On Christian Marriage: The Key For Long-Term Success
As you reflect on Christian marriage, what one piece of advice would you have given yourself on your wedding day for lasting joy and success?
Anyone who’s been married for more than a few months knows it’s both awesome - and really hard - all at once.
My wife and I have the privilege of coaching and counseling couples both before and after marriage, so we get a front row seat on both the ‘awesome’ and ‘really hard’ sides of the equation.
Most couples start out wildly in love with each other. While the butterflies and violins can't last - at least with the same intensity - forever, it's obvious some couples stay connected and grow, while others drift apart and wilt.
So what makes the difference?
The Importance Of Simplicity
Obviously, it's not just one thing. But it's helpful to boil it down as if it were.
I'm not sure about you, but most days I struggle pretty seriously with distraction. For example, ideally, I try to start my morning at work with a focus block where I make meaningful progress on my top priority for the day.
Of course, staying focused always feels like a street fight. When I try to stay engaged with my top priority, all of a sudden stuff on Amazon becomes a lot more interesting.
Still, it's hugely helpful to have just one thing to focus on at a time. It helps me fight overwhelm and say 'no thanks' to things God isn't calling me to. If I get nothing else done the entire day, at least I've done the most important thing.
Our marriages are a lot like my - and probably your - work day. They take place in a distracting, carnival-like atmosphere where it's hard to know what really matters. Kids, work, cleaning the house, paying the bills, serving at church, and... and... seem to leave little time left for what we say (if we're married) is our most important relationship on earth.
And even when we do have some time and energy to dedicate to our marriages, it's hard to know what will matter most. We can't do everything, so it's easy to throw up our hands and reach for the remote.
In an overwhelming, fallen world where time and energy are limited, it helps to know what will make a difference in our marriage.
If you could do just one thing for your marriage today, what would it be?
What If Your Marriage Is Over Or Struggling?
By the way, if you’re divorced, or in a tough marriage, please know I’m not judging you. Sometimes you can follow the Lord wholeheartedly and your spouse isn’t interested. In the Lord, or, you. Other times, both spouses have played a significant role.
Either way, if you’re in this situation, I just want you to know I see you, and remind you of God’s grace. Even if your marriage is over, ending or strained.
The Key To Marriage: Common Answers
So, back to our question: as you reflect on Christian marriage, what one piece of advice would you have given yourself on your wedding day?
Or, to put it another way, what's the single-most important thing you can do for your marriage today?
I’ve heard people stress the need for common interests or 'compatibility'. Or, making time for each other, even at the cost of professional advancement or spending a little less time with the kids.
More deeply, some would say ‘communication’ is the key. That authentically yet kindly expressing your needs to your spouse, and doing the same in return, is essential.
Deeper still, others emphasize giving and receiving Christ-like forgiveness (conflict resolution) is foundational like nothing else, giving us a new start no matter how much we’ve failed.
Of course, I’m not going to disagree with that. Jesus has to mean something very, very central to our marriages.
But lots of people who say ‘Jesus’ is their everything wind up in - and out of - marriages where joy is long, long gone.
While all of the ‘answers’ above - and many more, truthfully - are part of marriages that thrive, I don’t believe they will make or break our unions.
In fact, the key to a thriving, lasting godly marriage actually has nothing to do with marriage. At least, not directly.
The Key To A Great, Christian Marriage
Okay, let me get right to it. Based on both what I see in scripture and life, the essential foundation to a marriage that not only lasts, but grows, is this:
The strength of each spouse’s relationship with God.
I know that might sound like a boring, Sunday School answer. Like, ‘Tell me something I didn’t already know, okay?’
But stay with me.
Because we all know how hard it is to do what we already ‘know’. Kind of like eating healthy, or flossing our teeth. But I digress… you get the point.
Truth is, really pursuing God for the long haul is incredibly hard. Even the Apostle Paul struggled to live out his love for Christ, and admitted ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’ (Romans 7:15)
I can so completely identify with him. Every morning, I want to pray but struggle pretty massively with staying focused. And sometimes, even wanting to pray if I’m honest.
So, even if you realize keeping God at the center of your life is the foundation for a healthy marriage, I hope you’ll keep reading as we take a brief look at that from both scripture and everyday experience.
Then, we’ll close with a simple practice that will help you continue to pursue the Lord. And, as an important side effect, strengthen your marriage.
Bible Verses On Christian Marriage
It’s true: you won’t find a verse that says something like, ‘The key to a great marriage is keeping God first.’ But passage after passage tells us keeping God first is the most important thing... about everything.
- ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ (Matthew 6:33)
- ‘And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ (Colossians 3:17)
- ‘One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.’ (Psalm 27:4)
But God’s word also draws a clear connection between the importance of our walk with God and our marriages. What is it about the ‘excellent wife’ of Proverbs 31 that makes her so excellent? The writer lists several qualities, but summarizes them by saying it’s her ‘fear of the Lord’ (Proverbs 31:30) that’s so critical.
Ephesians 5 suggests the same standard for husbands.
‘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.’ (Ephesians 5:25-27)
The only way for us, as husbands, to love our wives like Christ loved us - his church - is for us to treasure him ourselves. And to continually reflect on his stunning example of sacrificial love for us.
So, whether you’re a husband or wife, the main thing is to run hard after God. If you and your spouse do that, your marriage is in a great position to flourish and picture what marriage is all about.
Christian Marriage & Everyday Life
Everyday life provides us with a nearly infinite supply of examples that reinforce the connection between the quality of our relationship with the Lord and the quality of our marriage.
Again, it’s not always linear. There’s no guarantee that ‘really loving God first’ in equals ‘godly marriage’ out. Just ask God, who - as Tim and Kathy Keller put it - ‘is in the longest-lived, worst marriage in the history of the world’. Sometimes, God asks a Christ-honoring husband or wife to patiently love their spouse, who may be lukewarm, or not know Christ at all (see 1 Peter 3:1-6).
Still, most of us find there’s a very real connection between how we’re relating to God and how we’re relating to our spouse. The Kellers also say ‘Your marriage to [God] is the surest possible foundation for your marriage to anyone else.’
Over the years, I’ve seen this play out again and again. For better and for worse.
Mentors of ours, Bill and Bonnie, have been an amazing example to us of this for our entire adult lives. They’re not flashy, but we’ve seen them quietly put Christ first for 25 years now. I have no doubt that this is the cornerstone for how they treat each other, too.
When we’ve seen marriages falter or fail, some kind of spiritual failure always comes first. One husband, I suspect, grew tired of his wife’s critical spirit. While he wasn’t wrong, he failed to show her the grace of Christ and eventually left her. His breakup with Jesus came before the breakup with his wife.
I'm not exempt from this, of course. All of us are vulnerable to the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13), and the steady erosion of our relationship with the Lord.
Of course, most marriages are probably somewhere in-between over and great. When we’re just kind of making it spiritually, our marriages tend to do the same. When we’re investing in our relationship with God, that tends to impact our marriage, too.
And although we’ll never fully arrive this side of heaven, trending in the right direction is usually enough to stay encouraged. One couple decided to set aside time for serious conversation, for example, and found that just a few minutes most days made a huge difference.
To quote marriage expert storied football coach Vince Lombardi, ‘Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.’ The small, consistent, Spirit-empowered investments you make in your marriage are worth it, and you will see the dividends over time.
One Simple Way To Invest In Your Marriage Every Day
So let’s close by talking about one simple way you can ‘chase perfection’ in your relationship with the Lord. And, God willing, ‘catch excellence’ in your marriage.
I actually had two ideas in mind, but this post has already grown a little longer than I anticipated. And, even as we need to wrestle with our roles in marriage, I'd like to put the emphasis squarely on God and his (way more important) role in a marriage that not only lasts, but sings.
It's almost too simple.
Nearly every day, John Piper asks God, ‘Hold onto me,’ because ‘the remaining corruption in every human being’s soul is enough to make money [and many other things] more precious than God... Sin is that powerful if you leave God out of the picture… if God takes His hand off me this afternoon, I will commit apostasy. It depends on Him, not on me.’ He’s mentioned praying frequently against lust, and for his marriage, too.
It’s a great idea, and one I’ve been adopting lately in my own life. As I get older and see more marriages struggle, I see how vulnerable I am to sin, too. Without God, I’m a dumpster fire waiting to happen.
Part of spiritual maturity is recognizing how much more important God is for our walk with him, and our marriages, than we are. It’s similar to golf, where pros tell their students to ‘let the club do the work’. Instead of swinging like a 500-pound gorilla, seasoned golfers understand the club is way more important than the strength of their swing, important as it is. So, while we have an important role to play in pursuing God and loving our spouses, God’s role is infinitely more important.
He is able to ‘keep [us - and our spouses] from stumbling and to present [us] blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy’ (Jude 24).
And it only takes a moment each day for us to humbly, sincerely ask God to keep us.
Obviously, we can’t stop there. We need grace to actively love our spouse and invest time, energy and creativity in our marriage. And no doubt there are many, many other principles, tips and suggestions I could have shared here. But that’s another, book-length post.
For now, it’s enough to recognize how vital it is for our marriage for each spouse to pursue God first. Not perfectly, but truly, not just in theory. If we continue to make him our treasure, and ask him to hold us, we are laying a solid foundation that will strengthen our marriage, too.
For reflection and prayer:
- Be honest: how fervently are you pursuing God right now?
- What might change (be specific) in your marriage if you pursued him more wholeheartedly?
- How would it encourage you to realize more fully that God’s work in your, and your marriage, is way more foundational than your own?