God's Design for Marriage

by Carol Heffernan

It's easy to think that only "other people" get divorced. That your own marriage is somehow immune to heartache, infidelity and fights over who gets the house, the car, the dog. After all, how many of us would walk down the aisle if we believed our relationships would end up in divorce court?

Truth is, no relationship comes with a lifetime guarantee. Even men and women who grew up in stable homes, who attend church and consider themselves Christians, who promise "until death do us part," can have it all fall apart.

As Christians, we know that applying biblical principles to marriage will give us a stronger foundation than those of our unbelieving friends and neighbors. We know this, but what are we doing about it? In other words, what makes a marriage "Christian"?

According to author Gary Thomas, we're not asking the right questions. What if your relationship isn't as much about you and your spouse as it is about you and God?

Instead of asking why we have struggles in the first place, the more important issue is how we deal with them.

In Sacred Marriage, Thomas has not written your typical "how to have a happier relationship" book. Rather, he asks: How can we use the challenges, joys, struggles and celebrations of marriage to draw closer to God? What if God designed marriage to make us both happy and holy?

Viewing Marriage Realistically

"We have to stop asking of marriage what God never designed it to give — perfect happiness, conflict-free living, and idolatrous obsession," Thomas explains.

Instead, he says, we can appreciate what God designed marriage to provide: partnership, spiritual intimacy and the ability to pursue God — together. So, what does Thomas think is the most common misconception Christians have about marriage?

"Finding a 'soul mate' — someone who will complete us," he says. "The problem with looking to another human to complete us is that, spiritually speaking, it's idolatry. We are to find our fulfillment and purpose in God . . . and if we expect our spouse to be 'God' to us, he or she will fail every day. No person can live up to such expectations."

Everyone has bad days, yells at his or her spouse, or is downright selfish. Despite these imperfections, God created the husband and wife to steer each other in His direction.

Thomas offers an example: "When my wife forgives me . . . and accepts me, I learn to receive God's forgiveness and acceptance as well. In that moment, she is modeling God to me, revealing God's mercy to me, and helping me to see with my own eyes a very real spiritual reality."

While it's easy to see why God designed an other-centered union for a me-centered world, living that way is a challenge. So when bills pile up, communication breaks down and you're just plain irritated with your husband or wife, Thomas offers these reminders to help ease the tension:

* God created marriage as a loyal partnership between one man and one woman.
* Marriage is the firmest foundation for building a family.
* God designed sexual expression to help married couples build intimacy.
* Marriage mirrors God's covenant relationship with His people.

We see this last parallel throughout the Bible. For instance, Jesus refers to Himself as the "bridegroom" and to the kingdom of heaven as a "wedding banquet."

These points demonstrate that God's purposes for marriage extend far beyond personal happiness. Thomas is quick to clarify that God isn't against happiness per se, but that marriage promotes even higher values.

"God did not create marriage just to give us a pleasant means of repopulating the world and providing a steady societal institution to raise children. He planted marriage among humans as yet another signpost pointing to His own eternal, spiritual existence."

Serving Our Spouse

He spends the entire evening at the office — again. She spends money without entering it in the checkbook. He goes golfing instead of spending time with the kids. From irritating habits to weighty issues that seem impossible to resolve, loving one's spouse through the tough times isn't easy. But the same struggles that drive us apart also shed light on what we value in marriage.

"If happiness is our primary goal, we'll get a divorce as soon as happiness seems to wane," Thomas says. "If receiving love is our primary goal, we'll dump our spouse as soon as they seem to be less attentive. But if we marry for the glory of God, to model His love and commitment to our children, and to reveal His witness to the world, divorce makes no sense."

Couples who've survived a potentially marriage-ending situation, such as infidelity or a life-threatening disease, may continue to battle years of built-up resentment, anger or bitterness. So, what are some ways to strengthen a floundering relationship — or even encourage a healthy one? Thomas offers these practical tips:

* Focus on your spouse's strengths rather than their weaknesses.
* Encourage rather than criticize.
* Pray for your spouse instead of gossiping about them.
* Learn and live what Christ teaches about relating to and loving others.

Young couples in particular can benefit from this advice. After all, many newlyweds aren't adequately prepared to make the transition from seeing one another several times a week to suddenly sharing everything. Odds are, annoying habits and less-than-appealing behaviors will surface. Yet as Christians, we are called to respect everyone — including our spouse.

Thomas adds, "The image I use in Sacred Marriage is that we need to learn how to 'fall forward.' That is, when we are frustrated or angry, instead of pulling back, we must still pursue our partner under God's mercy and grace."

Lastly, Thomas suggests praying this helpful prayer: Lord, how can I love my spouse today like (s)he's never been loved and never will be loved?

"I can't tell you how many times God has given me very practical advice — from taking over some driving trips to doing a few loads of laundry," Thomas says. "It's one prayer that I find gets answered just about every time."

While other marriage books may leave us feeling overwhelmed, spotlighting our shortcomings and providing pages of "relationship homework," Sacred Marriage makes it clear that any couple can have a successful, happy and holy marriage.

With a Christ-centered relationship, an other-centered attitude and an unwavering commitment to making it work, your marriage can flourish — just as God designed.

Gary L. Thomas
is a writer and the founder and director of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality, a writing and speaking ministry that integrates Scripture, church history, and the Christian classics.
Carol Heffernan is the online editor for broadcast programming at Focus on the Family.

The Covenant Marriage

The Power of Commitment

Great 'Sex'pectations

Married couples should enjoy a sexual relationship that is expressed body-to-body, heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul.

by Lysa TerKeurst

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said, "Some would say 'having sex' and 'making love' are one and the same, but there's an important distinction between the two. The physical act of intercourse can be accomplished by any appropriately matched mammals, as well as most other members of the animal kingdom. But the art of making love, as designed by God, is a much more meaningful and complex experience -- it's physical, emotional, and spiritual. In marriage we should settle for nothing less than a sexual relationship that is expressed not only body-to-body, but heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul."'

It's easy to understand how to connect with your wife body-to-body. Like the song goes, "Just doin' what comes naturally." Understanding how to connect heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul is more challenging. These deeper connections are not only possible, but essential in binding two whom God joined together inseparably.

The great "sex"pectations of our society constantly flash the message that being connected body-to-body with another is all about the pleasure that can be gained through the encounter. What if we viewed it as something much more meaningful? For your wife, making love is not an encounter; it is an experience. It's not something that is turned on for thirty minutes and off for the other twenty-three and a half hours of the day. For her "experience" to be complete, she needs YOU to set the stage for making love by connecting with her heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul throughout the day.

Before you start rolling your eyes and shaking your head, think back to the days before you were married, before you connected body-to-body. Remember the thrill of discovery? The days when you laid the foundation of your relationship by favorite foods, connecting heart-to-heart? Finding out what makes her happy, her dreams for her future, and hopes for her tomorrows. She still wants you to share these things with her, only now on a deeper level. No longer are they just her dreams, she wants her desires to be your dreams too. And she wants YOU to share goals and aspirations that are tucked away in your heart, as well.

One of the most meaningful times of my marriage was when Art made my passion for writing and dream of being a published author, a dream he could dream with me. How thrilled I was to catch him reading my manuscripts not because I asked him to but because he wanted to. How fun it's been for me to see "our" dreams become a reality. And, oh, how attracted I am to him when he tells me how proud he is of me. When we connect heart-to-heart, I desire to be connected body-to-body.

I also want to connect soul-to-soul with Art. Recently we determined that this area of our marriage needed to be worked on, so we decided to make it a priority to do a nightly devotion in our bed before we turn out the lights. This has been a wonderful way to melt away the stress of our day and soften any quarrels and petty arguments we may have had earlier. Reading a couple's devotional book or God's Word and praying together gives us a fresh perspective and helps connect us in that deeper soul level. There's something about our home at night when the kids are in bed and we are alone reading, talking, sharing, and praying that has made our relationship incredibly intimate.

Why not take an inventory of your intimate relationship with your wife and together answer these questions:

* What is the difference between having sex and making love?
* Is there anything about our intimate life that could be improved upon?
* How can we better connect heart-to-heart?
* What are your dreams for the future?
* Do we regularly connect soul-to-soul?
* How could we make connecting soul-to-soul a priority?
* Is there anything I need to seek your forgiveness for in this area of our lives?
* What do you love most about our marriage?

These are not the kinds of questions you fly through at the breakfast table while wolfing down coffee and toast. Let me encourage you to set aside some time to get away with your wife where the two of you can be alone and uninterrupted. If finances are tight, get creative. Pack a picnic lunch and go to a quiet park in your area. If you can afford to get away overnight, trade baby-sitting with another couple or ask Grandma and Grandpa if they'd like time with their grandkids.

Art and I discovered a wonderful bed-and-breakfast that we steal away to a couple of times a year to have these types of discussions. There are no TVs, just beautifully piped-in music and lots of time for sweet conversation and connection. We leave the ups and downs of life behind as we escape to a little place we are sure must be a little like heaven. We schedule our special time in advance and determine that no matter what deadlines might be pressuring us to delay or cancel our trip, we don't forgo this investment in our marriage.

From Capture Her Heart, by Lysa TerKeurst. Copyright © 2002, Moody Press. Used with permission of the publisher.

Love and Respect in Action

by Carol Heffernan
Bringing New Life to Your Marriage

It often starts with something small. Maybe she arrives home from shopping to find that the kids aren't in bed yet. She thought her husband would have realized that the family needed to get up early, so the kids needed to go to bed early.

He didn't think it was a big deal. Besides, he was playing with them and they could take a nap the following day.

She is upset and communicates this to him, but before too long, she can tell that he is upset with her for being upset with him!

When she speaks up, he rolls his eyes. He thinks she’s about to nag, and she thinks he’s very insensitive. And so it goes . . .

Like many couples, they never saw it coming. But such seemingly minor conflicts are like termites, silently eating away beneath the surface, until one day the foundation crumbles.

Trouble is, this disagreement isn’t only about the children's bedtime. It goes deeper than that. According to author and marriage expert Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, the wife isn’t just looking for a resolution on bedtime. At a certain point, she begins to feel unloved and thinks, "If I mattered to him, he'd be more attentive and would definitely talk to me." The husband, meanwhile, interprets his wife’s "need to talk" as another situation that will result in him feeling disrespected as a person and thinks, "I can never be good enough."

"A husband needs respect like he needs air to breathe," Eggerichs explains, "while love is by far a wife’s greatest need."

Eggerichs, who co-wrote Motivating Your Man God’s Way with his wife, Sarah, says this concept is the secret to a better marriage. Without it, couples can easily get caught up in the constant back-and-forth of complaining and stonewalling, action and reaction. Eggerichs calls it the "crazy cycle."

Relational Needs

Men and women differ when it comes to their deepest relational needs.

by Carol Heffernan

The Bible states in Ephesians 5:33 that husbands are to love their wives, and wives are to respect their husbands. Seems easy enough, right? But this commonly cited verse makes a point that's often overlooked, a point that is central to the crazy cycle: Men and women differ when it comes to their deepest relational needs.

If a husband's deepest need (respect) and a wife's deepest need (love) are fulfilled, their relationship is able to flourish. But when these needs are unmet, the cycle begins.

So, why this craziness? When a woman feels unloved, Eggerichs explains, she reacts in a way that may seem disrespectful to her husband. He then reacts to this disrespect in ways that feel unloving to his wife. The more she complains and criticizes, the more he shuts down and stonewalls.

"The message she's trying to send is that she feels unloved at that moment," Eggerichs says. "But she will react in very negative ways that, in the male arena, feel disrespectful. She isn't trying to be disrespectful, but is feeling unloved. Sadly, he may not decode that."

So, how do you stop the "crazy cycle" once it's started? Eggerichs says it's as obvious as it seems: Mutual understanding begins when wives respect their husbands and husbands love their wives. His goal is to help couples better understand how to do that, putting an end to their crazy cycles.

Decision Time

Are you ready to transform your marriage by putting the principles of love and respect into practice?

by Carol Heffernan

As any married couple eventually discovers, romantic feelings don't exist everyday. It takes effort to keep a marriage strong, to keep minor disagreements from becoming major ones, to favor sweet words and tender glances over harsh comments and contemptuous glares.

"In Ephesians 5:33," Eggerichs says "God invites every married couple to make a conscious decision about how they appear to the other. A wife can feel unloved, but appear disrespectful; a husband can feel disrespected but appear unloving. This is why things get crazy! Our negative appearances work against us. God's Word protects us from that mistake."

He continues, "Really, all you have to do is learn this crazy cycle, and when you see the spirit of your spouse deflate, trust . . . that you’ve said something that appears unloving or disrespectful. Then go back and say, 'Did I come across as unloving/disrespectful? I'm sorry, will you forgive me?' That works almost every time."

Eggerichs has seen firsthand how marriages are transformed when husbands and wives put this fundamental concept into practice. To that end, he and his wife started the Love and Respect Marriage Conference, and the testimonials from those who have attended have been very encouraging.

At the conference, they illustrate in detail how to spell "love" to a wife and "respect" to a husband.

The conferences promote the same message as the Eggerichs' book: When unconditional respect and love are demonstrated through tone, facial expression and word choice, the spirit of our spouse re-opens.

"We're going to have conflicts over bedtime-type issues. We're going to get upset," Eggerichs says. "By dealing with marital conflict God's way, we can stop the crazy cycle before it starts. If things get out of control, we can halt the craziness. God's Word works."

One-Flesh Intimacy

The word intimacy is tossed around quite a bit these days. What's it really about?

by Joe Beam

The word intimacy is tossed around quite a bit these days. Often when we describe a couple as intimate, we mean the two appear extremely familiar with each other — so familiar that the spouses often finish each other’s sentences. But having the familiarity to predict the other’s reactions does not necessarily indicate intimacy. In popular entertainment, intimacy is used to describe a couple’s sex life. Though indispensable to an intimate marriage, sexual activity is not the lone factor in experiencing intimacy.

Jesus tells us in Mark 10:7-8 that marriage creates an intimacy of one flesh. The phrase one flesh teaches us a great deal about how real intimacy develops and is cultivated in marriage relationships. If we become one flesh with our spouse, then we must open all aspects of our emotional, spiritual and physical lives to that person to the point that we are not unknown in any dimension.

Sadly, even among Christians, one-flesh intimacy is rare. Many husbands and wives wonder why they chose to marry their spouse in the first place and wish they could escape what feels like a prison instead of a loving and intimate relationship. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

God wants you to experience that one-flesh intimacy described by Jesus. But many go about it the wrong way by failing to realize the three dimensions of an intimate marriage.

Emotional intimacy means couples share facts, feelings, opinions, dreams, fears and frustrations. They experience happiness and sadness together as if the two were one person. They live their lives openly, without secrets or fear of condemnation from their spouse. Conversations are frequent and expected because sharing is vital to building and maintaining this dimension of intimacy.

If emotional intimacy is not achieved in marriage, a person may seek it with someone outside of marriage. Emotional intimacy with someone other than your spouse is dangerous because it often leads to physical intimacy.

Spiritual intimacy can take place only between two people who share Jesus Christ as their Savior. All Christians have the potential to share a part of this dimension with one another. But, when a husband and wife share their spiritual lives, they pray and study God’s Word together, talk about spiritual issues and encourage and challenge one another in their faith. By doing this, they grow together in their relationship with God and walk together in His light.

Physical intimacy is equally important. Mates who think that spiritual and emotional intimacy are enough only fool themselves. God placed powerful sexual drives in us and intended for husband and wife to fulfill each other (1 Corinthians 7:2-4). Though one spouse might become convinced that sexual fulfillment is unnecessary, that doesn’t make it so. Especially in our cultural climate, sexual intimacy in marriage is important to cultivate and protect.

While we can share some sense of emotional intimacy with others, our deepest intimacies should be reserved for our spouse alone. That means I share my emotion, my spirit and my body with my spouse. If I withhold any dimension of myself, I am preventing us from becoming one flesh. Yield yourself to your spouse. Let down the walls in every area of your being to experience the kind of intimacy God intended for you.

Joe Beam is president and founder of Family Dynamics Institute and author of Becoming One.

The Covenant Marriage

How serious are marriage vows? If they are anything like an Old Testament covenant, they're very serious.

by Al Janssen

If God really got married, the logical question is, “When?” Did I miss the wedding ceremony somewhere? The answer emerged when I learned about an ancient ceremony used between two nomadic tribes to make a peace treaty or to promise a boy and girl in marriage. The fathers would slaughter a goat or other animal, cut the carcass in half, and then at sundown walk barefoot through the blood path. The slaughtered animals symbolized what would happen to either party if they violated the terms of the agreement.

This was the ceremony God chose to use when he entered into a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. God asked Abram to take a heifer, a goat and a ram, plus a dove and a young pigeon, and slaughter them. But there was an unusual twist in this ceremony. While Abraham and his descendants were committed to this covenant with God, only God walked the blood path, thereby signifying that if Israel violated the agreement, God would pay the price with His own blood.

Technically, Abram and his descendants weren't married to God in the same sense that we understand a wedding ceremony today. It would be more accurate to say they were betrothed, which means that they were promised to each other. It is the same for Christ and His bride, the church. The wedding feast celebrating this marriage remains in the future at the wedding supper of the Lamb.

In our culture, couples are first engaged — they declare their intent to marry — but either party may back out before the wedding day, and there is no legal consequence for breaking an engagement. Such was not the case with betrothal. A betrothal was an ironclad contract that could be severed only by unfaithfulness or death. Though a couple might not celebrate and consummate their marriage for years, legally they were still considered married.

Such was the case with Joseph and Mary when she was found with child by the Holy Spirit. If a girl who was betrothed was found not to be a virgin before the wedding feast, when the marriage was consummated, she could be executed. This explains why Joseph, upon hearing that Mary was pregnant, decided not to make a public spectacle of his wife but to put her away privately — that is, until God spoke to him and revealed the identity of the child in her womb.

I wonder what the impact was on the children who witnessed a covenant sealed in blood by their fathers. Though they might hardly know each other, and indeed it might be years before they were ready to celebrate the wedding, they surely understood the commitment being made. There was only one way to escape from this marriage — by death.

Marriage Today

When a couple marries today, a lot of effort goes into the wedding. According to Bride's magazine, when the average couple adds up the costs of a wedding dress, tuxedos, dresses for the bridesmaids, rings, invitations, flowers, music, photographer, wedding cake and reception, they spend more than $19,000.

When we were married, Jo was a poor schoolteacher and I was a poor writer. We had less than $1,000 for our wedding. Jo brilliantly maximized the reach of our limited budget by making her own wedding dress and soliciting help from friends and family for such things as food preparation.

A major element of our planning was the ceremony itself. We'd both attended many weddings, and the norm of the late seventies was for each couple to custom-design their ceremony.

In that spirit, Jo and I sat down one Sunday afternoon to write out our commitment to each other. We discussed what we were doing in marriage: pledging to be faithful, to take care of each other, to support one another during good times and hard times. We scribbled several drafts, but none of them captured the right tone.

Finally, we settled on the following:

"I Al take thee, Jo, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health 'til death do us part."

"I Jo take thee, Al, to be my lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health 'til death do us part."

Those words or a slight variation of them have served Christians for centuries, and we couldn't find anything that better expressed what we were committing to each other. They expressed the vows we were making — an irrevocable commitment to each other with God as our witness.

Covenant

Today most people don't understand what covenant means. Our culture is built on contracts, and everyone knows that a crackerjack lawyer can find a loophole if you really want out. So contracts get longer and longer as the parties try to close all possible loopholes, but litigation increases because people change their minds and want release from their agreements.

One contract that is increasing in usage is the prenuptial agreement. A covenant is not at all like a prenuptial agreement. For one thing, there is no escape clause. In ancient times, a covenant was a legal agreement, but with two major differences from contracts today. A covenant was made before deity. And the penalty for breaking it was death. People might negotiate out of contracts, but not out of a covenant.

The covenant between God and Abraham was more binding than a wedding certificate is today. God impressed on Abraham the importance of the covenant: “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you.” While Abraham didn’t walk the blood path, there was a symbol of his acceptance of the agreement. The proof of Abraham’s commitment was that he and every male descendant was circumcised (Genesis 17:9-14).

But in the covenant of blood, God traveled the blood path alone. By doing so, he said that if Abraham or any of his descendants violated this contract, God would pay the price with His own blood. There would come a day when God would heroically have to keep that promise.

For centuries in liturgical churches the service of holy matrimony has been clearly spelled out word for word. As I read several liturgies, I was struck by the similarities between the church service of holy matrimony and the biblical concept of covenant.

For example, the marriage service is conducted before God. Historically a covenant was always a religious ceremony, made before God or gods as witnesses. It was the one treaty between enemies that was enforceable, because neither party was willing to risk the wrath of their deity.

In the English Book of Common Prayer (1662), a wedding service begins with the minister addressing the congregation: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God…to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony." Again and again, the couple and witnesses are reminded that God is witness to this union.

Second, a covenant had witnesses. Likewise, the marriage vows are made before human witnesses. Why is that important? A pastor I know challenged a friend who had just announced he was leaving his wife of six years. "Oh no you're not!" said the pastor. "You made a vow to love your wife until death. I know. I was there and I heard you. Now you stay with her and work things out." The man was shocked, but he stayed, and today their marriage is much healthier. I wonder what would happen if, like this pastor, more witnesses challenged couples to fulfill their wedding vows.

Third, both a covenant and a traditional marriage ceremony declared the seriousness of the commitment. In The Book of Common Prayer, the minister utters these words in his opening exhortation to the congregation and the couple standing before him: "Holy Matrimony…is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men; and therefore is not by any to be enterprised…unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God."

Recently, as I reflected on the vows Jo and I exchanged at our wedding, I was struck by the one-sidedness of our commitment. There were no qualifiers or disclaimers. I had promised to love Jo for better or worse until death, regardless of her actions or attitude. Likewise, Jo promised to have me for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, for as long as we both shall live, regardless of how well or poorly I behaved. No doubt we both assumed we would reciprocate in our love for each other. However, our vows said nothing about being loved back. By our words, each of us assumed 100 percent responsibility for the marriage. That's the nature of covenant. Each party makes an irrevocable vow.

Fourth, something of great value was exchanged. God wanted to give Abraham and his descendants a country, but He did it in the context of family. Did Abraham realize he was actually getting the best end of the deal? He was entering into a long-term relationship with the God of the universe. The land was very important, but it wasn't the most important thing — it was a symbol of the value of their relationship.

I am impressed again by the nature of the exchange in the traditional marriage service. It particularly struck me when I read the words uttered by the husband when he places the wedding ring on his wife's finger: "With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” In other words, the husband gave everything he had to his wife, including his body and his earthly possessions. No longer were there his or her possessions. Everything was theirs. Why is this important? Because in giving our all, we actually gain what we want.

Permanence of Marriage

Obviously millions of couples chafe under the idea of covenant, feeling that the permanence fences them in. But Jo and I feel secure within these boundaries. Without the possibility of divorce, Jo and I know that regardless of our problems, we will be there for each other. And when we disagree or fight, we had better figure out a way to resolve our differences, for we are going to be together for a very long time.

This article is excerpted from The Marriage Masterpiece, a Focus on the Family resource by Al Janssen, published by Tyndale House Publishers, copyright © 2001. All rights reserved.

The Power of Commitment

Believe me, ours is not a perfect marriage. But I am far richer when I remember the "three Cs" of a great marriage.

by Phil Callaway

My most brilliant achievement was my ability to persuade my wife to marry me.

— Winston Churchill

The great philosopher Socrates once wrote, "By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you will become very happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher."

Some time ago, my parents were visiting and I asked them about the secret to their 55-year marriage. Without hesitation, Dad said, "Senility. I wake up each morning and I can't remember who this old girl is. So each day is a new adventure." When Mom finally quit pinching him, he got serious.

"In a word?" he said. "Commitment."

You don't have to stand in the checkout line long to know that commitment is not a hallmark of our culture. Standing near the chocolate bars the other day, I picked out a tabloid and read of Rex and Teresa LeGalley, a young couple who want to ensure that their recent marriage will stand the test of time. After all, it was Teresa's second marriage and Rex's third. So they drew up a 16-page prenuptial agreement that specifies such details as what time they'll go to bed, how often they'll have sex, which gasoline they'll purchase and who will do the laundry. Says Teresa, "This is the plan that we think will keep us married for 50 or 60 years."

When I told this to Dad, he had another one-word response: "Ha!"

Occasionally Hollywood surprises us with some good news, though. Famed singer and actress Bette Midler, who has been married for 13 years to artist Martin von Haselberg, was asked about the key to their marriage. Midler responded, "Separate vacations." Then, like my dad, she got serious. "We're committed," she said. "We're in it for the long haul. Besides, you really don't get to know a person until you've known them a long time, and we don't know each other yet, even though it's been 13 years. Sometimes it's been a struggle, but amazingly we didn't give up."

Mel Gibson, who was married the same year as Midler, agrees. Recently the popular movie star found himself talking with an older man about marriage. "We were having a real heart-to-heart," recalls Gibson, "then his wife appeared. She was a beautiful girl about 19 or 20. And I said, 'Oh, you are a lucky man.' The man shook his head and answered, 'I should have stayed with my first wife. Things haven’t changed — she just looks different.'" Gibson sums it up, "You see, people are chasing things they can't get. They're just illusions. You've got to make a commitment in marriage — just say, 'This is it.' I think too many people go into marriage too lightly. You’ve got to take it seriously — go in there to make it last."

When asked by US magazine about the secret to his 41-year marriage, James Garner, the star of Maverick and The Rockford Files, said, "Consideration. You have to care for [your spouse] and do a lot of forgiving and forgetting. It’s a two-way street. A lot of people don't get married because they know they can get out of it at any minute. Hey, it was difficult for me to make that commitment, but when I make them, I stick with them."

I remember reading of an elderly couple whose family had thrown a golden anniversary party for them. The husband was deeply touched by their kindness and stood to thank them. Then he looked at his wife of 50 years and tried to put into words just how he felt about her. Lifting his glass he said: "My dear wife, after 50 years I've found you tried and true." Everyone smiled their approval, but not his wife. She had hearing trouble, so she cupped one hand behind an ear and said, "Eh?" Her husband repeated himself loudly, "AFTER FIFTY YEARS I'VE FOUND YOU TRIED AND TRUE!" His wife shot back, "Well, let me tell YOU something — after 50 years I’m tired of you, too!"

Thankfully, commitment doesn't need to be like that. Marriage is not a life sentence; it is a joyful privilege. Paul Brand, the missionary doctor who worked for many years among leprosy victims in India, said these challenging words: "As I enter my sixth decade of marriage I can say without a flicker of hesitation that the basic human virtue of faithfulness to one partner is the most joyful way of life … I have always trusted my wife completely, and she me. We have each been able to channel love and commitment and intimacy to one person — a lifelong investment that is now, in old age, paying rich dividends."

A friend once told me that his parents always got along. That he had never heard them disagree, and he had certainly never heard them argue. I finally stopped laughing long enough to tell him that I couldn't say that about Mom and Dad. But I never doubted their commitment to each other. What kept them committed? Simple obedience to the One with whom they had the most important relationship of all.

Often at night, I came into Mom and Dad’s room and found them praying together. Or reading the Bible together. They knew that "unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain" (Psalm 127:1). Mom told me one day, "Only with Christ at the center of our marriage, at the center of our home, at the center of everything we do, can we experience the greatest joy and fulfillment possible." My wife and I have made a commitment to read the Bible and pray together before we go to sleep each night. We haven't always achieved that goal. In fact, sometimes we have gone through weeks of neglecting it altogether. But when we follow through on this simple commitment, it can make a world of difference in our marriage. For one thing, I find it very difficult to read passages like Colossians 3:12-14 aloud to my wife without it having a dramatic effect on the way l treat her.

Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

It is Christ alone who gives us the power to love others in this way.

Believe me, ours is not a perfect marriage. But I am far richer when I remember the three "Cs" of a great marriage: Communication. Commitment. Christ.

It may not be the deepest thing you’ll ever read, but I’d rather be a happily married man than a philosopher. Any day.

Excerpted from Making Life Rich Without Any Money, copyright © 1998 by Phil Callaway. Used by permission of Harvest House Publishers.