As America keeps innovating and moving forward into a new century, some older institutions are changing—or even being left behind. And marriage seems to be one of them.
At least, that is what statistics seem to show, as more and more Americans trade in their wedding vows for divorce papers.
Yet even more troubling than the average divorce rate in this country, which hovers around 33 percent for adults who have wed on at least one occasion, is that this number stands unchanged when looking at statistics for Christians. A study carried out by the Barna Group in 2008 showed that the divorce rate among “born-again Christians” stands at roughly 33 percent.
Since then, numerous Christian intellectuals have refined the research to illustrate that actively committed believers tend to have drastically lower rates of divorce, as articulated in this article on the Gospel Coalition website. “The factor making the most difference is religious commitment and practice,” the article argues. Still, it should remain quite appalling that the rate of divorce even hovers at more than a minute percentage for those who claim to be living as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Surely, many married Christians will cringe at that last statement, perhaps because of the conviction it delivers, as it obligates us to a higher standard as ambassadors of Christ in our county. More likely, however, it is because it appears a naive analysis to many who have long-term problems with their spouses and often feel that their marriage is falling apart regardless of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their union.
When my wife and I celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary, well-meaning friends told us, “Oh, you’ll see in a few years,” or “You’re still in that honeymoon stage.” However, these cliché statements only admit to some unfounded eventual defeat and proclaim that despite God’s desire for long and healthy marriages, our humanity will eventually condemn countless marriages to dissolution.
One of the most virulent killers of marriages—whether religious or nonreligious in their foundation—is the stubborn unwillingness of one or both partners to detach from their self-centeredness. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say that self-centeredness is likely the major reason couples seek divorce, filing on grounds of the ingeniously constructed claim of “irreconcilable differences.” Selfishness stands at the root of almost every other conflict that can come between two people.
In America, parents, educators and the wider culture generally impress upon us the idea that we each have a personal destiny. We have been instructed to pursue college degrees, search for good-paying jobs and create the best futures for ourselves and our families at all costs. Yet when it comes to marriage and carving out a joint path together, this is where we struggle. We may have wedding bands on our fingers, yet we still want to pursue our own individual dreams and purposes.
Scripture teaches another way. In Genesis, we find a stunning description of the first marriage between Adam and Eve, which is then brought up in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 3. Confronted by the worldly Pharisees, Jesus is asked what grounds justify divorce. He replies, reflecting on the binding of the first man and woman, that when couples unite, “So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). It is no longer, “I’ll do my thing and you stand back and watch.” Instead, it is a conjoining of wills to pursue God together.
St. Paul supplements this idea in 1 Corinthians 7:4: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” In this equitable view of marital responsibility, one must pause to think whenever they make a choice: Where should I go to school? Should I take this job far from home? Will this new responsibility affect time with my spouse?. They must ultimately consider whether their other half approves and feels called in that same direction.
For the Christ-follower to disregard either instruction by Jesus or Paul is to misunderstand why marriage happens and what God wants for us as married human beings. There are other biblical teachings on how marriage should work, but the first and foundational principle is one of priorities: Christ first, spouse second and self third.
Of course, it is difficult to live forever in harmony. Selfishness will always be the natural impulse we must fight to keep our marriages strong. But we can start today.
Let’s stop thinking first of ourselves and trying to call the shots in a life where God is already calling the shots anyway. When we learn to mutually submit and place our spouses as priority over ourselves—as Jesus, the bridegroom of the Church did when He gave His life for His bride—then our marriages will stop failing. It is only when we shape our lives like His that selfishness will die—and perhaps with it, the assumption that marriages will inevitably break beyond repair.