Oh, the trouble with marriage.
While I love being married to Sarah, marriage is fundamentally a big problem—it’s a devotion divider. The apostle Paul wants us to be free from concerning ourselves with it. In fact, he counsels married people to live as if they were not.
Impossible? Paul writes,
"What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; . . . For this world in its present form is passing away. 32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband." (1 Cor 7:29,31-34, NIV; italics mine.)
Keep in mind that this living as if you had no spouse is not a grueling sacrifice, nor is it a cold, logical point of self-denial. Instead, it is a command to our own fulfillment, especially in marriage, and the highest development of our life in Christ. It is the way to a happy marriage.
Paul continues, "I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord." (1 Cor 7:35, NIV; italics mine.)
Paul isn’t on a marriage-ending crusade; that would be unbiblical and ridiculous. Obviously, he doesn't mean we should dump our spouses or mistreat them in any way, but that we should continue to keep our devotion to Jesus genuinely primary—no, our devotion to Jesus must be undivided. Why? Because our devotion to Jesus is the only relationship that will produce love.
God is love—He doesn't have love, His love doesn't ebb and flow, rise and fall. He is love, and intimacy with Him will produce it in you and me. No other relationship can do that. At best, all that other relationships can do is elicit love or provide a place for it to go, but they cannot produce love. Undivided devotion to Jesus means love with a capital L.
So when we book and sermon and seminar ourselves nearly to death out of concern for marriage and how to have a good one, take loads of notes and make plenty of pledges and commitments about how we'll behave from now on, we're likely dividing our devotion, the very thing Paul warned against. We’ve got only so much devotion to go around. Five techniques to have a happy wife (make sure you've got them all!), six tips for a happy husband (don’t forget any!), plus assorted marital pitfalls to avoid, and our devotional pie is getting eaten up. How much is left for Jesus? No wonder we’re too tired to pray or read or worship or spend enjoyable time with God—we’re not devotionally single, we’re devotionally used up.
By focusing our concern and devotion upon marriage (or any worldly relationship, for that matter), we're unintentionally saying, "Here's how to mess up your marriage—be really concerned about it. Focus on it, work tirelessly on it, and pray about it unceasingly. Give it everything you’ve got." But Christian marriage is not about out-committing or out-performing non-Christian marriages. Yippee! Our divorce rate is lower than yours! Marriage for the Christian has a radically different starting point—union with God and union with each other—and it has a radically different way forward.
Again, no one is suggesting you abandon your marriage! If you’re a klutz at loving your spouse, if you ignore him, if you demean her, if you have no idea that your wife likes flowers and chocolate, and that your husband likes gadgets, then take a class on marital manners—you need them! But if you want to truly love, then no amount of marital techniques will bring it about. The fount of love is God—growing devotion to knowing and loving Him will baptize you and everyone around you in love.
My wife knows that when I'm overwhelmingly devoted to Jesus, she is going to get love, love which is way better than anything I might cook up on my own. In fact, she and I believe that marriage provides a unique opportunity to grow in devotion to Jesus by being weaned away from the many lesser devotions of this life. That's not easy—it’s takes time to grow in faith. When everything says, "Think of the benefits of being deeply devoted to your spouse, and here’s how!" we're learning to put it under our devotion to Jesus. It's not difficult to imagine what a great step of faith that is.
But, oh, the benefits.