January 2018 marked 9 years of marriage for me and my husband. Our relationship and lives look so different now than when we started, but the journey together has made us more united and really redefined our idea of love.
Our marriage is far from perfect, but I am also realizing, that is true for everyone. I am grateful that we both love God and continue to pursue His changing work in our individual lives and our united life. Hope remains the constant in our nine years together, because each time I have felt like there wasn’t an answer or solution, each time I felt things were broken beyond repair, God has acted.
Today I wanted to share with you some significant truths that have impacted the way I think about marriage. Each of these have stayed with me and changed me in a significant way, and I hope something here challenges you too. It is the kindness of God when He shows us a glimpse of our sin and ushers us towards repentance and change.
#1 It isn’t the love that sustains the promise, the promise sustains the love.
You may have heard this, but few people understand it, or genuinely believe it. What does it boil down to? Conviction. When you stood before your family, friends and pastor, you also stood before God, and made a vow that the union you were creating was going to be a lasting one. There is a reason the world talks disinterestedly in the “construct of marriage”—it is a contract, one they are reluctant to uphold. Why? Because it inevitably means sacrifice and temporary unhappiness.
When the love fades, or momentarily drowns in conflict, the promise you once made to one another can seem awfully insignificant, even discardable. If your emotions (feelings) of love, or lack thereof, determine the strength of that marital commitment, then it will have all the weakness of your rawest conflicts.
If your commitment (promise) to one another is ultimately meaningful because it was also a commitment to honor God and His holy design for marriage, then your conviction will withstand any relational storms. It is that promise that keeps you seeking reconciliation even when you want to give up. It is the promise that motivates you to fast and pray when things just aren’t working and you are out of ideas. It is the promise that carries you through those desserts, to a place where your love is stronger and more real because of everything you’ve overcome to get there.
#2 Our strengths become weaknesses when they make us smug.
My husband and I have complementary strengths and weaknesses—these can be used to build up or tear down. I have learned that there is beauty in our God-given differences, and I shouldn’t expect my husband to act and react the same as I do in every situation.
I am not as prone to anger in an argument. I am better at navigating large crowds. These can be helpful strengths to have when I don them with humility, or they can be destructive when, in pride, I think less of him for not being able to “hold it together like me.” For him it may be his ability to see an obvious solution to a problem, but belittling me for missing something so blatant.
Whatever the case may be, those very giftings we have been equipped with to serve and strengthen one another, can quickly becomes tools of demolition when hubris creeps in.
#3 Come with observations and questions, not conclusions.
If I could master this, I think 95% of our day-to-day disagreements would be resolved. So much of our communication is miscommunication because we both jump straight to conclusions.
The trick here, I think, is to realize that you and I think nothing like our husbands. When something is conveyed, we process it the way we think it makes sense to process it. 99% of the time, my husband has taken the same piece of information and arrived at an entirely different conclusion.
We would both avoid so much grief if we took the long way, asked some clarifying questions, and then probably three more, before assuming we know what the other intended. This is especially true in a conflict.
#4 Our spouse’s sin is the lesser debt.
If we see our spouse’s sin against us as being a greater debt than our sin against God, we are like the man in Matthew 18:28 who after being forgiven a lifetime of debt, goes out and seizes the man who owed him significantly less and demanded: “Pay what you owe!”
Jesus said it a different way in Luke 7:47, “the one who is forgiven little, loves little”. When we lose sight of the mercy God has lavished on us, we do not treat others with mercy. How much more humble might our interactions be if we constantly remind ourselves that we are the primary offender, the chief of sinners, the bigger debtor? We are the ungrateful, unmerciful fool of Matthew 18 if we exact “justice” from our spouse without regard for the mercy that has been shown to us.
#5 When I react sinfully to my spouse because they (intentionally or unintentionally) interfere with my desire being met, my desire has become an idol.
Ah, that classic idol sacrifice. I bet you thought this topic only came up when someone mentions Indian Jones. Sadly, this ritual takes place all too frequently today and our spouse is usually the victim.
My desire is often harmless—even good and entirely justifiable— like an uncluttered countertop or an hour of peace and quiet. The problem arises when that goal, that thing I so dearly want, becomes the ONLY thing that matters. Suddenly I’m running my husband through, with biting words, irritable and criticising comments, or full blown anger and frustration. (I could just as easily apply this scenario to my children.)
The problem is not them, it is me. James agrees:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.” (4:1-2)
When my desire for an hour of uninterrupted time becomes an idol, I have zero hesitations about slaying my husband (figuratively) if he stands in the way of that desire or is not doing what I think he “should” be doing to help facilitate it. Suddenly God’s authority and rule in my life has taken a back seat to me arriving at what I want.
Don’t turn your spouse into idol food; he is not the source of the problem but is mercifully being used to reveal the problem.
#6 Christ does not put his bride in “the doghouse”.
Even if you don’t actually use that term, I’m sure at one time or another you have stiffened your quills, given the silent treatment, or put out “talk to the hand” vibes. Why? Because you’re mad. Because your husband did something unbelievable and before you are ready to extend forgiveness you want the satisfaction of making him suffer a little while without your love. We would never verbalize this, of course, because it sounds ridiculous, but we do it.
It is so easy to feel justified, making our spouse “earn” our love back to make up for all the hurt they’ve caused us. That’s what Jesus did, right? Oh… nope.
“The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:8-10)
How can I put on Christ and extend mercy to my spouse when they have sinned against me? How can I welcome him again with open arms, as Christ has done with me, like in the parable of the prodigal son?
#7 Love does not expect something in return.
In my selfishness, I can slip into the mindset that my marriage is a symbiotic relationship. While there are mutually beneficial things happening as a natural result of being in a relationship, I have to be careful not to expect there to be something in it for me in every scenario.
When I operate from the assumption that every interaction in my marriage should be “fair” (equal give and take), then I am not walking in love. If my “give” is offered with the expectation or condition of “take,” then it is not truly giving at all, it is record keeping—a business arrangement.
Christ calls me to a very different kind of love:
“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.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
Walking this out is hard. Setting aside that “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” mentality (sometimes literally) requires serious sacrifice. This difficult road is exactly the way Christ followers are called to go—in fact, it is a qualifier.
#8 Submission is a holy calling and a Spirit-empowered action.
There is a heart attitude tied to submission, it isn’t just an outward yielding of will or preference. Elizabeth Elliot has some powerful words to say on this topic (she uses the word meekness which is a synonym for submissiveness), so I will share a quote from her book Keep A Quiet Heart.
“Meekness is not indecision or laziness or feminine fragility or loose sentimentalism or indifference or affable neutrality…Meekness is teachability…But how shall I, not born with the smallest shred of that quality, I who love victory by argument and put-down, ever learn that holy meekness? The prophet Zephaniah tells us to seek it (Zephaniah 2:3). We must walk (live) in the Spirit, not gratifying the desires of the sinful nature (for example, my desire to show up the other’s fault instead of to be shown my own). We must ‘clothe’ ourselves (Colossians 3:12) with meekness—put it on, like a garment. This entails an explicit choice: I will be meek. I will not sulk, will not retaliate, will not carry a chip.”
Those words challenge everything in my nature. I am so eager to seek “victory by argument” and to sulk when I don’t like the direction we are going, or carry a chip when it turns out I was right. Humble submission is the fruit of Spirit-filled living, and I must seek it with fervent prayer if I want it to hold a stake in my life.
#9 When marriage is the hardest thing, continue to do good.
If your chest tightens a little when the topic of marriage arises, you are not alone. Difficult marriage relationships are a quiet but common reality. The questions that flood your mind in times like this can be relentless and drive you to doubt God’s plan. While it feels like everyone else sees hearts and bouquets when they speak of marriage, you see a trial. The Lord has not forgotten you.
Long-suffering is difficult, and we rarely see the big-picture plan for it. My reason to hope is not found in my circumstances, but has been declared by those who have suffered before me and experienced the faithful care of God. It is in the Bible we are given reassurance and encouragement so we do not lose heart.
“Trust in the LORD and do what is good…
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in Him, and He will act,
making your righteousness shine like the dawn,
your justice like the noonday…
The LORD watches over the blameless all their days,
and their inheritance will last forever.
They will not be disgraced in times of adversity;
they will be satisfied in days of hunger…
Though he falls, he will not be overwhelmed,
because the LORD holds his hand.
I have been young and now I am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous abandoned”
(Psalm 37:3, 5, 18,19, 24, 25)
What encourages me most about these verses is the validation that hardship is real. It is not a figment of my imagination, it is not something that will disappear if I just adjust my attitude. Suffering is a yoke to bear, but it will not break us if our hope is in the Lord. (*Brief side note: this excludes an abusive situation, for which case there is an entirely different protocol).
What challenges me about these verses is the repeated instruction to remain committed to righteous living. I am so tempted to feel like my choices don’t matter anymore because no matter what I do, my spouse (appears) unchanged. I want to throw in the towel and do what feels gratifying to my flesh, which is to return evil for evil. God has spoken clearly so we would know this is a lie. That choice will not bring joy, that road will not lead to satisfaction.
Psalm 37 emphasizes the good deeds of the righteous, of those who commit their way to the Lord—those are the ones He acts on behalf of, those are the ones whose righteousness will shine. But He can’t make our righteousness shine if we are pursuing sin. Don’t lose heart. Continue to do good (yes, to your spouse!) and pray. You have not been forgotten.