When two people are bound together by the glory of God, their marriage will become increasingly united over time. It is a sad feature of many contemporary partnerships that the opposite seems to occur: people grow apart. There is a presumption that, as the years pass, partners will inevitably grow weary of each other and be pushed in opposite directions by diverging interests. The perception, while often self-fulfilling, is unfortunate. When two people take aim at the glory of God, they are consumed by something so big that it creates synergy between them, causing them to climb enthusiastically to new and more exciting vistas. They will grow together spiritually, and when two people grow together spiritually they never weary of each other.
A very short 32 years ago a beautiful young bride and a somewhat overwhelmed groom stood before family and friends and recited their sacred wedding vows. They were perfectly matched and yet—at least in the mind of the overly pensive groom—they were very different from each other. They were deeply in love, but the husband-to-be wondered whether one day they would awaken to discover that their differences were driving them apart. What if they tired of each other? What then?
The young groom did not realize that his worries were completely allayed by the words he had secretly instructed the jeweler to inscribe inside the wedding band of his bride, the very words which, remarkably and unbeknownst to him, his bride had instructed her jeweler to etch inside the ring she presented to him. Later that evening, when at last alone, the newlyweds made the startling discovery. Written inside both rings was the identical prayer: "Together for God's glory!"
For more than three decades they have sought, often imperfectly and always in need of grace from above, to uphold the sacred words encircling their fourth fingers. Today they can testify to the blessing of ever-increasing oneness, in which new challenges are welcomed as opportunities to grow closer together and in which the spiritual adventures of each partner have become a source of endless fascination to the other. Now their bond is so deep that it cannot be captured in words but only cherished in the unspoken thoughts of their hearts. I know because those thoughts are my own, and the thoughts of that beautiful bride belong to Lesli, the woman I married!
Unity in marriage is simple conceptually. Only one thing is necessary: a mutual commitment to the Lord and his glory. Why, then, is it so difficult in practice? Why do contemporary marriages fail at an alarming rate? And why do so many of the marriages that remain intact become so dissatisfying?
The Trials of Contemporary Marriages
The plight of matrimony in the West ought to provoke serious soul-searching. The pollster George Gallup Jr. (in the foreword to a book by Michael J. McManus) has issued a sobering wake-up call: "[When] a disease … afflicts the majority of a populace, spreading pain and dysfunction throughout all age groups, we [naturally search] … for solutions. Yet [one] particular scourge has become so endemic that it is virtually ignored. The scourge is divorce, an oddly neglected topic in a nation that has the worst record of broken marriages in the entire world."
Does our neglect of this epidemic suggest a resignation to defeat? Is marital discord an unavoidable feature of modern life? Perhaps it is—but perhaps not. There is certainly no abatement in the stream of literature designed to improve marriages. Consider the abundance of counsel flowing from national presses and Internet sites, advice for almost every conceivable eventuality in marriage, from how to land a partner through artful discourse to how to please a mate in bed. The sheer volume of blogs, seminars, magazines, CDs, DVDs, talk shows, radio programs, television interviews, and Internet banter committed specifically to enhancing marriage suggests that there remains an army of loyalists who believe matrimony is capable of being salvaged.
But—and here is the startling irony—despite all the optimism, marriages still languish. Is it possible that the stream of marital information is missing the mark? Are we packaging marital advice too lightly, ready for instant consumption, filled with creative techniques and clever applications, but avoiding the more difficult task of nurturing unions at the deeper level of hearts?
A review of the literature does reveal an approach that relies heavily on personal anecdotes, practical tips, and heart-tugging stories. Husbands and wives are given practical instruction—often in the form of entertaining vignettes—on what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and where to do it. Hopefully, such advice will strengthen their marriages. But evidence suggests something different. While how-to approaches may mesh well with an age eager to find solutions in practical steps, it is difficult to see how a relationship as substantial as the union of a man and a woman can be strengthened by advice parceled out in bite-sized morsels. Such superficiality will only exacerbate the problem. It trivializes marriage.
Perspective before Practice
We must recover the kernel of wisdom enshrined in the old aphorism "perspective must precede practice." We must begin with a right perspective. For marriage, the right perspective is set out in the Bible, where husbands and wives are called to focus on the glory of God. When they do, they will be ready to negotiate the practical challenges of marriage. But to begin with practical advice, with step-by- step remedies—where it seems many are eager to begin—is to anchor a union of enormous weight on a foundation of sand, to tackle the challenges of a rigorous ascent without the benefit of a sturdy rope. Sound practice, while certainly essential to healthy marriages, is only sound when it flows from right perspective.
It is helpful to examine exemplary marriages of the past. The 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon and his wife, Susannah, encountered many difficult obstacles in the course of their 36 years of marriage, including the trials of serious illness, debilitating depression, and scathing criticism in the national press. They met these disappointments with something more than anecdotal wisdom. In a poem of comfort written to his wife, Charles offered not tidbits of practical advice but solid perspective:
Though he who chose us all worlds before,
Must reign in our hearts alone,
We fondly believe that we shall adore,
Together before his throne.
It is a perspective anchored in the sovereignty of God, in his loving reign over human lives, and it received a resounding echo in the thoughts of Susannah. After her husband's death, she reflected: "I can see two pilgrims treading the highway of life together, hand in hand, heart linked to heart. True they had mountains to climb, but their Guide was ever watchful. Mostly they went on their way singing."
The challenges of life can be mountainous. With enough suffering to dismantle ten marriages, Charles and Susannah persevered and enjoyed many triumphs. How did they do it? What was their secret? They were sustained in their climb not in the first instance by pithy advice but by a perspective that "reigned in [their] hearts." It was the assurance that their "Guide" was able to convey them safely past the crags and crevices of life. And so they held on to him. They fixed their eyes on his glory.
When husbands and wives fasten their grips on the tether thrown down by the heavenly Guide, when they set their eyes on the awe-inspiring glory of God, they do more than pay lip service to a transcendent splendor with uncertain relevance to their lives. On the contrary, they cling to something that affects every dimension of their partnership, from their reactions in times of conflict to their celebrations in times of triumph. And they climb past the pitfalls of life with a song in their hearts. Of course they do! They climb with the assurance that one day their Guide will usher them all the way to the heavenly summit, where forever before the throne they will adore the Lord together.
It was mentioned at the outset of this book that the expectations of many marriages go unfulfilled. This is tragic and utterly unnecessary, especially if husbands and wives are prepared to adjust their perspectives and focus exclusively on the glory of the Lord.
But what does this mean? Where do we find divine glory?
God's glory was clearly evident within the first marriage itself. In other words, the inaugural couple did not have to look far to find God's glory: it was radiating within their marriage. They needed only to cherish that glory, nurture it, and give it free reign in their lives. They needed to live for God's glory.
We must do the same thing. With the shared resolve of both partners, we must live for the glory of God.