What Does It Look Like?
Paul said something startling in Galatians 5:14: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (NIV). Now, I’ve thought about this many times. If I had written those words, “The entire law is summed up in a single command,” I think I would have followed with, “Love God above all else.” But that is not what Paul wrote. How is it that love of neighbor summarizes all that God has called us to? The principle embedded in these words is incredibly practical and insightful once you see it. It is only when I love God above all else that I will ever love my neighbor as myself. At the foundational level, the difficulties in our marriages do not first come because we don’t love one another enough. They happen because we don’t love God enough; and because we don’t love God enough we don’t treat one another with the kind of love that makes marriages work.
Consider the Ten Commandments: it is only when we keep the first four commands (having to do with the worship of God) that we will keep the last six commands (having to do with love for our neighbor). Sturdy horizontal love always begins vertically. Lasting, persevering, other-centered living does not flow out of romantic attraction, personality coalescence, or lifestyle similarity. It is only when I live in a celebratory and restful worship of God that I am able not to take myself too seriously and I am free to serve and celebrate another.
I probably taxed your patience here, and you’re thinking, “Come on, Paul, get to the point and help me understand what this looks like!” Worship that gives you sturdy marital love and a reason to continue will flow out of three ways that you must worship God.
1. A marriage of love, unity, and understanding will flow out of a daily worship of God as creator.
It is only when you look at your spouse and see the glory of God’s creative artistry that you will treat her with the dignity and respect that a healthy marriage requires. God created every aspect of your personhood. He administrated every choice of your hardwiring. He determined how tall you would be, whether you would tend to gain weight, the color of your eyes, the texture of your hair, the shape of your nose, the size of your hands, the tone of your voice, your innate personality, your natural gifts, the tone of your skin, your natural degree of physicality or athleticism, and whether you are mechanical, analytical, or relational. You didn’t choose any of these things. You didn’t wake up at six months and say, “I think I’ll grow up and be a mechanical guy,” or “I’m going to work on developing a long, thin nose because that will benefit the symmetry of my face.”
All these choices were made by the Divine Artist who has infinite creativity. But there are moments in our selfishness, when that other person is in the way of what we want, that we all wish we could rise to the throne of the Creator and re-create our husband or wife into our own image, or at least into someone who would be easier for us to live with. The relational wife wants to turn her mechanical husband into her clone. The analytical husband wants to re-create his more emotionally wired wife into a dispassionate thinker like himself. The husband allows himself to be irritated by the screechiness of his wife’s voice, or the wife is impatient with how slowly her husband does everything.
In subtle and not-so-subtle ways we all question the Creator, and in so doing we dishonor and disrespect our husband or wife. We end up criticizing the other for choices he or she didn’t make. We all end up asking the other to change in areas where change simply is not possible. I cannot think myself taller. I cannot alter my natural Creator-initiated range of gifts.
When we celebrate the Creator, we look at one another with wonder and joy. When you look at your spouse and see the Creator’s glory, then you feel blessed by the ways he is different. You are amazed and respectful of the experiences and perspectives that he has brought into your life, which you never would have had without him. And you look for ways to communicate your honor for him and what the fingers of the Creator formed him to be.
2. A marriage of love, unity, and understanding will flow out of a daily worship of God as sovereign.
You’ve probably noticed that your life hasn’t worked according to your plan! Last week didn’t work the way you had planned it to work. Each of our stories is being written by Another. Think about this: fifteen years ago you couldn’t have written yourself into whatever situation you are in as you are reading this book. In the same way, your marriage is an unfolding drama written by the wise control of a loving and sovereign God.
I was confronted with this in the very first moments of my relationship to Luella. I stood behind her in the very first lunch line of a new college year. The line was on a campus in South Carolina. Luella was raised in Cuba, and I was raised in Toledo, Ohio. There is no possible way that we could have controlled all the things that would have to be controlled to guarantee that we would be in that line together, not only on the same day, but at the precise same moment during that day.
God ruled the whole process. He controlled all the cultural influences that shaped us. He controlled all the family values that helped shape us. He controlled all the situations, locations, and experiences that helped shape the particular ways that we think about and respond to life.
In marriage, we bring all those cultural, familial, experiential influences with us. So, we come into marriage with a list of givens that aren’t the givens of our spouse. We come with cultural expectations that aren’t the expectations of the other. We come in with schedule, aesthetic, and relational expectations that the other person doesn’t have. One expects dinner to be a quick moment of food consumption, while the other expects dinner to be a time of relaxed eating and conversation. One person doesn’t really care if the house is messy, while the other was trained to expect and maintain a neat environment. In one family, the roles of husband and wife were very defined and evident; in the other family they were there, but blurred. One family thought of money as something to be spent; the other thought of it as something to be saved. We could multiply example after example.
It doesn’t take long in marriage before you realize that your spouse doesn’t share your instincts. At that point, either you worship God as sovereign and celebrate the different way of looking at the world that your spouse has blessed you with, or you dishonor him by trying to rewrite his story. For example, the house you live in shouldn’t be a reflection of one of you. It should be a beautiful mix of the sovereignly produced sensibilities of both. Many husbands and wives carry with them the pain of dishonor and disrespect that results when their spouse has mocked or denigrated their way of doing things or rejected their family and their way of relating or doing things.
But when you begin to celebrate the sovereignty of God and how he formed you and brought you and your spouse together for his glory and your good, you quit being irritated by your differences and start celebrating how your life has been enhanced by them. As a result, you will not only give room to your spouse’s sensibilities, but you will honor him or her in what you do and say in the moments when you are confronted with the differences in your approach to the very same things.
3. A marriage of love, unity, and understanding will flow out of a daily worship of God as Savior.
There is no area that is more important than this. It doesn’t take long to realize that you have married a sinner, and what you do when you make this discovery will determine the character and quality of your union. You will only respond in a way that is right, good, and helpful to your spouse’s sin, weakness, and struggle when you are celebrating the transforming grace of an ever-present, always-faithful Redeemer.
No one gives grace better than someone who is convinced that he needs it, as well.
You cannot let your responses to your spouse in these moments be driven by hurt or self-righteousness. They must be driven by worship. What does this mean? Well, first it means that when you celebrate God as Savior, you are confronted with the reality of how much you are in desperate need of his grace. This makes it impossible for you to look at your spouse as the only sinner in the room, or more of a sinner than you are. The fact is that no one gives grace better than someone who is convinced that he needs it, as well.
Worshiping God as Savior also means that you find joy in being part of the work of grace that God is unrelentingly committed to doing in your spouse’s life. So, when your spouse blows it, you will not throw her sin in her face. You will not make her feel guilty for how hard her failure makes life for you. You will not use her sins against her. You will not keep a detailed history of her wrongs against you. Rather, you will look for ways of incarnating the transforming grace of the Savior. You will be ready to encourage her when she fails and restore her when she falls, and you will not treat her as less righteous than you.
Reason to Continue
Where will you find the reasons to continue working on your marriage in those disappointing moments when those reasons are most needed? Well, you won’t find them in your spouse. He or she shares your condition; your spouse is still a flawed person in need of God’s transforming grace. You won’t find them in the ease of your circumstances. You still live in a world that is groaning and broken. You won’t find them in surface strategies and techniques; your struggles are deeper than that. You will only find your reasons to continue by looking up. When your heart rests in the amazing wisdom of the choices of a powerful Creator, you have given yourself reason to continue. When your heart celebrates the myriad of careful choices that were made to bring your stories together, you have given yourself reason to continue.
When your heart is filled with gratitude for the amazing grace that you both have been and are being given, you have given yourself reason to continue. You are not alone. Your creating, ruling, transforming Lord is still with you. He has brought your stories together and placed them smack-dab in the middle of his redemptive story. As long as he is Creator, as long as he is sovereign, and as long as he is the Savior, you have reason to get up in the morning and love one another, even though you aren’t yet what he created you to be.
This article is adapted from What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul David Tripp.
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