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Podcast: What Your Marriage Needs Most (Paul David Tripp)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Seeing God’s Grace in Your Marriage

In this episode, Paul Tripp discusses how the gospel comes to bear on the day-to-day realities of marriage and why that's more than just a platitude. He reflects on important but sometimes painful lessons he has learned on decades of marriage to his wife, Luella, shares some of the most common marriage questions he's been asked over the years, years of teaching marriage seminars and counseling hundreds of couples, and he offers some practical advice for spouses who are struggling to communicate in a way that honors God and each other.

Marriage

Paul David Tripp

A marriage needs something sturdier than romance. Popular author and pastor Paul David Tripp encourages readers to make 6 gospel-centered commitments with the aim of making Jesus Christ the foundation of their marriages.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:54 - Fifty Years of Experiencing God’s Grace in Marriage

Matt Tully
Paul, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Paul David Tripp
It’s my pleasure to be with you.

Matt Tully
How long have you and your wife, Luella, been married?

Paul David Tripp
It’s hard for me to imagine that this is true, but this year (2021) we will celebrate 50 years of marriage.

Matt Tully
Wow! Fifty years!

Paul David Tripp
I look back on that and I think how good God has been in his presence and grace and wisdom to us. I asked Luella to marry me at seventeen. I think I knew little about love, little about relationships, little about the depth and glory of God’s grace. I hadn’t really understood the practical nature of God’s wisdom in Scripture, and so we feel incredibly blessed. We were engaged for three years, and I was twenty when we got married. We are not marriage heroes. Luella and I are not marriage experts. We are the products of incalculable grace and wisdom that is so deep it has no bottom. Because of it, we’re very thankful. We, today, continue to work on our marriage because between the already of our conversion and the not yet of our home-going we still are sinners in need of God’s grace, and that sin rears it’s ugly head. But we have huge hope because we’ve seen God’s grace in operation.

Matt Tully
How did you first meet? You said you got engaged at seventeen, so were you dating a little bit before that?

Paul David Tripp
I first saw Luella in a lunch line my very first year of college, and I stared at her. She felt uncomfortable. I was determined I was going to find out who this person was and get to know her. When I first asked her for a date, she informed me that she was not interested in a serious relationship. She had been in one and had been hurt, but she accepted. When the date was over, she told me not to ask her out again. I did, and she agreed to another date and asked me not to ask her again, and I did. And we continued that way for a while. When I told her that I loved her, some months down the road, her response to me was, "What? You love me? What do you know about love? Don’t ever say that to me again!" She was right; I knew little about love. But it was there in college that we met, and we were married between our junior and senior year of college.

Matt Tully
What was that like still being in school and being a married couple? That’s not super common, at least not today.

Paul David Tripp
It was both wonderful and stressful. That first year, Luella had a very serious auto accident and injured her back, and so for a period of that time she was on bed-rest. But, on the other hand, to be learning together was such a vibrant and exciting experience, and so we are thankful that we could do that.

05:50 - How Does the Gospel Impact My Marriage?

Matt Tully
In our last conversation for this show, we talked about leadership in the local church—pastoral ministry—and even more specifically, the leadership community that surrounds the pastor. You kind of jokingly said in that conversation that all of your books are just about the gospel, but applying it in different ways in different areas of our lives. So, maybe start to do that for us with marriage. Unpack how it is that the gospel does impact our marriages. That sounds really good to all of us, but I think sometimes the question is, How do I actually start to think about that?

Paul David Tripp
Let me give you the big picture first. It is clearer and clearer to me that the entire gospel drama is lived out in your marriage. Once you get that, it gives you a whole new way of thinking about how we live together in a marriage of unity, understanding, and love. Let me explain this. Here’s the dark side of the gospel drama: it’s sin, selfishness, and idolatry. If you would ask me why the trouble in marriage, I would say because we’re sinners. The most dangerous thing in my marriage is not that I’m married to another sinner. I carried it in myself. It’s my sin. And what does sin do to me? Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5 that Jesus came so that those who live would no longer live for themselves. The DNA of sin is selfishness. It’s I want what I want, and I want it now, and I want people to deliver it to me. It’s me in the center of my universe. Listen, I still struggle with that. I still get occasionally irritated in traffic when people have the audacity to be in my way. That’s all of us. Who cannot relate to that? So many of the arguments in marriage, and the disagreements in marriage, are just selfishness. You didn’t respond the way I wanted you to respond. You didn’t give me the thing that I wanted. You weren’t on time when I wanted you to be on time. You don’t think the way that I think. And then the third thing is idolatry. It’s that we’re worshipers, and that means that something always captures my heart, and what captures my heart controls my behavior. In marriage, things rise in levels of importance way beyond their true importance, and then they control my words and responses. Winning an argument becomes too important. Getting my way becomes too important. You thinking that I’m great becomes too important. And so, if you get at those three things, you start to get at the heart of why you struggle. Imagine if every husband asked the question, What is too important right now for me in my marriage? What if every wife asked that question? I think couples just asking that single question would get at the heart of much of their struggle. That’s the dark news of the gospel. Here’s the good news: it's God’s rescuing grace, the identity that we have in Christ, and unending forgiveness. Now, rescuing grace means this: I’m not in this struggle in marriage by myself. God is rescuing me—you gotta hear this—from me! That’s what it means when Scripture says Jesus came so that those who live will no longer live for themselves. My greatest danger to me is me. So, I can be excited that there’s help for me in my marriage. It’s not just this mountain of glorious principles; I would look at that and think, I’ll never be able to do those things. God meets me there. Every one of God’s commands is accompanied by his grace, or the commands would just devastate us. It’s my identity in Christ—that I am in him and he is in me, and in him I really do have everything I need for life and godliness. Now, this means I don’t have to look to my wife or my husband for identity. Luella loves me, but she doesn’t wake up in the morning and say, How can I give Paul identity today? Nor did my children, nor does my work, nor do my possessions. None of those things will ever work to give me identity. Once I have my identity settled, then I can love you without being entitled to something from you that distorts the whole relationship. I think much of what we call romance is just self-oriented identity seeking. If you say the right things to me, I feel great and I feel like I can live today. Wow! What a burden for marriage! And then forgiveness—that there’s a constant flow of forgiveness, because you will mess up. You’ll say things you shouldn’t say, you’ll do things that you shouldn’t do; but if there’s forgiveness, then we should not be afraid of the other person saying, That was really not very nice what you just did. We should not be afraid of confession or of loving confrontation. These things can live and allow us to grow and to change. In the dark side of the gospel, I’ve described all the problems that we all face. In the bright side of the gospel, I’ve described all the help that we need. Once you get a hold of that, it sets you on a new trajectory in your marriage that’s really very practical.

Matt Tully
How does that contrast with the marriage advice that you see most commonly in books and seminars and maybe even from therapists? How does that differ from what is often the norm?

Paul David Tripp
The problem is, all of that counsel—I can’t say all of it—a good portion of that counsel is biblical and wise and should be followed. But, everything God tells me to do is rooted in what he has done for me. I stand before the Ten Commandments, and they’re a spiritual Mount Everest for me. I have no ability to do that. Often, I don’t even have the desire to do those things. So, I need to understand how God meets me in those moments, what he provides for me so that I can do those things. Identity proceeds doing—that’s the message that is missing. For example, my whole ability to hear Luella’s critique of me is rooted in my knowledge that there’s nothing that she could ever expose in me that hasn’t already been forgiven by the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. That give me hope; that gives me courage; that gives me the ability to listen. You know, I’m sure you’re like me—and everyone who’s hearing this is like me—when somebody begins to confront you, your chest tightens, you start arguing in your mind for your defense, your ears redden. That’s a natural response of a sinner. What’s going to get me beyond that is the gospel. I don’t have to defend me because Jesus has paid the penalty for the darkest parts of me. Listen, you can’t preach that gospel to yourself enough. You just can’t. You need it everyday. I wrote a gospel devotional because I think that we forget, and everyday we need that reminder.

Matt Tully
What would you say to the person who’s hearing that and says, Yeah, that’s right, but isn’t that a little bit simplistic? Aren’t our marriages more complex than that and the relational dynamics that we’re experiencing more complex than that? It’s not enough just to say, ’Think carefully, apply, believe the gospel in your marriage’?

Paul David Tripp
But things like forgiveness, confession, belief in the sovereignty of God who has brought us together even though we’re different—those beliefs are the ladder that takes us down into the complexities of our marriage. If you cannot ever talk honestly to one another, if you have a closet full of taboo topics, you will never deal with the complexities of your marriage. It’s when you can open that closet and have those things fall down at your feet and sit down together and begin to pull them apart that you can actually get at all those complexities. Of course, marriage is complex. It’s 24-hour, 7 days a week—of course, it is. Two personalities, raised in different cultural backgrounds, raised with different assumptions about life, wired with different personalities by God—of course, it’s complex. The gospel gives us a way of getting at those complexities.

Matt Tully
Do you and your wife have any tangible habits or rhythms aimed at helping you to keep your marriage centered on the gospel throughout the ups and downs of everyday life?

Paul David Tripp
I think probably the one that has been the most constant in our marriage is that little thing that’s said in Ephesians 4: Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. We shouldn’t go to bed at night angry, and we shouldn’t go to bed at night with unsettled disputes. Sometimes one of us is stubborn, and before we get in bed we’ll say, We really need to talk about today. It’s been a huge rescue because when you don’t do that, then you meditate on that more. As you meditate on it more, it connects you to other things that have happened, and all of a sudden, the suitcase gets more and more full, you get more and more hurt and more and more bitter, and it is exactly what Paul means when he says you’re giving the devil an opportunity. It is distressing when that happens, and so it’s such a wise grace to us that God says, Just settle it before you go to bed. Have that conversation. Wake up in the morning with a fresh slate. As you have that conversation, it’s humbling and sometimes mortifying, but you remember why you love this person and why you want a good relationship with them. In a marriage, your building a legacy of good thoughts about the person you’re married to, or you’re building a legacy of bad thoughts about that person. Couples come to the point, because they haven’t dealt with things quickly, where they say, I just don’t really respect this person anymore. I just don’t really want to live with them. It would have been possible for Luella to say that to me because I’m a bit of a mess. But God’s rescued us from that, and that’s allowed the brighter things about us to shine, rather than those dark things.

18:53 - Striving for Healthy Communication in Marriage

Matt Tully
It’s probably a cliché, but one of the biggest areas of struggles for many couples would have to be the issue of communication, in general. One person says something—or doesn’t say something—a certain way and the other person interprets it a certain way, and before long at least one party—maybe both people—are feeling confused or hurt or upset. Help us think through, almost as a case study, how does the gospel apply to the issue of communication with our spouse?

Paul David Tripp
Again, there’s these little phrases in Scripture that are so helpful. The Bible says to only speak in a way that gives grace to the hearer. Irritated, inflammatory, inpatient language shuts down communication. There are times when I want to talk, but I shouldn’t talk. I should go someplace and pray in order to get myself in a place where I’m able to talk, because the important things that need to be said would be clouded by the way I want to say them. To give grace to the hearers means I want to speak in a way that helps you, that moves you along, that helps you to operate at your best, that helps you to remember God’s presence in this moment that’s tough for us. This is universally true: You’ve never had a conversation where somebody has gotten up in your face, maybe so close you can feel their breath, and said hurtful, inflammatory things; you’ve never had that conversation and walked away and said, Boy, that was helpful. I feel so loved. I’ve learned so much. We should do that again. You don’t want that to ever happen again, and what you remember in that conversation is a manner—you remember the harshness. You remember the attitude. Perhaps the things that really needed to be communicated are lost in the process. I think it happens again and again in marriage. If I would give this person in this conversation the same grace that God has given me, how different this moment of communication would be.

21:49 - Dealing with Vast Differences between Spouses

Matt Tully
Are there any other common questions that you’ve received over the years speaking to hundreds, if not thousands, of couples? What are they key things that have come up again and again?

Paul David Tripp
I think one of the things that people struggle with is the vast difference between them and their spouse. Sure, there are gender things there that are the wonder of God’s creation, but take my marriage for example. I was raised in the white-bread boredom of Toledo, Ohio. Luella was raised in the exotic environment of Placetas, Cuba. We are incredibly different. Again, this is where the truth of the gospel helps us. When Paul is in Athens and he’s describing how God relates to his creation, it says that God determines the exact place where we will live and the exact length of our days. God actually writes your story. So, God has written, by his sovereign plan, Luella from Cuba and Paul Tripp together. This is not a massive mistake. This is a choice by a God who is the definition of what is wise and good and loving and faithful and true. So, that tells me that God means these differences not to plague us and discourage us, but to produce good in us. One of the things I talk about as I write about marriage is dealing with those differences with appreciation and grace. No one has been more influential in my life than Luella. No one has opened my eyes to things I never would have seen if it weren’t for Luella. Whether it’s eating things I never thought I would eat, to enjoying things I never thought I would enjoy, to thinking in ways I never thought I would think—that’s what supposed to happen. Now, is that easy? No. It’s hard when the person next to you has a seemingly unexplainable response to something, a response so different than what you would ever have! It’s what you do with that that then makes the difference. I think it’s incredibly helpful to understand that the One who wrote us together means that for good, means that to be part of the work of change that he is working in us. I want to say one other thing about all that we’ve talked about. What the gospel teaches us is that almost always, change is a process and not an event. So, patience is the name of the game in marriage. You don’t build a healthy marriage by having one honest conversation. It’s constantly planting good seeds and pulling out bad weeds, planting good seeds and pulling out bad weeds. You look back and all of a sudden, you have a mature marriage that’s a garden you never thought you would experience, but it’s been long, patient, daily work. Isn’t that how God works in our lives? He forgives us, draws us into relationship with him, and then he rolls up his divine sleeves and begins to work on us. I don’t know about anybody listening, but I’m quite aware that I’m not a grace graduate yet. God is still patiently working on me, and I’m thankful that he is. So, that same patience is needed in marriage.

26:02 - When to Get Help

Matt Tully
Speak to the person listening right now—maybe this is a couple or just a single spouse—who perhaps fears that the weeds are coming back at a significantly faster rate than the good fruit, and maybe just feels discouraged and a little bit uncertain. Are there a few questions for self-assessment that you would recommend that that person ask him or herself, or maybe ask as a couple together?

Paul David Tripp
If communication is impossible for you, if reaching a solution to problems is impossible for you, if you fantasize about not being married, get help. Get help. There comes a point where you are so distraught and you’re so confused and so dismayed that you can’t be objective about your marriage. This is why God has blessed us with the body of Christ. Marriage isn’t meant to live in isolation from the essential ministries of the body of Christ. Get help. Be willing to open yourself up so that somebody can lead you from where you are to where you need to be, because we know God’s grace is sufficient. We know his strength is made perfect in our weakness. What we need is someone who will help us to apply that grace to the things that we’re now going through. I just think you come to a point where you can’t do it yourself, and you just need help.

Matt Tully
Has there been an older couple or an older Christian who has played that role in your life over the years?

Paul David Tripp
We were blessed by the fact that my brother Ted preceded us in marriage with my sister Barbara Joe. We got lots of wisdom from them. I can remember many, many times talking to my brother Ted. I can remember times where Ted saw things and didn’t wait for me to talk to him and would share wisdom with me. So, I think it’s incredibly important to find those mature people. If there are pastors listening, find those mature people—couples in your congregation—mobilize them for ministry to younger married couples. There’s no way that a staff of a church, no matter how small or large that church is, is going to be able to deal with all the marriage needs in a given week of the life of that church. Find those mature couples who have lived together for a long time, who have learned how to apply the gospel of God’s grace to their marriage, mobilize them to help younger couples. Why wait for the trouble to happen? Do that as a preventative. Teach couples early to make good choices so that they don’t get to that point where they’re in such despair they don’t know what to do.

29:31 - The Biggest Problem in Your Marriage

Matt Tully
If you could go back in time fifty years to the day before your wedding to your wife Luella and tell yourself something, what would you want to say?

Paul David Tripp
Paul, your biggest problem will never be Luella; it will be you. If you accept how much you have the potential to mess up marriage because of your sin, because of your selfishness, because of your idolatry, then—I became a very angry man in our marriage. I was in the process of destroying my life, my ministry, and my marriage; and God rescued me. I wish what I now know, I had known. I wish somebody had been able to help me to understand that my biggest problem would be me. If I have a commitment to continue to work on me, to continue to be open to Luella’s view of me, to believe that God’s grace is sufficient—if you can do that, there’s hope for your marriage.


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