For many, marriage has lost its appeal. Over 72 percent of American adults were married in 1960, but only 52 percent were in 2008 which is where it has hovered ever since. A piece in Time Magazine was headlined, ‘Why 25% of millennials will never get married’, and, according to a Pew report, half of American adults believe society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage More than half of Americans say marriage is important but not essential to leading a fulfilling life. As comedian Chris Rock has said, “Those are the choices you've got in life, man. You can be married and bored, or single and lonely. Ain't no happiness nowhere.” In some ways, this is understandable. Marriage isn’t easy.
My wife Pip and I are approaching our 11th wedding anniversary. I remember seeing my stunning bride walk down the aisle, surrounded by our closest friends and family. On that day, it wasn’t hard to say, “I love you”.
However, over the years, there have been times when our love for one another was tested. Life has a way of surprising you with unexpected financial costs or difficult family dynamics. Pip and I struggled with unknown infertility for six years. And now that we have three children, there are all the usual stressors of the family/work balance and the tiredness and late nights that accompany newborns. When we made a promise before God to live with one another till death do us part, all our annoying habits, all our unreflected upon but hardwired family traits, all our sins were gradually revealed.
In The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller describes marriage as a heavy truck driving over a bridge with hairline fractures that are invisible to the naked eye—it exposes the defects for all to see. Marriage doesn’t create the weaknesses, but it reveals them:1
You may be a fearful person, with a tendency toward great anxiety... You may be an undisciplined person, with a tendency to be unreliable and disorganized... You may be a perfectionist, with a tendency to be judgmental and critical of others and also to get down on yourself… You may be a person who wants far too much to be liked, and so you tend to shade the truth, you can’t keep secrets, and you work too hard to please everyone.2
I remember ‘training’ myself for months before we got married to put the toilet seat down, thinking, “Here is one of my key flaws”. However, my greatest flaws weren’t related to my housekeeping habits but in my deeply rooted and often unexamined personality traits and sinful tendencies. In our marriage, I have found my temptation is to care more about my desire to feel respected than about being kind and patient. My tendency, during a disagreement, is to hear the tone of what Pip is saying and become defensive, rather than hearing what her heart is trying to communicate. The result is that I often fail to love Pip in an understanding way (1 Pet 3:7).
One sinner plus one sinner doesn’t equal zero conflict. You cannot avoid it because marriage is an unconditional covenant and commitment to an imperfect and sinful person. What is it that keeps us loving each other?
At the end of the day, it’s not about fixing the other person’s annoying habits; these are merely symptoms. The heart of the human problem is, as many have put it, the problem of the human heart. We are all born with a me-first attitude. We love ourselves more than we love God or others. You can see this even in your ‘acts of service’. Think about it: when was the last time you did something for someone else for personal gain, or because you wanted to put them in your debt for later? Here lies the problem in all marriages.
Turning from a ‘me first’ attitude begins with addressing our selfish tendency to put our own needs above those of our spouse. If we are to experience any change in our hearts, God, by his Spirit, must grant us a desire to let Christ shape our marriage through his Word.
How do we start towards a solution? Our predominant thoughts determine our present action, therefore “God’s Word must be so strongly fixed in our minds that it becomes the dominant influence in our thoughts, our attitudes, and our actions”.3 When I look back, I see how important the basic gospel foundations of our marriage have been in enabling us to, by God’s grace, keep the vows we made ten years ago. Below are five suggestions that I have found helpful in trying to make God’s word the dominant influence in my marriage. These are ultimately habits that can be integrated into our daily communion with Christ through his Word and prayer. I have found that if you focus on these truths at the moment a conflict arises, when you have begun to be triggered into a defensive response, they can help give you perspective that enables you to focus on instead loving your spouse in that moment. These suggestions are really just applications to help you experience the promise of Isaiah 26:3: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you”.
One of the great weaknesses I have brought into my marriage is how quick I am to defend myself and to assert my own interests. God has a very simple and practical answer to this kind of attitude in a marriage. James 1:19 says “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”, and Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent”. If words are like wood, the less we add to the fire, the less fuel it has to burn and it soon, often quickly, all but dies out.
A principle I have found particularly helpful in restraining unhelpful words is to learn from David’s prayers in the Psalms and to take my complaints to God. Apart from Jesus, there is no better model than David in how to handle hardships and complaints. Rather than take his complaint to the person directly, he directs his complaints to God first and waits upon God in faith to: bring justice; give perspective; and remind and reassure him of his goodness and care. Sometimes God begins to grant these very things within the prayer itself.
An example of this is Psalm 142, which David wrote in the cave of Adullam (1 Sam 22), whilst fleeing from the jealous rage of Saul. David begins by saying “I pour out my complaint before him”. He tells God how he feels: “no-one cares for my soul”. He knows he can’t fix the problem in his own strength: “Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!” He turns away from his own selfish concerns towards the glory and praise of God—“Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name!” And he ends the Psalm reassured and reminded that God is gracious (“you will deal bountifully with me”). Such psalms have encouraged me to refrain from expressing myself unhelpfully in the moment, to turn from trying to fix the problem myself and to entrust my marriage to God, learning from Christ why Paul’s instructions to ‘pray without ceasing’(1 Thess 5:17) are so important for a marriage.
I find the longer I try to hold back my words, the better. When I find myself angry about something, rather than airing my grievance immediately, I wait at about five minutes before talking . This gives me time to pray before speaking! Then, if it’s possible, I wait till we go on a walk and there aren’t too many other stressors before raising complaints. Writing it down in a message can also help you take some of the heat out of what you want to communicate, so it’s received more readily. Though I don’t always model this well, I tried to apply this recently, and held back from defending myself or asserting my own side of the argument. And later that evening Pip thanked me for not responding, saying it gave her space and time to reflect on how she could have related better in that situation.
Having brought our complaint to God, we have an opportunity to change our perspective on the situation by recalling Christ’s meekness and humility. Following the example of Christ who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), Philippians 2:3-4 says we are to:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
In The Saints’ Happiness, Jeremiah Burroughs speaks at length about the virtue of meekness when modelled upon Christ’s meekness and humility. A lowliness of self-assessment enables us to consider our own contribution, our own frailty; to apologize and to seek what is in the best interest of our spouse. Burroughs says:
A wife asked her husband how he was able to overcome himself when he had such wrongs and injuries offered him. “Why, truly, I go and meditate on the wrongs Jesus Christ had, and how he was a lamb, and I never leave meditating until I get my spirit quiet.” … In a rage, set the meek lamb before you! He did not revile when reviled, and when he suffered, he did not threaten. He entrusted himself to the Father who judges justly (1 Pet 2:23).4
You will surely meet with provocation from others, but in a little while, they will meet with things amiss in you. They offend you, but you offend them too! We seek pardon, and we give it... Do others cross you? Be meek towards them as you would like them to be to you. When we are weak, we can bear the weakness of others.5
God’s love for us helps us to say “I forgive you”. 1 John 4:10 says “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins”. Normally, if there is a damaged relationship between two people, it would be the guilty party that initiates reconciliation by acknowledging their wrong and asking for forgiveness. But, in the most amazing demonstration of love, God takes the initiative to reconcile our relationship with him. This is me-last love.
In our hurt, we can lose sight of the truth that no-one has been sinned against more than God. The two hardest things in a marriage to say are “I was wrong; I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”. And yet, no-one has been more wounded, grieved, betrayed and mistreated than God. Yet, those that trust in Jesus, God willingly forgives. When we realize how bad our sin that was forgiven by God is, it is impossible for someone to insult or offend us. We can honestly say that whatever our spouse may point out about us, the truth is probably worse! Mediating on this teaches us to forgive any complaint we might have (Col 3:13).
And as you look to God’s love for you in Jesus each day, with the help of the Holy Spirit you can grow to be a good forgiver. Amber Guyger, a white former police officer, murdered Botham Jean, a black man, in his home. The dead man’s brother, Brandt, was given an opportunity to testify against Amber, who was clearly guilty. But instead he gave a statement saying, “I forgive you… I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you.” He then encouraged her to look to Christ and asked the judge if he could approach Amber and give her a hug. When asked on CNN what allowed him and his son to be so forgiving, Botham’s father Bertrum Jean said: “That’s what Christ would want us to do… So I wish her well and I will pray for her family and pray for her as well.” This amazing picture of God’s forgiveness of us in Jesus is what a Christian marriage is meant to look like.
Everyone who has trusted in Christ has already been wedded to the perfect spouse. Martin Luther described salvation as a marriage:
Faith unites the soul with Christ in the same way that a bride is united with a bridegroom. As a result they come to hold all things in common, the good as well as the bad… Our sins, death and damnation now belong to Christ, while his grace, life and salvation are now ours. For if Christ is a husband, he must take on himself the things which belong to his bride and he must give to her the things that are his. Not only that, he also gives us himself.6
Jesus is the person we have been longing for, and he is already ours. No-one else can satisfy us, so we must look to him instead of making an idol out of our spouse. As Puritan George Swinnock once wrote:
If [Christ] were your portion, you would find in him whatsoever your heart could desire, and tend to your happiness. Are you ambitious? He is a crown of glory. Are you covetous? He is unsearchable riches and righteousness. Do you desire pleasure? He is rivers of pleasures and fullness of joy. Are you hungry? He is a feast of wine on the lees and the fat things full of marrow. Are you weary? He is rest, a shadow from the heat, and a shelter from the storm. Are you weak? He is everlasting strength. Are you doubting? He is marvellous in counsel. Are you in darkness? He is the Sun of righteousness. Are you sick? He is the God of your health. Are you sorrowful? He is the God of all consolations. Whatever your calamity, he can remove it. Whatever your necessity, he can relieve it. He is silver, gold, honour, delight, food, raiment, house, land, peace, wisdom, power, beauty, father, mother, wife, husband, mercy, love, grace, glory, and infinitely more than all these. There are all sorts of delights in him. He is the tree of life bearing all manner of fruits, and a variety of all comforts. See God, and you see all. Enjoy God, and enjoy all.7
When Michelangelo was asked how he carved his magnificent David, he is reputed to have said “I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David”. Jesus is like Michelangelo, a master sculptor. Ephesians 5:25-27 explains that Jesus gave himself for his bride the church, removing our sinful selfishness, and our guilt, that he might fashion and prepare us until our character is as radiant as a beautifully white wedding dress, finally free of our sin. A husband is to aim for the same sense of sacrifice for his wife’s holiness and to celebrate the moments when our spouse displays Christ’s love being formed in them.
Timothy Keller paints an apt picture of the great horizon marriage points us to:
Have you ever travelled to a mountainous part of the world when it was cloudy and rainy? You look out your windows and you can see almost nothing but the ground. Then, the rain stop’s and the clouds part and you catch your breath because there, towering right over you, is this magnificent peak. But a couple of hours later the clouds roll in and it has vanished, and you don’t see it again for a good while.8
Every time you look at Christ in the Scriptures you get a glimpse of the radiance and beauty that is, with your help and prayer, being formed in your spouse. And when we love our spouse as Christ loved us, we give others a glimpse of God’s mountainous love for us in Jesus and give them a compelling visual argument to consider Jesus’ love for them! It’s worth the difficult journey for those vistas.
I want to finish with how beautiful a me-last marriage, modelled upon Christ’s servant-hearted humility, looks like. Robertson McQuilkin was married to Muriel for 55 years. They raised six children and served for 12 years as missionaries in Japan. However, Muriel developed Alzheimer’s disease and was terrified to be without Robertson. So, in 1990 Robertson stepped down from being president of Columbia Bible College to care full-time for his wife. This is his resignation speech:
Muriel now, in the last couple of months, seems to be almost happy when with me, and almost never happy when not with me. In fact, she seems to feel trapped, becomes very fearful, sometimes almost terror, and when she can’t get to me there can be anger… she’s in distress. But when I’m with her she’s happy and contented, and so I must be with her at all times… It’s not only that I promised in sickness and in health, ‘till death do us part, and I’m a man of my word. But as I have said… it’s the only fair thing. She sacrificed for me for forty years, to make my life possible, so if I cared for her for forty years I’d still be in debt. However, there’s much more. It’s not that I have to. It’s that I get to. I love her very dearly, and you can tell it’s not easy to talk about. She’s a delight. And it’s a great honour to care for such a wonderful person.
Some of his friends advised him to put her into an institution, but instead he chose to sacrifice his status to care for his bride. I imagine many of those millennials who didn’t value marriage in the Pew report haven’t witnessed a marriage like this. I believe such a marriage will attract many to see not simply the goodness of the marriage God purposed for us, but the bridegroom who gave up his very life to bring us home. If all of our lives are intended to be lived like a city on a hill (Matt 5:14-16), then let’s prayerfully seek God’s help that he might grant us a marriage that not only lasts the distance but displays Christ’s love more and more over the years.
1. Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, Hodder & Stoughton, 2013, p. 139.↩
2. Ibid., p. 138.↩
3. Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, NavPress, 1996, p. 86.↩
4. Jeremiah Burroughs, The Saints’ Happiness, Soli Deo Gloria, 1996, pp. 85-87.↩
5. Ibid., pp. 84-85.↩
6. Martin Luther, ‘The Freedom of a Christian, 1520’, The Annotated Luther: The Roots of Reform, Fortress Press, 2015, pp. 499-500.↩
7. George Swinnock, The Works of George Swinnock, Volume 4, Banner of Truth, 1992, pp. 40-41.↩
8. Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, p. 121.↩