MY LAME MARRIAGE
Did I Marry My In-Laws Too?
It’s kind of funny. Ironic. Not funny ha-ha, but funny ironic that we would celebrate communion and the last supper tonight, because I was reminded this week as I was preparing to teach this weekend, everybody by and large is pretty familiar with the last supper. Even folks who haven’t been around church a whole lot, you know, through the works of DaVinci or the films of Mel Brooks, I mean, most people are at least passingly familiar with the last supper. Well, there’s another meal that has almost as widespread a familiarity, and that is the first supper. The first supper is what I’m talking about tonight, when we see prospective and future in-laws thrust together for the purposes of getting acquainted. It almost universally originates and orbits around a meal. It’s one of those things that’s just one of the highest-pressure moments that you can possibly experience. And everybody is trying to act laid back.
Now, let me just tell you this. If you’re acting laid back, you’re not. That’s like saying I’m cool. If you have to say it, you ain’t. And the first supper is one of the most pressure-packed moments. A lot of folks who are married who have been married before know what I’m talking about. For Julie and me, we had a meal out to eat.
It was the two of us, her two sisters, and her parents. And for us, the first supper was remarkably event-free. I mean, the conversation flowed, the food was tasty. It just clicked. And we had almost gotten all the way through our first supper when it was time to order dessert. And Julie’s dad, unbeknownst to me, just took the menu and started looking down the list. And he said, let’s see, there are six of us. I need nine of these desserts. Now, the numbers may be slightly off, but the ratio of diners to desserts is accurate, because it has held true in the years since then, I know. And in that moment, he ordered all of these desserts, I ordered mine, and we sat down, and I just thought, man, we’re finally getting through this. It’s going to be great. I haven’t embarrassed Julie or myself. I didn’t have teeth or spinach hanging out or anything like that. It was going to be great.
When all of a sudden, just as I was settling in to enjoy my first supper dessert, everyone in her family took a bite from theirs, picked up their plates, and started to pass them to the right. These people share dessert. I didn’t find out until later that this is their family tradition. They share the meal, they share the experience by sharing dessert. Now, I on the other hand, grew up with brothers. You don’t share jack at the table. You fend for yourself and usually hang onto your plate, especially dessert, because your father probably is going to steal it from you if he doesn’t beat your brothers to it. It was one of the strangest, most surreal experiences I have ever had in my life. And in that moment, I had just a foreshadowing of what was to come as two families were thrown together to become one.
Now, that first supper moment for Julie and me is representative of thousands just like it in that it holds the kernel and the possibility for incredible challenges in marriage. Every single marriage has these. And tonight as we continue this series, My Lame Marriage, taking a look at taking average marriages and making them extraordinary, we have got to deal with this in-law dynamic. It’s something that the Bible speaks very clearly to.
If you’ll turn and pull your outlines out of your bulletins, you’ll see that there are two passages of scripture that really epitomize this dynamic and this balance. The first is found in Ephesians chapter 5, verse 31. Now, Ephesians 5:31, you need to understand, is actually God echoing that which he has already said all the way back in Genesis chapter 2 verse 24. But in Ephesians 5:31, let’s just see what the Bible says on one end of the spectrum. It says, “For this reason,” marriage, “a man will leave his father and mother.” Say that word with me. Leave. Leave. “And be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Now, we’ve touched on this verse several times throughout this series already. It sounds reasonable, a man and a woman coming together to become united in marriage and become one flesh, one body, one spirit, united. A beautiful picture, and all the angels sing. But then look at what God follows that up with immediately in Ephesians chapter 6.
Check this out. Also echoing the Old Testament, going back to Exodus chapter 20, he says, “Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with a promise, that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth. Fathers, do not exasperate your children. Instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” So on one hand, we’re supposed to leave and cleave, right? To leave our families of origin and then cleave to our spouses. And at the same time, we’re supposed to continue to honor our fathers and mothers. Honoring your father and mother is not something that we graduate from, are exempted from once we get married. And so the reality is that a lot of times, this creates some significant challenges for marriage.
Now, let me say this. As we begin this conversation tonight, as we talk about the in-law challenge to marriage, it’s important for us to recognize that sometimes parents are the ones who create this challenge and unnecessary burden on the marriage of their children. But let us also be quick to say that sons-in-law and daughters-in-law can also be a part of the problem. Jesus was very clear. When he was teaching, he said make sure before you reach for that speck in your neighbor’s eye or your in-law’s eye that you’re not walking around with a two-by-four dangling out of your own baby blues. You need to make sure that you have examined your heart. I need to make sure I have examined my heart. So I want to invite you and encourage you as we go through this message, the temptation for all of us is going to be my in-laws need to hear this. I wonder if I could send them the CD anonymously. But I want to invite you to be sure and back off and say God, what do you want to do with me? What is it that you want to show me about how I handle this thing?
Because here’s the thing. It is absolutely physically and emotionally and psychologically impossible for you or for me to unscrew the head of another human being, get in there the thoughts that we want to be there, screw that lid back on, and then have them behave in a way that we want them to behave in. We are responsible for our actions. I’m responsible for myself. You are responsible for yourself. We are ultimately responsible to God for how we handle ourselves and what we do in the situations that we find ourselves in. By the same token, we’re responsible to our spouses to handle this relationship in a God-honoring way.
So having said that, let’s meet the parents. Let’s just introduce ourselves to some of the parents who do from time to time create this in-law issue. The first parents that I want to introduce you to are Gary and Glenda Guilt-tripper. Gary and Glenda are masters. They always have your bags packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice. And they’ve got a guilt trip ready, many times from years ago, maybe just from something recently, but they can lay it on. Well, all I know is that I carried you for nine months. And if that doesn’t matter to you, I understand. That’s fine. You know what I’m talking about? They’re those guilt trippers. They’re those people who always get you to do what they want you to do by just lathering on the guilt. They’re out there, and you know them. And I’m going to encourage you also as another aside, don’t elbow your spouse tonight, okay? As we talk about these, don’t go, that’s your mother. You know, make sure that you as husband and wife are on the same team.
The second couple, Mike and Mary Manipulator. Mike and Mary Manipulator. Mike and Mary love to, from a distance, not a great enough distance, but from a distance pull the emotional and relational strings and watch you jump and twitch and go through the hoops that they want to put you through. Mike and Mary, many times, not always, but one of their most used tools is money. They love throwing the cash around, because that way, they keep you tethered to mommy and daddy just a little bit longer and a little bit stronger. And they’ve got their children and their children’s spouses jumping through all kinds of crazy relational hoops. They’re changing the way they parent just to keep Mike and Mary happy. The Manipulators. How about this one?
Craig and Carrie Critic. Craig and Carrie Critic sit on the sidelines critiquing their children and in-law’s every move. Well, you shouldn’t have made that move as a parent. You weren’t raised that way. No, you can’t expect me to respond — I mean, these are the folks that always have an answer for everything. There’s a better way to do everything, there’s another solution that you didn’t consider, and they’re going to stand off on the sidelines and just kind of Monday morning quarterback you as a couple, you as parents, you as people. The critic.
And then there’s Hank and Helen History. Hank and Helen. They can quote you chapter and verse, time and date for every mistake and error you have ever made relationally. The first time when you were dating and she said something that was misconstrued, well, I just remember from the very beginning she has never liked me. And the historians come out of the woodwork. Now, as I said, moms and dads sometimes create these challenges. But I also think it’s important for us to meet the kids. What is it that those who are married, who are allegedly, as Star Jones says, allegedly adults, people that are supposed to be grown-ups?
Well, how about this couple? Vic and Valorie Victim. Vic and Valorie, it’s just awful. I can’t even explain to you what it’s like to be married to this woman and her parents. They’re victims. This is one of the most prevailing, dominant mindsets in our culture today is the victim. Heaven help us if people ever start suing their in-laws. Anyway, that’s a whole other sermon. But the victim mentality that says I haven’t done anything. I don’t know why they don’t like me. You know that victim thing? That’s sad.
How about Pete and Paula Pacifist? Now, Pete and Paula like to keep everybody happy at all times. These are the folks that will do anything and everything to squash a confrontation or any kind of a disagreement. And what they end up doing is running themselves ragged, because they ping-pong back and forth between parents and spouse, parents and children, spouse and children, and they’re always moving around. No, no, no, no. He didn’t mean that. You don’t understand. He’s really very sweet. And they create this problem for themselves when they become the peacekeepers and the peacemakers, when in reality, those issues that ought to get brought up from time to time, those issues that ought to be addressed never get handled because of the pacifists.
You see, in a relationship, confrontation can be healthy. There are times when we need that confrontation, when we need to be reminded that we’re not the center of the universe, when we need to be reminded that the way we talk to other people matters and we need to think about how we’re being perceived as much as we’re thinking about getting our message across.
Fred and Felicia Fatalist. Fred and Felicia Fatalist just say well, that’s the way it is. I’m stuck. It’s always going to be this way. I can’t do anything. They’re not going to do anything, so it just is what it is. And they have completely resigned themselves to this misery that God never intended rather than stepping up and saying you know what? I’m an adult. I’m responsible for my behavior and how I respond to what they do, good, bad or ugly. The fatalist just says well, can’t do anything about it. Just is what it is. And they move on. And then this last one.
Tom and Tonya Taker. Tom and Tonya Taker. This is the couple who stays chained to the feed trough, usually of Mike and Mary Manipulator, and they just keeping, baby, because let’s be honest, the gifts are good. And they keep taking the cash, they keep taking the gifts, they keep taking the trips, never, ever roiling the waters because Christmas can be pretty sweet. And the fact of the matter is that a lot of times as grown-ups they need to be willing to stand up and say you know what? I recognize that this may anger you, and this may impact our bottom line for the year, but we’re not acting this way anymore, we’re not behaving in this way. As a matter of fact, we’re doing Christmas at our house. You talk about freaking out. Tom and Tonya need to be able to say you know what? If it impacts us, it impacts us. But we’re going to do what’s right and what’s best for our marriage, for our home.
Now, you can look down both of those lists of parents and the kids, and it’s easy to get negative in a very quick hurry. It’s easy to kind of get despondent about it and go, well, man, all of those things — I recognize a lot of those people, you know, I live under a roof with a lot of those folks. But what God wants us to do is instead create that sweet spot, that sweet spot between leaving and cleaving and honoring our parents, and find that space where this relationship enhances and is a gift to a marriage.
Julie and I learned a long time ago from somebody much wiser than us that one of the most beneficial, relationally-enhancing games that you can play is this one. My family’s crazier than yours. After 14-plus years of marriage, in our home, it’s a tie. Everybody’s family is a little bit nuts. Everybody’s family is dysfunctional at least to some degree. Personally, I don’t like the term dysfunctional family because it implies somewhere there is a functional one. Dysfunction’s just another word for sin. Your parents were sinners, their parents were sinners, you’re a sinner, I’m a sinner, we’re all a sinner and a Pepper. That’s just the reality of this world. And so we all have at least some degree of dysfunction to overcome. Now, granted, many times and sometimes it can be extreme. I’m not minimizing that. But I am saying that because your family is a little bit eccentric, you’re not alone. You’re not that special. That’s all of us. So how do you create that sweet spot?
First of all, as a couple, survey your marital property lines. Survey your marital property lines. It is imperative that husband and wife decide together, we are on the same team. It’s not my family against you. It’s not your family against me. It’s you and I figuring out the best way to handle this dynamic. And we’ve got to be on the same team. Look at what the Bible says in Proverbs chapter 4. Again, God’s essay on wisdom. He says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” And if the two are becoming one flesh, if the two are uniting in marriage, then you’re guarding your heart together, because the two hearts are one. You’re guarding this marriage and saying you know what? We need to establish some boundaries, some parameters around our marriage that guard it, and we need to establish where those parameters are. You survey it.
Julie’s family has had some property in Mississippi that’s been in their family for a couple of generations. And about five years ago, her dad had this property surveyed. And when they surveyed it, they found 37 extra acres that they didn’t know was theirs. Over the years, some fences had been blown down and fallen down, and they’d been put up in the wrong place. And so when they surveyed it, they came up with 37 extra acres. Now, it’s not like the King Ranch or anything like that, but 37 acres is 37 acres. More than they had when they got up the day before. It’s a good deal.
Husbands and wives, if you will survey your marital property lines, I promise you, you will find some marital acreage that you didn’t know was there. You will find some property that God intends you and you alone to share, some that does not belong to momma or daddy. Some that you-all can say you know what? This is where our home begins and ends. So as a couple, have that conversation. Talk to one another and say is there any area where maybe I’m letting my family encroach on our property lines too much? Is there any area where we need to say this is what our property looks like? Because we’ve already established the fact that you’re on the same team. Your goals as husband and wife are to be the same. So survey those property lines. Next, fence in your marital property lines. Fence those property lines in. Don’t just stick a stake in the ground. Set up a fence.
Now, it doesn’t have to be electrified, but you need to fence your property. Maybe a little current wouldn’t be bad initially. Some of you may need that. But fence in those property lines. Galatians chapter 6 says, “Carry each other’s burdens,” as husband and wife. “In this way you will fulfill the law of Christ, for each one should carry his own load.” As a couple, we are to carry our own loads. That’s what it means to leave your father and mother and be united to your spouse, that you carry your load as an adult, as a couple. You say this is our home, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to guard and protect it. So you fence that property in. Also, regulate gate openings and closings. Regulate the opening and closing of those gates after you fence that property in. That means that as husband and wife, you determine how much time you’re going to allocate to each other’s families.
I will also tell you this. It’s important just relationally that where the wife’s family is concerned, the wife speaks to that family. Where the husband’s family is concerned, the husband speaks to that family. That’s part of your responsibility to each other. But you say you know what? Mom, dad, we love you, but we’re not going to have dinner with you four times a week. Yes, the kids love you, we love you, but we’re not doing that all the time. It may mean that you change your holiday patterns. There are a lot of times that the holidays just absolutely freak people out. And if your parents are folks that freak out about it, let me tell you something. I feel your pain. But that’s their choice. You need to let them freak out. You need to regulate the gate openings and closings. And if it’s best for your family to stay here for Christmas and have Santa come down your chimney, then stay here and have Santa come down your chimney. And if mom and dad pitch a two-year-old hissy fit tantrum about it, great. We’ll miss you. Not much. You know what I’m saying?
So again, it’s the responsibility of an adult to guard that relationship and that marriage. Invite visitors to your property. We’ve talked a lot about keeping people out. But you know what? We’ve got an opportunity here to invite people in, to invite those in-laws in. Now, if you were in the process of establishing those boundaries, then you want to kind of do that sparingly. But once the boundaries are there and they’re established, invite them over. Invite them in. 2 Corinthians chapter 9 verse 7, the Bible says, “Each man,” each person, “should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Now, this verse is talking about money. It’s talking about stuff. But we know from other scripture that money is first and foremost a heart issue. So if it’s true financially, it’s also true relationally and emotionally.
God wants us to cheerfully love each other, to cheerfully invite people and to give of ourselves into their lives, to invest into other people’s lives. So invite those folks in from time to time as it’s appropriate.
And then this last one: forgive marital trespassers. Forgive them. You must forgive them for the sake of your marriage, for the sake of your relationship with God. There are going to be in-law trespassers. There are going to be friend trespassers. And instead of just getting indignant about it and just stomping your foot, I can’t believe it, love them and forgive them. This is what Jesus said in Matthew 6. “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.” Now, I know that with this many people in a room, there are some folks who are saying, Mac, you don’t understand. You don’t know the degree to which my mother-in-law, my son-in-law, whatever, you don’t understand how they have trespassed. And I don’t know the particulars, I don’t know the specific stories of each and every one, but I do know that God forgave me. I know that he has extended to you forgiveness for our cosmic treason against him. This God who created us to live in a relationship with himself, to know him, to love him, and then we just kind of shake our puny little fist in his face and say I’m going to do it — (loud noise)– I was using that as an example, God, and not saying I’m doing it. Everybody okay? Good. I’m glad. You have to forgive sermonic trespassers. No, I’m just kidding. There’s that place where we understand how deeply and profoundly we rebelled against God. It’s not just kind of like, well, no big deal, I went 56 in a 55, but that to God, sin is a big deal. It is the personal rejection of his love and his grace. It is willingly rebelling. And he chose to forgive that. And that’s the example that I’m to follow, that you are to follow because we first tasted it, because we have received that forgiveness.
I want to ask you if you would bow your heads and close your eyes for just a moment, and to understand that when we talk about anything, all roads take us back to God. All roads take us back to relationship with him. And so tonight I want to just ask you if you have received that. Have you personally and definitively received Christ? If the answer is yes, no question about it, then I want to just invite you to pray right now silently. But if your answer is no or I’m not quite sure, I think, then I want to invite you to nail that down, to place your trust, your faith in the person of Christ, in the fact of his life, his death, burial and resurrection. You can do that by praying, by personally stepping into that relationship just silently where you’re sitting tonight praying, say God, just call out to him silently and say God, I recognize that you love me, and I believe that you have offered me forgiveness. And Jesus, in this moment, I choose to receive that forgiveness. I choose to believe that when you died on the cross, you died for me. And I choose to believe that when you rose again, you rose for me. In exchange for your life, Jesus, I give you mine. Lord, thank you. I want to ask you if you would with your heads bowed and your eyes closed…