Loyalty in Marriage: When Your Spouse Messes Up
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James MerrittJames Merritt (PhD) is a pastor, author, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and host of the Touching Lives television program, seen nationwide and in 122 countries. As a national voice on faith and leadership, Merritt has been interviewed by Time, Fox News, MSNBC, and 60 Minutes. He resides with his family outside Atlanta, Georgia.
“What do I do when my spouse screws up?” Author James Merritt offers advice on reaching a new level of love and loyalty in marriage.
Loyalty in Marriage: When Your Spouse Messes Up
James: Pastors perform weddings; it’s God who does the marriage. Pastors don’t join a couple together; God joins them together. Holding a marriage together is not just saying, “I’ll be loyal to you,” like you’re loyal to each other. No, you’re loyal to two things: the vows that you took before God, and the God that you took the vows before—that’s what you’re loyal to—loyalty to each other is a fruit of that; it’s a result of that.
A lot of couples who get married—sometimes, it concerns me—they don’t understand: “You are not just saying words. You are taking—that’s the way I do my weddings; you’re taking a sacred vow before God: ‘til death do you part,”—we don’t take that seriously much anymore.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: You know, there’s a TV show that—every once in a while, I’ll be flipping around channels—and when I get there, I sort of stop.
Ann: Oh, yes! I totally know what you’re going to say!
Dave: NFL football.
Dave: College football.
Ann: No, that I would expect. [Laughter] But when I come into the room, and I’ll say—
Dave: “No, no, no! I don’t want to—
Ann: “Wait, wait!”
Dave: I don’t want anybody to know this.
Ann: “You’re watching The Bachelor?!” [Laughter]
Dave: I have never watched The Bachelor.
Ann: You totally have!
Dave: But I’ve watched minutes of it; I haven’t watched the season.
Ann: Oh, no.
Dave: I can’t even tell you a name of a bachelor or bachelorette.
Dave: I don’t know.
Ann: But you get kind of mesmerized by it.
Dave: I’ll be sitting there on the couch—I’m flipping around—and, “Oh, there’s The Bachelor.” I get mesmerized, because it’s so comical; it’s like, “Are you kidding me?!”
Ann: Sorry if we’re offending our Bachelor fans.
Dave: Yes; I’m sure there are people who love it. I know they have Bachelor and Bachelorette parties, whatever. All I know is I’m smiling and snickering, because: “You really think you’re going to pick a future spouse based on how they look/how they date in these exotic places?”—right?
Ann: Yes; I used to watch it when our boys had their girlfriends over. It’s terrible; because they would say, “You guys! Just leave the room. You’re wrecking the show for us!” Because we would say things like: “Okay, this isn’t realistic!” or “This is a terrible plan!” They’re like, “You guys! You’re wrecking it; just leave.”
Dave: Because the reason is/if I would ask you: “Okay, if you’re going to counsel or coach a single person on how to pick a future marriage spouse, what would you say the number-one thing they should be looking for?”
Dave: Yes; that’s why we’re smiling.
Ann: In the show, they’re looking at just the outward.
Dave: Yes; we know that they’re looking at image and you name it, but character matters!
We’ve got James Merritt back with us in the studio today. He’s a man of character; wrote a book on character, and lives a life of character. James, welcome back.
James: It’s good to be back with you. I just really enjoy being here.
Dave: Your book—Character Still Counts—and by the way, many people know you as an author, pastor. I didn’t know [you’ve written] 15 books; that’s pretty crazy that you’ve written that many.
Ann: —and a TV show.
James: God’s been good; God’s been good.
Dave: Yes; I mean, so many things in your life: former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. But probably most importantly, you’re a husband, a dad, and a grandfather; and that’s all about character.
James: Yes, it really is. You know, the older you get, the more you do realize that. And again, as we were talking about it earlier, it is so important. When I hire staff/we hire staff—and I’ve done this ever since I’ve pastored—I tell our staff: “I want you to have three priorities, in this order: number one, your relationship with God; number two, your relationship to your family.” And then, I always put it this way: “And a distant third is your relationship to the church.” I said, “Because if you’re not what you ought to be with God privately, and if you’re not what you ought to be with God in your family and your home, you won’t be what I need as a minister. I don’t care how good you are at what you do. You will not be what I need you to be.”
You know, we’ve all seen it: I’ve seen a lot of pastors shipwreck their ministry.
James: Because they made the ministry their marriage; they made the ministry their wife; they made the ministry their children. You know, your first calling is going to be as a dad and as a husband. If it doesn’t work at home, it’s not going to work in the church, which, as you know, even the Scripture talks about, if you’re going to be a pastor, you’ve got to be able to rule your own household well.
Dave: Right; right.
James: Why did Paul say that?—because you know what I’m talking about—“You’ve got to get it done at home. If your Christianity doesn’t work at home, don’t export!”
Ann: And I can remember talking to our boys like, “This is what matters: character.” The kids are like, “I don’t even know what that means. What’s character mean?”
You really have walked us through so many of these things that matter. But we’re living in this culture; I think parents listening are like, “Help me with this! Because my kids/all they care about is image! They care about the ‘likes.’ They care about how many are watching their YouTube page.” As parents, how would you guide them to say, “Okay, focus on character instead of reputation or image”? What’s your encouragement to them?
James: Yes; that’s a great question. And let me just say, before I give my answer, to all the parents, who are out there—and having been one—I think the job of parenting today is more difficult than it’s ever been in the history of our country. When my boys were growing up, and I’m sure you guys were the same way, social media—the phrase—didn’t even exist! It was a simpler world, you know, in some ways. You know, there are people today: Twitter’s their god; Instagram’s their god. Their greatest claim to fame is: “But I have a million followers,” or “I have 20 million followers,” or whatever. Having said that, I just want to say, before I say anything to you moms and dads out there: “God bless every one of you!” It’s difficult.
Now, the good news is: it’s not impossible. It is still possible to raise godly children. I think, obviously, the first thing you have to do—character really is, in a sense, more caught than it is taught. The most important thing—and I know you guys did it—but the most important thing a parent can do is make sure their kids see that their words match their lives; that they don’t see one mom and dad on Sunday morning, and another mom and dad on Monday morning.
Not that we’re perfect; and if my three boys were here today, they’d be more than happy to tell you all the flaws I had and all the faults I had as a dad. I’d be the first one to own up to them. But, as a whole, all three of my boys would also say: “My dad lived what he preached,” “My dad practiced what he preached.” In fact, Adrian used to say—
Dr. Rogers used to say it this way—he said, “James, I don’t want to so much practice what I preach. I want to preach what I practice.” That’s kind of been my philosophy.
Having said that, I think the first thing you’ve got to do is model: “You’ve got to model character in your home.” If you want your kids to read their Bible, they’d better know you read yours. If you want your kids to all be constantly talking to the Lord, they ought to know that you constantly talk to the Lord. We’ve got to, as parents, not just model it, but we’ve got to begin to inculcate in our children a biblical worldview. That’s the biggest thing missing in the church. The average Christian doesn’t think biblically; they think kind of like everybody else thinks. But when you are steeped in the Word of God, and you study the Word of God, and you live it, then you have this biblical worldview; so: “You model it.”
The second thing is: “Every day, teach it.” Here’s what I was going to say: there are these negative moments—you’re going to get them every day—where there’s a teachable moment. For example, I told my grandson, Parker, we were talking about not long ago: “I am amazed at who will get standing ovations today—you know, a rock star, a Hollywood star, or this, that, or the other; it doesn’t matter if they live the life of an alley cat—you know, people will be saying, ‘Oh, yes, but this is him; and he’s cool! He makes this kind of money. Look how he dresses! Look at all the gold he wears around his neck.’” I’m trying to teach my grandchildren now: “Forget his reputation or her reputation; what is their character?”
I have this saying on my desk—I think I put this in the book—by Dwight L. Moody; it’s on my desk in my office: “If you will take care of your character, God will take care of your reputation.” Young people today, more than ever, need to hear that. And that said, it’s easy to feel guilty, because we all fail. No matter how hard you try—I guess your boys are like mine—they haven’t always done exactly what I would have done. [Laughter] And you have to let them make mistakes.
But at the same time, you can look back and say, “You know, Lord, I’m not saying I’m perfect. I made mistakes, and I understand that, but I really did the best I could to teach them in the way they should go, so that when they’re old, they won’t depart from it. I’ve done the best that I know how to do, and now I turn them over to You”; that’s really all you can do. The first institution God created was the home; it wasn’t the church.
James: It wasn’t the government; it was the home. God made a clear, big statement when He did that.
Dave: And it’s really interesting, if you think about marriage and family, it really is about character. I mean, everything is—that’s what you say in your book: Character Still Counts—it countseverywhere.
But think about this: I remember when I was a young pastor, 30-some years ago, I remember thinking, “Man, in some professions, character doesn’t seem to be as important as it would be in ministry; it’s a character profession.” And then you know what hit me? Being a husband’s a character profession; being a dad is a character profession. It’s all about that!
So talk about—one of your character traits that you talk about in the book is loyalty—talk about loyalty in a marriage.
James: Loyalty in a marriage to me is not just being loyal to the person; it’s being loyal to the vows. You’re talking about watching The Bachelor. I’ve never seen The Bachelor myself either.
Dave: You’re a better man than me!
James: No, I’m not going to say—[Laughter]
Dave: That’s what you are.
James: —I may have watched five minutes of the show, but I know enough about the show: it is funny;—
James: —it’s hilarious. It is the exact opposite way you ought to go find somebody, first of all.
James: That’s not the way you ought to do it. And as you know, it doesn’t play out most of the time anyway.
James: But I’ll give you/if I can give a personal illustration: I’m married today to the woman I married, because of the Lord being in my life. My wife was the kind of girl that, when I was in high school, I thought would never date me. I didn’t play quarterback like you did. My wife was a cheerleader in high school; she was a cheerleader in college; she was a beauty contest winner. She is, to me to this day, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. But she was the kind of girl I would look at and say, “I wouldn’t have a chance with that girl!”
Long story short, she had just come out of a relationship with a guy who played football. I’ve seen his picture; he looked like a 6’3”, 220 Brad Pitt. The guy was just—but, you know, he was an atheist. He didn’t believe in God, and she knew that was not good for her; but, you know, they were going together and all. I mean, they were living pure, but they were going together. I meet her at Truett McConnell College. I was doing a youth camp; I was a student pastor. I met her, and again, I was so shy; I just couldn't bring myself to hardly even talk to her.
Well, one of my students in the youth ministry, without letting me know, goes down to check her out and see if she’s going with anybody. I didn’t know it. He comes back and says, “Hey, man! She’s free,” I said, “How do you know?” “I just talked to her.” I thought, “Oh, Lord!” So I ran down there and said, “Look, I had nothing to do with it. Please! I didn’t know he was going to do it. By the way, would you like to go out after Bible study tonight?” [Laughter] So we went out that night.
Dave: Mr. Shy Boy didn’t have too much shyness right then.
James: I’m telling you, man, I was smitten with her. She turned around and stood up to help me. The first time I laid eyes on her, I was done! I took her out that night; we just sat and talked. She went out—the next night, I went to her home and picked her up—I proposed to her that night.
James: Second date.
Dave: Second date?!
James: Proposed to her that night.
Ann: Come on!
James: I did. It took her—she dated one guy—well, she met him that following Friday; dated him two weeks, every night, trying to forget me. God wouldn’t let her do it. She came down to see me unexpectedly at the church where I was, just to see me for an hour—left—told me when she got back home/told me she loved me; she wanted to marry me—so we were married five months later, and we’ve been married forty-five years.
But what she’ll tell you is this: she said, “You are unlike any other guy I ever dated.” The first thing I wanted to find out about her, Dave: “Do you know Christ?” That’s the first thing I wanted to ask her. I didn’t care how beautiful she was. If you don’t know the Lord, we’re going to have an issue. She will tell you to this day, the reason that I got her—thank God!—was not because of me; it was because of the Christ that lives in me. I’m a living testimony that the happiest marriages are where two people both love Jesus.
Let me tell you the husband and wife that love each other the most: the wife that loves Jesus more than she loves her husband loves her husband the most; and the husband who loves Jesus more than he loves his wife loves his wife the most. And if they both love Jesus the most, nobody—nobody—that is an unbeliever can really say, deep down, they’ve got that kind of love for each other. It takes it to another dimension.
James: Same thing’s true about parents and kids.
James: When you love God, you love your kids in a way that an unbeliever—now, I’m not saying unbelievers don’t love their kids—that’s not my point. But you have to be a believer to understand what I’m saying. It’s a new level when you love your kids, not just as your blood and your kin kids, but you love them as your brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s a different level.
Dave: Yes; and I’m sure, James, you experienced the same thing as a pastor—doing the wedding, you’re looking at this groom and this bride—I know this: when I know them well enough to know, “This guy is thinking this: ‘This is not…’—he’s looking at his bride, thinking—“This is not the most important person in my life”; and she’s thinking the same thing.
You know, most weddings—you know, they’re not thinking that—they’re thinking: “Oh, I’m marrying you, because you’re the most important person in my life,” “I’m marrying him because…”—and that’s wonderful.
Ann: —and “They’re going to make me happy.”
Dave: You want to feel that on your wedding day, but when the groom and the bride know—“No, no, no; she’s not the most important person; Jesus is,” “He’s not the most important person; Jesus is,”—then you know this marriage can go the distance; because if Jesus is number one, character is what I’m going to be. I’m accountable to God, not just my spouse; but to God! And that’s going to transform a marriage.
Talk about this, though: as a dad—you’ve raised sons and, now, grandkids—what if you’ve blown it? What if you’re a man or a woman, who has made some character decisions that were bad? You’ve sinned in ways that you never thought you would; but you feel like, “I’m not really a man or woman of integrity, because my life isn’t matching.” How do you recover?
James: First of all, you have to display true repentance. That’s a word we don’t use much anymore.
James: We don’t hear much on it. The first word Jesus ever spoke, in the first sermon He ever preached, was “repent.”
James: We don’t hear that much anymore, but I think the first thing you have to do is repent and show the fruits of repentance. Full confession here: I didn’t always have the patience with my boys that I should have [when they were] growing up. I had a temper. About five/maybe six Christmas Eves ago, we were at the house, and we were bringing presents upstairs. I just felt led to do this, so I called all of the guys downstairs; I said, “Guys, I’ve got to tell you something.” I just lost it; I just started weeping. I said, “Guys, I was too hard on you, and there were times I lost my temper with you. I’m just telling you; it was wrong. I was wrong; I just ask you to forgive me.” Of course, they were all like: “No,” “Ahh.” I said, “No, no, no. Guys, you know I’m telling the truth. Let’s not sugarcoat this. I’m sorry; I wish I could have that to do over again.” I said, “I hate to tell you this—but I am—because I’m doing it with my grandkids.” I’ve never lost my temper with my grandkids, which kind of irritates them sometimes. [Laughter]
But anyway, my point is: the best thing you can do with your family—and it’s hard!—is just go and admit what you’ve done—whatever it is—just say, “Look, I blew it. We’re not going to sugarcoat this.” I have repented; and I told the boys, “I’ve repented. I cannot do it over again; but I can do/from this point on, I can do all I can to show you I can be the man in that area of my life that I ought to be”; and I am.
I think, you know, you have to humble yourself. You have to confess it; you have to admit it. Then, you have to repent; and you even have to say, “Hold me accountable. Watch me. If you see me sliding in any way in this area of my life, you owe it to me as my sons”—or “my wife” or whatever—to tell me to do that.” The problem is—and it’s so weird—pride is bigger in our homes, sometimes, than it is anywhere else; you know?
For example, if you did something wrong at your job—and you love your job; and you know, “If I don’t make this right, I’m going to get fired,”—it’s amazing how humble you can get with your boss;—
James: —isn’t it? Well, we ought to be even more humble with our wives and with our children and our family. When we’ve blown it, go to them. Your stature will grow; their respect for you will grow; their love for you will grow. You don’t lose; you win when you do that.
Ann: Well, I think that really pairs with another character quality: perseverance. If they’re hard on you; or if you feel like, “I’ve done this a million times!”; or “I’ve tried to talk to my son or my daughter a million times,” —or “my husband” or “wife”—so often, we just give up: “It doesn’t work. I’m not going to keep going.”
But perseverance—you talk about this like this is key—and I thought it was interesting, too, because you talk about Apple® and the founders of Apple.
Ann: Talk about that a little bit. I bet a lot of people don’t know this story of the founders.
James: Yes; there were three guys. One of them, frankly,—
Dave: Yes, it’s funny you don’t know his name!
James: Yes; I don’t know his name.
Dave: Because he—
James: —he gave up. He gave up too early and sold his stock for like peanuts.
James: $800; that’s right. And I think—I can’t remember what it said, but I think—I put in the book what it would be worth.
Ann: $60 billion.
James: $60 billion; because, you know, he gave up.
And by the way, I’m glad you brought that up, Ann. One of the biggest things I see that breaks my heart in marriage, so often, is people do give up too soon.
James: People do give up too quickly.
I’ll tell you why—let me tell you why we quit—and this is hard for people to admit. If you’re a believer, and you quit, you’re not quitting on the situation; you’re not quitting on the person; you’re quitting on God.
James: Because what you’re really saying, when you quit, is: “You know what? Even You can’t handle this. Even You can’t do this.” I had a couple that came in to see me. It is the worst situation I have ever encountered in my ministry, ever! This couple came in to see me—this is how bad it was—they had lived apart, and the only reason they did not divorce—they, financially, just could not afford it—that’s the only reason; the only reason.
She would write her husband—get a birthday card—and she would cross out the “I love” and the “Happy birthday,” and she would say things like, “I hope today’s a day in hell for you.
James: “I hate you with everything.” I mean, she would do it and put it under his door. It was toxic! It was so poisoned.
I looked at him—I started with him, and I said—and he really wanted the marriage to work—I said: “Are you willing to do whatever it takes for this marriage to work?” He said, “Pastor, I am.” And I looked at her, and she said, “I’m not sure.” I said, “I can’t help you. If you don’t want it to work, I promise you, it's not going to work. If you don’t want it to work, it’s not going to work.” I told them that. I’ll be honest with you; I wouldn’t have given them a nickel for that thing to work.
James: They came about eight months later; they’re glowing and they’re happy. They’re coming in, and they’re sitting down; they said—I thought they were coming in for another session, because I told them, “You need to go to a professional; I can’t help you,”—they came in, Dave, and they sat down. I was thinking, “Boy, this is: they must have gotten a divorce; now, they’re just so happy.”
I can’t even go into the details of it, but God just got in there; God got in there. And what they’ll tell you today—they’ll now give their testimony, and what they’ll tell you today is, they’re so glad now they were forced to hang in there; because of their finances. But it was God’s way of not letting them quit, and they’re so glad. They’re the happiest couple I know of anywhere in the world now, because they just did not quit.
Dave: And that’s character.
Dave: I mean, you list 12 different attributes of character; and that’s a big one. You don’t make it to the finish line if you don’t have character, because you quit.
Dave: It’s too easy. Whether it’s marriage, job, your faith—and I would just add this one last thought—character is developed in community.
Dave: Men—you need men in your life to look you in the eye when you aren’t exhibiting character and call you up. Women need women. We need couples in our lives. You don’t develop it in the dark; you don’t develop it in isolation. You need a community; right?
James: Dave, you played quarterback.
James: You played football.
Dave: I was amazing, James.
James: I can tell.
Dave: You know, the older I get, the better I was! [Laughter]
James: There’s no doubt about it, and your humility blows me away. [Laughter]
But anyway, you developed your character on the football field, practicing with your players/practicing with those guys—
James: —taking the hits—letting them/showing, “I can lead this football team.”
James: You could have gone out with your receivers and just kind of thrown, back and forth, all day long. That wouldn’t have developed character; okay? That’s why the real character development is on Saturday in college, and on Sunday in the NFL. That’s when you know what kind of character you’ve got; right?
James: Football—all sports are great that way.
The other thing, to come back full circle—you talk about loyalty—and this is a thing, again, a lot of couples don’t realize anymore—pastors perform weddings; it’s God who does the marriage.
James: Pastors don’t join a couple together; God joins them together. Holding a marriage together is not just saying, “I’ll be loyal to you,” like you’re loyal to each other. No, you’re loyal to two things: the vows that you took before God, and the God that you took the vows before.
James: That’s what you’re loyal to. Loyalty to each other is a fruit of that; it’s a result of that. A lot of couples who get married—sometimes, it concerns me—they don’t understand: “You are not just saying words. You are taking”—that’s the way I do my weddings—“You’re taking a sacred vow before God, ‘…’til death do you part.’” We don’t take that seriously much anymore.
Dave: Yes; and I tell you what: the only way that vow is lived out is the power of God in us. The power of Jesus Christ, through His Holy Spirit, literally to make us men and women of character. That’s where it starts, and it ends. It starts and ends in Jesus.
James: That’s right; no question.
Dave: James, thanks. It’s been great stuff.
James: I enjoyed it. Thank you.
Shelby: Most of the time, when we hear the word, “loyal,” we think: “Oh, I’m loyal to this person,” or “I’m loyal to this team,” or “I’m loyal to this area.” But as Dave and Ann Wilson have been talking with James Merritt, he’s helped us to see that, when it comes to a marriage, loyalty isn’t necessarily to your spouse. It’s a different kind of loyalty that makes it more about God, vertically, as opposed to the other person and us, horizontally.
James Merritt has written a book called Character Still Counts: It is Time to Restore Our Lasting Values. You can order a copy in our FamilyLife Resource Center by logging onto FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can pick up the phone and give us a call at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” to request your copy of Character Still Counts by James Merritt.
When it comes to character, we as fathers sometimes have a lot of trouble instilling character in our sons as we think about raising them in this culture/in this environment today. Jon Tyson, our guest coming up tomorrow, has written a book called The Intentional Father, about how to raise your sons in a culture that pushes them in a direction that’s away from God. This book is going to be our gift to you for a donation of any amount if you log onto FamilyLifeToday.com and make a donation to the ministry of FamilyLife, or call 1-800-358-6329. It’s our gift to you as a way to say, “Thank you for extending the ministry of what we do, here, at FamilyLife.” Like I said, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be talking with Jon Tyson tomorrow, the author of The Intentional Father.
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On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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