My wife, Erin, will never forget the call she took one day at her parents' house in Phoenix when we were midway through our engagement. We had only to endure a few more months until our wedding day, and I was on the other end of the telephone line — euphoric with great news for my bride-to-be.
After I asked Erin to sit down and brace herself, I proudly announced that I had received something in the mail that was very exciting. I told her that she was preparing to marry a very rich man. I had received official notification in the mail that I had won the big sweepstakes. I was in the running for a new car, a free luxury trip or $1 million!
Erin sat stunned on the other end of the phone. Surely this would be any soon-to-be-bride's dream come true — starting marriage with no financial worries. Her joy, however, was clouded with suspicion and doubt. Erin had actually laughed out loud when I went on about what we would do with the money, how we would spend it and what I was going to buy her. She had worked in the psychiatric hospital during nursing school, and this call must have seemed eerily similar to many conversations she had engaged in with patients there.
To make a long (and embarrassing) story short, those sweepstake crooks had done a great job. The "winner" notification looked legitimate with all the authentic legal jargon — it even had a wax seal!
I felt humiliated. Not only had I believed I was a millionaire, I had told my entire family and all of my graduate school friends. That day, without reading and understanding the fine print, I had fallen for a scam.
When it comes to cultural messages about marriage, we are being scammed as well. We are being sold ideas that contain "fine print," setting up couples for failure long before they walk down the aisle. Here are some of the popular marriage messages (scams) that have saturated our culture:
Marriage is easy when you find "the one."
Conflict is a sign of a troubled relationship.
Your spouse should automatically know what you need.
Living together is a great way to see if you're compatible.
Your spouse will "complete" you.
Marriage is about being happy.
As wonderful as those messages may sound, the faulty beliefs create unrealistic expectations that undermine the foundation of a marriage relationship.
I want to focus on one myth in particular that I wish I'd understood before I married — I'm convinced it would have saved Erin and me a lot of heartache during the early years of our marriage. This myth is best summed up by French novelist George Sand, who said, "There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved."
Sand's quote is partially true. The myth is that you need to find someone who will love you. The truth is that this need to be loved has already been 100 percent met by God. There's not a single verse in the Bible that says you need to find a spouse to love you. God doesn't warn that if you fail to find your "soul mate," then a massive "love hole" will remain in your heart. The Word never implies that you will spend the rest of your life weeping and gnashing your teeth until you find someone who will give you the love that you crave.
Loved and loving
One of the greatest truths I've learned about marriage is that I don't need my wife to love me. I know that sounds counterintuitive — maybe even opposite of what you have been taught about relationships. The truth is that your need to be loved has already been satisfied by the right source — your heavenly Father. A spouse will never be the source of love in your life. That's God's role exclusively! Throughout the Bible, we are constantly reminded of God's love. Consider Jeremiah 31:3 where God tells His people, "I have loved you with an everlasting love"; Ephesians 5:1 addresses us as "Beloved children"; and Romans 8:39 promises that "nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God."
Therefore, instead of spending time, effort and energy trying to get a spouse to love you, your job will be to learn to love your spouse. This truth is a significant shift from the cultural message that is scamming you into believing that your greatest need is to be loved. 1 John 4:11 tells us, "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." Note that the verse begins by calling us beloved. This is a great phrase that means "much loved." Then, before the main point is even made, we get a quick reminder that God loves us. Finally, our job is defined: love others. Apparently, before we can love others, we need reassurance that we are loved.
In spite of all the cultural scams and myths about marriage, the real job your heavenly Father has asked of you can be summed up in John 13:34: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." To love your spouse is your destiny in married life.
Serving and sacrifice
So, what will loving your spouse truly look like? Focus on the Family just released a book called Ready To Wed, and while I was doing some final edits on the 10-session video curriculum that will complement the book, I noticed something amazing. We had filmed approximately 20 of the best Christian marriage experts, asking them what advice they'd offer engaged couples. There was no script, and we received some powerful biblical counsel. But when I watched all 10 sessions consecutively, I was amazed by the fact that the experts repeated a particular theme. One word kept coming up: sacrifice. This same message is expressed in John 15:13 when Jesus says, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."
Now, let me clarify that sacrifice is different than service. I believe that serving means to perform a duty, to assist or to do something helpful for your spouse. It's similar to the word helper found in Genesis 2:18, "The Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper fit for him.' " Adam wasn't lonely, but God recognized his need for help. So God created Eve. Serving each other will be an important part of married life.
Sacrifice, on the other hand, requires giving up something that you value (that is, your time, money, comfort, desire, etc.). Applied to marriage, this implies giving up something for the sake of someone else who you consider to have a greater value.
I've found it's easier to serve, to help out or to assist, than it is to sacrifice. At my house, it's a whole different story when serving Erin actually costs me something. I've found two passages in the Bible that instruct us to do something every day. One is found in Hebrews 3:13 where we're told to "exhort one another every day," and the other is found in Luke 9:23 where Jesus tells us to "take up [your] cross daily." "Taking up my cross" refers to laying down my life — my selfish desires — to serve my wife. Daily sacrifice for Erin is the evidence that I love her.
If you think about it, the very act of getting married is a selfless decision. As a husband or a wife, you voluntarily commit to abide by very clear instructions given by God. Husbands are instructed to love their wife just as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). And wives are asked to voluntarily submit to their husband's leadership as they do to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). Both spouses are being asked to make great sacrifices.
Engaged couples often ask me how they will know they are ready to get married. I think you'll know you are ready to wed if, first and foremost, God is your true source of love and fulfillment. Then you'll know that you are ready for marriage if you are willing to wholeheartedly love your fiancé(e) by sacrificing for him or her every day. So you tell me, are you ready to wed?
Hear more practical advice from Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley on preparing for marriage Listen Now