Today marks seven years of marriage for me and my wife, Faye. Since our wedding day, I’ve learned that year seven has become something of a milestone for marriages (largely, it seems, thanks to a 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch).
The “seven-year itch” refers to the time when one or both spouses grow tired of the marriage and begin to long for something new. While studies have never proven seven as the precise number, various studies have shown that divorce statistics do rise and peak somewhere between five and ten years. I’m not sure, however, that we really needed sophisticated studies to tell us what most marriages know by experience: marriage is harder than we expect. And if we’re looking for reasons to leave, we’ll have plenty to choose from.
Why else do we make vows? “Wedding vows,” Tim Keller reminds us, “are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love” (Meaning of Marriage, 79). “I take you, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” Being yours might cost me more than I ever thought I could give — more than I can now imagine — but I promise to never leave you. Vows tie the future fragility and difficulty of marriage into the very beauty of the ceremony.
In his introduction to Herman Bavinck’s The Christian Family, James Eglinton writes,
In this fallen world, there are no promises that marriage, for all its capacity to be beautiful and enriching, will be a lifelong series of increasing physical delights. In reality, a healthy marriage will probably lean more on the Sermon on the Mount than on the Song of Solomon. (xiii)
After seven years (and seventeen dreams), marriage has been far harder than either of us expected — and far sweeter. We still love and lean on the Song of Solomon — healthy marriages, however challenging, are captivating romances worthy of such poetry. But we also have learned, perhaps all the more, to climb the mountain and sit longer at the feet of Jesus.
Seven Words for Seven Years
Marriage is not the focus of the Sermon on the Mount — it’s only addressed explicitly in 2 of the 107 verses — but the three chapters do provide some profound counsel for marriages, young and old. After seven years with Faye, Jesus’s commands, warnings, and promises fall with fresh weight and relevance for the gospel drama we’ve been given to live out together. The following seven words, in particular, have stuck with me as we take our first steps into year eight.
1. Take care where you build your home.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. (Matthew 7:24)
We’ll begin where Jesus ends. After teaching on anger, lust, anxiety, integrity, vengeance, forgiveness, giving, fasting, praying, and more, he closes with a vivid picture of two kinds of homes: one built upon sand and the other on rock. Lives (and marriages) built on sand will fall. Lives (and marriages) built on rock will stand: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health — in other words, whatever may come. “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:25).
What does it mean to build a marriage on the rock? It means to build our marriages on obedience to Jesus. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” It means actively putting Jesus and his words at the center of our rhythms, our romance, and even our conflict. Are we still looking for creative ways to draw him further into our marriages — reading together, praying together, singing together, thanking him together, enjoying him together? Every marriage learns quickly that it takes special, Spirit-filled intentionality to keep from drifting off of the rock.
Regarding conflict, what if, when tension arises in our marriage, the decisive factor was more often what Jesus wants most? To be sure, we won’t always know precisely what Jesus wants, but a commitment to trust and obey him above all else, and in every situation, would resolve many tensions in many marriages, wouldn’t it?
When the forecast darkens, and the clouds crawl in, and the winds begin to howl, and the showers start to fall, we feel whether our love is built on solid ground (or not). Are we more committed to obeying Jesus than getting our own way? Do his words or our feelings consistently win the day? Are we ready to take the hard, costly steps he calls us to take — again? Is our house built on rock — or on sand?
2. Guard your fidelity with vigilance.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)
Perhaps the clearest word for marriage in the Sermon on the Mount comes in Matthew 5:27–32. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28). In other words, don’t just avoid the forbidden woman’s bed; avoid even imagining yourself in her bed. Go to whatever lengths necessary to guard the garden of your purity and intimacy.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29)
Does that kind of Spirit-filled zeal and vigilance surround our marriage bed? Do we ever talk about how we’re each battling sexual temptation? Are there men and women in our lives who know how to hold us each accountable? The deepest marital happiness comes to those who fight together for purity, because we get to see more of God together: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
This faithful pursuit of purity also comes with a commitment to never leave — not in year five, or seven, or fifty-seven. “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32). To be sure, marriages wrecked by infidelity will require special care and counsel and grace, but his word remains clear: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). He says that precisely because of how much easier separation will feel at times.
3. Correct each other with humility.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
Marriage, we all know, is sanctifying — perhaps more sanctifying than any other human relationship (although parents may sometimes wonder). Marriage sanctifies us for at least two great reasons: (1) a husband and wife see more of each other’s sin than anyone else could, and (2) the covenant ties us uncomfortably close for a lifetime, sins and all. We see the worst in each other and yet have nowhere to go.
How my wife responds to my sins has a disproportionate effect on how I see myself and my sin (and vice versa). As spouses, we sit at a critical, sensitive, and sometimes painful window into each other’s souls. The question is how we will handle that burden and privilege. Jesus tells us how:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3–5)
How different might our marriages be if we simply and consistently implemented these three verses? The longer we stare at any given speck — months, years, even decades — the harder it can become to see our own logs. In the vulnerability of marriage, it is all the more important to confront and correct each other with humility — with a patient awareness of our own failures and sins and a resilient hopefulness for change and growth.
4. Don’t murder each other.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9)
We may assume that sexual immorality has ended more marriages than any other threat — and it surely has crushed and devoured many. I wonder, however, if unchecked anger has ended more.
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. (Matthew 5:21–22)
“By all means, guard your marriage bed from adultery and pornography, but also guard it from your own anger.”
Jesus makes no room for unrighteous anger; he elevates it alongside murder. And yet how often have we made room for it in our homes? How often have we felt justified while our hurt feelings burned hot within us? And how often have we responded to unrighteous anger with more unrighteous anger? By all means, guard your marriage bed from adultery and pornography, but also guard it from your own anger.
Guard against anger, and when a fire breaks out, don’t leave it unaddressed. Jesus continues,
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)
Different marriages will have different rhythms for reconciliation; the important point is to have one. Do offenses consistently get addressed in your relationship — or not? Do you lovingly correct each other? Are you quick to admit when you’re wrong or to confess when you have failed? Do you still gladly forgive each other? Couples who avoid hard conversations forfeit some of the sweetest moments in marriage.
5. Delight to forgive each other.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
Because every marriage is a union between sinners, forgiveness will be our constant guest. Children may come and go, jobs may come and go, houses may come and go, but the need for forgiveness will remain. So will forgiveness be a welcome and celebrated guest in your home — or an unwelcome and resented one?
Jesus warns us, including husbands and wives, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14–15). Does any relationship test our willingness to forgive — and to persevere in forgiveness — like marriage? Jesus says an unwillingness to forgive is spiritually lethal. Mercy, on the other hand, breeds security and joy: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
Forgiveness is costly, and in some ways, all the more so in marriage. Marriage reveals more of us than we want to show, and it opens us to more pain than most relationships. And we inevitably must forgive the same sins again and again and again (seventy times seven feels about right). It’s good to remember that this love, as much as any on earth, is meant to look like the cross (Ephesians 5:25) — so we shouldn’t be surprised that it sometimes feels like a cross. In fact, that feeling may be proof we’re doing something right.
6. Cover your marriage with prayer.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)
Prayer is as powerful and important outside of marriage as it is in marriage. But if we are married, nothing will shape our marriages more. Of the dreams we had going into our first seven years of marriage, this is the one we feel most desperate to cultivate in our next seven. I long for the words, “Let’s stop and pray about that,” to become as common as any in our home.
How many marriages (my own included) suffer unnecessarily because we refuse to take advantage of the all-powerful ear of heaven? Is our marriage really too hard for him? “Everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7–8).
Has marriage begun to feel unsustainable? Have you lost hope that things will get better? Have you quietly stopped praying for your husband or wife? Then take Jesus at his word: keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. Your Father won’t give you a stone. He won’t give you a scorpion. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).
7. Seek God before each other.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6)
Many spouses who leave a marriage wouldn’t have trouble staying for another day or two, but they can’t imagine staying for thirty or forty more years. This is precisely the kind of thinking Jesus confronts in his teaching on anxiety:
Do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” [or “How shall we stayed married?”] For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. . . . Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:31–32, 34)
“Fix your eyes on God today, and leave the next ten, or twenty, or fifty years to him.”
Do you feel like you’ve exhausted everything you could possibly give, sacrifice, and endure in marriage? Does being married tomorrow feel impossible? Don’t worry about tomorrow. Fix your eyes on God today — on his righteousness, his kingdom, his promises, his resources — and leave the next ten, or twenty, or fifty years to him.
This doesn’t mean good marriages ignore the future. Husbands, in particular, bear a responsibility to look ahead and anticipate opportunities, needs, and dangers, like any good shepherd would. Good marriages require regular forethought and planning. How else could preserve and nurture meaningful, fruitful oneness? Faithful marriages do not ignore the future, but they’re also not anxious about the future. They know they don’t need a lifetime of marital strength and love today; they just need enough for another Sunday, and then another Monday, and then another Tuesday.
God doesn’t call us to predict or bear our future troubles. He calls us to bear today’s troubles in the grace and strength that he provides for today. Look at the birds of the air. Look at the lilies of the field. He will keep your marriage, and strengthen your marriage, and even beautify your marriage — as you each focus most on seeking him. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Jesus says, “and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
Do you want the real key to a healthy and happy marriage? The real key, whether at year seven or year seventy, is to pursue something before and above marriage — to pursue someone before and above your spouse. Blessed are the husbands and wives who hunger and thirst most for righteousness, for they shall be faithful, hopeful, and satisfied.