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How To Avoid Making an Idol of Your Marriage and Spouse

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A thoughtful young man asked me:

My wife and I were talking about idols, and wondering to what degree marriage, or your significant other, can become an idol? We talked about the idea that something is an idol if you would be discontent without it. But we know that marriage is such a gift from the Lord, and you are more united to that person than any other person. We thought of you, and wanted to ask your thoughts on this?

When the apostle John wrote to Christ-followers near the end of the first century, most had nothing to do with carved idols. Still, his final words to them were, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The New Living Translation captures the meaning this way: “Keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts.”

In the Christian worldview, created things are a means to help us delight in God. The problems start when we believe we can find more happiness in God’s creation than in God Himself.

Remembering What’s Primary

What helped Nanci and I most avoid idolatry in marriage was that over the years, we came to say—and to really believe—that we were each other’s second best friend. Based on John 15 and His sacrificial love toward us, Jesus was our best friend. No one else was close to taking the place we had in each other’s lives, but we would always put God first. We knew that we needed to look to Him to meet our deepest needs because He is the primary, and we are the secondary.

It is not always easy to think of that person you love so much as being secondary in any sense. But your spouse must be, because as C. S. Lewis pointed out, whenever we make the secondary primary, we ruin the secondary. In The Great Divorce, he illustrated that with a woman who swore she loved her family, but by making them first in her thinking, she imagined they owed her some great debt of gratitude because of all she had done for them, supposedly out of love. But there was no way they could fulfill her expectations and in her selfishness, which she thought of as sacrificial, she was always disappointed in them, and drove them away and made their lives miserable. That’s what idolatry will do to something that should be good and pure and healthy.

Tim Keller wrote:

To live for anything else but God leads to breakdown and decay. When a fish leaves the water, which he was built for, he is not free, but dead. Worshiping other things . . . cannot deliver satisfaction, because they were never meant to be “gods.” They were never meant to replace God.

Idolatry Is a Heavy Burden

For me and Nanci, reminding ourselves that God was first guarded our relationship from being idolatrous. We did not mistake each other for Jesus or see each other as a substitute for Him. Of course, learning that lesson required trial and error. Early on in our relationship, it was easy to be so enamored with each other and our love for each other that we could put each other before Jesus, without thinking of it that way.

We knew we loved Jesus, but we loved each other so much and that love for the person physically in front of us was fresh and new and visible. So I think at times we did in fact put the human we loved above the God-man we loved. Not only was that unhealthy spiritually, but it was also unhealthy for our relationship, because we simply could not live up to each other’s expectations.

Once we learned our lessons the hard way, that took the pressure off both of us. Having a spouse who looks to you to make him or her happy all the time is a heavy burden to live under in a fallen world under the curse, and where we still experience the sin nature that is constantly fighting against our new nature. No one can be successful in fulfilling another person’s deepest needs, and it imposes a constant stream of pressure and disappointment and frustration. The implication is, “Sometimes I am not happy, and since it’s your role to make me happy and satisfied, you’re failing me.” Someone may not mean to say that, but that’s the message the other partner gets when your marriage is an idol. It simply cannot provide what you are expecting or demanding of it.

Only our omnipotent, all-sufficient Savior is capable of meeting our deepest needs. The best we can do as marriage partners, soulmates, and second-best friends is look to Him to meet our deepest needs and encourage each other to do the same. There is great joy in helping each other look to Jesus! That is when marriage truly reflects the picture of the relationship between Christ and His bride that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5.