Dave Harvey is the author of When Sinners Say "I Do," recently published by Shepherd Press. He was kind enough to answer some questions about the book and about marriage posed by Tim Challies.
Discerning Reader: Why did you write When Sinners Say "I Do:?
Dave Harvey: The book was my stab at reality therapy for couples. I thought it might serve couples to take a no-nonsense peek beneath the hood of their marriage. So often marriage advice orients from the perspective of unmet needs. I wanted to talk biblically and honestly about what we bring to our spouse. Sin isn't pretty, but it's real. I think the book expresses the truth of Scripture, that sin is the fundamental cause of what ails marriages.
You see, what I've discovered in my marriage—and how my perspective has been informed by Scripture—is that in order for me to experience a happy, fruitful marriage, I need to stare boldly into the fact that I'm a sinner. Once we acknowledge that and understand how that reality influences our behavior, the gospel can shine brighter because we're in touch with why the cross was really necessary.
DR: There is certainly no shortage of books dealing with marriage. What sets your book apart from the others?
DH: Yep, there's plenty out there … and I have certainly benefited from some of them. But it's so common for marriage books to address the symptoms of marital challenges while neglecting the real problem. My hope is that this book doesn't merely bemoan the problem of sin, but escorts the reader to the true solution—the gospel! When Sinners Say "I DO:: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage cuts through the cultural and psychological assumptions that fill the pages of many popular needs-based resources. Instead, it encourages the reader to develop the convictions and tools to diagnose their hearts and then apply the Gospel toward change. As I write in chapter one, "When we apply the gospel to our sin, it gives us hope in our personal lives and in our marriage. Bad news leads to great news. It's the story of the Bible, and the story of our lives.:
DR: The first several chapters of this book deal primarily with sin and the last chapter deals with decline and death. Some people are probably going to argue that this is the most depressing book on marriage they've ever read! Why the emphasis on such weighty and unpopular topics?
DH: Let me answer the way I think Thomas Watson, the great Puritan pastor, might respond. He said, "Until sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.: To say "I am a sinner: is to locate the source of our problems not first in our circumstances or relationships, but in our hearts. When we acknowledge the presence of sin—the sin that roots in our hearts and influences our lives—several great things become clear. First, we find ourselves in some pretty good company—the heroes of our faith from Old Testament times to present—who experienced the battle with sin on the front lines. Second, we also acknowledge what everybody around us already knows, particularly our spouse. It removes the false, self-justifying basis for much of our behavior in our marriage. But, by far the greatest benefit of acknowledging our sinfulness, is that it makes Christ and his work precious to us. Like Jesus said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5: 31-32). Only sinners need a Savior. So I guess the bad news is that we're sinners, but the good news is that the power of the gospel gives us hope for a happy, fruitful marriage.
In writing the book, I needed to walk people carefully through the biblical doctrine of sin because there is so much misunderstanding and fear with even the mentioning the word. But I think people will quickly realize both the invasive hope and practical vision that emerge from allowing the gospel (which must include the doctrine of sin) to reshape our thinking, feeling and doing in marriage. The Bible comes alive because it is God's unfolding plan for redemption, with sin and grace soaking every page. My emphasis is intended to bring the hope of the gospel into the shadows so that Christ's light and promises can shine brighter in each marriage.
DR: You say in the book that "What we believe about God determines the quality of our marriage.: Can you explain that statement?
DH: In the book, I take time to explain this statement more fully. In fact, we spend almost the entire book unpacking some of its implications. A brief explanation, though, is that because everyone views life from a perspective (what some call a worldview), that view profoundly shapes a marriage. Whether or not we realize it, our ideas about life, our needs, marriage, romance, conflict—and everything else!—reveal themselves in our words and deeds. Inevitably, this reflects our view of God.
Here's the connection: what you truly believe about God and what it means to live your life for God is your theology. As a husband gets angry or a wife complains, theology is spilling out. A good everyday spouse-theologian can discern that beliefs about God and self, about problems and relationships, and about right and wrong are hotly defended and argued all the time. It's there in our vocabulary, it's revealed in how we perceive and discuss our needs and it's displayed through the underlying assumptions about why we do what we do.
Make no mistake—how a husband and wife build their marriage day-by-day and year-by-year is fundamentally shaped by their theology. It governs how we think, what we say, and how we act. Our theology governs our entire life. So certainly, our theology—what we believe about God—ultimately determines the outcome and quality of our marriage.
DR: You also say, "I am a better husband and father, and a happier man, when I recognize myself as the worst of sinners.: Can you explain what you mean by this?
DH: The worst of sinners is not my term; I actually borrowed it from the apostle Paul in his words to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:15). But it applies to all of us. Yes, really.
Paul didn't say ;I was.' He said ;I am'—the ;present-tense' apostle Paul saw himself as the chief of sinners. Paul was a student of his heart. He paid attention to the desires and impulses that churned within. And I don't think it's a stretch to say that he knew he was capable—given the right circumstances—of the worst of sins and the vilest of motives. Paul was a realist. He wanted to see God and himself truly. No hiding behind a facade of pleasantness or religiosity for him. It's almost as if Paul is saying, "Look, I know my sin. And what I've seen in my own heart is darker and more awful; it's more proud, selfish, and self-exalting; and it's more consistently and regularly in rebellion against You than anything I have glimpsed in the heart of anyone else. As far as I can see, the biggest sinner I know is me.:
But in the very next verse Paul says, "But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.:
With the passing of each day, two things grew larger for Paul: his sinfulness in light of the holiness of God, and God's mercy in the face of it. Knowing both God and himself accurately was not at all discouraging or depressing. Rather, it deepened his gratitude for the vastness of God's mercy in redeeming him, and the patience of Christ in continuing to love and identify with him in his daily struggle against sin.
Paul's confession to Timothy presents us with a stunning example of moral honesty and theological maturity: Paul's acute, even painful awareness of his own sinfulness caused him to magnify the glory of the Savior!
As I've studied Paul's example, I've found it to be true in my own life as well. The more aware I am of my sinful heart, the more I'm able to magnify the Savior by extending grace, love and kindness to my wife and children.
Chances are that all of us have witnessed a marriage dissolve because of "irreconcilable differences.: What does the Bible say about irreconcilable differences? Is there any such thing in a Christian context?
I think there can be significant differences among well meaning Christians. Paul and Barnabas appeared to confront major differences over the utility of Mark. They were mature Christians who recognized that their different perspectives required a separation. We must acknowledge God has worked even in differences and separation among believers to further his purposes throughout history. But marriage is different. Marriage is a picture of the very heart of reconciliation in Christ as Paul says in Ephesians 5. So God holds the covenant of marriage above the fray of what we typically understand as ;irreconcilable differences.' Jesus, the Reconciler, said it himself, "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew19:6).
Let's be honest, marriage is all about encountering differences and finding grace in the fallout. It's no wonder that Martin Luther called marriage "the school of character.: That's part of the reason I wrote the chapter on mercy. Without mercy (which I unpack with the words kindness, patience and forgiveness), differences become divisive, sometimes even appearing "irreconcilable.: It's not the presence of differences, but the absence of a biblical interpretation of our differences that makes them irreconcilable. I do wonder how many sinners who say "so long: would remain married if they understood the purpose and place and mercy in marriage.
Our spouse was a strategic choice, created for our good, by a wise and loving God. Selected by him, for us, from the beginning of the world, our spouse is an essential part of God's rescue mission for our life. If we're willing to see God's design in our differences, we will realize that He is behind it all and that we can overcome our differences through His amazing grace.
DR: Why is it so easy to read a book and become convicted of other people's sin? How did you approach the topics in this book to encourage people to primarily become aware of their own sin?
DH: Actually, I don't need a book to become convicted of other people's sin. I just need to wake up in the morning! Sin is crafty; it orients us towards overlooking our sin and micro-examining the sins of others. In chapter four, we look at this universal tendency in Matthew 7. As we would expect, Jesus commands us to start with ourselves. Where we start in dealing with sin makes all the difference in how we deal with it. And that's what you find as you read through the many stories in this book. Emma was grievously sinned against by her husband, Gordon. But because she understood that she was a sinner saved by grace, bitterness didn't settle into her soul. Jeremy committed adultery, and, yet, because his wife Cindy was willing to examine her own heart, she was positioned to extend forgiveness after a process of repentance. The approach of this book is to start with self-examination because when we understand who we are, it will be less likely that we'll be preoccupied with another's sin.
DR: If I love my wife, why do I find it so easy to treat her like I don't?
DH: The universal answer to this question is that we all encounter strong temptations to love ourselves more than our spouse. Therein lies the greatest challenge of marriage and the greatest opportunity for the gospel. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes it simple when he talks about the flesh giving into desires that oppose the Spirit. Why do I find it easy to treat my wife like I don't love her? Because the desires within me oppose the good things I want to do. I put it this way in the book:
"Here I sit, just a plain ole' loveable bundle of neutrality and noble-heartedness, minding my own business, when my wife says or does something which, from my unassailable vantage point, clearly crosses the line. Acting swiftly and efficiently as a judge and jury of one, I evaluate her behavior as obviously sinful. Hers is a transgression that demands my just but resolute response. In order to deal swiftly with any violation of my emotional air space or risk a breach of my personal security, I must expose her sin plainly and condemn it openly. If this creates a negative impact on my wife—the clear aggressor in my mind—well, a "stern: response from me is unfortunate but necessary to maintain the peace. In fact, I'm simply engaged in an act of leadership; perhaps she'll learn the lesson for the future. Yes, if feels right, doesn't it—it seems so clear. But it's just my sinful flesh doing what it does best: making war against the Spirit and, in this case, against [my wife] as well.:
DR: When speaking to couples who are struggling in their relationship I'm sure you'll find that one of the partners will be convinced that he or she is the one most interested in change and growth. Often, it seems, this is the case. What counsel do you have when one spouse is committed to change and growth while the other seems ambivalent?
DH: That question is so important that I touch on it in several chapters. I think its essential to understand that when encountering marriage challenges, both partners want change. The issue is they often have a program of change that looks a lot like renovation of the person sitting across from them. Or it can look like, "I'll change, but only if you….: I find that even people who say, "I can't change,: are really saying, "the cost of change is more than I currently want to pay.: I certainly have played all those tunes myself. The only way I experience lasting change is when my motivation is to love God more than anything else, and obey him no matter what. There is a great freedom to change when we know that we can please God regardless of what our spouse does or doesn't do. That freedom comes from seeing myself as called by God, who knows my worst acts and darkest thoughts, but who gave himself for me in redeeming love. One of the hardest things to do is to live with a spouse who doesn't seem to want to change. But the Gospel declares to me that God seeks those who want to hide, saves those who don't want saving, and sanctifies those who don't want to change. I am a holy reclamation project. The only desire and power to change comes from the God who has set me apart for that purpose.
DR: What are your hopes for this book? How will you measure its success?
DH: My hopes have been pretty modest. First, I just wanted to finish it with my sanity intact. My wife, Kimm, and the kids have yet to rule on whether that goal was successful. But more importantly, my prayer was that Shepherd Press would make back the money they invested to publish it. They took a risk on a new author—I really appreciate that. There are also some extraordinary stories in the book; people that are real heroes to me. The idea of circulating their stories so that other people can be inspired really excited me. But mostly, as a pastor, I wanted to see married couples encounter the transformation that comes through understanding and applying the gospel. My friend and boss, CJ Mahaney, calls it "keeping the main thing the main thing.:
It's the only hope when sinners say I do!
Be sure to read Tim's review of When Sinners Say "I Do."