The Elusive ‘Proverbs 31’ Ideal Today

When a friend recently asked me to share my thoughts on the “Proverbs 31” woman and man, it unexpectedly was a painful experience. As never before, I realized how cynical I had become on the subject of an ideal marriage. For far too many couples – even Christian couples – the marital ideal of “heaven on earth” has degenerated into something akin to hell on earth.

Solomon (or “King Lemuel”) asks, Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies”  (Proverbs 31:10). Right from beginning, he’s acknowledging that this kind of person is extremely rare and hard to find. And in the previous chapter, Solomon admitted that relationships between men and women were bewildering even to someone as wise as he was (Proverbs 4:18-19).

If it was hard to find a Proverbs 31 woman in Solomon’s day, isn’t the task even more daunting in today’s world? Believers are surrounded by a ME culture rather than a THEE culture. Even in the today’s church, the emphasis is typically on how YOU can have a more fulfilled life, not on how you can lay down your life to honor and serve your spouse or others.

So I ask: Is it even possible  to be a Proverbs 31 woman or man today? With very few observable precedents or role models, has that kind of marriage become something like an unattainable fairy tale?

My cynicism on the subject was compounded several months ago when Lysa TerKeurst, founder of Proverbs 31 Ministries, announced she was divorcing her husband because of his infidelity. Hey, if the head of Proverbs 31 Ministries can’t even make her marriage work, how is there any hope for the rest of us?

I have numerous Christian friends whose marriages seemingly ended through little fault of their own. But while divorce among Christians is certainly a blot on the moral standing of the church today, perhaps there’s an even bigger  scandal: Why are so few marriages happy and thriving, not just surviving?

We all know people who are enduring unhappy marriages, just because they think it’s the Christian think to do. Yet just as divorce is a scandal, so is an unloving, unhappy marriage. Although neither  is a good witness for Christ, we often applaud the martyrs who “hang in there” with unhappy or even abusive marriages.

Back to Proverbs

The Proverbs 31 woman and man are portrayed in quite idealistic, perhaps unattainable, terms:

The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
So he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good and not evil
All the days of her life
(vs. 11-12).

Trust is such a foundational ingredient in any healthy relationship. But who among us is trustworthy all the time? Even if we try our best, we will let people down from time to time. And if our life is characterized by pursuing our own selfish interests instead of dying to ourselves daily, we’re destined to be extremely  untrustworthy as friends or spouses.

She seeks wool and flax,
And willingly works with her hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
She brings her food from afar.

 She also rises while it is yet night,
And provides food for her household,
And a portion for her maidservants
(vs. 13-15).

She is not afraid of snow for her household,
For all her household is clothed with scarlet

 She makes tapestry for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple
(vs. 21-22).

She watches over the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness
(v. 27).

What a hard worker this Proverbs 31 woman is, staying up day and night to provide food, clothing, and a beautiful home for her family. She seems like a hybrid of Betty Crocker, Paula Dean, Martha Stewart, and Wonder Woman!

While it’s commendable that this amazing woman “does not eat the bread of idleness,” this statement worries me a little. I’m hopeful she also has the wisdom to take time for rest each week, and periodically to disengage from her many activities by taking a vacation. From the beginning of God’s creation of humankind, he instructed us to both work and rest. Idleness is a good  thing if done in sync with the Lord’s plan and workflow.

Also, when I read these verses, I can’t help wondering about the husband’s role, if any, in the domestic activities of the household. Did he ever do the dishes or help with the laundry? Just wondering…

She considers a field and buys it;
From her profits she plants a vineyard
(v. 16).

She perceives that her merchandise is good,
And her lamp does not go out by night.
She stretches out her hands to the distaff,
And her hand holds the spindle
(vs. 18-19).

She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies sashes for the merchants
(v. 24).

In addition to caring for her family, the Proverbs 31 woman is a successful real estate investor and businesswoman. Wow!

She girds herself with strength,
And strengthens her arms
(v. 17).

It even sounds like she somehow finds time to visit the gym to lift weights and keep her arms toned:

She extends her hand to the poor,
Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy
(v. 20).

On top of her incredibly busy schedule, the Proverbs 31 woman apparently takes time to volunteer for nonprofit organizations and reach out to the poor and needy:

Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come.

She opens her mouth with wisdom,
And on her tongue is the law of kindness
(vs. 25-26).

This woman’s accomplishments and work ethic are fantastic, but something huge would be missing if not for these additional descriptions of her character:

  • She was clothed with honor (which the coming verses point to as an important characteristic of this entire family).
  • She kept an optimistic and hopeful outlook on her family’s future. This is shown more clearly in the NASB translation: “She smiles at the future.”  The opposite of this is to be a worrier, always expecting the worst to happen. Pessimism and worry are traits that not only undercut a person’s relationship with God, but also their marriage and family life.
  • She was kind. This is an enormous character trait for a healthy marriage and family. Many husbands and wives are tremendously successful and productive in their accomplishments, yet they’ve never learned “the law of kindness.”  In contrast, when the Proverbs 31 woman spoke, people knew her words would be filled with wisdom and kindness. Too often, we use our words to win arguments, but this woman knew how to win people’s hearts.

What About the Husband and Kids?

The friend who asked me about Proverbs 31 wanted to know about the Proverbs 31 man too, not just the woman. Hmmm…I wasn’t sure I really knew much about that. The woman is clearly the central figure in the chapter, and I’ve seldom heard anyone comment about her husband.

But we’re given a few indications of what the man was doing while his wife was completing her heroic endeavors:

Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land (v. 23).

The city gates were the place of commerce and government back then, and we see this man sitting “among the elders.”  So, while the Proverbs 31 woman was diligently caring for the household, her husband was out being a leader in the community.

A couple of observations:

  • The husband wouldn’t have had the freedom to hang out with community leaders unless his wife was able to run an orderly household. Once again, we see the importance of the wife’s trustworthiness. The man knew he could safely delegate to her many responsibilities for the family.
  • If the family situation wasn’t reasonably in order, the husband wouldn’t have been able to gain the respect of the community leaders or be recognized as an “elder” (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4-5).
  • A man who isn’t honored and respected by his wife seldom has the self-confidence to successfully lead in the community or the church. As a former pastor, I counseled many men who had been emasculated by the disrespect of their wives. Solomon describes this in several of his previous proverbs, saying it’s better to live on the corner of a roof or in a desert land, than to deal with a contentious woman (Proverbs 21:9, 21:19). The Proverbs 31 man thankfully didn’t have to face that problem.

Although the woman is the hero of this story, the man certainly should be given some credit for helping to create a culture of honor and respect in the family:

Her children rise up and call her blessed;
Her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many daughters have done well,
But you excel them all”
(vs. 28-29).

Many children today have never learned how to honor and respect other people – not even their mother and father. The fact that the woman’s children in Proverbs 31 can bless her so wholeheartedly is an indication that they first observed their father doing the same.

You’ve probably heard that one of the five love languages is “Words of Affirmation.” While that’s no doubt true, let’s get real: We ALL desire words of affirmation, don’t we? The Proverbs 31 man beautifully modeled this heart of love and encouragement as he openly and enthusiastically praised the virtues of his wife.

Notice that the husband didn’t just tell his wife she’d done a pretty good job. He said, “You excel them ALL.”  In other words, this wise man never fell into the trap of unfavorably comparing his wife to other women. In his eyes, no other woman could ever compare with her.

This story ends with a fitting tribute, summarizing the lasting legacy of the Proverbs 31 woman:

Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,
But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
And let her own works praise her in the gates
(vs. 30-31).

This points to an important reason many marriages fail: Often the couple’s romance and marriage began with intense physical attraction, but the rest of the foundation was weak. Although this phenomenon has been true to some degree in every generation, it’s even more blatant and pervasive in today’s world of online dating, social media, and airbrushed magazine ads.

In stark contrast, this passage acknowledges that a person’s outward charm and beauty will ultimately pass away. A strong marriage must have a stronger foundation than that, based on the character  of the partners, not just their appearance or charm. Once again, as he has urged throughout the book of Proverbs, Solomon says our reverential fear of the Lord should be the basis for our character.

What About the Song of Solomon?

If you’ve really been paying attention to the story in Proverbs 31, you may have wondered about another aspect of a happy and thriving marriage: What about SEX – the physical part of a healthy marital relationship? Yes, it’s great to lay a strong foundation of spirituality, character, friendship, and service, but what about ROMANCE – isn’t that important too?

Absolutely, it’s vitally important to nurture the flame of romantic love. Yet, for a number of reasons, this isn’t always easy. Many marriages begin with passion but then fizzle into apathy. Commitment and intentionality are required to keep the romantic fires burning. Physical attraction may have been easy during courtship, but now we must overcome such things as busyness, fatigue, offenses, and simply the deteriorating capacity of our bodies.

Of course, there are lots of excuses and explanations for why a marriage is no longer fun or passionate. Some Christians imply that we just live in a sex-crazed culture, and we should be so spiritual that we don’t need to worry about ongoing romance. As long as they go to church together with their spouse, why should it matter whether they also sleep together?

Well, I believe it does matter. If you’re in your 70s, your physical relationship with your spouse probably will be different  than it was in your 20s, but hopefully it’ll never become nonexistent. Even if intercourse is no longer possible or no longer pleasurable, can’t there at least be hugs, kisses, cuddles, and other physical displays of affection?

That’s why Proverbs 31 shouldn’t be studied without at least some mention of the romantic side of the equation, described in the Song of Solomon. A healthy marriage is not just about food, clothing, finances, and house décor. Right from the beginning, a strong marriage must include a oneness of spirit, soul, and body – and each of these three elements must be cultivated along the way.

Conclusions

It’s not easy. If it was, there would be a lot more marriages that are happy, fulfilling, and lasting.

Marriage must have been easier before sin and selfishness entered the world in Genesis 3. Yet perhaps, even before that, God designed marriage as something meant to be difficult – only possible with His wisdom and help.

No wonder Solomon wrote that a threefold cord is not quickly broken”  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). Without trusting the Lord as the third strand of our marriage, our relationship is vulnerable indeed.

Let’s not forget that in order for a marriage to model heaven on earth, each of the partners must maintain their own heavenly relationship with Christ. Overlooking this key ingredient is why many books and sermons on marriage fall short of their intended outcome.

In order to reflect the atmosphere of heaven, today’s Christian families need a spiritual revolution. And that’s the kind of transformation that would occur if every couple started the day with this simple, heartfelt prayer: Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”  (Matthew 6:10).

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Pencils, Pens & the Mishaps of My Friend Ron

All the way through elementary school, I did my writing with pencils. Each year, “#2 Pencils” were on the top of the school supply list.

But when I arrived in middle school, we were expected to use ink pens instead. The writing experience was certainly better with the pens, but there was one major problem: Ink is difficult to erase.

Eventually, some clever marketers came up with “erasable” pens. But that was false advertising, because they were still  hard to erase. More than once, I ripped a hole in the paper while trying to erase the ink from my pens.

Recently I’ve found myself lamenting the demise of pencils. The pens are now better than ever – and I absolutely love  writing with the new gel pens. But the pens still can’t be erased very well. And White Out usually isn’t a good option either for covering mistakes.

Here’s what I’m going through on this: I miss the days when every mistake seemed easily erasable. Oh for the carefree days of elementary school…

Of course, most people now use emails and social media to do their writing, not pens. But that has made the problem even worse! Have you ever tried to retract  an inappropriate email you sent (such as sending a “Reply All” when you didn’t mean to)? Or perhaps you’ve posted something stupid on social media and then tried to cover your tracks. Good luck on that.

It turns out that once things are in cyberspace, they are even more  difficult to erase than ink pens.

Let me share story about this from my good friend Ron…

A few months ago, Ron met a nice Christian woman on an online dating site. They seemed to really hit things off when they chatted on the phone one night. He could tell they both loved the Lord and had much in common.

Ready to take the next step, a few days later Ron asked her out for dinner that weekend. To his surprise, she sent a text message declining the invitation. The reason? She said he was too old for her!   

Ouch. Yes, Ron is in his 60s and this nice Christian woman was in her 50s. But should that age gap really matter?

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with pencils and pens…

Once again, Ron was greatly surprised when this same woman contacted him a few weeks later, asking if they could keep in touch as “friends.” Although he was open to the idea, there was a problem: Ron couldn’t ERASE the memory of her previous comment that he was too old. Like permanent ink, her evaluation seemed to be forever etched onto his brain.

What a reminder that words are powerful things, capable of imparting “death and life” (Proverbs 18:21). No matter how they are communicated, our words don’t erase easily. And sometimes negative words cause lifelong scarring of the psyche.

However, God can help us heal from people’s words – especially when we spend time listening to HIS words to us instead.

Nevertheless, painful words from people are likely to keep coming from time to time. Right when Ron was beginning to heal from the “You’re too old!” feedback, he met a woman who said he was too fat for her…

Fortunately, your Heavenly Father has a very BIG eraser, capable of removing countless mistakes, flaws, and emotional wounds. As the apostle Paul described, “He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14 CSB). Isn’t it good to know that your debts, liabilities, and blemishes have been erased by the amazing grace of God?

So I encourage you to take time to look into the mirror of His Word today. You’ll discover that you look a lot better than what people have said about you.

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Ron’s New Appreciation for the Holidays

Ever since his divorce several years back, my friend Ron has complained to me this time of year about the upcoming holidays. He has his reasons, to be sure, but he’s begun to sound like a broken record.

“It’s just not the same,” he moans. “With my wife gone and my kids living far away, it’s always an agonizing time for me.”

Then he typically cites the gluttony, commercialization, overspending, and other holiday sins as justification for his negative attitudes. You’ve probably met people who think like that.

“Let’s face it, Ron,” I sometimes tease him. “With your ‘humbug’ attitude, your parents should have named you Ebenezer!”

A few weeks ago, he threw in a new line that really got me thinking. “I wish I could just press the fast forward button and wake up on January 2,” he told me. Although part of me sympathized with Ron on this, I spent some time praying we would gain a new perspective.

Then suddenly it hit me: Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t just ordinary holidays. They represent two of the most important attributes of a happy, successful, and impactful life.

Let me explain…

If you asked me the most important attitudes a person could ever cultivate, my answer would clearly be GRATITUDE and GENEROSITY. Yet although I’ve lived more than six decades now, somehow I overlooked the fact that these are exactly the core principles behind Thanksgiving (gratitude) and Christmas (generosity).

Notice that gratitude and generosity are both “magnetic” traits. People in the secular world or New Age Movement call this “The Law of Attraction,” but it’s a Biblical principle too. Gratitude and generosity attract blessings and favor to our lives, both from God and from people.

In contrast, blessings and favor are repulsed  by INGRATITUDE and STINGINESS. No wonder Scrooge didn’t have many friends until his epiphany came.

Through gratitude (a heart of thankfulness) we enter into the gates of the Lord’s presence (Psalm 100:4). And have you noticed how people love to give things to a person who’s truly grateful?

Likewise, generosity is one of the primary keys to a life of blessing and impact. Proverbs 11:24-25 (NLT) beautifully points this out:

Give freely and become more wealthy; be stingy and lose everything. The generous will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.

Do you want to prosper? Then set your heart on becoming more generous.

Do you want to enter into a time of refreshing in your life? Then make it your aim to refresh others.

More importantly, do you want to become more like your Heavenly Father? Then one of the very best ways is to become more generous. You see, a central character trait of your Father in Heaven is that He’s a GIVER. “God so loved the world” that He didn’t just think more positive thoughts toward us – He GAVE His Son! (John 3:16).

If you truly see how loving and generous your Father is, you’ll be that way too. But if you view Him as stingy and miserly, you’ll end up behaving like Scrooge and having a miserable life to show for it.

So, what about Ron?

Armed with this new understanding of how Thanksgiving and Christmas mirror God’s two major character traits for a happy and holy life, I’ve been endeavoring to help Ron gain a new perspective too.

“Ron, you may not like every aspect of the holidays,” I’ve told him. “But what if you used Thanksgiving as a monumental opportunity to work on your GRATITUDE? And what if Christmas became your yearly reminder to live a life of GENEROSITY?”

In all likelihood, next year at this time I’ll have to remind Ron again. But who knows? If he truly begins to practice a life of gratitude and generosity, he may even attract a new wife by then. That would be amazing, but miracles really do happen…especially when we’re consistently grateful and generous.

#PrayForRon

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Ron Goes for Counseling

After dating several women who told him he had “issues,” my friend Ron finally decided to look for a good counselor.

“That’s a great move,” I encouraged him. It was all I could do to stop short of adding, “And it’s about time, Ron!”

Yet the conversation grew darker when he asked my advice on how to go about finding a counselor who could actually do him some good.

“That’s a tough one, Ron. You’re a pretty hard case,” I chuckled. “And 95% of the counselors out there are either well-meaning but incompetent, or else they’re total frauds, just out to make money.”

I later had to admit that I had no scientific basis for my “95%” statistic. Perhaps the situation in the counseling community is even worse than that!

When Ron asked why I was so down on the counseling profession, I told him my Parable of the Dandelions.

“There are four kinds of counselors, Ron,” I explained. “Picture someone approaching four different advisers for input on controlling the dandelions in his yard.”

Counselor #1: This kind of counselor looks at the yard and says, “I don’t see any dandelions. I think you’re doing great!” This is the counselor of choice for those in denial. The person going for counseling denies he has any addictions or psychiatric conditions, and the counselor comforts him by agreeing!  A variation of this is the kind of counselor who provides reassuring comparisons: “Well, sure, you have dandelions. But there’s no need to worry about it, because all your neighbors have dandelions too!”

Counselor #2: This kind of counselor specializes in validation. After spending an hour with the patient and charging $160 or more, the counselor says, “Yes, you surely are depressed” or “Yes, you really do have a lot of anxiety.” Of course, the counselee already knew  that before spending his $160, but it feels good to have someone validate and confirm all the things he’s been feeling. The problem with this, quite obviously, is that nothing has really been solved  by the counselor. In essence, he’s just saying, “I see the dandelions you’re talking about!” Frequently, this kind of counselor also tries to validate your perspective on the cause  of your problems. By the end of the counseling session, you’ve found other people to blame for your troubles, leaving you guilt-free. “I agree with your assessment that your spouse is a jerk,” the counselor assures you. “So it’s no wonder you have anger issues.” Or you’re told, “Your self-esteem problems are all the fault of your parents.” You feel a remarkable sense of relief in knowing you’re not to blame for your current condition—but your condition never changes when you insist on shifting all the blame to others.

Counselor #3: This kind of counselor goes a little further than Counselor #2. “Yes, you definitely have dandelions, and we’re going to do something to fix that!” However, Counselor #3 opts for the same approach I once took when my dad told me to get rid of the dandelions in our yard: I simply pulled off the dandelion heads, and soon the yard looked dandelion-free. Counselor #3 typically accomplishes this by providing medication to mask a person’s pain, anxiety, depression, or other unpleasant symptoms. The greater the emotional pain, the higher the dosage that is prescribed. I’m sincerely thankful that medication can relieve some of these troublesome symptoms, and some people need that approach, at least in the short run. However, I can’t help but remember what happened when I pulled off the dandelion heads in our lawn. For a few days, it seemed like I was a genius, eradicating all signs of dandelions. But soon the dandelions were back, even more prevalent than before. And that’s why we need counselors like #4…

Counselor #4: I’m convinced that most counselors fall into the categories of #1, #2, or #3. You might wonder how they stay in business when they’re so ineffective. The answer to that question isn’t hard to find: Instead of truly being healed and delivered from their sins and dysfunctions, many people would prefer to live in denial, find affirmation that their problems really aren’t so bad, or find medication that will cover up the symptoms. In contrast, Counselor #4 understands that our emotional “dandelions” must be honestly acknowledged and then pulled out by the roots.

My friend Ron, like so many other people, stands at a crossroads. It’s tempting to pay a counselor to tell him he’s not nearly as messed up as those women say on his dates. And if he had some good medication, he probably wouldn’t worry about their opinions anyway.

The search for competent help won’t be easy, but I’m praying for Ron to find Counselor #4—someone with the spiritual discernment and patience to unearth and remove the roots of his emotional pain.

Tell me what you think. Am I being too hard on the counseling community? What kinds of remedies have helped you  find help and healing for your emotional wounds? Ron could use your advice.

#PrayForRon

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Unpacking Ron’s Baggage

Recently an unexpected firestorm ensued when I wrote about my friend Ron’s woeful dating life. Some people said Ron was clearly shallow and judgmental. Others blamed him for pointing out the baggage of the women he’s dated, while seeming oblivious to his own issues. One woman even prophesied that Ron was too picky to ever  find a new wife.

Ouch!

Ron has been surprised by the negative reactions. He’s really a nice guy, after all, and not used to all this criticism.

As you might imagine, Ron has been rather irritated at me as well. His only explanation for people’s criticism is that I must have portrayed him in an unfair and unflattering light.

“The truth will set you free, brother!” I told him jokingly, paraphrasing the words of Jesus in John 8:32.

But time will tell whether Ron can truly handle  the truth.

Fortunately, my blog has also resulted in some helpful suggestions. Someone offered to launch a #PrayForRon campaign on social media. Another idea was to start a GoFundMe initiative to reimburse Ron for all the money he’s wasted on bad dates. And several people requested that I keep everyone posted on Ron’s ongoing dating saga.

With predictions from some of his critics that there’s no hope for him, Ron gets discouraged at times. Often I try to lift his spirits by pointing him to the promises of Scripture. “Even deplorable people like you found hope in the Lord!” I tease.

One of the Bible passages I’ve shown Ron is Lamentations 3:18, where the prophet Jeremiah said despondently one day, “My strength and my hope have perished from the Lord.”  For any of us, some days are like that!

But everything changed for Jeremiah a few verses later when he remembered God’s faithfulness:

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I hope in Him!” (vs. 21-34).

So there’s hope for Ron. And if there’s hope for someone as shallow and picky as him, there’s certainly hope for YOU as well! No matter what you may be going through today, God’s power and goodness are bigger than your pickiness and your problems.

Isn’t that good news?

P.S. Ron says he’s open to additional suggestions on how to solve his dating impasse. Please feel free to send them my way. #PrayForRon

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Shocking Dating Lessons from My Very Good Friend Ron

I’ve written before about my friend Ron’s dating escapades. He’s now in his 60s, and it’s been quite eye-opening to reenter the world of dating after a marriage of over 30 years.

At the advice of his kids, Ron signed up for Match.com after his divorce was final a few years ago. There he quickly found a Christian woman named Sherry, whose favorite books were Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and Living Courageously by Joyce Meyer.

“This is my kind of woman!” Ron confidently told me before his coffee date with her at Panera Bread.

But things didn’t exactly go as he had hoped. The first thing he noticed was that Sherry looked at least 10 years older than the pictures she had posted. Hmmm…pretty disappointing, he immediately thought.

However, Ron is a nice guy, and he decided to at least engage Sherry in some friendly conversation. After some small talk, he asked, “So, how long ago was your divorce?”

Ron thought this was a pretty easy, straightforward question. But her answer stunned him.

“Well, I’ve been married four times,” Sherry informed him, “and for a while I also lived with a guy I wasn’t married to.”

Ron’s jaw probably dropped at this point. But she went on to say she had eight children and fifteen grandkids, attributable to her various marriages and boyfriends.

Yikes, Ron was getting queasy. How did things go so amiss in his attempt to find a wholesome Christian woman? While the conversation was running its course, he couldn’t help envisioning Thanksgiving dinner if he married Sherry. How would he be able to figure out “who’s who” among the kids and grandkids—not to mention remembering who everyone’s daddy is?

This was a rough start to his online dating experiences, no doubt. Yet Ron wasn’t about to give up. He continued spending time on Match.com every day, trying to find suitable prospects for dating and eventual marriage.

Uncomfortable Encounters

Things didn’t get any easier in the following months, though. One day he was having a nice phone conversation with a woman named Sarah, and they seemed to have some things in common. But he started getting uncomfortable when she mentioned her distress that her son was gay and had married his lover. Once again, Ron started envisioning Thanksgiving dinner, and he wasn’t sure how he would respond to the family dynamics of Sarah’s son and the guy he was married to.

Then he had another coffee date, this time with an attractive woman named Sheila. But her husband had died of HIV, her father had been shot to death and, once again, Ron felt there was just too much baggage for him handle.

Ron says one of his favorite dates was with a woman named Linda. She attended a good church and clearly had a strong relationship with the Lord. But the conversation took a difficult turn when she described her daughter’s bipolar personality disorder and the incredible anguish it had caused her. Some days her daughter loved her, and other days her daughter hated her, making Linda’s life miserable.

Another disappointing date occurred when Ron went out to dinner with a woman named Sarah. She had been a single mom for many years and was now agonizing that her 16-year-old son had become a neo-Nazi skinhead, hating Jews and believing all sorts of conspiracy theories. She had no idea how to convince the young man of his erroneous views—and neither did Ron.

5 Lessons

Eventually Ron had some relationships that were more than a one-time phone call, coffee date, or dinner. He says some of these were with very nice women, but he just couldn’t see himself spending the rest of his life with them.

Recently Ron and I took time to review his dating experiences, hoping to glean lessons for others entering the dating scene in their 50s and 60s. Here are five lessons we came up with, but perhaps you can add some insights from your own experiences:

  1. Dishonesty is rampant. While it’s understandable to “put your best foot forward,” it’s sad there are so many outdated pictures and misleading online profiles. Also watch out for the out-and-out scams that target online daters. Despite your hopes for “love at first sight,” be careful to verify that the person you’re dating is who they say they are!
  2. Baggage is rampant. Ron chuckled that many woman on Match.com describe themselves as “baggage free” and “drama free.” What a joke. He concluded that it’s virtually impossible to be a divorced person in your 50s or 60s without accumulating some baggage along the way.
  3. Our OWN baggage is rampant. Like many men, Ron initially thought all the baggage was on the female  side of things. Yet after some painful breakups, he had to admit that his own baggage was often a large part of the problem. Just like landmines under the surface of the ground, he discovered emotional scars that were triggered in pressure situations and close relationships.
  4. Sexual temptation is rampant. Ron was a virgin when he got married, but he admits that sexual abstinence is a lot harder these days. Perhaps this can be attributed to several factors: (1) Loneliness in being single after many years of marriage; (2) feeling like “time is running out” to have a close, intimate relationship; (3) the amazing willingness today of many women (even longtime Christian women) to engage in sexual activities with men they aren’t married to.
  5. Not everyone really wants to be married again. At the beginning of his online dating journey, Ron assumed anyone on Match.com or eHarmony was there in search of a marriage partner. Surprisingly, it turned out that many people were more interested in dating than marrying. Why so? Some are fearful. No one wants to enter into another unhappy marriage. And some prefer the freedom of not having to answer to anyone. Instead of being tied down, they would prefer to “keep their options open.” And, once again, Ron had to come to grips with his own commitment phobia. “I have a pretty good life as a single guy,” he told me. “Why run the risk of another bad marriage?”

What About You?

If you’re in the dating world today, my heart goes out to you. I sincerely hope you’ve had an easier time than my good friend Ron.

Although I could attempt to provide all sorts of spiritual platitudes and additional advice, let me close with just a simple reminder from Scripture:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths
(Proverbs 3:5-6).

I wish you well on this perilous journey!

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Avoiding Overdrawn Relationships

overdrawn account 3

Many decades ago, I discovered the reality of Jesus’ teaching that it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). So I became a giver, and I’ve received many blessings as a result.

But, as with most truths, there’s another side to this principle: Healthy relationships are reciprocal.  When one person in the relationship does all the giving and the other does all the taking, the bond inevitably becomes twisted and toxic.

Sadly, I’ve been rather slow in learning this. Giving has always been a natural part of who I am, but receiving is much more difficult for me. I don’t like asking people for their help, even when I need it. And the thought of being a burden to someone else is horrifying.

So, when I give, I seldom expect anything in return. Based on Jesus’ words in Luke 6:34-35, I’ve always thought this was the godly way to relate to people. But once again, I’ve often missed another important component of the relationship equation. Too often, I’ve been willing to continually give and give, while the other person received and received. Although this made me feel good at first, it was a prescription for codependency, certainly not a healthy relationship.

The apostle Paul seemed to face this kind of situation with the Corinthian church. He had poured his life into them and opened his heart wide. While this kind of imbalance was fine in their infancy, he said it was now time for them to grow up and open their hearts to him as well (2 Corinthians 6:11-13).

Monitoring Your Account

If we don’t ever monitor our checking account, we run the risk of overdrawing it from time to time. Our relationships need to be monitored and assessed in much the same way.

I’ve found that when our emotional bank account is full and overflowing, it’s very easy to be a giver. But if the other person never puts anything back into the relational bank account, we eventually discover that the account is empty or even overdrawn.

Have you ever experienced this? If you’re a chronic giver like me, I’m sure you have. And then you find yourself resenting the very people you joyfully gave your life to for so long.

If you are willing to do all the giving, you’ll have no trouble finding people willing to do all the taking. Even with that imbalance, everything is likely to seem fine until the relational bank account finally runs dry.

This is a hard lesson, but you’re not doing people any favor if you allow them to become a leech instead of a healthy contributor to the relationship. They may not be able to contribute as much as you do, and that’s okay. But they need to contribute something.

Making Changes

Recently I’ve had to say “NO” to several people who wanted to make a withdrawal from my emotional bank account. Why? Because, over the course of time, they had never put anything into the account.

When people face times of crisis, it’s natural to want to help them. But what about a situation where someone always seems to be in crisis mode? And how should you respond those who never make any deposit into your account even when times are good for them? It may seem harsh, but sometimes the imbalance is so great that the wisest thing to do is to shut the door on the relationship altogether.

In contrast, I’ve found that it’s always a great joy to give to those who’ve taken time to make a deposit of some kind into my life. Whatever they need, I’m happy to give it if I can.

So I hope you’ve discovered the joy in being a giver. But I also hope you’ve learned to develop healthy, reciprocal relationships, where both of you are putting something into the account.

If, like me, your relationships have often been off-balanced, perhaps it’s time for some frank discussions with your friends and family members. Don’t wait until the account is totally overdrawn to request some changes.

One More Thing…

Even as we learn the importance of cultivating reciprocal relationships, where both parties make contributions into the account, there’s another vital principle we must never forget: The ultimate source of love is God Himself, not any human relationship.

“Let us love one another,”  we’re told in 1 John 4:7, “for love comes from God.” If we look to any other source, we’re certain to face disappointment.

You see, we’re much more likely to be hurt by our human relationships when we allow our love relationship with the Lord to run dry. When His love is overflowing in our lives (Psalm 23:5), we’re far less likely to be offended by the failure of people to make deposits into our emotional account. That doesn’t let them off the hook, but it means we can abide in God’s peace and joy even when people let us down.

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Love-Starved but Love-Resistant

Love hard heart

I recently discovered a strange phenomenon: People who are the most starved for love usually are resistant to receiving love when it’s offered to them.

This is like California or Texas after a long-term drought. When rain finally comes, the ground is so hard that it can’t properly soak up the water. Instead of being a blessing, the rain sometimes causes a flood!

Have you ever tried to show love to someone who was extremely love-starved? If so, the person probably either rejected your love or latched onto it in a completely unhealthy way. If you doubt me on this, talk to some of your friends who’ve ventured into the world of online dating…

The love-resistant principle is illustrated in the life of one of the Bible’s most fascinating characters, Mephibosheth. This son of Jonathan was crippled at age five and after his father’s death on the same day, he was exiled to a desolate wasteland called Lo Debar.

One day King David started wondering if any of Saul and Jonathan’s heirs remained, and he was told about this woeful, exiled prince (2 Samuel 9). David was intent on finding this forgotten young man and showing him kindness.

But although kindness was something Mephibosheth desperately needed, there was just one problem: this crippled son of David’s friend Jonathan was love-resistant. Like a Type 2 diabetic who’s insulin-resistant despite needing more insulin, he was emotionally unable to absorb the very thing he so clearly needed.

We really shouldn’t be too surprised. For several years this man had grown up in squalor and hopelessness. Lame in both legs, he was completely dependent on others. Day after day, his condition reminded him of his great loss, which occurred at no fault of his own.

So what happened when Mephibosheth was brought before the king?

Shuffling and stammering, not looking him in the eye, Mephibosheth said, “Who am I that you pay attention to a stray dog like me?” (v. 8 MSG).

How sad. After years of deprivation, this dispirited, love-starved man judged himself to be a loser, unworthy of kindness from the king or anyone else. Instead of being heir to the throne, now he felt of no more value than a stray dog!

Can you blame him? After all, he couldn’t hold a job…couldn’t produce anything…couldn’t even walk! In the eyes of most people in that period of time, he was WORTHLESS, plain and simple—and that’s how he saw himself as well.

As the story makes clear, Mephibosheth was crippled in both of his feet. But if we read between the lines, we realize that he was even more crippled emotionally. Instead of seeing himself as a prince, he was a pauper, completely unlovable.

Oh, but David’s love—like God’s love for us—was not to be denied. Despite the deplorable condition of this man, both physically and psychologically, the king persisted in his plan to RESTORE him to what he had lost.

That’s good news, because we’ve ALL suffered losses of various kinds. Thankfully, King Jesus offers to bring us from Lo Debar, bringing us restoration rather than judgment.

This story has a beautiful conclusion: “So Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem, for he ate continually at the king’s table” (v. 13). No longer dwelling in the spiritual wasteland of Lo Debar, the crippled prince once again ate at the king’s table, just like one of David’s sons.

Are you starving for love today? Remember the story of this dejected young man whose hard emotional shell finally gave way to the relentless kindness of God. When you let the King shower you with His love, it will open the corridors of your heart to experience love from other people as well.

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Defusing Your Emotional Land Mines

Land mines 4

My friend Ron is a divorced man in his 50s who has ventured into the world of online dating the past few years. He’s a good man who sincerely would like to find a new wife. But although he’s met a number of good prospects, each new relationship has exploded after a month or two, often suddenly and unexpectedly.

Ron typically explains the breakup in terms of “overemotional” or “hypersensitive” women. “They all say on their online profile that they’re baggage-free and drama-free,” he tells me with a grimace, “but they all have issues. They’re either kidding themselves or outright lying.”

Hmmm…interesting that guys always think it’s the women who have all the baggage.

While pondering Ron’s puzzling experiences, I remembered a news report I saw on the problem of land mines in Cambodia and Vietnam. Although the wars there ended decades ago, numerous land mines still remain, maiming and killing many innocent people each year.

The more I thought about these hazardous military land mines, the more I understood about the emotional land mines contributing to Ron’s situation.

A land mine is defined as “an explosive charge concealed just under the surface of the ground, designed to be detonated by pressure.” A minefield typically looks like an ordinary, harmless piece of land. It’s only when pressure is applied that the hidden mines are detonated, usually by completely innocent people who’ve unwittingly entered the danger zone.

So why haven’t all the unexploded bombs in Southeast Asia been removed by this time? Unfortunately, the people who laid the mines have often forgotten where they are. It’s a slow process to detect the unexploded mines with metal detectors or other devices, and great care must be taken not to unintentionally detonate the bombs while attempting to remove them.

Poor Ron, I thought to myself as I understood what had been happening. And even worse, I felt extremely sorry for the women he had dated. None of them deserved any of this.

But here are the sad facts about emotional minefields…

Just as the unexploded mines in Cambodia and Vietnam are the result of wars occurring 30, 40, or 50 years ago, we’ve all sustained emotional scars as we’ve walked through life. Many of them happened during our childhood, sometimes so early that we don’t even consciously remember the event. Other scars happened in our teen years or through shrapnel from a failed marriage.

Just like military land mines, our emotional land mines are detonated by pressure. At times the pressure comes through something like a health crisis, lost job, or financial setback. But as in Ron’s case, emotional land mines are frequently ignited when a person embarks on a close personal relationship.

Usually everything seems fine in the early stage of a relationship. But greater intimacy brings greater pressure. Like a ticking time bomb, the relationship is destined for detonation unless it can successfully cross the minefield of unresolved issues of the past.

Nothing is more bewildering than to detonate a land mine. One minute you’re walking innocently on a seemingly safe roadway, and the next minute you find yourself bleeding from an unforeseen explosion. You didn’t anticipate it…didn’t deserve it…but it happened anyway.

Although I’ve usually seen myself as an emotionally healthy person, I’ve been deeply jarred by Ron’s story. I’m horrified by the thought that my emotional land mines could detonate unexpectedly, doing great damage to someone I care about.

If you’re like Ron, hoping for a healthy new relationship, you should pray to find someone with lots of unconditional love. Why? Because land mines will inevitably be exposed in time. And to paraphrase 1 Peter 4:8, “Love covers a multitude of land mines.”

Also take some time, as I’ve been doing recently, to let God search your heart and expose hidden scars and forgotten minefields. You owe this to yourself and to those you love. Don’t let past wars and traumas sabotage the happiness of your present and future relationships.

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Driving Under the Influence (of Love)

Love influence

Last year I wrote some blog posts about the intoxicating power of love, describing some of my friends who’ve recently entered the hazardous world of dating.

In the right setting, romantic love is a very good thing—something designed by God Himself. If you doubt me on this, just spend some time reading the Song of Solomon…

However, like all intoxicants, romantic love is also quite dangerous. It can impair our judgment and slow our reaction time. Those under the influence of romantic love may feel invincible, when actually they’ve never been more vulnerable.

So what can a person do to minimize the dangers of this powerful intoxicant? Picture a guy named Joe who drove to an uptown bar and had far too much to drink. Finally, it’s 1 a.m., and he’s in no condition to drive home. Here are Joe’s main options:

  1. STOP. Don’t go anywhere until the intoxication has worn off. When it comes to a relationship, you need to assess whether it’s fundamentally healthy and life-giving or toxic and detrimental. If it’s toxic, the only sane option is to immediately end it. If you’re not sure, you may need to back away until some of the intoxication has worn off.
  2. CALL UBER. If you’re wise enough to recognize your impaired condition, you’ll call Uber, a taxi, or a “designated driver” to get you home safely. If you’re experiencing an intoxicating relationship, you may need to call in some trusted friends who are still sober. Recognizing that your own judgment is questionable, you must surround yourself with sound-minded advisers who can offer you objective feedback.
  3. GO EXTREMELY SLOW. Here the analogy breaks down a little, because you shouldn’t be driving at all if you’ve been drinking. But although you shouldn’t throw away a promising relationship because of fear, you should proceed with caution…i.e., slowly. If your judgment is clouded by the exhilaration of romantic love, you are putting yourself in real danger if you trying driving down the freeway at 70 miles per hour. Your chances of a collision are much less if you travel at a mere 25 mph.

If you are single and seeking a mate, my prayers are with you. May God direct your paths, as He’s promised to do when you trust Him (Proverbs 3:5-6). The Bible teaches that “It is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18) and “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). God is the ultimate Matchmaker, after all.

If you are married, maybe you can’t relate to this blog post at all. Perhaps it’s been many years since you’ve experienced the joys and perils of intoxicating love. How sad! Yet it’s not too late for God to restore some of the “first love” intoxication you experienced in your earlier days. Will you open your heart today—both to Him and to your spouse—allowing His amazing love to rekindle your original passion?

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