Marriage expert and best-selling author Gary Thomas remembers a time more than 30 years ago when a man spoke "hard truth" into his life.
"'Gary, I'm praying that God will make you and your girlfriend miserable,'" Thomas recalled, "because it wasn't a wise relationship. And I hated him for saying it. He said 'Gary, there's something better in store; don't settle for this.' And [my girlfriend and I] broke up, and it's good that we broke up. And today I love that man for speaking the hard truth."
Hard truth approached through love is what he recommends to parents and ministers addressing such cultural challenges as homosexuality and premarital sex.
"It's not that the Bible's truth is unclear, it's that it's painful, and we like to avoid painful truths," Thomas said. "I believe God wants our best; He wants us to thrive and flourish, and we don't help people by lying to them about how God created the world and how He designed marriage.
"I think it's really hard for 20-somethings and teens to go against the force of culture that ascribes [teaching against homosexual behavior] to hate of others rather than love for God's truth," Thomas said. "God's way is always the best way. And I think we have to be willing to speak the truth."
Thomas, teaching pastor and writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, spoke with Baptist Press during a speaking engagement near Nashville in advance of the January release of his latest marriage book "Cherish."
With such topics as gay marriage at the forefront in culture, Thomas, known for his 2000 best-seller "Sacred Marriage," finds it important to rely on Scripture when the topic arises -- but to also allow God to direct the focus of one's ministry.
"I think it's important to engage the fight when Scripture brings it up but, he noted, "The reality is we probably have far more people in our church that are having premarital, heterosexual sex than we have people who are engaging in homosexual acts.
"I don't want to let the world set the agenda for what needs to be proclaimed. As it comes up in Scripture, we need to preach God's truth without shame, believing that every command of God is birthed in love with a motivation of love, to call us to a life of love," he said. "And so we can speak those words of love with love; but on the other hand, I'm not going to let the world's insistence that we need to talk about [homosexuality] set the agenda for what the church really does need to talk about. I trust Paul and James and Peter and Jesus to set the agenda more than I trust lobby groups and interest groups and social groups based in New York and L.A."
The topic of premarital, heterosexual sex is relevant to Thomas' upcoming book, which takes the focus of marriage beyond loving to cherishing. While "Sacred Marriage" dealt with the difficulties of the union, Thomas' upcoming book addresses what Thomas calls the "sweet spot" of marriage.
"Once you've accepted that God can do good things with the difficulty of marriage, how do you begin to build a marriage where you truly cherish each other?" Thomas asked. "It dawned on me; virtually every marriage book explores love. None that I could find was exploring what it means to cherish."
As love is the muscle of marriage, Thomas sees cherishing as the poetry of marriage. "You need the stamina and the love," he said, using the art of ballet as an analogy, "but you are also looking for the grace and the beauty and the poetry, and that's cherish." Every woman wants to be cherished and to be seen as Adam's Eve, the only woman in her husband's world. Thomas believes abstaining from premarital sex makes it much easier to cherish one's wife.
"A cherishing marriage is based on that Adam and Eve, the only man, the only woman in the world. And it is much easier to build that attitude when you have sexual experience focused on one person," Thomas said. "God's not malicious. There are reasons behind His commands, and if we break those commands, there are consequences. It boggles my mind that we think we know better than God."
The best of marriages can be difficult, said Thomas, who believes his marriage ministry has resonated with readers long-term because he has been willing to admit the difficulty of the union. The greatest challenges in marriage are the same as they've always been, he said.
"Largely selfishness and pride. Both of those will assault the notion of infatuation, and no infatuation of course stands the spiritual assault of selfishness and pride," Thomas said. "God didn't create us to have happy lives if we're selfish. He created us to be involved in a purpose larger than ourselves, and if we're not doing that then I think we're going to undercut our marriages and suffocate it by asking too much of it."
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP (bpnews.net) reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.