The Most Important Thing I Share With Couples I’m About to Marry

This summer, I will be officiating at two weddings. I won’t be able to do either ceremony like this (though I did once, at the request of the bride. Really.)

Whenever I do a wedding, I sit down with a couple 3 or 4 times — in preparation not just for the wedding day, but even more, the wedded life. Over the years, I have probably married 20 or 30 couples — which has given me 20 or 30 opportunities to help couples walk through the joys and struggles, the challenges and the opportunities of marriage.

But here’s the thing. I’m rarely happy with what we talk about. I am constantly tweaking what I do in those sessions, forever in search of a better way to prepare a couple to share a lifetime of love together. So, after a recent conversation with one of the engaged couples, I went home and immediately sat down and typed out what I want to do the next time I marry someone. This is now the format I want to use; this is the outline that will cover every important detail; these are the subjects that will give them every thing they need to know before saying “I do.”

Except, after I’ve written it down, I come to realize: this isn’t the perfect outline. I mean, why should it be? After all, it wasn’t “the perfect outline” the eight other times I revised it.

And why should I be surprised? For there is no perfect outline to prepare for marriage, just as there is no perfect marriage. There is no way to address every question, just as there is no way to anticipate every question that will arise over 40 or 50 or 60 years of marriage. Instead, I am learning that the most important thing I can do for couples about to step into the great unknown is help them to see that they are, in fact, stepping into The Great Unknown.  The one thing we can say about what marriage brings is that we don’t know what marriage will bring.

Well, there is one thing. The author and psychologist Brene Brown says that her pastor  believes there IS one thing he can tell couples that he counsels: This much I know: in marriage, you will hurt each other.

Sounds like a positive guy. I’m sure he’s swamped with marriage requests.

But I think he’s on to something. And that something is the reality that the risk of relationship (be it marriage, family, close friendship, or even a church small group) is that we tend to hurt each other. And the closer the relationship, the easier it is to hurt each other.

Now, please note: I am NOT talking about physical or verbal abuse; I am not describing harm that must be held to account. I am speaking of the reality of the everyday hurt that is involved when we “do life” with someone.

Even so — even with the reality that marriage involves hurt feelings, hard conversations, and stretches of yawning apathy — why marry at all? For that matter: why get into close relationship with anyone? If hurt will result, why take the risk?

Well, in short, because that’s how we grow. We don’t grow in isolation. We don’t flourish by avoiding risk. In fact, not only do we mature despite the pain and problems that relationships bring, it’s in fact in the midst of the struggles that we grow.

And so, what I want to say to anyone who is dealing with the frustrations of relations (be it marriage or parenting, co-workers or close friends): Relationships are hard; it’s foolish to think otherwise. But through the challenges, we have the opportunity to grow. Through the hard work of learning to love imperfect people, we become more like our perfect Savior. Through the challenge of loving people through the difficult times — and being loved through our difficult times — we become more like Jesus.

Marriage isn’t the only way for this to happen, of course, but it is one way — one that, if married couples will let it, will shape them and mold them in ways that are both painful and powerful. So, even though I don’t have a magic formula, at the end of my conversations with couples getting married, I share these 10 principles — ten guidelines I believe that, if they spend a lifetime practicing, will help them grow (through the good times, and the bad):

  1. Commit to a life time of growing together.
  2. Be ready for it to be hard.
  3. Love like Jesus, trust in Jesus, depend on him to guide you.
  4. Work for unity.
  5. Find an older, mentor couple. (Or, for older couples: Be that mentor couple.)
  6. Laugh together.
  7. Pray together.
  8. Learn to listen well.
  9. Guard your marriage by guarding your heart.
  10. Love each other through life’s changes and challenges.


My M&M Message, part 1

This past Sunday, I did something I’ve never done before – and may never do again. I gave my church an opportunity to choose the sermon. The text for the day was the book of Malachi, and two key themes jumped out at me: Money & Marriage. And since I like to focus my message on one key, over-arching idea, I pondered how to tackle both.

And then I decided I would give people the choice. So, I prepared for both messages, and at the appropriate time, I asked them to vote by raising their hands. At first service, the consensus was money. So we tackled that. At second service, the vote was closer. In fact, we did a “re-canvass” – having folks raise their hands a second time. There seemed to be a few more votes for marriage, so that’s what we went with. (I must also admit that I wanted to do marriage, since I hadn’t covered it yet – and so, in a close vote, I was inclined to lean in the marriage direction.)

So, I guess you could say Sunday was my first – and probably only – M&M Message. Money first, then Marriage. At each service, I promised the folks that I would post the message they didn’t get to hear, in case they didn’t get the message they chose. So, this week I am blogging twice – a reworked version of my messages on marriage and money.

We see this addressed in Malachi 2.10-12, where Malachi addresses men who have chosen to marry women who worship other gods. Malachi, and God, call attention to the casual nature in which some of the Israelite men are marrying; partnering with those who don’t know and worship the One True God.

It was a big deal in Malachi’s day; it’s still important, today.

So, the first challenge here is for young people, or any who might be thinking of marriage, to remember: the most important trait isn’t: a guy with a good job, or nice hair; a girl with a great body, or who laughs at all your jokes. What you need for the journey is a person of faith, who will walk with you, not against you.

The New Testament picks up this theme in 2 Corinthians 6.14. Marriage is designed by God as journey of two people, seeking to follow Jesus, together. And so, if you are single & hoping to get married, what kind of marriage you will have is already beginning to be determined by the standards you set before you say yes to that first date

But what if you are married to someone who doesn’t share your faith, or at least your level of commitment? 1 Corinthians 7.12-15 gives us some insight here.

If you are married to someone who doesn’t share your faith, or trust in God – don’t run, don’t shun, and certainly don’t nag, but nurture. Don’t annoy, encourage. Love, serve … and let your faith in Jesus, be a light to your spouse and your family.

Malachi then turns to address another issue, Divorce. But before he brings up the D word, he brings up the P word: Prayer. Take a look at Malachi 2.13-16.

Malachi asks: Do you wonder why your prayers feel like they’re bouncing off the ceiling? It starts at home, he says – it’s because you are not being faithful in your marriage.

In the OT, only the man could get a divorce; the wife had no say in the matter. And Divorce came pretty easily. Deuteronomy 24.1-4 says the husband basically has to give his wife a letter of divorce. But Malachi says: this is not God’s ultimate will for you, or for marriage. Marriage is a partnership, a covenant before God, to walk together through life.

And so, if you are married and you are seeking to honor God in that marriage, the first thing you need to remember is that you have made a commitment to Jesus, and to your spouse, to be partners in life. And it grieves God when we GIVE UP on our marriages, when, instead, we should be GIVING THEM UP to God.

Men: if you are married, your first responsibility to Jesus is to love your wife; to care for her and give your life for her as Christ gave his life for the church.

Women: if you are married, your first responsibility to Jesus is to love your husband; to partner with him in a way that allows your home to be a light to others.

And I wonder: how many of us are striving so hard to be successful at work or in the community, while at the same time settling for mediocrity at home? How many of us know more about our favorite sports team or what’s happening on facebook, than we know about our spouse’s heart?

Let’s go a little further. In a culture where marriage and sex and relationships are rapidly being redefined, how are we as Christians living differently?

  • Well, when feelings determine how long our marriages last, not our faith; we’re not.
  • When we live together, disregarding God’s plan for faithfulness & sexual union; we do look just like the world.
  • And when we let porn, or emotions, or flings come between us and our spouse; then we’re agreeing with the world: That’s just the way things are today.

Now, some of you are saying “Amen.” And some of you might be saying “Ouch.” And maybe some of you even want to ask me: Who are you to judge?

But the prophets, of which Malachi is one, specialize in Truth. And often, Truth is hard, and hard to hear. But remember: it’s truth given because God loves them, loves YOU. And the reason the prophets point to truth is because truth is the only thing that sets us free.

And so, the big picture we see here in Malachi is that God is grieved at the way we, His people, sometimes treat sex and marriage – not because he is a fussy or prudish God, but because he loves us, and calls us to honor him, and follow him, and Trust him, in the most important areas of our lives.

So, let me offer this humble suggestion: if you’re married, don’t expect marriage to be your savior, or your spouse to meet all your needs. Your spouse is, instead, an imperfect partner on a long journey. There will be bumps on the way, wrong turns, and maybe even long periods of boredom and monotony. But, as the writer Maggie Gallagher notes, there are two ways to approach a marriage:

  • One says: ‘you’re mine because I love you’
  • The other says: ‘I love you because you’re mine’

Do you see the difference? The first says: “You’re mine if I feel like I love you.” Any one want to guess how long those relationships/marriages last?

But the other says: “I choose to love you because you are mine.” I am committed to making a life with you because of the covenant we both have made before God, to each other.

What symbolizes 50 years of marriage? It’s gold, of course. And it’s appropriate that fifty years is symbolized by something solid, precious, beyond value.

William Bennett describes going to a wedding where the couple changed the vow from ‘As long as we both shall LIVE’ to ‘As long as we both shall LOVE’. Bennett said he gave them paper plates as a wedding gift. He was kidding … I think.

But that leads to a great question: If you are married, or will be: Do you want a paper marriage, or a golden one?

A paper one? It folds, it crumbles, it gets discarded when the first sign of stress comes along.

But a golden one; it builds on the foundation of God’s love, where two people do the hard work, daily, of building their lives together on that love. A golden one is where a man and a woman choose, not always what they feel to be true, but what they KNOW to be true – that God is faithful to those who walk faithfully with him. And so, as a couple, they do the hard work of building a life together. They learn to say things like: “I’m sorry” and “I’m ready to listen” and “We need to pray” and “I love you” and, if necessary: “We need to get some help.”

That’s what a golden relationship looks like; it’s not perfect. Instead, it’s 2 people walking together, through the rough and tumble of life, one day at a time.

So, what kind of relationship are YOU working on? Paper, or gold?

The last thing I want to say: is a word of grace. When it comes to relationships, we’ve all stumbled. Every one of us have messed up at love. And some of us, have not simply messed up – we’ve done a face plant, leaving pain and agony in our wake. Others of us, meanwhile, have been messed over by someone we loved, and we’ve been left to deal with the broken pieces.

And so, the last word on marriage and relationships is one of grace. ALL of us need the word, whether we’ve merely stumbled, or we’ve fallen off the cliff. But no matter what you have been through, there’s grace. With Jesus. And with His church.

You can’t change the past, but you CAN let grace change the future. For Jesus offers grace, right where you need it most, when you turn and trust him – in marriage, in relationships, in life.

Do we over-emphasize marriage?

With the conclusion of a series I shared on love, there is one more thing I wanted to say. (That’s the beauty of a blog — what doesn’t fit in a sermon, fits here.) And the thing I want to say is this: As a culture, we over-emphasize marriage.

What? Are you serious, Jeff? How can you say that? The opposite is the case, isn’t it? I mean, isn’t that what you wrote about last week? Isn’t marriage actually de-valued in society today, not over-emphasized? With divorce so common and so many choosing to live together outside of marriage, how can you say, Jeff, that we emphasize marriage too much?

Well, here’s what I mean: we have not overemphasized the importance of commitment and faithfulness in marriage; instead, we have bought into a worldly perspective on what marriage is intended to be.

Here’s what so many folks today expect marriage to be:

  1. finding a soulmate;
  2. finding someone to complete me;
  3. finding happiness and contentment with a best friend who meets all my needs;
  4. finding me.

And yet, what marriage can provide all that?

Esther Perel, writing from a secular perspective, points out: It is a distinctive American trait for married people to look for their best friend, their soulmate, their everything in their spouse. We pour all these expectations into this one person, believing: “I’ll never feel alone again, I’ll never feel disconnected, I’ll never feel unnoticed.” We come to marriage with these desires: give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity; give me transcendence, and mystery, and awe, all in onegive me comfort, give me edge; give me novelty, give me familiarity; give me predictability, give me surprise.

She writes that all of this comes at a time when we’re living longer, which means that “we’ve never invested more in love, and we never divorced more in the name of love.”

I think the Church has a very important message in this setting. In a world that either treats marriage as something to be tossed aside, or as something that should be the key to lifetime happiness and adventure, the truth is: Marriage isn’t the savior. No relationship will solve you; no relationship will help you find you. If you aren’t something before marriage, or without marriage, then you certainly won’t find that something within marriage.

Yes, marriage matters. God has given it to us, but not so we can find ourselves, or find true joy. That only comes from God Himself. God is the one who provides the meaning in our lives; we then live out that meaning in our marriage, our singleness, our relationships.

The writer Preston Sprinkle points out that until the mid-19th century, the word ‘love’ was used more for neighbors, relatives, and church members, than for spouses. When couples first started going on honeymoons in the 19th century, they often took family and friends along for company. Imagine going on your honeymoon with your mother-in-law! Anyone interested in signing up for that?

Me either. Even so, it’s a helpful reminder that my marriage is not the source of my identity. My identity comes from Christ, who then teaches me to walk in his steps, to walk in love, in my marriage and in my family and in my relationships — when they fulfill me, and when they don’t. When they excite me, when they bore me, and when they just are. Because at the end of the day, it’s not what I get out of marriage (or singleness) that determines who I am; it’s what I give. In a world that approaches relationships as a way to find meaning, it’s time for Christians to demonstrate where true meaning comes from — and live it out in the challenging reality of our everyday human relationships.