Good Marriages Say No to Good Things

One of the subtle pitfalls in Christian marriages is an inability, when necessary, to prioritize ministry in the home over ministry to others. It can be a temptation anywhere, but especially for spouses or couples serving in ministry in some official capacity. It’s dangerous because wives, husbands, and children really suffer. It’s subtle because the strain and pain often come in the name of something worthwhile, even something God-glorifying.

I’ve been married ten months, so I’m really not qualified to say much of anything yet, but this is one lesson I’ve been learning the hard way since day one: True love regularly sets aside its own preferences and agenda, even good opportunities to serve, for the sake of the beloved. Love knows its own limitations, and therefore has to choose when and how to lay itself down for others. This is especially important when a couple is building trust and habits in their first year of marriage.

Some people have a hard time saying no because they have a huge heart, always feeling sympathy or empathy for the needs around them. More people, I would imagine, find it difficult to decline opportunities to do good because they are afraid others will be disappointed or frustrated with them. Because we fear men.

Minutes Matter in Marriage

The first year of marriage has made me ask: Would I be willing to say no to something good for the sake of caring for my wife? In my single years, I said yes more often than not because I had a lot more time and energy to spare. Marriage brought a new and permanent second priority (behind my pursuit of God). Instead of cutting the pie of my life into lots of little pieces after God and work, I have three king-size slices now. And therefore less pie to go around elsewhere. Marriage (and later, parenting, I can imagine) rightly puts us on a different diet.

This doesn’t even speak to the less-than-good ways we might spend (waste) our time. In singleness, it was easy to spend a couple hours watching television, browsing Netflix, checking social media, or hanging with the guys without anyone seeming to pay the price. In marriage, those minutes add up quickly and seem to matter more.

Principles and Priorities

Paul acknowledges that marriage comes with new priorities. His argument for the unmarried Christian life relates to the heavy demands of the married Christian life. He says, “The married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. . . . The married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:33–34). Paul may sense the heavy burden of marital duties, but he doesn’t dismiss them. They’re simply a reality for a husband or wife (or father or mother).

You might call this reality the principle of especially. Paul writes to Timothy, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Are we providing first for our first calling, our own household? Are we rightly prioritizing our giving — our time, energy, and finances? He writes elsewhere, “Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Beyond our family, are we caring first for believers, and then for those outside the church? Do we prioritize our ministry outside the home?

The principle of especially is not a principle of only. A Christian cares about all the needs around him or her and regularly cares for the needs of others whenever they arise — whether those inside or outside his or her home, close friends, or complete strangers. In that way, we are free to help whoever is in need on any given day. Another major way Christian marriage can go wrong is to allow the marriage or family to dominate life in a way that the husband or wife, or both, are never or rarely available to help others in need.

But the whole of our lives, and the sum of our loves, should be marked by humble, selfless, and biblical prioritization. We need to ask if there is a thread of especially in our schedule and decision-making in ministry.

Finding Redemption in Dysfunction

For anyone who has been married, even for just a couple of weeks, this need will not surprise us. From the wedding day forward, wires can get crossed in countless ways. Tying two sinful people so closely together more than doubles the risk of dysfunction. With Christ, the dysfunction can be routinely and beautifully addressed, forgiven, and redeemed, but not without significant and consistent time, energy, and intentionality. And that ministry almost never conveniently fits into the cracks of busy schedules.

We have to be willing to set aside time, regularly and spontaneously, to invest intentionally in our spouses and children. It likely requires more time at the outset, especially in the first year of marriage or parenting, but the need never ends this side of heaven. It’s a daily effort, a weekly effort, a yearly effort, a lifelong effort.

And this kind of effort includes being willing to say no even to good things for the good of our homes.

Didn’t Jesus Say to Hate Our Spouse?

Jesus did say, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). What did Jesus mean by this? Does it mean that serving others in the church should always come before our family?

The larger context of Jesus’s teaching makes it clear that Jesus’s words are not a call to forsake one’s family, or even to treat them like everyone else. He rebuked the Pharisees for creating loopholes in the command to care for our families (Matthew 15:3–6). No, Jesus’s words are about our love for and loyalty to him. For us to love anyone well in this life, we must love Jesus first and foremost. If we begin to prioritize our spouse, or children, or grandchildren over our King, we insult the King and harm our families.

Commitment to this King, though, comes with a call to prioritize our families — not ultimately and in every circumstance, but selflessly and consistently.

Service Starts at Home

The difficult, but critical truth is that our No’s often preach the gospel more clearly than our Yes’s. Our steadfast commitment to serve at home first, to submit to and sacrifice for one another at home first, highlights the intimate relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:21–33). My wife needs to hear me regularly say no to others for her sake, because of what it says to her about Jesus. My friends and partners in ministry need to hear me regularly say no to them for her sake, because of what it says to them about Jesus.

This couple’s testimony ten months into marriage and ministry together is that when we prioritize well, we spill over more eagerly and effectively into the needs outside our home. Having created rhythms of caring for one another, we have felt fresh wind in our sails to dream about investing in others and welcoming them into our home more. As we’ve learned to say no to good things, God has begun to multiply the opportunities (and energy) to do good.