Sermon March 14, 2021

This lent here at Hope I have been reflecting on some of my time as a counselor. Amateur counselor, to be sure. But my hope is that some insight from an amateur counselor could make room for some Hope from the Mighty Counselor.

So far we have reflected on failure, identity, and anger. For this fourth Sunday in Lent I think we are going to take a look at relationships.

So I put forward this premise, “In Christ, the Christian has a restored relationship with God and a foundation for relationships with others.”

We studied a book in one of my counseling classes at seminary. In it, Dr. John Gottman has studied how couples talk to one another. He had what he called the “Love Lab” where couples would come spend a “normal” weekend. The “Lab” was simply an apartment with normal furnishings and throughout the weekend, Gottman’s researchers listened to the couples’ conversations. And with astounding accuracy they could predict if a couple was going to divorce or not. Just by what the couple said to one another in a weekend.

His theory was that couples put bids on the table, bids for affection. And the partner will either turn toward that bid, accept it, engage with it, and there is an interaction. Or they will turn against it, be hostile to it. Or finally, they might turn away from the bid for affection and ignore it, excuse it.

So, what does that look like? “Honey, do you want to watch a show.” We have a bid. The response: “I’m a bit busy right now, but we definitely should make some time for that.” The spouse didn’t even say “yes” to the bid, but they still engaged the bid, interacted with it, and validated it positively. This is a healthy interaction and an example of turning toward the bid for affection.

“Honey, do you want to watch a show.” “(Scoff!) I don’t have time for things like that like you do.” This person turned against the bid for affection. They engaged it, but negatively, and used it as an opportunity to insult the bidder as well. Not exactly healthy is it? But coincidentally, marriages that turned against bids, even as toxic as that is, still lasted longer than marriages that primarily did the third option: turning away.

“Honey, do you want to watch a show.” And the spouse rolls their eyes and goes back to work. The bid was not engaged at all. They weren’t given the time of day. And affection goes unshared and the marriage suffers.

Now, does one conversation doom your marriage, or the relationship with your co-worker, or friends? No, not one conversation. But the “Love Lab” offered a glimpse into how those couples naturally interacted. And habitually turning against and away from affection over years and years… A couple that, in a weekend, turns away or against 80 percent of the interaction… it was easy for the researchers to guess how that relationship would go.

Marriage counseling is tough. And as gloomy as it might sound, before the couple gets to my office for counseling, usually it’s too late. Maybe that’s me self-justifying how I’ve failed to save marriages, but even the ones I’ve referred to professionals fail oftentimes – if they even go. This is not to say there is no hope, in fact, may this be more reason for us to encourage couples to seek help early and often. Because the reality is, usually in my office the bitterness and contempt from affection and love lost is so deep usually one or both want out of the relationship and are looking for my stamp of approval, which I rarely give by the way. That or they want me to fix the spouse, because “it’s all their fault!” Which, by the way, is a clue to me about who needs some “fixing” really. Because it is rarely, all one person’s fault. And so, I find myself flabbergasted at how people could go, I assume, from being head over their heels for someone, vowing to spend their life with them in sickness and health, and then, now, all of the sudden, it’s so plain (you don’t have to be a researcher to see): they hate their guts. What changed?

And they will point their fingers, but, I think Dr. Gottman helps us here. It isn’t “all of the sudden” at all. It is habitual turning away and against affection. Or to put it in other terms, it’s habitually refusing to love and forgive. Love is not “butterflies,” you all know the 1 Corinthians passage we’ve heard at nearly ever wedding, “Love is patient and kind, it does not envy or boast…” Love is action. In fact, all the feelings in Paul’s list about love, Paul says those aren’t love at all!

In our Old Testament Lesson, the people of God are wandering in the wilderness. They have seen the Nile red, they have seen the Sun dark, they have seen the waters part, they have seen the pillars of cloud and fire. They sang and rejoiced and were head over heels with their God. They made vows to him.

And now they hate Moses’ guts. They hate God too. Verse 5: “They spoke against God and Moses.” There is room for constructive criticism in the Church – there is. We all know we aren’t sinless, ya? And our Lord does not extinguish the flickering wick or break off the bruised reed, so we can come to him with doubts and fears. But this is not what the people in the wilderness did. No, throughout Exodus and Numbers we see over and over again, accounts similar to this one today where the people “grumbled.” Grumbling in the Bible is a word of unbelief, it is a word of contempt. Grumbling is sin, poisoning our minds against the goodness of a spouse, or God.

But make no mistake, in this relationship, the Israelites and God, us and God, there is only one guilty party. There is only one unfaithful party. And it is us. The Lord has given us so many blessings, even life – eternal life! – itself. Yet how often do we turn away from his love and seek after other things? How often do we turn against God saying, “Your Word is too hard, it must be wrong! How dare you let this happen to me or them? Why don’t you help me out ever? Why did you give me these people to deal with? How come it goes so well for other’s but not me.”

Let us be careful of grumbling. Poor is the person overcome with bitterness, toxicity, and broken relationships. We all know these people right? “Everyone in my life is dumb, except me. Everyone in my life is mean and evil, except me. Everyone is __________.” And I think we all know who the common denominator is in their toxic relationships, no? We are all this person at times. Let’s repent.

Because there is hope. For our relationships with one another and with God. For in Christ we see the greatest bid, or put another way: true display of affection. “For God so loved the world he gave his only Son.” How faithful is our God? How merciful and forgiving? He had every reason to hate our guts, but gave his Son to restore us to himself.

The Book of Hosea recounts how Hosea, God’s prophet, is told to marry an adulteress. And when she cheats on him, big shocker there, ya? He is told to go win her back. For that is a picture of God’s love for His people. The people grumble, they break their covenant of life with God so death comes, in the form of serpents. But then he wins them back with the serpent lifted up for healing. This of course points forward to the Son being lifted up and all who look to him in faith are healed, cleansed of their grumbling and sin, and won back to God.

The marriage metaphor is abounding in the scriptures, even if it does make us manly men feel a bit uncomfortable. Ephesians 5 captures it beautifully as Men are called to lay down their lives for the women. Even as Christ laid down his life for, His Bride, the Church. Paul continues; “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

Paul uses a marriage illustration to show the love of God for us. And talk about affection – not butterflies, but real loving action, that seeks the good of the other. The Lord has shown his steadfast, faithful love to us. Let us celebrate his mercy and goodness shown in Jesus to cleanse us that we may be presented without spot or stain. May we in what we do, and as Dr. Gottman points out, in what we say, may we, on this foundation of affection and faithfulness given us by our God, turn towards those in our lives with similar mercy and affection.

“In Christ, the Christian has a restored relationship with God and a foundation for relationships with others.”