ion of From the forthcoming book, The Love Triangle: How Union with Christ Transforms the Union of Marriage.
When my wife and I married, someone gave us a Heartleaf Philodendron, which is also called the Sweetheart Plant. Perfect for a newly married couple, right? We potted the philodendron in a fashionable, ceramic Gail Pitman bowl and displayed it prominently in our kitchen beside the window so that it would receive just enough, but not too much light. Known for being super easy to grow and maintain, these plants are ideal for folks like me who lack green in our thumbs.
After several weeks, I noticed that the plant was beginning to wilt. I re-positioned it for better light. More wilting. I moved it to the den to no avail. Soon, the plant was so limp that it looked dead. Brown leaves. Lifeless stems.
That didn’t take long.
Marriage can experience the same life cycle. It usually takes longer than three weeks, but eventually, every marriage will experience signs of wilt. Sometimes it begins with the tension generated by personality differences. Pet peeves start to grow like black mold. Unrealistic expectations turn into frustrations and unmet demands create unexpected conflict. Maybe for you, the dream is dying and you are disappointed, discouraged, and maybe even angry, feeling like the promise of marital joy has been bait-and-switched for marital misery.
I can testify from personal experience, as there have been seasons in my own marriage where the relationship felt withered, wilted, and lifeless. The question that my wife and I had to face, and that you may be facing, is this: can a withered marriage thrive again? The Sweetheart Plant says, “Yes.”
Quite by accident, as I was moving the plant again, in a last-ditch effort to save it, my thumb penetrated the soil. At that point, I knew why it was dying. The soil was dry as the desert. It needed water! So, I rushed it back to the kitchen and drowned it in tap water, wondering if it may be too late. To my astonishment, the very next morning it was standing tall, healthy, and vibrant. The philodendron was thriving again!
The same thing can be true with marriage. You may be at the point of making a last-ditch effort to save your marriage, or you may just be a bit withered. But it can thrive again. It is not too late. Your marriage can experience a renewal of health, vitality, and joy.
Yes, your marriage can thrive again.
However, what will empower your marriage to move from surviving to thriving is not primarily trying harder to apply helpful and practical principles to your relationship. Those are not unimportant; just secondary. And you’ve done that already—the months and even years in counseling dealing with the same issues and see very little progress.
The lack of progress is because the primary, root problem in my marriage and yours is not primarily communication, or money, or sex. It is not the fruit. The issue is with the soil. In other words, the systemic issue is not a functional problem of how to do marriage, but a spiritual and theological problem—a failure to live in union with Jesus.
But that sounds too simple? And what does this mean, anyway?
Let me explain.
The traditional wedding service usually begins with a welcome and statement of purpose. “We have gathered here today in the presence of God to witness the joining together of Mary and John in holy matrimony.” Right out of the gate, the concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman is established as they are joined together.
Our English word “union” is derived from two Latin words, unus, meaning one, and unio, meaning unity. By the early 15th century A.D., the English language had adopted a combination of these Latin words to describe the joining of two or more separate entities into one. For example, multiple strands of fabric would be woven into one garment. Various metals could be melted into an alloy. Numerous geo-political states can be connected together under one government to form a union such as the United Stated of America.
The heart of union is oneness.
The ultimate and most perfect example of oneness is God as Trinity, three Persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While retaining individual personality and roles in the Godhead, they are so decisively bound together that the monotheistic, “one God” distinctive is retained. Both are true. God is one. God is three. This is what is meant by Trinity, where God exists in tri-unity.
Due to the mysterious nature of the God union, a variety of symbols have been created to provide a visual conception of what it means to retain individuality, but nevertheless exist as one. One such symbol is the Triquetra, from the Latin tri, meaning “three” and quetrus, meaning “cornered.” Although the symbol probably predates Christianity, as it resembles the Valknut (a symbol associated with Odin, a god in Norse mythology), the inscription was adopted by Christians to explain the three and oneness of God as Trinity, and has been found on carved stones in Northern Europe dating from the 8th century A.D. and on early Germanic coins. Eventually, the Triquetra became known as the “Trinity Knot.”
A CORD OF THREE STRANDS
Therefore, it should not surprise us that when God established human marriage, he designed it to be a union between a man and a woman, where the two really do “tie the knot” as they enter into a union that is a shadow of God’s oneness—two strands joined together. But we know that in Christian marriage, there are not meant to be only two strands. Christian marriage is much more like a Triquetra than merely a Biquetra.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes the benefits of two people in partnership.
9 Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor: 10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Three strands? He had been talking about the value of two, then all of a sudden switches without warning, to the necessity of three strands. Did Solomon make a mistake? Did a 5th-century monk err while copying the Scripture late at night by candlelight? I don’t think so.
Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture is God-breathed.” Yes, Solomon wrote it. But even as Peter tells us in 2 Peter 1:21, Solomon was guided by the Spirit in producing the writings in the Bible we call wisdom literature. Somehow he knew that a human partnership, especially the union of marriage, could only be as strong as the third cord. Even rope makers know this, which is why rope must have at least three strands to sustain any kind of real weight.
This third cord in marriage is Jesus.
To describe how these three strands are connected, we can think of this relationship as mirroring the love relationship among the persons of the Trinity. Theirs is a triangle bonded with love, a love deeper, higher, wider, and broader than the human mind can conceive. Yet, this is the same love which God has for each believer in Jesus![i] It is when we are united to that love that we can experience marriage as a love triangle.
Okay, I know that a “love triangle” is usually a phrase that depicts the scandal where two guys are vying for the same girl, or vice versa. With that context, we would want to avoid a love triangle at all costs in marriage. Yet what we see in Scripture is that for a marriage to thrive, it must be a love triangle, because the only way I can love my spouse is if I am being loved by Jesus. The only way I can forgive is if I am being forgiven. The only way I will not put the burden of my spouse being my savior is for Jesus to be my savior.
THE GIFT OF MARRIAGE
Living in the midst of this love triangle is a gift that God has given to us. He calls is marriage, a relationship of uniquely intimate union. Apparently, two are better than one. This is what we see in the second chapter of Genesis.
18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19 Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
“One flesh.” This is union—the marriage union.
In Ephesians 5:31-32, when teaching on the relationship between a husband and a wife, he quotes Genesis 2:24 and adds some commentary, saying, “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
In this reflection on marriage, Paul relates the “one flesh” relationship between a man and a woman is directly, personally, and intimately related to a believer’s relationship with Jesus—the love triangle. In other words, we learn from Paul that in
order for a marriage to have the capacity to reflect the union of the church with the Savior in the practical ways Paul outlines in Ephesians 5:21-30 (for example, a husband exercising sacrificial love and a wife demonstrating respect for her husband’s role to lead), each spouse needs to be directly, personally, and intimately united to Christ. This means that the only way for a marriage to enjoy the fullness of grace that God desires for the “one flesh” union, we must understand what it means to be first united to Jesus.
The graphic below shows how each spouse is connected first to Jesus, then with each other, forming the love triangle.
What we are discovering is that the primary union in marriage is not between spouses. The primary union in marriage is each spouse living in union with Jesus.
The Puritan giant John Owen wrote that union with Christ is “the greatest, most honorable, and glorious of all graces that we are made partakers of.”[iii] John Murray agrees, saying, “Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ… [it] is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”[iv] Those are staggering statements, especially in light of the fact that many of us as believers are unfamiliar with this theological concept. Even if we were not going to apply this to the marriage union, wouldn’t you want to know more about this “central truth” and most “glorious of all graces?” I would!
THE SECRET OF ABIDING
Jesus explains this spiritual union in John 15:4-5 using the agricultural metaphor of a branch that is lives and produces fruit because it is attached to a living vine.
4 Abide in me, as I also will abide in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must abide in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
What we are calling union, Jesus describes as abiding. Metals are melded. People are married. Believers are engrafted. Three different ways to communicate oneness as a direct, personal, intimate connection.
The Greek word translated “abide” has a range of meaning that implies a continued action. In fact, the word is translated in other places as remain, continue, and endure. Obviously, when a branch would be engrafted into a living vine, there would be an initial connection. However, the force of the metaphor, with “abide” as an imperative verb, suggests a volitional pressing in, an intentional continuation of the initial engrafting, an ongoing union.
But how do we abide in Jesus? What does this mean?
To grasp the theological import of the abiding metaphor, we simply need to ask how we are spiritually connected to Jesus. The answer is ridiculously simple. To abide is to believe.
“To believe what?”
“Okay, but what is the gospel.”
I’m so glad you asked!
Simply put, the gospel is the good news that through Jesus’ substitionary life and death, he becomes the sin-bearer and righteousness provider for anyone who receives the gift of this grace through faith alone. This means that as I abide “in Christ” (a favorite phrase for the apostle Paul, which should tell us something), I believe that Jesus, as my sin-bearer, has taken upon himself all of the condemnation my sin deserves. It also means that, as my righteousness provider, he clothes me in his perfect record of moral obedience.
The first time we receive this gift by faith, we are justified. As some have said, we are seen by God “just if I’d” never sinned and “just if I’d” perfectly obeyed the law. This is not something that we achieve; it is something that we receive. It is all grace—a gift. Therefore, the command to abide is a command to continually and consciously be clothed in Jesus’ righteousness.
THE GREEN JACKET
Every April, someone received a new and highly coveted green jacket. Those who possess one of these green jackets are part of an elite club of champions who have proven themselves worthy by winning The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.
It is safe to say that as long as I practice and as hard as I try, I will never receive a green jacket as the champion of The Masters. In fact, I would not even be invited to compete in the qualifying rounds. Yes, I can drive and put reasonably well. It is everything in between where I have issues. In fact, I’m so bad with irons on the fairway that my father-in-law bought me a set of clubs in order to get me on the fairway so that he could hear a preacher cuss.
As far as championship golf. I am hopeless.
Nevertheless, there actually is a way that I could possess a green jacket. Only one way. That one way would be if someone else put in the years of devotion to the game, were uniquely skilled, won the tournament, received the green jacket, and then proceeded to put it on me.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine what it would feel like to have the champion take his prized jacket, walk over to you, have you put out one arm and slip on the first sleeve; then the second arm. You turn to the mirror in the clubhouse and see yourself—wearing the green jacket of The Master’s champion. But it is not just to try on. It is to wear and prize.
Are you kidding? I would wear that jacket every day!
It is the same way with the gospel. Jesus earns the green jacket of perfect righteousness and puts it on me. To wear. To prize. In which to boast, not as if I had earned it, but to boast in it as a gift, celebrating the hero who won it.
It is through abiding in Jesus that we clothe ourselves with the green jacket. It becomes our very identity. We are known to the world not as achievers, but as receivers. The Father looks upon us with delight as fully forgiven, perfectly accepted, and treasured sons and daughters. We have nothing to prove and nothing to lose. We are free to repent genuinely and deeply and to lavish forgiveness full and free.
Because all we have is grace. Period.
THE SOURCE OF STRIFE
When we realize that most of our marital problems stem from clothing ourselves in everything except the green jacket, we begin to see how powerfully transformative it is to abide in Jesus, consciously clothed in his garments of grace.
According to Jesus, if we do not abide in the theological reality of our union with Jesus, we will be impotent to repent, forgive and love our spouse. Being cut off from Jesus’ righteousness, we are severed from the power source of the Spirit, who is the one who enables us to produce the good fruit that marriage needs to thrive. This is what Jesus means when he says, “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must abide in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me.”
I can try to hold my tongue, but eventually, the vomit of hurtful words will spew out. I can try to avoid the porn site, but my willpower will prove no match for the lustful desires enflamed by the flesh. I can try to show patience and respect to a non-handyman husband, but the bitterness of his ineptitude at DIY projects will begin to harden my heart with resentment.
The realism of Jesus should encourage us here. We are morally weaker than we think we are. If we would embrace this truth, then we would be in a much better position to see marriage move from surviving to thriving.
“MY GRACE IS SUFFICIENT FOR YOU”
When my firstborn was young, she was almost as stubborn as I am. On one occasion, as she attempted to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I noticed that she was struggling. Her small hands could barely grasp the circumference of the lid. As hard as she tried, and regardless of what noises of physical exertion she employed, the top refused to budge under her strength.
As I continued to observe in parental amusement, she finally came to her senses and looked at me. Not in anger, but with helplessness, she finally asked, “Daddy, will you open the jelly for me?”
I was delighted. She had turned to the one who was able to help.
In the same way, Jesus is delighted when we come to him in our helpless condition, seeking his power to work in and through us in ways that are impossible for the flesh.
Paul discovered this.
In 2 Corinthians 12, he describes a painful infliction that he prayed would be removed. Jesus responded to him verbally, saying, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
The point is that self-awareness of inability is a gift that enables us to seek and receive the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit to work in and through us. That is what Jesus teaches us when he says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.”
What a promise! Jesus says that as we abide in him, he will abide in us and we will produce much fruit! Don’t miss that. We will produce much fruit.
This is a guarantee. A guarantee!
But how is the fruit produced again?
THE DYNAMICS OF SPIRITUAL CHANGE
As we abide in Jesus, resting in him as our perfect righteousness, the sap of the Holy Spirit flows into us, as it does from a living vine into a branch. It is an organic process. For example, as the branch is filled with sap, it begins to show signs of change. Buds appear. Eventually, fruit begins to show and grow.
This is the dynamic of how change takes place in our lives.
As I abide, I am filled with the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit, I begin to experience new desires. I desire intimacy with my spouse. I long to show kindness and mercy. I want to bless her. Where are these desires coming from? Although they feel like they are coming from me, we know better. They are the result of the roots of my faith pressing into the soil of the gospel, or sap flowing into the branch.
Not only do we begin to experience new desires, but we are empowered to act on them with practical love, which just happens to be the first fruit of the Spirit Paul lists in Galatians 5:22. This is why I believe that “morning devotions” are not a law or rule to fulfil, but the process where we “put on” the green jacket of Jesus’ righteousness, remembering who we are as fully forgiven, perfectly accepted, dearly loved sons and daughters of God. With God as my Abba, Father, I have nothing to fear, nothing to prove, and nothing to lose. I am free to love, repent, and forgive in the power of the Spirit.
NOW WE KNOW!
So far, every couple I have coached through their wedding preparation course has agreed that love was a key ingredient for a marriage to thrive. Most of them indicate that it is the primary factor. Not many would argue. Now we know where that key ingredient and primary factor comes from—not willpower, but the indwelling Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit indwells in fullness as we abide in union with Jesus! Then, through abiding, the marriage dream is revived. Not only is each spouse experiencing freedom, grace, and peace with God, but they are able to express that same freedom, grace and peace to each other.
Marriage has just taken a huge step from surviving to thriving through abiding.
[i] Ephesians 3:14-21.
[ii] Genesis 2:19-24.
[iii] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), chap. 20:148.
[iv] John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 161, 170.