*For this week’s post I must begin by giving my thanks to those who have helped me understand marriage along the way. Especially my parents, who have modeled great marriage for me and others for 49 years, and my friends Jerry and Dave who have vulnerably shared their triumphs and failures in their marriages with me. I am no doubt a product of those and many others—great teachers all.
Marriage Isn’t The Problem
My friends will be disappointed in me, but I’m just going to say it anyway, I love a good love story. I know…it’s hard to even look me in the eye right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love Braveheart– I’d almost wear a kilt for William Wallace; and I’ve seen Saving Private Ryan at least a hundred times—I can quote all the good lines; and nothing can compete with Band of Brothers (maybe that is a love story of sorts?), but I just have a soft spot for a good love-story. I loved When Harry Met Sally, Message In A Bottle, and my favorite movie of all time might beYou’ve Got Mail. I feel the shame of your stares, but hear me out. Deep down inside I think even the toughest men and women want to be loved, and these stories give us hope.
I am not a marriage counselor by trade, but I read a lot, and as a pastor I have counseled many couples: some pre-, some post- and some in the midst of trying to figure it all out. I have been married for almost 15 years and through it all I have learned a few things. One thing I have learned is that ultimately humanity believes in love. Somehow, despite all the negative press, the divorce rate, past experiences with break-ups, and hurts, most people are still willing to take a crack at love. But why? Are we all daft? Slow learners? I don’t think so.
First, I have learned that there are no “marriage problems.” Marriage itself was designed by God and instituted in the Garden before the whole human experiment went south and sin entered the world. God himself said that it wasn’t good for a man to be alone. In Genesis 2:18 God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” After creating Eve, God ordained the first marriage union, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).
God created marriage and He did it so that you and I would have a picture of the union He longed to have with His creation. Jesus repeatedly refers to the gathered body of believers, often referred to in Greek as ecclesia and in English, the church, as His bride. The Bible begins with a marriage and ends with a wedding feast, when Jesus will return for His bride and take her away to be with Him forever. Jesus did His first miracle at a wedding, and He constantly told stories about the bride and the bridegroom, even referring to Himself as such. Marriage was created and ordained by God, it is a picture of the lifelong covenant that God intends to have with His people, “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, so long as we both shall live.” Marriage is a picture of our connection to God and it’s why God is so grieved when marriages fail. The Apostle Paul wrote to his friends in Ephesus reminding them that marriage was God’s picture for His relationship with humanity, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32).
Marriage is not broken or flawed, we are. And I can prove it. If marriage were the issue, why would any of us marry? Despite a national divorce rate just under 50%, despite being traumatically impacted by parents and loved ones whose marriages failed, and for some of us, despite having failed at our own previous attempts at marriage…why would we still give it a go? Because, marriage is a God‑ordained relationship, and we know it’s not broken…we are.
There are no marriage problems; there are YOU problems and ME problems, and when we come together they become USproblems, but the problem is with you and me, not with the entity of marriage. Sometimes it’s something one of us does in a marriage; sometimes it’s the way the other person chooses to react to what’s been done. But it’s not marriage itself that is to blame. Here’s the big truth with you problems and me problems: even if we leave this marriage or relationship, we are going to take ourselves with us into the next relationship, and our problems will come with us. We are the issue, and we keep dragging ourselves along.
It’s never completely one sided. Maybe your spouse has done some awful things. And believe me, I’ve heard of some truly atrocious spousal behavior, but we still choose how we will react. Whether we will offer grace and genuine forgiveness, or hold a grudge. We choose whether we will lash out and retaliate, or even just quit entirely. While blame is rarely 50:50, you and I each play a part in our marriage issues and if we don’t get help for our part, we will play that same part in our next relationship. Because let’s be honest—while you may be really hurt, and you may take a break from love, you will return to the field and try again eventually, because you and I are hard wired for love and relationship. After all, we were made in His image—and He is love and He is in relationship.
I love to counsel couples, but I rarely offer any genuinely new insight. There are hundreds, if not thousands of books by vastly more qualified people than I, and my help only builds on the shoulders of those who know more and have gone before. But when I do meet with couples, I always implore them to seek individual help in addition to any couples counseling they receive because of this simple truth: I can’t change you, and you can’t change him or her. And while I can pass on some sage advice gleaned from years of doing this, if you don’t work on your issues, and if you don’t change how you respond to your spouse’s issues, and vise-versa, we won’t ever fix the real problem. Like cancer or gangrene, if the root cause remains untreated, it will eventually spread and consume the organism, leading to death.
When I do speak with couples I usually start with a series of questions. I ask women, “Would you like your husband to take the lead in spiritual matters in your house? Would you like him to be the spiritual leader and lead by example?” I have NEVER had any women say no to this! None. Ever. I then ask, “Would you be willing to submit to the leading of a man who loved you like Christ loved the church? One who loved you with a sacrificial love that sought to defend you honor, protect you, build you up, lead you, and would ultimately gladly give his life for yours?” Often through tears, they all say, “Yes, of course.”
I then turn to the men and ask, “Would you like your wife to respect you?” Usually they look at their wife, unsure if they should answer honestly and risk getting “the look” or facing the wrath they think may come. I then continue, “Would you be willing to lead if your wife was willing to follow your leading with respect and encouragement?” Almost all say yes.
It’s a simple way of introducing some of the Bible’s best marriage advice. It’s found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 5 Paul writes,
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” (Ephesians 5:22-33)
We are constantly inundated with a cultural message of what constitutes an ideal man and a perfect woman. These messages are based on societal ideals and cultural norms and often at odds with what the Creator says are the ideal characteristics of a ‘real’ man and a ‘strong’ woman. The cultural lie is that a ‘real’ man is passive and demure, ok with letting his wife lead, because after all, if he is to be a strong man he shouldn’t be threatened by her assertiveness. To be a ‘strong’ woman, our culture says that one must be assertive, uncompromising, and take care of herself. We have been fed a lie that to be equal means to be exactly the same—interchangeable.
Nothing could be farther from the biblical truth! God created men and women in His image and gave them different roles and purposes. They are of equal and infinite worth, because God created both of them in His image, but they were not designed for the same role. They are a team, and as any soldier knows, everyone on the team cannot have the same role. We are all vital to the team’s effort, but we have different responsibilities and tasks. To see this, one need look no further than the incident in Eden found in Genesis 3.
After Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil, God came down to the garden, and He found them hiding (v 8). They had sinned and they now felt naked (v 7). God speaks to Adam and Eve and makes an interesting distinction. You see in the story, Eve eats first and gives the fruit to Adam to taste (v 6). But God accounts the sin of eating the fruit to Adam (v 17). While Eve is also punished, God accounts the actual sin to Adam. Why? Because Adam was tasked with leading his family and he abdicated that authority to Eve by allowing her to lead him into sinning. Eve was his helper, equal in every way, but with a different task. Adam was to lead and care for his wife. When we get our roles out of order, bad things can happen. Referring to this incident, a professor once told me that, “Man has been choosing women over God ever since the beginning!”
A famous pastor once put it this way, “Too many men won’t lead, and too many women won’t let them.” As soldiers, parents, employees, and citizens we understand the value of good leadership. But good leadership is only possible with good followers. Following does not mean being walked on, it does not mean always coming second, and it surely should never mean putting oneself in emotional, spiritual, or physical harm. Following means helping, encouraging, and teamwork. Leading means envisioning a path forward and casting a compelling vision of the future together to your team. Leading is about empowering and supporting those you lead so they can be their best selves and accomplish their highest ideals.
When we inhabit our God-designed roles, in the way God intended, with God at the center, everything works better. We are human and we are bound to have bad days and find areas of contention, but there are some fundamental things we can do to create a great foundation for a wonderful marriage that reflects the One who created it.
Work on yourself. Whether it’s in this relationship or the next—you’re going to be there. Pray for your spouse. Find out what the Bible says about your role as a man or woman in the picture of biblical marriage and strive for that. Seek God and let Him lead your heart in truth to find out who you are, who you were created to be, and why He wants you as His bride. Your earthly marriage is a picture of your heavenly connection to God, dig into His word and find out what that means.
*The only practical, hands-on marriage advice I have is this: stay close to the Lord and let the Holy Spirit do what He does best—change hearts and minds. Don’t try to be the Holy Spirit for your partner. Despite your amazing talents, God doesn’t need your help. And you’ll likely screw it up. Your partner is God’s work and so are you! Focus on your walk, pray for your spouse and your marriage and let God work. Stay close to Him, only He can change hearts and minds and repair the broken. And if you don’t fix you, and this marriage ends, know that you will be taking you into the next relationship. You owe it to yourself and your spouse to be the best spiritual warrior you can be.