My wife and I were sitting on our patio during an unusually warm morning, and the topic of our conversation turned to marriage. Several couples we know have recently experienced the pain of a divorce. Another couple close to us marked a milestone wedding anniversary, and this bittersweet contrast prompted us to ask each other: “What is a good marriage?”
A generation or two ago, a good marriage was often measured by longevity; commitment was the litmus test of a success. That meant that whether or not a couple enjoyed a strong bond with one another or a mutually satisfying relationship, those elements took a back seat to whether or not the marriage endured the many storms of life and came through intact. A couple was considered to have had a “good” marriage if they made it to their golden anniversary and were still married. But while commitment is certainly one ingredient in a “good” marriage, it is not the only one. I have known couples who have been married a long time but whose marriages were marked with conflict or even with abuse. Others have simply endured the months and years, with little joy or connection along the way.
Today, a generation or two later, the tide has shifted. We no longer define a marriage as “good” if it simply endures the test of time. Instead, a “good” marriage is one that is considered personally “fulfilling.” Marriage is about finding a person who can fulfill my emotional, sexual, or other needs, wants and desires, and if the marriage should cease being personally gratifying, the marriage can be abandoned. In fact, a long marriage may even be seen as detrimental if is lengthy but unsatisfying. In other words, a “good” marriage is defined in terms of individual happiness. The problem here is that when both husband and wife are pursuing their own fulfillment, there are bound to be two competing ideas of personal fulfillment that will lead to unhappiness and ultimately a breakdown of the marriage.
The Bible offers a different vision of a “good” marriage that is a north star that will guide our marriages to both longevity and joy, just as God desires. There are a number of staples that God’s word gives us a a foundation for good marriage.
The first quality of marriage given in the Bible, all the way back in the garden of Eden, is vulnerability and intimacy. Far more than mere physical nakedness, this scene in Genesis 2:25 defines the ideal in marriage as being two people who have nothing to hide from one another, but rather share every part of themselves with the other--physically, mentally, sexually, emotionally, and otherwise. God wants married couples to know the joy of vulnerability, and this takes work. The first consequence named in a post-fall world is that vulnerability is now marked with shame. We find it easier to cover our emotions behind a tough façade or to avoid sexual intimacy for fear of rejection. Good marriages learn to cultivate the trust and effort necessary to recover some of the paradise lost. Good marriages depend on both husband and wife listening, trusting, and taking the risks that create intimacy.
There is only one book in the Bible devoted to a single subject: The Song of Songs. All 8 chapters of this book depict in evocative language the goodness of sexual pleasure within the covenant of marriage. Sex was created by God, and therefore, it is indeed very good. Sadly, many couples experience tension when it comes to their sex life. One or both spouses have been taught to associate sex with shame and so they miss out on the rich variety and creativity that sex allows. In other cases, one or both persons use sex as a means of gaining power in the relationship, withholding or giving sex as a reward or punishment. Unfortunately, this leads to couples missing out on the transformative power that sex has to bond a couple together in mutual enjoyment. God intended enjoyable sex to be woven into the fabric of a “good” marriage, and couples will reap benefits when they pursue a fulfilling sex life together.
The ultimate picture of a “good” marriage in the bible is found in Ephesians 5:21-33 where the Apostle Paul sets up a comparison between our marriages, and Christ’s marriage to the church. Good marriages are patterned after the marriage that Jesus has with his people! That means that marriage does at least two things. A good marriage doesn’t have MY personal fulfillment or individual satisfaction as its goal; rather, it aims to be a means by which God refines us by revealing our own sinful tendencies, our pride, our selfishness, our imperfections so that, more and more, we become like Jesus. When Christ’s marriage to us is held up as the standard, we begin to see that serving, not being served, is the ideal in marriage. We see that fidelity to our promise does matter, even when the passion has cooled. And, we are given a window into how we are loved. In that way, marriage allows us to experience a glimpse of the supernatural love that God has-–the love of our spouse becomes a prototype of God’s love for us. Our marriage becomes a pointer to the true and full source of fulfillment, which is not found in any earthly relationship, but ultimately, in Christ.
So, do you have a good marriage? How you and your spouse define “good” will shape the way that you pursue happiness together. So set course for a “good” marriage that is sure to be a source of blessing till death do you part.
Rev. Deb Koster
Dr. Robert Ritzema
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra