Keys to a Lasting Marriage

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For many years couples entered into marriage assuming their loving relationship would last "until death do us part." Now about half of all marriages in many countries end in divorce. What has changed? What makes some marriages last while others founder and eventually fall apart? Are there ways you can ensure that your marriage will last?

Sixty-five years ago Stella Fels and Valden White were married in Manson, Washington, part of that state's famous apple-producing area. During those years of recovery from the Great Depression, which had begun in 1929, people in the U.S. Northwest were fortunate to find stable work in orchards. Times were tough, but most families managed to make enough money to keep themselves in food and clothing.This was the setting for the real-life love story of Stella and Val that has stood the test of time.

Chance meeting leads to lifelong love

Even though as children they lived only eight miles apart, they didn't meet until 1931, after Val had graduated from high school in Chelan and Stella was in her last year at Manson. One day Val was driving along the highway between the two towns when he spotted three girls walking along the highway. Stopping to give them a ride, Val first met Stella and her two cousins. From the moment Val saw her, he thought Stella was one of the most attractive girls he had ever seen.

This was the beginning of many automobile rides and a lifelong love that sustained them while raising two children and working at four occupations. This same love now graces the golden years of their lives.

Some people believe marriages like the Whites' are anomalies and virtually impossible in the postmodern world. Based on current divorce rates, that view seems sadly accurate. But where does that leave us? Do happy marriages have to be a thing of the past, or can we hope for a life-long relationship with our mate that grows deeper with the passing of years?

Marriage is a natural union between man and woman, but it's also a divine relationship instituted by God at the foundation of the world. As the Creator of marriage, God knows what makes marriage work, and He reveals this knowledge to us through His Word, the Bible.

The reason for marriage

To learn how to have a happy marriage, let's examine God's purpose for marriage and what marriage symbolizes.

We find the earliest biblical writings on marriage in the first two chapters of Genesis. There we learn that God created humans male and female and instructed them to populate the earth and exercise dominion over it (Genesis:1:26-31). God said marital partners were to leave their parents, be joined together and have a sexual relationship (Genesis:2:24-25). Noting that "it is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis:2:18), God gave humans the wonderful gift of marriage.

And what a gift it is! Besides giving the delight and satisfaction of the marriage relationship to husband and wife, marriage provides structure to civilization.

Some 2,500 years ago ancient Israel wallowed in moral decay. Its leaders were not teaching God's values (Malachi:1:6; 2:7-8). Just as today, marriages were falling apart as people selfishly sought only their own gratification. In this setting God sent the prophet Malachi to identify the Israelites' mistakes and explain what they should do to secure God's blessings again. In doing so, God revealed another purpose of marriage. What had the Israelites done wrong?

"Judah has broken faith," Malachi explained under divine inspiration. "A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves, by marrying the daughter of a foreign god" (Malachi:2:11, New International Version).

Many Israelite men had married women from other nations who enticed them to worship their gods rather than the true God. When some of these men decided to worship God in addition to these foreign deities, they found that He would not accept their offerings (verses 12-13). But there was more.

"You ask, 'Why?' " proclaimed the prophet. "It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.

" 'I hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel, 'and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,' says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith" (Malachi:2:14-16, NIV, emphasis added throughout).

Besides paying homage to other gods, the men of Israel also sinned by breaking their marriage covenants and divorcing their wives. These actions thwarted one of God's great purposes for marriage, the development of "godly offspring" (verse 15); that is, children who accept God's values as their own. One reason God hates divorce is that it hinders such children. Instead of witnessing a successful marriage, children of divorce experience the negative effects of a failed relationship.

Divorce brings additional problems, from financial hardship to the scars of emotional trauma. One of the greatest fears of young people today is that their parents will separate.

The time for divorce

Because not everyone accepts or practices God's ideals for marriage, some conclude that divorce is sometimes the only answer. Jesus Christ addressed the problem of divorce by first affirming God's values as stated in Genesis and then by saying, "So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew:19:4-6). Jesus was not in favor of divorce.

When pressed, however, Jesus said divorce was allowed for "sexual immorality" (verse 9). Jesus' perspective was that divorce should be legal but rare. If everyone would refrain from sexual intercourse before marriage and experience it only within marriage, many divorces could be avoided. Tragically, sexual permissiveness is rampant in our society. Few couples today enter marriage as virgins and sadly, many will not remain faithful to their marriage partner.

Most people want happy marriages, but they don't want to follow God's advice on how to achieve them. The same was true in Jesus' day. Few were willing to live according to God's instructions. This is why Jesus said, "All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given" (verse 11).

A higher relationship

The apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians explains how husbands and wives are to treat each other in marriage. After giving specific instruction to husbands to love their wives, Paul wrote: "For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church" (Ephesians:5:29-32).

Here Paul teaches us that the marriage relationship is similar to our relationship with Jesus Christ. Physical marriage is modeled after a godly relationship. A proper relationship between a husband and wife gives insight into the spiritual relationship God wants to have with each of us. This spiritual aspect of marriage sets it apart and puts it on a higher plane. Marriage is a God-plane relationship.

Just as marriages produce families, God is building His family. God provides for the right spiritual relationship between a husband and wife to teach us about Himself and His great purpose.

Throughout the book of Ephesians, Paul speaks repeatedly of the family God is developing. He begins by speaking of our "adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself" (Ephesians:1:5). Then he calls us "members of the household of God" (Ephesians:2:19). Later he writes, "For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named" (Ephesians:3:14-15). Thus, when Paul speaks of godly marriage as similar to "Christ and the church" in Ephesians:5:32, he is explaining how human families, on a physical level, can be like God's spiritual family.

As the head of His spiritual family, God promises never to break His relationship with His people (Revelation:3:21; 21:7). He makes a covenant with them and writes His laws in their hearts (Hebrews:8:10), and promises never to forsake them (Hebrews:13:5). Just as God honors His commitments, so should we honor our marriage vows.

The most wonderful marriages human beings can parallel a proper spiritual relationship with our Creator. Understanding this higher spiritual purpose for the marital relationship should give us added respect and appreciation for happy, fulfilling marriages now.

Building lifelong, happy marriages

When Stella and Valden White were wed 65 years ago, people expected marriages to last a lifetime. Though formal sexual education was virtually nonexistent, many marriages of that era proved stronger than those of today. What made the difference? The Whites believe part of the answer lies in attitude.

According to Stella and Valden, too many people fail to show loving respect for their marriage partner. If couples encounter a serious problem, the simple solution is to get a divorce and start over with someone else. The Whites say they experienced tough times but never faced a problem they were not determined to work out. They believe being honest and considerate of each other can make a lasting difference in relationships.

Practicing God's values is a time-honored key to building a happy marriage. Further, as we submit to God's marital roles for us in this life, we learn how to submit to God for eternity. Let's now consider two important keys to success.

Love and respect

In Ephesians:5:33 Paul summed up a passage on marriage: "Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband." Love and respect are two simple but important principles husbands and wives can use to build sound, stable, happy marriages.

People think that love is an uncontrolled and uncontrollable emotion. They believe it just happens and that humans fall prey to this seemingly unpredictable force. We speak of "falling in love" as though it were some fortunate accident. By popular, idealized convention, love continues joyful and fun.

The apostle Paul, though, penned a different definition. "Love suffers long," he wrote (1 Corinthians:13:4). Paul's words equated loving someone with being willing to suffer for or with that person. True love, as defined in the Bible, requires a willingness to suffer patiently for or with someone for, if necessary, a lifetime. This kind of love comes by choice, not by accident. This love demonstrates an unselfish concern for another, even when showing such love grows difficult or inconvenient.

"Love suffers long and is kind," Paul continued; "love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails" (verses 4-8). This kind of love will sustain a relationship, not just through the good times, but through the difficult and bleak times all marriages encounter.

Like love, respect implies that a choice has to be made. We can choose to respect someone for his positive attributes or disrespect him for his faults. As marital partners, our choice can support our relationship or help destroy it.

The time for couples to seriously contemplate whether they can love and respect each other comes before they marry. Once married, husband and wife simply need to do it or they will risk seeing their marriage founder and fail.

Many more principles could be added to a discussion of how to have a happy marriage. Most of these, however, simply demonstrate the two great principles: love and respect.

Peter's principles

The apostle Peter also wrote on marriage. After echoing some of Paul's instructions (1 Peter:3:1, 7), Peter gave some advice that is sound for all relationships: "Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing" (verses 8-9).

When we treat others as God commands, we enjoy the fruit of His way. As Peter asked, "who is he who will harm you if you become followers of what is good?" (verse 13). God's instructions work. They produce happy, fulfilling, stable relationships.

Wise King Solomon said, "Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint: but happy is he who keeps the law" (Proverbs:29:18, NKJV). Even though this famous king experienced his own marital problems (1 Kings:11:1-4), he did understand an important connection between happiness and practicing God's ways. During the past 65 years, Stella and Val have proved this point. They began with the goal of a happy, life-long marriage. They never considered anything else, and their goal became reality. So can yours if you accept God's purpose for marriage and obey His laws and the divine principles governing it. GN

 


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