Often in Christian circles something is said so often and with such confidence that after a while we all simply accept it without question. When we are struggling around a particular topic, we remember this cliché, and quickly say it to ourselves to quiet our inner turmoil. The problem is that these sayings often have a kernel of truth but lack complexity and are incomplete.
One of those phrases that I’ve heard over and over and over again is- “The trouble in many marriages is that we expect our spouse to meet the needs that only God can meet.” There is truth in that statement. But it is one side of the story. It’s incomplete. The one sidedness of this idea was recently challenged for me by a Becoming One retreat led by the People Resources Team at The Navigators. I needed the challenge and I think many Christian marriages need it too.
The basic idea behind this phrase is that our expectations are misplaced and can never be fulfilled by our human and imperfect spouse. True. No one on earth can love us with an unfailing, faithful, and perfect love like Jesus. We need His presence and His word as much as we need breath and food. In the creation stories man came to life by the breath of God and in Matthew 4:4 it says “People cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Certainly if you try to make the ultimate source and nourishment of your life your spouse, those expectations will be disappointed often and you will crush your spouse in the process. I’ve done that before. We all have. Mark will never listen to and love me perfectly, or fill my deepest longing to be filled with life. Neither will your spouse. We were designed to find our ultimate source of life in God and NO other source will satisfy.
Yet, there is another side to this truth. It makes it all a little more messy. In the creation story God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Gen 2:18) What? At first glance this doesn’t make any sense. Man wasn’t alone. He was in a beautiful garden where he had the purpose of caring for and the delight of enjoying paradise. He had a relational connection to God none of us have ever known. He had perfect, untarnished, open connection to the God who made and loved Him. There was no sin to get in the way or lead him to seek fulfillment in places outside of God. Yet, in the midst of a perfect, divine connection, God says, “It’s not good for man to be alone.” He then tries to offer Adam the companionship of every wild bird and animal, along with the purpose of naming all these exceptional creatures. “But there still was no helper just right for him.”
Unfettered relationship with the God of the universe. A beautiful environment to call home. The task of caring for creation and naming an untold number of amazing animals. Yet, it’s not enough. You might say Adam was experiencing the ultimate fulfillment of living life with God and being co-worker with God in the world. Yet, he was alone and God said this wasn’t good
Then Genesis goes on to tell the story of God making Eve from Adam’s rib and Adam getting more than a little excited when he sees a creature that was made just for him. “This one is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh!” Oh yay, baby. You are one hot mama and I am no longer alone as a human in this world. “Now the man and the wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.” Certainly, this refers to the connection and joy that comes from sexual longing and consummation. Yet, it also refers to the depth of relational intimacy that husband and wife were created to share and needed in order to not feel alone in the world. It’s basically the idea that you will see all of me and still love me. You will see all of me and not run away. You will reflect the love of God to me by embracing my beauty and my wretchedness. At this moment that love was untainted by sin. Of course, we know that doesn’t last long and after they disobey God with the bite of an apple, the man and the woman are immediately ashamed of their nakedness and try to cover up quickly.
The battle of not being alone rages on for married couples as we face shame over our own sin and the sin of our spouse. Often our sin hurts one another and we allow unforgiveness to creep in and build a barrier between one another. In a Relational Healing process (designed and implemented by the People Resources Team) this barrier is referred to as a pile of rocks through which each interaction between the couple is now filtered and therefore tainted. God’s desire for oneness and companionship is replaced with anger and division. You know how this looks. You are exceedingly angry because your husband doesn’t put his dish in the dishwasher. You find yourself rehearsing your wife’s shortcomings. Your spouse says the simplest and most harmless of statements and you feel anger start to boil. These reactions are an indicator of a “pile of rocks” between you.
So how in the world do we get back to God’s heart for marriage? How do we taste again the oneness He desired when He designed marriage. This is when the cliché holds some truth. We start in calling out to the God who designed marriage in the first place. We acknowledge our own sin, our tendency to get angry and put up walls. As we are truly embraced by the unfailing and steady love of God in both our beauty and in our wretchedness, we are strengthened to admit our failures, our needs, our sin to our spouse. We are also given the courage to accept them not only in their strengths but also in their failures, their needs, and their sin.
Certainly, we are called, as Larry Crabb says, to keep first things first. Our ultimate place of love and acceptance is God. Yet, as we engage Him, we discover that the first thing of life with God leads us into the second thing of an intimate life with our spouse. I wonder if many couples don’t do the painful and patient work of learning to love their spouse or receive love from them because they quickly say…God is the one who meets my emotional needs. They actually use the truth that God is our perfect lover to excuse themselves from learning to give love and receive love from a person. God’s plan was that His perfect love would become the rock from which we could learn to love an unsteady and weak person. God knew that learning this kind of love in the closest of relationships, marriage, where the good and bad are obvious daily, would lead to us not being alone. For who is more qualified to reflect the unconditional love of God to us than our spouse?
As part of our internship with The People Resource team Mark and I went through a forgiveness exercise with the purpose of removing each rock of hurt and unforgiveness that had become a barrier and tainted our relationship. Although, our relationship was not in a major crisis (like many marriages are when they ask for help), some hurts and barriers had built up during our transition and Mark’s doctoral work. Honestly, as imperfect humans in close relationships this is simply going to happen. It is not a sign of crisis, it is a sign of facing reality. In this reconciliation process we began by going over what forgiveness is and is not. We looked at what the Bible says about anger and the wreckage it leaves. Then we spent some time alone with God praying about how we could give God glory through this conflict, our own part in the conflict, and how we could put energy into healing the rift. Finally, we made a list of the ways we’d been sinned against and how it made us feel. We spent time with a mentor couple going through our reflections, sharing our hurts, apologizing, and forgiving one another. Wow! It became clear how some hurt and unforgiveness had become like a pile of rocks between us, filtering even the simplest and most harmless of comments and actions in a negative way. It was incredibly freeing and helpful to hear one another’s hurts and to genuinely ask for forgiveness! It was a fresh start for us. Thank you God and thank you to the People Resource Team!
So, by all means, if you are struggling with expecting too much of your spouse confess your idolatry and turn to God. However, expect the turning to Him to give you strength to reach towards your spouse in love. His love for you ought to lead you to invest time, energy, and resources into more deeply knowing and loving your spouse. God may even lead you to intentionally take time to work through the pile of hurts and offer forgiveness and a fresh start in the relationship. For God said, It’s not good for man to be alone. If couples were to accept this risky and unknown journey of learning to love one another, we would come a little closer to saying flesh of my flesh and bone and of bone. We are humans together here in this world. We are lifeless without God and we are not in a good state without a growing connection to our spouse.
*If you or your spouse, or a couple you know, could benefit by being guided through a two day reconciliation process please let us know. This is also provided for ministry staff conflicts. Recently, the team heard wonderful news of forgiveness and reconciliation among a ministry team working in Cameroon.