The way to have a great marriage is by not focusing on marriage.
Not the sort of advice you’ll find on a bestseller rack near you.
In their new book, You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity, Francis and Lisa Chan set out to reframe the entire way we think about relationships, marriage, and parenting. The marriage union is great, they observe, but it’s not forever. Therefore, we must approach this sacred relationship from the zoomed-out vantage point of eternity. And when we do, it changes everything.
I recently corresponded with the Chans about the chief problem in Christian marriages, must-have conversations, their message to singles, the kid factor, and more. (By the way, 100 percent of the net proceeds from the book will go to support various ministries, including those that help provide shelter and rehabilitation for thousands of children and exploited women around the world. More information here.)
What’s the greatest problem you perceive in typical Christian marriages?
Forgetting the whole point of their existence. We’ve witnessed many singles fervently serve God until their marriage day, at which point one of two things happens: (1) they enjoy each other so much that they spend almost all their free time entertaining each other rather than serving God; or (2) they struggle in their relationship and spend their days arguing, going to counseling, and feeling disqualified from serving God. In either case, the couple no longer spend their time furthering the kingdom, but instead fixate on one another.
We must remember we weren’t created to merely enjoy ourselves. Colossians 1:16 declares that we were created by Christ and for Christ. Paul also warned that if we are not careful, marriage will keep us from securing “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). Too many couples make decisions based on the pursuit of pleasure rather than the pursuit of the kingdom. We too often don’t surrender and ask God what would be most effective. Instead, we live where we want, drive what we want, have as many kids as we want. And we somehow convince ourselves this isn’t selfishness because there are two of us involved now.
It’s not that God doesn’t want us to be happy. In fact, surrendering to a kingdom-first mindset actually brings us greater fulfillment. When we seek his mission together, greater union with each other becomes the byproduct. Jesus came that we could have life to the full (John 10:10). But we need to remember that the goal of marriage isn’t mere happiness. It’s very possible to have a happy and worthless marriage. It’s possible to waste your life merely enjoying your spouse and children, then stand before God realizing you didn’t give yourself to his Great Commission.
What conversations are essential to have prior to engagement and/or marriage?
Every couple needs to have a gospel conversation. We must ask: Are we both surrendered to the lordship of Jesus Christ? Have we both decided to follow him? Many people call themselves “Christian,” but that can mean virtually anything nowadays. Are we both willing to sacrifice anything? Will we make our life choices based on what will most benefit God’s kingdom? Will we center our lives around making disciples?
Before I asked Lisa to marry me, we had a long discussion about serving the Lord with our lives. I had to know she would encourage rather than restrain me from serving him. As much as I loved her, I was willing to break up with her if she was going to keep me from accomplishing what I was created to do. I’d seen too many of my friends in misery because they married someone who hindered their ministry.
One of your chapters is titled “Marriage Isn’t That Great.” What in the world do you mean?
Marriage is a brilliant creation, but it’s not God. Let’s be careful not to reduce Christianity to a belief system that helps us build good families. The biblical narrative centers on a marriage with Jesus; earthly marriage is just a shadow.
Sometimes, the sheer number of struggling marriages in the church causes us to overfocus on the family. This overemphasis causes some to believe that just because they get along, they’re accomplishing his will for their lives. So let’s address marriage, yes, but let’s not overdo it. Marriage problems are rarely marriage problems anyway. We fight because we’re needy—and needy people haven’t found fulfillment in Christ. They don’t grasp “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” They want too much, and so get frustrated by their spouse because he or she isn’t meeting all their needs.
It’s not that we should neglect our marriage or cease finding enjoyment in our relationship. God created marriage, and it can be amazing. Our house is filled with laughter. Not a day goes by without spontaneous outbursts of it. We can and should enjoy each other. We just have to remember that we’re here as his ambassadors, to represent him and bring him glory. People should see Christ in the way we selflessly and humbly love each other and in the way we work together to love the world.
How has parenting seven kids affected your marriage? What’s your biggest piece of advice for fellow parents with respect to their marriages?
Children change everything. I am convinced God uses our children to cleanse us from self-centeredness. Babies demand that you move your focus off yourself and onto them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only bad when they’re 13 and still believe everyone should drop whatever they’re doing to tend to their needs. It’s hard enough to fight self-centeredness in ourselves, but parents are given the task of training their children to live God-centered lives as well (Deut. 6:4–9).
Our biggest piece of advice would be to view your kids as assets rather than burdens. It used to be that people envied couples with many kids. It meant they had more help on the farm, with the business, around the home, and so on. When people hear we have seven kids now, though, they feel sorry for us! Why is it that for thousands of years children were a blessing, yet in the past few decades we’ve come to view them as burdens? Poor parenting. We raise them to either be burdens or assets. Good parenting involves teaching them to love and serve others rather than expecting to be constantly served. While we will always serve our kids to some degree, we also expect them to serve each other and those around us. Our children have been our biggest assets in ministry. Rather than distracting from kingdom work, they multiply it. Nine servants are better than two.
One additional piece of advice is that there’s no substitute for authenticity. If you don’t have a deep and genuine love for Christ, it will become obvious. Your kids will eventually see what’s really going on. They can tell if you cherish them more than Christ. They can tell if you idolize them, just as they can tell if you neglect them. Love Jesus and his mission most. Teach them to do the same. Give them an eternal perspective by what you say and by how you spend your money and time.
What’s your primary message to single Christians?
Take advantage of this time! We miss out when we focus too much on our next phase of life. When we’re single, we can’t wait till marriage, then we can’t wait to have kids, then we can’t wait till they talk, then we can’t till they’re in school, then we can’t wait till they’re out of adolescence, and so on. We can get in a habit of longing for the next step rather than enjoying today to the full. As a single person you have an opportunity to dive deeply into your most significant relationship without as many distractions. If you do get married and have kids, life will get so much busier, and you’ll look back and regret any wasting of your single years.
There’s nothing wrong with telling the Lord that you desire to be married, but fight for contentment. Don’t beat yourself up if there are times of loneliness. He created you for fellowship. Try to find it in Christ and in the body of Christ. Find fulfillment in the mission. You can bring tremendous glory to God by resisting temptation and bitterness, and by showing the world there is something much bigger than earthly marriage.
I was once told, “Those who are most ready for marriage are those who need it the least.” The point is that those who find everything they need in Christ are least likely to suffocate their spouses through their neediness. The world needs more individuals who are content in Christ and who organize their lives around his kingdom. We pray that when those people get married, it will only lead to greater fruitfulness. That has been our experience, and we pray it will be yours.