I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:1–3
Every marriage goes through tests and crises, but these can bring about an increase in love, and every new couple should remember this. True love provides the strength needed to meet every test. It means deeds, acts of serving one another in humble, mutual submission. True love is born of the Holy Spirit.
Often we overlook the depth of this truth. We tend either to dismiss true love as some sort of flimsy fairy tale or to focus so much energy on finding it that we miss it entirely. But the true love that stems from the Holy Spirit is not brought about by human effort. A married couple who experiences its blessings will notice their love increasing with each passing year, regardless of the trials they may encounter. Decades into their marriage, they will still find joy in making each other happy. As Jean, an acquaintance who has been married for over forty years, writes, expressions of love do not require much fanfare. Often the simplest gesture says the most.
My husband, Chad, and I have gone through many struggles in our relationship with each other, and with our children. Yet through it all our love has grown stronger. Again and again we marvel at the gift God gave us in each other. I do not believe that our relationship could ever exist without romance – the little joys or surprises we make for each other are what confirm and renew our love time and again. I am always happily surprised when Chad, who is a writer, presents me with a poem or brings home flowers for our table. And how he loves it when I have a cup of coffee or fresh-baked cookies ready for him at the end of the day.
We have discovered that nothing is more reviving than a good laugh as we recount the day’s little experiences to each other, or when he pulls my leg about something…It is true that marriage is a serious commitment for life, yet I think we can also be very childlike about it and trust in God’s leading, taking one step at a time. We stumble along; we make our mistakes; we have our disagreements and arguments. But afterwards we love each other all the more.
The Spirit opens up an entirely different plane of experience.
When two people seek to have a deeper, more intimate relationship, they usually do so in terms of mutual emotions, common values, shared ideas, and a feeling of goodwill toward each other. Without despising these, we must recognize that the Holy Spirit opens up an entirely different plane of experience between husband and wife.
Certainly, marital love based on the excitement of emotion can be wonderful, but it can all too quickly become desperate and unhappy. In the long run it is an unstable foundation. Love gains certainty and firmness only when it is ruled by the Spirit.
If we seek only the unity and love that is possible on a human level, we remain like clouds drifting and suspended. When we seek unity in the Spirit, God can ignite in us a faithful love that can endure to the end. The Spirit burns away everything that cannot endure. He purifies our love. True love does not originate from within ourselves, but is poured out over us.
Marriage in the Holy Spirit is a covenant of faithfulness. Where there is no loyalty, there is no true love nor real happiness. In our society, marriages are being tested as never before, but this should refine and increase our commitment to one another. Faithfulness springs from the inward certainty of our calling. It comes from a joyful submission to God’s plan.
In his Confession of Faith (1540), the Anabaptist Peter Riedemann describes God’s order for marriage as encompassing three levels. First is the marriage of God to his people, of Christ to his church, and of the Spirit to our spirit (1 Cor. 6:17). Second is the community of God’s people among themselves – justice and common fellowship in spirit and soul. Third is the unity between one man and one woman (Eph. 5:31), which “is visible to and understandable by all.” 1
Unity of faith is the surest basis for marriage.
Paul the Apostle also draws a parallel between marriage and spiritual unity when he tells husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). For Christians, marriage is a reflection of the deepest unity: the unity of God and his church. In a Christian marriage, therefore, it is the unity of God’s kingdom, in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, that matters most. Ultimately, it is the only sure foundation on which a marriage can be built. “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).
Marriage should always lead two believing people closer to Jesus and his kingdom. It is not good enough for a couple to get married in a church or by a minister. To be drawn nearer to Christ, they must first be fully dedicated as individuals to the spirit of God’s kingdom, and to the church community that serves it and stands under its direction. First there must be heart-felt unity of faith and spirit. Only then will there be true unity of soul and body as well.
This is why (at least traditionally) so many churches have been reluctant to bless the union of a member with a spouse who does not share his or her faith in Christ (2 Cor. 6:14). (In Ezra, chapters 9 and 10, we read how the prophet had to come before God and repent deeply on behalf of all the Israelites because they were marrying women from pagan nations.) On the one hand, these churches believe that anyone who is drawn by the love and justice professed by a truly Christian church will not remain an “outsider.” On the other hand, they feel that a marriage between a member and a person not drawn to the church and the basic premises of its beliefs would lack the spiritual unity necessary for a secure marriage bond.
If, however, a person already married to someone of a different faith wished to join the church, I as a pastor would do my utmost to preserve the marriage, as long as the new member did not feel hindered in faith by his or her spouse.
When the love of a man and a woman who desire to be married is dedicated to the Holy Spirit and placed under his rule and direction – when it serves the unity and justice of God’s kingdom – there is no reason why the two should not marry. But when a couple lacks spiritual unity, marriage in the church should be out of the question. If the church is truly the Body of Christ, the unity of its members under God must come before everything else.
Here it should be said that the demands of a godly marriage can never be met by a human system of answers or solved by means of principles, rules, and regulations. They can be grasped only in the light of God’s unity, by those who have experienced his Spirit, accepted it personally, and begun to live in accordance with it.
The very essence of God’s will is unity. This is why Jesus, in his last prayer, prayed that his followers would be one, just as he and the Father were one (John 17:20–23). It was God’s will for unity that brought Pentecost to the world. Through the outpouring of the Spirit, people’s hearts were struck, and they repented and were baptized. The fruits of their new life were not only spiritual. The material and practical aspects of their lives, too, were affected and even revolutionized. Goods were collected and sold, and the proceeds were laid at the feet of the apostles. Everyone wanted to give all they had out of love. Yet no one suffered want, and everyone received what he or she needed. Nothing was held back. There were no laws or principles to govern this revolution. Not even Jesus said exactly how it should be brought about, only, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21). At Pentecost it simply happened: the Spirit descended and united the hearts and lives of those who believed (Acts 2:42–47).
The Spirit frees us from pettiness and brings unity of heart.
Genuine unity, like joy or love, cannot be forced or created artificially. Only the Spirit can bring unity. Only the Spirit can free us from our pettiness and from the forces of guilt and sin that divide us from God and from each other. With our own wills we can certainly try to free ourselves from these forces, and we may be able to overcome them to a certain degree and for a certain period of time. But we should remember that ultimately only the spirit of love can overcome the flesh.
Again, we must never forget our dependence on the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:25). Even within a marriage, if our relationship is based only on mutual feelings or common values and not on the Spirit, it runs the risk of being swallowed up by the erotic and emotional. We ourselves are not capable of bringing about the spiritual unity in which two hearts become one. That can happen only when we allow ourselves to be gripped and transformed by something greater than ourselves.
When a marriage is anchored in the Holy Spirit, both partners will feel that their love is not a private possession but a fruit and gift of God’s all-embracing love. They will still have to combat selfishness, superficiality, or other disorders, but if they keep their hearts open, the Spirit will always lift their eyes to God and his help.
The Spirit must come to each of us, whether married or unmarried, again and again. God wants to transform everything in our hearts and give us the strength to love. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance. Love will never come to an end.” Love is born of the Holy Spirit, and only in the Spirit can a true marriage be conceived – and endure.
1. Cf. John J. Friesen, trsl. and ed., Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999), 127.