In the first post (Christians in Relationship 1) I presented an overview of Ephesians 4:17-32 as the heart of developing Christian relationships. This also forms the basis for marriage relationships. In other words, how do Paul’s words apply specifically to those who plan to marry or who are married and are struggling?
I use the following diagram as a starting point and work through the relationship from two perspectives.
On the left side is the worldly pattern of establishing and building a relationship; on the right is the Biblical perspective for doing so.
Left Side: Worldly Pattern
Dating: In a worldly approach to relationships the dating phase is physically oriented, most often focused on outward appearances. There is an attraction of some kind on the part of both people. In today’s world that often means the beginnings of a sexual relationship.
As many point out to me, sexual intercourse is the expectation very soon in a relationship. If that doesn’t happen, then questions arise about the other person, and most often about the person himself or herself. Performance becomes critical. In my work with couples the issue is not about the other person, but “How am I performing?” (with the fear of being compared to others).
Engagement: As the couple moves into the Engagement phase, then the focus is on mind, will, and emotions. Here the people begin to know each other in various situations. One learns what makes the other happy, angry, how they speak to and treat one another. During this phase, there can be some heated arguments, what I call “knock-down, drag out fights” (not physically but emotionally). The method of “resolving” the conflict is often by having passionate sex. This leads to the assumption that things will work out because “we have found how well we work through our problems.”
Marriage: In the marriage phase the focus is on the spiritual. Will we have a church wedding? Will the sanctuary be beautiful enough for lasting memories. The first 2-3 years seem idyllic. But then move five years into the future, and see what changes take place. At that point what happens when there is a “knock-down, drag out fight”? Now instead of sex being the soothing balm to reconcile, it becomes the weapon: “You think we are having sex after that? Not on your life!”
Sadly, the pattern that seemed so exciting, soothing, and satisfying now sets the pattern for frustration, anger, and separation. In my experience, such emotions and responses are the stepping stones to divorce.
In my work with married couples on that side of the diagram, they look at me with surprise. Why? Because they recognize the pattern they followed in their relationship. Many times I have heard them exclaim “How did you know?”
Right Side: Biblical Pattern
Then I follow the right side of the diagram and walk them through the same three phases. In this perspective Ephesians 4:17-32 plays the crucial role. The assumption on this perspective is that both people have a right relationship with God, knowing that they are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
At the very beginning, then, the relationship involves three, not two: man, woman, and Christ. The one person recognizes that the other person is perfectly holy, righteous in God’s sight because of Jesus Christ. They both recognize that they are also 100% saint and 100% sinner. Sin is not absent, but it is dealt with in a Biblical way:
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9 NAS)
and especially in the context of Ephesians:
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Eph. 4:32 NAS)
Such an approach then is not demanding or expecting the other person to meet your needs. Rather, you help the other person find their spiritual and emotional needs/desires in Christ. This approach gives freedom to both and the best way to resolve problems.
Dating: The relationship develops on the basis of how to speak to one another, and about one another. Respect, appreciation, and concern for the other person comes first. Thus, according to Eph. 4:25-27 anger is not resolved by having sex, but speaking the truth in love. That means addressing both the anger and the underlying issue.
Of course, this approach requires listening to each other, not just to words, but emotions/background as well. The other key point about speaking and listening is how far do the boundaries of the argument extend. In other words, Paul writes:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,a but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Eph. 4:29 (NIV)
Thus the argument is not helped by bringing in family or friends. That only compounds the problems and leads to distancing rather resolution. If sin is involved then each person goes back to 1 John 1:8-9 and Ephesians 4:32.
Engagement: In this phase, the process of developing relationships is strengthened and tested. In other words, the proverbial “knock-down, drag out fight” is met head-on with confession and forgiveness (liturgically, absolution). Resolving is not achieved through someone winning, but through Christ and forgiveness. This frees up the couple to deal with the hard issues of mind, will, and emotions that can be debilitating.
Marriage: Now the relationship moves to the joining of husband and wife physically. In this approach, sex becomes a reflection of the love they have for each other based on their relationship to Christ. Now five years later when another major “knock-down, drag out fight”occurs, the resolution is confession and forgiveness. This, then, frees up sex to be not a “solution” but a demonstration of the solution of forgiveness and love in Christ.
About this time the couple (whether married or considering marriage) begins to despair. The usual question is: “What can be done, since we began on the left side, following the worldly model?”
Here is the astounding good news for them: No matter where they are on the left side of the diagram, confession and forgiveness bring about a new reality; they start over on the right side. Many pre-marital couples then commit themselves to not having sex again until marriage. A few will say “But we love each so much, how can we do this?” That question actually is “me-directed” not “you-directed.” So I ask, “How much do you love this other person?” The typical response is: “I love her/him so much!” Then I ask, “Do you love the person enough not to have sex?” Notice that moves the love from self-centered expression to other-centered.
Over the past 28 years I have seen couples moving to the divorce court who have come through this process, and the divorce court no longer becomes their solution. I continue to work with couples as they learn to develop a love based on confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. So also, with those contemplating marriage.
This approach takes time, because the world pattern and influence is invasive, persistent, and seductive. This means that not just the pastor but every Christian has to encourage, support, and teach the Biblical pattern. And if sin is involved, then we don’t hold it over someone’s head, but forgive, restore, and continue to help them grow in their relationship with Christ and one another.