Someone once asked why so many married people seemed so miserable. Perhaps it’s because so many miserable people are married.
Maybe marriage itself is not the problem.
But what is marriage?
What kind of relationship is it and why do we have such an institution? Why are there so many divorces? Why is it that 50% of those who remain together in marriage are “characterized by resignation or even misery rather than love and affection”? (Willard F. Harley, Jr.).
There is never a time in my ministry when I am not directly or indirectly involved with five to ten marriages in crisis. With a 50 percent divorce rate for first time marriages and an increase of 10 percent for second, third and fourth marriages, the Church must expect to be involved in significant marriage related ministries. Like many other pastors, I invest time on four levels of marriage related ministries:
- Preventative ministries
- Maintenance ministries (marriage tune-ups)
- Interventional ministries
- Restorative ministries
Marriage ministries are a big part of pastoral work. And this is one reason for an urgent need to take a closer look at marriage.
How we understand marriage?
The way one views the nature of marriage will affect how one lives in the relationship of marriage.
If we get the nature of marriage wrong, we’re less likely to do well in marriage. A primary reason for many marital problems is a failure to understand, respect and live by the God-intended purpose for marriage.
The high call of Scripture
“Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage” (Hebrews 13:4, NLT).
And as you think about marriage, remember this wise observation: “The relationship between husband and wife is the foundation on which kids build their sense of security, their identity and learn to relate to others.” –Jay Kessler
Teaching singles about marriage
For two decades, I’ve been teaching a class for singles on how to make the marriage decision. One of my primary goals is to help them understand what a good marriage looks like. Each year, I encounter growing skepticism about marriage among singles. Many of them have had a front row seat to marital misery in their homes. They come into my class with one strong commitment: “If I choose to get married, I do not want it to be anything like my parents’ marriage.” Against this negative perception, I try to cast a different vision of marriage.
How should we understand the nature of the relationship we call marriage? And how should we live in it? I offer this closer look at marriage to stimulate deeper conversations among married people:
A gift from God
Marriage is God’s gift to humans. It was originally given to provide a complimentary companionship for the first man. “The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). It’s possible that your marriage doesn’t feel like a gift because it’s a troubled relationship.
For marriages to flourish in their God-intended way, a husband and wife must see their marriage as God’s gift and thank Him often for it. This sets an important tone for how we think about marriage. It’s an attitude check!
A one-flesh union
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24-25). As originally designed, marriage is given by God to be an exclusive (leaving father and mother), permanent (cleaving/be united to his wife), one-flesh relationship.
The one-flesh union of marriage is more than two bodies uniting. It’s a person-to-person fusion of two lives celebrated by physical union. The physical union is the consummation of a God-formed bond. Physical union alone does not constitute a marriage nor necessitate one (Matthew 1:18-19; John 4:16-18). The union is not the disappearance of one life into another but the unique joining of two lives with their individual identity and gifts making the two stronger together (see: Unity Sand: A picture of marriage).
A covenant-based relationship
God speaks of marriage as a covenant relationship. This fact alone should cause us to reflect deeply on what God intended by connecting marriage and covenant. It should also significantly affect the way we live in a marriage.
The covenant nature of marriage is most clearly mentioned in the Old Testament book of Malachi:
“Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel, ‘and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,’ says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.” (Mal. 2:13-16).
Unlike contractual arrangements, typically entered on a time-limited basis for personal advantage, the marriage covenant is entered for the purpose of shared intimacy, mutuality of care and responsibility — in a permanent relationship. “It is not your love that sustains the marriage … but the marriage that sustains your love” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
In their vows, the bride and groom promise to be each other’s loving and faithful spouse. This promise includes times of prosperity or need; joy or sorrow; sickness and health; to love and to cherish, till death causes us to part. The final part of the vow I ask couples to repeat is: “according to God’s standards.” Covenant keeping and accountability in married life is based on God’s standards. So if you’re poor, for example, because a husband will not work, he is not living according to God’s standards (see: I Timothy 5:8). Accountability is needed if he wants to enjoy the fulness of the covenant relationship of marriage.
How Jesus understood marriage
Jesus affirmed the original plan for marriage when he said, “Haven’t you read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
A life-long relationship
From Jesus words, we learn that marriage is intended as a life-long relationship (what God has joined together, let man not separate). Honoring the teaching of our Lord, in a wedding ceremony, the bridegroom and bride solemnly promise to love, honor and cherish each other, and to remain faithful to each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death separates them.
I realize that there are circumstances where divorce separates couples. I also know that divorce is painful and many find themselves facing it against their deepest convictions. But for marriages to thrive in their God-intended way, husbands and wives must be deeply resolved to life-long commitment.
Four essentials for marriage
God’s original plan for marriage involved four essential elements:
- Exclusivity- One man and one woman in life-long monogamy
- Uniqueness: Leaving your home of origin and establishing a new family.
- Permanence: A man is to be united to his wife—a word that means to hold fast to with unswerving loyalty. Remember the wedding vow: “Till death causes us to part;…. As long as we both shall live.” Jesus said, “What God has joined together let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6).
- Extraordinary care: (See: Ephesians 5:25, 28-29; John 10:11-13). Exodus 21:10 “…he must not deprive… her of food, clothing and marital rights.” Vows: “Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better or for worse, in sadness and in joy, to love and to cherish, and forsaking all others, will you keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live?”
When husbands and wives respect each of the four essential elements: exclusivity, uniqueness, permanence and care, they strengthen their marriages. A failure to respect any one of them will weaken and harm the marriage. A key reason many marital problems occur is a failure to understand, respect and live by the God-intended essence of marriage.
Marriage: equality and roles
In Scripture, equality is reflected in the first marriage as the first man and woman were created in the image of God and given co-regency over the created order (Genesis 1:26-28). For believers in Christ, marriage is a covenant of companionship between two spiritually equal human beings (Galatians 3:26-28). Yet equality does not remove specific roles in marriage. Nor do roles in marriage diminish the requirement for mutual love and respect.
According to scripture, the husband bears primary responsibility to lead the home in a God-honoring way. His leadership clearly involves authority and should be honored by his wife and family (Ephesians 5:22-24, 33; 6:1-3). This authority, however, should be exercised in love (see: Ephesians 5:25, 33, w/ John 10:11-13; I Corinthians 13:4-8a) and thoughtful consideration (see: Philippians 2:3-5).
Scripture warns husbands who treat their wives with insensitivity (see: I Peter 3:7). Husbands must never forget that they are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Cultural limitations should not be placed on this command any more than on the command for wives to submit to and respect their husbands. Biblical requirements for male leadership in the home were not conditioned on cultural factors. Distortions and misrepresentations of these roles should never be used to negate the Creator’s plan for marriage. We need God’s standards because marriage always involves two sinners committing to each other.
- Companionship (Genesis 2:18; Malachi 2:14)
- Completion (Genesis 2:18)
- Continuance (Genesis 1:28- of the human race)
- Cooperation (Genesis 1:28)
- Care (Exodus 21:10-11; 1 Corinthians 7:15)
- Communication (Genesis 1:27; of God’s image and Ephesians 5- Christ’s relationship with his people)
- Constraint (I Corinthians 7:3-5)