November 24, 2013
Pastor Joe Wittwer
The Meaning of Marriage
#5—Loving the Stranger



ILL: A couple was celebrating their golden wedding anniversary.  A guest asked the secret of their long and happy marriage. The wife said, “On my wedding day, I decided to make a list of ten of my husband’s faults which, for the sake of our marriage, I would overlook.”

She then asked the woman what some of those faults were. The wife replied, “To tell you the truth, I never did get around to listing them. But whenever my husband did something that made me hopping mad, I would say to myself, ‘Lucky for him that’s one of the ten!'”

I often tell people that forgiveness is the glue that holds us together.  You’re going to hurt, irritate, and disappoint each other—it’s inevitable.  You’re both flawed and broken—imperfect human beings.  So what do you do?  

That’s what we’re going to talk about today: speaking the truth in love by the power of God’s grace.



This is part 5 of our series, “The Meaning of Marriage” based on this book by Tim Keller.  (Available for $10 at the Info Center.)  Last Sunday, I said that the mission of marriage is help each other become the persons God designed us to be—our future “glory selves.”  

Ephesians 5:25–27 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

Paul says that Jesus died to make us holy and beautiful.  Jesus died to make you awesome!  In the same way, husband and wives love and sacrifice to make their spouses awesome.  Today we’re going to talk about some practical steps to do that.  

Author Gary Chapman (The Five Love Languages) believes that the “in-love” portion of marriage lasts from a few months to two years.  We are smitten and believe our spouse to be almost perfect, and if we do see flaws or weaknesses or differences, we believe we will work them out easily.  After living with those flaws day in and out, we realize that this marriage is going to require a lot of hard work.  The temptation at that point is to think we’ve made a mistake and married the wrong person.

What if you began your marriage knowing that it would be difficult because of your brokenness, but that the purpose was helping each other grow out of that brokenness and into the new self that God is creating?  Then you could be prepared when to love the stranger you’re married to, and roll up your sleeves and get to work.

What are the “tools” for this work?  There are many; we’re going to talk about three.

The Big Idea: Here are three basic skill sets to help us love our spouses: we must speak the truth in love by the power of God’s grace.

On your outline, you’ll see that we’re going to look at three powers that are inherent in marriage: the power of truth, the power of love, and the power of grace.  While I’m going to talk about them in the context of marriage, much of what I’ll say will apply to other relationships if you’re not married.  Married or single—we all need to speak the truth in love by the power of God’s grace.

1. The power of truth: confronting the worst.


Marriage brings you into the closest contact possible with another person.  You see each other as you really are—you can’t hide for long.  You can fool each other while you’re dating; you can continue the charade for awhile after the wedding—we call this “the honeymoon period.”  But you can’t hide forever, and before long the masks come off and you see each other as you really are.  Marriage forces you to deal with one another’s flaws and sins.  Marriage doesn’t produce your flaws; it reveals them.

ILL: Do you remember when the Skagit River Bridge on I-5 collapsed in May of this year?  It took them 4 months to reopen a new permanent structure—makes you wonder why it’s taking 40 years for the north-south freeway in Spokane!  But I digress…

This may not be comforting news, but 66,000 bridges in America are rated by engineers as “structurally deficient.”  Many of these bridges may have hairline cracks that are invisible to the human eye.  But drive a ten-ton Mack truck on that bridge, and those hairline cracks widen and become visible.  The truck didn’t create the cracks; it revealed them.

In the same way, when you get married, your spouse drives a Mack truck right through your life.  Marriage doesn’t create your weaknesses (although you’d like to blame your spouse for your blow ups)—it reveals them.

The power of truth is inherent in marriage.  It’s going to reveal who you really are.  

Some people think this is a bad thing, but it’s not—it’s good!  How are you ever going to grow into your new self, the person God wants you to be, if you don’t face the truth about yourself?   You can’t change what you don’t know.  You can’t become your future “glory self” if you are living in denial or the delusion that you are like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way!”

ILL: Several weeks ago, I told you that my 28 year old daughter, Sally, was being treated for thyroid cancer.  She had a rough go of it.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but she had some complications that were difficult to manage. The good news is that she has completed the treatment, and should be cancer free and able to return to a normal life.  

Here’s the deal.  Do you think Sally ever thought, “I wish the doctors had never found this, and just spared me all this trouble?”  Of course not!  As much trouble as this is, it’s nothing compared to dying of cancer.  The trouble was worth it!

Marriage has the power of truth.  It reveals who you really are, with all your weaknesses, flaws and sins.  It’s trouble, but it’s worth it.  

Ultimately, it is not your spouse who reveals your flaws.  It is marriage itself.  It wouldn’t matter who you are married to, marriage would reveal your weaknesses. Every person, like you, is a piece of work.  We are all sinners, works in process, and marriage brings us together in the closest possible contact.  It is marriage that reveals our weaknesses.  

Of course, other people—friends, co-workers, extended family—all get glimpses of our weaknesses and may even confront us.  But your flaws don’t pose the same problem for them as for your spouse.  No one else is as inconvenienced and hurt by your flaws as your spouse is.  This is why your spouse is more keenly aware of what is wrong with you than anyone else has ever been.  

In our text, Paul talks about Jesus dying for us to make us awesome, and that He cleanses us with His words.

Ephesians 5:26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word

Jesus washes us and cleanses us with His words.  He speaks the truth to us, and the truth sets us free.  In John’s gospel, Jesus says this to His followers.

John 15:3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.

Jesus’ words cleanse us.  He tells us the truth, and the truth cleanses, heals, and frees us.  

In the same way, in all our relationships, and in marriage in particular, it is important that take the Jesus’ role and speak the truth in love.

Ephesians 4:15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

Give your spouse permission to speak the truth in love.  

ILL: We have a terrific mentoring program, and one of the assignments we give men is to ask their wives for honest evaluation.  “What is something about me you wish would change?  What is something about our marriage you wish would change?  Am I safe for you?”  The men ask their wives these kinds of questions, and then just listen and write down their response.  They are not to defend themselves—just listen.  Then they are to pray and ask God to help them change.

By asking the questions, these men are giving their wives permission to speak the truth to them.

Some of you are thinking, “Permission?  Who needs permission?  My spouse tells me all the time what she thinks of me!  He doesn’t need permission!”  

There are two ways to tell the truth.  You can hammer someone with it—all that does is bruise them, irritate them and alienate them.  Or you can love them with the truth.  “I want to help you become your best self.”  By giving each other permission, we drop our defenses, and we invite love instead of the hammer.  If you don’t give permission, if you don’t invite the truth in love, you’re probably going to get the hammer!  Speaking of the hammer, Keller illustrates this in his book with a wonderful story.

ILL: When Tim and Kathy moved to New York City to plant a new church, they knew it would be all-consuming. Tim asked Kathy permission to put in lots of extra hours, and promised her that after three years, the church would have taken root, and he’d pull back to a healthier schedule.  

But he didn’t.  He continue to work long crazy hours, and shortchange his wife.  She protested, but he wasn’t listening.

One day, Tim arrived home to their apartment and noticed the balcony door was open.  Then he heard a crash.  He found Kathy on the balcony with all their wedding china and a hammer, and the shards of two smashed saucers.

“What are you doing?” he asked, alarmed.  

She looked up and said, “You aren’t listening to me. You don’t realize that if you keep working these hours you are going to destroy this family. I don’t know how to get through to you. You aren’t seeing how serious this is. This is what you are doing.” And with that, she brought the hammer down on the third saucer. It shattered into pieces.

Tim thought she’d lost it.  “I’m listening, I’m listening,” he said and he sat down.  Kathy calmly but forcefully said what she’d been saying for months.  But this time he listened, and realized that he was addicted to this level of productivity.  He promised to change.  They hugged.

Then he said, “When I came out here, I thought you having an emotional meltdown.  How did you get control of yourself so quickly?”

She grinned and said, “It was no meltdown.  See these 3 saucers?  I have no cups for them.  The cups have broken over the years, and I had three saucers to spare.  I’m just glad you sat down and listened before I had to break any more!”  

Give your spouse permission to speak the truth to you, and listen.  Better that than the hammer!

Remember that the goal of marriage is to help each other become our future glory selves—the new person that God is creating.  Truth-speaking helps us get there.  

The great thing about this Christian vision of marriage is that when you think you would like “someone better,” you can think of the future version of the person to whom you are already married. “Someone better” is the spouse you already have.   (p. 136).

Marriage has the power of truth.  Second…

2. The power of love: renewing the heart.


Marriage also has the power of love, the power to affirm you and heal you of your deepest hurts.

Ephesians 4:15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

The truth without love is a hammer that will leave you bruised.  Love is more than a feeling; it is a deep commitment to the other’s well-being.  Love is doing what is best for others no matter what it costs you.  Love has incredible power to change someone, especially when it is combined with truth.  

This is the gospel: you are more flawed than you ever imagined, and you are more loved and accepted in Jesus than you ever dreamed!  God knows you better than anyone, and loves you more.  He is completely committed to your well-being; He has done what is best for you at the greatest cost to Himself.  Jesus didn’t die because you were lovely; He died to make you lovely.   

And this is the same love that we bring into marriage, and this love has incredible power to transform us.  We promise to love no matter what—for better or worse.  This unconditional love—“I am committed to you no matter what”—gives our spouse the freedom and power to change.  

The love and affirmation of your spouse has the power to heal you of many of the deepest wounds. Why? If all the world says you are ugly, but your spouse says you are beautiful, you feel beautiful. To paraphrase a passage of Scripture, your heart may condemn you, but your spouse’s opinion is greater than your heart. (p. 139).

ILL: Tim Keller writes that he was a nerd in high school.  But when he met Kathy, she looked at him like her knight in shining armor. Tim says, “She has always told me, and continues to tell me, that though all the world may look at me and see Clark Kent, she knows that underneath I have on blue underwear.” (p. 140).

A positive assessment by your spouse has the highest credibility because your spouse knows you best.  To be highly esteemed by the person who knows you best is one of the greatest things in the world.  This is why God’s love and acceptance is so powerful—He knows us best and loves us most.  Spouses give this same kind of love to each other, and it is transforming.

This is why the opposite is also true: Your spouse’s opinion of you can also be a terrible weapon. Early in your marriage you will realize what power you have to hurt your spouse.  Cutting remarks from you will go deeper than any knife.

ILL: I learned this quickly.  In the first few weeks of our marriage, we were at Noel’s house to do our laundry—well, Laina did the laundry while I read the paper.  Well, she also cleaned Noel’s house while she was doing the laundry—and I read the paper.  

When I read the paper, I read one section at a time, starting with the sports, and then stack the sections one on top of another.  Laina likes them all stacked one inside of another.  She’s neat; I’m a slob.  So each time she passed me, she stopped and restacked the paper.  I grew increasingly irritated, and finally said, “Would you stop!  I wish I hadn’t brought you.”

It was an incredibly stupid, insensitive and chauvinistic thing to say.  Laina’s eyes filled up with tears, and she went out and sat in the car for a good cry.  I went out and apologized and we made up.

Later that night, I couldn’t sleep.  I replayed that scene in my mind, and my heart broke—this time it was my turn to cry.  I felt what that must have felt like to her—it was awful!  And I woke Laina up and apologized again.

In marriage, you have incredible power in your hands—the power to heal your spouse or crush them.  Speak the truth in love.  Love your spouse unconditionally.

And love your spouse the way they want and need to be loved.  Keller borrows from Gary Chapman the idea of love languages.  In his book, The Five Love Langauges, Chapman says that we each have a preferred way of expressing and receiving love.  We may express love in our preferred method, but if it not our spouse’s love language, they may not hear it all.

ILL: I could say “I love you” to you in English, but if you only speak Spanish or Russian or Korean, you wouldn’t understand.

Chapman proposes five love languages:

  • Words of affirmation

  • Quality time

  • Gifts

  • Physical touch

  • Acts of service

Keller expands this list, but it’s the same idea.  If you would like to learn more about love languages, besides these books, we did a sermon series on this in 2003, called “Can You Hear Me Now?”  It is available in CD’s at the Info Center, or online in our sermon archives. 

The task before you is to learn your spouse’s love languages. Figure out together what they are, then brainstorm a handful of concrete ways to regularly give love in those forms. Then do it. Concretely give love to each other in deliberate ways every week. (p. 153).

God has done this for us in the incarnation.  He expressed his love so we could see it, hear it, touch it, and know it.  He expressed it in terms were could understand, in our language.  In the same way, we must express our love in terms our spouse can understand and receive.

Speak the truth in love.  But what we do when we fail?  When we use the truth as a hammer?  Or fail to express the love our spouse needs.  

We need the power of grace.

3. The power of grace: reconciling and forgiving.

Making a marriage work requires lots of grace, lots of repenting and forgiving and reconciling.  Where do we find that grace?  From God.  Receiving God’s grace in our lives enables us to give it to others.  I can forgive because I’m freely forgiven.

Ephesians 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Forgive each other just as in Christ God forgave you.  How has He forgiven us?  Freely and completely.  

In Matthew 18, Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive the person who wronged him.  “Up to 7 times?” Peter asked, thinking he’d get an attaboy for being so generous.  “Not 7 times, but 70 times 7!” Jesus said.  Jesus didn’t mean that we keep track up to 490 times; He meant that we forgive every time, because that’s how God forgives us.  Then He told a story about a king who had a servant who owed him 10,000 lifetimes of salary!  A huge debt—something he could never repay.  When the man asked for more time, the king had mercy on him and simply forgave the whole debt.  

God is the king and you and I are that servant with the unpayable debt.  God has forgiven you everything in Christ.  Jesus repaid your debt.  When He died, Jesus shouted, “It is finished!”  Literally, “It is paid in full.”  

That’s how God has forgiven you.  And that’s why you can forgive.  “Freely you have received, freely give.”  

The rest of Jesus’ story is that the forgiven servant was expected to forgive those who owed him far less.  Forgiven people forgive.  So receive God’s grace and forgiveness.  I’m going to give you a chance to do that in a moment.

Receiving God’s grace empowers us to speak the truth in love for our spouse.  It also empowers us to repent when we fail and to forgive when our spouse fails.  Because of God’s grace, you can say to your spouse, “I realize that I failed you.  I’m sorry; please forgive me.”  Because of God’s grace, you can say to your spouse, “I see your sin, but I can forgive, because Jesus saw my sin and forgave it.” I do not know of any more powerful resource for granting forgiveness than God’s grace, and I don’t know of anything more necessary in marriage than the ability to forgive fully, freely, and from the heart. (p. 160).

Keller writes: “One of the most basic skills in marriage is the ability to tell the straight, unvarnished truth about what your spouse has done— and then, completely, unself-righteously, and joyously express forgiveness without a shred of superiority, without making the other person feel small. This does not mean you cannot express anger. In fact, if you never express anger, your truth-telling probably won’t sink in. (Think smashing saucers!)  But forgiving grace must always be present, and if it is, it will, like salt in meat, keep the anger from going bad. Then truth and love can live together because, beneath them both, you have forgiven your spouse as Christ forgave you.” (p. 157).

Forgive each other!  Jesus said:

Mark 11:25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

Jesus tells us that if we’re praying and we realize that we’re holding something against someone, go ahead and forgive them right there.  Now in other places—Matthew 18 and Luke 17—Jesus tells us to go and confront someone who wrongs us, and when they repent, forgive them.  But here, He tells us just to forgive.  Forgive them before confronting.  Forgive them before they repent!   

Here’s an idea: Try forgiving the other person before you confront them!  Forgive them first, then go talk with them about it.  We often confront someone as a way to get revenge, to make them feel badly.  If you forgive first, the confrontation will be different.  It will have a different tone.  We won’t be getting even; we’ll be offering forgiveness.  

In fact, I think we should take it one step farther and create an atmosphere of forgiveness.  Jesus has forgiven all your sins.  As a forgiven person, you can forgive all your spouse’s sins.  You can build a relationship in which your sins are forgiven every time—it’s already decided and done.  You are fully forgiven—not just this time, but next time and every time.  So when you do fail—and you will—you don’t have to wonder, “Will she forgive me?  Will he overlook this?”  You already know the answer.  It is finished.  God’s grace lets you create an atmosphere of forgiveness.  

I encourage couples to regularly take communion together—just the two of you.  And as you do, remind each other of God’s full and free forgiveness in Christ, and offer the same to each other.  Create an atmosphere of forgiveness.

My Next Step:

Married:  Pick one

  1. Give your spouse permission to tell you the truth.

  2. Learn your spouse’s love language and speak it this week.

  3. Take communion together and offer full forgiveness.

Single:  Do one of these with a friend.