To protect a marriage, these seven principles are gospel-centered guideliness to consider. Guest blogger Jim Newheiser is the Director of the Christian Counseling program and associate professor of practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. This article first appeared here on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog and is used with permission.
So what must be done to protect a marriage?
Almost every marriage begins with joy as newlyweds anticipate sharing life together. Sadly, not all couples live happily ever after. A large percentage of marriages end in divorce. Other couples remain married, but drift apart emotionally due to bitterness or mutual indifference. They share a name and a home, but not a life. What can a couple do to preserve the joyful, loving intimacy of their marriage? Consider these seven gospel-centered principles.
1. Do Not Take Each Other for Granted
Couples who are courting or engaged spend every spare minute together and can’t bear to be apart for long. But often after they are married each gets so caught up in career, children, hobbies, sports, and other activities that the marriage relationship is neglected. Very gradually the couple drifts apart. While there may not be much open conflict, the spark is missing. The wife may notice that something is wrong only to have her husband tell her that she is worried over nothing.
A new marriage, like a new car, needs regular maintenance. It may look and work great today, but if you don’t maintain it, sooner or later it will break down. A husband and wife need to spend time growing closer to one another and enjoying one another. Work harder at romance after your marriage than before. Seeking to grow in intimacy year by year will protect your marriage from falling into disrepair.
2. Make Your Personal Walk with the Lord a Priority
Marriage takes grace. On our own we are selfish sinners. It is only as we are strengthened by God’s Word through His Spirit that we can endure in love. We do not have the power to keep loving in our own strength. Jesus said that if we abide in Him we will bear much fruit, but apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
When couples with troubled marriages come to us I typically ask each of them about their prayer and devotional life. In almost every case I have found a correlation between the lack of a vibrant personal walk with the Lord and a failing marriage. We need Scripture’s constant reminders of God’s grace to us which, in turn, motivates us to show grace to others. As we walk in the Spirit we don’t carry out the destructive deeds of the flesh, but instead bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16–23). If something is not right with your relationship with your spouse, start to address it by first making sure things are right between you and the Lord.
3. Remain Involved in a Strong Church
God blesses and strengthens His people through the ministry of the church, both through the public preaching of the Word and as the members of the body build one another up (Ephesians 4:11–16). The neglect of gathering with the people of God is to the detriment of your soul and to your family (Hebrews 10:25). It also is important for a couple to be in a strong church so that they can benefit from counsel and accountability if their relationship has trouble. I have heard families who have benefited from this kind of faithful pastoral care say, “We don’t know what we would have done if this church hadn’t been here for us.” I also have seen many families who are in the midst of a crisis suffer because they didn’t have godly church leaders caring for their souls (Hebrews 13:17).
4. Quickly and Completely Resolve Conflicts
Many couples will periodically engage in arguments in which each speaks in anger and says hurtful things. Over time they cool down and life goes on without ever properly resolving the disputes. As the years pass, their marriage is affected by hurts and scars which never healed. Paul vividly warns the Ephesians of the danger lurking behind unresolved conflict.
Be angry and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity. Ephesians 4: 26–27, NIV
To leave an issue unresolved and to remain angry is like letting the devil into your house to wreak his havoc. Marriages fraught with unresolved conflicts are more vulnerable not only to increasingly destructive conflicts, but also to extra-marital affairs. Believing couples must be determined to do whatever is necessary to be fully reconciled to one another.
5. Be Honest with Each Other
Nothing is more destructive to marriages than falsehood. More than once I have heard the victim of marital infidelity say, “I can forgive the sex, but I don’t know if I can forgive the lies or if I can ever trust her again.” Paul tells the Ephesians,
Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Ephesians 4:25, NIV
In a similar way, a married couple becomes one body (Genesis 2:24). If the rest of the body can’t trust the eyes to see danger or the legs to run to safety, then the entire body is at risk. We must be able to trust one another.
One aspect of having a truthful marriage is that each spouse must strive to make it safe for the other to honestly confess sins and failings. A wife may not want to tell her husband that she got a traffic ticket because she fears his angry reaction. A husband who has visited a strip club may fear a dramatic emotional outburst from his wife. Even if it is hard to hear the truth, we can give thanks to God for helping the other person to be honest. As sinners who have received much grace from God we can have compassion on our fellow sinners by helping restore rather than condemn them.
6. Be Circumspect in Your Dealings with the Other Sex
Few Christians plan to have an affair. Yet many wind up in an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship which threatens their marriage and even their souls. In counseling such cases, I have observed that they typically follow a certain pattern. A man and a woman are acquainted through work, the gym, children’s activities, or even the church. They start talking and find that they enjoy one another’s company. Over time one or both of them begin to develop feelings for the other. They find that they look forward to the next time they see each other and start communicating through e-mail, social media, or the phone. At some point a barrier is crossed. There is a touch, then an admission of attraction, then a kiss. The slide into an affair continues, usually until they are caught, or sometimes when the conscience of one can’t stand the guilt.
Many will be hurt. Marriages may end.
Don’t think that it can’t happen to you. If a man as good as King David could fall into adultery, you too are vulnerable. You must be very careful in relationships with the opposite sex, not because you think you would do something wrong, but because you are determined not to.
7. Be Gracious to Each Other
Just as the Lord deals with us not according to what we deserve (Psalm 103:10), we are to treat our spouses better than they deserve. Their sins and failures provide opportunities for us to show grace which resembles the grace we have received from God. In an ideal marriage each party tries to outdo the other in showing love.
As Paul tells the believers in Colossae:
So as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Colossians 3:12–14, NIV
A marriage characterized by such grace will be well safeguarded.
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What additional gospel-centered principles would you share to protect a marriage, especially yours?