The difference between Christian and idolatrous is giving versus demanding, enjoying versus using, sharing versus manipulating. It’s the difference between humbled gratitude versus undiscerned selfishness. But every marriage, injured by unfair expectations, can be healed through the grace of awakened sensitivity. Every marriage can become honoring to Christ and life-giving to the husband and wife.
Two biblical insights open up new possibilities for every marriage.
Privilege of Marriage
One, the privilege that marriage is: “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
That is the biblical definition of marriage, from all the way back in the garden of Eden. “One flesh” is one man and one woman, walking hand in hand through their life in this world, sharing together an all-encompassing union of total belonging. No other relationship is like this. Healthy friendships have boundaries, but marriage brings a man and woman together in complete vulnerability with no shame (Genesis 2:25).
“Every marriage is either Christian or idolatrous. And two married Christians can be idolatrous, without even realizing it.”
I want you to see the glorious privilege of marriage —your marriage. When God expelled us from the garden after Adam sinned, he didn’t take his gift of marriage back. He let us keep it. And even though a long time has elapsed since then, our marriages today are not ninety-ninth-hand, at best. Jesus saw our imperfect marriages as sacred and inviolate, at the same level as the perfect marriage of Adam and Eve (Matthew 19:3–6).
So, your marriage is your little remnant of the garden of Eden. Inside the circle of your one-flesh union, where only you and your spouse completely belong, God wants you to cultivate your own personal outpost of Eden into something beautifully Christian in the world today.
But how can we do that, especially long term over the years? That leads us to the second insight.
Resource of Christ
Two, the resource that Christ is: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Life is not in you. Life is not in your spouse. The life we all long for is in Christ alone.
His life is our light, illuminating our otherwise dreary existence. His life is more than a bare power surge; his life awakens us to purpose, hope, wisdom. In Christ, we stop dying so much and start living more. In Christ, we stop being so clueless and start growing in awareness. This is just who he is and what he does.
If we believe he is our life, and open ourselves up, our marriages will change. We will stop loving our spouse too much — which, in reality, isn’t too muchbut rather wrongly, like an idol — and we will start loving Christ more. When that happens, we actually start loving our spouse better.
His Love Through Hers
The reason your spouse is not your life and your light is that he or she cannotbe those things. That wonderful person you married is, and can only be, secondary, derived, contingent, dependent, and easily exhausted — like you.
Only Christ is, and always will be, primary, original, free, powerful, and eager — unlike you both. When two sinners step inside the circle of the one-flesh union and cultivate there an even deeper union with Christ, they become relaxed about themselves and each other, they become happy about Christ, and Eden reappears in the world today — a Christian marriage.
Here is one way this insight opens my eyes. When I take my precious wife in my arms, the love I experience from her is not from her alone. It is also the love of God through her. The fact that the love of God is coming down to me through her doesn’t mean that that love stops being divine. It is still the love of God — which makes my wife all the more wondrous in my eyes.
Her love is the moment-by-moment gift of his life, and his life is the light that floods each moment with meaning I never would have grasped if the experience were limited to and defined by the human only. Realizing this, I am moved toward gratitude for her and worship of him, and I find myself on holy ground — Eden today.
First Things Put First
Not only does Christ himself make a marriage truly Christian, as we look to him, but he also guards a marriage against idolatrous instincts and impulses.
As I remember that it is Christ alone who gives my wife and me all our life and light, I don’t need my wife to be more than she can be. I can receive our life together as the glorious miracle it is, and marvel at how present Christ is with us. Our imperfections are the very place where he dwells the most meaningfully.
“Every marriage can become honoring to Christ and life-giving to the husband and wife.”
A marriage is not Christian because two Christians get married. A marriage becomes truly Christian as two Christians keep looking to Christ for the wherewithal each needs moment by moment. It isn’t a matter of practical tips, though I suppose there is a place for that — like training wheels on a child’s bike. But far more, it’s a matter of seeing him, with the eyes of faith, real-time as a husband and wife walk together through each day. It’s a matter of rejoicing that he is present with you, he is sharing his life with you, his light is banishing the darkness from the sacred circle he has given the two of you.
I’ll let C.S. Lewis have the last word: “When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. . . . When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”