As I sat on my daughter’s bed and read her the lyrics to “The Wedding March,” from her Disney’s Princess Stories book, I couldn’t help but wonder if this idealistic view of marriage was the reason why so many modern marriages fail.
Here comes the bride
All dressed in white
Her dreams all come true
On her wedding day.
It’s your typical Disney Princess movie plot. Girl meets prince and falls madly in love. He rescues her from a crooked sorcerer, a wicked stepmother, an evil curse, or a life where she feels trapped. Then they get married and poof! Like the wave of a magic wand suddenly all her troubles are left behind, all her dreams are fulfilled, and they live “happily ever after.”
While our society is all about the pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment, marriage was not designed for that purpose. It’s easy to fall into the trap of approaching our marriages with a self-centered point of view. We want to maintain our marriages as long as they meet our expectations and as long as it is comfortable, easy, and convenient. We may start to think, “What’s in this for ME?” or “MY needs are not being met.”
The truth is, it’s not about us – it’s about something much bigger and greater than ourselves. The Bible tells us that the primary purpose for marriage is to model Christ’s love and to develop our Christian character (7). (See this article for additional purposes of marriage not discussed here.) This is not to say that God does not want us to be happy, but God also calls us to righteousness and sometimes that means giving up our personal happiness (5). It is through a relationship with Him, not through marriage, that we discover our true identity and purpose and it is through living that purpose that we find true fulfillment and happiness.
To flourish in our marriages, we must shift our mindset from looking at marriage as a way to make us happy to looking at it as an opportunity to grow in His likeness and bring glory to Him. To flourish in our marriages, we must stay focused on these six fundamental truths – truths that will transform you and your marriage while also strengthening your relationship with God:
1. Marriage teaches us how to love unconditionally.
One of the most important lessons God wants us to learn during our life on this Earth is how to love like Jesus (1). God uses marriage and the relationships in our life for that purpose.
When we promise to stand by our spouse “for better or for worse” we are saying that our love is not conditional upon our circumstances. We commit to learning how to love unconditionally. We seek to allow God to express His divine love through us to our spouse.
We don’t learn how to love like Jesus by living for ourselves and doing whatever makes us happy.
We don’t learn how to love like Jesus simply by being kind to those who are easy to love. Difficult and frustrating people allow God do His work in us (2).
We don’t learn how to love like Jesus simply by loving when it is easy or convenient. Convenience never produces character (2). When we choose to love, be patient, and stay committed to our spouse in the midst of conflict, when it’s neither easy nor convenient, we strengthen our character, our relationship with our spouse, and our relationship with God.
“Patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady.” (Romans 5:4 TLB)
So, how DO we learn to love like Jesus so we can flourish in our marriages? We learn how to love like Jesus by loving unconditionally. The Bible defines unconditional love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV)
We’ve all heard this passage before, but what we may not realize is that this type of sacrificial, unchanging, and never-ending love can not be expressed through our own power. Its origin is the heart of God himself and it is present only through the power of Holy Spirit within us. Agape, or unconditional love, is the love of God expressed through us to others (2).
In our marriages, we demonstrate this type of love when we give without expecting to receive, forgive without first expecting an apology, let go of the past so we can move on with the present, and choose to love throughout difficult circumstances. It is during those circumstances when our faith is tested that God teaches us perseverance, increases our spiritual maturity, and molds us into His likeness.
“Let perseverance finish its work that that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4 NIV)
In our marriages, we demonstrate this type of love when we are loving and respectful to our spouses even when they may not be acting in a loving and respectful manner. Unconditional love and respect don’t have to be earned, just as we don’t have to earn God’s love, grace, or mercy.
Ephesians 5:33 states, “Each of you must also love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
As Christians, we are called to be merciful and to forgive, respect, and love our spouse even before we are offered their forgiveness, respect, and love. In doing so, we are modeling Christ-like behavior, touching his spirit, and learning how to love like Jesus (4).
2. Marriage teaches us how to be humble.
A self-serving marriage is all about, “What’s in it for me?” Marriages built on seeking personal fulfillment don’t last.
Mark 8:35 states, “Only those who throw away their lives for the sake of the Good News will ever know what it means to really live.”
We are made for something much greater than ourselves. We were created to love and serve God and one another. It is through serving others and self-sacrifice that our lives gain real significance, not through our worldly possessions or personal achievements. A self-sacrificing marriage means waking up and making the choice to express our love for our spouse, forgive our spouse, and put our spouses’ needs above our own even when we may not feel like it.
We read in 1 Corinthians 13:4 that unconditional love does not boast and is not proud. Pride is the enemy of love. Humility is the antithesis of pride. It is through humility that we can achieve harmony in our marriage.
Jesus modeled humility for us when “he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on the cross” (Philippians 2: 7-8 NLT).
When we are humble we recognize that we need God in our lives and we pray that He will shape us into His likeness, helping us become the person He wants us to be. We ask God to reveal our weaknesses and help us focus on how we can improve our marriage instead of focusing on what we want to change in our spouse. We can also ask the Lord to extend His grace and patience upon our spouse so they can love us unconditionally in spite of our weaknesses and in the times when we are most difficult to love.
Humility does not mean thinking less of ourselves – it means thinking of ourselves less. It’s not synonymous with being a doormat, but with being a door opener. When we are humble we open the door to being able to recognize and understand the needs of others. We are able to truly listen instead of focusing on what we want to say next. We are able to better appreciate and notice goodness in our spouse instead of being focused on ourselves. When we practice humility, we promote harmony and happiness in our marriage instead of conflict, bitterness, and resentment.
3. Marriage makes us holy.
Every interaction with our spouse provides an opportunity for us to put God’s Word into practice and honor Him through our marriage. To have a healthy marriage we must learn how to let go of bitterness and resentment, the power of forgiveness, and the importance of self-sacrifice.
Philippians 2:3-4 calls us to, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” We can model humility by acknowledging our weaknesses, welcoming advice or help from our spouse, offering and accepting forgiveness, admitting when we are wrong, not boasting when we are right, and honoring our spouse through acts of service (11). When communicating with our spouse, we can strive to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry,” even when they say something that we don’t agree with or when we believe we have been treated unfairly (James 1:19 NIV). When that happens, we can relinquish our choice to retaliate.
Choosing not to retaliate or return one insult for another is incredibly difficult. We have a natural tendency to want to defend ourselves and we think it would be unfair to let our spouse “get away” with the undesired behavior. However, retaliating NEVER makes things better. It adds fuel to the fire, worsens the storm and the aftermath, leads to more hurt, and in time breeds bitterness and resentment that can poison the marriage relationship. When we repay evil with good we lessen the storm.
“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9)
James 3:8 calls the tongue a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” It has the power to build a person up or a tear a person down in the matter of a few seconds. However, Proverbs 12:18 tells us that the “tongue of the wise brings healing.” We become wise by meditating on God’s word and by asking God for wisdom. The Bible promises that God will give His wisdom to anyone who asks for it (James 1:5).
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5 NIV)
We can ask for God’s wisdom for what to do and what to say, including when to say nothing at all. We can ask Him to help us guard our tongues so that they may be used for good and not evil. We can practice using our tongues to “bring healing” by being the first to apologize after a disagreement and by focusing on reconciliation instead of retaliation. We can meditate on James 1:19-20 (NIV) for patience and self-control in our day to day interactions with our spouse:
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
Marriage teaches us more than how to love unconditionally. It teaches us humility, patience, self-control, and how to trust in the Lord. As we go through trials, we discover how to rely on Him for hope and strength so that we can become spiritually mature and complete. The testing of our faith allows Him to refine us so His love can be reflected through us. In doing so, our marriages make us holy.
4. Marriage exposes our weaknesses so we can grow to become more like Christ.
In the words of Beth Moore (from Living Beyond Yourself – Exploring the Fruit of the Spirit), “The people closest to us are those who bring out the worst in us, keep us from thinking too highly of ourselves, and keep our pretenses from working” (2). And here I was thinking it was my spouse’s responsibility to bring out the BEST in me, to make me feel GOOD about myself, and to give us a “happily ever after” ending. I guess I’d watched one too many Disney movies…
By bringing out the worst in us, our spouse exposes our weaknesses so we can grow. God uses our spouse to bring up the worst in us so we can bring it out (2)! He desires to turn our weaknesses into strengths and to change us instead of our circumstances. Marriage keeps us from being prideful and arrogant, shows us what it means to be humble, and forces us to rely on Him.
Acknowledging our weaknesses also means recognizing that we can be difficult to love and having compassion for our spouse for loving us in spite of those weaknesses. It means praying for God to reveal how our words and actions may be contributing to the difficulties in our marriage and asking Him to change us instead of asking him to change our spouse. It means concerning ourselves with how we can become easier to love and letting God work on our spouse’s heart.
“So why do you see the piece of sawdust in another believer’s eye and not notice the wooden beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 GW)
Through my marriage, I’ve learned that I need to listen more and react less. I have learned that I need to stop putting my guard up so I can let the walls down. Each lesson I’ve learned occurred by having my weaknesses exposed, prompting me to rely on Him and pray for the Holy Spirit to fill me with His love, patience, and self-control. It may seem counter intuitive that your spouse can bring out the worst in you, but we must remember that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and His light shines brightest in our brokenness.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV).
5. Marriage teaches us we can’t do everything on our own, drawing us into a closer relationship with Him.
Marriage doesn’t solve our problems – it exposes our problems and allows God to transform them into provisions – opportunities for us to grow to become more like Him. It is often when we hit rock bottom that we start looking up – we admit that we can’t do it on our own and that we need Him in our lives. Trials in our marriage lead us to seek Him. The more we seek Him, the more we find Him. The more we find Him, the more we get to know Him. The more we get to know Him the better He is able to work in us and through us. He can transform our lives – it all starts with saying “yes” to God.
When we don’t say “yes” to God – when we fail to respond to His grace and try to do it all on our own – we end up focusing on our problems instead of looking at them as opportunities for growth. This causes us to dwell on the negative and breeds frustration, unforgiveness, bitterness, and resentment.
“Be careful that none of you fails to respond to the grace which God gives, for if he does there can very easily spring up in him a bitter spirit which is not only bad in itself but can also poison the lives of many others.” (Hebrews 12:15 Phillips)
The antidote for the problems we go through is the grace of God. To receive God’s grace, we must simply humble ourselves, admit that we need His help, and accept His grace (12). We must trust that if God brought us to it, He will bring us through it. When we put our trust in Him, lean on Him for strength, and rely on His grace, we can persevere through difficult circumstances, learn from them, and grow in our relationship with Him in the process.
6. Marriage teaches us that true joy and fulfillment can be found only in Christ.
Our spouse is not responsible for our happiness. Contrary to what many believe, it is a choice we make regardless of our circumstances. We search for happiness in our careers, our possessions, and our relationships with others, but true joy and fulfillment are found only through a relationship with Christ. This begins by believing in Him, inviting Him into our life, and committing to following Him. Once we recognize this we can stop looking to our spouse to provide the fulfillment we are seeking and blaming him when those needs aren’t met. We can start to notice goodness and be thankful for what drew us to our spouse in the first place. We can choose to “fix our thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable…things that are excellent and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8 NLT).
One way we can fix our thoughts on things that are worthy of praise in our marriage is to seek out and appreciate the good qualities in our spouse. We can write them down, thank God for them, and pray for God to bless our spouse, even in times of hardship. We can ask God to protect our spouse and to encourage us to pray for him, have hope in him, and have hope in our marital relationship.
When we accept these fundamental truths about marriage and put Christ at the center of our relationship with our spouse, we build a rock-solid foundation that will withstand the storms of life.
“And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matthew 7:25)
In every marriage, conflict is inevitable, but if we stay focused on Him and His Word we can view our relationship with a fresh perspective. We can see it as an opportunity for growth (conflict + commitment = change) and to learn how to love like Jesus.
I used to question why my husband and I faced so many challenges in our marriage. Now, instead of asking, “Why me?” I ask God what He wants me to learn from the experience. God is transforming my marriage from a problem into a provision. He is using it as an opportunity for me to stop trying to prove myself and instead start trying to improve myself. He is giving me a new perspective on my marriage and renewing my mind so that our marriage can be renewed to one that brings honor and glory to Him.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2 NIV)
There are only two things on this Earth that are eternal – God’s Word and people (10). At the end of your life, it won’t matter if you had a successful career, lived in a big house, or went on extravagant vacations. What WILL matter is if you chose to invest in these two things.
When we choose to invest in our relationships with others, including our spouse, we store up treasures in heaven. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:20 NIV)
God promises to reward those who diligently seek Him and commit to following Him. He promises to reward those who love like Jesus. And His reward is infinitely better than any “happily ever after.”
Call to Action #1: How can you allow God to transform the problems in your marriage into provisions? Moving forward, how can you invest in your spouse and enable your marriage to help you learn to love like Jesus?
Call to Action #2: Don’t give up! God never promised our marriages (or life, for that matter) would be easy, but He did promise that in all things He works for the good of those who love Him and who have been called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28 NIV). Hold on to that promise! When you feel like quitting, read 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 MSG and pray the Prayer for a God-Shaped Marriage, either on your own or with your spouse.
“So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 MSG)
Prayer for a God-Shaped Marriage (Adapted from 40 Prayers to Pray Over Your Husband)
Thank you for bringing my husband and I together and for blessing us with loving family and friends, a safe place to live, and most importantly, the gift of your son, Jesus. Without Him we would be lost in a world that places value in all the wrong things and in a marriage centered around self-serving behaviors. Help us instead to center our marriage around you, Lord. Help us to love and honor one another with the understanding that true fulfillment can only come from a relationship with you and by putting you first in all areas of our life.
I am committed to following you – to living a life of meaning and to having a purposeful marriage – one that brings honor and glory to you.
Over the years, I admit that I haven’t always been the wife you designed me to be or that my husband needs. Please forgive me for the times I have been disrespectful and unloving in my words, attitudes, and actions. Please remove any bitterness, resentment, selfishness, and impatience from my heart and replace them with forgiveness, patience, self-control, and perseverance to work through the challenges we face in our marriage by keeping my eyes fixed on You. Help us to grow in our relationship with each other and with You, Lord.
Make me kind. Make me gentle. Make me holy. Make me the kind of wife my husband needs and desires to be with. Help me to guard my tongue and keep the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart pleasing to you for out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Psalm 19:14, Luke 6:45). Transform my heart into a gentle, loving, grace-extending one. Help me model the same grace and mercy that you show to me to my husband.
Help me to be faithful to husband and to you, Lord – not only in my actions, but in my words and in my thoughts. Transform me into the kind of wife that my husband needs – one that will support him, build him up, encourage him in His walk, and love him unconditionally. Help me to let go of the past, control my emotions, and remember that my first and foremost ministry is to my husband and our family. Help me bless him, accept and love him for who he is, and allow You to be the one to mold and shape him into the man you created Him to be.
I willingly give my life to you and long to live a life that is holy and pleasing to you. I pray that You will work in me daily to become a wife that my husband can love easily, trust fully, and open up to completely. Help me to grow into the wife and the woman that you designed me to be so that I can fulfill your purpose for my life and for our marriage.
In Jesus’ name,
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2. Moore, Beth. (1998). Living Beyond Yourself: Exploring the Fruit of the Spirit. Nashville, TN: LifeWay Press.
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9. Harris, Domenicek. (2013, April). The Power of Forgiveness in a Marriage. Today’s Christian Woman (TCW). Retrieved March 9, 2016 from http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2013/april/power-of-forgiveness-in-marriage.html.
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11. Strom, Bill. (2011). Are You Humble? 6 Ways Your Spouse Can Tell. Power to Change. Retrieved March 15, 2016 from http://powertochange.com/experience/sex-love/humble/.
12. Warren, Rick. (2016, March 16). Through God’s Grace, Your Pain Has a Purpose. Daily Hope with Rick Warren. Retrieved March 16, 2016 from http://rickwarren.org/devotional/english%2fthrough-god-s-grace-your-pain-has-a-purpose.
13. Yoder, Kaylene. (2014). 40 Prayers to Pray Over Your Husband. KayleneYoder.com. Retrieved December 9, 2016 from http://kayleneyoder.com/40-prayers-for-my-husband-his-wife/.