Let’s make marriage sound simple today, shall we? Let’s narrow it down to the one thing that matters.
I like “one thing” lists. Give me a list of even three things, and I can get confused over which one is most important. Give me a “list” of one, and even I can remember that.
Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed running cross country and track in high school—in those sports only one thing matters: who gets across the line first. They don’t judge your form. They don’t give you “extra credit” for your uniform or effort. They don’t even inquire if you’ve trained hard or eaten right. They just look at the clock. Did you get across the line first? If so, you’re the winner.
This “one thing that matters” about track is why we did intervals. Intervals are intense workouts at high speed and shorter distances designed to increase your anaerobic capacity—to make you faster. Some of my teammates didn’t mind the long slow runs where they could laugh, tell stories, and joke around. But the intervals, around the track, in full sight of the coach—not so much.
I liked doing intervals. They hurt, but I knew in spite of the pain they were helping me to accomplish the one thing that mattered: becoming faster.
Christian ethics (and marriage, by extension) have a similar “this is all that really matters” element. Every New Testament ethic—beginning with Jesus, going through Paul, bringing in Peter and certainly John—exalts love as the one thing that matters.
Jesus called love for others an essential element of the greatest commandment. (Matthew 22:37-40) John says that if we don’t love, we’re not believers (1 John 4:7-8). He doesn’t say if you look at pornography you’re not a believer. If you gossip, you’re not a believer. If you get drunk now and then you’re not a believer. He does say, “If you don’t love, you don’t know Christ.”
Peter likewise sees this as an essential element of Christian being: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22, NRSV)
As Christians, we focus on individual points of piety, but the New Testament ethic puts “piety” on a level of, “are you loving others?” Now of course supporting a porn industry that enslaves, demeans, and even traffics women is not love. Gossiping about others—tearing them down socially—is an assault on love. Getting drunk, means you are far more likely to act stupidly toward someone—or even kill them, if you drive—so it too is not an acceptable act for Christians. But the main element of these sins is that they keep us from doing what matters most: love.
For Christians, a weak love is not enough. A lukewarm love, remaining amateurs at love, seeing love as one of many equal spiritual duties, just won’t cut it. We are to become a people who excel not just at loving, but at loving deeply, from the heart. And marriage can teach us to do just that.
If you pray but don’t love, according to Paul, you are nothing. (See 1 Corinthians 13) If you know the Bible better than anyone else in your house and your church but you love others the least, you are the most immature believer in your house or church.
It is all about love.
Let’s go back to 1 Peter: we are to love one another deeply. Think about how you love your spouse. It’s not enough to avoid doing him/her harm. It’s not enough to occasionally be kind and thoughtful. It’s not enough to make them feel special on their birthday or on Valentine’s Day. Are you loving your spouse “deeply”? If I were to ask your spouse, “Are you deeply loved by your husband/wife,” what would they say?
In track, I could wear the cleanest shoes, I could run the most miles, I could work on having the perfect running form but in the end, the only thing that mattered was whether I could run faster than anyone else at my chosen distance.
The same is true in Christian faith and Christian marriage. All that matters, in the end, is love. That’s because if we love, everything else is taken care of.
So, imagine this: your greatest need as a believer is to grow in love. Marriage gives you an opportunity to grow in your ability to love on a daily basis.
I think not.
God has designed marriage to be a school of love. We demean marriage when we focus on lesser things, like marriage being a “school of happiness”, a “school of sexual intimacy”, or a “school of not being lonely.” These are good things, even important things, but they are not the one thing that matters most. And until you accept that one thing, and join God in believing it’s what you need most, you won’t value or appreciate your marriage as much as you should. The more you value this, the more you’ll value your marriage.