Marriage is one of God's most wonderful gifts to mankind. It is a treasure worth working on, cherishing and sustaining. His instructions are as valid today as ever.
When we buy a new appliance or tool, it's common to see on the outside of the box: "Some assembly required. Instructions inside." Of course, many of us don't bother with the instructions. We just put together the item as best we can. And sometimes that works. But if it doesn't, we have to go back and read the directions to find out what we did wrong. As the old saying goes, "If all else fails, read the directions."
When it comes to putting together a marriage, many couples have used the same approach. They do it without bothering to read the instructions. Sadly, the result is that many marriages aren't working. Husbands and wives find that they can't live together in peace. Because couples don't read or heed the instructions, marriages are failing at abysmally high rates.
During the latter part of the last century, divorce rates skyrocketed in many countries. The tragic result is that more and more children are being raised in single-parent homes.
In the United States, psychologist Robert Evans says: "Unprecedented numbers of people now delay marriage until their late twenties or their thirties or cohabit without marrying. When they do wed, the chances of their first marriage breaking up are between 40 percent and 50 percent; their second marriage, between 50 percent and 60 percent (barely more than half of American adults are currently married); when they cohabit, their chances of breaking up are even higher.
"More than one-quarter of all families with children are headed by single parents, overwhelmingly mothers. More than 40 percent of American children do not currently live with their biological fathers" (Evans, p. 61).
In Canada, it's currently expected that 37.7 percent of all marriages will end in divorce before the 30th anniversary (Behrendt Law Chambers Divorce and Family Law, Ottawa).
In Great Britain, reporters David Taylor and Lucy McDonald wrote: "More than one third of adults in Britain are destined never to marry, according to an official study of family life in the 21st century. The report, called The Family, predicts that by 2011, 39 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women in the population will never marry.
"However, the number of people living together will double in the next 20 years from the current figure of 12 per cent. So it is likely that within the next decade most children will be born outside marriage" ("Wave Goodbye to Marriage," Daily Express, Nov. 2, 2000).
We could bury ourselves in the statistics concerning the failure rates of marriages from around the world, but the overall picture would remain the same: Divorce, or the dissolution of marriage as some prefer to term it, plagues humanity in most every nation.
Faced with these numbing reports, many, particularly in Sweden and Denmark, are choosing to forego marriage and simply live together. Under these conditions, because there are no marriages, there are no divorces to report when couples break up. But these same broken relationships bring heartache to the adults and children alike—with the children especially suffering when they are separated from one of their biological parents.
Instructions for marriage
Recognizing the failure rate of so many marriages today, a logical person will examine the causes for the failures to see what might be done to save his or her relationship from a similar fate.
When we make the decision to examine the instructions, we also face the critical matter of where to turn for such instruction. If man is simply an animal and there is no God, then there are no divine directions! If there are no divine directions, logically, we'd want to get the best statistical information available from research so we could make decisions based on the greatest likelihood of happiness and success.
Yet some people don't want to know what works either. Apparently, they'd rather take their chances (and poor chances they are) on their own without any guidance whatsoever. Does that make sense?
We can be grateful, however, that the Bible does provide instruction on marriage. And not only that, the validity of this instruction is continually being backed up by sociological research. Do you want to know what these instructions are? Will you be willing to live by the guidelines? Or are you committed to the path of least resistance and willing to suffer the sure consequences of broken laws?
We each must choose what we will do. Remember, no choice is also a choice—usually a poor one. So what does God say? Where can we find His directions?
Background to the first marriage
When God created human beings, He made two "models"—one male, one female. Genesis 1:27 says, "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." Reflecting on His creation, including making us male and female, Genesis 1:31 says, "Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good ."
Sexuality in human beings was not designed to just be okay; it was designed to be extremely good! And it is great and wonderful when we use this special gift of God in the way He intended. Sadly, many people do not respect their sexuality (or others') as they should. Through immoral sexual behavior they belittle what God intended to be a very special experience.
The account of the first marriage is recorded in Genesis 2. Here we read that God initially created Adam as the only human being. In mankind's earliest beginning, no Eve was to be found. "But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him" (verse 20). At this time Adam was single, isolated, the only human being anywhere.
The Bible reveals that something was wrong with this scene. After God created Adam, He "put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it" (verse 15). So Adam had a responsibility, a job that surely proved to be fascinating for him. Adam explored and learned all about the world—animals, plants, the beautiful and intricate variations of God's creation. Not only was he learning, but God gave him the privilege of naming all the birds and animals and other living creatures (verse 19).
Whether Adam realized it or not, God knew something about him was incomplete. "And the LORD God said, 'It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him'" (verse 18). Let's think for a moment about why it was not good for Adam to be alone. He, of all the physical living creation, was without a helper on his own level (verse 20).
Imagine how Adam must have felt when he observed that animals had their mates. Through his observations of the animal kingdom, in its maleness and femaleness, he was reminded that he was the lone human being on the planet. He was a male with no corresponding female.
God creates Eve
Single people often find themselves in lonely circumstances. They want friendships and feel the isolation of being alone. Because of situations all too common in our world, even married people can experience loneliness. God recognized that Adam had a problem and provided him the perfect solution—a woman to be his wife. God, as the source of every perfect gift (James 1:17), knew just how to form the woman.
God had made Adam from the ground. " Adam" is related to the Hebrew word adamah, which means "ground." But, instead of using more soil to make Eve, God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep and made Eve out of one of Adam's ribs (Genesis 2:21-22). The Hebrew word translated "made" is banah, usually translated as "build." God literally built Eve. Ever loving, kind and merciful, God took great delight in forming her, physically and mentally, to be the perfect complement for Adam.
Scripture emphasizes another aspect of the first marital relationship. Because God made Eve from one of Adam's ribs, an undeniable bond existed between Adam and Eve. This point was undoubtedly significant to Adam. His first recorded words regarding Eve were, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman [Hebrew ishah ] because she was taken out of Man [Hebrew ish ]" (verse 23). Adam recognized his link to this wondrous creature named Eve. She was part of him, and he was part of her.
The first marriage
This account does not tell us what Adam and Eve were thinking or how they felt while they got to know each other. But in the next two verses we learn the outline of marriage as established by God.
"Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed" (verses 24-25). Let's examine this outline more closely.
Leave one's father and mother
An important aspect of marriage is leaving "father and mother," as God instructed, to establish a new family unit. Adam and Eve did not have physical parents to leave, but future generations would need to apply this instruction. Honoring parents and seeking their advice is advisable, but newlyweds need to remember that they are a new family unit. Just because things were done a particular way in your family does not mean your spouse will want to do things the same way.
Two people must learn to work together in marriage, showing respect and love to each other. Such an approach follows the biblical principles of wives submitting to their husbands and husbands loving and honoring their wives (Ephesians 5:22, 25; 1 Peter 3:1, 7). Establishing family guidelines and traditions in an atmosphere of love and respect gives the newly married couple a foundation on which to build their lives.
Be joined together
Another principle from Genesis 2:24 is that a husband should be "joined" to his wife. Other translations say he should "cling" or "cleave" to her. Today we would say he should bond with her. Other than God, she should be his highest commitment.
The biblical text is clear that a man should build this special, close relationship with his wife. The idea of clinging to multiple partners is foreign to this account.
Even though God allowed some men in the Old Testament to have several wives at the same time, such arrangements were not God's intent from the beginning. In listing the qualifications of bishops, or overseers, of the Church, 1 Timothy 3:2 makes it clear that such a man must follow God's instructions and "be blameless, the husband of one wife."
How can husbands and wives "join" with each other and make their relationships loving and lasting? Simple actions like hugs, kisses and pledges of love build and strengthen the bond God intended for marital partners. When husbands and wives constantly work at building their relationship, they find it easier to agree on workable options in settling family disagreements.
Some people think love is a magical, mysterious emotion that two people fall into or out of for no apparent reason. The truth is different: Loving relationships must be nurtured. They require effort. Love is care and consideration directed toward another person, not just an ethereal emotion over which we have no control.
However, the work involved in building and preserving the marital bond is well worth the time and effort. Husbands and wives who are committed to this process often describe their marriage partner as their best friend. This is simply another way of describing the kind of bond God desires for every marriage.
A marriage exhibiting this godly bond is characterized by two people who are willing to listen and talk about their differences or problems in a spirit of humility. If they cannot solve their problems on their own, they seek counsel because they value their relationship and don't want to lose it.
Studies confirm that measuring the level of conflict in a relationship can accurately predict whether a marriage will survive. People whose marriages are failing often say they have lost the desire for a special relationship with their mate.
Some marriage partners have rekindled this desire by asking God for a loving, humble attitude and doing things to show love to their mate, even when they don't feel like it. Many married people have found that the feelings they long for return when they start doing the things that bind two people together.
Become one flesh
The next principle from Genesis 2 says that a husband and wife shall become one flesh; that is, to enjoy an intimate sexual relationship with one another (verse 24; compare 1 Corinthians 6:16).
The steps that lead to a loving sexual relationship are vital to a successful marriage. While God wants those planning to marry to develop a deep and lasting friendship, He also teaches us that we should not indulge in sex until after the marriage ceremony. Regrettably, many people today fail to follow God's instructions in this matter. "Dating" someone now has often come to mean sleeping with him or her.
In Western societies the majority of young adults of both sexes engage in sexual intercourse before marriage. They take the supposedly enlightened view that sex is not part of a sacred, loving relationship but simply a biological function to be indulged in whenever both parties want. Many couples believe they should do this before marriage to know whether they are "sexually compatible," thinking this will improve the odds of their marriage succeeding.
However, studies have conclusively shown that when people live together and have sex before marriage, this action increases the likelihood that when they do get married, their marriage will fail.
God intended sex to be part of the marriage relationship and that it not take place outside of marriage. Only in the married state does God permit sexual relations (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 18; 7:2-5). His instructions for us to refrain from any kind of sexual activity before or outside of marriage are safeguards for the marriage relationship.
God intended sex to be an intimate experience that binds a husband and wife together. In marriage it certainly is, and following these instructions helps marriages survive and flourish.
But disregarding God's instruction carries a price. As we'll see in the next chapter, engaging in this intimate act with multiple partners before marriage dramatically lessens one's ability to form that kind of close and lasting bond after marriage. Since so many men and women engage in sex before marriage, it's no wonder so many find it difficult to build and maintain that kind of closeness after marriage.
Also, since about a third of married men and a fourth of married women in the United States admit to having indulged in adulterous affairs, we shouldn't be surprised that approximately half of American marriages end in divorce. These are all part of the vicious and destructive cycle that ensues when we ignore God's direction regarding sex and marriage.
The way to reverse the trend of broken marriages and safeguard one's own relationship is simple: Accept and practice God's instruction to restrict sex to marriage. Such an approach shows honor and respect for the sexuality God has given us.
In this approach, sex is not cheapened or lowered to a common animal behavior. Instead it is an honorable act reserved for the most intimate human relationship of all, entered into with the most honorable intentions.
The last principle from God's first guidelines for marriage reveals that Adam and Eve were naked but not embarrassed by their nakedness (Genesis 2:25). Since they were the only two people on the planet, privacy was not an issue. Sexuality was not and is not intrinsically dirty or shameful.
Within marriage a husband and wife should feel comfortable with each other's masculinity or femininity. But revealing too much of one's body to other members of the opposite sex outside of marriage invites the breaking of God's commands against lust and unlawful sexual relations.
Jesus warned that "whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). Men and women alike need to control their minds and dress modestly to discourage sexual arousal and temptation outside of marriage.
Again, these actions show respect for our sexuality, respect for others and respect for God—the Author of these instructions. People who live by these guidelines are not prudish nor so mentally constricted that they do not enjoy sex when they are married.
Counselor Pam Stenzel, in her book Sex Has a Price Tag, writes: "Several years ago, researchers did a study on who was having the best sex. Conventional wisdom says that the people who are having the best sex are those who've had a lot of experience with a variety of partners, and who feel free from rules and regulations about sexual activity—in other words, the people who have sex whenever they want with whomever they want.
"Guess what? Conventional wisdom is wrong. According to the studies, married Christian women are having the best sex. That's right. Church women are the most satisfied group of sexually active people. I'm betting their husbands are pretty happy, too" (2003, p. 34). Put simply, those who follow God's instructions are the people enjoying sex the most and receiving the greatest satisfaction!
Godly leadership within marriage
In Paul's explanation that marriage is similar to the relationship between Christ and the Church, he also teaches us about leadership within the husband-wife relationship. Just as Jesus is the head of the Church, husbands are to be the leaders within their marriages: "For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church . . ." (Ephesians 5:23).
The way Jesus leads the Church is the way husbands should lead their wives. Jesus was and is ". . . the Savior of the body"—the Church (verse 23). He literally gave His life in love for the Church.
With this thought in mind, Paul instructed husbands in the way they should lead: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.
"So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church" (verses 25-29).
When a leader exhibits the kind of love and commitment that Jesus showed the Church, it's easy to follow such a person. We know that this kind of leader always has our best interests at heart. Paul's teaching to husbands was that they needed to be the kind of leaders who would also be easy for their wives to follow.
Based on this expectation of husbands, Paul taught wives to "submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything" (verses 22-24).
Mutual submission in love
Not understanding the beautiful context and loving leadership these instructions are built on, some wives have refused to say that they will submit to their husbands. Sometimes men and women alike have mistakenly assumed these instructions were sexist and demeaning to women. But in the context of Paul's explanation, this instruction is most respectful of both sexes and represents an important key for happy marriages.
Husbands and wives who are continually fighting each other over authority and control experience a level of conflict and misery that often leads to divorce. Husbands and wives who fully and mutually submit themselves to the pattern Paul reveals usually find happiness and peace.
When genuine love and respect prevail in a marriage, the husband and wife learn much from each other. Each brings strengths into the relationship. For example, wives often excel in relationship- related needs. Husbands often have a strong orientation toward problem solving.
Husbands and wives who become aware early in their marriage that each brings strengths to some aspects of their relationship and discuss how they together can use those strengths to their mutual advantage gain the most from His instructions.
But mates who "beat each other over the head" with scriptures intended to benefit their relationship miss the point. Some abusive husbands, with little or no respect for their wives' feelings or contributions, will command them to submit, and some hotheaded wives retort that they'll submit only when their husbands start acting the way they should. The key here is that each person must do his or her part.
Each must apply the instruction given him or her. Although individuals can positively influence their mates by their unilateral actions, it is far better when both the husband and wife accept and live by God's instructions for their respective roles in marriage.
As one might expect, God's instructions for marriage have proven to be the best way to experience peace and happiness.
Studies show that couples who do not live together before marriage handle conflict more easily, communicate better and are less likely to divorce. They also show that a majority of men and women (60 percent) believe that the sexual relationship is more satisfying within the marriage union.
Considering known statistics (for example, that one of every four Americans will contract a sexually transmitted disease, a disorder preventable by practicing godly guidelines), it becomes obvious that God's teachings are superior to anything devised by man. God's way protects us and offers us the greatest opportunity for happiness.
Marriage is one of God's most wonderful gifts to mankind. It is a treasure worth working on, cherishing and sustaining. His instructions are as valid today as ever. To follow them is to make the honorable, godly choice. No shame comes from following God's instructions—only beneficial and lasting rewards. In the next two chapters we'll see what these principles look like in dating and marriage.