At every wedding, I hear marriage advice that sounds Christian-y and spiritualish, but makes no intelligible, practical sense.
The advice I hear most often, taking up space somewhere in every Christian wedding ceremony, is this: “Put God first in your marriage.” That, we’re told, is the secret to a lasting, happy marriage.
What the heck does this even mean?
“Putting God first in your marriage” implies a dichotomy, even a competition, between loving God and loving your spouse. Does “putting God first” mean talking to God before talking to your spouse when you start or end the day? Does it mean spending more time with God than with your spouse? Does it mean heeding God’s call to ministry at the expense of your marriage? In what practical way should you “put God first” ahead of your spouse?
Oddly enough, marriage sermons never give specifics on what “putting God first” looks like, other than vaguely “prioritizing” your relationship with God. But it’s one thing to say that your relationship with God impacts your marriage; it’s another thing to imply a conflict between your marriage and your spiritual life. It’s one thing to say that your relationship with God is important; it’s another to say that your relationship with God is the key to a happy, lasting marriage.
I understand the concept of how a strong relationship with God can and does affect your interactions with your spouse. If you find peace, strength, grace, and joy in your relationship with God, you can be peaceful, strong, gracious, and joyful in your relationship with your spouse.
But that is an if. Sometimes the transference of of peace, strength, grace, and joy drawn from your relationship with God runs into a hiccup when applied to marriage with another frustrating human being. Strong Christians still have marital struggles, whether self- or spousal-afflicted. Strong Christians still get divorced or live unhappily together. Some strong Christians are utterly nasty, unloving people, or good people with toxic or dysfunctional relational skills. Prayer, Scriptural study, knowledge of doctrine, good character, and a strong relationship with Jesus don’t always give you a leg up in figuring out sexual dysfunction or communication differences or how to split the chores equally.
Even Christians with an admirable spiritual life have blind spots, wounds, and faulty ideologies that can make marriage difficult. And non-Christians have happy marriages without any relationship with the Christian God whatsoever.
It’s objectively not true that simply having a productive relationship with God guarantees a happy, lasting marriage. It’s objectively not true that you cannot have a happy, lasting marriage without a productive relationship with God. When Dr. John Gottman created scientific studies on happy couples, “putting God first” was not a universal factor among them.
My guess is that the advice of “putting God first” as an almost silver bullet to marriage stems from a simplistic view of spirituality and human need. As I already said above, devotion to God, whether in the form of spiritual disciplines or an emotional connection, can do wonders in transforming the self into a spouse more suited to love and more enduring in inevitable marriage problems.
But just as the Bible does not and cannot give the specific medical advice needed to cure cancer, just as a relationship with God doesn’t guarantee prosperity, just as adherence to Christian principles and spiritual practices doesn’t stave off starvation, “putting God first” (whatever that means to you) does not, cannot, and will not solve marital problems alone. Spirituality may not even be a major component of either the problem or the solution.
There are relational and pyschological wounds that require more technical and marriage-specific help than “putting God first” requires. Acknowledging this doesn’t deny the importance of spirituality or a relationship with God, but it puts more emphasis on identifying the actual issues causing problems in the marriage and thus the solutions to them. Plus, it acknowledges the obnoxious but unavoidable reality that often the faithful suffer and the unfaithful prosper, and that the faithful are imperfect and broken too.
Unless a wedding sermon defines and qualifies “putting God first” with the above conditions, I consider this pithy little phrase just another well-meaning but meaningless bit of marriage advice.