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8 Habits of Christlike Marriages

As you teach and preach on healthy marriage, and as you counsel couples needing to build strong marriages, look for ways to share these key characteristics.

By Robert S. Paul


Lane Simmons

Great marriages rarely happen by accident. There may be a few exceptions; but, in general, we achieve marital greatness by skillfully and faithfully investing time and energy into our marriages.

Our Lord desires all married people to have meaningful and fulfilling marriages. He is a relational God, existing in a perfect triune relationship. Jesus stated that He came so we can personally experience life to the full (John 10:10). In a relationally broken culture, what could be more meaningful than for the church to show the world how fullness can extend beyond the individual into a committed, God-honoring marriage?

In ministry, marriage provides a golden opportunity to share the gospel. Thank God people still frequently look to the church for help, both when their marriage is in trouble and for ideas to make their marriage better. Isn’t the work of ministry fundamentally easier when people recognize their own need and come to you, rather than when you need to find them and point it out?

People hope we have answers and want to see evidence of us walking our talk and see us personally experiencing the fruit of our relationship with Christ. They want to see the truth of our words. And what we have to offer is far more than just idle words and empty hope.

In this article I offer eight characteristics, approaches, and attitudes that characterize meaningful, satisfying, God-honoring marriages. These ideas are proven; and, fortunately, reasonably easy to use in ministry as well as apply to your own marriage. As you teach and preach on healthy marriage, and as you counsel couples needing to build strong marriages, look for ways to share these key characteristics.

I define a great marriage as one where both spouses love their marriage and are thrilled with the direction the marriage is headed. In addition, a great marriage is possible when both spouses share Christ’s love and glorify Him. To qualify as a great marriage couples do not even need to love their marriage for the same reasons, as long as they both love their marriage. This will come as a great relief to many who feel as if they are too different from one another to succeed in marriage.

RESPECT/HONOR DIFFERENCES

Differences have the potential to create challenges in any relationship, especially in marriage, and these differences are plentiful. We come into marriage with different personalities, from different families, with different hopes, dreams, expectations, and preferences. In fact, marriage in many ways is fundamentally a cross-cultural experience. As a result, when these differences bump into each other, they can easily seem like a genuine problem. In reality, differences are not normally the problem in marriage. God created differences between a husband and wife on purpose, with purpose, and He intends for us to honor and utilize them, not eliminate them (1 Corinthians 12).

In a God-honoring marriage, spouses know how to express appreciation and value not only for what the other does, but also for what the other is. An ongoing opportunity exists to help each other see things about themselves that God purposely created, values, and loves; which each spouse may have trouble seeing. It is usually not hard to see the problem spots, but it can be harder to see the eternal value God designed into each of us. Identifying, encouraging, and calling out the good is more likely to help build a relationship than pointing out the bad.

DEMONSTRATE GENUINE INTEREST IN EACH OTHER

A gradual loss of interest, or taking each other for granted, is a common characteristic of marriages in decline. Many people miss the simple fact the essence of true romance is fascination and interest in each other. When couples initially enjoy that exciting stage of infatuation, they are captivated by each other. They hang on every word and enjoy the process of getting to know each other. In fact, a helpful definition of intimacy is the journey of knowing and being known. Being deeply interested in someone, and having that person be interested in you, makes you feel good, cared for, and loved.

To keep romance and passion alive in a marriage couples need to remain committed to getting to know each other. After being together for a period of years, it is easy to succumb to the illusion that there is really nothing left to discover. However, the truth is our Creator amazingly and intricately designed us, and one lifetime is not nearly long enough to ever fully know any human being.

I have been married to my wife for over 32 years, and I constantly learn new things about her. And just to keep things interesting … she keeps changing. But that’s great news since the essence of true romance is a lifelong fascination in my wife. Sometimes she confuses me to no end. After all, she is really different from me. Yet, I have learned to keep our flame burning by intentionally staying interested in her and searching for ways to let her know I find her captivating.

FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE

In this fallen world, there will never be a shortage of negatives and problems. An imperfect, work-in-progress spouse can often frustrate your best-laid plans and create a continual recipe for disappointment. However, with limited time available each day to think, how you invest that time will materially impact your experience and feelings.

Let’s say you have 2 hours per day available to think about your marriage and your spouse. If you invest three quarters of that time thinking about the things that bother you and only one quarter on the things you like and value, what will you feel? Probably three times more negative than positive.

I am not suggesting you ignore the negative, but you decide how you invest your thought assets. The way you invest what God has given you will significantly affect what comes to you in return. People who enjoy their marriage generally spend a larger amount of time thinking on what they like, love, value, and appreciate in their spouse and their marriage (Philippians 4:8).

INVEST IN THE PEOPLE

One area where the church often inadvertently hinders the growth of successful and satisfying marriages is in the subtle implication that once married, the marriage becomes more important than the people in it. To live a Christ-honoring life, as well as have a Christ-honoring marriage, involves sacrifice. However, the growth, development, and well-being of the individuals are critical.

Marriage does not exist apart from the people in it, and the marriage cannot be healthier than the individuals represented. When two people get married, they each remain fully responsible to become all that God created and called them to be. In marriage, they have merely added an entity (the marriage) which they now also need to nurture and grow. In fact, the eternal parts of the marriage are the individuals, not the relationship (Matthew 22:29,30). If we mistakenly make the marriage more important than the people in it, we encourage them to focus more on the temporal than the eternal.

Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with your whole being, and to love others as yourself (Matthew 22:36–40). A great marriage encourages people to find a healthy balance between the wholeness and well-being of each individual, and the health and well-being of the relationship, while noting how each will support the ultimate purposes of God.

LEARN TO COMMUNICATE WELL

Struggling couples cite poor communication more than any other cause of marital problems. Given the inherent complexity of verbal communication, what could make more sense? Add strong feelings to the high stakes game of marriage, and communication only becomes more complicated.

Couples who report a high degree of enjoyment and satisfaction in their marriage usually say they enjoy talking to each other and talk frequently. One effective way to increase the feeling of closeness involves sharing your hopes and dreams, joys and victories. And since real intimacy also includes knowing someone is there for you and with you, it requires sharing your disappointments, hurts, challenges, and setbacks.

Good marital communication is always respectful and careful. Remember your hearts are involved and God commands us to guard our hearts above all else (Proverbs 4:23). Speaking with tenderness while slowing down can be a great asset. This requires patience and taking turns. In the most basic sense, there should always be one speaker and one listener at a time, allowing both to demonstrate this type of interest and care for one another.

Whereas learning to speak clearly is very important in good communication, often learning to be a good listener is harder. Many communication breakdowns occur when the listener only poses as a listener, but is really a speaker-in-waiting. Rather than listening to what the speaker is saying, the other is planning a rebuttal or trying to figure out how to show the speaker the errors of their way. That approach will never communicate love and care. It actually does more to break down a relationship than build it up. Good listening requires a focus on hearing, understanding, and caring about the speaker; both what he is saying and feeling, while communicating that his thoughts and feelings matter to you.

OPERATE AS A TEAM

One great device of the enemy is getting couples to take their eyes off Satan, the true enemy, and see each other as adversaries. When we engage in power struggles, seeking to win (or not lose, which is essentially the same), we have played into his hands. Scripture states that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:23–25). I never recommend fair fighting rules. I don’t want to fight with my wife; she is not my enemy. I want my house to be a no-fight zone.

Marriage is a team sport. Couples need to address differences. But how they approach each other with their differences makes the difference. Satan wants us to believe there could actually be a winner and a loser in a marital disagreement. However, when you are part of a team, you either win as a team or lose as a team. The idea of a win-lose outcome is an illusion from the pit of hell.

Instead, successful couples adopt a no-losers policy, and make it unacceptable for either spouse to walk away feeling like a loser. They work as teammates with the Lord and allow God to help them find solutions they both love. They overcome differences in ways that allow them to feel a sense of divine peace and victory.

Sometimes God even leads people to outcomes that did not seem humanly possible. Amazingly, by God’s grace we do not need to limit ourselves by what seems humanly impossible. Our Lord is devoted to our personal well-beingand to unity. He will bring us together with Him if we let Him.

CREATE THE IDEAL MARITAL ENVIRONMENT

God has designed us to long for a deep and profound intimate connection. No relationship is capable of scratching that itch better than marriage. Satisfying intimacy is always about knowing the other person and being known. This requires a high degree of openness and vulnerability, and that takes courage.

Loving someone enough to open your heart makes real the possibility of being hurt. We have all been hurt in relationships. As a result, we try to create intimacy from a guarded and protected posture. We put on various types of armor to keep from getting hurt further. Unfortunately, to connect in a deeply intimate way requires us to be open; in our original state of being naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:25), and unafraid.

To relax and be open enough to bond intimately requires us to feel genuinely safe physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. First John 4:18 states that, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Couples who want to grow and experience the most satisfying and meaningful depths of intimacy understand this, and make creating a safe environment top priority. They take time to understand what that means for each other and work individually, and together, toward that end.

UNITE IN GOD’S PURPOSES

God designed marriage to be a symbolic representation to the world of the marriage between himself and His bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:32). He intends for marriage to be permanent, just as His commitment is to us. Certainly our loving and devoted Lord wants marriage to bless us, but even more important He desires that marriage provide a positive reflection of Him. Therefore, at its core, marriage is fundamentally purposeful — a vehicle to accomplish God’s purposes.

Married couples who thrive will intentionally look for how they can use their marriage to serve God. Since Jesus bought our lives with a price, personal happiness and fulfillment cannot be the ultimate goal. However, one of the most profound mysteries of our faith is how our sacrificial posture as bond servants connects to the heart of a loving Father who desires wonderful things for us. Searching together for how God wants to use us to accomplish His goals and objectives, both individually and as a couple, allows us to discover a deeply satisfying Christ-centered meaning for our marriage; one that extends far beyond just feeling happy.

Our Lord, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, does not only love, He is the essence of love (1 John 4:8). He ultimately wants nothing but the best — personally and relationally — for His people. In Him our deepest longings and desires are fulfilled. And the greatest hope we have to offer a lost and hungry world is proof of what we claim is possible with Christ. As we allow Christ to fill our lives, our very beings reflect Him, and His light shines through us. We thus provide a glorious testimony of Christ for all to see. Can you think of any more powerful draw to Christ than people truly witnessing the freedom, joy, power, and peace we know are possible with our Lord?

At the same time our culture of marital brokenness is rapidly losing hope that a lifelong, fulfilling marriage is even possible. We meaningfully serve God with our spouse when we work with Him to create an amazing marriage. Together we give further testimony to who God is and what is possible with Him. By allowing God to capture our hearts and help grow our marriage, we actually invest with Him in growing His kingdom. Walking together with Christ in marriage provides the ultimate win-win-win.

To help facilitate a church of healthy, Christ-centered marriages and families will create a counter-cultural testimony that will get some serious attention. Where else are marriages thriving? No where. People come to us for help and hope. By God’s grace we have a direction, we have opportunity, and we have both help and hope to offer.

ROBERT S. PAUL, copresident and lead intensive marriage counselor, National Institute of Marriage, Branson, Missouri

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