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Biff and Mable are in love. When they came to their first premarital counseling session, I asked them why they wanted to get married. Mable explained how Biff finished her thoughts. I privately wondered how she would feel five years into the marriage after he stopped talking.
Then Mable said that he made her feel special. I wondered how she would feel after he became preoccupied with other things like his job. Mable added that he was handsome and how she could not believe someone as attractive as Biff wanted to marry her. I wondered how she would feel after old age crept up on both of them.
When it was Biff’s turn, he said that he liked the idea of companionship because he did not enjoy being alone. I wondered how he would feel after she started nagging him about his habits. He said, somewhat sheepishly, that he could not wait to have sex. Both of them had kept themselves pure, waiting for their special day. I wondered how he would feel after the babies came and Mable would be too tired and overwhelmed for romance.
Biff and Mable’s reasons for marriage were not bad ones. I am sure most of us had had similar thoughts when it was our time to tie the knot. They were serious about the Lord, and they desired to honor Him in everything. It was easy for me to relate to Biff’s desire for companionship. God said it was not good for the man to be alone, and I do not like loneliness either. God created us for community life (Genesis 2:18).
The Father, Son, and Spirit—the first community—made us in their image. It seems that common sense would motivate the Lord to create humans to be like them, so He gave Adam a woman. It was good for Biff to desire a wife for himself. I was also glad Biff was willing to state the obvious: he wanted to get married to be intimate with Mable. There is no reason for him to pretend his sexual drive was not real. It is a healthy desire for people who are called to marry. I respected his honesty.
And I liked Mable’s desire for a complementarian relationship: she wanted someone to complete her, to finish her sentences. The Lord made Eve to supplement her husband and vice-versa.
Though their desires for each other were not wrong, there were a few things about them that caused concern. While they had good reasons for marriage, their ideas were not the best. I hoped to help them see a few things:
Marriage is a permanent, lifetime, unbreakable relationship. The only thing that should break the marriage bond is death. That is why it is important for your primary reason for marriage to be the best one. Having a secondary purpose as the primary reason for marriage could be the death knell to the relationship. The strength of any marriage is tied directly to the reason for the marriage. If the reason goes away, you weaken the relationship.
That is why I privately wondered what would happen when Biff stops talking, does not make Mable feel special, or becomes less handsome. What if Mable begins to nag him or if she wants sex less? Their reasons for marriage must be stronger than the ones they gave. If not, they will be heading into rough waters without a sound understanding of marriage. They would become the majority report by joining that ever-growing number of unsatisfied married couples.
Strong, maturing, and joy-filled marriages are becoming rare in our Christian culture. No marriage is immune from trouble. In most of the marriage counseling that I have done, there were two common themes.
I rarely counsel couples between the five and fifteen-year mark. The reason most of my marriage counseling falls within those two groups is that the first five years are typically before the children come, or they are just on the cusp of parenting.
From the fifteen-year mark (and forward), the marriage embarks on the emptying nest period, when the children become more independent (self-reliant) as they prepare to move out of the home. If the young married couple does not access the help they need or make the appropriate adjustments to their marriage before the children come, two things will probably happen:
Dating to Divorce
They will become two dissatisfied, disgruntled, and disconnected people who decided to reorient their marriage around their preferred distractions. Though this would not give them a God-centered marriage, they could survive the relationship with their distractions—at least until the kids leave home. At that point, it leaves the couple with nothing to distract them from themselves.
It is not unusual to hear about a couple getting a divorce after twenty-five or thirty years of marriage. Some people are shocked by this news. I am not. They ignored their problems and each other for as long as they could. After two decades of muddling along, there were no more distractions to keep them together, and the things they never corrected in the early years came back in force during the later years. The disappointments that passed under the bridge seemed nonreconcilable. They decide to part ways.
It is imperative that every young couple knows how and determines to build their marriage on the right foundation. It is nonnegotiable for a relationship that not only wants to go the distance but go the distance with joy. Before I married Lucia, we began hammering out a marriage mission statement. We were aware of the statistics that pointed toward easy divorce. Nobody needs a good reason for divorce. If you do not like the person you married, all you need to do is play the irreconcilable differences card, and you can get a divorce without much effort.
We were also aware of the number of marriages around us that were not happy. I am not talking about non-Christian marriages but about the Christian ones. We knew many couples who were not exhibiting the love of Christ toward each other. We purposed not to get a divorce or resign ourselves to something less than God’s best. That meant we had to build our marriage on something better than what we liked about each other.
None of those things should receive top billing in any marriage. We needed a better idea. This need is why we began to think about the implications of the gospel as it related to our union. We started to view our future marriage through a gospel lens.
We went after the “why to marry” question by thinking about Christ—the gospel. Why did He come? Redemption. Christ came to redeem fallen man to Himself. We concluded there had to be a redemptive element to our marriage. In Ephesians 5:25–28, Paul gave all marriage partners a picture of the Lord’s work by appealing to us to model the gospel in our covenant union. Marriage should be a redemptive image.
“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” (Ephesians 5:25–28).
Lucia and I began to think about our marriage as a picture of the gospel. We concluded that we could best glorify God by marrying each other so we could project, amplify, or magnify the image of Christ and the church more clearly to ourselves and others. We were not thinking about getting married just to be married. Thus, we wrote the following marriage mission statement.
We want to become one flesh because it will allow us to reflect Christ more effectively than by being single. Therefore, we pray our marriage will:
- Manifest the relationship of Christ and His church to God.
- Manifest the relationship of Christ and His church to each other.
- Manifest the relationship of Christ and His church to our families and friends.
- Manifest the relationship of Christ and His church to the world.
We pray our relationship will be (1) a sweet offering to God, (2) a blessing to each other, (3) a testimony to our families and friends, and (4) an opportunity to model Christianity to the world that is without hope.
As you can see from our marriage mission statement, we crafted a plan to put the beauty of Christ and His church on display. According to Paul, I am a picture of Christ, and Lucia is an image of the church. We both have the high privilege and joyful opportunity to make God’s name great through our identification with Him.
We became one flesh and quickly did what I privately wondered if Biff and Mable would do. Even with an excellent plan, our marriage began to crumble. We drifted apart. We failed many times trying to portray the gospel in our relationship. It was more than just me being a jerk, my hair falling out, or my belly protruding farther than it used to. We slowly changed from the people who we were when we married.
There were three miscarriages. There were job losses. We gained new friends. We lost friends. We changed churches and changed homes. We had lots of money. We had no money. I cannot begin to count how many times I sinned against my wife. It would be safe to say that I sinned against her more than I have sinned against any other person in the world. We have had many desires throughout our marriage. She has had some for me. I have had some for her. We have had some for our life together. Some of them came to fruition, while others fell flat.
Through it all, and even in our darkest hours, there has been one constant: our main reason for getting married never changed. In all of our imperfections, we did want to reflect the gospel in our marriage. We work hard at this. Our world is dying, and we have an incredible opportunity to show them something that cannot be obtained but by Christ alone. Our true heart’s desire is not to obscure the picture of Jesus and His church.
Let me speak ever-so-briefly to how to respond when your relationship goes wrong. Perhaps your marriage mission statement is focused on changeable things rather than the unchangeable gospel. Maybe you are not living with the person you married. The things you liked about your spouse seem lost forever. Your spouse has evolved into another kind of person.
Maybe you need to reconcile with your marriage partner. Perhaps you are married, but you are muddling along. Maybe you have a low-grade disappointment as you reflect on how things were versus how things are.
You do not have to get a divorce. You do not have to continue down the same old grinding path. You can redefine your marriage, even if you are several years down that road. God is cool with a redo. You can start over no matter how far along you are.
As you are waiting for help, you can begin to think about what you want your marriage to be. Let the gospel be what defines your marriage. You both are a picture of Christ and His church. Begin talking about how to present that picture:
The first step in this journey back to the gospel will be some long and challenging conversations. It is the only way it will work. With your mind fixed on the gospel, which is the “process and the goal,” begin praying about how to start talking to each other. Invite others into those discussions.