If you’ve been married for any time at all, then you know that marriage is a union requiring both the strength and submission of our wills. In the early hours of matrimony, when every face is painted with a smile and endorphins are passed around like candy, unity is an easy choice. But like most things that grow old with time, choosing unity can come to feel anything but euphoric.
These are the moments that urge us to recall what we know to be true. As Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre insisted, “I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. . . . If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?” The vows we profess, the covenant we make, the living metaphor of Jesus and his church that we agree to emulate—all of these things make up the umbrella under which we love, protect, argue, repent, forgive, and sacrifice.
But what happens when, no matter how unified and committed you aim to be, you and your spouse have conflicting goals? How do you choose unity when you and your spouse are passionate about vastly different things or have competing needs?
A Common Problem
Here’s the (somewhat) good news: It’s supposed to be hard. The apostle Paul warned us that marriage would distract us from serving God with a single-minded focus (1 Corinthians 7:32–35). This struggle is a natural consequence of the oneness we now have with our partners, but it’s a struggle worth having.
My favorite thing about Paul is how much he cares about Jesus and the church. Knowing that my marriage is a mysterious metaphor for the relationship between Christ and his bride, I’ve tried to pay particular attention to when and how Paul talks to the local churches at Philippi, Ephesus, Colossae, and others. Throughout the New Testament, it’s clear that unity in the body is of utmost importance. That means unity in my marriage must be critical too.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul asked, “Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose” (Philippians 2:1–2). Paul may have been talking to a church here, but I think his words also apply to the daily grind of our marriages. If we have surrendered our lives to Jesus, if we live under the banner of his love, if we walk in attentiveness to the Spirit of God, if grace upon grace is our reality, then the only option is to be unified.
But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?
A Good Exchange
Paul got into the nitty-gritty of what this looks like when he said, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Philippians 2:3–4). This is the hard truth: The work of unity will always cost us something. It will cost our pride, our preferences, and sometimes even our passions. It will ask us to give up some of our deepest longings, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that our God is a God of exchange.
In Exodus, God wanted to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt. But after two months, the Israelites complained to Moses that the food they had received while in slavery was better than what they were getting in the wilderness (Exodus 16:2–3). They couldn’t grasp that God was going to exchange the good food of Egypt—along with slavery and oppression—for a land flowing with milk and honey.
In the early church, many Jewish believers had a hard time understanding the exchange of the law for grace. They remembered the law and that it was supposed to bring righteousness, but God was doing something new through Jesus. Now they more clearly understood that righteousness would come through faith, apart from the law (Romans 3:21–24). The law wasn’t bad. In fact, we would not have known our sin without it (Romans 7:7). God often exchanges what is good for what will bring him the most glory.
Maybe that’s what happens when we pursue unity in our marriages too. Instead of getting bitter at my spouse because I have to lay down a perfectly godly passion for the sake of unity, maybe I should start to look for the ways in which God is glorified through our pursuit of being one in spirit and purpose.
Sacrifice or Compromise?
In his book Sacred Influence, Gary Thomas says, “The church must not teach the submission of wives apart from the sacrificial love and servanthood required of husbands.” This isn’t all on you, ladies. The pursuit of unity is a bending of both wills so that they come together for the purpose of glorifying God (Ephesians 5:21–33).
Sometimes we need to make a compromise with our spouses by finding middle ground between our two desires, but sometimes that isn’t possible. When compromise can’t be found, it might be time for one spouse to sacrifice his or her preferences out of love for the other person. Sacrifices such as these aren’t easy and often cause pain, but God is able to work through the hard parts of our marriages to bring redemption and sanctification when we least expect it.
Our mentors, Chang and Angel, have been invaluable in our early years of marriage, particularly because they have done the work to secure unity in their relationship. Chang is an introvert and Angel an extrovert, which creates its own challenges, and they have also walked through seasons when they felt called to different, opposing ministries. When Chang was nearing the end of his medical residency at Indiana University, he was drawn to the idea of missions in China. Both Chang and Angel had family in Taiwan, and he wanted to take the Great Commission seriously. But Angel felt that they were called to be senders—supporters of other missionaries—not missionaries themselves.
“I did not believe that we needed to be international missionaries in order to fulfill our callings as Christians. This caused some tension as Chang started to seriously look into radiology jobs overseas,” Angel recalls. “Finally, after some passionate discussion, I told Chang that if he could tell me unequivocally that God was calling us to become missionaries, I would follow his lead and move to China.” This challenged Chang to pause and both of them to spend serious time in prayer and in seeking wise counsel from mentors. Our dear friends ended up staying local, and many lives, including ours, have been irrevocably changed because of their commitment to unity.
When my husband and I have conflicting goals, I think about Chang and Angel, who modeled pursuing the good of the whole over the good of one. It would have been easy for Chang to sulk and punish Angel for taking away his dream, but instead he mobilized his faith right where he was and focused on unity in their marriage. Whether it’s a difference as profound as conflicting ministry callings or as routine as having different ways to recharge at the end of the day, working toward oneness is an endeavor that will not return void.
Get to Work
There is no magic solution to creating unity in marriage, and no easy compromises. This takes good, old-fashioned, hard work. Maybe you’re the introvert who needs to sacrifice a couple nights of solitude for community-driven activities. Or maybe you need to have a hard conversation with your mate about whose career takes the backseat for a season. Perhaps it’s time for your family to make a mission statement, pray some brave prayers, and ask God where he’s calling you together. It won’t be easy, but God doesn’t call us to difficult things without giving us the strength we need to overcome.
I believe a shared commitment to pursuing unity in our marriages is the greatest untapped resource we possess for making Jesus known. And that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it? If we make every effort to pursue unity with our spouses, our communities will never be the same.