When a married couple pursues Christ together does it change the DNA of their marriage? Hopefully, yes.
I know many couples with no connection to organized religion who have wonderful, healthy marriages. They are good communicators, strong advocates for each other and kind. This is by no means an attempt to diminish them or put forth that Christian marriages are categorically better. I don’t believe that.
I do believe that when a couple who follows Jesus decides to get married, they enter into a sacred covenant, the purpose of which is to transform them into Christ’s likeness and usher God’s kingdom onto the earth (Matthew 6:9-15). Thus, their marriage should be characterized and governed by several unique attributes.
Christian marriages reference a profound spiritual reality: the joining together of Christ (symbolizing heaven) and the Church (symbolizing earth). The importance of marriage is upheld throughout Scripture. In fact, marriages bookend the Bible. The first one takes place between Adam and Eve and the last one between the risen Jesus Christ who has come to claim His bride, the worldwide body of believers.
We seldom ponder these mysteries as we promise our lives to each other but if we did, we would waken to a deeper dimension. Author and theologian N. T. Wright explains in a recent article: “The biblical view of marriage is part of the larger whole of new creation, and it symbolizes and points to that divine plan. Marriage is a sign of all things in heaven and on earth coming together in Christ.”
Genesis fleshes out this divine plan. God created man and woman as different but equal. That intentional otherness allows us to fit together, like two pieces of a puzzle, and become one (Genesis 2:24). Furthermore, monogamy serves as an example and a reminder of God’s call to monotheism (Exodus 20:3-5). One God, one people. One husband, one wife. The imagery is inescapable.
Our participation in this larger story has many practical implications. For example, within the context of marriage, the primary goal is not happiness, fulfillment or great sex. Rather, it is to pursue Christ’s call to holiness and love (Hebrews 10:10 and John 13:34-35).
The specifics of walking out that high calling vary for every couple but if we hope to succeed, each of our marriages should embrace these uniquely Christian disciplines: confession, forgiveness and sacrificial love.
As Paul David Tripp wrote in What Did You Expect, “No healing takes place that does not begin with confession.” Thanks to social media, we often mistake oversharing for confession. They’re not the same. When we name our sins out loud to another human being (see James 5:16), we come into the reality of how those sins affect the people who are closest to us: namely our spouse and our children. Owning our sins gives the Holy Spirit space to convict us and move us toward repentance (That way, our spouse doesn’t have to!). There’s no better impediment against sin than regular confession.
Though confession strengthens us to forsake sin, we will unfortunately continue to hurt each other. We will withdraw when our beloved desperately needs our touch or become mute when they most need to hear us affirm our love.
Jesus is well aware of our frailties. That’s part of why He asks us to forgive any and every sin (Matthew 18:21-35). If we give ourselves permission to hold onto certain offenses, our hearts will eventually ignite into a wildfire of bitterness and hate. When we willingly drop the charges against our spouse—and indicate that we have done so by proclaiming I forgive you—we pull up the dry weeds, water the ground with extravagant mercy and, most importantly, invite God’s kingdom to grow in our marriage. Truly, this is holy ground.
Perhaps the most significant characteristic of a Christian marriage is sacrificial love. Our devotion to Jesus should prompt us to love our spouse as Christ loves us. 1 John 3:16 reads, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up His life for us.” Though few of us will literally die for our spouse, by valuing their needs above our own, helping them to flourish and extending grace particularly when their limitations cost us, we deal death blows to our selfishness and pride.
We can’t love like this without help. No amount of magnanimity, determination or strength will get us through the many impossible moments (and seasons) of married life. We must not deny that neediness but instead acknowledge it and then be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Before Paul instructs wives and husbands to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), He encourages them to be filled with the Holy Spirit—as if to say, in order to pull this off, you’re really going to need the Holy Spirit’s help. And indeed, we do.
Our commitment to confess, forgive and love sacrificially (as well as any other Christian disciplines), will primarily benefit our spouse but, it will also ripple out to our communities. In Gender Roles and the People of God, Alice Mathews writes:
God’s case for marriage has remained unchanged since Eden because bent and broken image bearers can be redeemed and transformed. Marriage is designed to transform us. But God’s case for marriage also includes the possibility of our being a daily, living demonstration to a watching world of the relationship of Christ to his bride, the church. Marriage is thus a vehicle through which God speaks to the world around us through our changed lives.