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What Is Marriage Really Like?

Not sure if you want to get hitched? Here are some truths and untruths about marriage.

Few areas of life are more feared, wondered about, anticipated, and debated than marriage. I recently heard a statistic from an Alabama educator that in one area of Birmingham, 93 percent of children do not ever want to be married. That took my breath away.

This was true in an underprivileged place, but this view resonates with many high schoolers and college students. If you’ve been raised in a broken home, or a home in which you had a married father and mother but little love, you may not eagerly anticipate marriage. On the other hand, if you’re having a ton of fun as a young person and calling yourself a “kid” into your 30s, you also may not look forward to marriage, but for very different reasons. Many young people have witnessed pain in marriage, so they shy away from it. Others see their favorite celebrities or athletes or friends “living it up” and think that it might be better to avoid getting hitched.

The Bible has a different take on marriage. It doesn’t downplay or avoid the institution; it celebrates it. At the very start of Scripture, we’re witnesses to the first marriage ceremony of all creation: Adam being united to Eve, his bride, in Genesis 2:18-25. This is not a grim, sad-faced affair. Adam rejoices in his wife, shouting, “This at last is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!” (Genesis 2:23, emphasis mine). If we jump ahead a bit, we see that Jesus upholds both the pattern and the goodness of marriage in Matthew 19:3-6. Responding to a question from the pesky Pharisees about divorce, Jesus reintroduces them to God’s uniting plan for men and women:

He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate’ (Matthew 19:4-6, ESV).

Jesus clearly believes in the original model of matrimony. There is no other model, in fact, that is marriage. The union of one man and one woman is the only proper biblical definition of this institution. Jesus fundamentally wants marriages to last, to endure, and to be filled with all kinds of goodness. The covenantal coming-together of a man and a woman is a matter of celebration, dignity, and glory to God. It’s God’s wise and kind mind that designed this earthly covenant; it’s God’s power and grace that strengthens and nourishes it.

OK, But What Is Marriage Really Like?

Maybe you’re reading this, though, and you’re thinking, That’s all well and good. I get the nuts and bolts. But I haven’t seen a super-healthy marriage, and I’m not sure I want to get hitched. Maybe you want to know more about what marriage is really like. You want a ground-level perspective. You want your fears addressed and common myths dispelled.

Do not worry, my friend — the fear-addresser and myth-dispeller is here! (Cue shot of cape waving in the wind.)

I’m being silly here — but my purpose is serious. Let me list and then address a number of truths and untruths about marriage. It’s my hope that this will give you a realistic, biblically based perspective on what marriage can be like and what God has intended it to do.

1. Marriage is good, not bad.

If you are called to marriage — and not every Christian is — then you first need to know that it is a gift of God to the human race. Our culture is training us today to think that marriage is boring, soul-crushing, filled at all times with conflict, and generally a drag. The opposite is true.

When the Lord brings a man and a woman together, gives them love for one another and inspires them to covenant together as a couple until death or Christ’s return, we’re witnessing something profound and otherworldly. Marriage is a wondrous institution, involving your whole body and soul. Not for nothing did Michael Mason entitle his famous book The Mystery of Marriage. The most mysterious part of it all? Every marriage — even those not consciously aimed at God’s glory — images the greater covenant between Christ, the redeemer-husband, and the church, His sinful but blood-bought bride. Any institution with this kind of cosmic, Gospel-based significance has to be good.

2. Marriage is full of romance, but it’s not an unending romance-fest.

If you’ve watched a lot of romantic comedies, you may have the impression that couples glide through life together, holding hands, holding gazes for minutes, even hours, without looking away, standing on windswept hills with desire fueling every heartbeat of every day. There are definitely seasons that are joyfully romantic. This is part of God’s good design. Attraction and sexual passion were not invented by Satan, but by Almighty God. Enjoying the gift of sex, we could even say, is a matter of happy obedience to Him. It was the divine, not the debased, mind that invented romance and pleasure.

Life, however, is not one long romantic comedy. Sin is real. Work is hard. Kids consume time and energy. Illnesses crop up. Parents age. One spouse is feeling super-romantic some nights, while the other just wants to crash after a long day. Interest in sex and emotional togetherness varies among couples. Guys on average have more of a sex drive, though this is reversed in some marriages; women on average crave more emotional intimacy and conversation than men, though the opposite is in some cases true. Either way, marriage does not mean unending pleasure and romance-driven fulfillment. You always marry a sinner, life is busy, and adulthood means maturity and death to self.

God gives married couples many wonderful times of togetherness and romance. He has fundamentally given us the gift of marriage, the gift of sex, and the gift of companionship. We must know, though, that we receive these gifts not as perfect people, but redeemed sinners. Tasting the goodness of God’s gifts is delightful; recognizing the challenges of life in a fallen world is needful.

3. Marriage does bring fulfillment, but not ultimate fulfillment.

What I’ve already written points us to this central realization: Marriage is a wonderful gift to those who are called by God to it. That’s a statement needing no qualification, one that speaks a better word than what our modern world says about holy matrimony.

If God intends for you to be married, if you have a strong desire for a spouse for spiritual, emotional and physical reasons, then it is good for you to pray for marriage. Don’t feel bad about that; don’t feel unspiritual. You don’t have to pretend when you’re around your friends that you’re indifferent about marriage. You can embrace it and even want it. That desire is part of how the Lord drives us into covenant with one another, with godly men taking responsibility to pursue godly young women. When you enter into marriage, you’ll be happy. You’ll find satisfaction and health and joy and delight and stability and a great many other things.

But here’s what you won’t find: ultimate fulfillment. You must remind yourself now, as you’re praying for a spouse, that there is no sinless future husband or wife out there. God alone is our need. Christ alone is our sufficiency. The Spirit alone is our comforter. Gaining a spouse will bring great blessing to you. But it will not bring ultimate blessing to you, whether initially or over the span of your marriage. It’s tempting to both denigrate and idealize wedlock. We need to avoid both of these temptations. We weren’t ultimately made for this life, and our hearts weren’t made to be fulfilled by a spouse. Only God supplies our ultimate need. Only our Savior and redeemer washes us, renews us, and fills us with joy for all eternity.

Knowing that our spouse is both a source of joy and, at times, of conflict (either because of our sin or theirs) means that we will approach them realistically. One certain application of said realism: We will be quick to forgive and will communicate well when grievances arise. If we don’t, we’ll open the door to a long chain of increasingly bitter and even desperate fights. Godly married couples take sin seriously; godly husbands would do well, accordingly, to initiate regular times of communication that invite honesty and feature forgiveness. It’s in confession and restoration, not pretended perfection, that we discover new joy and fulfillment through Christ.

4. Marriage involves an intentional relationship, and marital happiness doesn’t happen by accident.

Marriage, contrary to what movies, television and breathless newlyweds might say, is not an alternate state. When you get married, you don’t float an inch off of the ground. Your feet, I assure you, are firmly planted; the laws of gravity, I must tell you, assuredly apply. You can’t coast in marriage, in other words. You have to put your heart and soul into it. Husbands have to intentionally and self-sacrificially love their wives as Christ loves the church. Wives have to intentionally and self-sacrificially submit to their husbands and joyfully follow them.

This kind of focus happens by a daily death to self. You can’t blithely go about your day, ignoring your spiritual life, not attacking your natural selfishness, thinking that when you return home after doing all the things you want to do, your spouse will effervescently meet all your needs. Instead — and this is particularly true as life gets busy and kids come along — you have to plan ahead to keep everyone on track, strategize so as to get time together as a couple, talk out your financial needs and goals, find time each night for family meals and devotions, work together to keep the home running, and zero in on church on Sunday morning by getting everyone ready on time so that you can actually worship the Lord and not steam into the service like an exhausted ultra-marathoner just before the finish line.

There is no effortless marriage. Whether it looks hard or easy to onlookers, every marriage takes continual work and constant investment. If your marriage (future or present) is going to thrive, you have to put your heart and soul into it. If you’ve learned otherwise from Hollywood or romance novels, it’s time to snap back to reality. It’s time to claim God’s grace in your life and your life together.

So what is marriage really like?

In sum, it’s a blast. It’s a gift. I wake up every day thankful that God led me to be married and that He gave me an excellent wife whom I adore and love. But that initial moment of thankfulness must, if I’m going to glorify the Lord, also be the moment when I check in to the work ahead of me. I can’t fall prey, in other words, to thinking that marriage is some sort of effortless series of dream-like sequences. I have to resolve, in that moment my feet hit the floor, that today, starting right now, I’m going to give my all to my wife.

In reality, marriage is warfare. A husband and a wife go to war together against their sin and against Satan. They don’t let either of these foes steal the joy God intends for married couples to experience. They avoid both living in the clouds and mistaking their spouse for their target. We’re not living in romantic comedies as Christian husbands and wives. Neither are we walking tragedies. We’re redeemed sinners made new by grace, and we are free to savor marriage, knowing that our earthly union is but a preparation for our eternal one.

Copyright 2013 Owen Strachan. All rights reserved.

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