Reading Time: 10 minutes

Hi and welcome back! We return now to Gary Smalley’s terrible Christian marriage-advice book If Only He KnewThis time, we examine advice that appears in every single such book: that to maintain a happy, harmonious marriage, spouses should prioritize their god over their partners. This book continues that tradition. But is this advice really useful? And how can Christians actually put it into practice? Today, we ask questions about one of the mainstays of Christian marriage advice.

(frank mckenna.)

Winning First Second Place.

By the beginning of the third chapter, author Gary Smalley has firmly established this book as a solidly Christian one. We’ve seen tons of Bible verses about how “a husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church” (p. 46). He’s outlined the different kinds of love that Christians conceptualize, making sure to demonize passion with the story of the rape of Tamar (p. 35). He even begins each chapter with a Bible verse relating to love somehow.

I mention these Christian flourishes because I noticed a lot of Amazon reviewers of the book got taken by surprise upon learning that it was, in fact, not only very Christian but completely and rigidly complementarian as well. Well, if those readers haven’t figured things out by page 47, which is where Chapter Three begins in my copy, they definitely will now.

This chapter centers around the vital importance of prioritizing one’s spouse ahead of every other activity and interest in life–except for one’s god.

I phrase it this way very specifically and purposefully. I don’t mean except for one’s faith in that god. Nor do I mean except for one’s devotions to that god. Both actually work far better in practical experience.

But Smalley fully means here that Christian married men must never allow their love for their wives to eclipse the love they think they feel for their imaginary friend in the sky.

The Prioritization Two-Step.

This entire chapter is a marvel of Christian compartmentalization. Smalley spends the entirety of it teaching Christian men how to be loving and compassionate spouses who show their wives selfless and constant love. But then he pulls back to reveal that really, men can’t allow their wives to assume utmost importance in their lives:

For a marriage to flourish, a wife desperately needs to know she has a very special place in her husband’s heart. In fact, her husband’s relationship with God should be the only priority above his relationship with her. [p. 48]

In this chapter, Smalley illustrates his ideas with vignettes from his own marriage to his wife Norma. Apparently, he didn’t originally think of her as terribly important. To be sure, he sure didn’t show her that she was! Then he had a turnaround in his thinking–almost:

The most important way I’ve ever expressed my love to Norma was when I finally attached a high value to her, when I decided that next to my relationship with God and his Word, she is worth more to me than anything on this earth–and she knows it. [p. 51]

The whole thing runs like that. At one point, he writes,

Putting your wife in the number one slot just below God doesn’t shackle you to the house; instead, it frees you of the dread of going home. [p. 56]

He settles into qualifying Norma’s priority in his life, such as here, toward the end of the chapter:

Today I wouldn’t trade my deep friendship with Norma for anything on this earth. [p. 62]

It’s like he has no idea what he’s advising Christian men to do. But he does, as we’ll see shortly. This two-step he performs ain’t any kind of accident.

Not Just a Coy Tee-Hee.

At first, I thought these marriage-advisers were paying lip service to these beliefs. We see the same sort of thing in church-growth advice; at some point someone’s got to coyly add, “And we need to make sure we pray!” and everybody nods sagely–can’t forget that step, nope, it’s of such vital importance and all! Usually, prayer takes the #1 position in listicles on the topic, but sometimes their creators shake things up and give prayer the last-and-most-important position.

Similarly, every column, post, and book on marital advice that I’ve ever seen out of Christians insists that Christians must prioritize their god over and above their spouses and families.

In fact, most Christian advisers on any subject at all insist that solving any problem at all becomes easy when Christians prioritize their god first. Racism happens only because people don’t Jesus hard enough. So does every other social ill. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never commit crimes of any kind, nor seek divorces. Literally, the only reason any of that stuff ever happens is because Christians abandon their first love.

And If Only He Knew deviates not at all from that standard. Usually, I’d categorize this weird head-nod toward Jesus as a coy affectation.

But this time, I figured out the code.

The Reality.

Number One Except For God still means Number Two. Just because it’s a permissible and advised devaluation, it’s still Number Two. Just because it’s a Number Two that wives in this culture must accept on pain of eternal torture, it’s still a loss to whatever takes Number One.

And sometimes, that’s just a reality of life. When Arnold Schwarzenegger stood at his peak, everyone competing against him in Mr. Universe contests probably knew that they really competed to figure out who’d take second place that day.

We also expect that at times in a person’s life, one relationship will take precedence over another–and think poorly of someone demanding that this precedence be put on hold. For example, toward the end of the 2007 movie Waitress, we see the husband character express how threatened he feels about his wife’s sudden rush of obvious love and devotion toward their newborn baby. He leans in and tells her,

Hey. Do you remember what I said? Don’t you go loving that baby too much.

It’s a cruel demand and an impossible one for most women in this situation. He means, Don’t you dare allow your love for this baby to eclipse your love for me. And his wife knows exactly what he’s demanding of her. Her anger at his unreasonable demand–only the latest in a very long line of similar demands–gives her the emotional strength to finally kick him to the curb.

But that’s not what Gary Smalley’s talking about. He demands that Christians put their love for their imaginary friend over their love for this breathing, living person.

Yes Yes, But What Does It Mean?

In practical lived experience, what does Smalley’s insistence mean? How does it look when lived out in real life?

The Christian god, after all, does not show himself in any discernible way. He provides no tangible evidence of his existence. At best, Christians experience this god as what they call a still small voice or as a rush of euphoria. Or they seek for signs and portents, coded messages indicating his existence and pleasure or displeasure. As relationships go, this one surely functions as the most one-sided one in the history of the world. It entirely rests on the frenetic activity of Christians themselves, who elevate any weird little tinge or twitch or odd occurrence into a full-blown embrace from the divine.

And yet people do manage to work themselves into such a frenzy over these imaginary relationships that they eclipse real ones. Anyone who’s ever loved an addict–be it to substances or games or whatever else–knows how that addiction quickly eclipses all the real-life flesh-and-blood relationships the addict has. People “marry” buildings, sex up their cars, and get into deep imaginary relationships with otome games’ heroes. Why not imagine a deep, satisfying emotional relationship with an imagined divine being? Y’all, I’ve seen weirder stuff than that this week.

That said, I can suss out a little of what Smalley might mean in practical terms.

It isn’t pretty, though.

How This Prioritization Might Work.

A long time ago, I suggested that when Christian leaders talk like this, they might really mean the Christian’s devotional routines. These routines include prayer, Bible study, church attendance, tithing, and all those other shows of engagement that Christians perform in the practice of their religion.

Such displays, far more than ephemeral feelings of piety, define Christians’ faith. Even if a Christian ain’t feeling it, so to speak, their Dear Leaders insist that they should continue to perform these devotions. Hopefully, their god will reward their devotion with a newfound spark of faith. But even if he doesn’t, that’s no valid reason in their opinions to stop chasing that dragon.

In this context, no matter what a person’s spouse does or says, the Christian must still maintain those devotions. For example, if the spouse demands that the Christian stop praying (for whatever reason) or skip church, the Christian should continue to do those things. Even complementarians grant permission for a Christian woman to defy those demands from her husband.

Smalley himself, in this very chapter, provides a number of examples of men (including himself) giving up other interests and work-related duties to give their wives more attention. But he does not once, not ever, show a single man cutting back on his personal religious devotions to do that. At most, he suggests that men keep an eye on how much volunteer time they spend at their churches. However, since most Christians don’t consider such volunteering to be an essential religious devotion I’m not counting it.

I’ve refined this viewpoint a bit since then.

How It Probably Actually Does Work.

Over the religion’s 2000-ish year history, Christian leaders have created a screw all y’all, I’ma get mine mentality in the flocks. I think that’s where Gary Smalley’s mind has gone when he makes all these suggestions in this chapter.

In 2004, Mel Gibson famously declared that his wife was probably going to Hell because she believed in the wrong flavor of Christianity. In an interview, he said,

“Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She’s a much better person than I am. Honestly. She’s, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s just not fair if she doesn’t make it, she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”

Mel was absolutely fine with the idea of his wife being tortured forever and ever, ever and ever, for always and ever, without mercy or reprieve or escape, by his “loving” god for her finite lifetime’s worth of thoughtcrime.

Ultimately, in this worldview, Christians must feel so enamored of the idea of their god and so intensely focused on their devotions that they stop caring if their loved ones run afoul of that god’s capricious rules. That’s on them. Christians still must ensure that they, themselves, escape that wrath and make it to Heaven.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Don’t let anybody, not even hypocrites, steal your joy or rob you of your salvation. Your god won’t take excuses like that. Nothing must lessen your fervor, not even the disbelief of your closest loved ones. You can’t save anyone from Hell–or drag anyone to Heaven. Look out for #1.

I heard all of these when I was a fundagelical Christian.

And that’s what I think Gary Smalley means here: being okay with this god hurting someone you love very deeply, as long as you’re not getting hurt too.

To the Moon and Back.

So if a Christian husband reading this book starts caring too much about the Problem of Hell and starts feeling very angry about any ideology that would plunge his good and loving wife into an eternity of torture, Christian leaders step in.

Indeed, they really must.

Someone who loves another person so much that they defy Hell itself? Who dares imagine plunging into its very teeth to rescue those they love? Someone who refuses to bend knee to the tyrant who would dare condemn them, who would fight to the very annihilation any cruel despot would harm a single hair on their heads for any reason at all?

Such a love threatens everything that Christians treasure.

YouTube video

This movie probably solidified my entire problem with the idea of Hell.

That kind of love makes people do the bravest and most astonishing things. Yes, it even drives them to imagine the impossible, even to the point of defying the most powerful evil forces imperiling those they love.

Poets and artists wear their fingers to the bone trying to capture that sort of love. Sometimes, they even succeed a little.

And it is anathema to Christianity’s leaders.

Christian leaders ache for the power to destroy this love. Since they can’t, they instead try to prevent Christians from developing the capacity to love like that.

Save Yourself.

It is no accident that the dystopian novel 1984 had its villains destroy the deep love that the hero had somehow illegally developed for another person. When Winston faces his greatest fear, his self-preservation kicks in–and eclipses, then wilts, that love:

But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment—one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over:

“Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!”

You see, tyrants know well how to conquer love. They have always known how that works. Fear induces self-motivated thinking that can overshadow love.

I wish, yes, with all my aching heart I wish, that my terror of going to Hell had not eclipsed my love for my mother. My fear conquered even my love for her. I agonized over her eternal fate, but I did not defy the god who I thought would harm her. I did not question this arrangement.

That is the power of fear. It tramples love. They can’t coexist.

And that is the fear that Gary Smalley alludes to in his book. In effect, he tells his readers,

Save yourself. Forget about her. Her fate doesn’t matter nearly as much as yours does. You can’t fight our god. It says so right here in this book about him. So you might as well make sure you save yourself even if she goes to Hell forever.

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear.

Back when I was Christian, on the few occasions I dared to voice my anguish over my mother’s fate, my Christian leaders had party-line hand-waving already prepared for me. More honest Christians said they really didn’t know how it’d work, but they had faith that Jesus would “make it right,” as they put it. Less honest ones made guesses that only made my existential horror worse:

Some told me that I would simply forget about my mother.

Others said I would not feel sorrow for her eternal fate.

Nowadays, some Christians even think that they will enjoy knowing that the damned are getting tortured while they themselves party down in the Jesus banquet. Indeed, that’s an old assertion enjoying new currency.

Nobody ever once told me I’d remember her and also continue to feel anguished in Heaven about her suffering.

Now I know that my mother would have defied even her god for her kids. But her love went further than that.

When Heaven Isn’t Heavenly.

Luckily, she didn’t believe in a torturous Hell at all, and certainly didn’t think that a good god would ever send anybody good-hearted to any kind of unpleasant afterlife. Her god was a good one. But had she believed in fundagelicals’ flavor of god and in their grotesque vision of Hell, she would have already had in mind courses of action after death to save her kids from it. She would have spat in the face of a god who demanded she do anything less.

Heaven without us would have been Hell to her–not even worth the having. Forgetting us would be Hell to her, too. So would losing the ability to care if we were hurting somewhere away from her.

THAT is love.

And I didn’t understand that kind of love till after my deconversion. Now I marvel anew at my mother’s great wisdom.

VERY Christian Virtues.

So yes. Gary Smalley, being a Christian leader, perpetuates this love-destroying advice in his book. He doesn’t expect his complementarian Christian readers to notice; he knows they’ll be well-accustomed to seeing guff like that.

But we notice. Oh yes, we notice.

If anybody ends up deconverting over something like the Problem of Hell, of course, it’s easy enough to blame that person for having Jesus-ed all wrong. See, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would never allow even love to get in the way of gettin’ theirs.

More and more, I think that a complete lack of compassion might well be the most treasured of all Christian virtues. 

NEXT UP: A fictional character’s sudden intense need for information highlights a serious problem in Christianity. See you next time!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...