Twelve years ago, my husband and I dutifully pursued premarital counseling, which meant having dinner with a well-meaning professor and his wife. They walked us through their marriage's highlights and lowlights, covering faithfulness, forgiveness, and the roles of husband and wife. But what I remember most about the talk was thinking my fianc and I already had figured marriage out. We were seminary students who loved God and communicated well. These qualities, along with our mutual love, surely meant we could avoid the sinkholes that doomed other relationships.
We are, by God's grace, still happily married, but I am often confronted with the extent of our foolishness in those early days. Like every married couple, we have faced unfulfilled expectations, disappointments, and unmet needs. At minimum, we could have better anticipated these with Paul Tripp's What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage (Crossway).
Tripp adeptly burrows beneath discussions of gender roles, communication mishaps, and felt needs—the driving forces of most Christian marriage manuals—to get at the root of all marital problems: who or what we worship. This is the first Christian marriage book I've read that does not use the words submission or headship. Nor does it refer to the most classic passage on marriage, Ephesians 5. Tripp is not rejecting these biblical constructs, but he is asking us to consider a more fundamental question that shapes not just our marriages but our entire lives: Whose kingdom?
"We are kingdom-oriented people," the Reformed author writes. "We always live in the service of one of two kingdoms … When we live for the kingdom of self, our decisions, thoughts, plans, actions, and words are directed by personal desire, [and] we seek to surround ourselves with people who will serve our kingdom purposes."
A marriage of two people serving their own kingdoms will eventually end in bloody battle. But when both people submit to God's kingdom, where Christ reigns and where joy and life are found, marriage becomes an "opportunity to exit the small space of the kingdom of self and to begin to enjoy the beauty and benefits of the kingdom of God." Relational change comes only when our worship is properly aligned with the God who pursues our hearts.
How does a couple repair a marriage damaged by warring kingdoms? The rest of Tripp's book offers ways couples can develop a culture of ongoing reconciliation based on six biblically based commitments, including, "We will give ourselves to a regular lifestyle of confession and forgiveness," and "we will deal with our differences with appreciation and grace." The most challenging truth Tripp presents is that our greatest marital problem is ourselves. We will always rise to our own defense and be tempted to blame others while believing the best about ourselves. Not surprisingly, God uses marriage to reveal the sin of self-righteousness. A marriage can be transformed when just one person sees this sin and humbly confesses ways they have damaged the relationship.
What Did You Expect? is fundamentally about the transforming power of grace, offered to anyone who has reached the end of themselves. It offers hope to readers whose marriage is bitter or little more than silent cohabitation. Most couples did not expect marriage to be so hard, but God's sovereign plan includes such difficulties for the purpose of aligning our hearts to his big-sky kingdom—and rescuing us from our own.
Lynn Roush is a counselor (MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) at The Crossing, an Evangelical Presbyterian church in Columbia, Missouri.
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What Did You Expect? is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles on marriage include:
Talk, Research, Marry | What Elizabeth Gilbert discovered about marriage before she ate her words in Committed. (February 9, 2010)
My Top Five Books on Marriage | By Charles W. Tackett, CEO of PursuingHeart.com (May 7, 2009)
Sex in the Body of Christ | Chastity is a spiritual discipline for the whole church. By Lauren Winner (May 13, 2005)
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