While advice, teaching, and wisdom concerning staying together (avoiding divorce) as married Christians can be very useful, let us move on to the subject of growing in the Lord as couples. Rather than just staying together, can we actually grow in the grace of Christ together? Let us be honest, typically we see just the opposite of this, do we not? Even couples who have "good marriages" often seem to drift from the way of the Lord.
This is likely to be a tough and meaty message for some, so chew slowly and do not expect an easy read. Please prayerfully consider what follows in view of Jesus Christ and what He has lovingly done for us, and how He has commanded us to live as a result.
Rom 12:1b-2 (Phi) I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don't let the world squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-make you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed.Most mature believers I know learned in the early days of their spiritual life how to subdue the flesh, how to say "No" to the lower nature, and take up their cross daily in death to self. Paul, using the gruesome image of a "living sacrifice", points out that this is the reasonable thing to do if we have apprehended the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we falter or fail at this daily discipline, then spiritual progress is completely stunted.
Titus 2:11-12 (NIV) For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.This is the "obedience to the gospel" spoken of in Scripture (1Pet 4:17, 2Thes 1:8). I assume most of my readers will know what the gospel is, but just in case:1 Cor 15:1-4 (NAS) Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.Thus, we call the first four books of the New Testament "Gospels" because they declare that Jesus the Christ died on the cross and was resurrected. Now in these "Gospels", and elsewhere, Jesus says to would-be disciples: "Follow Me".Mark 8:34b-35 (NIV) "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it."To those of you for whom such a review is elementary, I apologize. But if you do not really understand the gospel, what it means to take up a cross or deny yourself in actual experience of death and resurrection in your life, then you will not get much out of this posting. Rather, you might want to read the Bible Studies linked to in this paragraph first.
Spiritual growth in Christ is not possible without learning the spiritual karate of being able to subdue the flesh very quickly, and without mercy, when it wishes to assert itself. For the flesh will find any and every excuse to scramble off of the altar of "living sacrifice" if allowed to. Thus, we must learn to really follow Christ in daily experiential death and resurrection.
Rom 8:13 (NAS) For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.Now there is much teaching and many godly examples of saying "No" and "renouncing" the flesh in an individual sense before the Lord. But what about when two people become "one flesh"?
2Cor 4:10 (NIV) We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
Titus 2:11-12 (Wey) For the grace of God has displayed itself... training us to renounce ungodliness and all the pleasures of this world...
Mat 19:5 (NIV) "...'and the two will become one flesh'..."When we were single, we were encouraged by believers, Scripture, and the Holy Spirit to pinion our quivering flesh to the altar while alive. Let our flesh protest, let it offer a compromise deal, let it scream in pain; for we had "set our face like flint" (Is 50:7) to the things set before us in the Gospel. But now, if I am married, I have two fleshes combined as one, so to speak. And right here is the point. The lusts of the flesh, the pride of life, and the glamour of riches (1Jo 2:16) now have two targets of opportunity in this "one-flesh".
Interestingly, considering the modern silence on this important Christian issue of practical spiritual maturity, the largest section in all of the Bible concerning marriage--1 Corinthians chapter 7--is about just this problem. The insights that Paul gives us in 1 Cor 7 are decidedly dismal in prospect for married people--which matches the reality we see all around--but I do not think it must be so if we could learn the skills necessary to "put to death the flesh" when the flesh is two people joined as "one flesh".
For if we will not obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ in life through death, then no matter what we say or no matter what else we do we are not following the Lord. As Jesus put it, we are "unfit for the Kingdom of Heaven" (Lu 9:62). And marriage certainly tends to distract us from the gospel, for it seems cruel or un-romantic to do anything but indulge the flesh in our mates.
This is what I call the "downside of one-flesh". For as an individual I can thwart my flesh and easily see this as Spirit led obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ by grace. But to apply the gospel to my wife or husband? Why, the "spirit of the age" would throw a fit at such! Modern Christians seem to have no idea how to deal with the two-into-one-flesh problem.
While we have failed to consider the application of the gospel in our marriages, the world has not meanwhile been silent. Our society defines "romance" and chivalry for us in just the opposite direction: indulgence of the flesh. For the world tells us that love has nothing at all to do with anything gruesome like a "living sacrifice", love is rather a capitulation to worldly concerns and a coddling of the flesh in our mates. In this culture, romantic love has nothing to do with being "trained to say 'No' by grace", but rather a sowing to the flesh instead. Yet scripture tells us: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds."
Gal 5:24 (Wey) Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their lower nature with its passions and appetites.So let us consider our way. If the gospel of self-denial is good enough for us as individuals, is there "another way" to be saved for our spouses? If we as individuals gain power, glory, life, peace with God, and fruit of the Spirit by violent living sacrifice experientially day by day, will it be different for our "other flesh"? If we love them, will we not say "No" to worldly lusts within them... since we are really, in God's sight, "one flesh"?
Given the 2:1 disadvantage for those married in terms of fleshly access and temptation, Paul gives us the following warnings in the chapter mentioned earlier. Married couples and churches generally avoid this section of Scripture like the plague or attempt to explain it away; but we flippantly cast aside these warnings to our spiritual peril. For 1 Cor 7 rings true, does it not? And if we see how in "one flesh" we now have twice the problem of "putting to death the flesh" then we can perhaps understand what we are up against and begin to learn how to live in "obedience to the gospel" as couples.
1Cor 7:1b,28-35 (NIV) It is good for a man not to marry... But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this... An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs--how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world--how he can please his wife--and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world--how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.I do not believe Paul is saying all marriages are doomed to derail us into "divided interests" or fleshly focus on "the affairs of this world", but is this not the gravity we mostly see all around? Is this not why Christian couples tend to stop growing spiritually, or actually slip downwards? How then, as Paul would say, can we "live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord" if we are married?
Jesus tells us: "That which is of the flesh is flesh" and "We must be born again" into a different kind of life. If we are, the flesh--condemned though it is--will still be with us and reassert itself if we let it. Paul spoke of having to drag around his "body of death" until the physical resurrection. He was speaking of the ongoing proclivity of the "old man" to hanker after sin, even after much growth and maturity in Christ. Thus, it must be put to death daily. Like Paul, we know our flesh must be subdued in ourselves, but somehow we have allowed the world to change the rules for our other flesh.Gal 6:7-8 (NAS) Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.So what is the solution to this? Can we agree NOT to cave to the spirit of this age? Can we learn not to indulge the flesh of our spouse, but rather to apply the gospel?
Rom 12:1-2 (NIV) Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.The world will make you feel like a thug if you do anything but indulge the flesh of your mate. Even those who claim to be serving God might well come against you if you rise above the retarded status-quo. For life in Christ comes through death to self and all its assertions, whether in us or in our mate if we are now one-flesh.
To be sure, flesh does not mean the body. For married people, we are to cater to one another physically (1 Cor 7:3-5). And the flesh is not human needs, for God "knows that we need" (Mat 6:32) and has promised to provide for us, and we should be like Him (1 Tim 5:8) in relationship to each other. The carnal nature--the flesh--has to do with: lust for things beyond need or utility; a craving for more; an obsession with getting something in particular (and all of the rationalizations that go with this) that has caught the eye or heart; an assertion of self; or a clear desire to sin.
As well, the very basis of love is caring for and cherishing one other. As we pour out our lives into others, we participate in the very nature of God, which is love. This is especially so in marriage. But this nurturing, cherishing and "other focus" (love) must light upon the eternal, and that which God has consecrated (our bodies); not our carnal natures or "flesh".
Rom 12:9 (Wey) Let your love be perfectly sincere. Regard with horror what is evil; cling to what is right.The world would steer us to cherish and nurture the most depraved and worst elements of each other under the auspices of "love". Instead, if we truly, eternally, care for one another, we will abhor what is sin and that which would "so easily hinder" (Heb 12:1) as a distraction, idol, or flesh-out. For if we truly love our own souls, this is how we will live ourselves, not indulging the flesh but denying it. And if we truly love our spouses, we will of necessity "regard with horror" that which would strangle the eternal life out of us (Mat 4:19), rather than accommodate it or actively encourage it.
Eph 5:28-29 (NAS) Husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church.How does Jesus love us? Does He indulge our carnal whims and satisfy our fleshly desires? No, rather, He tells us to die to self: that is how He loves us. He tells us to pick up a splintered, painful, and humiliating cross and follow Him. He meets our needs and tells us to kill off our carnal desires. If we follow His way of love, He showers us with spiritual blessings extraordinaire and eternal life. He pours His Spirit out on our flesh. This is the way of love and life. It is the very gospel itself. For love must be sincere, and if it is we will hate evil, not encourage it (Rom 12:9). Thus, the most nourishing and cherishing thing to do for the flesh, ultimately, is to "reckon it dead", as Christ has shown us in living example.
Can we, will we, love each other "as Christ"? He has "demonstrated His love for us" by His death, and would have us throw-off worldly ideas of what love is. Jesus does not force us to follow Him, generally, but instead beckons us to follow, and gives no quarter, excuse, or accommodation for the flesh. If we want to do this or that in the flesh, He plainly says "No". If we want to serve Him and money, or we wish to "store up" things, or even to go bury our father... He pits these things in sharp contrast to following Him and gives us a solemn choice. And it is no different for married people than for single. He says if we seek to save the dying vestiges of our lives, we will lose them eternally, but if we give ourselves over to the living death of the gospel which brings peace with God, we will live instead.
Why, when it comes to thinking about marriage, are we blinded to the central theme of the universe, the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Again, if the gospel is good enough for you or me as an individual, and by it we have the only means by which to receive the life of Christ in actual fact--which we have seen "work" in others, know is taught in Scripture, and have lived in real-life experience--then why would it not "work" just as well for our mates? Shall we aim to be saved ourselves by the gospel of Jesus Christ, but foist damnation on our spouses by not applying what works to them as well? As "one-flesh", if our other half is strong in the flesh (perhaps by our encouragement) will this not drag us down as well? Well then, shall we continue to "sow to the flesh" as the world would have us, or will we dare to learn how to engage each other in such a way as to discourage the marriage flesh-outs we see all around, and learn instead to encourage obedience to follow Christ "unto death" in our mates?
Mark 4:18-19 (NKJ) "Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful."There is only one way for humans to be saved and experience the life of Christ, and that is by saying "No" to the carnal instincts of the flesh, and sowing to the Spirit instead. This is what grace teaches us to do, and it is impossible to grow in the Lord without doing it His way. Should this not, then, be the central focus of our teaching about marriage, since it appears that some spell has fallen over the church as regards to the reality of the situation?
Note that Paul does not define the problem of carnal focus as only applying to husbands, (1Cor 7:32-34) but rather equally a spiritual snare for wives. It goes both ways. For example, if either spouse becomes greedy for money and the other does not steer the one fleshing-out towards repentance--perhaps thinking the extra money from such carnal energy would be nice--then the outcome for both will be spiritual ruin. (1Tim 6:10, Col 3:5) If either husband or wife becomes overly fixated with future planning contingencies--which is worrying--then spiritual poverty is in the future. (Lk 12:22-34). If either-half of the "one-flesh" is given license to "store up treasures on this earth" then both hearts will be led astray from the Lord. (Mat 6:19-21) For we are inextricably in this together.
Heb 12:1b (NIV) Therefore... let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles...Will you dare swim against the tide of this world and the general "way of all flesh" for married couples that Paul warned was an almost inevitable snare? What will it be like to repent from the world-spirit in this regard? Will you be persecuted if you try? (Count the cost...) Are there any examples around you that you could follow or counsel with? How really has Christ loved us? What is the way of the Lord? Will you join us in the quest to see the gospel actualized in a marriage?
Rom 1:16 (NIV) I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes...Marriage Counseling Index
1Cor 1:17,23-24 (NIV) For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God... But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
2Tim 1:8 (NIV) So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord... But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.
Titus 2:11-12 (NAS) For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.