Why do Christian marriages fail?
As I was sitting at a banquet listening to Christian leaders on the front lines of the current battle over same-sex marriage and religious liberty, a question popped into my head: “How would I neutralize these leaders if I were the devil?” What came to mind was a strategy the devil has used to great effect: Attack their marriages. Simple and effective, and it works against ordinary Christians too. If the devil can cripple our marriages, it won’t matter if we’re interracial singles or married, and what we say or do about the institution of marriage.
Christian marriages fail the way civilizations fall—from within. And weakness within is connected to five things about marriage that we tend to forget, if we ever knew them.
1. Marriage is a privilege, not a necessity.
We are so accustomed to thinking of marriage as essential to procreation, and procreation as essential to the survival of the species, that we tend to forget that from God’s perspective marriage is not necessary at all. God could have created us like the angels, all at once and fully developed. God did not need male and female, He did not need procreation, and He certainly did not need to proceed one baby at a time with nine months of gestation and twenty years of raising. The question is, why did God go to all the extra trouble? The answer is, to give us the privilege of imaging Him, of becoming as it were His co-creators, and of living out His love for and union with the human race (remembering that the church is simply a restoration of what humanity was meant to be). The closer we look at marriage as God created it, the more we realize that it had nothing to do with utility or necessity and everything to do with privilege and glory.
2. Marriage is our opportunity to love like God.
Being loved by God makes us His children, but it doesn’t make us like Him; loving like God does (Matthew 5:44–45; 1 John 3:1–2, 10). One of the things we often miss regarding God’s love is that He loves those who are fundamentally other. There is no greater otherness than the difference between God as creator and us as creatures. Yet God binds Himself and gives Himself to us eternally, once in creation and then supremely in redemption (Hebrews 8:8–12). Marriage is our opportunity to love like God, to love someone who is fundamentally other, not just in the sense of another person but of another sex—someone who at the most fundamental level looks different than we do, who moves differently than we do, who thinks differently, relates differently, needs differently, and gives differently. Marriage is sheer privilege, and this is why same-sex marriage is more than mistaken, it is tragic. It misconstrues the love of God, misses out on the opportunity to love like God, and fails to tell the truth about who God is and who we are.
3. Our marriages don’t belong to us, but to God.
One of the ways God signifies ownership over something is by placing His Spirit there. This is how God claimed the tabernacle as his own (Exodus 40:33–34). Paul made this principle part of the foundation for Christian ethics when he informed the Corinthian Christians that they did not belong to themselves, but to God who had purchased them and placed his Spirit within them (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Malachi employed a similar theology toward marriage, when he told unfaithful husbands that God had placed a “remnant of the Spirit” within their marriage unions, and that they had better govern themselves accordingly (Malachi 2:14–15). This ownership ethic is life-changing and marriage-changing. As is true of each of us, our marriages are not our own, but belong to God. A marriage is holy space, like a temple. We are typically on our best behavior when we go to church, because we think of the church as holy space. We are extra careful what we say and do and what attitudes we show. Likewise, marriage is holy space, so we best be careful what we say and do and what attitudes we show. What a difference it would make if each husband and wife lived in light of the fact that their marriage is inhabited by the Spirit—a three-party union as it were—and therefore it does not belong to them, but to God, and their first order of business is do not grieve the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). What grieves the Spirit? Bitterness, anger, raised voices, hurtful speech, unkindness, lack of tenderheartedness, slowness to forgive (Ephesians 4:31–32)—the very things we are prone to do in the closest of all relationships.
4. Marriage is more, but not less than friendship.
In his classic, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis points out the irony that we tend to treat worst the ones we love best. We will say and do things to a spouse that we would never say or do to a friend. Not only that, but we believe we are entitled to do so and still receive full affection, duty, and honor from our spouse, even though the same behavior would likely cost us a friendship. This is why ownership is so important, because with ownership comes rights, and with rights comes entitlement. We are more careful and kind with friends because we do not carry the same sense of rights and entitlement toward them. Remembering that it is God, not us, who owns our marriages should help us realize that while marriage is always more than friendship, it is never less. Most anything that would be sin if said or done to a friend is sin if said or done to a spouse. Most any attitude that would be wrong toward a friend is wrong toward a spouse. This is where ninety percent of marriage problems reside. They have nothing to do with the special duties of husbands and wives, and everything to do with the more basic duties of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and laying down one’s life for one’s friend (Matthew 22:39; John 15:13).
5. Marriage is for feeding your spouse’s soul.
Marriages suffer and fail because husbands and wives starve one another. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just that we trade in our own currency; men and women give what they need rather than what their spouse needs. One of the things that has been quietly proceeding during the sexual revolution is extensive research on the human brain, and one of the clear findings is that the male and female brain are completely different. Books such as For Men Only and For Women Only by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn talk about the differences and how they show up in marriage. I commend these books so husbands and wives can better understand one another and what it means to feed the other. As long as husbands give what men need, and wives give what women need, we can give and give and give, and our spouse will still go hungry. With marriage, the only economics that works is supply side economics. It really is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
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