Survivor’s Guilt? Never Again

Exactly four weeks ago my wife coded after the birth of our daughter and was revived.  She had a harrowing few days in the ICU, but after a week in the hospital she was discharged.  She was weak, but she was well.  And I felt guilty about it.

So grateful for an empty hospital bed....


Survivor’s Guilt

I felt guilty because everything turned out okay for my family, but I know lots of people whose situations are not okay.

Why am I so blessed?

Folks would ask me how my wife was doing and I would truthfully answer, “I think she’s going to be fine.”  And I felt badly about that; I was embarrassed by our good fortune.

It’s embarrassing how blessed I am:

  • other pastors have congregations who hate them; our people dote on us;
  • other husbands struggle in their marriages; my wife is the kindest, sweetest woman I know;
  • other people’s kids have chronic illnesses; my kids are healthy;
  • I am a rich, white, American man born in the 2nd half of the 20th century.  I wasn’t born black in the 18th century or a Russian serf in the 19th century or a Samaritan woman in the 1st century;
  • My parents will have been married for 40 years this year and taught me to love Jesus;
  • I’m even a great whistler….
  • etc.

I could go on, but it’s embarrassing: I don’t deserve my good fortune.  As a pastor, I have the privilege of walking alongside people in every aspect of their lives, cradle to grave, and I know how much people suffer.  I’ve lived in Africa and I’ve traveled and read widely, and I know how difficult life is for so many people.  I know how often it seems prayers are not answered.

And so, after my wife got out of the hospital the first time, I felt guilty at our good fortune.

And then Wednesday night happened.

Never Again

My wife had to be rushed to the Emergency Room on Wednesday evening, and ultimately had to have emergency and life-saving surgery, surgery that lasted all night.  All night I sat in the empty waiting room, and I didn’t know if she was going to survive.  When I learned she would survive, I also learned that she was intubated and on a ventilator, and then I saw her.

Pray to God you never see a loved one on a ventilator, going in and out of consciousness, pulling at her tube with her bandaged hands.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in hospitals, but when it’s your wife there in the ICU, it’s almost unendurable.

The next night we had another scare and I was woken up on the pull-out couch with bright lights and saw a crowd of doctors in our room.  It was then that I decided that I will never, ever again feel survivor’s guilt.

Survivor’s guilt is a selfish indulgence–a luxury–that I want to forgo forever.

When you are at a point of desperation, when a leaden dread comes upon you, when that of which you are most afraid is threatening to happen, you become painfully aware how foolish and selfish is survivor’s guilt.    You think back to the times when you weren’t afraid and everything was well, and you’re ashamed that you were ever ashamed of your good fortune.  And in those moments, you would do anything to get back to the times when things were good.

I don’t know why God seems to answer some prayers and not others.  I don’t know why some of us receive the blessings we do.  But I also know that I don’t deserve my blessings and didn’t earn them–they just came on me, like the rain.  My blessings don’t mean anything about me: all they do is point to their Source and Giver.

Rather than feeling guilty, I want to be grateful.

I am grateful for God’s goodness toward me.  I am grateful that I did not have to come home in the dark on Thursday morning and wake up my little son and tell him his mother died.  I am grateful that my wife survived.  And I’m grateful that I brought her home not one hour ago.

I want gratitude to pour out of me.  I just went to CVS to pick up a prescription and when the cashier asked me how I was doing, I looked her in the eyes and said, “I am so blessed: my wife just got discharged from the hospital.”  And I gave her a big smile.

I don’t deserve my blessings–and I have SO MANY–but I can use them to bless others.

I want to be grateful, and because I’m grateful, I want to be a giver.

Survivor’s guilt?  Never again.


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In Sickness & In Health: 10 Years of Marriage

Today is my tenth wedding anniversary.  It’s also been 10 days since my wife coded and was revived in the hospital shortly after the birth of our 2nd child.  So, I’ve been thinking a bit about marriage today.

[My wife's arm after a few days in ICU--it actually looks much worse today.]


Some years ago, Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book about what he called “The Gift Nobody Wants.”  The book was about pain.  Dr. Brand was a medical missionary for years and he treated patients with leprosy.  Without pain, lepers are unable to know something is wrong.  No one wants pain, but it has a purpose.

If ever there were a culture totally unsuited for enduring pain it is ours.  For most of us, the highest good to be achieved is the avoidance of pain.  We spend our days amusing ourselves to death, popping pills and seeking diagnoses, jumping in and out of bed and in and out of marriages, all with the end of minimizing pain and maximizing comfort.

Pain cannot ultimately be avoided, however.  You can numb yourself with opiates, but the pain in your soul will only increase.  The brief physical pain that comes from dental surgery can be palliated, but soul pain must be endured.  Which brings me to marriage.

On my wedding day I said:


Everyone likes those words; those words are why we want to be married in the first place.

But the vows I said on my wedding day also include the antitheses of those words:

“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorerin sickness and in health….”

How wise of our ancestors to include in the wedding service the words that nobody wants.

Nobody wants worse or poorer or sickness, and yet marriage includes those words, too.  Marriage, like all of life, includes pain.  It’s the gift nobody wants.

Last week in the middle of the night, I leaned over my wife’s bed in her ICU room and used a straw to drip drops of water on her parched tongue as she looked at me with eyes wild with pain and fear.  Drop.  Pause.  Drop.  Pause.  At that moment I was afraid she was going to die, but at that moment I also felt that I was closer to being her husband than any previous moment in our 10 years of married life together.

Pain is the gift nobody wants, and I’m wondering if pain is not also the primary gift of marriage.

Don’t misunderstand: my wife and I rarely fight and our first 10 years of marriage have been exceedingly happy.  What I mean is that marriage has a way of confronting you with pain.  One day of course, there will be the pain of death and the loneliness of being left behind, alone.  There will be the pain of seeing the other suffer throughout your married life together, in small and great ways.  And, most importantly, there is the pain of being confronted with your own selfishness.  This last pain, I believe, is the primary gift of marriage.

Tim Keller says somewhere that selfishness is the cause of all marital problems.  I believe, though, that selfishness is why God calls a man and a woman together into a marriage–to use the husband to confront his wife’s selfishness, and vice versa.  When you are married, you are constantly discovering that your heart is much more selfish than you’d previously understood.  Men and women are different, and the effect of bringing a man and a woman together into marriage is friction.  It’s pain.

That pain is the gift nobody wants.

And yet it’s the pain we need if we are going to become the creatures God created us to be.  If there were another way for us to become holy apart from pain, we’d have discovered it centuries ago.  But there isn’t.

No one chooses pain.  Some people are physically courageous and will endure physical pain, but the deepest pain is spiritual pain, and spiritual pain breaks everyone.  A boxer might step into the ring year after year; he can stand the pain of getting his nose broken over and over again, but not the pain that comes when two sinful people are joined together in marriage.

The pain that comes from marriage is a searing pain: it hurts to know that you are not as good as you want to believe, that you yourself caused your wife pain with a petulant remark or hard heart that chooses not to forgive.  Sin burns.

It’s not surprising that a culture that sees avoidance of pain as the highest good will struggle with marriage.  This is why the Christian story of marriage is so countercultural.  Marriage, the church has always taught, is not a contract to terminate as either party desires, but a covenantal promise that includes better and worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health.  And it’s when we endure the worse, the poorer, and the sickness that we can become wise and good.

I don’t want pain.  I don’t want the pain of watching my wife’s vital signs taper off, and I don’t want the pain of being confronted with my own selfishness and sin in the daily work of marriage.  And yet I know that pain is a gift, even if it’s the gift nobody wants, and I’m grateful.

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Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are getting divorced.  Though I don’t know them, I’m grieved at the news: divorce is always painful, and the thought of their 6 children having to grow up without a mom and a dad in the same house makes me sad.  This news of yet another failed celebrity marriage has got me thinking.


Our Deepest Problems Are Spiritual Problems

Our deepest problems are spiritual problems.  If this were not the case, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would not be getting divorced.  If our deepest problems were merely material problems, then money would solve our problems.  If money could solve our problems, then rich people would never get divorced.

Our culture is obsessed with material reality.  We’ve bought into the self-evident lie that the only reality that matters is that which we can see, taste, touch, and measure.  But, this belief is self-evidently false, because material solutions don’t actually fix our deepest problems.  Spiritual reality matters.  Our deepest problems are spiritual problems, and so they can’t be solved with material solutions.  Spiritual reality is just as real as material reality, but because we can’t see, taste, touch, and measure spiritual reality, our culture pretends it’s not real.

Unfortunately, the effects of spiritual brokenness are quite real, and these effects are all around us:

  • War is a result of spiritual brokenness;
  • Divorce is a result of spiritual brokenness;
  • Racism is a result of spiritual brokenness, etc.

Yes, these problems have material results, but the roots of these problems are spiritual.

Again, if our deepest problems were merely material in nature, then we could buy solutions to our problems.  This is the false god of wealth.  If our deepest problems were merely material, we could solve our deepest problems through technological invention.  This is the false god of progress.

If our deepest problems were merely material, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wouldn’t be getting divorced.


What about you?  What is the spiritual brokenness in your heart producing in your life?




These come from our hearts, and their effects can be seen in the material world.  But, they can’t be fixed with material solutions.

This is the human predicament: our problems all have spiritual roots, and we can’t fix ourselves.


This is the gospel: the God who is Spirit entered into material reality and fixed our Problem himself.


Do you understand?



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When You Don’t Feel Like Being Married Anymore

What do you do when you don’t feel like being married anymore?  One of the strangest things about marriage is how two people who love each other on their wedding day can become the bitterest of enemies. How does this happen?  Marriage can be difficult, but the way many of us think about marriage doesn’t make it any easier; in fact, this one mistake we make when it comes to thinking about marriage has the potential to destroy a marriage.  (I heard my friend Matt Tuggle say the following last night in conversation, and I thought it was so good that I decided to share it with you.)

[The marriage scenes in "Up" are among my favorite in film.]


Marriage Vows Aren’t About How You Feel

Have you ever noticed that marriage vows contain nothing about how a person will feel over the course of a marriage?  The reason marriage vows aren’t about feelings is because we cannot promise how we will feel in the future.  If your feelings and emotions are like mine, they’re liable to change as quickly and as violently as the Texas weather in spring.  It’s ridiculous to make a promise about future feelings, but fortunately the marriage vows don’t require us to make that promise.

Marriage Vows Are About How You’ll Act

Here are the vows I’ve used in every wedding I’ve ever officiated (over 100 at this point):

In the name of God,

I, John, take you, Jane, to be my wife

To have and to hold,

From this day forward,

For better, for worse,

For richer, for poorer,

In sickness and in health,

To love and to cherish,

Until we are parted by death:

This is my solemn vow.

Notice how the vows are all about promising to live a certain way and have nothing to do with feeling a certain way?  Feelings are hard to control, but you control your actions.  In marriage, we don’t promise how we’ll feel, we promise how we’ll live.  (And, with God’s help, faithfulness is possible.)

And here’s the good news to everyone currently struggling to love a spouse: actions lead and emotions follow.  If you act with love, love is what you’ll eventually feel.

Try it.

P.S. More from Matt

Check out Matt’s sermons here.  Lots more good stuff where the above came from.



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“3 Words To Transform Any Relationship” [VIDEO]

I was interviewed on the front steps of my church a few weeks ago by Jane McGarry of Good Morning Texas, and the interview aired this morning on WFAA Channel 8 (ABC) in Dallas.  We did the interview in one take, and the good folks at GMT aired it in its entirety.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to share a message I really believe in: 3 words that can transform ANY relationship.  [Click the link below to see the 3 minute video.]



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You Need a Sex Habit*

Couples who are having problems aren’t having sex.  Yes, I’m not a researcher or a therapist and my evidence is all anecdotal from conversations with lots of different couples, but I’m telling you: couples who are having problems aren’t having (enough) sex.  Correlation or causation?  Here’s what I think.

Sex is a Keystone Habit

I’ve written previously about keystone habits:

A keystone habit is a simple habit that has effects that cascade into other aspects of an individual’s or a group’s life.

So, a keystone habit might be:

To think of it another way, a keystone habit is the first domino that falls and knocks down all the others with it.

So, a keystone habit in healthy families is having dinner together at home every evening.  That simple practice affects the relationship between the mom and the dad and the kids’ behavior in school and even their reading level.  It’s one domino that falls, knocking over a bunch of others.”

It’s not the keystone habit itself that matters as much as what that particular habit represents and sets in motion.  I think sex between a husband and a wife is exactly that sort of habit; it’s a domino that falls and knocks over a bunch of others.  Here’s why:

  • Sex requires proximity.  It’s good for a husband and a wife to spend time together–too much time apart is never good.
  • Sex requires selflessness.  Like everything else in life that’s good for you, sometimes you won’t feel like it, but there are times when your husband or your wife will need it, and therefore your relationship needs it.
  • Sex requires intentionality.  Unlike in the movies, married folks don’t walk around ripping each others’ clothes off whenever possible.  With jobs and kids and schedules, sex requires intentionality.
  • Sex sends a message.  Women tend to become self-conscious about their bodies as they age and have children, and when a husband tells his wife she is desirable, it draws them together in a profound way.  And vice versa (though not the having children part).



Everybody likes sex, but contrary to what a 15 year-old boy would think, it’s not the sex itself that makes the difference for couples so much as it is the proximity, selflessness, intentionality, and message of commitment that regular sex brings to a marriage.

At least, that’s my theory.  What do you think?


*If you’re married.  I subscribe to the outlandish and clearly ridiculous belief that sex has a purpose, and that that purpose is only realized within a marriage between a husband and a wife.  If you’re not married, not having sex won’t kill you, believe it or not.  You should try it.




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The 2 Skills Every Man Needs

When I was a boy, I thought that grown men men knew about the world; I thought that grown men weren’t afraid of anything.  But now that I’m a grown man myself and now that I know lots of other men, I’ve come to realize that most grown men are just as insecure, feel just as inadequate, and are just as fearful as they were when they were boys, but that now, as grown men, they have more power, more responsibility, and more potential to hurt others.  Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t teach men the skills we need to thrive as men; there are 2 skills in particular that I believe every man needs to know.

Every Man Needs to Know How to Pray

Men don’t know how to pray.  I talk to guys all the time who feel completely inadequate when it comes to prayer.  Prayer makes the man.  To be a man of confidence, peace, and inner strength, you need to be a man of prayer.

I talked at length about prayer here, but I believe there is one thing any man can do immediately to become better at prayer:

To become better at prayer, you need to be specific.

  • Be specific in your time and place for prayer.  Pick a favorite arm chair, or your kitchen table, or your front porch, and pray there every morning.
  • Be specific in your prayer requests.  Lots of men are afraid of really asking the Lord for specifics, but this is a misplaced fear.  God desires our specific prayers.  “If you want a brown hat, don’t just pray for a hat.”  I keep an index card in my Bible with specific prayer requests on it.  Pray for a specific meeting at work, or a specific issue with a child, or a specific fear or worry.  (It’s also powerful to be specific in your prayers of gratitude.)

Learning to pray can do more to change how a man sees and engages the world than anything else.

Every Man Needs to Know How to Apologize

Do you know how to repair relationships that you’ve damaged?  Many men, not knowing how to apologize, do one of the following:

  • they either walk away when relationships become injured; or
  • they ignore the problem, hoping that it will somehow get better.

Neither tactic works.  And we wonder why so many men are so lonely.  If you don’t learn how to apologize, you’ll live with failed relationships, and over time you’ll see marriages and friendships wither.  A failure to apologize is one of the primary ways I’ve seen men fail at relationships.

There are 3 parts to a good apology.

  1. Make eye contact.  If possible, an apology should be done in person.  Apologizing over the phone is a distant second.  In my opinion, a man should never apologize in email or over text.
  2. Take complete responsibility.  Say, “I did [X] and it was wrong.”  Never ever make an excuse when apologizing.
  3. Say, “I’m sorry.  Will you forgive me?”

Learning to apologize and repair a relationship will change a man’s life for the better.

Here’s the Good News

Praying and apologizing are skills that a man can learn.  Like riding a bike, they don’t come naturally to us, but we can learn to get better.  And, like riding a bike, you have to start somewhere, and when you fall down, you get back on and have another try.



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Vive La France

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Casablanca)_15


The singing of La Marseillaise from Casablanca, one of my favorite scenes in all of film, seems especially appropriate today after the murders this morning at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.

Some quick thoughts:

  • Note how virtually everyone goes along with the Nazi song at the beginning, because they are afraid of being different;
  • Note Victor Laszlo’s face of determined courage as he stands on the balcony with Rick and hears the Nazi song;
  • Note how Elsa looks at Victor as he walks purposefully to the orchestra (she knows what he’s capable of);
  • Note how it takes one man’s courage to put courage in others;
  • Note how Elsa looks at Victor once the singing catches on;
  • Note how the Nazis prepare to use violence once they can’t bully and propagandize their opponents into silence.  (The clip ends at the point at which the Nazis force the closing of Rick’s Cafe.)

I want to be a man like Victor Laszlo; I’d like to earn the right for my wife to look at me the way Elsa looks at him.


Vive La France.  Vive La Liberté.


(Credit to Rod Dreher for reminding me today about that scene from Casablanca.)

“The Kind of Woman You Should Marry”

It’s one of those things my dad said that I’ll never forget: “That, boys, is the kind of woman you should marry.”

My wife and I, after hosting 180+ folks at our house for a church X-mas party, 12/7/14.

(My wife and I on 12/7/14, after we (mainly she) hosted 180+ folks at our house for a church X-mas party.)

My Dad’s Life Lesson About Marriage

My dad isn’t the kind of guy who sits his sons down and says, “I’m going to share with you a life lesson, so be sure to pay attention.”  But, from time to time over the years, he would say something about life in an offhand way,and because it didn’t happen very often and never seemed forced or planned, I’d remember what he said. This is what he had to say about marriage.

The Run on the Savings and Loan

We were watching It’s a Wonderful Life; I was probably in my early twenties and home for Christmas.  In the movie, George Bailey wants to travel and see the world, and he and his new bride Mary have scraped and saved to make it possible.  It’s their wedding day, and George and Mary are about to leave Bedford Falls for their honeymoon when George gets word that there has been a run on the bank his family owns, Bailey Bros. Building and Loan.  (It’s during the Great Depression.)  Banks are closing right and left, but if the Savings and Loan closes it will be a social disaster, because Bailey Bros. Building and Loan is the only bank in town not run by greedy Mr. Potter.  Mr. Potter wants to keep the poor and the immigrants in debt; Bailey Building and Loan offers the poor and the immigrant a way out of poverty and into home ownership.  If the old Building and Loan goes under, Bedford Falls will be a worse place to live

Here’s the Scene

Watch the whole 6:44 clip–it’s worth it.


“That’s the Kind of Woman You Should Marry”

Mary Bailey spontaneously offers their honeymoon funds for the purposes of keeping the Savings and Loan open.  She displays a beautiful, simple, great-hearted generosity.

After that scene, my dad said to us, in an off-hand way, “Boys, that’s the kind of woman you should marry.”

And I did.