It's hard to stand firm as a Christian parent in the modern world; often we find ourselves being swept along by the sea of advice that swirls around us, and we lose touch with God’s vision for family life. A few years ago, I found myself being carried along by the idea that you should put your children first in everything. Every aspect of my daily life had begun to revolve entirely around our young sons; anything else was pushed to the periphery . . . including my husband.
Since then, I have come to realise that Christian parenting actually starts with putting our marriage, not our children, at the centre of family life. It's no good expending all of our time and energy trying to be the “perfect parent” if it means that our marriage suffers from a lack of attention. A healthy and enduring marriage is not just good for us, but also for our children; it provides them with a sense of security and sets a positive example for their own personal relationships.
In order to strengthen our marriage relationship, we need to have a clear understanding of what marriage is all about. A great place to start is by reading Michael Hill’s book, The Heart of Marriage: Loving Your Spouse with a Christian Mind.
A unique look at marriage
Hill’s book begins with a question: Where do your ideas about marriage come from? Often, our beliefs and expectations about marriage are inherited from our parents, or from the world around us. But this book provides us with an opportunity to step back and consider what our Maker says about marriage, as he designed it.
There are many Christian books about marriage, but this one is unique because it looks at how marriage fits into the overarching purposes of God from creation through to new creation.
What is the book about?
The Heart of Marriage is not a long book, but it is full of profound insights. Michael Hill spent many years lecturing in Philosophy and Ethics, and this academic background certainly comes through in his writing. However, Hill has also spent many years in pastoral ministry; he draws on this experience and uses real life examples to illustrate key points.
The Heart of Marriage begins by presenting the Bible’s teaching about the nature of a person and, consequently, personal relationships. While this may seem like a rather philosophical beginning, it does lay an important foundation. Hill emphasises that every person is made up of an outer nature (the body) and an inner nature (the spirit, soul and heart), which work together as a whole. Marriage is therefore the union of two people in both body and spirit. God wants all people, including husbands and wives, to relate to one another according to his pattern of mutual love, with each person committing him or herself to the good of the other.
The book then follows the basic outline of salvation history, showing how each stage informs our understanding of marriage. We begin by looking at creation, the first marriage of Adam and Eve, the Fall of humanity, and the Old Testament’s teaching on marriage. These stages of God’s revelation show that marriage is designed to be a public covenant between a man and a woman to give themselves exclusively to each other in body and spirit, for the rest of their lives. Even outside the Garden of Eden, where sin corrupts every heart and every relationship, marriage is still part of God’s good design for humanity.
The Heart of Marriage then turns to the New Testament where we find that Jesus reaffirms God’s original ideals for marriage. But Jesus did more than that. By his death, Jesus frees us from the power of sin; by his Spirit, Jesus empowers us to love other people, including our spouse. In this fallen world, we need Jesus’ help to make our marriages work.
Hill concludes his overview of marriage as a “subplot” of salvation history with the reminder that there will be no marriage in heaven. Earthly marriages are intended to be a foretaste of the eternal, spiritual intimacy that Christ and will share with his bride, the Church.
Even though most of the Bible passages covered in this section of the book were familiar to me, I gained many new insights into their meaning and application to marriage.
Leadership, love, and sex
Following from his overview of the Bible, Hill discusses three important aspects of marriage: leadership, love, and sex. He presents the Bible’s teaching about the complementary roles of husbands and wives with great wisdom and sensitivity. Hill returns to the pattern of mutual love: a husband only has authority to do what is good for his wife, and a wife’s submission to this leadership flows from a voluntary commitment to the good of her husband.
The next two chapters examine the biblical idea of love, which is so central to a healthy marriage. True Christian love is a commitment to the good of others, even when it is costly. This kind of love leads to a relationship of trust, repentance and forgiveness. Love is also the spring from which all other Christian virtues flow; when we make a habit of putting others first, we develop a loving character.
The chapter on sex completely changed the way I understand this aspect of marriage. Once again, Hill returns to the idea that people are holistic—we are both body and spirit. Therefore, the sexual aspect of marriage is simply a physical expression of the mutual love relationship we share. Sex is not about each person seeking their own pleasure, but devoting themselves to the good of the other. In an Appendix, Hill also applies the Bible’s teaching about marriage and sex to the issue of homosexual relationships.
In conclusion, The Heart of Marriage provides a helpful framework for understanding how marriage fits into God’s broader purposes for humanity. Reading it will help you to see your marriage in a clearer light—as a relationship of mutual love, in which each person wholly commits him or herself to the good of the other. If we work hard to build this kind of marriage, we will be laying a rock solid foundation for ourselves and our children to stand on.
The Heart of Marriage is available in the Growing Faith webstore.