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Not long ago, I discovered through a Facebook profile some unanticipated news that shocked me: A married gal I’d known fairly well — but with whom I’d lost touch—listed herself as “divorced.” Whoa! When I’d known her, her marriage had seemed solid. She and her husband had been married for two decades and together were raising a large brood of kids. And, they both were Christ followers.
Then, soon after this disturbing discovery, my husband and I attended a dinner party. There we learned of yet another couple—this time, one we didn’t know, friends-of-friends who attended the same church as our buddies—filing for divorce. They also had been married many years.
I have no idea what prompted this shattering schism between either of these couples. I’m certain their difficult decision to divorce was forged in great pain and grief. I’m confident it came at tremendous cost. It may not even have been consensual.
The choice to “consciously uncouple” — a trendy term for divorce popularized by actress Gwyneth Paltrow when she announced her separation from Coldplay frontman/husband, Chris Martin— saddens me, particularly when those involved are fellow Christians. And it brings me to my knees in prayer for continued protection over my own 37-year marriage to my college sweetheart, Rich. We’re going strong and still crazy in love—and yet these divorces hit close to home, especially because we have, as these other couples had, a Christian marriage.
what is christian marriage?
What is “Christian marriage,” anyway? Obviously on one level it’s the relationship between two people who say they’re Christians. But is there more to it? If it’s strictly defined in terms of performing certain Christian activities, such as attending church and praying together, then Rich and I may fall a little short. We rarely pray together. And while we both profess Christ and attend church together, because of our current snowbird lifestyle and Rich’s frequent business travel, we’re currently not in a couples small group or actively serving. Does this make our marriage less “Christian” than those who can check off more items on some spiritual “to do” list?
I don’t think so.
I’m convinced Christian marriage is about much more than outward demonstrations of faith. A Christian marriage between two fallen human beings has more to do with who we are — especially in Christ — than with checking off behaviors on a Christian checklist.
Pastor, author, and president of LifeWay Research, Ed Stetzer responded in a September 27, 2012 blog post for christianitytoday.com to the oft-quoted statistic that a Christian marriage is as likely to end in divorce as one in the general population. In his post, Stetzer presented some research that refuted the scary-stats, quoting Bradley Wright’s book, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: What appears intuitive is true. Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes — attend church nearly every week, read their Bibles and spiritual materials regularly; pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but as serious disciples.
This phrase is significant: “living not as perfect disciples, but as serious disciples” [italics mine]. Wright’s quote subtly underscores the truth that Christian marriage is as much about our inner core—our attitudes, our beliefs — as with faith’s outer expressions.
Rich and I celebrated our 37th anniversary on March 19 this year. We met at a Christian college and were both believers when we married, but at ages 23 and 24, we were hardly mature in our faith. Throughout our many years together, we’ve grown in love and faith. We’ve experienced a joy and wonder and pleasure we never would have known outside this wonderful gift of marriage. We’ve laughed, loved, served, sacrificed, and survived some tough trials in the sure grip of our good God.
But we’ve also had moments—okay, even seasons, as most married couples do—when we’ve fought and cried, been angry and frustrated, even despaired of ever overcoming some pesky patterns that keep popping up in our relationship. We’re far from perfect as spouses. But we are serious—about our marriage, about our faith. When we stand before Jesus, one of our greatest desires is to be able to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful spouse.”
Christian Marriage’s Greatest Enemy
The hard soul work of surrendering attitudes and overcoming strongholds to transform a marriage is incredibly challenging. We have an Enemy seeking to exploit every quirk and failing and fault in an effort to diminish and even destroy the very human relationship meant to portray Christ’s divine love. Bitterness, pride, envy, comparison, stubbornness, neediness—basically, sin—when left unchecked, creates wedges in even the strongest of relationships. But thankfully those of us who claim Christ as Savior have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to empower us in this life-long covenant adventure.
Of course external practices that express Christian commitment—the religious behaviors described in Stetzer’s blog—help strengthen faith and couple-bonds. But a serious faith also requires us to wrestle with taking captive to Christ those attitudes, issues, wedge-producers, and sins we uncover in ourselves and in our spouse. That, I believe, transforms a Christian-looking marriage into a truly Christian marriage.
The sad reality is, some Christian marriages end. But because God’s grace is so infinite, he always holds out hope, healing, and restoration to those shattered by broken promises or painful decisions. Brokenness can be mended, praise God. He can make all things new.
As for my husband and me, we remain unequivocally committed to the covenant we entered into with each other and God 37 years ago. I still pray for God’s grace, strength, protection, and wisdom to complete this task of marriage well. We want our marriage to model Jesus to our children and our grandchildren — and to the watching world. And while our Christian marriage may not be perfect, thankfully, our Christ is.
—Jane Johnson Struck
Jane Johnson Struck, former editor of TODAY’S CHRISTIAN WOMAN magazine, is a writer and freelance editor. Copyright © 2014 by Jane Johnson Struck.