My husband and I don’t pray together regularly. We don’t belong to a Bible study. We haven’t bothered to make plans for family devotions with our children. We’ve kind-of-sort-of begun catechizing our two-year-old, but don’t really know what we’re doing. It’s still experimental at this point. By all conventional standards of a godly marriage and godly family, we’re not.
The thing is, I was taught to marry a “godly man.” A man who loves God more than himself, and even more than me. A man who abides by the descriptions in 1 Timothy 3 (even if he is not called to be an overseer of the church) and Titus 2—temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in endurance.
My husband is a simple guy with simple faith. He works hard, plays with our children, provides for our family, calls his mother, takes out the trash, goes to church, watches ESPN. He can be incredibly impatient, insensitive, and unkind. He curses when he is angry. He is your garden-variety dude.
On good days, I admire my husband’s ability to take God at His word. I respect his ability to follow Christ without Him having to prove His worth all the time. I covet his theological innocence. But on bad days, I criticize my husband’s faith as simplistic, untested, and unrefined. I decide his theological innocence is really theological naïveté. I convince myself that God expects more from him. I accuse him for not caring enough about spiritual growth. I commit emotional adultery by wishing that I had married somebody more like me. (As egotistical as it sounds, my perfect mate would be, essentially, a male version of me.)
Instead of holding out for a “godly man,” I chose to marry a sinner. He, too, chose to marry a sinner. My hypocrisy is exposed when my husband actually sins—when he fails to exemplify godliness, to model Christ and Christianity for my children, to lead in the area of spiritual formation—I hold his sins against him. I judge him as disobedient, ungodly, and immature. I withhold respect from him. I punish him for sinning, even though I believe Jesus has already paid for his sins. Then, as if holding his sins against him isn’t bad enough, I also manage to hold his faith against him. I argue that if he really loves God, he would put more effort into nurturing our family’s spiritual life. If he really believes that knowledge of Christ is important, he should learn the language of his faith and teach it to our children. If he really is committed to God, that commitment should be always visible, never questionable. (This guilt-tripping manipulation, this sense of entitlement, the “I deserve better” attitude...I really need to stop it.) Though I allow my husband to be a sinner in theory, I reject him when he sins in practice.
I wish I had been taught to marry a sinner. Then I wouldn’t expect my husband to be a “godly man.” I wouldn’t hold him to a standard of godliness that I know exists only in my mind and only in the person of Jesus Christ—not in real guys. I wouldn't have to work so hard to validate and justify my life.
If I allow myself to face the truth, I must admit that I am not a godly woman. I am not on fire for God, not filled with passion, not “sold out” for Jesus. On a good day, I am maybe 65% sold out, and technically, that’s not enough to be considered sold. God does not ask that I love Him as best I can; He demands that I love Him with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength. God is not exaggerating when He says, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; no one who seeks God. All have turned away…” (Romans 3:10-12a). I will never be on fire enough, passionate enough, or sold out enough for Jesus. This is a problem.I need a man who won’t let me minimize this problem and let me get away with thinking that I am ok. Believing that I am a good Christian comes naturally to me; the last thing I need is someone who reinforces this lie. I need someone who will identify with me as a sinner and stand with me under the cross.
But still, it's so hard to let go of ideals. There are times when I still want to achieve the kind of marriage that I envision in my mind. And this is where it gets murky. When I sit and dissect the situation and contemplate the solution, I have more questions than answers: What is a legitimate amount of godliness to expect of a Christian—man or woman? Just how much human cooperation is involved in the process of sanctification (the process of becoming more like Jesus in order to practice true holiness)?
The Westminster Confession of Faith says that sanctification is “imperfect in this life,” explaining that remnants of our original corruption still remain in every part of us—mind, heart, and body, which causes a continual and irreconcilable war between the flesh and the Spirit. The remnants of corruption may prevail for a time, but through the strength provided by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit does, ultimately, overcome the flesh. (Paraphrased.)
No doubt, I overestimate the progress and underestimate the imperfection of sanctification in marriage. I expect too much too soon.
For everything I still don’t know about Christian marriage, I do know this: Marriage is not a tactic of a strategic plan to accomplish a larger objective of doing great things for God, which includes cultivating a godly family. God is not some Chairman of the Board with goals, benchmarks, quarterly reviews, and annual reports. Treating marriage like a corporation and spouses like business partners strains the friendship and kills the chemistry. Nothing will grow in this kind of environment.
I am probably too simpleminded about it, but I think Christian marriage is the union of two sinners—two people who acknowledge their need for supernatural help and don’t want to face this harsh reality alone. Christian marriage can certainly mean more than this, but it cannot mean less.
For now, I think the strongest bond between a husband and wife is not mutual love for God, which can be erratic or, in my case, embarrassingly lacking. The strongest bond between a husband and wife is mutual need for a Savior. Since it is sin that always divides a marriage, the need for grace is always what unites it.