A preacher once said, “No marriage is perfect. In fact, even if marriage is made up in heaven, so are thunder and lightning.”
Did you know that there are roughly around 200,000 books on Amazon.com on the topic “how to build strong marriages”? Yet even with all these resources, you still wonder why some marriages click and why some tick away like a time bomb. We all just want our marriages to last, to finish strong. We all want a marriage that is growing and vigorous! The percentage of those who marry with the goal of seeing their marriage fail is ZERO!
But then, we look at the realities of marriage.
It is made up of two imperfect and self-willed people, uniquely different from each other, many times polar-opposites. Then you factor into the marriage equation, the fact that both man and woman are sinners (Romans 3:23) and generally selfish (Psalm 14:3). Given these facts, it is inevitable for conflicts to happen, for sparks to fly, for personalities to clash. Those who enter into marriage are taking a huge risk.
It is no wonder that some people, after a few years of marriage, begin to simply try to survive! It doesn’t have to be the case, really. You can have the marriage that is not just surviving, but thriving and not being threatened by the risks.
Firstly, READ THE MANUAL.
Someone once told me “I wish there was a one single manual on marriage.”
“What kind of manual?” I asked.
“Like the one that comes with your new appliance.”
If you were like my husband, you’d buy new appliances or gadgets and when you get home, you’d immediately get to assemble it right away. Then, half way through assembling, you’d get stuck because you just realized that you assembled it the wrong way. Only then would you pick up the manual and read it.
We have a manual for marriage – the BIBLE. But a lot of times, we consult it, not before getting into a relationship, not before saying I DO, not even after saying I DO, not at the beginning, but when we are at the end of our rope, when we are stuck, when we are hurt, when we are bitter, when we have been wronged by our spouse. We have a manual. It is the Bible. Everything we need to know about being a good spouse and keeping the marriage strong is there, but we need to read it first and always.
Secondly, LAY THE FOUNDATION RIGHT
God-Man-Woman. I call this the FOUNDATION TRIANGLE. Marriage was initiated by by God. It began with Him. John Stott writes “Marriage is not a human invention, even though it is in all societies a recognized and regulated human institution…it is God’s idea, not ours” (Stott 2006, 359). It is the only institution that precedes the fall, and “it is to be regarded as God’s gracious gift to all mankind” (Stott, 359). This shows us that marriage was created as a three-way relationship, a triangle, which includes God.
We were not meant to pursue a marriage relationship apart from the one who instituted it. To run a marriage without God is like flying an airplane without the main pilot, running an office without a manager, running a factory without the supervisor, running a company without the CEO. While it may go well for a short time, it sure won’t last the long haul, especially when crisis hits.
Marital breakdown, in whatever form “is always a tragedy. It contradicts God’s will, frustrates his purpose, brings to husband and wife the acute pains of alienation, disillusion, recrimination and guilt…” (Stott, 360). Divorce, extramarital affairs, alcohol, drugs, resignation are just some of the ways people are trying to deal with their marriage difficulties. We have forgotten that there is a better way – in fact it is the only way – to deal with difficulties in your marriage. Go to God, to the one who created marriage. As God wanted Adam to know how to relate to Him first, we need to go back to God to let him make us into the right husband or wife. “Marriage isn’t so much finding the right person as being the right person” (Charlie Shedd). We can only be the right person if we are right with God and God is a vital part of our personal and spiritual life. Take God out of your marriage and it will not develop as it was intended to be. Marriage was intended to flourish with God as a part of it. To have a marriage that works, we need to go back to one who made marriage and follow His instructions in the Manual.
Thirdly, GO FOR GROWTH
Truth-Grace-Time. I call this the GROWTH TRIANGLE.
As husband and wife we need to live in truth, “God’s truth… the reality that structures our lives” (Cloud & Townsend, 42). It means we should live, think, act and speak according to God’s truth. We have this love-hate relationship with truth, don’t we? We love truth, but we hate it when it has to do with us. Truth will hurt, but so will a lie. Which one would you rather have? When my husband speaks truthfully to me, I have to swallow a huge lump, and still end up hurt. And vice versa.
How can we grow in truth? We grow in truth by regular study of the Word of God. If we do this, we will know what if God’s truth! We will not need to wait for our spouse to point it out to us because we are already living it.
We need to grow in grace. We should learn to forgive our spouse when he or she has wronged us. We do not harbor bitterness. But you say, well he or she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven! That is the point of grace. Grace is unmerited favor. It is more than just forgiveness or unconditional acceptance or even the absence of condemnation. It is God’s favor…God is bestowing on us good things that we have done nothing to earn or merit or produce. We are to therefore offer expressions of God’s grace to our partner. He or she cannot produce it himself or herself. We express God’s grace upon our spouse, even when he or she doesn’t deserve it.
How can we grow in grace? By following the example of Christ. We should abound in grace, always, being loving in your words, and understanding even if he or she doesn’t deserve it. That is grace.
Because we are all a work in progress, not yet perfect, we need time to grow. We are all headed toward a goal, which is perfection in Christ, and this requires time. Do not rush your spouse to change. Do your part and then let God do His part in working IN your spouse’s heart in HIS own time. Give your spouse time as God has given you time to grow into maturity.
How can we grow with our spouse? With time – spend time with him or her. Both quality time and quantity time. We do not give each other bits and pieces of our time, but we should offer the best of our time to him or her.
Finally, DO YOUR PART
Faith-Love-Work. I call this the RELATIONSHIP TRIANGLE from Christian counselor Everett Worthington, Jr.
Worthington says, “like our relationship with God, (Galatians 5) our relationship with our [spouse] requires each element of that Christian pattern of discipleship: [which is] love, work and faith. Difficulties in marriage…are directly due to difficulties in one or more of these elements.”
Love is “choosing to value [your] partner and choosing not to devalue him or her” (Worthington, 160). What does valuing or devaluing my spouse look like? When we fail to affirm, comfort, praise, encourage, admire, respect, think the best of, spend time with, share intimacy with, communicate with, respectfully negotiate differences with and remain committed to, love is not being lived out. Of course, when you intentionally devalue your spouse (criticize, discourage, ignore, disrespect, put down, betray trust and confidence, think bad of and ignore your commitment to him or her), then love suffers. Our wedding vows included the words, “I promise to love you…” Love is not just a feeling! It is a commitment. It is not that thing that keeps your heart beating! Love does not come via an arrow from a little person with wings! Love is a verb.
The second law of thermodynamics states that: Unless work (energy) is put into a system, the system will run downhill. Marriage is not a standard system that will run its own course without any effort on our part. Marriage requires work. It demands effort and involves energy. So unless you are ready to put work into your marriage, you will not attain the marriage you want. Work is required when there are conflicts. We have to work out these conflicts, work on better communication. Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one sharpens the other.” “However, iron does not sharpen iron when swords cross in anger. They dull each other by whanging and clanging away in cuts at the head and the heart” (Worthington, 163). If you have a garden, you tend to it and work at keeping it beautiful and healthy, so it is with with marriage.
And when we pour love and work into our marriages, we do not immediately see the results, do we? This is where the role of faith comes in. Our tangible part is to invest love and work into our marriage, and then have faith that our labor (of love and work) will result in a stronger marriage. We put our faith on the third person in the marriage – God, to work His will in us. This actually frees us from grasping for control over our partner, but allowing God to ultimately take control (Worthington, 161).
So how can we attain a strong and thriving marriage?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Donna Tan, from the Philippines, is a pastor’s wife, a pastor’s kid, a counselor, professional editor (for both academic and popular writing), resource speaker, writer, and blogger. Her passion is to minister to women (pastor’s wives in particular), couples and families. Donna’s ministry experiences span ages and cultures; having led youth and women ministries in the Philippines, as well as women ministries in the US (as a leader with Trinity Wives Fellowship from 2010-2012, in Deerfield, IL).
Donna is married to Dr. Jason Richard Tan (Ph.D.), and they have two children – Joshua (16) and Elisha (11). They have been married for 18 years. Jason and Donna are missionaries under GlobalGrace Fellowship (based in Pasadena, CA) serving the Philippines and Asia. She is the Admin Director of Great Commission Missionary Training Center. You can connect with Donna through her blog TonesOfHope.blogspot.com.