MARRIAGE: TOOL FOR SPIRITUAL GROWTH
(Based on “Sacred Marriage” by Gary Thomas, the theme of our 2014 Marriage Retreat entitled “Marriage: God’s Tool for Spiritual Growth.” For more information feel free to contact Jerry Schmoyer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright ©2014 Christian Training Organization).
Marriage struggles have been going on since the Adam and Eve. Socrates said “By all means marry. If you get a good wife you’ll become happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.” The statistics about marriage success today would seem to indicate that many are becoming philosophers – certainly many marriages are not happy. Despite this, the theme of romance forever and living happily ever after appears in many songs, movies, books and TV programs. Mankind seems to be looking for something it isn’t finding – the perfect romance that never ends.
Even as Christians we look for this, expecting God to provide it for us. And He certainly could do so if He wanted. He is sovereign God, He can do anything. He could bring two people together and have them find total harmony and unending oneness. He could – but He doesn’t. He allows two people, both with sin natures, who are different in every way (male-female, introvert-extrovert, etc.) to come together and have to work through their sins and differences. For many people, it is the most difficult challenge they face in life. Unfortunately a large number of couples experience more pain than pleasure from their marriage.
So the questions is: “Why didn’t God make marriage to be easier?” Why doesn’t He let it be all we expect it to be when we get married? Surely He must have a good reason for this, a very good reason.
What if God’s plan for marriage is not to make us happy, but to make us holy? What if He designed marriage to be a tool He can use for our spiritual growth? What if He allows us to see our self-centeredness, and our mate’s selfishness, in order to show us our need of Him? What if He keeps another human being from meeting all our needs so we must ultimately depend on Him alone to meet those needs? Could it be that He allows the stretching and the pain to take place in order to mature us and make us more like Jesus? Is it more important to God to have us become Christ-like than to have us live happily ever after? It certainly seems that is the case!
And if that is true, then we need to completely change how we view marriage – what we expect of our mates and our marriages. Romance is fine and good for as far as it goes, but it falls far short of what we need to make a healthy marriage. Romantic love has no way of dealing with sin and the hurts of others. The danger of basing a relationship on romantic love is that it often doesn’t transition to real life. Romantic love is all about receiving, meeting our needs and making us happy. Married love needs to be other-focused, giving, meeting the needs of another no matter what we receive in return. If a relationship is not based on something stronger than romantic love, it won’t last longer than the romance lasts. If we were perfect perhaps it could work, but with our natural inclination to sin and self-centeredness (James 3:2) the potential for hurting each other can be endless.
Marriage doesn’t meet all our needs, it wasn’t designed to do so and it cannot do so. But it can point us to the One who can meet those needs. Marriage is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s important for us to understand and believe this in order correctly face the challenges and blessings that marriage brings. Too often we try to fix symptoms instead of getting to the root problem.
One day a man approached his car in a parking lot but his remote wouldn’t open the trunk or the doors. Finally he got inside but the fuel gauge wasn’t working properly and the car wouldn’t start. He had it towed to a garage which told him that his Basic Control Module, the brain of the car, was not working properly and had to be fixed. He could have replaced the trunk latch, door lock, fuel gauge and starter, but that wouldn’t have fixed the problem. Often in marriage we, too, try to change a symptom such as lack of communication, financial problems, sexual incompatibility, poor conflict resolution, or child raising difficulties, when the problem goes deeper. Understanding God’s purpose for marriage is key to having a meaningful, satisfying relationship with our mate. Did God create marriage to make us holy or happy? It may not always make you happy, but it can always make you holy if it brings you closer to Him!
MARRIAGE: TO MAKE US HAPPY OR HOLY?
Francis de Sales once wrote: “The state of marriage is one that requires more virtue and constancy than any other. … It is a perpetual exercise in mortification. … From this thyme plant, in spite of the bitter nature of its juice, you may be able to draw and make the honey of a holy life.” That isn’t a very common or popular view of marriage. Today we often expect to find the one person who can make us happy for the rest of our lives. Then when that doesn’t happen we think we must have married the wrong person. We have an unrealistic perception of married life before marriage, and unless that corrects itself to see marriage as God created it to be, the relationship will fail to be all God wants it to be.
Somehow we have bought into the idea that out there lives a person who is our soul mate, the perfect person to complete us and meet all our needs. We marry thinking we have found that person, but married life soon reveals the imperfections in husband and wife. It’s natural then to think that we must have married the wrong person and we’ll never be happy until we find the right person and marry them. Nothing could be further from the truth. A successful marriage is not determined by marrying the right person, but by being the right person.
For as important marriage is, as all-consuming as it can be, most people enter with very little training or preparation. For the most part, we want a better relationship than our parents had. Yet we have no idea how to make that happen except to marry the perfect person and live happily ever after. The problem is, we never seem to find the perfect mate. We never will, because our focus is on the other person being right for us when it must be on us being right for our mate. We need to focus on ourselves and our own growth, not on our mate and their growth (or seeming lack of it).
God wants us to have meaningful, deeply satisfying marriage relationships. He wants our marriage to reflect His unconditional and sacrificial love for us (Ephesians 5). He wants our marriage to bring glory to Him (1 Corinthians 10:31). That only happens as we seek Him first and look for Him to be the primary source of satisfaction and joy in our life (Matthew 6:33).
Think of your marriage. What was your perception of married life before you were married? How has that opinion changed? What expectations did you have for your mate and your marriage? Were they realistic? If you expect your mate to make you happy, why is that setting up your marriage for failure? What can you do to change your focus from your mate to yourself? If God created marriage to make you holy instead of happy, how does that change how you view the challenges in your relationship? Are you allowing God to use your marriage as a tool to make you more like Jesus, or are you focusing your energy on blaming your wife for your struggles and hurts? Ask God to give you a renewed and deeper commitment to your mate, putting their needs before your own and going to God for needs they cannot meet.
MARRIAGE: GOD USES YOUR MATE TO MAKE YOU LIKE JESUS
Have you ever noticed how the most rewarding things in life are often the hardest things as well? For me, running half-marathons is very draining but also very rewarding. Spending a month training pastors in India each year is even harder, but the blessings are far greater. Yet the most difficult challenge I face in life, by far, is being the husband God wants me to be. That is far more stretching for me than being a parent or even a pastor. It is the hardest thing I do, but it is also the most rewarding.
God has used my wife, Nancy, to make me a more Christ-like person. I have had to learn to accept someone’s unconditional love when I didn’t deserve it. I strive to live up to standards of what she expects and needs in a husband. I am learning to forgive as soon as I am hurt instead of waiting for her to apologize and finding myself becoming passive-aggressive to her. The good in our marriage helps me become more like Jesus, but so do the problems and difficulties because they drive me to Him who alone can meet all my needs.
Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the highest rated President this country has ever had. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is the least popular First Lady ever. She was a very difficult woman to live with, an embarrassment and a constant pain in the President’s side. Still, he stayed with her and did what he could to be kind and helpful to her. He faced much of the same in his presidency. He was hated and maligned by many for continuing the war with the south and losing the lives of so many soldiers in the process. But he was committed to keeping the north and south together when it would have been easier to let them split. He was willing to pay any price to make the union work. Could it have been that God, seeing what would be coming in Abraham’s life politically, allowed him to have a marriage that would prepare him for that? He learned commitment to unity despite the personal cost in his marriage, and so he was able to do the same for the country.
Could it be that God uses our mates to build into us the character traits He knows we will need as we move through life? Marriage is perhaps the biggest single event or activity in our lives as far as time, energy and expectations go. It only stands to reason that God would use that as a tool to form us into the person He wants us to be.
God wants us, too, to be committed to unity no matter the cost. Every relationship will have seasons of incredible intimacy and joy but also those of painful distance and relational tension. We go through those cycles. If you look at God’s relationship with His people, the Jews, in the Old Testament you will see the same thing. There were times of great togetherness and bonding, then other times of distance and pain. When we end a marriage because of the we keep from being able to work through it and enter a time of satisfaction and pleasure. It takes time for a relationship to learn to adjust through these and transition from one to another, time to build a history together and time to dig a deep foundation of mutual understanding. Too many couples aren’t willing to invest that kind of time because they want the benefits of a lifetime of working through issues to happen immediately. It can’t happen that quickly.
Are you committed to work toward unity in your relationship no matter the personal cost? Are you able to put the needs of your mate before your own and focus on where you need to grow instead of where they need to grow? Have you discovered that God created marriage to make us holy, not just happy? Do you see your relationship with you mate as God’s tool to make you more like Jesus? Ask God to help you get your eyes off yourself and onto Him and His plan for you.
MARRIAGE: LEARNING TO SERVE YOUR MATE
Two brothers decided to play on sand banks by the river’s edge. Because the town depended on the river, it was regularly dredged and sand deposited in great mounds beside river. Children loved playing on the huge sand piles, but they are very dangerous. The sand dries on the top with rigid crusts that conceal cavernous internal voids formed by the escaping water in the wet sand underneath. If a child climbs on a mound of sand that has such a hidden void, the external surface easily collapses into the cavern. Sand from higher on the mound then rushes into the void, trapping the child in a sinkhole of loose sand. This is exactly what happened to the two brothers as they raced up one of the larger mounds.
When the boys did not return home at dinnertime, family and neighbors organized a search. They found the younger brother. Only his head and shoulders protruded from the mound. He was unconscious from the pressure of sand on his body. The searchers began digging frantically. When they had cleared the sand to his waist, he roused to consciousness.
“Where is your brother?” the rescuers shouted.
“I’m standing on his shoulders,” replied the child.
With the sacrifice of his own life, the older brother had lifted the younger to safety. So, too, did the One who is not ashamed to call Himself our brother. We live eternally by standing before God on the righteousness that Jesus Christ provided at the cost of his own life.
So when we talk about becoming more like Jesus we are also talking about becoming more like Him in sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others. What better place is there to learn that than in marriage, with someone we love deeply? Even then it isn’t easy to serve each other, that is what God requires of us. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21-6:1).
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28). We live in a self-focused world, a world in which we are told we deserve a break today, we should have every need met right now, and we can expect to have it all immediately. But Jesus says His goal for us is to teach us to be servants (diakonos, someone who did menial work like waiting on tables) and even slaves (doulos, someone who had no rights of their own because they were owned by another whom they continually served). If that sounds like it is expecting too much, remember that is what Jesus did for us (Philippians 2:5-11). Being like Jesus means putting another person and their needs before our own, and what better place to work on that than in marriage! Marriage is the easiest, and hardest place to learn to serve.
In what ways does Jesus serve you? How does that compare to the way you serve your mate? Suppose Jesus treated you the way you treat your mate, would you like that? The Golden Rule says we are to treat others the way we want to be treated. Treat your mate as Jesus treats you. Be their servant, their slave. If you take care of their needs then Jesus will take care of yours. That’s a deal you can’t beat!
MARRIAGE: GIVING LOVE TO GET LOVE ISN’T LOVING AT ALL
Each one of us is born with an innate value system of what is right and fair. We seek justice in all things. The problem is that we live in a world that is often unfair and unjust. Still, we expect those standards to be in place for us, and when they aren’t we are quick to take offense. The problem comes when we apply that reasoning to marriage. We must admit, though, that we apply our standards to our mate much more strictly than to ourselves. We are very quick to accept Jesus’ mercy and grace instead of justice in our lives, but we aren’t as quick to carry that over in showing mercy and grace to them even when they don’t deserve it.
If God was ‘fair’ with us and gave us what we deserved, each one of us would be in hell right now. Fortunately God is full of mercy. In order for us to be like Him we must show continual mercy as well. That starts with our mates, for they can be the easiest as well as the hardest ones to show mercy to. We are motivated by love to show grace, but we can also be deeply hurt by them in unfair ways. Then it is much harder to show unconditional love and mercy.
If your primary motivation to love and serve your spouse is based on how they have treated you recently, you will be showing conditional love. We are to show unconditional love, like Jesus shows us. That’s why marriage does such an outstanding job of confronting our selfishness and self-focus. It reveals our inner motives, which are not always as pure as they should be.
Most married people do make an effort to love their mate. That is good. What isn’t so good is that many do it so that their mate will treat them better. Their ultimate reason for showing love is because they will benefit in the long run. But if you show love to get love, you don’t really love. You are just trading one thing for another. Then when you don’t get the response you were expecting you may stop showing love to your mate because “they don’t deserve it because of the way they are treating me.” That self-centered thinking is sin. It’s not how Jesus treats us, and we are to be more and more like Him!
What is your motive in how you treat your mate? Are you trading love to get love? Are you comparing how your mate treats you to how you treat them (“Love keeps no account or wrongs” 1 Corinthians 13:5)? Are you more concerned with having justice and getting what you think you deserve than in showing Christ-like mercy? Marriage can be very difficult because it exposes the inner motives and selfish attitudes of our heart. But that is exactly what God wants to happen so we can face them, repent of them and grow to become more like Jesus. Are you willing to do this? Are letting God use your mate to make you more like Him?
MARRIAGE: GOD IS YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW
Ask the average man or woman who is about to get married about their future spouse and they will give you a whole list of wonderful traits and characteristics. But if you ask the average married man or woman about their mate you more than likely will get a list of their failures and shortcomings. When do we go from focusing on our mate’s strengths to focusing on their weaknesses? It seems clear that getting married has a lot to do with it! We go from thinking about what they do right to thinking about what they do wrong. We stop focusing on giving and start focusing on getting.
Why do we choose to overlook the weaknesses in order to focus on strengths before marriage? Why does that change after marriage? More than likely it is because of our self-centered focus. Our personal needs are no longer being met by our mates as we’d like. Our expectations of them, and theirs of us, start conflicting and friction occurs. Friction brings pain, which no one likes. So what can we do about this?
In counseling people I often suggest that they pray and ask God to give them His love for their mate. I encourage them to be open to feeling the love for their mate that God feels for them. This will help them see their mate as a loved individual, not as an antagonist. Instead of seeing their mate as the roadblock on their way to happiness, they should start to see them as someone who is also hurting and struggling.
Think of it this way. God is your Father, and He has a father’s love for you. But He is also your mate’s Father and has a father’s love for your mate, the same as He does for you. In effect, God is both your Father and your Father-In-Law. If you have a daughter you know how a father’s heart goes out to your daughter or son, how you wants to protect them and have the very best for them. God feels the same way about His children, even more so. So when you hurt or neglect your mate you are hurting or neglecting someone very, very dear to the heart of God. By bring pain to His child you are bringing pain to Him. Sometimes we get so self-centered we think God only cares about me, but He cares just as much about our mate. Remembering that can have a very positive affect on how we treat them.
Your mate is not the enemy, someone causing you pain. They are a beloved child of God, a son or daughter of the Father. Think of God, not just as your Father, but as your Father-In-Law – and then treat your mate appropriately. Take a few moments to quietly talk to your Father-In-Law, thanking them for his special child, your mate. Ask His forgiveness for hurts you have caused them, and Him as well for He hurts when they hurt. Pray and ask God to give you His love for them, to love them as He wants you to, as He loves you. If each mate does that then marriage will indeed be a picture of our love relationship with God as it was created to be.