My first year of marriage was a confusing one as I figured out what it meant to be “one” with my new husband. Contrary to my expectations, reciting my vows and changing my last name did not signal some new, inner transformation in how I felt about my husband. The unity declared over us on our wedding day was a spiritual reality that I would have to live into, and it didn’t all happen automatically.
Since that first day of marriage, God has knit our hearts together more and more, and it has been amazing to experience a marriage that is quite honestly better every day than the one before it. We are a team and he is my best friend. But as I have reflected on the past year and what contributed to my grappling with marital unity, there’s a part of me that wonders if some of it is due, in part, to the way Christians talk about marriage.
For instance, I cannot remember hearing a sermon series or reading a book in the last several years that dealt with marriage without emphasizing the huge differences between men and women. In fact, there was an entire class built into my Preparing for Marriage curriculum at my church that was devoted to this topic.
Of course, there is a good reason for it–husbands and wives are different, not only according to gender lines but also according to individual personalities. And sometimes those differences can create barriers if we don’t understand them. A healthy discussion of differences can actually be a means for putting those differences aside.
However, I’m afraid the conversation has become a bit lop-sided. Although there is a lot of teaching about male and female differences, there is not a lot of helpful information about what it means to be one. Yes, we’re different, but marriage is about the fusing of two separate entities into a glorious, new creation, not fixating on that which separates us.
The reason this concerns me is that our very nature is one of individualism and selfishness. So easily I fall into discussions about how Ike “just doesn’t understand” my female side, such as why I like to sit and have long conversations with my friends without doing anything else, or why I ask him so many questions about how his friends are doing. It’s so tempting for women to bond over the silly or “stupid” things that their husbands do and laugh about how different men are from women.
But whenever I play that game, I not only feel like it doesn’t give Ike a fair shake, but that I belittle my marriage just a touch in the process. Whenever I focus on how different we are, I feel less connected to my husband.
Which is why I propose that we think more carefully about this approach to marriage education. As I mentioned, the topic of male-female differences can be a helpful tool in teaching spouses how to better understand and love one another, but it is does not constitute a robust teaching on marital union. As humans, it is our nature to fight the intimacy and connectedness that is a vital part of marriage, so we need to equip couples with the knowledge and skills to strengthen their marriages and be spiritually united with one another.
With that in mind, the most helpful analogy we can look to is that of our own salvation. Rather than focus on our differences, Christ died for his bride, the church, and brought her into perfect union with himself. And rather than focus on the difference of our inadequacy and sin before God, the church loves and surrenders to her bridegroom, Christ. These two entities become one through mutual commitment and sacrifice, but the union does not end there. It is not a stagnant unity that simply fuses together once and for all, and then the effort is done. In Christian salvation our unity with God through Christ grows ever deeper as we actively pursue God and He actively pursues us.
Occasionally, the vast difference between us can cause discouragement or shame on the part of the Christian, but we must not focus on that. We must press on in our love for God, knowing He is always waiting to embrace us. And as we do, we are transformed more and more into conformity with Him. Our spiritual unity becomes increasingly reflected in our lives.
I find that to be a helpful image with which married couples might start. If my marriage is to reflect my spiritual unity with my husband, it is something I must be deliberate about and pursue with diligence, in much the same way I pursue Christ. And as I do, I delight more and more to think about the powerful grace that unites me and my husband, namely Christ, instead of being defined by that which divides us.