What are the essential wisdom perspectives that Scripture gives us that enable us to have realistic expectations for our marriage?
1. You Are Conducting Your Marriage in a Fallen World
Our marriages live in the middle of a world that does not function as God intended. Somehow, someway, your marriage is touched every day by the brokenness of our world. Maybe it simply has to do with the necessity of living with the low-grade hassles of a broken world, or maybe you are facing major issues that have altered the course of your life and your marriage. But there is one thing for sure: you will not escape the environment in which God has chosen you to live. It is not an accident that you are conducting your marriage in this broken world.
It is not an accident that you have to deal with the things you do. None of this is fate, chance, or luck. It is all a part of God’s redemptive plan. Acts 17 says that he determines the exact place where you live and the exact length of your life. He knows where you live, and he is not surprised at what you are facing. Even though you face things that make no sense to you, there is meaning and purpose to everything you face. I am persuaded that understanding your fallen world and God’s purpose for keeping you in it is foundational to building a marriage of unity, understanding, and love.
There is no better window on what we face in the here-and-now world in which we live than the descriptive words that the Bible uses: “grieved,” “trials,” and “tested” (1 Pet. 1:6–7). Now, these words should cause you to pause. Of all the descriptive words that Peter has at his disposal to describe what God is doing in us through the environment in which we live, it is very significant that he uses these three words. Each is instructive and interpretive. First, you will not escape the grief of life in the fallen world. That grief can be the momentary pain of a little disappointment or the long-term mourning of a significant moment of loss. The point is that, along the way, grief touches us all in little or significant ways. Second, we all face trials. We will deal with things we would never have planned for ourselves or inserted into our schedules. We will grieve because we will face difficulty that we neither anticipated nor planned. The final word brings the portrait of life in this fallen world together. The word tested does not mean tested like in an exam. No, it means “tempered” or “refined.”
With this word, tested, God tells you one of the most significant things you will ever understand about your marriage in the here and now. God decided to leave you in this fallen world to live, love, and work, because he intended to use the difficulties you face to do something in you that couldn’t be done any other way. You see, most of us have a personal happiness paradigm. Now, it is not wrong to want to be happy, and it is not wrong to work toward marital happiness. God has given you the capacity for enjoyment and placed wonderful things around you to enjoy. The problem is not that this is a wrong goal, but that it is way too small a goal. God is working on something deep, necessary, and eternal. If he was not working on this, he would not be faithful to his promises to you. God has a personal holiness paradigm. Don’t be put off by the language here. The words mean that God is working through your daily circumstances to change you In his love, he knows that you are not all that you were created to be. Even though it may be hard to admit, there is still sin inside you, and that sin gets in the way of what you are meant to be and designed to do. And, by the way, that sin is the biggest obstacle of all to a marriage of unity, understanding, and love. God is using the difficulties of the here and now to transform you, that is, to rescue you from you. And because he loves you, he will willingly interrupt or compromise your momentary happiness in order to accomplish one more step in the process of rescue and transformation, which he is unshakably committed to.
When you begin to get on God’s paradigm page, life not only makes sense (the things you face are not irrational troubles, but transforming tools) but immediately becomes more hopeful. There is hope for you and your marriage because God is in the middle of your circumstances, and he is using them to mold you into what he created you to be. As he does this, you not only respond to life better, but you become a better person to live with, which results in a better marriage.
This does not mean that you will stop being grieved. In fact, Jesus wept when he walked the roads of our world. But this grief is not a dark tunnel that fate has sent your way. It is a wise tool in the hands of a loving God who knows how deep your need is and wants to give you gifts of grace that will last forever.
So, somehow, someway, this fallen world and what it contains will enter your door, but you do not have to be afraid. God is with you, and he is working so that these grieving things will result in good things in and through you.
2. You Are a Sinner Married to a Sinner
You and I just don’t get to be married to someone perfect. It seems true when you read it, but even though this seems obvious, many people get married with unrealistic expectations about who they are marrying. Here is the point: you both bring something into your marriage that is destructive to what a marriage needs and must do. That thing is called sin. Most of the troubles we face in marriage are not intentional or personal. In most marriage situations, you do not face difficulty because your spouse intentionally did something to make your life difficult. Yes, in moments of anger that may happen. But most often, what is really happening is that your life is being affected by the sin, weakness, and failure of the person you are living with. So, if your wife is having a bad day, that bad day will splash up on you in some way. If your husband is angry with his job, there is a good possibility that he will bring that anger home with him.
At some point you will be selfish. In some situation you will speak unkindly. There will be moments of jealousy, bitterness, and conflict. You will not avoid this, because you are a sinner and you are married to a sinner. If you minimize the heart struggle that both of you have carried into your marriage, here’s what will happen: you will tend to turn moments of ministry into moments of anger. When your ears hear and your eyes see the sin, weakness, or failure of your husband or wife, it is never an accident; it is always grace. God loves your spouse, and he is committed to transforming him or her by his grace, and he has chosen you to be one of his regular tools of change. So, he will cause you to see, hear, and experience your spouse’s need for change so that you can be an agent of his rescue.
Often, in these God-given moments of ministry, rather than serving God’s purpose we get angry because somehow our spouse is in the way of what we want. This leads to the second thing that happens: the reason we turn moments of ministry into moments of anger is that we tend to personalize what is not personal. At the end of his bad day at work, your husband doesn’t say to himself, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll take my bad day out on my wife so that her day gets as wrecked as mine.” No, the trouble you are experiencing is not about you directly. Yes, it is your trouble, because this angry man is your husband. But what you are experiencing is not personal in terms of conscious intentionality. You are living with a sinner, so you will experience his sin.
The Bible says that God is near, so near that in your moment of need you can reach out and touch him because he is not far from each one of us.
Now, when you personalize what is not personal you tend to be adversarial in your response. When that happens, what motivates you is not the spiritual need in your spouse that God has revealed but your spouse’s offense against you, your schedule, your peace, etc. So, your response is not a “for him” response but an “against him” response. Rather than wanting to minister to him, what you actually want to do is get him out of your way so you can go back to whatever was engaging you beforehand. Let’s be honest—all of us have been there.
When we respond in an adversarial way, we actually escalate the trouble that the other person splashed up on us. This leads to one more thing: because we have turned a moment of ministry into a moment of anger by personalizing what is not personal, we are adversarial in our response, and because we are, we settle for quick situational solutions that do not get to the heart of the matter. Rather than searching for ways to help, we tell the other to get a grip, we attempt to threaten them into silence, or we get angry and turn a moment of weakness into a major confrontation.
This is one place where I think the Bible is so helpful. The world of the Bible is like your world—messy and broken. The people of the Bible are like you and your spouse—weak and failing. The situations of the Bible are like yours—complicated and unexpected. The Bible just isn’t a cosmetic religious book. It will shock you with its honesty about what happens in the broken world in which we live. From the sibling homicide of Cain to the money-driven betrayal of Judas, the blood and guts of a broken world are strewn across every page. The honesty of God about the address where we all live is itself an act of love and grace. He sticks our head through the biblical peephole so we will be forced to see the world as it really is, not as we fantasize it to be. He does this so that we will be realistic in our expectations, then humbly reach out for the help that he alone is able to give us.
3. God Is Faithful, Powerful, and Willing
There is one more reality that you have to include as you are trying to look at your marriage as realistically as possible. Not only must you consider the fallenness of the world you live in and the fact that both of you are less than perfect, but you must also remember that you are not alone in your struggle. The Bible says that God is near, so near that in your moment of need you can reach out and touch him because he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:27). Yes, you live in a bad neighborhood (fallen world), and the two of you are less than perfect (sin), but in all this you are not left to your own resources. The God who determined your address lives there with you and is committed to giving you everything you need.
I am writing this a few days after Easter, so my mind has been on the empty tomb. Consider for a moment what the empty tomb of the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us. First, it teaches us that God is faithful. Centuries earlier, after Adam and Eve had disobeyed God, God promised that he would crush wrong once and for all. So he sent his Son to defeat sin and death by his crucifixion and resurrection. For thousands of years God neither forgot nor turned from his promise. He did not grow weary, nor would he be distracted. He made a promise, and he controlled the events of history (large and small) so that at just the right moment Jesus Christ would come and fulfill what had been promised.
But the open tomb also reminds us that God is powerful. He is powerful in authority and powerful in strength. Think of the authority you would have to have to control all the situations, locations, and relationships in order to guarantee that Jesus would come at the precise moment and do what he was appointed to do! Also, could there be a more pointed demonstration of power than to have power over death? By God’s awesome power, Jesus took off his graveclothes and walked out of that tomb. Those guys in power-lifter competitions may be able to pull a bus with their teeth, but they will all die, and there is nothing they can do about it.
The empty tomb points us to one more amazing thing. It teaches us that God is willing. Why would he go to such an extent to help us? Why would he care to notice us, let alone rescue us? Why would he ever sacrifice his own Son? Because he is willing. You and I need to recognize that his willingness was motivated not by what he saw in us but by what is inside of him. He is willing because he is the definition of mercy. He is willing because he is the source of love. He is willing because he is full of amazing grace. He is willing because he is good, gentle, patient, and kind. Even when we are unwilling, full of ourselves and wanting our own way, he is still willing. He delights in transforming us by his grace. He delights in rescuing us by his powerful love.
So, when you are sinned against or when the fallen world breaks your door down, don’t lash out or run away. Stand in your weakness and confusion and say, “I am not alone. God is with me, and he is faithful, powerful, and willing.” You can be realistic and hopeful at the very same time. Realistic expectations are not about hope without honesty, and they are not about honesty without hope. Realism is found at the intersection of unabashed honesty and uncompromising hope. God’s Word and God’s grace make both possible in your marriage.
This article is adapted from Marriage: 6 Gospel Commitments Every Couple Needs to Make by Paul David Tripp.
You can have a marriage that is mutually satisfying while being honoring to God. You really can!
Kent Hughes discusses why discipline is so important for the life of a Christian man. He explains how discipline is actually aimed at freeing us to be the men that God called us to be.
The Bible reveals the nature of masculinity and femininity by describing diverse responsibilities for man and woman while rooting these differing responsibilities in creation, not convention.
Here is what you have to understand: forgiveness is a vertical commitment that is followed by a horizontal transaction.