Marriage can be tough.
Just the other day, Sharon (my wife) and I realized that we know (at least) 8 different Christian couples who are struggling in a pretty big way. We had our own major challenges around years 2 and 3, but with (a lot of) help have gone on to have a deeply satisfying relationship that we both treasure after 18 years together.
Not that it’s perfect, but sometimes we wonder… how did that happen to us? How can it happen to you?
How can you build a love that lasts?
It would be ridiculous to think these questions could be fully answered in a blog post. But we can make a real start in a few posts, so that’s what I’m going to attempt using 1 John 4:7-12 as our starting point.
The Sunday School Answer Is The Right One
It’s not a marriage passage per se, but you don’t have to be a kangaroo to make the jump. Here’s the main point from verses 7 & 11:
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God…11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
It’s pretty straightforward: God loves us, so we should love each other.
In marriages that continue to thrive, both the husband and wife love each other like God has loved them.
At this point you may be thinking, ‘I read this far for that? Thanks, Captain Obvious…’
But before you tune me out, hear me out. Yes, we all ‘know’ that solid marriages are built around Christ-like love, but when you actually look at real relationships, you tend to find other things at the center.
- common interests
- shared experiences (like vacations, social life, eating out)
Notice that these things aren’t bad in and of themselves. They’re God’s gifts to us.
But they’re not meant to be at the center of our lives. Or relationships.
Let’s take school or work as a quick example.
Both are worthy callings, right? God has called us to learn about his world, and, to do work that honors him and helps others. (Ultimately, school prepares us to do this better.)
When both people in a relationship keep school or work in proper balance with the rest of life, it can be a great thing. The joy and fulfilment they experience both with their work and relationship feed off of each other, making both more enjoyable and helpful to others.
Out Of Place
But what happens when we give school or work a place they’re not supposed to have?
I can remember my first year of marriage when I was finishing up seminary, and my wife was working. Although I was doing well and was positioned to get into a good PhD program, I was filled with anxiety. Were my grades good enough? What else could I be doing to get a leg up on all the other really smart people who would be applying to the same programs?
That fear really affected my marriage. Although I was genuinely happy to see my wife when she walked through the door, another part of me was afraid of putting my studies down. I wasn’t fully present and available to connect with her. She could sense my preoccupation with schoolwork, and it hurt her.
The irony, of course, is that I wasn’t trusting God even as I was studying about, and for, him. I was doing it for him, but right alongside that were other, less noble, motives. Like proving my worth by getting into a good doctoral program. That drive was hurting my marriage.
If Christ isn’t at the center of our lives in a very practical way, something else will be. And, it will begin to corrode our ability to love our spouse like John calls us to.
But How Do You Really Know?
You may be onboard with me at this point. But you may also be thinking, ‘Yeah, I know I shouldn’t let other stuff crowd out my love for my spouse. But it’s not like God gives us clear guidelines for this stuff. How would I really know I’m in danger?’
If you’re thinking something like that, I get it. It’s not always easy to see the warning signs.
But here are some signs that your relationship with your spouse or significant other could be heading for trouble. Away from the love God calls us to.
- Your spouse or significant other expresses hurt, anger or resentment about your work/school/something else you’re involved in;
- You find yourself preoccupied (mentally and/or actually) with something – or someone – in your life. (By ‘someone’, I don’t just mean romantically. It could be your boss, academic advisor, parents, friend, etc.)
- You’re consistently worried that maybe some part of your life is out of balance.
- You feel distant from your spouse/significant other on an ongoing basis.
- You want to move toward your spouse/significant other, but something/someone else often ends up winning out.
I’m sure you could add your own ideas to this list. (Feel free to in the comments below!)
Although our lack of love for others can be pretty convicting, the good news is that we’re not on our own. Our choices matter, but God is fighting for us and our marriages.
As I was applying for PhD programs, my wife became (unintentionally) pregnant with our first child. She wanted to be home with our kids, and we had agreed ahead of time that I’d stop my education – at least temporarily – to make it possible.
I was discouraged at the time, but looking back, we believe that God was lovingly stopping me from finding my worth in having more letters at the end of my name. He was freeing me from my idolatry of education so that I could love my wife the way he wants me to.
So, the ‘secret’ to a great marriage is the one you already know: love. We need to be on guard for other things (and people) that will fight to push it out of the center. But, as we work, we do it with the confidence that God is behind us, fighting on our behalf.
- As you think about your marriage (or relationship), what are the biggest threats to growing the kind of Christ-like love John describes?
- What would it look like for you to have an honest conversation about with God about that?