A year ago, in preparation for my marriage to my then-fiancé, Brittany Barfield (now Brittany Watson), I wrote a post titled "Reflections on an Upcoming Marriage" in order to share what I had been meditating on in preparation for my marriage. I shared some insights from Augustine's On the Good of Marriage and discussed passages in Scripture that give Christians the basis for their views on marriage. Among several claims, I claimed that the primary good of marriage is companionship, which then demonstrates itself in several other aspects of marriage, such as childbearing and the sexual union, as husband and wife are intimately bound in phileo (friendship love) and eros (passionate love). I claimed that marriage should be understood objectively as an institution established by God, who is its source, end, and sustainer. I claimed that one purpose of marriage is to be a living example of the gospel of Christ, where the husband shows Christlike love to his wife, who joyfully submits to him (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33).
Some may read these claims and think, "I agree with them, but aren't they more or less theoretical in nature? How do we live this practically?" The practical element, of course, is important. Marriage cannot be what God intends it to be if Christians do not learn to apply the truths of Scripture to their own unique context in their marriages. On top of this, when I wrote that post, I did so in preparation for marriage, not as a married man. Therefore, I couldn't give much in the way of practical advice because I was not yet married. I hadn't had to learn how to apply these truths of Scripture in the marriage.
However, now that Brittany and I have been married for a year, I wanted to return to the insights from that post and ask myself, "Did we exemplify these truths in our first year of marriage?" Since our wedding day, I have reminded us often to endeavor to make our first year of marriage our worst. Why would we strive for that? The answer is that, even though we want to have the best first year of marriage possible, we also want to continuously grow in the Lord and love each other better each year. A sign of that progress is that each consecutive year is better than the previous year. The past year has come with some significant difficulties, but it has also been very good. In this post, I will share some of the lessons we've learned about the practical aspect of exemplifying a Christ-centered marriage. My hope for you is that this post can be candid, encouraging, and edifying, whether you are still single (and perhaps waiting to one day be married), are preparing for marriage as an engaged person, or are married.
First, the companionship that you can experience with a spouse in a Christ-centered marriage can grow do be richer, more meaningful, and deeper than you ever imagined. This lesson was surprising not because it was unexpected. We expected that our affection toward one another would grow with time. Rather, the experience of that growing affection surprised us. It is difficult to describe. At times, it reveals itself in the inability to stop gazing at one another, in a strong desire to look into each other's eyes and smile. It often feels like knowing and being known. It feels like safety of the highest regard, of knowing that your beloved knows you and loves you because (and perhaps in spite of!) what he or she knows. The sheer "unashamedness" of our being together surprised us. This is truly an ideal for which to be strived, since the very smallest sin can disrupt it. But when the marriage is cultivated well, this affection grows in such a way as to become overwhelming. We have often described this sense that we feel like we will burst with the sense of love we have for each other. We know, at the same time, that a harsh word or a disagreement handled poorly will surely bring that feeling to an end.
It is important to remember that, as special as the feeling of companionship is, it is merely a feeling. It is neither the basis for the marriage nor the primary thing for which we should strive in a marriage. The primary thing is this: marital unity.
Second, marital unity, though strong, can easily be lost and must be sought with discipline. As much as I love Disney, their movies have often given a very unhelpful vision of love in American culture. Romantic notions of "falling in love" have their place. The Song of Songs in Scripture testify to the sense of all-encompassing infatuation that can and should take place between spouses, who are just as much lovers as they are companions. Rarely, however, does Disney contemplate the complexities involved with maintaining a strong marriage. Especially in its classic lineup of movies, "happily ever after" was the common ending; evidently, strangers who see each other for the first time and are immediately infatuated have no marital problems.
This is not so in the real world. In the real world, the core of a good marriage is not that subjective sense of infatuation or "falling in love." Rather, it is marital unity. Marital unity - that sense that you and your spouse are "on the same page," that your values and purposes are aligned, that, in other words, you are one - is not grounded in how you feel about your spouse (though emotions play a part). Rather, marital unity is a result of conviction and commitment. It is necessary to regularly return to your wedding vows, remind yourself of them, and reaffirm them. Likewise, it is important to have a clear vision of what constitutes marital unity. That is, marital unity in a Christian marriage is constituted by unity in Christ. In a Christian marriage, the husband and wife are fundamentally united in their common faith in Christ Jesus, along with being bound together as "one flesh." Thus, their unity is more fundamental than any present disagreement or hurt feelings.
I want to highlight three aspects of marital unity. First, it is potentially very strong. Being in a united marriage enables that marriage to remain strong and healthy, even in the midst of trials or other turmoil. Second, it can easily be lost. Every young married couple, including Brittany and I, have learned this lesson the hard way. When a stray or hastily-said word discourages her, marital unity can be affected. When we argue or handle difference badly, marital unity can be affected. When one of us neglects our individual walk with the Lord, this can affect marital unity. Though strong, marital unity must be maintained. Third, marital unity must be sought with discipline. No couple "falls into" that unity. It must be cultivated through communication about good things and difficult things. Many couples struggle simply because they do not talk. Likewise, it must be sought even when it is hard to seek it. Often, one or the other spouse's pride gets in the way and can lead us to act as if we're opposed to one another, rather than united to one another.
Third, as with any other aspect of life, it is much easier to destroy, rather than build, a good marriage. Constructive work is harder than destructive work. It is much easier to point out bad arguments than to make a good one. It is much easier to destroy a house than build one. Likewise, a good marriage is hard to build. It takes focused discipline to maintain it.
This is easy to say on a blog post or social media thread, but it is much more difficult to do. More than 50% of marriages in the United States today end in divorce. No-fault divorce in the United States has ensured that dissolving a marriage is easy. And, especially when two sinners are involved, it is difficult to build one.
How is a good marriage built? In part, we've learned that a good marriage is built with commitment to constant communication. We've also learned that we must recommit to marital unity every day, often multiple times a day. With the busyness of life, it is so easy for standards to slip. Next thing you know, a stray comment leads to an argument and ruins an evening. Destruction of marital unity is easy; building and maintaining it is hard.
Rather than become discouraged about this, we've also learned (and are still learning) to embrace it and pray for it. We want a marriage that flourishes with the love of Christ and proclaims the gospel into the world. Then we must work for it by His grace.
Fourth, communication is key, but the manner in which you communicate as a couple is also key. It is in the context of the small and mundane decisions and intimacies of living together as a married couple that you learn that you are both stubborn and unwilling to compromise, especially about unimportant things. In fact, the least important things seem to receive the most attention in a marriage. This phenomenon raises the issue of communication. When life gets busy, how do you maintain regular communication in a marriage? The unfortunate answer of many married couples (thankfully, not us) is to yell a lot. Other married couples simply don't talk about anything but relatively unimportant things like the daily decisions that have to be made in order for the family to function.
A good marriage must exist between these extremes. Problems must be faced honestly. Even the small problems (leaving the cabinets open) must be faced because they can threaten marital unity. The flesh in us can use the least significant things to cause resentment and bitterness to grow. Such sin, like all sin, must be faced, exposed to the light, and put to death. At the same time, part of facing those problems is placing them in the proper light. Leaving the cabinets open, if it threatens marital unity, is a problem to be dealt with. Part of dealing with it is recognizing how small and insignificant it is. Would we really fight over that? Because of the flesh, yes.
Regular - indeed, constant - communication is key. Anything that would threaten marital unity must be faced honestly. But this doesn't entail constant fighting. We must also learn to communicate in such a way that is centered on that which is most important: what I call the "core thing."
Fifth, the core thing is the marriage itself, and all communication must center on it. This is true but incomplete as it stands. In a marriage between Christians, both spouses understand the importance of Ephesians 5:22-33 in informing us on marriage. A good marriage exemplifies the relationship between Christ and His church, a marriage borne of mutual self-giving, covenantal love and submission in response to that love. Thus, each spouse must recognize Ephesians 5:22-33 as giving him or her the responsibility of practicing Christ-like love in his or her marriage.
The core thing, then, is the marriage understood in a biblical way. When I communicate with my spouse, do I do so in a way that expresses Christ-like love and all of the other virtues? Do I recognize that the primary thing that must be maintained is marital unity, rather than my being right or my ego being protected? Do I allow this understanding of marriage to inform my communication in my marriage, rather than reacting out of anger, embarrassment, or any other emotion that would, in that moment, exemplify sin in me? We must constantly pray for this view of marriage and practice it.
Finally, marriage should teach you that all sin in you should be exposed to the light and put to death by the power of the Spirit and grace of God. The mortification of sin, as the Puritans called it, is an essential spiritual discipline in the life of any individual Christian. However, we have a sinful tendency to compare sin with sin, as if some sins were so small that they could be allowed to fester in our hearts imperceptibly.
This is a lie. No sin is so small. Some sins are immediate in their severity and impact. Other sins grow little by little until, once we recognize them, they've taken hold and become a habit. This is often what happens in marriage. Thoughts and actions, though they may seem small, eventually accumulate until bitterness characterizes the the marriage itself. Again, it is easier to destroy than build, and this tendency to allow small sins to build will destroy a marriage.
Brothers and sisters, we should be much more watchful over our souls. Proverbs 4:23 tells us to do exactly that:
"Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life."
So, we would do well to guard our hearts. This means communicating about the seemingly insignificant sins or offenses against your spouse. It means exposing even the smallest frustrations or sources of bitterness to the light. That is hard. It will force you to reveal to your spouse how petty, immature, and vain you are. But that is the truth. The hope is that God will use that process to sanctify you and your marriage beyond what you had previously imagined possible. Ultimately, that is the greatest hope of a Christian marriage, that God would use it to sanctify spouses and build something much greater than could be achieved with each individually.
That's it for this post! In the weeks leading up to our first anniversary, Brittany and I discussed what we've learned, and this has shaped the writing of this post. Thus, this post is just as much from us as it is from me. These are lessons that we've learned together through the joys and difficulties of our first year, and we are hopeful that the next year will show that we've continued to grow and build a great marriage by God's all-sufficient grace. He will get all of the glory if this is true of us.
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