By Dr. Gary Chapman
As I travel across the country leading marriage seminars, I encounter more and more pastors weeping over broken marriages in their congregations. Their stories have a similar ring: “Our minister of music had an affair with one of the ladies in the choir.” “The chairman of our deacon board got involved with a young lady with whom he was counseling.” “In our small church, we’ve had four divorces in the past year. I don’t know if I can take much more of this.”
Whether the congregation is urban, suburban, or rural makes little difference. Christians are having affairs, separating, and divorcing in alarming numbers. These are only the ones we know about. For every couple who divorces, there are scores of others with troubled marriages. Unknown to their peers, they live in silent pain. Unless the tide is turned, they, too, will become divorce statistics two, five, or ten years from now.
A part of the problem is that we’ve lost our way in the church when it comes to understanding marriage. The TV soaps, movies, and romance novels have become a steady diet for thousands of Christian adults. Thus, their ideas of marriage have been flavored more by contemporary myth than by biblical truth. Visions of romantic bliss dance higher in the minds of many Christians than the vision of a godly marriage. According to the Bible, marriage was not designed to provide us with a daily dose of romantic goose bumps. God had something far more important in mind when he said of Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helper suitable for him… and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:18, 24). What then is a biblical perspective on a healthy marriage? Let me suggest four characteristics of a healthy marriage.
The phrase “they will become one flesh” involves far more than sexual intercourse. It involves the total person. Becoming “one flesh” implies intellectual intimacy: the sharing of thoughts, ideas, and desires; emotional intimacy: the sharing of feelings; social intimacy: the sharing of events, such as attending a concert, planting a tree, visiting with friends; spiritual intimacy: sharing something of our relationship with God, a word we read from Scripture, an impression we received in worship, or sharing in prayer for missionary friends, and yes, physical intimacy: the sharing of our bodies in the joy of pleasuring each other sexually.
Such intimacy does not simply happen after two people get married. It requires time, a willingness to talk and to reveal ourselves, a commitment to listening, not with a view to disagreeing, but in an honest effort to understand what my spouse is thinking, feeling, and desiring. The intimacy that develops from such open communication is the opposite of being “alone”. It is togetherness of the highest sort.
In a healthy marriage, the husband and wife will commit to meeting each other’s needs. The Scriptures are abundantly clear that this “need-meeting” is to be reciprocal. The husband is told to feed and care for his wife “just as Christ does the church” (Eph. 5:29). Peter instructs husbands to dwell with their wives “according the knowledge” or, as the NIV translates it, husbands are to be “considerate” (1Peter 3:7). Love is the overarching theme of the Christian husband (Eph. 5:25). As Christ looks out for the well-being of the church, so the husband is to look out for the well-being of his wife. In like manner, the wife is to “respect her husband” (Eph. 5:33). Peter further instructs that even a wife married to an unbelieving husband may with her “gentle and quiet spirit” focus on meeting the needs of her husband and thereby win him to faith in Christ (1 Peter 3: 1-4). Our greatest positive influence on each other is in seeking to meet each other’s needs. God designed us to complement each other.
DEAL WITH FAILURE
In a healthy marriage, the couple will deal honestly with their failures. Since Adam and Eve, failure is a part of the human experience. Even when I know I should be kind, I sometimes am unkind. Even when I know l should control my anger, I sometimes lose control. Having a healthy marriage does not demand perfection. Nevertheless, healthy marriages do require us to be honest about our failures.
The biblical pattern for responding to failure is confession and forgiveness. In our relationship with God, we are instructed, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins” (1John 1:9). The same paradigm applies to the marital relationship.
Paul writes, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16). A clear conscience toward God is obtained by confessing our sins to God; a clear conscience toward man is obtained when I confess my sins to the person I sinned against. In marriage, that is often my spouse. When I am unwilling to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong,” I allow my sin to become a block in a wall between the two of us. A few unconfessed sins and the wall gets higher. In a healthy marriage we do not allow walls to build between us.
The biblical response to confession is forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a decision to lift the penalty and receive the spouse back into warm fellowship. If the spouse’s sin has hurt us deeply, we may continue to cry even after choosing to forgive. When memory of their action comes to mind, we may again feel the pain. But having chosen to forgive, we say to God, “Lord, you know what I’m feeling. But I thank you that it’s forgiven. Guide me as I do something good with my life today.” Affirming forgiveness and committing ourselves to loving actions brings eventual healing to the hurt. In a healthy marriage, confession and forgiveness will be practiced whenever needed.
SEE THE HIGHER PURPOSE
I also believe that in a healthy marriage, the couple will view their marriage not as an end in itself, but as a means to help each of them accomplish God’s purposes for their lives. Thus, their marriage supports their ministry to the larger community.
God has gifted every Christian and placed him in a strategic place in His body. God also ordained marriage. It is God’s gift to help us more effectively accomplish His goals in our lives. In a healthy marriage, the couple understands that each of them belongs to the larger body of Christ. When they minister to each other and build a Christian marriage, they are ministering to the whole body by providing a model for other marriages.
Their larger ministry is an overflow of their ministry to each other. When they are meeting each other’s needs and are experiencing the joy
of the intimate relationship, they are then free to share their gifts with the rest of the world. If our churches were filled with these kinds of marriages, non-Christians would beat a path to our door.
We must rediscover the biblical picture of marriage. I believe this is best done in earnest, loving discipleship in a small group where people are given specific study assignments to do each week and who gather for sharing, praying, and encouraging each other in building solid Christian marriages.
Some time ago, I met with 200 pastors from many denominations and asked, “How many of you have a couple in your church who’s been assigned the responsibility of marriage enrichment?” Only five hands rose. I have asked that question to numerous groups of pastors across the country, and the percentage is almost always the same. Only about two percent of our churches have even assigned anyone responsibility for marriage enrichment. We have full-time staff to work with youth, singles, music, and other areas, but not even volunteer leaders for marriage enrichment.
It is my vision that over the next ten years, every American church will have someone leading ongoing marriage enrichment groups. Many couples are capable of leading such groups; they only need the vision and encouragement of church leaders. If this can happen, we will see the tide begin to turn on divorce statistics – first in the church, and then in the culture. Curriculum for such groups is readily available. What is lacking is vision and mobilization. Christians must become models of biblical marriage. Such marriages become gardens for evangelizing the world’s alienated thousands.
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GARY CHAPMAN—author, speaker, pastor, and counselor—has a passion for people and for helping them form lasting relationships. He is the bestselling author of The 5 Love Languages® series and the director of Marriage and Family Life Consultants, Inc. Gary travels the world presenting seminars, and his radio program airs on more than 400 stations. For more information, visit www.5lovelanguages.com.