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Krieg Barrie

For better, for worse

Marriage | Don’t fall for the conventional wisdom that sells marriage short

Issue: "The Battle for Africa," Feb. 8, 2014

A wonderful family wedding on New Year’s Day served as a reminder: With all the media and political emphasis on legalizing homosexual marriages, it’s way too easy to get diverted by that grisly debate and to forget that the top challenge for Christians is to nurture and then display the wonders of marriage the way God made it to be.

That’s why at the wedding reception I presumptuously pulled the bride and groom aside for my 90-second marriage counseling course.

Conventional wisdom, I told them, for too much of the last couple of generations has been that marriage is OK—but don’t expect too much from it. When we were little kids, weddings seemed mysterious, marvelous, and full of wonder. But then we were taught to get real, to put away our naïveté, discard our illusions, and grow up to the fact that marriage in the real world involves slogging through a whole lot of disappointment, trouble, and sorrow.

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Sometimes, in fact, there’s so much emphasis on the grim side of things that we’ve lost seeing marriage in the glorious context God intended it. In our grown-up desire to “get real,” we’ve let Satan so disfigure and discolor our ideal picture of marriage that we’ve come to settle for way too little.

At its worst, that diminished target has prompted thousands of couples—and that includes Christians—to give up altogether on marriage and to add to the divorce statistics. As a result, the Christian community has been clobbered by family brokenness in embarrassing ways. Instead of standing out as a model for the rest of society to emulate, our divorce statistics are only a little better than those of the unbelieving world—and we have tended to reflect the very distress we were meant to prevent. It’s tough to look down a pew in a typical evangelical church these days without seeing marital brokenness scattered along the line. And a lot of that has come about simply because the bar going into marriage was set way too low.

But even at their best, the diminished goals for marriage have produced tens of thousands of joyless Christian couples and Christian homes without delight. Husbands and wives have bought into the idea that marriage isn’t much, that boredom is normal, and that marital happiness is only for those who pretend. They’ve bought into the devil’s lie that God’s gifts are phony, and that He didn’t know what He was talking about when He said that marriage is so magnificent that He intends it as a picture of His own relationship to His people.

So, I warned the new bride and groom a couple of weeks ago, please don’t ever fall into the trap of low expectations. Instead, aim for the best—and keep up the effort. Determine early to see marriage as an expression of the gospel itself, where both partners constantly and willingly die for each other. That very process enhances intimacy.

Indeed, what we understood about marriage when we were young and naïve was actually true. What we didn’t know then was that “getting married” didn’t by any means fulfill that promise, but only launched us into a lifelong process of discovering that promise. The process, like the gospel, involves daily dying to ourselves so that we can live generously toward our mate.

Some of us—and that includes me—had the blessing of seeing such a marriage in our parents. But even those who modeled such marriages didn’t always explain explicitly what they were doing, and why they did it. In my old age, I’ve come to believe both the modeling and the explaining are important. You might call it the word and deed approach to teaching the art of marriage.

I’ve been a pretty slow learner on this front, I’m afraid. I hope and pray that the newlyweds who sat patiently through my 90-second counseling session are off to a much faster start.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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