The concept of par is a pretty simple and familiar concept from the game of Golf: The course designers give each particular hole a level of difficulty. With the par they assign to a hole they are providing an expectation by which each player can grade his or her performance. “This hole should take you three strokes, and this one should take you 4 strokes.”
Now imagine a buddy of your plays a cruel joke. The night before you go out to the golf course, he sneaks around and changes the signs on all of the holes so that you expect each one to be easier than it actually is. The Par 4’s now say Par 2 and the Par 5’s now say Par 3’s.
What would happen?
Where you expect to be able to skate by on two strokes, it takes you four. Where you expect to make things work with 3 strokes, you feel incompetent as it takes you a whole five! And so without changing your swing, altering your golf game, or messing with your clubs, this practical joker will have ruined your entire golf experience! By making you think each hole should be easier than you’re experiencing, he has affected your expectations and therefore has set you up for a most frustrating day. Why? The reason is obvious:
Our expectations affect our experiences.
Whether or not you’ve ever played a game of golf you can probably imagine this simple truth playing out in many different contexts. Perhaps this truth is seen no more clearly than in the context of marriage.
James 3:2 says “For we all stumble in many ways.” Everyone, sins, PERIOD. My single friends, pay attention: This indictment is all-encompassing, which means it includes your future spouse. This is an expectation with which every single person should approach marriage: your spouse will sin you. How many sins? I defer to the great theologian Lebron James: “Not two. Not three. Not four.” You get the idea.
However somewhere along the way our culture has subtly “changed the signs” like our hypothetical practical joker above, altering our expectations for marriage. Today we’re told to enter into a marriage relationship expecting to have our needs met. We are told to look forward to having our souls satisfied. (Cue a John legend song – any of them.) Secular culture leads us to believe that marriage is supposed to make us feel good, giving us romantic and pleasant feelings, and obviously this will only happen when we find the one who can make this happen: Mr. or Mrs. Right.
The results are what we should expect: We have been set up for a very frustrating and disappointing experience. “Things shouldn’t be this hard,” we reason. “This is not what I signed up for,” we cry. Many are even tempted to quit marriage, concluding they made a mistake.
In his book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas seeks to improve every Christian’s marriage. He doesn’t give 7 timeless principles or 3 easy steps. Instead his strategy is simple: let’s adjust our expectations.
The thesis of the book is “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” He’s attacking the very core of modern expectations for marriage. Contrary to our culture’s narrative on marriage, God didn’t design marriage to produce in us fleeting feelings of pleasure and delight that come from us selfishly pursuing our own needs. If you expect that you will become confused and frustrated.
Instead you should expect a relationship, in which two spouses are guaranteed to sin against each other, probably daily. As they do, they will be made more like Christ as they both learn to love their spouse in spite of their sin, while consistently confessing and repenting of their own.
With the expectation that marriage is a God-given means to becoming like Christ, marital conflict and spousal sin are no longer reasons for concern; they are God’s opportunities for growth. When newlywed affections and delight are replaced with afflictions and difficulty, we don’t need to conclude “something is wrong.” Instead we remember that God designed marriage to bring our sin to the forefront that he may confront and change us. He designed it not simply for us to be loved, but to teach us how to love others when they appear unlovely, just like He does. With these expectations we can rest assured: this is par for the course.