Ever since I read just this one sentence, I can’t forget it. It says something that pretty much everyone agrees with. Yet at the same time, they resist living it out. What am I talking about? I’m talking about a quote that appeared on the screen this morning, one by the novelist George McDonald. McDonald said; “The first thing in all progress is to leave something behind.”
That’s pretty obvious. I mean. If you want to go to Fort Lauderdale, you have to leave Hollywood behind. You can’t be in both places at the same time. Yet, when it comes to making significant changes, even in places where change so much needs to happen, you can resist. Why? You know. If I move forward to the place I need to be, I have to leave where I am behind. And that can be hard.
Someone once was complaining to a friend about how awful their life had become. But when the friend suggested changes, do you know what the person said. She said. “Yes, my life may be hell, but at least here I know all the names of the streets.” It can be hard to let go, even of things that make your life miserable.
And what messes up relationships, including marriages, are what people won’t leave behind. For any relationship to work, for it to become everything that God created it to be, God calls you to leave a lot behind. And only as you do that do you unleash the power that will enable any relationship in your life to become great whether it be in your marriage or with your family or your workplace or with your network of friends. So what does God call you to leave behind? In these words, God tells you. So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
In these words focused on marriage, God actually gives you the two key relationships that you have to leave behind in order to make any relationship become all that God created that relationship to be. What do you have to leave behind? You have to leave behind yourself, and you have to leave behind your home.
Now what do I mean? To unpack what God is telling us, let’s begin by looking at the first of those two things, the leaving behind of yourself. How can you even do that? And even if you could, why would you want to? Well, what God is talking about here is your preoccupation with yourself, and how that preoccupation hampers every relationship you enter. That’s why at the beginning of this passage, God gives this command. “Submit yourself to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In that succinct sentence, God is simply saying this. Get over yourself. Leave it behind. Your relationship will only work to the extent that you let your self get out of the way.
As my car has gotten older, it has developed a slight oil leak, and so I am more diligent than ever about checking those oil levels. I know. That leak may be slight, but if my oil goes, then my engine goes, and without that engine, my car is kaput. That oil provides the lubrication my car needs to run. It reduces the friction that otherwise would stop it dead in its tracks.
And when you let go of self in marriage or any relationship, it works like the oil in a car. It keeps things moving. It reduces the friction that every relationship has. It provides the lubrication that enables any relationship to run, to become everything God created it to be.
Now what does that look like? Here are three questions that as they are true of you show you how much you have actually left your self behind. First, how well can you hear criticism and not be crushed or reactive? Second, how good are you at giving criticism (if you even get up the gumption to do it at all) without crushing others? Third, how good are you at forgiving people without having any residual anger?
You see. If you are crushed by criticism or react defensively, what does that that tell you? It tells you that when someone criticizes something you did, you take it as a criticism of who you are. It’s not. And even if they intended it that way, who died and made them God? But if you have left your self behind in that moment, you can hear the truth in their words. Even in people who criticize you with ill intent, you can gain insight from their words, no matter how harsh. Why? You’re not taking it personally. You have moved your self out of the way.
And if you can’t give criticism, let’s be honest, it’s rarely ever about your concern for the other person’s feelings. No, it’s really concern about how those feelings will negatively affect you. It’s not about them. It’s about you, about your unwillingness to let your self get out of the way of a truth that you need to say. But instead of taking that risk, of entering into that danger zone, you avoid it. And as the preacher Bill Coffin put it, Love without criticism it’s a kind of betrayal. If you truly care about someone, then you have to find the courage to let your own self concern go, to be honest with them even about the difficult things. And on the other hand, that focus on self can lead you in the opposite direction to deliver truth in a way that crushes. It is hard to be right and not hurt somebody with it. In fact, it only happens when you have let your self get out of the way. It only happens when you are telling the truth not out of your own anger or self-righteousness but because you are absolutely focused on that other person, on their well-being not your own.
And do you tell others that you have forgiven them, that you have let that offense go? But when you think about what you supposedly have let go, you feel your resentment rise up. And if that anger sits there, it will poison that relationship. It will linger below the surface of every interaction you have, where it can rise up at a moment’s notice. Or maybe it will simply sit there, subtly undermining that relationship, maybe even killing it in the end. And why does that happen? It happens because you haven’t let your self get out of the way, because when you do then your resentment will go with it.
But God doesn’t stop there. Not only do you need to leave your self behind, you need to leave your home behind too. It’s why Paul quotes that passage from Genesis. “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife…” But too often that joining can’t happen because one of the partners has never left home. When you marry, you are creating a new relationship. And you can’t create the new relationship until you’ve left your old relationships behind, and that can be harder to do than you realize.
A few weeks ago, as we talked about Ephesians in the morning Bible study, one of the folks there, Bert told me a story. He talked about a couple he knew that almost blew up over a television.
In the husband’s house growing up, his parents had kept the television on all the time. It served as background noise throughout the day. And even when they had serious discussions with one another, they kept it on. And that worked for them. They could multi-task that way.
But in the wife’s house, a whole different pattern occurred. Whenever big discussions happened, everything got turned off. That discussion had to be the sole focus, and nothing could be going on but that.
So can you imagine what happened? The wife wanted to touch base with her husband about something, and he was watching the game on TV. But do you think he turned it off? No, of course not. And do you think she got angry? Oh, you bet. Now whatever you think of the best way to have a conversation, the reason for that conflict had little to do with that. It had to do with the reality that neither of them had left home. They came into that marriage with certain assumptions about how things needed to be, simply because that was the way it worked for their parents. But if you’re married, you’re not living in your old family. You are making a new one. And what God is saying here is that you have to leave the ways of that old family behind if you want to make this new family work.
More than that, God is saying that when it comes to your marriage, that marriage has to be your number one priority, over work, over friendships, even over your kids. Think about it. Your kids, if you raise them well, will eventually leave, but hopefully not your spouse. Your marriage was there before your kids came, and it will be there after they leave, so that relationship has to have priority.
And if you don’t leave the baggage from your family behind, it will drag down all sorts of relationships. It will affect how you relate in your workplace or with your children. It will create issues in your friendships. And let’s be clear, if you hate your parents, then you haven’t left home either. Why? It’s because even in your hatred, they still control you. If you say, “I’m not going to do that, because my dad always did that and I hated it.” Well, why are you not doing it? It’s still because of your father isn’t it? That relationship is still controlling you because of how you are reacting against it.
In relationships for them to move forward you have to leave a lot behind. You have to leave behind yourself, and you have to leave behind your home. But it’s one thing to say that, but how do you gain the power to actually do it? You look to the one who left himself behind for you. You look to the one who left his home behind so that you would find it. In Jesus, in his life, in his death, God emptied himself of everything for you. And the more you experience that love that left it all behind for you, the more it frees you to leave what you need to leave behind too.
So no matter what criticism comes, it can’t crush you. Why? God has already shown you on that cross how infinitely valued you are. And that same sense of worth frees you to move beyond the fear to share hard truths with others. And when you share, you can do so without crushing. Why? You know the grace of God that saved you came as a gift that you did not earn, and so that grace humbles you even as it lifts you up. And out of that grace, you become free to forgive, to let your anger go, because you know the love of a God who paid the ultimate price to forgive and let his anger go towards you. And in the security of that love, you find a new home, a home that heals the wounds of your past that frees you from its baggage. In the power of Jesus’ relationship with you, you discover the power to make every relationship in your life all that God intended them to be. Where do you need that power? What is Jesus calling you to leave behind today? Where do you need to let Jesus free you, to free your relationships to become all that God intended them to be. Let us pray.