Building and Keeping Strong Marriages

“Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” — Jesus (quoted in Matthew 19:4-6)

“Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:2-4)

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her with the washing of water by the word…So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church…Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5: 22-26, 28-29, 33)

“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4)

I had no idea, until this past week, that such a site as Ashley Madison existed (“Life is short. Have an affair.”), using the supposed anonymity of the internet to satisfy those very human desires for intimacy and companionship, but neither am I surprised. Recent years have disclosed how widespread the harm and pervasively vulnerable our generation is to the most personal details about ourselves being disclosed for anyone and everyone to see. Even a short time on social media sites should remind us how largely self-inflicted this result can be. While I am not surprised, neither am I proudly commending myself for some moral superiority that kept me ignorant of and uninvolved in such popular trends. I have nothing of which to boast because I am nothing without Christ.

Nonetheless, it is a perfect opportunity to discredit Christians as a group when those who publicly espouse a pro-family, pro-Christ outlook are ensnared in these sinful practices. It is just as wrong whether they occur in the heart, on that distant business trip, or during some secret computer time, where (it is thought) no one will see. The confirmation that one member of a well-known Christian family has a serious sexual problem[1] must not furnish an excuse to either lampoon Christ’s standards or restrict people further than He did, denying the proper place for intimacy as God allows it. The tendency to repress normal interest in sexual intimacy more than God does furnishes as much harm to the person being constrained by good-intentioned human traditions as allowing a “free for all” because people are going to engage in it anyway. Neither course is wise or mandated. Putting more on our young people than Christ required is no different from prohibiting marriage of priests, in the interest of keeping ministers pure.[2] Neither should it authorize us to be the first to “throw stones” at others when we ought to expose wrong with humility, for we are just as vulnerable to temptation. We dare not be complicit in helping the case of those who do not know God – to our shame.[3]

As Scripture reminds all who seek to restore those “overtaken in any trespass,” we do so in a spirit of gentleness, “lest we too be tempted.”[4] For those who strive each day to follow Christ, to step in His example, and humbly walk ever closer to God’s standards, this is all the more reason to patiently reach out to those souls hurting for support and needing help. The correction administered to members of the Lord’s church is not a flippant or cavalier exercise designed to make that sinner re-earn his sanctification, as if atonement through that means were even possible. The Lord does the saving. We are merely instructed not to “keep company with” – not even to eat with such a person – “anyone named a brother” as long as they remain actively engaged in their sin.[5] The purpose of this sober discipline is to deliver the realization that continuing in such sin severs one from the proper relationships God provides or else it tragically fails to convict the soul. The Corinthian church, proud of their open-minded toleration of one such man, met with Paul’s sharp rebuke. The man’s conduct was cause for mourning, not “glorying,” as they had done.[6] This man needed to be helped and by incurring grief for a time, it led to the man’s restoration and, as far as Scripture records, his eternal salvation.[7]

Those who have not succumbed to sexual temptations are by no means prevented or exempt from helping others, including many Christians, who struggle with pornography and unwholesome expressions of sexual desires. God, as with every area of life, shows us a better way. He understands our needs, the desires we have for companionship and intimacy, because He created us with them. He did not leave us to sort out what is appropriate and beneficial from what is corrosive and harmful undirected, however. He established the means for these beautiful gifts in marriage through which one man and one woman, committed to one another for life, are joined to each other with all the benefits and joys of that partnership. The most eloquent essay outlining the grandeur of marriage, as God intended it, does not substitute for the countless loving thoughts, kind words, and selfless acts that pass between a husband and wife. While such a relationship between mother and father should be the first and best model for young minds to follow, this is not to say that parental example is the cure-all solution. It is not. Parents convey that vital balance of what is healthy and wholesome against excessive habits and harmful intemperance. The inner workings of the best example do not automatically download to the child, however. What young and old must form into daily practice are the innumerable resolutions that issue from that life-long vow, the respect the wife owes her husband, the love the husband owes his wife, and the constant sharing of intimacy that is the glue of strong marriages.

Life is rarely what a man and woman envision it will be when they begin their journey together. Sometimes, disappointments turn to despair and disillusionment. To fill what is missing, some partners go looking in a host of destructive places, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or physically. This is what makes Ephesians 5 such a powerful statement not only for those who are already married but also to those who will be. It is trite, however, to simply cite a passage and expect the hurting individual or couple to instantly feel its impact. It must be applied, received by a heart ready for it and willed into habitual practice. Seeing it demonstrated in friends or family reinforces the value of it, but is insufficient if absent in the individuals directly concerned. It must be lived.

The promise to remain together is not contingent upon ample income, strong health, or the absence of hardship. Married life is filled with pressures, demands, and the daily need to sacrifice for someone else. It is not all euphoric happiness at all times, nor is it intended to be. There is the constant tension of subordinating one’s personal wants for the good of husband, wife, and children. That promise of life-long commitment becomes even more real as time goes on, especially once children are born. It empties you daily but refills you with the respect and love that only come through this unwavering steadfastness to the woman you married, the man you chose, and the family you are bringing up together. Furthermore, as 1 Corinthians 7 declares, your body is not your own: it belongs to your spouse. That right, too often withheld as punishment or through negligence, is the cement that strengthens marriage grounded by the love and respect continually cultivated between husband and wife.

A deficiency of love or respect is ultimately the source of every problem between couples. Love, in this sense, was greater than the eros, the mere “falling in” or “falling out” as the feelings come and go. Neither is it the philos, the love for friends, the affection and adoration one person has for another. It is not even storge, the love for family, even the friendship between husband and wife. None of these reside in Ephesians 5. When referring to the love a husband must have and maintain for his wife, he speaks of agape, that love which harnesses the will, empties self and sacrifices everything for her, even his own body. At the same time, the woman is to “submit” and “respect” her husband. When referring to “respect,” in verse 33, the word is phobos, the reverence and esteem the wife owes her husband not because he necessarily merits it but because God requires it. When speaking of the “submission” to a husband, the word is hupotasso, the voluntary yielding of the will.[8] God will know if marriage has not been held in honor by each (timios, respected as valuable, precious, of great worth).[9] He has already seen what hackers only discover signs of later.

Christians intellectually know these truths; the challenge is and has ever always been to live them. It is easy to respect a man when he deserves it, it can be one of the hardest tasks to revere a man who does not merit it. Just so, loving a woman who respects you is simple. Loving a woman who disrespects you can be nearly unbearable. The promise each made to the other is bestowed never knowing what the future holds. The man and woman who enter marriage do so seeing what lies ahead only in the abstract. We see all the good on one side and all the bad on the other but must take what comes of both together. We must not forget that standing beside us, as we hunker down through even the hardest of times, is the woman we married or the man we chose before God, for good or ill.

Life is short. That only means that we stand all the closer to an eternity where all we have done is tested for its enduring quality, laid bare before an omniscient and fair Judge. Are we personally ready for that? The disclosure hackers bring about is miniscule to the final reckoning that will reveal everything each of us has ever done. Have we responded harshly to our husbands, talking down to them, noting their every fault as marks of their inadequacy and your own necessity to manage life for them? That is not respect. Do we speak before first considering how it sounds to our wives, whether the way we say it shows love or merely snarky condescension? Are we thinking of her and her needs or are we merely supplying our own, leaving her to fend for herself, to keep herself afloat in the worst of times? That is not love. Depriving one another of the glue that sexual intimacy supplies robs the marriage of a continual bond. That bond, like a motor, can run for a while but without the necessary ingredients to avoid harmful friction and self-destruction, it wears down, overheats, and quits working. When something is missing from a marriage, we notice, even subconsciously. Looking for it online or through some other means is not the way. God has not left us adrift, however. He supplies even those human needs. Denying the need does not make it go away, it only becomes more acute. That is why keeping the bond of intimacy and closeness in marriage, covering all we do in love and respect, is not an abstraction or platitude. It is what keeps the marriage — our marriage — healthy and strong. It is what God intended all along by joining one man and one woman for life, as equal partners, sharing together in the difficulties and triumphs of being one. It is not always joyous but the beauty of that design is real. In selflessly loving your wife and devotedly respecting your husband, we learn its reality and begin to glimpse fulfillment firsthand.

[1] Harriet Sokmensuer, “Duggar Family Pastor Focuses Sunday Sermon on Infidelity After Ashley Madison Hack: ‘We’re in a Sexual Epidemic,’ ” People, August 23, 2015<http://www.people.com/article/cross-church-pastor-josh-duggar-ashley-madison-sermon>

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:1-9; 1 Timothy 4:1-5

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:33-34

[4] Galatians 6:1-5

[5] 1 Corinthians 5:1-13

[6] 1 Corinthians 5:2, 6

[7] 2 Corinthians 2:3-11, which balances the need to discipline the man without allowing “too much sorrow” to “swallow up” the individual but rather the “godly sorrow” that leads to repentance (metanoia: change of mind, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Bauer 512) and then salvation (7:9-11).

[8] Bauer 848

[9] Bauer 818