Another marriage book. I do not know how many marriage books you have read, but I have read many, many books on marriage. And, let’s be honest, many of them are not very good. Some are so theoretical that it is hard to grab hold of something that will actually help strengthen your marriage. Others are simply lists of do’s and don’ts that are not grounded in anything of theological substance. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a few good marriage books out there, including the one I just finished reading, What Did You Expect? by Paul David Tripp.
The crux of Tripp’s book is six commitments couples need to make if they are going to build a strong, lasting marriage. These six commitments are reproduced word-for-word in the subtitles below. However, the descriptions that follow are my own take on each of those commitments (though obviously informed by the book). My goal is two-fold. First, I want to call married couples to take up these commitments in their marriage. Second, I hope to encourage you to pick up the book and give it a read.
“In every marriage either giddy romance wanes and is replaced with a sturdier and more mature love, or the selfishness of sin reduces the marriage to a sate of relational détente.”
Commitment 1: We will give ourselves to a regular lifestyle of confession and forgiveness.
Which partner in your marriage is perfect? Did you even have to think about it? Unless we are completely oblivious or self-deceived, we all realize that we are both sinners. We both sin against God, and we both sin against each other. While we would agree we are both sinners, we might disagree who is the bigger sinner. So who is the bigger sinner in your marriage? Who sins most against God? Who sins most against the other? If you have stopped reading this to create a pie chart to find out who is the bigger sinner in your marriage, let me help you out: it’s you. Or at least you are the biggest sinner you need to worry about in your marriage. You will never be able to curb your spouse’s sin, but you can become real with both God and your spouse about your sin. Sin has a way of making us think that all of our marriage problems exist because of the other person. But through God’s grace, God allows us to see our sin and our contribution to the marriage’s problems. As Tripp says, grace “requires each of us to say that our greatest marital problem exists inside us, not outside us.”
The reality of our sinfulness both toward God and toward our spouse should lead us to grace. God’s grace through Christ to acknowledge our own faults and grace to overlook our spouses’ faults. Through confession we acknowledge our faults and our own role in harming the relationship. It is only through confession that we clear the past and move forward in building a lasting marriage. Through forgiveness we also acknowledge our mutual sinfulness and deal with both in humility, compassion, and trust. A marriage in which both partners practice confession and forgiveness in their marriage will not only last, but will also increase in joy, fulfillment, and love.
“When a husband and wife quit arguing about who is the more righteous and begin to be grieved over their respective sin, you can know for sure that grace has visited their marriage.”
Commitment 2: We will make growth and change our daily agenda.
There is a house down the road from where I grew up. The house is large and beautiful. It sits on beautiful rolling green hills with a creek running through the property. And to top it off there is a picturesque cobblestone drive up to the house. In fact, the house would be a dream house for many. Or at least it might have been. For whatever reason, as soon as the house was finished, it was abandoned. The house now sits empty up on the hill. Weeds have grown up through the cobblestone as the gates to the house remain shut. Signs of wear on the half-finished house are starting to show and if something does not change the once beautiful house will begin to fall apart. This will happen because no matter how well built a house is, a house needs constant attention.
The reality is that many couples build a great marriage and then, just like the house down the road, abandon the relationship. Yes, they continue to be married. They continue to live together. They continue the relationship. But they just stop the work. Maybe they think that all the work is done. Maybe they are tired and decide to take a break for a while. Maybe they think that the relationship is just fine. But just like the house, a relationship where one or both partners stop working will sooner rather than later begin to fall apart. The truth is that marriage needs constant work and both partners are called to work hard at keeping up the marriage in good shape.
The work of marriage requires constant attention to “destruction and construction.” We must destruct the sins of pride, selfishness, self-righteousness, fear, and laziness in our own lives. And we must construct the qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control in our marriages (Galatians 5:22-23). The second commitment of marriage is to work diligently in destructing the things that seek to harm your marriage or spouse and constructing the things that will build you both up and together.
“The spiritual gardening that will make for a beautiful marriage (pulling and planting) must largely be done within your own heart.”
Commitment 3: We will work together to build a sturdy bond of trust.
The most elite fighting soldiers in the US Armed Forces are the Navy Seals. In order to join the ranks of this elite fighting force, potential Seals must go through BUD/S training. I always thought that BUD/S was about making these soldiers the toughest soldiers on the face of the planet. But I recently learned that is not the purpose of BUD/S. While BUD/S certainly makes the men and women who train tougher, the larger purpose is to build trust. Absolute trust in one another is what distinguishes Seals from all other fighting forces. Just as Seals must trust one another in order to be successful, marriage partners must trust one another in order to build a strong marriage. Maybe then, before a couple can get married, they need to go through a marriage BUD/S training of their own.
Tripp defines trust as “being so convinced that you can rely on the integrity, strength, character, and faithfulness of another that you are willing to place yourself in his or her care.” But here is the reality, unlike the Seals, couples do not start their marriage with this kind of trust. Dating and engagement rarely builds this kind of trust. This trust must be consciously and intentionally built over the course of a lifetime.
The key to building trust is constant communication. Communication is not the sum total of trust, but it is the foundation of trust. Trust almost always begins to deteriorate in marriages when the couple stops communicating. Of course, the communication must also be open and honest, but I have found the more a couple communicates, the more likely they are to have openness and honesty in their relationship. Therefore, communicate in your marriage and then communicate some more. And as you do, you’ll build the kind of trust that brings Navy Seals together.
“Trust – it’s readily given, easily broken, and costly to restore.”
Commitment 4: We will commit to building a relationship of love.
“There are many more loveless marriages out there than you and I would tend to think.” Tripp makes this statement as he begins unpacking his fourth essential commitment to marriage. Tripp suggests this statement would be shocking to many. Maybe it is my cynicism, but I responded more with a “duh” than a “gasp.” The reality is that many marriages are not built on nor sustained by love.
So then what is love? At its very core, love is a choice. I have heard so many times that “you can’t help who you love.” Well that is absolutely false. You may not be able to help who you are attracted to because attraction is a bio-chemical process. But you can absolutely choose who you will love. In the same way you cannot simply ‘fall out of love.’ No, instead, you choose to stop loving the other person. Attraction is situational. Attraction comes and goes. But love is a choice.
True love is sacrificial. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).” Many people use the word love to mean anything that makes them feel good. In this sense, they would agree that love is the other person sacrificing. And as long as that other person is meeting my needs and making me feel good, then I’m in ‘love.’ But true love is self-sacrificial. Love is when I set aside my wants, needs, and desires for my spouse. We only truly love when we choose to sacrifice ourselves for the other person. And the reality is that too often the smaller the sacrifice the harder it is to sacrifice ourselves. Many men would gladly take a bullet for their spouse, but those same men refuse to get up off the couch and clean the dishes or do laundry. I’m not sure what the female equivalent would be, but I am just as sure that many wives are more willing to make the big sacrifices for their husbands than make the little sacrifices. It is only when husbands and wives make the choice to sacrifice themselves daily that they start building a relationship of love.
“Love is willing self-sacrifice for the good of another that does not require reciprocation or that the person being loved is deserving.”
Commitment 5: We will deal with our differences with appreciation and grace.
As I begin my class, I draw a giant house on the white board complete with chimney, windows, doors, and a little dog on the side. I turn to the class and ask, “Okay so what are the characteristics of a healthy relationship.” As they shout out answers, I quickly write each answer on the board. We are not discussing at this point, we are simply listing. The first answer is always “communication,” as if that knowledge was implanted in their brain at birth. Another student shouts out “similar interests” and is often followed by “different interests.” After completing the brainstorming session, I step back and begin with the same question: “So we have both similar interests and different interests, which do you think is more important?” I take a vote of the class and it is usually a pretty even mix. The reality is that which is more important is irrelevant, because no matter which is more important, the truth is every relationship includes both similarities and differences. It is how we handle these similarities and differences that are important in our relationships.
Every relationship needs some things in common. In fact, every relationship should have some non-negotiables. These non-negotiables might be religion, political position, cultural norms, or the use of oxford commas. Couples must agree on these non-negotiables and build on these similar building blocks. But relationships are also built on differences. These differences create excitement and adventure in the early days of the relationship. But the day comes when the free spirit of the wife no longer creates the same excitement for the structured husband. The wife loses appreciation for the motivation and work ethic of her husband and wishes he would just sit and hold her hand. These moments require grace. It is in these moments that couples must seek to appreciate the grace God has given by placing this very different person in their lives, because these are the moments God is working to grow both the people in the marriage and the marriage itself. It is only as we learn to appreciate and grow through these differences that our marriage will be strengthened.
“Grace is working to pry each of us out of our tiny little kingdom of one to live together in the lushness of God’s big kingdom of love.”
Commitment 6: We will work to protect our marriage.
We all know the story of the three little pigs. One pig built his house out of straw, another out of sticks, and yet another out of bricks. A wolf comes and tries to blow each house down. The first two houses fall while the third stood strong. This story could also be the story of the three little marriages. We all build our marriages. Some build in straw, some in sticks, and some in bricks. And all marriages will have some adversity. Maybe it is internal adversity, some conflict between spouses. Maybe it is external adversity, a financial failure in the economy. All marriages face adversity and adversity is where we see the real strength of a marriage.
Jesus shares a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 about two house builders. One builder built his house on sand. The other build his house on rock. A storm came upon both houses. The house built on sand fell. The house built on rock stood. Jesus explains that the one who built his house on the rock is the one “who hears these words of mine and does them (Matthew 7:24).” If we want to build strong marriages that will withstand any and all adversities, then we must build our marriages on the word of God. But that is easier said than done and so our building must also be done in prayer. Prayer reminds us of who we are and who God is. Prayer asks God to give grace in your marriage. Prayer asks for the strength to persevere in marriage. Prayer asks the all-powerful God to be the one to protect your marriage. As Tripp says, “When you pray, you remind yourself that grace has invaded your marriage, and because it has, there is hope.”
“Perhaps the greatest danger to a good marriage is a good marriage, because when things are good, we are tempted to give way to feelings of arrival and forsake the attitudes and disciplines that have, by God’s grace, made our marriage what it has become.”
I want to close with a brief review of the book. Full disclosure, I really like Paul David Tripp. He has a way of grounding marriage in the gospel better than anyone I have heard or read. And so, when I picked up his most recent book on marriage, I had certain expectations. I expected to get a gospel-saturated perspective on marriage. I expected to also get some practical, yet general, principles for action. I also expected to get real stories illustrating his points. On each account I got what I expected. The one negative aspect of the book is its length. While it is not an exceptionally long book, there are moments in the book where the points felt excessively labored. That being said, I would recommend What Did You Expect? by Paul David Tripp as a gospel-saturated and practical book diving into the real issues facing marriages.
All quotes come from What Did You Expect: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul David Tripp (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).
All Scriptures: The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. 2001 . Standard Bible Society: Wheaton