Betsy and I sat quietly as the waiter cleared our table with polite, crisp efficiency. From our candlelit corner on the top floor of an elegant hotel, we had a beautiful view of Washington, D.C. in the summer twilight. The muffled hum of restaurant conversation was punctuated by the tinkling of silverware against china and crystal. But another sound had come to my attention. I could actually hear my heart pounding.
The date was July 24, 1977. Sixteen months earlier, I had asked Betsy out for the first time. Sixteen months of praying and desperately straining to discern if God would be so kind as to tell me, “Yes, she’s the one.” A few weeks earlier, Betsy’s brother C.J. had noticed my mounting anxiety. Erupting into one of his inimitable fits of laughter, he chided me, “Gary, if anyone was concerned that you or Betsy might be making a mistake, don’t you think somebody would have told you? What are you waiting for, bro?”
Now here we were, Betsy and I, and what a study in contrasts! She was a lovely picture of delicate serenity. And I . . . I was a mess. My heart was throbbing, my throat was dry, and the air-conditioning felt worthless. Lord, I cried silently, please help me do this!
I can’t remember exactly what I said leading up to “The Moment,” and that’s probably just as well. I only recall that I asked Betsy if she would do me the great honor of becoming my wife. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, she said yes! That moment, and her answer, remain a matter of profound wonder to me. And for the past twenty-eight years I’ve lived in the joy and fulfillment of Proverbs 18:22, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.”
Perhaps you have a similar memory. If so, we hope the joy of that moment still sings in your soul and that new verses to the love song of your marriage will be written every year. Many of you are probably enjoying a reasonably good marriage and anticipate finding in this book a refresher and some helpful reminders to improve your relationship. We trust the Lord to fulfill those expectations, and indeed do much more.
But perhaps the history of your marriage is tinged with sadness, or even regret. Maybe your joyful memories have simply faded with the calendar pages of years gone by. If so, please know that God can make all things new.
Yes, all things.
Most marriages begin with a sense of wonder and promise, with dreams and passion, with love and affection. Shouldn’t marriage continue this way? Shouldn’t passion deepen? Shouldn’t love last?
We’ve written this book to affirm with full confidence that the answer to these questions is a resounding YES! But our confidence is not because we’re experts (there is no such thing as a “marriage expert”). We’re just an ordinary couple who have received rich instruction, example, counsel, and care in the same excellent local church for over twentyeight years. And we’re eager to share what we’ve learned.
As you read on, regardless of where you are right now, we want your flickering memories to be fanned into flames of anticipation and hope. We want your heart to be full of the fresh sense of adventure that led to your getting married in the first place. We want the rest of your marriage journey to be free from any baggage of passivity, resignation, unbelief, bitterness, or regret. And we want you to throw away any and all guidebooks and directions about marriage that the popular culture has provided. Because these are not based on the Word of God, they are completely unreliable: They are always changing; the dangers of the latest theory are never noted; the joy of sacrifice is excluded; and guidance to the correct and ultimate destination is nowhere to be found.
We offer this book as an alternative. We’ve worked hard to base what we say on the Scriptures. And we believe, because of the permanence, promises, and power of God’s Word, that he will provide hope and help for every aspect of your marriage (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
This first chapter is vital because it charts the course for the entire journey, not only through the book, but through a lasting and vibrant marriage. We’ll talk about a definition, purpose, and plan for marriage. We’ll discuss motive, context, and assurance. And we’ll spend time focusing on hope—the wonderful hope to be found in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. God wants you to complete this lifelong journey of marriage, and he wants you to finish well. But first you have to know where you’re going, what to bring with you, and why you’re making the trip.
A few years ago we took the family vacation of a lifetime, which we affectionately called “The Ricuccis’ Great Wild West Adventure.” It was unlike anything we could have imagined! You’ll find some of the details later in the book (and someday you really ought to try it). But for the time being, here’s a tip: how you plan, prepare, and participate are all critical to a successful journey—whether it’s a marriage or a vacation.
Engaged couples, this book is for you too. Even if we don’t address you directly, all that you read here still applies . . . or will soon. How exciting as you prepare to discover the many ways God will reveal his goodness in your marriage!
One more thing before we start . . . what a joy and privilege it is for us to join you for this portion of your marriage journey! We know you could be reading a lot of other books and spending your time in a thousand other ways, so we are quite humbled that you chose to sit down with this book. Thanks for bringing us along for the ride.
I (Gary) majored in art in college. And while my grades didn’t always reflect it, I really did enjoy experimenting with the wonderful variety of composition and color, texture and tint, harmony and hue. While there are many ways art can be captured and expressed, in recent decades art has become pretty much whatever you want it to be. In 2001, for example, one of the most prestigious art awards in Europe, the Turner Prize, went to a man whose “work” was an empty exhibit hall where once in a while the lights would turn off and on! If this is art, then art can be anything, and it is therefore meaningless.
Tragically, the cultural view of marriage and family has also gradually disintegrated. No-fault divorce, prenuptial agreements, multiple pairs of parents, homosexual “marriage” . . . the definition of normal marriage and family has become distorted and confused, and the overall Western consensus that once existed on the subject is endangered. We learn in the Scriptures that God has entrusted to the church, “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), the care and protection of his timeless, unchanging design for marriage. But even if many in the church at times drift into cultural confusion, we can always find the accurate definition and description of marriage in the Bible, the Word of God. In fact, the Bible is the only place where we can find a reliable definition and description of marriage. (If you’re not a Christian, you may find that statement intolerant and narrow-minded. But please don’t close this book just yet. Give us at least a chapter or two to show you the wisdom of doing marriage God’s way. We think it will have been time well spent.)
What exactly, then, makes for a biblical marriage—that is, one in keeping with the Bible’s teachings? Is a marriage biblical because it started in a house of worship instead of a court of law? Or because husband and wife attend church together? Or because a couple has ruled out divorce as a way to deal with problems? Or because each spouse lives a faithful and morally upstanding life? Or because it features 2.1 kids and a stay-at-home mom?
The correct answer is, “None of the above.”
Those aren’t even the right questions.
For the rest of this chapter we’ll focus on some very different questions. Questions grounded in God’s infallible Word. Questions that shed clear, biblical light on your marriage. These questions will establish the foundational perspectives we’ll revisit and apply throughout this book. Every subject we discuss—roles in marriage, communication, conflict, romance, and more—will trace right back here. Most importantly, these questions can help you build a marriage that authentically honors and glorifies God by reflecting his love, his goodness, his holiness, his wisdom, his power, his peace, and his joy. From a biblical perspective, here are the defining questions of marriage.
Many people, if they were totally honest, would admit that the central focus of their marriage is their personal satisfaction. In this view, marriage is a means of self-fulfillment, a path to personal happiness. I find someone who seems to complete me, who feels like my “soul-mate.” My heart melts, I open myself up to her, and she to me. This view says, I know my marriage is good because I’m happy. You complete me, and I’m so satisfied with you. Therefore, our marriage is good.
Others say that’s just selfish. Marriage is not about me—it’s about you, my spouse, they declare. I commit my life to making you happy. If you’re happy, I’m happy. My needs aren’t important. I am your noble servant, the wind beneath your wings. I exist to serve you. I must serve you!
Still others say, No, marriage is not about you or me. It’s about us. We check our Me at the door of We. What you might need and what I might want are all consumed in the greater vision of Marriage. We live as one. We think as one. We feel as one. We are Marriage!
The truth is, all these views have the same fatal limitation: They are centered in man rather than in God. A truly Christian marriage starts with the reality that the institution of marriage does not belong to us. It belongs to God. He designed marriage, and his purposes for it are paramount.
So then, what are God’s purposes for marriage?
Whenever we speak of God’s purposes, we must begin and end with Scripture. It is so easy to look elsewhere for guidance. We are quick to depend on our feelings, our habits, the opinions of others, secular culture, false religion, expediency, or self-will as a basis for our perspective, behavior, and decisions regarding marriage. Yet Scripture, and Scripture alone, is God’s means for revealing who he is, who we are, and what marriage is intended to be.
Briefly stated, Scripture teaches that marriage is a profound and marvelous relationship—a mystery, established by God for his glory. When we speak of bringing glory to God (as we will throughout this book), we mean doing that which, to some degree, accurately reveals and represents him and appropriately honors and responds to him for who he is in his perfection and power. Thus, marriage brings glory to God by displaying as fully as possible how he relates to his people through Jesus Christ.
What is this mystery of marriage? It began in the Garden of Eden when God himself fashioned a woman perfectly suited to Adam and “brought her to the man” (Genesis 2:22). From Genesis 2:24 we glean this divine description of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” So from the earliest pages of Scripture, we see that marriage—an exclusive, passionate, and permanent relationship between a man and a woman—owes its very existence to God.
As significant as marriage was in Eden, the full meaning of marriage was not disclosed until the coming of Christ. When the apostle Paul teaches about marriage in Ephesians 5, he quotes Genesis 2:24 and then draws back the curtain on this amazing truth: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” This revelation explodes all human-centered explanations for marriage. The relationship between a husband and a wife is meant to be a reflection of Christ’s relationship with his church—a living parable of the supernatural union between Jesus and his Bride.
To grasp this staggering truth is both inspiring and sobering. What a privilege! What a responsibility!
For many of us, this truth reminds us not so much of God’s grand design, but of how far short we fall of the divine ideal. Yet God wouldn’t have made the analogy unless he intended to draw us to himself and his faithfulness for its fulfillment. It’s overwhelming to realize that God intends to create and cultivate the same abundant, gracious love between a husband and wife that he has for us. In light of this glorious gift it is no wonder that Scripture reminds us that marriage is to be held in honor among all (Hebrews 13:4).
So marriage, far from being an end in itself, is a key part of God’s plan to fill the earth with a demonstration of who he is. Marriage belongs to God and exists for his glory. And that is for our good.
Perhaps you noticed the subtitle to this book, “When Marriage Meets Grace.” Grace is one of those words we hear often because it’s so important . . . but then we lose all sense of how important it is because we hear it so often! Most of us could use a quick refresher course on what grace really is. Author and speaker Jerry Bridges defines grace as God’s “undeserved favor to those who deserve his wrath.”1 God’s grace comes to us through the gospel, and the gospel is the means by which we experience that grace. Grace redirects our focus from our guilt to God’s forgiveness, from our failures to Christ’s perfect righteousness, from our total inability to God’s complete sufficiency, from all we feel burdened to do to all Christ has already done on our behalf.
Right now you may be thinking, Uh, Gary, could we push the Pause button? We’ve talked about God, about reflections of divine reality, and now the gospel and grace. When exactly are we going to talk about marriage? You know, husband-and-wife stuff—communication, sex, children, paying the bills? So far, this just sounds like a lot of theology!
If that, my friend, is your view, I have to tell you: Nothing is more important to your marriage than your theology (what you believe about God), and nothing is more important to your theology (and hence your marriage) than the gospel. So hang in here with me, OK?
The gospel, in brief, is the good news about the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. Consider for a moment that the eternal Son of God relinquished the glories of heaven to become a man, a human being like you and me. He lived a perfect and sinless life (unlike you and me), fulfilling every requirement of God’s holy law in a way we could never hope to accomplish. And then in a glorious display of God’s love for sinners like us, he willingly received the full fury of God’s righteous wrath against sin by dying for our sins on a cruel Roman cross.
Because God’s absolute and perfect holiness demands an equivalent holiness from all who come before him, in ourselves we are all hopelessly lost and condemned. But Jesus, who had no sin of his own to pay for, took our place, paid our penalty, and suffered our punishment. Because his death as our substitute was perfectly sufficient to pay for our sin, God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. So now all who place their trust in Jesus’ work on their behalf and turn from their sin will be forgiven, counted righteous in him, and saved from judgment for all eternity . . . all by God’s marvelous grace. This is the gospel. This is the good news. Better news simply does not exist!
Tragically, this most precious of all news is too often assumed (“OK, I know Jesus died for my sins”), misunderstood (“I thought the gospel was for unbelievers—I’m already a Christian”), or even ignored or dismissed (“Don’t give me theology—I need help for my marriage right now”). But consider these marvelous truths.
These are just a few of the ways the gospel can transform a marriage. Sometimes it’s not easy to live in the reality of these truths. But it is always possible—and not because of our strength or determination, but because of God’s empowering and enabling grace.
If you haven’t noticed, we are intent (because God is intent) on having your heart and marriage filled with the hope and grace of God’s love, faithfulness, and power displayed in the gospel—the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. And God’s grace is every bit as present and effective on our best days as it is on our worst. God is constant in his commitment to love, bless, and transform, not because of our performance, but because of the perfection of his Son. That is the gospel of grace. And it is grace that gives us hope.
When we grasp the depth of God’s love for us revealed in the gospel, when we rest in the joy of God’s forgiveness toward us in the gospel, hen we experience God’s transforming power in us through the gospel, and when we begin to emulate the pattern of humility and obedience we see in the gospel, what a wonderful difference this will make in our lives and marriages! Nothing is more essential to a marriage, and nothing brings more hope, than applying the gospel of Jesus Christ.