When we get engaged, nearly all of us have cartoon hearts for eyes. We see the world through a lovely haze, walking in bliss as we think about spending the rest of our lives with our best friend. After we get married, this feeling can last for a while, maybe even years. But then… well, routines set in, we get annoyed by our spouse’s quirks and our selfishness takes over. And that’s even without children thrown into the mix.
All relationships are hard work, and we would argue that marriage is its own special brand of difficult. But a great marriage requires more than just staying together. It goes beyond living in the same house and sharing the same bed.
So, what exactly makes a marriage great? And how do we get there?
1. Put God First
When he was asked what the greatest commandment is (Matthew 22:34-40), Jesus says this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.”
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on:
“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Jesus is saying that when we love God, all our relationships are deeply impacted. So when we love God, we love our spouse. And when we love our spouse, we love God. We can’t separate the two.
In his book The Me I Want to Be, John Ortberg writes that when we believe in Jesus and accept God’s love and forgiveness, “You become more that person God had in mind when he thought you up. You don’t just become holier. You become you-ier. You will change; God wants you to become a ‘new creation.’”
Our spiritual foundation, our relationship with God will directly influence all other areas of our life. If we aren’t honest before him, if our prayer life is shallow or nonexistent, if we aren’t part of a Christian community, if our Bible is covered with a thick layer of dust — these things will absolutely affect our marriage, and not in a good way.
Paul John Tripp says it like this: “every sin is first vertical, no matter how thunderous the horizontal implications of it are.”
Growing in our faith and deepening our relationship with God is the best way to ensure we have a great marriage. In doing so, we shift our focus from ourselves and learn how to lay down our lives for each other, to become more like Jesus.
2. Be Fruitful
The evidence of a deep, abiding, true love for God shows itself in how we demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit: by our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The more we pursue God, the easier it will be to allow the Holy Spirit to demonstrate these aspects of God’s character through us to others — especially to our spouse, who is our closest neighbour. All the fruit of the Spirit are important, but for the purpose of brevity, we’ll highlight just a few.
Paul writes so eloquently about love in 1 Corinthians 13: “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” And let’s be clear: the definition of love is not a fleeting feeling. It’s not butterflies in our stomachs. John writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
Love means sacrifice. In marriage, that means putting our spouse’s needs before ours, every time. When there’s conflict, it means forgiving and working to repair the damage done.
When we talk about healthy relationships, we have to talk about communication. But what is the foundation of communication? Gentleness and humility. If there is no respect, when pride dominates in one or both partners, it doesn’t leave room for healthy and honest communication. How can we listen, be open, transparent and accountable with one another if we don’t operate with gentleness and humility? Our heart attitude towards our partners makes all the difference, especially in conflict situations.
For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. There’s a reason why we make these vows on our wedding day. When things get hard, when our natural inclination is to get out of there as fast as we possibly can, we are reminded of the promises we made to our partner.
Our commitment to each other is a huge part of what makes our marriage great. In our culture of instant gratification and self-inflation, standing together and being committed to one another is a portrait of God’s faithfulness. It shows the world the goodness that comes when we are bound together.
And at the end of our lives, don’t we all want to say, like Paul does in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.”
So what makes a marriage great, anyways? When we love God with all our hearts, souls and minds, we will be changed. It’s guaranteed. And with that change comes the ability to love our spouse the way Jesus loves us: sacrificially and without limit.
“Do the things that show you really have changed your hearts and lives.” Matthew 3:8 (NCV)
For more on what it takes to have a great marriage, listen to Valerie and Sheldon Dean’s Marriage Talk podcast.