The Bible and the culture tend to emphasize very different things when it comes to growing or saving your marriage. The culture tends to focus on feelings. The Bible tends to focus on actions.
These six actions can change the way you feel about your marriage; these are things that you can do to help your marriage grow or to bring it back from the brink.
One of the first things the Bible says about marriage has to do with leaving: Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24 ESV).
In 23 years of couples’ counselling, I have discovered that the three greatest causes of marital conflict are sex, money and in-laws. It’s the last one that always surprises folks.
A marriage, by definition, is an intimate partnership between two people. It is you and him against the world. It is you and her trying to pay the bills, figure out sex, figure out work, figure out kids and figure out life. The fastest way to spoil that is to bring in other people too far and too soon.
There is a place for the sage advice of mom and dad. There is a place for a no interest loan. There is a place for expertise and counsel, but it is not early and it is not soon. There needs to be a definite leaving; there needs to be a clean break. There needs to be enough time for you to make your own rules and establish your own norms in prayer, with your Bibles and without your mom and dad.
Once you’ve done that, you can bring mom and dad in – to a certain extent. If you’ve never done that, you need to push them out until you have.
A marriage doesn’t even begin to feel like a marriage until you have left your mom and dad.
Obviously these two go together. The Bible says that a marriage is about leaving your parents in order to cleave to your spouse. Some people never leave, and some people never cleave. I am always amazed to discover couples who are still operating out of split bank accounts, still avoiding contrary convictions and still living an essentially unyoked life.
That isn’t marriage, at least not according to the Bible.
The world tends to think of marriage like a capital ‘H’; two people living separate lives trying hard to maintain a connection. But the Bible pictures marriage more like an upside down capital ‘Y’; two people merging into one life as they come together in pursuit of Christ. Listen again to what the Bible says in Genesis 2: Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24 ESV).
My wife and I have a couple of family mottos. One of the things we like to say is that “it takes two people to live one good life.” That is what the Bible is saying here. Marriage is not about negotiating money or ambitions – it is about merging money and ambitions; it is about sharing a life. That doesn’t necessarily mean “losing yourself”, but it does mean prioritizing the marriage. In a Biblical marriage, there is you, there is me and there is us. And us always wins.
A marriage doesn’t even begin to feel like a marriage until you get that.
In an earlier article I talked about how sin is one of the 4 universal crises that every marriage must make it through. Whether it comes in the first month, the first year or the first night of your marriage, it will come. You will wake up to the disappointing reality that you are married to a sinner. Sometime a little later you will realize that your spouse is married to one, too.
This is a serious crisis, and the only way you can make it through is by forgiving.
Jesus said: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3–4 ESV).
You don’t have to ignore sin to grow or save your marriage – Jesus says, ‘If your brother sins, rebuke him!’ – but you do have to forgive it.
All people sin.
The Bible says: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 ESV).
There are no perfect people and no perfect matches. There are only human marriages made out of two human sinners.
So get over it and get on with it. When your brother or your sister sins, rebuke him. Rebuke her. Share how that sin has hurt you and has disrupted your relationship; share how it has threatened the blessing of God on your union. Tell the truth about your spouse’s sin and if he repents forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in the day and turns to you seven times saying, ‘I repent!’, you must forgive him.
It is the only way forward.
But if you do – if you are obedient here – then there is great beauty on the other side. When you have seen the worst in each other and you have repented and forgiven, it is possible again “to be naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25). That is a glorious place! And sinners can only get there when they forgive.
It might be a gross overgeneralization to say that men sin more but women remember longer. It might be, but it fits with what I’ve observed over two decades of marriage counselling.
Men are bold sinners, by and large. Happily, they are also bad liars and therefore sooner or later their sin does come to the surface. It can be dealt with; it can be repented of, and it can be forgiven. Part of dealing with it must include forgetting it. Love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV) and love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
Forgiving isn’t forgiving unless it is forgetting. To forgive your spouse means that you will not bring up previous forgiven failures when discussing present marital challenges. It means choosing not to say, “This is just like what you did before”. If what he did before was forgiven, then it ought not to be mentioned now.
That’s how God forgives us. The Bible says some marvelous things about the forgiveness and forgetfulness of God: He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19 ESV). And, as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (Psalms 103:12 ESV).
If sins are not buried and forgotten, they will inevitably arise and destroy the relationship. The Psalmist knew that too. He said: If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Psalms 130:3 ESV)
The same is true in marriage. If you are going to mark iniquities; if you are going to keep a permanent record of wrongs, and if you are going to bring up what should have been buried, then your marriage will not stand.
You have to forgive and you have to forget.
The Bible is remarkable in many respects, but few things are more unprecedented than what the Bible says about sexual generosity within a marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7 the Apostle Paul says:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 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. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time (1 Corinthians 7:3–5 ESV).
In the Roman world, a wife was required to give to her husband his conjugal rights, but no one had ever said what the Bible says here. The Bible says that the husband must give to his wife her conjugal rights. The Bible says that we have a mutual obligation to be sexually generous to each other within the covenant of marriage. That is unprecedented and it is incredibly wise.
Few things sour good feelings in a marriage faster than sexual stinginess.
But on the flip side, few things are more therapeutic and more restorative than generous sexuality. There is a sense in which you can “sex your way out” of a great many marital troubles. Sex is more than a union of bodies – it is a REUNION of souls! The Bible says that Eve was made OUT OF Adam. God took from Adam and made Eve and then he gave her back to him. Adam did not miss the significance of that fact. He said: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23 ESV)
Moses didn’t miss it either. He immediately adds editorial content. He says: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24 ESV)
The sexual union of a man and a woman in marriage is justified on the basis of the fact that they were always meant to be together. It is separation that is abnormal and therefore, sexuality is the norm. Sexual union is a return to form. In it you rediscover your essential oneness. In it, you forget the things that drive you apart. In it, you remember how good it is to be together.
Sex is therapy. Be generous in your application.
In Song of Solomon, the King takes his beloved away from the noise and demands of the palace so that they can enjoy an afternoon of uninterrupted love. He says to her: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away” (Song 2:10 ESV).
The King was wise enough to know that love takes time and time takes space. Sometimes you have to get away. Sometimes you have to get away from “the little foxes that spoil the vineyard”. Whether those little foxes are emails, phone calls or children – if you do not get away, they will spoil your vineyard. You need time and you need space to rediscover your love and your joy in one another.
The kids won’t die if you leave them with Grandma for the weekend. They’ll have a great time, or maybe they won’t, but who really cares? The best gift you can give to your kids is the health and vitality of your marriage. Whether they thank you this weekend or not is not the point. They will thank you eventually.
But even that isn’t the point.
The point is that you need this. You need to go. You need to get away from the noise and the demands and the distractions and you need to make a retreat and an escape in your love together.
You need to go.
Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love! (Song 5:1 ESV)
Believe it or not, this is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
N.B. To learn more from pastor and Bible teacher Paul Carter be sure to check out the new cycle of the Into The Word podcast. The new production cycle is working chapter by chapter through The Gospel of Mark. You can find it here.