This is the fear to which Paul gives voice in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, and it is reasonable to suppose love for a specific person could distract us from love for God. But 1 John 4:20 shows love for people is, in fact, a necessary indicator that one loves God, and Ephasians 5:21-33 strongly implies this principle applies to marriage just as much as it does to other relationships (if not more than).
It seems to me that what we need are a suite of marital disciplines—“practices, relationships, and experiences” which reframe marriage in terms of God’s purposes, which mentor participants in the practical art of love, and which make room for the Spirit’s presence and activity. These disciplines are not the same as those suggested by mental health professionals, although they can work hand-in-hand with such habits of life. The practices we have in mind are those that explicitly connect people with God, with love, and with one another. Below is a list of marital disciplines I have found helpful, along with some reflections on their importance and some suggestions about how to make them part of your marriage.
The first discipline is suggested by Paul himself (1 Corinthians 7:2-7). As the venerable apostle points out, being sexually active with our spouse keeps us from falling into sin, but it has other benefits, too. It reminds us we are embodied creatures, that even the most sacred of activities unavoidably involve our corporeal nature. It reminds us those bodies do not belong to us. They belong to our spouse, just as they also belong to our Lord (cf. Romans 12:1). And it reminds us of the affection and admiration which binds us together as a couple. Age or health may restrict our ability to be physically intimate, but in all other cases, this is the foundational discipline we must cultivate.
Secondly, couples should endeavor to do meaningful work together. It does not matter whether the task is as simple as buying groceries or as arduous as clearing undergrowth. The act of working together helps a couple merge their lives into a cohesive whole. It also helps them see one another both as uniquely gifted and as limited in their capacities. In other words, it gives them the opportunity to value one another’s work while also seeing the ways in which they need one another.
Couples learn to love and be loved when they open themselves up to one another on a regular basis. This means sharing our deepest longings, our most painful struggles, and our highest aspirations with one another. It also means listening with empathy as our spouses share these same things with us.
This is not always easy to do, especially for men. What makes these conversations so difficult is that they expose us to the possibility of rejection. But that is also what makes them necessary. As we experience our spouse’s consistent acceptance, even in the midst of our brokenness, we catch a glimpse of God’s far more lavish grace. And that, in turn, makes it more likely that we will come to God with all of ourselves and not hide in shame.
Since these conversations can be difficult, you may have to get creative about how you make them happen. I feel most comfortable expressing myself in writing, so sometimes I write my wife long emails when I want to talk about something that is close to my heart. You might want to use an art project, a poem, or a song to do the same.
Another trick is to talk while you are doing something together (see “Shared Work” above). Youth ministers and social workers teach parents to do this with their children, but it can work with our spouses, too. The process of having a “third thing” (as my wife likes to call it) that you can each focus on takes some of the tension out of the conversation. It helps people be vulnerable without feeling exposed.
Service and Sacrifice
Couples make room for God when they dedicate themselves to serving one another and to sacrificing on one another’s behalf. Little acts of kindness are not so little, for they form the foundation of a life of love. Consider what it would mean if you always took care of your spouse’s needs before you addressed your own. Reflect upon how you would change, and how your relationship would change, if you always offered your spouse the best of what was available.
This will not always be a pleasant experience. People, and men in particular, can be dishearteningly good at ignoring the kindnesses that come their way. But keep at it. You are not only offering your mate the opportunity to experience love, but you are also revealing the selfish parts of your own heart. And as those are revealed, you have the opportunity to submit them freely to Christ.
Each of us must have our own life with God, but all of us who are married must also cultivate a shared life with our Savior. Prayer, worship, fasting, service, and other disciplines must be our common possession, and we must work with one another to get all that God wants us to receive out of these “practices, relationships, and experiences.”
As with spiritual disciplines, marital disciplines do not work automatically. They simply provide space for God to show us our true selves, to lavish His love upon us, and to transform our hearts. What God does with those opportunities is up to Him.