February 2009 – “Let me give you a Biblical view of marriage. Here it is: It’s a flawed person married to a flawed person in a fallen world but with a faithful God.”
Using words such as flawed, fallen, sin and war to describe marriage is counter-cultural in a society that identifies romance as the root of matrimonial bliss. But according to preacher, teacher, leader and author Dr. Paul Tripp, a marriage of unity, love and understanding is rooted in worship – “the most life-shaping aspect of marriage,” which comes from the heart – “the causal core of your personhood.”
Therefore it is crucial to understand what happens in the hearts of two sinners who say “I do” in a broken world.
Married for 37 years, Tripp spent 20 years counseling couples, and now he devotes much of his time to teaching. As president of Paul Tripp Ministries, his purpose is “to place the truths of the Gospel – the person and the work of Jesus Christ – in the middle of the messy and confusing situations and relationships in which every person lives.”
Below, in an interview with the AFA Journal, Tripp highlights Gospel-focused advice for understanding marriage.
AFA Journal: Why do so many people lack a Gospel-centered view of marriage?
Paul Tripp: The problem begins with unrealistic expectations in two areas: First, people don’t take seriously the fact that we live in a terribly broken world where things just don’t operate the way they were meant to. That means somehow, someway, everyday we greet some kind of difficulty – small or great. It’s just impossible to protect your marriage from the fallenness of the world. The second thing is we don’t take seriously what the Bible has to say about the fallenness of people – our own struggle with sin. I carry into my marriage something inside of me that is destructive to relationships. Sin makes me want to live for myself. Sin is self-focused, self-serving, self-absorbed, and, in that way, is anti-social. So couples not taking the Fall seriously and not taking the fallenness of people seriously, are unprepared for the kinds of things they are going to face as they get married.
AFAJ: Did you have this understanding when you got married?
PT: No, we didn’t, and we hit the wall. I was a pastor. I was a very angry man, and I think I was blind to that anger, blind to the destructiveness to my own marriage. God brought into my life someone who helped me see that, and it set our relationship on a very different course. I think my zeal for this topic is not just because I think I have some insight into what Scripture has to say about it, but I’m a case study.
AFAJ: So what makes your marriage healthier now?
PT: We have to have a Biblical work ethic if our marriage is going to be healthy. We can’t rest and relax because marriage is war, and I don’t mean war with the other person. It’s spiritual war. There’s a battle that’s being fought in my heart between the kingdom of self and the kingdom of God, and I’ve got to be willing to get up every day and fight that battle. Secondly, I need to embrace the joy that I’m not alone in that struggle, but God battles on my behalf. He will give me the grace I need to deal with all that I face.
AFAJ: Since marriage is war, why is it worth it?
PT: I’m more and more persuaded as I study Scripture that my life is intended by God to be a community project. We were designed to live in community – first, community with God and second, community with other people. We were formed to be social beings, and all of the places where I need to grow and change – the development of my gifts, my understanding, my wisdom – doesn’t happen individually. It happens in community. In addition, one of God’s best tools for revealing and changing hearts is marriage. So it’s [through community, marriage and family] that I actually become more of what God has designed me to be. You could argue that, in God’s design, the fundamental social building block of human culture is marriage. Isn’t it interesting that the marriage relationship is the picture that God uses of His relationship to us?
AFAJ: What would you say to someone who is trying to decide whether or not to marry?
PT: First, you have to ask yourself is this relationship based on attraction or real love. That distinction is very important. Selfish attraction will crash and burn in marriage because we are flawed people. Love is willing self-sacrifice for the good of another that doesn’t demand reciprocation. So the first question is, are you building a relationship on the foundation of real love? Second, is there an indication that this person desires to be self-knowing or have an accurate sense of self? Part of what makes a marriage work is two people who understand they’re not perfect and are willing to look at themselves and willing to change and grow. Thirdly, does this person have a genuine desire to pursue deeper, fuller relationship with God? Does the person love God? It’s only the people who love God above all else that will ever love their neighbor or their spouse as themselves. Here’s why that is: Love for self will always replace love for God. If I don’t love God above all else, I will love myself, and self-love will get in the way of the selfless love that makes a relationship work.
AFAJ: What would you say to a couple with marital problems?
PT: The first thing you have to embrace is that you’re not alone in the struggle, which means it’s not your job to change the other person. It’s your job to be an instrument of good in the other person’s life. But if you try to be the fourth member of the Trinity, you’re going to make a mess of that relationship because you’re going to do and say things that you shouldn’t in order to force the person into change. Secondly, no matter how much you are aware of the failure of the other person, you have to embrace the fact that you’re biggest marital problem is still you. You have to continue humbly to look in the mirror of the Word of God and to see yourself. Thirdly, seek help. Marriage is not meant to live in isolation from the body of Christ. God has provided resources of help in the body of Christ. Finally, don’t settle for a cold war marital detente relationship. There are couples who just get very good at having a bad relationship. They are not screaming and yelling any more, so it feels like it’s better. But it’s not better. It’s because they’ve gotten used to having a bad marriage, and that’s a really sad thing.
AFAJ: What would you say to a couple with a good marriage?
PT: I would ask: What are the attitudes of heart and the daily habits that are making this a good marriage? Prioritize those. What are the threats to your marriage? Look ahead and identify them. Lastly, have a watch and pray response to the good times. Be thankful for them, but keep watch and don’t take those good things for granted. A relationship that is healthy is healthy because the people in that relationship are committed to keeping it healthy.
AFAJ: Why must marriage be rooted in worship, not romance?
PT: Romance, being feeling-based, is not sturdy enough to get us through all the things we will need to go through to have a lastingly healthy marriage. That kind of marriage only happens when I love God so fully and so thankfully that I live with a sense of privilege, and I’m deeply grateful that God would put anybody in my life that would love me for a minute because I know who I am. When I wake up, I look at my wife, and I think: She loves me! What a wonderful thing! I’m not looking at her in terms of her weaknesses or her failure. I’m looking at her as a gift from God. That is sturdy. If I do that every day, we will get through our difficulties.
AFAJ: What is the greatest threat to God’s design for marriage?
PT: Anything that redefines the major institutions that God has set up is a threat. Right now, the greatest threat to marriage in the church is not outside the church; it’s inside the church. The presence of separated and divorced couples in the church of Jesus Christ is the greatest scandal of the Gospel in our generation. It’s hurting us because we are growing comfortable with single families and with divorced families in our churches – something that is outside God’s plan. That doesn’t mean that we should mistreat people who are in that situation. But we’ve got to say, this is not what God intended, and we’ve got to hold out for the wholeness and sanctity of marriage within our house. I think we ought also to speak to what’s going on outside of our house, but we better do that with integrity. That means that we are not satisfied with the marriage chaos that is going on inside the church of Jesus Christ.
AFAJ: What can we do?
PT: A) Pray. Don’t just pray for outside the church; pray for the church. B) We need to teach, teach, teach, teach, teach. I think if you’re in a fairly good-sized evangelical Bible-believing church, there ought to be a marriage class every Sunday-School quarter. There ought to be marriage curriculums for folks in small groups. Pastors ought to be preaching on this issue. There ought to be counseling help available. Mature believers ought to be getting with young couples and talking about their experiences and sharing wisdom. We’ve just got to fight for this issue. It is a huge threat to the vitality of the church, and it needs to be a priority.
AFAJ: Where can someone who is not connected to a church go for help?
PT: The Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (www.ccef.org) is networked to people around the country and is a wonderful resource of people who are committed to working with the local church, committed to the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word and have enormous amounts of experience.
For access to more in-depth teaching on this topic, visit www.paultrippministries.org where event schedules are posted and resources are available. A study guide and 10-session DVD series titled “What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage” will be available at this site in February. Tripp is also in the midst of writing a marriage reconciliation book called What Did You Expect?