Sometimes when I hear Christians talk about marriage, it sounds a bit idealistic. Some “if you do things God’s way…” promises feel a recipe for happily ever after. The logic seems to be that because God created marriage, Christians have an advantage on everybody else for having a satisfying marriage. But if that were actually true, then the divorce rate between Christians and non-Christians would not be as closely correlated as they are.
There are times when our ideals can make us naïve to key realities that challenge marriages. If this happens, one of our primary assets (i.e., truth) becomes a liability (i.e., truth inaccurately used to reinforce a false perspective). That is the goal of this reflection—to help us avoid that liability. I want to consider 5 things that are not unique in Christian marriage and 5 things that should be unique.
5 Things that Are Not Unique
1. Intelligence and Other Aptitudes
Christians are not smarter than non-Christians. We don’t score higher on IQ tests or the SAT. This is true for other aptitudes as well. Christians fall across the spectrum of relational intelligence, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, perspective-taking, and other aptitudes at the same rate as non-Christians. Whatever advantages that exist for being strong and disadvantages from being weak in these areas are faced proportionally by Christian and non-Christian marriages.
Christians are just as quirky as non-Christians. We have our idiosyncrasies and pet peeves like everybody else. Young Christians are immature (i.e., lacking life experience and the perspective of age) just like young non-Christians. We each have odd habits, interests, and fixations. Simply put, Christian spouses get on each other’s nerves just as much as non-Christian spouses. Whatever challenges and interferences personal annoyances bring to a marriage are equally experienced by Christian and non-Christian marriages.
Christians exist at every point on the economic spectrum; just like non-Christians exist at every point on the economic spectrum. There are challenges and temptations created by poverty. There are challenges and temptations created by abundance. In order to arrive at a mutually satisfying marriage both the Christian and non-Christian couple are on equal footing here. Neither has an inherent advantage over the other.
Life is hard for the Christian and non-Christian couple alike. Each new season of life has the same uncertainties regardless of one’s faith commitment. All couples make decisions wanting more certainty about the future than they can have. Changes in the economic or political climate of a culture affect Christian and non-Christian couples relatively equally.
5. Love for One Another
Both Christian and non-Christian couples get married because they love one another. Neither get married with the intent to make the other person miserable. Both have a vision for a happy family that cares for one another. At least until one spouse gets upset with the other, both Christian and non-Christian couples make decisions to bless one another. When things go sour, either can become vindictive.
What do we learn from this? Christians do not have a “home field advantage” when it comes to marriage. We face the kind of challenges with the kind of abilities and resources that every other couple face. You could easily add to this list. If nothing else, this reality should make it easier for us to relate to our non-Christian friends and for them to relate to us. Honesty about the things that make life and relationships hard should be a point of common ground that builds trust through authenticity.
5 Things that Should Be Unique
1. Honesty about Faults and Weaknesses
Christians should be more honest and more quickly confess when our sin offends our spouse. The same should be true for our weaknesses. The entry point of the Christian faith is admitting our sinfulness and inadequacy. Being quick to own our faults should be a major advantage for a Christian marriage. Frequently saying, “I was wrong,” should give life and validity to the words, “I love you.” Owning our faults and avoiding defensiveness is a major marital advantage when we live consistent with our faith.
2. Grace towards Faults
Christians should reflect the grace they’ve received from God in how they respond to the faults of others. Our response to the faults of others should create an environment where the words, “I was wrong,” are more easily spoken because we know they will be received with grace. How quickly we own our faults and give grace to the faults of others is a key marker of a gospel-saturated home environment.
3. Being Known
Christians do not ask their marriage to be their church. Christian couples live in community with other Christian couples who are seeking to honor God in their marriages. This means two things: when things get hard, Christian couples (a) have people they trust to talk to and (b) are willing to listen to what those friends say. To say this another way, because Christian couples recognize how sin biases their perspective, they are teachable and intentionally avoid living in isolation.
4. Growing in Virtues
Christians are regularly pursuing character formation. Because of our salvation, we know we have a duty to grow in Christlikeness and, when our hearts are right, we delight to do so. Christians don’t just pursue “professional development” in our career and greater skill in our hobbies, we regularly and intentionally seek to be more Christlike. Christlike character qualities serve as a protection for a marriage.
Christians don’t just share common interests with their spouse, which are subject to change with each season of life. We share a common purpose that gives shared meaning to our individual interests. Our greater commitment to Christ and the Gospel should prevent our individual interests from becoming so important to us that they begin to create division and disinterest between us.
Do Christians do these perfectly? Absolutely not. But these things are central to what it means to be a Christian. Embracing the necessity of Christ’s life-death-resurrection as the necessary payment for our sin results in these things. These qualities can be present regardless of our intelligence, abilities, quirks, income, stressors, or the rise-and-fall in our love for one another (see list above). These are things that people who know us more than casually should be able to observe.
Here is the challenge I will leave you with. Is your marriage distinctive in these five ways? If you are a Christian, it should be. If the answer is no, I would challenge you to consider whether you have a Christian marriage, or just happen to be two Christians who are married. Being a Christian should positively impact our marriages. It is through these marks of being a Christian that God protects and blesses our marriage. If you find you are resistant to these markers of a Christian marriage, I would encourage you to consider whether the problem is your resistance to God’s design (for marriage and your life) rather than your spouse (blame-shifting) or irreconcilable differences (giving up).
These five areas also serve as a way that you can intentionally enrich the distinctive quality of your marriage. To circle back to where we started, too often we can fall into the trap of thinking a Christian marriage is one without challenges, because “after all, if we did it God’s way, wouldn’t it work smoothly?” I hope this reflection helps you set that mindset aside and opens up more authentic conversation about how you can enrich your marriage.