Well, I’ve been asked to give a few pointers on marriage. You know, the secret tips for a ‘long and happy marriage.’ There’s no shortage of marriage and relationship books on the market which seem to promise to do just that, fix your marriage. Don’t expect a money back guarantee, however. I’ve read close to a hundred books on marriage and relationships, and there are actually some worth reading. I recommend Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. There are others as well, but I strongly recommend this volume for its realistic tone. It doesn’t get sappy on one hand, nor overly technical on the other. Keller presents a theology, history, and statistical data on marriage that really drives home the wisdom of scripture.
Lots of marriage books are overly technical, full of how to’s. Just do everything and see what sticks. There is something to be said for pragmatism but one can find themselves more discouraged than encouraged after such a read. Other titles can get too sappy, encouraging one to dig deep into one’s feelings and communicate how you feel about everything under the sun. Frankly, that sounds like self-absorbed torture. You’re not supposed to say that, of course, nor interrupt, but allow your spouse to go on and on for however long it takes to communicate their feelings. Communication is necessary, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes silence or fewer words is more virtuous than a wordy thesis about everything under the sun.
Some marriage advice is too dependent on the affluence of western culture, recommending weekly dates, extravagant trips, etc., because, well, it’s what we do and how we feel valued. Problem is that many folks don’t have the means to keep on feeding the love language of gifts.
What if (like most of the world’s population) you can’t get babysitting on a weekly basis and do a date night? Are you doomed?
What if trying to spice up your sex life avails very little? What if sex really isn’t this ever-increasing thrill ride – but rather ordinary?
What if you don’t have hours everyday to have long romantic discussions about your feelings? What if, like most folks, you’re in the grind of life, happy to even get a shower and healthy meal in once a day?
What if your financial realities prevent you from taking that annual family vacation?
You’d think that without the wealth and affluence afforded us in the west, happy marriages would be impossible. The irony is that marriages around the world, minus the wealth and resources of the west, do much better by way of longevity and happiness. So, just maybe, you don’t need a weekly date, annual vacations, and a credit card to constantly gift your spouse. Just maybe the secret has little to do with all of these amenities that we tout as almost necessary for happy marriages. After all, it was but a couple of generations ago where eating out was a rare treat, reserved only for anniversaries and birthdays. And sometimes just flowers and chocolates would do. Of all the restaurant chains you can currently think of, how man were operating when your grandparents were in their 20’s and 30’s?
So, what is it? What would I share in brief with folks asking for marriage advice? Here’s a very reductionist and simplified attempt:
- Marriage has more to do with marriage and less to do with you. Okay, I realize that sounds weird. What do I mean? Marriage is an institution that’s governed by standards and expectations that exists apart from you, outside of you, in spite of you. Technically, you don’t marry your spouse — you enter into marriage with a spouse. You have a responsibility to the estate of marriage that frames and defines your responsibilities to your spouse. And of course, all of this is derivative from God’s intent in creating the institution of marriage. God didn’t just create Adam and Eve and decide to call this arrangement marriage but rather created a marriage, which required one man and one woman. They were created for the sake of marriage in its institutional and life-giving potential. In other words, marriage isn’t some necessary social device to restrain animalistic sexual desires, etc. Marriage isn’t the result of the fall. It’s not a social arrangement meant for your happiness above all else. Our desires need to conform the to objective standards of the institution. We see people instead adjust the standards of the institution to suit personal happiness — and this is a twisting that directly attacks the institution. Imagine if your boss, teacher, or government adjusted otherwise objective standards to accommodate your happiness? That would be an ugly world, and also explains why we have ugly marriages. All attempts to detach marriage from its objective reality reduces the estate to nothing more than a commitment of love. “I’ll love whomever I want, whenever I want.” I’d ask, “How’s that working out for you?”
- Focus more on your responsibilities to God than your spouse’s responsibilities to yourself. You can’t control your spouse. You married a sinner. If you’re preoccupied with your rights, you’ll forever feel live a victim married to an abject failure. Your morale to carry your end will disintegrate into nothingness and you’ll be paralyzed into a dark hole. Even if your spouse were to become a saint, it’s impossible to pull one completely out of that dark hole if you’re preoccupied with their offenses — and there will be plenty of offenses to hold over your spouse, but that makes you nothing more than a manipulator, leveraging guilt to feel vindicated in your wrath. Please don’t get me wrong, there’s a difference between one healing after emotional scarring that is the consequence of being sinned against, and this other example of choosing to live in this victimization, seeking control by maneuvering the levers to throw a jab every time you think your spouse deserves it. The remedy to this is to find your ultimate joy and happiness in pleasing God through obedience to his standards. That is the root that will sustain you through long droughts in your marriage. Your happiness is then not contingent solely on how well you’re treated from your spouse but rather in your obedience to God. We’re told to work as unto the Lord if we serve under a difficult boss — and likewise we are to live out our vows as unto the Lord when we find our spouse difficult to deal with (and you will). You must be willing to absorb offense and bear reproach in the forgiving power of God’s grace.
- Take every thought and feeling captive to the Lordship of Christ. Self-discipline is of greater importance in marriage than anything else. If you lack it in the most intimate bond of your family, it will follow you wherever you go. You need to subordinate your feelings to Christ and the greater good. Be angry, but don’t sin. In this sense, marriage is a gift for your sanctification. One of the requirements for an elder in the church is that they govern their household well. Your personal sanctification is reflected in your family. An unruly family is generally the result of unruly parents. Children lacking discipline is generally the result of parents lacking discipline. There is good news here. You say yeah right, but let me explain. You can have a sanctifying and beautifying effect on your spouse and children when you tend to the garden on your own soul, cultivating the good and rooting out the weeds. You don’t have to be a victim overcome by others but can tend your own soul and win over others. Focus on yourholiness.
There’s much more to be said. If I only had 10 minutes, this is what I’d share. Nothing spectacular. Old school fundamentals. Being a former baseball and basketball coach, I stressed fundamentals. You can never outgrow them. Lack of fundamentals creates all kinds of problems downstream, no matter how talented a roster you might have. God is good and he is for you and your marriage. Just remember that bit of good news. He’s never for you in opposition to your marriage. So remember that marriage isn’t ultimately about you, as if your happiness is at the center of the universe — but that it does have everything to do with you, primarily your singular responsibility to God, to marriage, and to your spouse. That’s all you have control over and how you’ll be judged. When both spouses are doing their part, marriage is incredibly fulfilling, mostly because you realize that it’s far bigger than yourself. Everyone seemingly wants to pursue something greater themselves, and the sexy truth is marriage is just that, living for something bigger than you, entering into a sacred estate that requires self-discipline and utter dependence on God’s provision. The sexy secret is that marriage isn’t about you — but has everything to do with you, namely blood, sweat, and tears (a more powerful aphrodisiac that can’t be bought). Jesus purchased a bride through such sacrifice, and this reminds us that the truly great things in life are built on sacrifice. There’s no greater love than laying your life down, and that’s what you vowed at the marriage altar — to lay your life down. The true currency of marriage is sacrifice, not selfishness. And remember: His grace is sufficient.
© 2014, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.