"And they lived happily ever after."
How many times have you read this fairy-tale ending in story books? Is marriage really so idyllic? In real life, can a couple really "live happily ever after"?
To address these questions, we have to return to the Bible, and read the episode of creation in the Book of Genesis. As the author testifies, when God saw that Adam was alone, He decided that this was not good for him, so He created Eve, as a "helper comparable to him" (Gen 2:18). And when God had completed His creation, the Bible says that "God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Gen 1:31). In other words, God concluded that all His works, including the union between Adam and Eve, were pleasing to Him. This being so, we could say that marriage as an institution is not only endorsed but also favored by God. It should then follow that life after the wedding should be one of joy and happiness.
Yet, in reality, the facts may tell a different story. We may know of friends, even Christian friends, whose marriages are on the rocks. If God endorses marriage, surely it will work. So what goes wrong? Of course there are a thousand and one reasons why things do not work out, and it is unrealistic to even try to list them all. However, in many instances, the problem lies with our attitudes and our expectations in a marriage.
Knowing the Necessity of Give-and-Take
For a start, we have to realize that success in marriage is more than just finding the right person. Being the right person is even more important. Ask most people and they will tell you what ideals they are looking for in a spouse. Very few will think about the kind of person their "ideal" spouse will be getting. Have you ever asked yourself if the specific biblical qualities you are looking for in your spouse are found in yourself? It is not the tangible material things that you may bring to a marriage that will make it a success, it is the person in youâ€”the way you act and behave in your everyday lifeâ€”that is crucial So whatever spiritual qualities you want in a spouse, make sure that you have them developed in yourself too.
In many ways, marriage is a "give-and-take" commitment; you must be willing to give what you aspire to receive. In the early years of marriage, this principle is even more important. When two parties begin their lives together, each will discover new things about the other. When these are things that please you, you may give thanks to God; but what if your partner exhibits traits that displease you? The "give-and-take" principle must apply. You have to recognize that your spouse is only human, just as you are. Accepting the other's quirks, occasional forgetfulness, and change of moods just shows that you have acknowledged that your spouse is as human as you are.
When two persons enter into marriage, it is also the blending of differencesâ€”usually in terms of backgrounds, personal histories and catalogs of experiencesâ€”into a single unit. If these differences are not talked over, they can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. This leads us to another important practical element in a marriageâ€”namely, communication. Marriage means sharing. A key feature of sharing is being able to communicate in order to learn more about each other and in so doing, understand each other better. And communication is two-way; talking and listening. The second facet, listening, is often ignored. We may prefer to speak as this enables us to assert our position, viewpoints, ideas and feelings to our spouses, but we may not like to be on the receiving end to listen to the ideas of our spouses. The fact that God gives us two ears but one mouth is significant. The Bible also reminds us to "be swift to hear, slow to speak" (Jas 1:19). The extroverts among us especially have to ensure that we are not guilty of talking too much and not listening enough.
Applying the Golden Rule
In addition to the above practical considerations, a successful marriage is one where the two parties can apply the Biblical golden rule in their relationship: "Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them" (Mt 7:12). Let's take a practical example. "My wife does not show any interest in what I do," the husband may complain. Yet, he never asks himself whether he shows any interest in what his wife does. How often does he compliment her on her efforts or enquire after her activities at church or at her workplace?
Does he notice how tired she looks sometimes and ask if she is all right? Likewise, the wife may mourn, "My husband does not love me any more." But she never stops to think whether her actions show her husband that she does care for him. Has she become so engrossed in trying to be a good mother that she has forgotten to be a wife? And when was the last time she actually told him that she loved him? If, over time, she has changed towards him, is it fair for her to expect the same degree of love and affection from her spouse?
The Lord Jesus tells us that we should do to others what we expect others to do to us. Applied to marital relationships, it means that when you expect affection from your spouse, you ought to show affection to your spouse first; when you want your spouse to support your endeavor, you ought to support his or her endeavor first. If both of you just wait for the other to take the first step, you could waste your whole married life waiting in vain.
Living Your Life Together for Christ
Ultimately, a successful marriage is one where both parties can walk in the Christian path prescribed in the Bible, where together, they live a lifestyle that distinguishes them as the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Often, when we marry within the Lord, we expect the rest of our lives together to be happy, and we cannot understand why our marriage is not working. We may still face numerous problems and have countless arguments, perhaps even more than our non-believing friends. Surely, since we have married within the Lord, which is what God requires, our lives together ought to be blissful. But what we fail to realize is that despite marrying a church member, we have not applied the words of God, as given in the Bible, as the sole guiding principle in all that we do. We fail to fear God and keep His commandments. If our daily actions are no different from those of non-Christians, and we continue to indulge in worldly pleasures, show little concern for the welfare of the church and do not put God as the center of our lives, how then can we expect God to bless our marriage life? Whether we are single or married, as long as we are Christians, we have an obligation to live lives befitting our status, and more than that, to live our lives not for ourselves, but for Christ.
Taking this a step further, marriage is more than just the union of two persons as one. When two Christians marry, God must always remain the head of their household, and be a major part of every decision that they make. For example, if you relocate, will you consider how the move may affect your service for the Lord? Will you still be able to serve Him in your new place of residence? If you change to a job with better career prospects, will you still have time to attend services, participate in church ministry and do your daily Bible reading and prayers?
In fact, Christian couples ought to make it their aim to have the serving spirit of Aquila and Priscilla, who together played active roles in the ministry of the early church. The "two are better than one" concept has to be taken beyond just a union between husband and wife in terms of their personal lives; it has to encompass the Christian lives that they lead in serving God. In other words, husband and wife ought to team up in offering their service to God, and together they ought to ensure that they spend the rest of their lives as faithful and loyal servants of the Lord. Today, we often say that just as God had created Eve as a companion (since it was not good for Adam to be alone) and a helper to Adam, we are companions and helpers to our spouses so that together, we will not grow old alone and be without help. But what is even more important is that we are also companions and helpers in our spouses' journey of faith as well as in their service to the Lord. We need to be mindful of this, and constantly examine ourselves to see if we are supporting or hindering our spouses' faith and service.
Realizing True Love
If you were to ask married couples their reason for marriage, many would tell you that they married for love. Yet, if you were to continue to ask them how they would define this elusive term, the answers you get will not be the sameâ€”physical attraction, compatibility, enjoying each other's company, not being able to live without the otherâ€”the list continues. But I believe that we as Christians have to return to the Bible to truly understand what love is all about. First, Apostle Paul has this advice: to the husbands, "love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her," and to the wives, "submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body" (Eph 5:21-25). And this advice provides the clue to the Christian concept of love between husband and wife. As Paul says, Christ loved His church to the extent that He was willing to sacrifice His own life in order to open the door of salvation to her. This is the extent to which husbands ought to love their wives. And just as the church, being the body of Christ, has to be guided by Him and have all her actions directed by Him, wives are to practice submissiveness in their dealings with their husbands, who are, after all, the heads of the families. This is not to say that wives are less important in the eyes of God, or that they are inferior to their husbands. It is just that the role played by each party is different. The important thing to note is that just like the physical anatomy, both the head and the body need each other in order to survive. One cannot function without the other.
Next, when we talk about love, we need to measure this against the famous definition given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Take a quiet moment, search your heart, and ask yourself if your love for your spouse exhibits the following attributes:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; ... bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails (1 Cor 13:4-8). The Lord Jesus says, "from the beginning of creation, God 'made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh', so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Mk 10:6-9). In other words, marriage is for life. From the time we walk down the aisle together with our spouse, it signifies a new beginning, a new life together, upholding the marriage vow "for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part." We now have to invest time and effort to make our marriage work, and leave no room for regret. As Christians, we have the assurance that marriage is an institution sanctioned by God Himself. As long as we live up to the teachings of the Bible and strive to be a good partner to our spouse, the Lord will bless our marriage, and we can "live happily ever after."