Our writer today is Jonathan Douglas.
Jon(athan) Douglas is currently studying for his Masters in Biblical Studies and hopes one day to be a lecturer. He is married to Benazir and together they have one daughter, Hera. He has a passion for seeing the big picture of the Bible in every passage of Scripture and also loves playing games and going for long walks.
In today’s world, everything is temporary. In previous generations, among some communities, most people would live in one place, work in one trade, and attend one place of worship for their whole lives. Even in nomadic communities, the way of life would remain the same and the same rhythms would be followed each year. There are disadvantages to a society structured like this but it does bring out an essential aspect of the Christian life that is often forgotten today: commitment.
Today, we move from job to job, house to house, church to church. Long-term commitment is almost unthinkable. This makes sense when a sense of transcendence or eternity has been lost. If there is no eternal hope towards which we strain or eternal doom from which we shrink, it makes sense to maximise our pleasure here and now, cutting ties with everything that holds us back. Sadly, such an attitude can be found even in the church, which has drunk from today’s cultural waters.
A Better Story
But the church ought to look different because we live out of a completely different story. After all, we have a God who not only is eternal, but has been eternally committed to a people, who are not only in need of costly salvation, but also consistently unthankful and disobedient. Even when he does bring judgement upon them, he does so in order to mould them to be able to better experience and enjoy his love. This behaviour of God is summarised in the word covenant, which describes a long-term commitment made between two individuals or groups.
Marriage, the most fundamental and intimate of human relationships for those who enter into it, is also a covenant (Mal 2:14-15). And God’s covenant-keeping love for his people is intended to be the model for the marital relationship (c.f. Eph 5:25-33). Since we live out of a better story, we are expected to tell a better story.
The foundation of the covenant of marriage is a mutual lifelong commitment to seeking the blessing of one’s spouse. Such a commitment reflects the God who commits to his people, at the cost of his Son, that he would bring them into a state of eternal blessedness. Let’s break that down a bit:
Heart Attitude Required: Patience
God’s refusal to abandon his people despite their frequent failures and offences should form the model for our union. That’s why historically couples have vowed that they will be one another’s ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,’ until death parts them. Poverty and sickness put strains on marriage that might cause partners to wonder whether they were better off alone. When things feel worse, we are inclined to look elsewhere. We need to be reminded at what typically feels like a high point of the relationship that it will not always be so and our commitment must still be unwavering.
However, fidelity is more than simply agreeing that divorce is not an option. The covenant is broken, not only when a couple seeks divorce publicly, but also when they fail to meet the deepest obligations of that covenant privately. When a spouse fails to hold fast to their spouse or fails to uphold the uniqueness of the one-flesh union, they break their covenant promises. Thus, the couple is called to an all-of-life commitment to one another—for the entire duration of life and with the entire scope of life. It is only in such a context of commitment that we can safely share all of ourselves and begin to experience a sense of ‘naked and unashamed’ (Gen 2:25) because we trust that the other person will not abandon us in spite of the shame we may feel about ourselves.
The commitment of marriage completely goes against the grain of today’s culture, where we seek what appears best for ourselves, even if it involves disloyalty. The key heart attitude we need to develop is patience, and it is no coincidence that this comes first in the list of qualities of love (1 Cor 13:4). This word usually indicates suffering (e.g. Jam 5:7-11) and/or being wronged (e.g., Matt 18:26-29). As we are all sinners, we should anticipate that our spouse will wrong us, and so we must be long-suffering, willing to endure the pain and frustration this causes. The Bible tells us how we can pursue this patient endurance.
- The fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) includes patience. So as our Christian maturity increases and we increasingly trust God for our transformation, patience will increase.
- Paul prays for the Colossian church to be ‘strengthened…for all endurance and patience’ (Col 1:11). So patience is something we can and should pray for.
- In the ‘parable of the unforgiving servant’ (Matt 18:23-35), a servant who owes an unpayable debt asks for patience and is granted it. He goes out and demands payment of a much smaller debt and has no patience with the debtor. Jesus’ point is that if you have been forgiven for great sin, you should forgive others their comparatively smaller sins with unlimited patience (see Matt 18:21-22). So to build up our patience, we should reflect regularly on Jesus’ patience towards us.
- In Jam 5:7-11, believers are encouraged to be like farmers, who have patience because they know that when rain comes they will have a harvest. We can also see this in Jesus’ own life, as he endured the cross itself precisely because he was looking forward to a greater joy beyond it (Heb 12:2; see also Heb 11). This idea is also captured by Paul when he says that “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Believing and hoping in good future outcomes sustain bearing and enduring. So patience can also be built up by cultivating a deeper hope in future glory.
Blessing the Other
Heart Attitude Required: Kindness
But covenantal love is not merely a willingness to put up with frustration and a refusal to seek joys outside of marriage that we only have the right to enjoy within it. It is not only a self-denying love but also a self-giving love. This also reflects God. He does not enter into a covenant in order to experience frustration and neglect but to bring blessing to his people.
Again, this is counter to what the world expects. The world trains us to look out for ourselves and only do what is to our own (short-term) advantage. So we might be good to others, but only when we expect a return. But Jesus does not approve of this attitude (Luke 6:34-35). I don’t mean that your spouse is your enemy, or that they shouldn’t also be good to you. The point is that covenantal love looks to what it can give and not what it may gain.
There will almost certainly be seasons in a marriage where we feel like our spouse is not meeting our needs or wants adequately. If we have a worldly attitude, when this happens, we will grow weary of doing good and the marriage will likely become cold. But if you give without needing to receive anything back, you set up a virtuous cycle. When you deliberately and consistently bless someone, they will naturally want to reciprocate and you will be even more eager to bless them. This is one key way that a happy marriage is sustained.
Of course, this is over-simplified. Our relationships tend to decay over time unless we put deliberate effort into them. The key is to learn the right reaction when we find little joy in marriage. Our question should not be, “What has he/she done for me lately?” This places me at the centre and thus leads to division. It also makes our posture passive and thus maintains the (bad) status quo. Our question should instead be, “What have I done for him/her lately?” This puts covenantal love at the centre and thus enhances unity. It also moves us into an active posture, seeking to promote change.
The heart attitude we need here is kindness. Kindness is doing good to others irrespective of what they might do in return. However, that does not mean that kindness is aimless (see Rom 2:4). It is intended to produce positive fruit in the life of the other. But even if we don’t see that, we should still keep going. If patience is persevering in bearing with bad, kindness is persevering in doing good. It is no coincidence that they are often closely related (e.g. Rom 2:4; 2 Cor 6:6; Gal 5:22; Col 3:12). The way we pursue kindness will look similar to our efforts to cultivate patience. But in addition:
- We must know and experience all of our needs for kindness are ultimately met by God. Only the person who knows that he is well-provided for can consider giving out what he has. In 1 Pet 2:1-3, Peter indicates that we should cultivate kindness towards others (v 1) if we have experienced God’s kindness (v 3). We do so by partaking of spiritual food and thus being more deeply satisfied (v 2). So we must seek our satisfaction in the kindness of Christ, so that we can be kind to others.
- Paul encourages believers to ‘count others more significant than yourselves…look…to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). He goes on immediately to say that the mindset they need is already theirs because they are in Christ, who ‘humbled himself’ first in the incarnation and then in the crucifixion (Phil 2:5-8). So we must look to Christ’s example of humble self-giving to cultivate the same in ourselves. As has been said, this does not mean thinking of less of ourselves, but thinking of others more.
The Gospel on Display
When we live this story well, people will notice, because our lives, including our marriages, are a living parable of what we truly believe.
If we believe that God is eternally committed to us, though we don’t deserve it and often neglect him, we will imitate him, especially in our closest relationships.
If we know him as the one who completely satisfies our souls, we will have the resources to continuously pour out blessing, without needing to be replenished by another human.
Our marriages should be modelled after and fuelled by God’s relationship with us.