The Bad News: 5 Steps and 10 Commandments Don’t Work
There are more books, sermons, counselors and blogs giving advice and help for marriages than ever before in the history of mankind! Topics on marriage “how to” abound. An Amazon search returned these popular titles: 4 Days to a Forever Marriage, The Ten Commandments of Marriage: The Do’s and Don’ts for a Lifelong Covenant, The Rules for Marriage: Time-Tested Secrets for Making Your Marriage Work and 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great.
The world, as well as the church, sends the same message to wives and husbands. Work harder and do more and you too can have the marriage you’ve always dreamed of. Or if you are an engaged couple, follow the steps outlined in this premarital counseling book to assure a great marriage. The sobering reality is that it’s not that easy and relationships definitely do not respond to a five step plan or a cookie cutter process. That’s not to take anything away from all those who labor to guide and instruct engaged couples, newlyweds and long time marrieds – we need that and it’s important. But to instruct others to believe that it’s all up to them is a burden that they were never meant to carry. It bears some resemblance to a prosperity gospel that says “Do all these things and check it off on the list and you will get what was promised.” “Proceed through these five steps and you will get your forever marriage.” But it begs the question, “What if you’ve completed those five steps and your marriage is still struggling?” Or, “What if you went to premarital counseling and two months into married life you’re ready to call it quits.” When all the effort to secure the perfect marriage rests on you, you will eventually find yourself saying, “Surely I must have done something wrong.”
The truth is… you will always fail. Think about the Ten Commandments – God’s perfect, good and righteous Law. Beginning with the first commandment and working your way down the list, how many of you could say you have kept these commandments perfectly, all of the time? Even if you were to take the greatest command to love God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind, who of you could say that you have kept that even for one second? In the same way, there is not one of us who could say that we have kept all the rules or “commandments” needed to have a perfect marriage. A primary “command” or exhortation for a successful marriage is “do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26).
Who of you could say you have never gone to bed angry with your spouse? Even if you said you have always resolved disputes before bedtime, can you honestly say that you were not still angry in your heart? Jesus said about the command “Do not murder” that even if you have not killed someone, anger in your heart is the same as murder. Do you see how impossible it is to keep the rules in your marriage? Isn’t it exhausting? No wonder couples want to give up, throw in the towel or retreat into isolation. It’s just too hard. The repetitive cycle of hurt, striving, guilt and retreat zaps every ounce of energy and vitality out of a marriage. Oftentimes however, it’s the other extreme. Rather than the guilt and hurt, one or both spouses believe they are doing everything right and deserve to have the affection, attention and sacrifice of the other for all of their hard work! To this extreme Paul Zahl writes in his book Grace in Practice: “The best thing that could happen to husbands and wives is if they both fell down from these stupendously misconceived ideas of human prize-winning and landed together on the same hill of sand, like pole-vaulters who have failed to clear the bar. Then they could observe their common failure.”
Let’s face it – none of our marriages are perfect. There are seasons that are wonderful and there are seasons that are extremely difficult. Newlywed bliss is pretty much a myth. Even those couples who have made it to their silver anniversary have difficulties and challenges. Sinners living together “24/7” will have relational strain – there is no way around it. Paul Zahl writes: “Men and women encounter a serpent-ridden wilderness of Eden when they enter into marriage.” He continues, “The bond of marriage is forever unraveling and forever being rewoven. Because original sin is distributed evenly within wife and husband, every marriage is affected doubly.”
The Good News: If 5 Steps and 10 Commandments Aren’t the Answer…What is the Answer?
The short answer is that the real preparation for marriage and the real help after you’re married has to come from outside of ourselves. Again, there are dedicated and experienced people providing help and instruction for marriages. All of that is needed and good. But at the end of the day we must have a fundamental theology for our marriages that says “we are both intent on our own selfish ways and no amount of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps will change that.”
We can try to be better, kinder and more forgiving but our striving will always run out of steam. On our own, we cannot sustain “goodness”. On our own, we cannot love without keeping score. We need help from outside of ourselves. The theology that should undergird our marriages comes straight from the pages of scripture. God says, “As it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10), “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans3:23), “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die– but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6), “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1), and, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
These truths remind us again that no amount of help can come from within. Our only hope is the rescue and redemption of Jesus Christ. His radical love and His unconditional grace is what prepares newlyweds for marriage and is what rescues and resuscitates marriages gasping for life. The gospel frees us to be able to say: “You don’t have it figured out. Marriage is beautiful and marriage is hard. You will have struggles – it’s not a matter of if, but when.” Five step programs won’t get you through. Knowing Christ and His love and forgiveness provides all the security, love, comfort and acceptance you long for. Christ came to set you free from striving for what He’s already given you. You are free to love, free to make mistakes. You are forgiven when you fail and shown mercy when you’re angry. You have received grace upon grace. When you mess up (and you will over and over in marriage) you can fall on Jesus. His love is infinite, His mercy knows no depths and His forgiveness is as far as the east is from the west. When the only thing you have to offer is your acknowledged weaknesses and wimpishness, your realized faults and failures, and your recognized inabilities and incompetence, the grace of God shows up and enables husbands and wives to be okay with the fact that each other is not okay. Scorekeeping comes to an end and we become free from the slavish burden of having to fix one another. Our spouses, in other words, don’t need our competence. They need our confession. Jesus is the answer to all our struggling and all our striving in our marriages and in all of life. It’s true. He really has set us free! “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. John 8:35.
Stop Striving – Rest!
Paul Zahl helps once again by identifying the problem and the prescription – “A Christian vision is a vision of death and resurrection, not of hurt and hard work. The resurrection of a dead marriage is a divine act. Only a miracle will save it.” And, only a miracle can produce the covenantal faithfulness and radical, one way, unconditional love in any marriage – new or ongoing. It’s not up to you. Now that’s good news!