Ingredients for a Successful Marriage
I am always leery about presentations that offer keys to success for this or that undertaking. Hence, I have modified the title for this paper; nonetheless, it smacks of the very thing I try to avoid! So I need to begin by urging you to carefully examine these suggestions. The fact is that I cannot offer a guarantee to success as we commonly define it. Truth in advertising requires me to state the obvious. You may do everything I suggest and still be faced with a fiery flameout in your marriage. So I admit that the title to this brief paper is somewhat misleading.
On the other hand, if success in marriage focuses on the process rather than the product, then there is real hope for success. In other words, believing spouses have access to the tools necessary to enable them to be God’s kind of persons, partners, and parents. Those tools are found in the Word of God and in God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit. This leads me to believe that couples who genuinely desire to build a skyscraper marriage can do so.
So I offer these practical suggestions. Please receive them as helps and observations drawn from personal and pastoral experience. I give them in random order. I also trust the "C" statements will not be a distraction!
1. Commitment – Loyalty to your marriage and your mate is bedrock to getting you through the tough times. Commitment is almost never convenient and it has nothing in common with self-centeredness.
2. Commission – Each partner must know what God’s expectations are for his/her role in marriage. God will never hold you accountable for how your mate fulfills his/her responsibilities; but He will ask you how you did. I am amazed at the paucity of biblical understanding regarding God’s functional description of a husband or a wife. This is not difficult to find. We can begin with the simple directives from Ephesians 5:22-33: Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church… This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.1
3. Cultivate – Your own relationship to God through Jesus Christ sets the tone for all interpersonal relationships. This is the most important relationship in your marriage; yet it is the most overlooked. A personal relationship with Christ opens up exciting marriage vistas. However, I am suggesting more, much more. You and your mate must work hard at growing in Christ. Christian maturity is essential. Have you ever noticed how infants and toddlers have a tough time with interpersonal relationships? Their world is defined by one concept: self. Hebrews 5:12 talks about spiritual maturity in these terms: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant.”
4. Care – Romance can take you only so far in a relationship. Yes, the spark must be there, but sooner or later reality—sometimes harsh reality—sets in. If you are not able to kick it up a gear, then the marriage is in trouble. That extra gear is what I am calling “care.” I base this on the notion that people don’t fall in or out of love. Love for one another is a learned art rather than a vague itch around the heart. Couples can always learn to love one another in tangible acts. Romans 5:8 tells us that love means action: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
5. Command – Couples must learn to be authority-oriented rather than feeling-oriented. The governing authority must be the all-sufficient Scriptures rather than personal preference or popular thought. This is absolutely essential. I will treat my wife with courtesy and honor whether I feel like it or not, whether she deserves it or not. Why? Because I love her and because I love Christ.
6. Consistency – Success in marriage requires persistent work every day, week, month, year, and decade. Because both partners are sinners, a successful marital relationship doesn’t just happen naturally. You must work at it. You cannot rest on yesterday’s victories. Every day has a new set of challenges. I believe the well-known Pauline admonition is applicable to marriage: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
7. Conflicts – Success in marriage is not the absence of problems; rather, it is learning to solve them biblically. There are no perfect people; hence there are no perfect marriages. The reality is that both you and your spouse are sinners. Sparks will fly.
8. Communication – My experience with counseling couples leads me to conclude that the vast majority of marriage conflicts have something to do with communication. Thus it should be no surprise that learning to communicate is an absolute necessity for success in marriage. I am convinced that a chief reason God gives us the ability to communicate is so that we can solve conflicts. I encourage couples to implement the real-life principles found in Proverbs.
9. Conjugal – Married couples who understand the biblical purposes of sex will not only enjoy physical intimacy but can also experience union in the larger sense. Sexual problems are typically symptomatic of other issues. Remember, God expects you to engage in regular sexual intimacy; to do otherwise is sin. “Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control”
(1 Corinthians 7:5).
10. Cash – Families must view money management as a spiritual discipline. Because the Bible gives ample latitude regarding money, wisdom and self-discipline are crucial in making specific applications. But perhaps most important is mutuality. The husband and wife must agree to a plan for managing money that includes making, saving, giving, and especially spending.
11. Contentment – Discontentment can easily be the seed that sours marriage. Paul is a minimalist when it comes to contentment: “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). He also sets a personal example “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (Philippians 4:11). And the author of Hebrews leaves no doubt about the frequent connection of contentment to money: “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you , nor will I ever forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). Of course we know that discontentment and complaint can raise their ugly head over the presence or absence of a whole spectrum of items, such as housing, location, income, position, children, employment, recreation, vacations, friends, family relations, education, entertainment, food, personal appearance, etc.
12. Children – I have found that disagreements over child-discipline issues can become giant wedges dividing a husband and wife. You must come to basic agreements regarding raising your children, especially in the areas of expectations, training, freedoms, punishment, friends, and education. You must never forget that children are special gifts from God himself. The psalmist states this clearly: Psalm 127:3 Behold, children are a gift of the LORD, The fruit of the womb is a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one's youth. 5 How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They will not be ashamed When they speak with their enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-5). As a stewardship, parenting must be practiced according to God’s child rearing manual—the Bible. Remember that you are responsible for the process, not the product.
13. Companionship – Yes, it is true that God came up with the idea of marriage in part to assuage human loneliness. We learn this early in the biblical account: “ Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him’ " (Genesis 2:18). So, if you are to have a successful marriage, you will have to give special attention to this. This means doing things together, albeit not everything. It may not be natural for the two of you to do this. You may not have a boatload of common interests. That’s okay; figure it out. Find things to do together. Learn, change, adapt, be creative. Marriage is not for loners.
14. Covenant – This is pretty simple: keep your word. Your spouse must be able to count on you. I see this on two levels. First, keep the promises you made to your spouse at your wedding ceremony; these vows were not just empty rituals. Second, keep the promises you make on a daily basis in the normal course of life. If you can’t keep your word with little things, why should your spouse believe you will keep you word with the big things?
15. Common – Building a successful marriage must be a team effort. The husband must be sold out to loving leadership and the wife must be determined to be a valuable helper. If only one spouse is in the game for keeps, the dynamics change. Success will have to be measured on an individual rather than a team basis.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list. However, it is a start. I suggest that you compare your marriage with this list. How are you doing? What changes or improvements need to be made? Use this evaluation process as the basis for a constructive discussion with your spouse.
However, I offer a caution. Resist the temptation to view this exercise as a checklist; all boxes checked indicate a successful marriage. It is possible to “score high” and still miserably fail. The reason: we are dealing with a spiritual issue at core, not a material one. And at the end of day, there is still that intangible, that baffling something that you can’t put your figure on. If it—whatever it is—is missing, success will be hard to come by.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Updated Edition (Anaheim, California: The Lockman Foundation, 1999).
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source