Growing up in the Church I’ve always felt like marriage was mostly viewed through the lens of roles: the husband leads and the wife submits. A lot of times I would see the beautiful picture of Christ and his bride, the Church, being like marriage. These ideas are found in the pages of Scripture, and I’m not coming against them, but I do feel the need to shift the focus off of these idealized views that are overly promoted in the Church. Focusing too much on the picture of Christ and the Church, and roles in marriage, disregards the large number of marriages that are in pain.
I’ll never forget the older married lady in my church (whose husband didn’t come to Church with her) who reached out to me when she heard my marriage was struggling. We met up at Starbucks and she told me about the pain in her marriage. She shared her story with me about how she stayed married to her unbelieving husband, and how she had to cling to Christ as her spiritual husband. “I realized I had to push more into my relationship with Jesus.” These were words of wisdom from an older married woman who knew suffering. She saw that I was hurting and reached out to me. This is a beautiful picture of honoring marriage in the Church.
God’s Faithfulness When We Are Faithless
When God made his covenant with Noah, and then Abraham, and so on, he knew they would break it. God knew his people would continually break the covenant. But God remained true to himself and was faithful; so much so that he died in order to keep the covenant. He held up his end of the bargain well, and us, well, not so much. In the covenant of marriage both parties are faithless sinners, but we can honor marriage by looking to the faithful One who will help us stay faithful in the marriage covenant. We can look to his faithfulness even when we are faithless (or our spouse is faithless) and remember that God’s faithfulness now covers us (and our spouse) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He has atoned for our faithlessness in marriage. Even when we fail in marriage, we can bring it to Christ and our spouse, and rely on the Spirit to help us in our weakness.
Marriage can be a place of happiness and a place of sadness. Some marriages experience more of one than the other. The hardships vary in every season and over the years in every marriage, but everyone knows at some point that being married isn’t easy. For many it is a source of pain and suffering as well. The Church would do well to acknowledge this more publicly and privately. If we didn’t make talking about marriage struggles so “taboo,” then maybe more marriages would be helped. One of the best ways to honor marriage in the Church is to openly acknowledge the brokenness of it.
Walking Faithfully in Brokenness
Jeff and Sarah Walton have done a great job honestly acknowledging the brokenness of marriage in their book, Together Through the Storms: Biblical Encouragements for Your Marriage When Life Hurts. The Waltons use the book of Job to delve deep into the raw realities of pain and suffering. Yet, they promise present and future hope:
“Job’s life ended with an amazing picture of redemption, restoration, and healing. We aren’t promised a “happily ever after” in an earthly sense, but all those who follow the risen Jesus are promised an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). Yet our hope isn’t only in the eternal happiness and healing to come, but in the blessing of experiencing what Job did–of seeing and knowing our God more, even in–especially in–our darkest days.”
The dark days of marriage are also meant for our good and God’s glory. The brokenness is being used as a way to draw us closer to Christ. Our marriages are dependent on our relationship with our Savior, because he alone is our firm foundation in the storms. Just like for the disciples, the storms come so we can cry out for help, “Save us Lord!” (Matthew 8:23-27)
In God’s covenant with his people he becomes the Savior, but neither spouse in a marriage is one themselves. Marriage is two broken people who commit to walking through brokenness together. In Heaven marriage will be no more, and on Earth it’s meant as a means to sanctify us and get us ready for Heaven. Marriage sanctifies us through communication struggles, disagreements, disappointment, stress, betrayal, loss, and even abandonment.
Marriage as a Foreshadowing of Heaven
Yet, I pray that even in the hardest marriages, God might give sweet foreshadowing of Heaven’s gifts. He does give his children the heavenly gifts of peace, joy, relief, and contentment. And these are a part of marriage as well. And for those whose marriages don’t have these gifts naturally occurring (or they feel few and far between), God can still give these gifts to you no matter the state of your marriage or the state of your spouse. He can bring joy in the morning and turn mourning into dancing (Psalm 30). He can bring light in your darkness even if the darkness still surrounds (1 John 1:5). He is our Healer and Redeemer.
Paul has an interesting command for husbands and wives in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31:
“From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
My friend and writer Sheila Dougal comments well on these verses in an article at Revive Our Hearts:
“The apostle Paul says, “Live like you have no wife.” The picture for wives here is to live like you have no husband. But if you’re married, you do have a husband, and so this is not a command from Paul to abandon him. It’s a command to think a certain way about your marriage. It’s a command to let go of the attempt to squeeze eternal life out of the empty vessel of marriage…
Marriage cannot fulfill the thirst in our souls for satisfaction, which only comes from unity with Christ. In Christ, in marriage, living like you’re not married is not freedom to sin or to abandon the marriage because it’s hard. It’s not freedom to do evil, cover-up evil, or ignore evil. It’s freedom to serve in love.”
Marriage is passing away, since it is part of “the present form of this world”. Marriage was never meant to fully satisfy us. So, even if we experience disillusionment in marriage, it’s normal. Another sinful, weak human being was never designed to complete us. Only a sinless human being who is fully God was designed to make us whole. God designed us to find our rest in him, like St. Augustine said. He never disappoints, but broken things and people on this Earth do.
God brought Adam and Eve together in perfection, but they were split apart by a curse. Now we still fight against that curse in our marriages, and we hope in the seed of the woman who has come to crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). The Church honors marriage best by not making it an idol, by not idealizing it, and not using the Bible in a way that brings false hope and expectations to people. We don’t need to romanticize marriage to make it good. It’s good because God declared it good, and now he even uses the brokenness of it for our good.