Chapter 9: The Triangle of Marriage
The Triangle of Marriage
The first married couple on the face of the earth enjoyed the gift of marriage in perfection, with both Adam and Eve being for each other precisely the spouse God intended them to be. There came the day, though, when Eve, in Adam’s presence, listened to the sinister advice of the serpent, and the human race fell into sin. From that moment on God’s beautiful gift of marriage was broken – and desperately needed the redeeming work of Jesus Christ and the renewing work of His Spirit. By God’s grace Christ’s redeeming and renewing work has restored something of marriage’s former glory. The Form for the Solemnization of Marriage catches the implications of these realities in the following words:
Husband and wife shall assist each other in all good things, heartily forgiving one another their sins and shortcomings. United in love, they will more and more reflect in their marriage the unity of Christ and His Church (pg 636).
The Marriage Triangle Formed
The Lord God created the human race to reflect what He was like. So say the Scriptures: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). That man must image God describes a relation between God and man, both male and female. In fact, there is a father-child relation here (see Genesis 5:1-3), a relation known as a covenant, a bond of love from God to man (male and female) and from man (male and female) to God. See Figure 1. On the basis of their mutual relation with God, there was of necessity a secondary bond between the first man and the first woman (in confessional terms we would call it the communion of saints).
As it is, the Lord God united the first man and the first woman in the bond of marriage. What held the first marriage together was not their mutual infatuation with each other or their mutual dependence on each other for survival. Instead, the glue that bound their marriage together was their respective relationships with the Lord God. Marriage is ultimately not a relationship between two parties but between three, with God forming the apex of the relationship and serving also as the bond that keeps man and wife together. The vertical relation between God and Man and God and Woman respectively makes the horizontal relationship between Man and Woman possible and lasting.
Adam and Eve in Paradise, then, were not persons facing each other and delighting in what they saw, but they were two persons standing shoulder to shoulder facing God – and then delighting in what they saw. He was their praise and their delight, and He was their focus and their purpose. For Adam and Eve to focus on the creature (each other) was much too limited a perspective, for the creature (though sinless) was finite. But the God who made them and gave them each other in marriage was infinite, was God. Their combined focus on Him gave their marriage its strength and its joy.
Communication – naked
The consequence in turn was that “the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25). God had intended the man to be leader in the marriage relationship and the woman to be his helper, an arrangement that necessitated communication, openness of thought, sharing of feelings. More, God intended the two to be “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), a reference first of all not to sexual unity but to unity of being, unity of heart, unity of purpose and intent – all of which requires communication, openness of thought and sharing of feelings. The nakedness of the man and his wife was a symbol of the openness of their hearts to each other; they shared their deepest feelings, were for each other an open book. Together they delighted in the service of the God who made them, and they shared in perfect openness all their cares and all their pleasures in the service of this God.
The Marriage Triangle Broken
The fall into sin broke the triangle of marriage. Through their disobedience to God’s command, Adam and Eve from their side severed their covenant relation with God and settled for a relation with Satan. As children of Satan, Adam and Eve no longer reflected what God was like, but from now on reflected what Satan was like. The Lord Jesus Christ described what being a child of Satan was like, when He spoke to the unbelieving Jews: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Paul describes belonging to Satan as “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (Ephesians 2:3). Elsewhere he lists the resulting “acts of the sinful nature…: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; … hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21). The common denominator characterising those who belong to the devil and do his works is selfishness. That’s in fact inevitable; those who take their focus off God their Creator fix it invariably on a creature – and hence listen to the selfishness that comes from our depravity.
The classic proof of this posture is the action of the first man and his wife on the day of their fall. Whereas in Paradise they had stood shoulder to shoulder as they delighted in God, they after the fall pointed fingers of blame at each other. Said the man to God about his wife, “The woman You put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). On a very superficial level Adam’s words were true, for they related what happened. But Adam had no right to blame his wife for his transgression, for God had created the man to be the leader – and so Adam ought to take responsibility for his wife’s actions as well as his own. But he doesn’t, and doesn’t mention his failure to take responsibility for his wife’s actions either. In this posture lay deceit, and selfishness.
The same is true in relation to Eve. She said to God, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:13). Again, on a superficial level this recounted the facts. But the woman was meant to be a helper to the man, and she failed dismally in her duty to him. She has no right now to speak about the serpent, but ought to be speaking about her failure in relation to her husband. But she doesn’t, and this omission –like Adam’s failure– represents a lie, and is driven by a depraved need to defend the self at the expense of another – attitudes and actions characteristic of those in league with the devil.
Communication – shame
The selfishness characterizing those on Satan’s side damaged immeasurably also the ‘one flesh-ness’ that God had ordained between husband and wife. The unity of heart and being, the oneness of desire and purpose was shattered as soon as Adam and Eve took their focus off God to do their own thing. Instead of now sharing their hearts and souls, instead of being an open book to each other, they now felt vulnerable, too open in front of each other. “They realized they were naked,” and so hastened to “sew fig leaves together” to cover themselves (Genesis 3:7). Their sense of shame on account of their nakedness was symbolic of their unwillingness to be totally open any longer in their deepest thoughts; those thoughts and feelings, selfish as they inherently were, could no longer be comfortably shared – not even with the spouse. Communication was rendered difficult, awkward, superficial. And the consequence is inevitably loneliness in marriage….
The Marriage Triangle Repaired
The Lord God in boundless mercy set about delivering His people from Satan’s bondage. In the hearing of the first couple He declared war on Satan, and pronounced too that the woman’s offspring would crush the head of the devil (Genesis 3:15). This is the gospel of redemption proclaimed in the sacrifices of Israel’s temple, the gospel that was fulfilled when Jesus son of Mary went to the cross of Calvary to satisfy the justice of God and pay for sin. Through Christ’s atoning sacrifice, “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13,14). This rescue and its resulting redemption is commonly known as justification – God’s divine declaration of sinners being righteous in His sight.
The persons the Lord God brought back from Satan’s side to His side are not just justified through Jesus’ blood; these persons, dead as they were in sin, are renewed through Jesus’ Spirit, made alive. This change or renewal is known as sanctification, and is the result of God in the Spirit making His home in the heart of a given sinner. This renewal, then, restores in principle the relation there was between God and man in Paradise! A person renewed by the Spirit of Jesus Christ is made able again to image what God is like and there exists again God’s covenant bond of love with that sinner. True, this sinner is not perfected yet through the Spirit’s renewing work, but the lack of perfection does not take away from the fact that God through Jesus Christ restores again His relation with His people as it was in Paradise.
Because of the importance of this gospel for marriage, we need to support this position with evidence from Scripture. The Ephesian saints to whom Paul wrote were once “dead in your transgressions and sin, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world.” In so doing the Ephesians were “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” But, the apostle adds, “because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Ephesians 2:1-5). This ‘making alive’ is the work of the Holy Spirit. As a result, God’s people are made able to live in a renewed way – and therefore are obliged to live as renewed people. Paul continues his instruction to the Ephesians: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). This new self, then, reflects again what God is like, according to God’s intent when He made us in the beginning. What does this look like? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23). This is the kind of behavior to which the Lord God enables those whom He redeems from Satan’s side and restores to Himself. Such persons fix their focus with undivided attention not on any created thing, but on the Lord their Savior alone (Colossians 3:1,2).
When, now, the Lord God in His providence and grace unites two renewed people in marriage, the chemistry between the two is no longer determined by anything of this world (including selfishness), but is determined once again by their respective relation to God. We’re back to the triangle of marriage as God ordained it in the beginning, where the vertical bond of love between the Lord God and His child-by-covenant is the glue that bonds husband and wife together. Those redeemed by Jesus’ blood and renewed by His Spirit possess a marital relation that’s not limited to the two of them but it’s again a relation including the three – with God again the centre and the focus of both the husband and the wife. They do not face each other such that they see only another finite creature –sinful still!– but they stand again shoulder to shoulder with their focus directed on God. It is the joint service of the one God that gives the drive and direction to their marriage – and hence gives the tools to overcome trouble in marriage.
Communication – know
Just how powerful this renewing work of the Holy Spirit is in relation to marriage receives some illustration in the Spirit’s choice of words concerning Adam and Eve. The New King James Version renders the Hebrew accurately: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Genesis 4:1).1 That the Holy Spirit would use here the verb ‘to know’ is intriguing. He does not do so because of a perceived awkwardness with straight talk; in fact, if the Holy Spirit simply wanted us to know that Adam and Eve received a son He could (and would) have said so plainly. As it is, the Holy Spirit tells how this conception came about; it happened through his ‘knowing’ her. That’s to say: Eve was again an open book for Adam (and he for her); they could again be one in heart, one in purpose. With the eye of both Adam and Eve directed again on God and His mercy in Jesus Christ, this couple did not have to feel guilty anymore on account of their depravity (and so hide a selfish heart from each other) but could instead delight in His forgiveness. Again, with their eye fixed on the Lord God, they could delight in His renewing work in their hearts so that the selfishness characterizing children of the devil was in principle overcome. They could dare to be open again to each other and not be vulnerable or ashamed. The intimacy of shared hearts opened the way for intimacy of shared bodies, and God blessed that unity-of-being with the gift of conception so that Eve bore a son.
1 NIV has: “Adam lay with his wife Eve.” NASB has: “Now the man had relations with his wife Eve.”
The Marriage Triangle Pursued
When children of God then seek a spouse, the focus of the search may not center on physical beauty or on talent or wealth or any other outward thing. The one, single criterion of paramount importance is whether the girl in question has a strong relation with God. Specifically, has she responded in faith to the glorious promises God has given in Jesus Christ, so that her heart is obviously renewed, she brings forth the fruit of the Spirit? Similarly, when a girl receives an approach from a young man, the one, single criterion she needs to be satisfied about first of all is not whether this young man is handsome and drives a cool car, but what the strength of his relation with God is like. The bridegroom is to lead his bride in God’s service, and the bride is to help her groom in His service, and for both to carry out their God-given functions they both need to have their eye fixed in trust and obedience on God alone. A bride and groom one-eyed on each other will (unless God works change) end up unhappily married.
Again, when parents seek to raise their sons and their daughters, it is the development of this vertical relation with God that must stand central in their efforts. Daughters will never be able to serve as a helper to a man in his task before God if she has been trained to focus on outward beauty. Sons will never be able to be leaders for a wife if parents have let them focus on the toys of life.
Similarly, once a young Christian man becomes interested in a woman, it will never do for a him to choose a spouse from among those still on Satan’s side – and it will never do either for a young Christian woman to respond in kind to the advances of a man still on Satan’s side. In the strength of the Holy Spirit Paul is emphatic: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16). The glue that ties a marriage together is severely compromised if one party in the marriage has no living relation with God. One may not marry one who, contrary to the first commandment, has other gods before the Lord.
The same is true concerning those Christians who serve God in a self-chosen manner (second commandment). When one looks for a spouse, one needs to seek more than whether the other has a relation with God; he (or she) needs to determine also what sort of relation the other has with God. Is the prospective partner a so-called ‘Sunday Christian’? Is this person casual and slaphappy in God’s service, with one eye on God and the other firmly focused on the things of this world? Such a person lacks something in zeal for God, and you cannot have standing beside you as a leader or a helper one whose attention is distracted from the central Party to a marriage. Recall: it’s the relation to God that forms the glue that keeps a marriage strong and healthy, and it’s equally that relation to God that makes openness in communication possible in marriage.
And say not that through your courtship you will bring the other to faith, or even strengthen his (or her) relation with God such that he will become undividedly devoted to God. Paul’s word to the Corinthians holds true: “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:16). It simply does not lie within man’s ability to work faith or strengthen it. The two vertical lines of the triangle of the potential marriage must be healthy and strong before one allows one’s heart to be joined to the other’s in love.
The Triangle Maintained
The strength of one’s relation to God is never static, nor can one insist that one’s relation with God has ‘arrived’ such that it will sustain itself. The relation God wants with His people is to be living and dynamic, one that interacts with the changing circumstances God in His providence puts on the path of His children. No one’s life is unchanging, with each day a dull carbon copy of the previous. Instead, each day has its particular joys and cares. In the midst of those changing cares and joys the Lord wants His people to stay focused on Him with undivided attention, and interact with Him about those ups and downs. God has given His word to be a light on the path His people are to walk, casting His divine illumination on the questions and challenges and opportunities of each day. The Lord has given His people the gift of prayer so that they can speak with Him about the happy things of each day as well as the questions that arise. That’s the covenant bond with God alive in the lives of His children; there’s open communication between God’s people and their God.
Yet in marriage God has joined two of His children together so that they are one. The living relation each is to have with God in the grind of life may not be private and isolated from the spouse; on the contrary, their unity of being and of purpose dictates that they share their life’s questions together in open and joint communication with God. To maintain the triangle of marriage, the couple needs to answer life’s questions together over an open Bible, and together speak to God from their hearts. The saying has it that ‘the family that prays together stays together,’ and it’s so true in relation to husband and wife first of all. Ever problem the Lord may put on their path –be it financial strain or sickness or barrenness or unemployment or even friction between the two– can and will be manageable when the two are one in prayer and in listening to God’s Word.
Communication – the fruit of the Spirit
Keeping the triangle of marriage intact requires more than husband and wife being united in Scripture study and prayer. The two must also adorn their relationship with a lifestyle that results from the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, and so reflects what the Lord God is like. In his letter to the Ephesians the apostle instructed his readers what a renewed life looks like. His instruction is of particular relevance for the way the regenerated husband and wife treat each other. The relevant passage reads as follows:
“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly beloved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:25-5:2).
With the word ‘therefore’, the apostle links this passage to what he had said before about how those who belong to Christ put off their old self and put the new self that is “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (vs 24). The first consequence Paul mentions relates to truth vs falsehood. Jesus had said that Satan is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Those taken from Satan’s side and restored to God’s side are no longer to reflect what Satan is like, but are instead to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor.” The first and closest neighbor one ever receives is the spouse with whom one is “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In a Christian marriage there is simply no place for deceit in any way. There is need instead for openness and honesty about all things (except what the birthday present will be) – as a couple’s identity at “one flesh” dictates. Speaking less than the truth to one’s spouse breeds distrust, and distrust leads to tension.
Paul mentions next that those whom the Spirit renewed are not to “let the sun go down while you are still angry.” In this broken life, disagreements and tensions occur, as do clashes that make one angry with another. Paul insists that Christians are not to let the anger fester, but must resolve the issue before sundown. In relation to marriage, it may not happen that a couple goes to sleep back to back, each on their own side of the bed. Jesus had said emphatically that “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24). The gift at the Old Testament altar, whether sin offering or burnt offering or thank offering, was a prayer. In a Christian marriage a couple will seek to end the day in prayer together. Yet the Lord God forbids such prayer together as long as the dispute between the two is not resolves, for “the LORD detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases Him” (Proverbs 15:8). To leave a matter unresolved so that anger describes the atmosphere in the marriage destroys not just the horizontal relation between husband and wife, but corrodes also the vertical relation between husband and God and/or wife and God. The fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23), while the acts of the sinful nature include “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” (Galatians 5:20,21). Unresolved anger may have no place in two persons in whom the Holy Spirit has made His home, lest the devil receive opportunity to work his destruction.
The apostle speaks also about doing honest work so that one “may have something to share with those in need.” The closest neighbor one receives is one’s spouse, the person with whom one is “one flesh”. Together husband and wife stand shoulder to shoulder in the service of their common Lord and Master, and surely that means too that each shares with the other whatever is needed in the service of this God. There is in the Christian marriage no room to insist that certain things are ‘Mine’ such that it’s private property from which the spouse must keep his or her distance. To be jealous of your own possessions betrays that both eyes are not fixed solely on the Lord God, but one eye adores something of this earth over much. That will invariably damage something in the marriage relation.
A fallen mankind, though renewed by the Holy Spirit, can do much damage through words. Paul insists that the Ephesian saints are not to “let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Though the principle is true for all conversation, it is true particularly in the Christian marriage. To talk down or to disparage or to criticize or to humiliate the spouse (whether privately or publicly) is more akin to what characterizes Satan’s behavior than what characterizes the Lord God. Words and actions in Christian marriage are instead to be characterized by “kindness, goodness, …gentleness and self-control.” Given that list, it simply will not do to shout and scream, or to vent one’s frustration through a tirade listing the other’s weaknesses. The vertical bond one has with God, the Spirit’s presence in one’s heart, must come out in the color one gives to the horizontal bond you have with your spouse. Anything else “grieves the Holy Spirit of God.”
Hence the apostle’s injunction too to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with ever form of malice.” Rather, “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” On account of our original sin as well as our actual sins, God would have been more than justified to leave us on Satan’s side, with all the misery that came with that. But God in mercy gave up His only Son in order to redeem lost sinners. This Son went to the anguish of the cross to carry the burden of God’s wrath we deserved. Through His work we receive forgiveness of sins and have peace with God. Shall we now who received so much mercy from God be cold and unforgiving to the spouse? If God demonstrated His love for us by having Christ die for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8), shall we insist that the spouse clean up his act before we extend a modicum of mercy? The fruit the Spirit works in renewed hearts includes “love, …peace, …kindness.” Then we cannot keep bringing up old issues but must instead forgive and today enfold the other with love and kindness – whether deserving (in our judgment) or not. It’s an attitude Christian couples can extend to each other simply because the Spirit of Jesus Christ has made His home in their hearts.
As Paul concludes, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly beloved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1,2). “Gave Himself up”: those words catch so accurately what attitude husband is to have to wife and wife is to have to husband. As Christ Himself said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Through such self-emptying, husband and wife (as the Form puts it) “more and more reflect in their marriage the unity of Christ and His Church” – a unity Paul lays out like this:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of His body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:25-33).