Life is relational. We were designed by the Creator in loving relationship, through loving relationship, and for loving relationship. Without the reality and reciprocity of loving relationships—the supremely designed prototype of which is marriage–life itself could not consist or continue.
But when reading the short distance from Genesis chapter 1 to chapter 3, we are taken proverbial light years from idealized theory to realistic practice. Sin changed everything. Along with the rest of the cursed creation, marriage got a lot harder. Previously, Adam never got compared to her romantic old boyfriends, and Eve never had to deal with his mother’s unsolicited cooking advice!
Since then, the cold, harsh reality is that we all inevitably marry someone with baggage, issues, unresolved hurts, and unrealistically romanticized expectations about how marriage will “complete” them. Thus, we typically spend lots of emotional energy trying to find the right person, rather than dedicate ourselves to becoming the right person!
The unvarnished, denial-shattering truth is that we are all broken, and our spouse is likewise broken (hey, I know my wonderful wife Linda isn’t perfect because her mate selection capability is inherently flawed!). Furthermore, we all reap everything that everyone else sowed into our spouse’s life before we showed up. Hip, hip, hooray…
Marriage dynamics are classically complex, convoluted, and conflictual. Basically, there are three problems with the universal marital truth of being impacted (in psychodynamic theory this subconscious phenomenon is called “transference”) by our mate’s previous relationships: it is not fair, it isn’t fair, and it ain’t fair! It humanly stinks to have to pay for what we don’t owe.
But what if God is not perverse and punitive, but is a redeemer and a reconciler? What if He is more concerned with cultivating our holiness than creating our happiness? What if He has designed blessings to be transformed from our (and our spouse’s) brokenness? What could be more “unfair” than helping our spouse heal from what we didn’t hurt and fixing what we didn’t break? What if God designed marriage for much more than a narcissistic gratification of our infatuatory fantasies and impulses?
It seems the better question becomes “How can we in the Church healthfully minister to these realities?” How can we drastically diminish the divorce rate – especially among Christians? How can we speak persuasively and prophylactically into the rampant cohabitation epidemic in our society? How can we positively impact the chronically low marital satisfaction rates (research indicates that only between 5-12% of American marriages are self-described as mutually fulfilling, with the vast majority of those being after 30 years or longer)? How can the Church become realistic, relevant, and redemptive regarding relationships?
To begin with, we must face the fact that the Church at large has frequently avoided dealing with the difficult and delicate issues of mental and relational issues. Down deep, we all know that people’s problems are messy. And complicated. And costly in terms of time, money, and energy. Conflict, dysfunction, and psychopathology make us uncomfortable and subconsciously threaten to expose our own faults, failures, and foibles. Thus, most congregations avoid facing relational and emotional pain by means of the unholy trifecta of silence, shame, and stigma.
Therefore, the Church must end the silence, eliminate the shame, and erase the stigma surrounding mental and relational health problems. We must normalize the fact that all humans have problems and that there has never been and never will be a perfect marriage (the only guy capable of having a perfect marriage chose to remain single!). We must not only accept the truth that marriage may be the hardest thing there is to do well; it is also the most important thing to do well.
Just because we are Christians doesn’t mean we are immune to nor exempt from adversity, anguish, and afflictions. Rather, Jesus prophesied that we will have them (cf. John 16:33), but that we should be encouraged because of His mighty transcendence. Orienting and educating the Church and its leaders about these issues may be the most effective key to help hurting persons and marriages, as will implementing pre-marital counseling, marriage mentoring, and marriage enrichment ministries (1). We must speak truth, shine light, and spread salt into our deluded, darkened, and decaying world.
Moreover, to minister effectively to Christian marriages in this country, we need to examine the enormous discrepancy between a Biblical understanding of its nature, properties, and dynamics vis-à-vis the secularized model perpetuated by Hollywood and Hallmark. Our culture teaches us many things about love and marriage which subtlety brainwash us that are antagonistic to scripture and are orthogonal to the development and maintenance of a healthy marriage relationship. Teaching and preaching to correct and clarify concepts about love and commitment from a Biblical worldview will also help greatly.
Certainly everyone longs to love and be loved. Love is the universal human language; it is the ultimate expression of caring for someone beyond ourselves. Unlike anything else, the rosy and romantic topic of love has inspired poets, playwrights, and philosophers down through the ages, as they have extolled its virtues and vicissitudes. But more than marrying the one we love, we must love the one we marry!
It is intriguing that the epic saga of the Almighty Creator of the universe’s intimate disclosure of Himself to His creation—the Bible—begins and ends within the concept of human marriage. From the first chapter of Genesis (1:27) to the last chapter of Revelation (22:17), God’s love story to us unfolds within the context of marriage.
This profound mystery (Ephesians 5:32) of the marriage relationship in many ways expresses the essence of God’s Kingdom. It should be no surprise that the Giver of Life chose to disclose Himself to us, His beloved Bride (Revelation 21:2, 9) by means of the greatest love story ever told—and use the paradigm of marriage to convey it. Love, the deepest yearning and need of the human heart, mirrors the magnificent expression and reflection of the Creator’s heart!
Clearly, the Almighty Sovereign God—who is love personified (1 John 4:7-12) loves us unconditionally as the ultimate expression of His everlasting love for us (Jeremiah 31:3). Yet this is not because we are so lovable, lovely, and loving. God loves us because of His lovingness, not because of our lovability.
It’s actually pretty easy to love someone who is lovable, lovely, and loving. As a matter of fact, that just seems to be reflexive human nature. The conditionality of this quid pro quo dynamic was vividly illustrated by the ancient Greek poet Ovid who famously concluded, “If you would be loved, be lovable.” It seems sort of like the rich getting richer—the easier one is to love, the more likely they are to be loved.
But Jesus turned this natural tendency of human nature upside down when He asked rhetorically, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5:46). Obviously if even IRS agents can love those who love them, Jesus doesn’t sound very impressed! What’s harder—and therefore requires an unconditional commitment—is to care for and love someone who isn’t always lovable, lovely, and loving. It is at this level of depth that actually and actively loving one’s marital partner becomes maturely realistic, not merely romantic.
One of the most frequently voiced complaints in marital therapy is something along the lines of “I just don’t have any feelings for them now,” or “I’m not in love with him/her anymore.” After empathizing with that client’s narcissistic injury and loss, I will innocently inquire as to what that has to do with their marriage vow. As previously stated, this is an incredibly important point for both theology and psychology: God loves us because of His lovingness, not because of our lovability.
God is maturely proactive, not carnally reactive. God loves us unconditionally because of who He is, not because of who we are. Jesus cannot love us any more or any less than He does right now, because He loves us fully without condition. Agape love is an eloquent expression of God’s character and an exemplary extension of His integrity. God is love: that’s simply who, what, and how He is.
Therefore, in the same way, I believe true love is more about the character of the lover than the characteristics of the beloved. This concept is both radical and revolutionary. It is radical because it is counter to and in conflict with everything that our culture teaches us about love, and it contradicts the natural reflexes of our flesh. It is revolutionary because it has the potential and the power to permanently transform marriages, and marriage ministries if taught and lived out, like possibly nothing else can.
I just don’t have enough faith to believe this old fashioned, simple but hard truth will ever be made into a blockbuster film. Romantic love (or more accurately infatuation) is always generated by the other person and focused on us. We have been conditioned to expect the other person to initiate the first move and then meet our needs to fulfill us and make us happy. That is the stuff of which romantic fantasies, cheap novels, pornography, and chick flicks are made.
But the exact opposite is true. Mature, “agape” love is both self-generated and other-focused, not the other way around. When people recite their marriage vows on their wedding day, they are entering into a lifelong, unconditional covenant to love their spouse on days that end in “y,” as long as they are breathing, no matter what. We are to love our spouse regardless, and we are to be committed to doing what is best for their welfare no matter what it costs us. Genuine love always has an altruistic attitude and agenda. This is not very romantic, but it is verifiably realistic.
It is our personal character, not their personal characteristics which is to motivate our love for our spouse. Mature love is not based on warm fuzzy feelings—they are the result, not the cause, of love. Most of us get married wishing to be loved like this, not to love like this!
When we expect the other person to make us happy, we are eventually bound to be disappointed. By hoping our spouse will make us happy, we subconsciously idolize them in the place of God (Too harsh? How about the phrases “I just worship the ground he/she walks on” [realize we’re talking about dirt here!], or “I just adore him/her”). As with so many other things, we may be unintentionally and unwittingly tempted to worship the creation instead of the Creator. We can confuse the vehicle (marriage) with the destination (God’s will for our lives).
Consequently, we tend to expect more from marriage than God intended it to provide. God meant for us to find Him through marriage—not in marriage! No matter how winsome and wonderful a marriage partner may be, no spouse is worthy of worship all day every day. The inevitable hurts, hassles, and heartaches should drive us to divinity, not to divorce! Our spouse is not our ultimate source for our soul, God is.
The church has also generally failed to effectively teach and preach the essence and power of a covenantal marriage commitment. Vows are a curious thing. The truth is that if humans were faithful by nature then vows wouldn’t be necessary! It is precisely because we are not inherently faithful nor honest nor loving that we must stand up before our family and friends and declare that we will be. And although this accountability can help support our intentions, that doesn’t mean we will not break the vow, because everyone does in some way(s). As imperfect people (to be redundant) we all necessarily marry another imperfect person. And if these realities are properly understood, it requires us all to become forgiveness experts.
Obviously we need to look to the Lord at this point; not only for mercy and grace, but also for inspiration and example. God’s love for his children is absolutely unconditional and altogether unilateral (e.g., Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:10; 19). Our marriage vow is a sacred oath, a holy pledge, and a solemn promise. The sacrament of marriage vows, properly understood and lived out, constitute the closest picture of the Father’s covenantal love for His children. Consequently, they are to most closely approximate and resemble literal heaven on earth.
Yet our society dismisses and disparages the powerful theological implications of the marriage covenant by calling it a contract of cultural convenience. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are at least 10 crucial distinctions between a covenant and a contract which the Church must acknowledge, affirm, and accentuate (2). A legal contract is written on pieces of a dead tree. It has no life, vitality, or energy. In contrast, a marriage covenant is written on our hearts and is lived out daily as we decide to faithfully love one another, warts and all. Whether we feel like it or still are “in love” or not.
In sum, we reap that which we sow. For couples who no longer feel they are “in love” today, I would submit that they quit investing in the relationship and unselfishly extending themselves yesterday. At the end of the day, my marriage vow has nothing to do with my wife—it has to do with me. The depth and degree to which I exercise it is the degree to which I keep my integrity intact. I promised I would love her no matter what, even when I feel least like doing so. She, like we all, needs to be loved most when she is the least lovable, lovely, and loving. As such, that is a profound horizontally lived out microcosm of the gospel.
- See Clinton & Pingleton (Eds.) (2017). The Struggle is Real: How to Care for Mental and Relational Needs in the Church, Bloomington, IN, WestBow Press.
- See chapter two (“Concrete Commitment”) in Pingleton, J. P. (2013). Making Magnificent Marriages. Springfield, MO: Marriage Improvement Tools, pp 39-60.