The Most Important Text on Marriage
June 29. We couldn’t help but enjoy all the free publicity Apple was giving to our special day.
It was the spring of 2007, and our upcoming wedding date was plastered on billboards and seemed to appear just about everywhere online and in print ads. Months before we had landed on this date for our wedding. But long before that, the tech giant had pinpointed June 29, 2007, for the much-celebrated release of a new device called the “iPhone.”
So, on the same day, ten years ago now, we debuted with the iPhone. We promised each other, “Till death do us part,” and thought we’d easily outlast this new iPod with a monthly phone bill. We’ll see. The iPhone may still be strong a decade later, but our for-life vows to each other are much firmer than a for-profit’s commitment to a product, even if it has sold more than a billion units in ten years.
One, Simple, Impossible Verse
Ephesians 5:22–33 is the classic Bible text on marriage. It’s a critical place for Christian couples to regularly return to get their bearings. It’s often read at weddings, and often referenced in articles, sermons, and books on marriage. But in our ten years of marriage, it has not been the most significant biblical passage for us. If I had to pick one, it would come a few verses earlier, before the focus turns explicitly to marriage. It’s just one, simple verse:
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Looking back on our ten years, what we have needed most hasn’t been the pointed charge to love and submit (important as they are!), or the popular vision of love in 1 Corinthians 13 (wonderful as it is!). And what we’ve needed most hasn’t been practical tips and techniques from veteran counselors and famous Christian couples. What we’ve needed most is to learn to be Christians — with all that entails — as we live with each other inside a covenant.
Even though Ephesians 4:32 isn’t explicitly about marriage, it’s been the single most important verse for us because it’s a penetrating summons to being Christian in a way that is especially poignant in the daily rough and tumble of marriage.
Be Kind to Each Other
As for marital tips and techniques, new research is discovering the power of what Ephesians 4:32 has said for almost two millennia. For the last four decades, psychologist John Gottman has been watching married couples — both “the masters” and “the disasters,” as he calls them. What makes the difference between a great marriage and a bad one? When Gottman boils it down to one thing, he says kindness.
Gottman and his wife have observed the regular “requests for connection” couples make to each other throughout any given day — call them “bids.” They are the small talk we make as we ride together in the car, or take a walk, or sit together over dinner. Each bid is an opportunity to “connect, however momentarily.” Spouses can respond to these bids for emotional connection by “turning toward” each other or “turning away.”
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t — those who turned away — would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.” (“Masters of Love”)
But how do we cultivate such kindness when we have no simple switch just to turn it on? The Gottmans’ guidance only takes us so far. They commend ways to practice kindness: “being generous about your partner’s intentions” or “connecting over each other’s good news” (pursuing “shared joys”), but the researchers can’t drill much deeper than more specific external actions.
What’s missing is a pathway for internal transformation. How does an unkind heart change?
Where secular research comes to its end, God has more to say than simply “be kind.” Ephesians 4:32 doesn’t leave us at the level of behavior. Are kind words and actions essential? Absolutely. But where do they come from? Not mere willpower, but a tender heart.
We chose Colossians 3:12 as a reading at our wedding: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” God not only calls us to kind actions and words, but to a certain heart: a kind heart, a tender heart — what Colossians 3:12 calls “compassionate hearts.” God doesn’t mean for us to merely produce kind actions, but to have the heart to back it up.
The word for “tenderhearted” in Ephesians 4:32 appears twice in the New Testament. The other place is 1 Peter 3:8–9:
All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.
It’s another spot-on text for marriage that’s not just about marriage, but the whole Christian life. Or to flip it around, the most common problem in “disaster” marriages, according to the Gottmans, is contempt. And contempt is in the heart. Beneath actions that are unkind, or “mean” (to talk in terms of a common marital complaint), is the feeling of deep frustration and low-grade anger called contempt. But a “tender heart” is the opposite of such inner hardness toward each other. Contempt produces meanness, but a “tender heart” or “compassionate heart” produces genuine kindness.
Ask yourself, is my prevailing heart-orientation toward my spouse one of compassion or frustration?
Forgiving One Another
Marriage in this age is always marriage to another sinner. Acknowledgment, confession, and forgiveness of sin will be a regular part of any authentic marriage. Expect to find something unforgiven beneath a heart of marital contempt.
Now, forgiveness is not the same as trust. Marriage is the most intimate of human relationships, and with that comes its explosive potential for betrayal and hurt. The call to forgive is not a call to feign trust. Sin has consequences; trust is quickly lost and slowly restored. But for the Christian, we never have a reason to withhold forgiveness.
No human, even our spouse, has wronged us as much as we have wronged God, and if we claim the name of Christ, we claim he has forgiven us.
Part of what it means for me as a husband to be head of our marriage is that God calls me to go ahead and apologize first. I cannot recall a single instance in ten years in which any tangle was totally her fault. In our spats, tensions, and run-ins, we’re not always equally at fault, but we both have been imperfect and sinful in some way. I always have some problem in me to identify and confess. My calling as a husband is not to save face, but have the egg on my face first.
What We’ve Needed Most
What makes the vision of Ephesians 4:32 distinctively Christian is those last six words: “. . . as God in Christ forgave you.” It all starts with our Father’s heart and actions of forgiveness toward us. Kindness toward each other begins with God’s kindness toward us in Christ. God has forgiven me, therefore I can forgive her. Therefore, my heart can be tender, compassionate — not just in general, but specifically toward her. Therefore, I can act with kindness.
Ultimately, it is the kindness of God that melts an unforgiving spirit, softens a hard heart, and transforms unkind actions.
What we’ve needed most in our ten years has been to be Christian toward each other. And what’s been most catalytic is kindness. Greater than any need for my wife to hear the charge to submit has been my hearing the charge to be kind to her — because of how kind God has been to me.