Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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How to Keep Marriage from Becoming an Idol

Dannah Gresh: Carolyn McCulley, who is herself a single woman, encourages other single women to be careful not to categorize men in their minds.

Carolyn McCulley: When he comes to you and he’s not the one you’re interested in (you have your eyes on somebody you think is out of your league), then just remember: he thinks you’re out of his! He thinks you’re that good and noble thing to come after. You’re not under any obligation to say yes. But you are under an obligation to build him up.

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Forgiveness, for Wednesday, July 15, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh.

Nancy, you know what an edifice is, right?

Nancy: I've got my dictionary right here, Dannah. There it is: a building.

Dannah: You know there is a Bible term that comes from the same root. It's: “edify” or “edification.”

Nancy: Edify means “to build up.” Edifice, a building / edify, to build up.

Dannah: That's right, Nancy. And this week we’ve been listening to Carolyn McCulley. She's been talking about the importance of edifying those around us, in all our interactions, even when we feels it's difficult.

Nancy: Yes, there are times when relationships, whether we are married or single, when we feel we want to pull someone else down or tear them down. But God's Word calls us to edify, to build up, to strengthen and encourage others.

The message we've been listening to this week from Carolyn McCulley was delivered at a True Woman conference. Even though Carolyn was specifically addressing single women in this session, she's really calling each of us to build up those around us in the body of Christ. Here’s Carolyn McCulley with part 3 of her message.

Carolyn: You can find something good and redemptive in every situation, even if it’s just hoping for change. You can look at life through gospel lenses, and you can see the reality of sin. I’m not talking about being willfully ignorant, not noticing the reality of life.

Gospel lenses allow you to look at the reality of life and see them through the hope for change that comes through the grace of God. So even the most hurtful, self-centered guy you’ve ever dated is not beyond the grace of God.

That allows you to think on whatever is true or honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, etc. in any situation and to rehearse those thoughts in your heart instead of the ways you’ve been sinned against.

Now, so you’re in the midst of a church . . . Most of us are probably in the middle of churches that are holding up a high view of marriage (as they should), of being a wife, of being a mother (as they should), and you’re going, “And how do I fit in here?”

Well, how you fit in here is being part of the solution in a crumbling society by expressing hope toward God in all of your relationships and building up the marriages around you of your friends and family, of esteeming it, by not trying to steal somebody else’s husband, by recognizing and being wise about your relationships at work, and recognizing that the partnership of men and women trying to accomplish a goal together can be a slippery slope if you’re not wise in turning hearts toward one another. Maybe you’re the girl who’s at work telling this guy how magnificent he is, but his wife’s at home tearing him down. That will draw his heart toward you, and you’re not even trying.

There are all kinds of places where we can be messy in our relationships, and that can tempt us as human beings to build walls and rules and be, like, “Okay, so if lots of adultery happens at work, men and women shouldn’t work together.”

You can’t control sin nature by rules. That’s what the law is for, and that’s how we found out we failed. But we can apply grace and recognize the doctrine of sin means that we recognize the temptation that’s in our hearts, and we help one another from falling down that slippery slope of sin.

I’ll give you an example: I had a friend whose boss seemed to always call her after hours. We were together, and instead of her being irritated like some people would be, she was all happy, and more than happy to talk to him. I noticed how much she lit up. I knew her to be a godly woman, but I was thinking, Uhhhh, this could be a problem.

So I asked her one day when we were just hanging out, “I’m not overly concerned about this, but you know my past and my background. I wasn’t a Christian until I was thirty, and I certainly caused a lot of trouble in the work place. I know what a temptation it can be, so how are you doing with your boss? He seems to call you a lot, and you get really happy about that. He’s married, right?”

She’s like, “Yes.”

And I said, “So are you struggling there? Are you tempted at all in his affection for you? Is there anything inappropriate?”

She’s like, “No. We’re fine, but thanks for asking.”

I said, “Okay.”

About two weeks later she came back, and she said, “You know what? I’m glad you asked. We’re fine; nothing’s happened, but I find I look forward to his phone calls and his stops by my office too much, and that’s the beginning of that slippery slope down to sin. I’m glad you asked.”

That’s how we care for one another, to look out for one another for the common temptations. She didn’t have to make any grand statement with her boss. She just curtailed her own activity. She didn’t receive his calls. She’d listen to see if it was a work emergency. If it was not, she'd call him back tomorrow. She helped to establish more boundaries.

But I’ve had other friends in work places where there was an open, unabashed attempt to start an adulterous affair. In that case, I’ve counseled people, “You just need to call a spade a spade and go right in and say, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be stealing any affection from your wife, emotional, physical, or otherwise.’” That might seem really difficult to do, and it is, but it can have such wonderful fruit.

I also want to give to you some wise counsel that came from Paul Tripp in his book Instruments in a Redeemer’s Hands. He talks about what is far more common for all of us, which is what happens when we have a desire for a good gift.

It’s like a continuum with a good gift where it becomes an idol. He talks about it this way: He says,

The object of most of our desires are not evil. [The desire to be married. The desire to have children and other things.] The problem is the way they tend to grow and the control they come to exercise over our hearts.

Desires are a part of human existence, but they must be held with an open hand. The problem with desire in sinners is that it quickly morphs into a demand. “I must.”

Demand is the closing of my fist over a desire, and even though I may be unaware I’ve done it, I’ve left my proper position of submission to God. I’ve decided that I must have what I’ve set my heart on, and nothing can stand in the way.

I’m no longer comforted by God’s desire for me. I’m threatened by it, in fact, because God’s will potentially stands in the way of my demand.

There is a direct relationship between expectation and disappointment. Much of our disappointment in relationships is not because people have actually wronged us, but because they have failed to meet our expectations.

  • The good gift turns into a desire.
  • The desire becomes a demand that requires a fulfillment.
  • When that doesn’t get fulfilled, especially not fulfilled on our time line, it becomes a disappointment.
  • A disappointment ends in punishment. The most extreme of which, of course, is murder.

Most of us engage in a form of bloodless murder on a regular basis because when somebody is dead, you have no relationship with them anymore. They’re dead. But, “Speak to the hand. You might as well be dead to me. I don’t hear you . . . la, la, la, la, la, la, la . . . I’m not looking at you. I’m not interacting with you. You are dead to me.”

That form of sinful judgment is what is most common in temptation in our relationships. It means I have no hope that you’ll grow and change; I have no hope that the Lord of the gospel will change your life, and I have no hope for restoration of our relationship because I have been judge and jury and found you wanting.

As Paul Tripp says, “There’s a direct relationship between expectation and disappointment.”

Now this, I think, is a particular challenge for women because, as a result of the fall, our relationships are strained. What it says in Genesis 3:16 is the curse that is over Adam and Eve. What God says to Eve is that the fall is going to distort the previous relationships she enjoyed. "To the woman [He said,] 'I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing. In pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.'”

It’s not that children are a pain. It’s just what would have been joyful prior is now going to be painful because of the fall. It’s not that marriage is wrong. It’s that sin is now going to introduce strife.

This particular word, desire, Dr. Wayne Grudem says, is the Hebrew word tashuwqah. It’s only used a few times in Scripture, and most often it is used in talking about a desire for sinful domination, such as in Genesis 4:7 when God says to Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door; its desire [or tashuwqah] is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Now, doesn’t it feel that way often, our sinful judgment? We’ve already been judge and jury. We’ve decided that somebody else is failing our expectations. We are kind of like, literally, crouched at the door, waiting for that person to come in so we can go, “Aha! Now, this is how I’m going to confront you.”

Our desire is to be in control and not in any way to be out of control or not have things go our way. This is something that we as women are really going to struggle with, I think, to a greater degree than men do.

You can see this even in the anecdotes of our culture. Have you ever heard comedians talk about how men and women fight? Men just fight and have a quarrel about the thing that’s at hand, but women drag in the last twenty years of history“And do you know what else you did? You did this; you did that . . .” And men are like, “Whoa, whoa, we’re talking about how I took the remote from you.” (laughter)

So they’re a little bit more compartmentalized, and we bring in like twenty years of history. That’s not considered “fair fighting,” but this desire to dominate means that we often keep this history, and we don’t let go of it. It becomes part of this stew that is the wellspring of our hearts rather than dealing with the issue at hand, forgiving, and moving on, and not keeping it in our file of history.

So in our relationships with other men, we need to be able to look at the situation with gospel eyes, and one of the first things is by not dragging in our history with other men into this particular case with this particular man.

You may have dated and been hurt by a number of men before. In the current situation, you cannot bring that history in. Now, let me add a caveat to this, though. If others are coming to you saying, “We have some red flags about this situation.” Listen to them because that counsel is objective; it’s unbiased. These people are not dealing with the romantic history that’s been stewing in your heart.

That’s a little different if somebody comes to you and says, “We’re concerned that maybe you’re entering into a repeat situation from before.” Listen to that. But in your own heart, if the guy doesn’t call you when you want, and you immediately start back on the, “That’s just like Jim, Joe, Bob . . .” don’t do that. Don’t do that. Let him be his own man.

We also look at the situation with gospel eyes by reminding ourselves that we are the biggest sinners we know. We know our sin pretty well. We may be able to see some sin in this other man’s life, but we have to remember we know our own sins and failings better than we know his, so be patient.

We also put on gospel eyes in situations by focusing on the importance of asking questions versus making assumptions. There’s only one omniscient being in any of our relationships, and guess what? It’s not us. It’s the One who knows all, loves all, and is our Savior.

So if we’re not entirely sure why somebody has done something, rather than assigning them their motives, we’re better off asking questions for information and assuming that we don’t actually know everything.

Another way to look at something with gospel eyes is to remember that weaknesses are not the same as willful sin. You’re going to know people who struggle with the temptation to fear, or struggle with the temptation to anger, or who try really hard but can’t get their act together to get to places on time, or whatever it is. Their weaknesses are not necessarily willful sin. It’s an opportunity for you to be gracious. Okay?

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t sinful motivations in what they do. I’m just saying understand that not every action is actually aimed at you. If somebody is struggling in a certain way, you can be gracious with them because you know your Lord has been gracious toward you as well.

I love is this quote from Charles Spurgeon. It’s from one of his sermons. This is kind of burned into my mind in understanding the difference between weaknesses and willful sin. He writes:

As we grow in grace, we are sure to grow in charity, sympathy, and love. We shall, as we ripen in grace, have greater sweetness toward our fellow Christians. Bitter-spirited Christians may know a great deal, but they are immature. Those who are quick to censure may be very acute in judgment, but they are, as yet, very immature in heart.

He who grows in grace remembers that he is but dust, and he, therefore, does not expect his fellow Christians to be anything more. He overlooks 10,000 of their faults because he knows his God overlooks 20,000 in his own case. He does not expect perfection in the creature and, therefore, he is not disappointed when he does not find it.

When our virtues become more mature, we shall not be more tolerant of evil, but we shall be more tolerant of infirmity, more hopeful for the people of God, and certainly less arrogant in our criticisms.

As we guard our hearts, we guard our hearts by remembering that the men around us, our brothers in the Lord, are works in progress. If you know a man at twenty or twenty-five, he’s not going to be the same way at forty or forty-five or sixty or sixty-five and certainly not into eternity. You can choose to either be part of his learning curve for the glory of God, or you can give him a smack down.

I want to encourage you, as we wrap this up, that every interaction you have with a brother in Christ is your opportunity to build him up. Some of the messiest and most awkward situations come about when one person is interested in a relationship and the other one is not.

So if you have a man who comes to you and asks you out and you’re not interested in him, don’t be angry. Don’t be put off. Don’t be rude. Don’t be mean. This is your opportunity to remember that he has risked rejection by coming to you.

If you think like, “Oh my, he’s so beneath me.” That’s an evidence of pride in your own heart, and it needs to be repented of. Right? It’s a common problem with us all. We all do this because we’re sinful creatures. We "statusfy" people. Right? But when he comes to you, and he’s not the one you’re interested in (you have your eyes on somebody you think is out of your league), then just remember, he thinks you’re out of his. He thinks you’re that good and noble thing to come after.

You’re not under any obligation to say, “Yes,” but you are under an obligation to build him up. Thank him for stepping out, and thank him for the risk. Be kind.

Now, don’t be too effusive. Don’t enumerate ten or twenty qualities that you really admire in him and then say, “No.” That’s just going to frustrate him. He’ll be, like, “Huh?” Guys are linear; they’re concrete. Right?

So just say one or two things: “I respect you for stepping out; I appreciate the clarity and the initiative. I’m not attracted to you in that way, or I’m not interested.” Say something that’s a simple, concrete, little statement, not a lot of detail. “I am so glad that we’ve had the chance to talk, and I’ll be praying.” Wrap it up with whatever fits into your church culture.

The point is to say a couple things about encouragement and respect. Be clear in your decline. Don’t leave him standing there thinking, Did she say yes or no? What was that about? Be gentle. Don’t be proud.

In my "client ministry," these guys that I just thought were big men on campus, I could see so many wonderful qualities in them, and so could 3,000 other girls, yet they would still come to me and tell me about how hurtful some women would be in declining them. I was shocked.

Here’s another thing: Not everybody in the church needs to know your business. You do need to have accountability partners. There should be a few peopleyour family, your parents, some mature Christians around you who know what’s going on. But you don’t need to spread business about this brother. Okay?

Guys in the church do not need to get a reputation as being the brothers who keep stepping up and getting shot down. Do you know what happens? As a man is growing in his sanctification by trusting God and risking rejection, he’s probably going to have to hit a few girls before he finds his wife. Right? I mean, it just seems to be the way God works, not for all people, but for some.

You don’t want woman #5 to be like, “Oh, yeah? So I’m #5 on your list?” You don’t want to do that to your sisters, and you don’t want to do that to your brother. You don’t want that to be done to your future husband.

Leave your brothers built up. Recognize that whoever offered or how awkward or bumbly or weird they are when they come to talk to you about something, they’re trying. They are on a learning curve. They’re a work in progress, and so are you.

The men that you look up to and you think are so wonderful and great and, “Why can’t guys be like this one?” Well, pay attention. Are they older? Do they have wives who are helpmates who help make them grow? Viola! You get to be part of that process at some point, too.

  • So guard your heart from your own sinful storage and overflow.
  • Be an agent of grace, reasonableness, and gentleness to others.
  • Guard your fantasy life from dating others in your own mind so that you’re not being unduly disappointed when something doesn’t happen.
  • And, more importantly, remember that love never ends.

Our Lord is not going to do a “Speak to the hand” to us. Therefore, we can be gracious to others in all the mess of “he loves me, and he loves me not.”

I’d like to pray for you now.

Father, it’s amazing to consider how patient and gracious You are with us. Father, I’m no different than anyone else, and I will confess that now. Thank You for Your mercy which courses over all of us. Thank You for the love that never ends on Your part and becomes part of the great circle of love that we enjoy now and well into eternity, and we didn’t deserve it.

Lord, help us to remember that as we interact with friends and family and spouses and boyfriends and anything else, help us to be gentle and reasonable, guarding our hearts from the storage of sin that will spew out onto other people. Help us not to parse out our affections but live courageously, looking at every situation through gospel eyes.

I pray by the power of the Holy Spirit that You will minister to those who are hurt here today, who are having trouble getting to that point of rejoicing in You. I pray for those who are lacking hope right now, who think that You are against them. We know You’re not. Please minister.

Lord, I pray for those who are sitting there going, “Oh, how happy can it be,” because something is going wonderful in their relationship. Lord, may that continue and may that joy continue on. But when reality hits, give them the grace, Lord, not to stumble or question but to persevere.

In all these things, God, may we grow in hope toward You because of what You’ve done for us. I pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Nancy: Carolyn McCulley has been encouraging us to view relationships with what she calls “gospel eyes.” I love that! Aren't you glad that Jesus views us in that way? Because He does, we can build up those around us in Him. Carolyn delivered this message in a breakout session for single women at a past True Woman conference.

Now, I want to take a moment to say a huge “thank you” to every listener who’s a Revive Our Hearts Ministry Partner. You never know where a ministry partner is going to pop up.

Robert was on the phone the other day with someone from the doctor's office where he was setting up an appointment. At the end of the call, the woman he was talking to said, "By the way, I want to tell you I am a Revive Our Hearts Ministry Partner."

Dannah: What a sweet thing, Nancy.

Nancy: Every person who prays for this ministry, who shares this message with others, and who supports it financially has a huge effect on our ability to minister to women around the world day after day.

If the ministry of Revive Our Hearts has been a blessing to you, I want to encourage you to consider making a gift at this time. During these summer months, we often experience a lull in giving toward the ministry. Your gift at this time would mean so much.

Dannah: If you'd like to make a gift, you can do that at our website,, or by calling us at 1–800–569–5959. When you contact us to make your gift, we’ll send you a copy of The Little Red Book of Wisdom. It’s little; it’s red, and it’s full of wise advice! The author, Mark DeMoss, is your brother, Nancy.

Nancy: He is, Dannah. He's my little brother, but he's had years or walking with the Lord as a man of God, a husband, a dad, a granddad, a successful businessman. All of that combined has made this book super helpful and, well, full of wisdom.

Dannah: So ask for The Little Red Book of Wisdom when you contact us with your donation.

Nancy: Well, do you ever struggle with anxiety? If so, you’re not alone. Experts tell us about 30 percent of people have battled chronic anxiety in some form or another. Dannah, recently you had a conversation with a friend of yours, Janet Mylin, about some tools for dealing with anxiety. We're going to hear that conversation starting tomorrow.

Dannah, is there one thing you heard from Janet that you think would encourage our listeners to tune back in tomorrow?

Dannah: Janet has walked out the Scriptures that say, "Do not be anxious." She would probably put herself in that 30 percent who have struggled with it. But through God's Word, she has found that she can walk in freedom.

Nancy: So be sure to be back with us for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is calling you to freedom, fullness, and fruitfulness in Christ. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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About the Teacher

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley

In 2009, Carolyn started Citygate Films, a documentary film company where she is a producer/director. Prior to that, Carolyn served as the media specialist for Sovereign Grace Ministries, worked in corporate communications, and was a television and commercial film producer. She is a frequent conference speaker and has authored several books.