Do you ever think about what makes your marriage a “Christian” marriage? Is it the fact that we go to church, pray, or read our Bible together with our spouse? Is it because of the couples retreats we’ve been to or that, as husbands, we’re trying to lead our families, or, as wives, you’re trying to submit to your husband’s leadership? Could a couple still do all of those things and yet fail to have a truly “Christian” marriage?
A theme that resounds through Dave Harvey’s new book on marriage, When Sinner Say “I Do”, is that the heart of a truly “Christian” marriage is found in its commitment to the Gospel. A marriage built on the foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be a “Christian” marriage. A relationship in which the Gospel is worked out and worked through is a relationship that manifests and embraces Christ. A marriage like that is a marriage that is truly “Christ-ian,” one that reveals and glorifies Him.
But what does it look like to have a marriage saturated with the Gospel? Does that mean you exchange tracts instead of greeting cards on Valentines Day? Does it mean romantic evenings at Billy Graham Crusades or taking your wife out for a leisurely evening of door-to-door witnessing?
As enticing as that all sounds, Harvey’s book paints a far different (and more powerful) picture of a Gospel saturated marriage. A marriage that clings to the Gospel is a relationship in which sin is acknowledged, mercy and forgiveness are embraced, and Christ’s work on the Cross becomes the defining center for all of a couple’s actions and attitudes. And this beautiful picture is unfolded and dissected in the pages of When Sinners Say “I Do”.
In its opening salvo, this book veers off the course traveled by so many marriage books you might find at the Christian book store and it really dives into the heart of the issue. Harvey lays his foundation with this phrase: “What we believe about God determines the quality of our marriage.” When you really think about it, that statement is as profound as it is simple. Too many of us think that the key to a great marriage is having our needs met or clearly understanding our roles. When Sinners Say “I Do” explains that what really unlocks things between a husband and wife is a right view of God, one that confesses that “I am the worst sinner I know,” understands that I daily experience overwhelming grace from God, and embraces my marriage relationship as a wonderful opportunity for me to show to another the mercy and forgiveness that God has shown to me.
Let me give you an example of what this looks like.
In chapter 4 (“Taking it Out for a Spin”), Harvey gives four practical ways we can apply our correct theology (that right belief about God) to a moment of conflict. To begin with, since I have a sinful heart that is often bent on my own wants and desires, in the moment of conflict I need to humbly suspect myself first. Harvey explains:
True humility is living confident in Christ’s righteousness, and suspicious of our own […] We should be suspicious- selectively, permanently, and internally. As the worst of sinners in the day-to-day conflicts of marriage, I should be primarily suspicious and regularly suspicious of myself! To be suspicious of my own heart is to acknowledge two things: that my heart has a central role in my behavior, and that my heart has a permanent tendency to oppose God and his ways.
But, if we truly suspect ourselves as the source in (or at least contributing member of) a conflict, the next step is to, in integrity, inspect ourselves. Here Harvey turns our attention to Matthew 7:3-5, with this penetrating description attached:
Imagine a husband, railroad tie protruding from his face, attempting to remove a dust particle from his wife’s eye. He will have whacked her silly long before he can address her speck. Just approaching her brings pain.
Too often, in that moment of conflict, I am suspecting her first and (beam protruding from my face) whacking her senseless as I try to help her correct her error. In that moment, I have lost sight of what the Gospel tells me about myself and about how I am supposed to approach others! Convicting, isn’t it? And this is only the second step!
The third step (“Third Gear” as Harvey puts it) is “Admit that Circumstances Only Reveal Existing Sin.” The book gives the follow two real-life examples. See if you recognize yourself in these:
Husbands, you jump in the car only to find (sigh) that the gas gauge you’ve reminded your wife about (hmmff) is on empty again (seethe). What’s happening? Has your spouse sinned against you? Maybe, or maybe not. The complaint and contempt that’s filling your mind- is that caused by a gas gauge or by your wife? No, it’s simply showing you the impatience that was already in the engine of your heart. The heat just stirred it up and made it obvious.
Wives, for the hundredth time (eyes roll) he has walked up the steps (groan) without touching the pile of clothes that obviously needs to be taken upstairs (disgusted gaze). What’s happening as the accusation, “at least he’s consistent at being lazy,” slips out under your breath? The engine’s heating, the cap is loose, and an oil spill is on its way!
When the engine of our heart heats up, it reveals what is already in the engine. So in conflict, I need to realize that my reaction has less to do with her and more to do with what is already resident in my heart.
Do you see how just running mentally through these first three steps (taking the Gospel and bringing it to bear on our relationships) would drastically transform the way conflicts are handled in marriages? Well, hold on, because the fourth step is going to push your thinking even further.
After we’ve been faithful with the first three steps, Harvey explains that a Christian needs to direct his or her focus, in the moment of conflict, not to unmet needs (where we most often camp!) but towards undeserved grace:
It is not wrong to desire appropriate things like respect or affection from our spouses. But it is very tempting to justify demands by thinking of them as needs and then to punish one another if those needs are not satisfied. A needs based marriage does not testify to God’s glory; it is focused on personal demands competing for supremacy. Two people, preoccupied with manipulating each other to meet needs, can drive their marriage down the path of “irreconcilable differences.” […] The road of unmet needs leads to nowhere. It is a forlorn, one-lane stretch of me. All it leads to is more of me. It’s worse than a dead end, it is a circle that never ends. But sinners who say “I do” have a different road to travel. It is a road of astonishing, undeserved grace- a grace so remarkable that it shows us the problem and then delivers the solution.
And from there, Harvey shows how the Gospel helps us to tackle both the big and the small of marital life. He addresses issues as wide and varied as sex, the death of a spouse, adultery, dirty socks, puking kids, and helping each other gain victory over sin. Each issue is brought to the Cross and the solutions that are presented are what should be found in a marriage that is “truly” Christian.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is truly a treasure and those of you who purchase it won’t be disappointed. One word of warning, however. At times it is a very convicting book, so make sure you share the joy and get two copies- one for you and one for your spouse!