Friday, August 23, 2013

What makes a good marriage?

Read a book or do an online search (such as herehere, or here) on the above question and you'll get no lack of advice and markers as to a good marriage, most of which (not all) are helpful and some certainly grounded in truth and common sense concerning relationship.  Any who care about their marriage seek out, from time to time, helps like these because there is no marriage immune from relational difficulties, disappointments and hurts. Building a good marriage isn't easy.  Many indeed have what could be labeled as marital problems and even severe breaches of marital faithfulness.  And that sadly has been the status-quo since Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden.  Could it be that one can have a good marriage and yet it's not free from hurts and difficulties? Does the idyllic problem-free marriage even exist?  As to say, if only each partner were to carry their 50% by heeding the rules of good relationship and adhere to their respective responsibilities then a bubble of marital bliss would envelop them throughout the years, i.e. live perfectly.  The only problem with that scenario is the inconvenient reality that intrudes again and again--both spouses are sinners.

Having done some marriage counseling in both private practice and church settings for a time in the 1980s-90s and being married for almost forty years, I'm interested to find any new insight or help that may come along. Being married to a fallen individual isn't easy.  Just ask Mrs. The World's Ruined!  With that in view, I was blessed as I read the book Family Vocation: God's Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood by Gene Veith and Mary J. Moerbe.  In the section on marriage the authors, rather than offering some new innovation or ten-easy-relational-steps, point back to something old, something simple yet hard, something grounded in the reality of our flawed humanity and God's mercy as revealed in Scripture which the best of marriages never outgrow:
Specifically, wives struggle because they are sinners married to sinners, and are also sinners under the authority of a sinful husband.  As sinners themselves, wives may resist and strike out against their husbands.  Husbands have struggles and temptations as sinners and as sinners with authority over a wife.  They may be tempted to abuse or belittle the authority God gave them, authority intended for loving service.  Sin is ultimately the reason for discord within marriage--not just the sins of one or the other, but given the one-flesh unity of married couples, sin that entwines and entraps them both.  And the solution to sin is forgiveness.
We cannot emphasize enough the centrality of forgiveness within marriage.  When God uses marriage language, he is speaking of the gospel, so the passages are replete with forgiveness, emphasizing love and mercy.  Marriage is the great proving ground for forgiveness.  The greater the intimacy between two people, the greater the knowledge of faults and weaknesses, and thus the greater occasions for forgiveness.  This is more than a precursory "No harm done; it doesn't matter; no apology needed."  Forgiveness exists exactly because harm is done.  Something was wrong, but forgiveness allows the relationship to move on.  Forgiveness is a huge aspect of our relationship with each other and our relationship with our Lord.  In fact, Jesus--who, remember, is present in our neighbor--connects his forgiveness with our forgiving each other.  We are to pray, "Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt. 6:12).
Spouses should make a practice of forgiving each other.  But forgiveness, like Christ's forgiveness, must be a free gift.  We cannot coerce forgiveness, nor can we presume that anyone is owed forgiveness...
Spouses should also realize that in this fallen world, not all problems can be solved.  A cross cannot be made to disappear by applying some simple formula or technique.  A cross has to be borne... A problem, such as a disagreement, may indeed have a solution.  But something like grief or a disability or an intransigent characteristic of one's spouse cannot be "fixed" but only borne...
Suffering, though, does not have to be borne alone.  The hidden blessing of suffering is that it calls forth mercy, that is to say, love.  One of the glories of marriage is that it offers daily occasions to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).
Sin and forgiveness, suffering and love, sacrifice and reconciliation come together and find resolution in the cross.  That of Christ, that of vocation, and that of Christ hidden in vocation--this is what it means to bear the cross. [pp. 99-100]

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