodway campus 9:30 a.m. service to the West campus service (about 15 miles away) that starts at 11:00 a.m. My wife Lisa is either already sitting at the West campus when I arrive or comes in a few minutes later (I’m escorted through a back door).
As I was shaking hands with members after the West service, a woman told me how God had spoken to her about me and my wife.
“I saw such a love in your eyes, how I knew you would do anything for her. And I saw how much she adores you. It spoke to me about how God would do anything for me, His daughter.”
These two episodes remind me and my wife that we are always on stage—even when we’re in front of the pulpit instead of behind it. We didn’t choreograph our entrance. We didn’t practice how we would look at each other or greet each other or touch each other during worship. My preference would be that no one would even notice I’m walking in; hopefully, they’re too busy worshipping God.
But people are watching. I’ve had women tell me they’ve lost a lot of respect for their pastor when they saw him check out other women—and not even realizing he was doing it. Or when they hear the way their pastor talks to or about his wife, it can break their heart and make fresh old wounds.
Marriage isn’t something leaders can fake, even if we wanted to. The way our eyes light up (or don’t light up), the tone we use when we’re talking to our spouse or about our spouse—people pick up on this. One woman leader at our church, after hearing me speak on marriage, described it to someone else as, “I love the way he really loves his wife.”
My marriage is an integral part of my message. I can’t divorce the two, any more than I could divorce my wife. While I am all about giving God the glory for meeting us in our weakness and loving us just as we are, I’m also a firm believer in the many Scriptures that urge us to allow God to mature us and shine through us. Our marriages can become testimonies of his mercy, grace, healing, and empowerment.
In Sacred Marriage, I wrote, “One of the reasons I am determined to keep my marriage together is not because doing so will make me happier (although I believe it will); not because I want my kids to have a secure home (although I do desire that); not because it would tear me up to see my wife have to ‘start over’ (although it would). The first reason I keep my marriage together is because it is my Christian duty. If my life is based on proclaiming God’s message to the world, I don’t want to do anything that would challenge that message. And how can I proclaim reconciliation when I seek dissolution?”
As pastors, we have been entrusted with the Gospel ministry of reconciliation. That’s what we preach: God reconciling the world to himself, and then calling us to be reconciled to each other.
Our marriages become testimonies to God’s work of reconciliation. In microcosmic form, they tell the story of how grace helps two sinful, self-absorbed individuals die to themselves and be reborn to love, serve and cherish each other in the midst of their sinfulness. Or they become examples of how we can talk the talk but can’t walk the walk.
It’s of course crucial that we be real about marriage. One of the things that scared Lisa and me the most after Sacred Marriage first came out was when so many people told us they couldn’t believe how “vulnerable” we had been. We had to re-read the book wondering if we had been too vulnerable! But there should come a time in every Christian’s and certainly in every leader’s life when we start to show a little fruit as well.
If our faith hasn’t changed our marriage after 31 years of being together, how strong is that faith? If our marriage looks no different than someone who isn’t redirected in their hearts by worshipping God, receiving his grace, living with the Holy Spirit’s influence, and being carried forward by the hope of Christ, well, then, what exactly are we preaching?
Jesus said the way we love each other will let others know we are his disciples. If that doesn’t begin with marriage, I don’t know where it does begin. If it doesn’t start with leaders, I don’t know where it does start. To sacrifice our marriage relationship in order to serve the church more actively is sort of like leaving a baby out in the rain while we soften up the crib. It does more damage than good.
Most of us work really hard at crafting compelling sermons that honor the intent of God’s word and that exalt his works and grace. May we work equally hard at crafting a compelling marriage that preaches just as powerfully when we’re in front of the pulpit instead of behind it.
—Gary Thomas is a bestselling author and international speaker whose ministry brings people closer to Christ and closer to others. He has authored 18 books that have sold over a million copies worldwide and have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his wife Lisa have been married for 30 years and reside in Houston, Texas where he is a Writer in Residence at Second Baptist Church.
How to Use This Book
Scores of books have been written that offer guidance for building the marriage of every couples dream. Yet, what if God’s primary intent for marriage isn’t as much about husbands and wives as it is about God? In the bestselling book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas uncovers how God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy. It doesn’t just offer techniques to make a marriage happier. It helps readers become holier husbands and wives. Whether you are looking for a resource to help strengthen the marriages in your church, your small group, or your own marriage, Sacred Marriage uncovers God’s overarching purpose for marriage, helping couples grow closer together and closer to God.