I remember fondly my first wedding.
As I prepared for Andrew and Pamela’s big day, I was reminded just how profound a privilege it is to officiate at a moment like that.
Marriage is important. It has far reaching implications for our health and that of our kids. According to the American Psychological Association:
Healthy marriages are good for couples’ mental and physical health. They are also good for children; growing up in a happy home protects children from mental, physical, educational and social problems
There are big theological implications for marriage too.
At the heart of our faith is the picture of the three-in-one God. At the heart of our faith is a picture of being one, but not the same. We who are created in the image of this one-but-different God are called to bear his image.
We most effectively do that image bearing in relationships that are one-but-different. The most intense version of this is marriage. The second chapter of the first book of the bible says that marriage is about two different people becoming united as “one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
Despite these significant benefits, and the incredible theological implications, divorce rates hover around 50%.
Two different people becoming “one flesh” is not simple.
Andrew and Pamela chose a bible passage for their ceremony that is not often read at weddings, but as I read and reflected I think perhaps it should be more often. They chose Ephesians 6:10-18.
The passage had special significance for me in this moment because I have been living and teaching out of the book of Ephesians for several months now, and I have been inspired by the vision that Paul paints for the church.
One of the major themes of the whole book of Ephesians is that the church, and families within the church, are to be one-but-different because of their love for Jesus. Paul believes this kind of life is a foretaste of what heaven will be like and is the strongest argument for the truth of the gospel.
Because of the incredible significance of the vision he is painting, Paul finishes his letter trying to prepare his readers that they are in a battle and their job is to hold firm. This one-but-different life will not happen accidentally or easily. The enemy will want to bring division and discord.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:10-12)
I was listening to sports commentators discussing whether the Edmonton Oilers new player, Connor Mc David was strong enough on his skates. I think that’s kind of the picture Paul is painting. NHL players who are not strong on their skates get pushed around by bullies and are taken “off the puck”.
To play in the NHL you need to be able to stand your ground against the forces that want to take you out of the game. To play in the game of life, you also need to be able to stand your ground when everything around you is pulling you away.
After talking about the need to stand firm, Paul uses the picture of armour to talk about the kinds of things that enable us to do it:
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. (6:13)
I have heard a number of people talk about the armour of God as though it is something you pray about in the morning and then somehow you have an invisible covering that acts like teflon throughout the day. Perhaps this is what Paul was meaning but I don’t think so.
The armour Paul talks about are choices we need to make. The pieces of the armour are the ingredients of a healthy marriage, a healthy community and a whole life.
The first piece of armour that enables us to “Stand firm then” is
the belt of truth buckled around your waist, (6:14)
The picture of the belt here is not a cowboy belt, or a trendy thin belt, it is a massive Roman soldiers belt that covered the whole groin area.
The starting point of the battle for our marriages is truth and honesty. It is also the starting point of the battle for our families, our communities and our workplaces. Without truth there is no relationship.
This is not some metaphorical construct. The Apostle Paul is telling his readers to speak “the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour” (Eph 4:25) because he believes the whole of the gospel is about truth (Eph 1:13) and that the fruit of those who are living in the light will be goodness, righteousness and truth (Eph 5:9).
At the heart of the spiritual battle is the battle over truth, and we need to do the scary work of being honest with each other because that is the very thing the supernatural forces lined up against us want us to avoid.
Paul then presents the picture of the piece of amor that covers our heart (the place where our choices come from) is our right actions:
with the breastplate of righteousness in place, (6:14)
In every marriage, every day is a choice to be selfish or to act rightly. Righteousness, again, is not a metaphorical construct, it is a minute-by-minute choice. Each one of those choices will either protect our heart, or make our heart vulnerable.
Verse 15 speaks to a general attitude:
and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
I used to see this verse as an encouragement to be ready to tell people about Jesus. It is interesting though that Paul is talking about our feet and not our mouths. My sense of what he is saying here is that we are to be ready to go wherever Jesus invites us to go.
A soldier has to be “battle ready”, ready to drop anything and move where the commanding officer directs. This is a picture of letting go of your own agenda and being ready to drop whatever you are doing on the direction of Jesus.
Marriages break up because two people have two different agendas. Churches break up because people have different agendas. Paul is saying that we need to let go of those agendas and be ready to respond as we are called.
The next element is the means by which we counter the attacks that want to rip a marriage or a community apart:
16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
Faith is about being willing to let go of how you see things and being open to how God sees things. The enemy wants us to rely on our own worldview and fight for them, because they are not the truth. The shield of faith says “not my will but yours be done”.
The only part of the armour that does not require an ongoing choice is the next part, which is why Paul spends little time with it:
17 Take the helmet of salvation
The fight for your life is already won, your head is covered by Jesus if you have made the choice to enter the battle on his side. Salvation is His work and not yours.
You are though, invited to wield a weapon that is also not yours, but you are invited to wield it anyway:
and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
If Satan’s weapon is lies, the weapon that God furnishes us with is the truth that is illuminated by the Spirit through the word of God. A healthy marriage will continue to come back to truth through being willing to be open to evaluate what may feel “normal” but what might not be right.
Finally Paul breaks the metaphor by not mentioning armour at all and says in verse 18:
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.
The pre-requisite to all the other pieces of armour is open communication lines with the creator of the Universe. Prayer is an essential ingredient in every aspect of what it means to stand firm and hold a marriage together, a family together or a family together. Don’t just take my word for it, Dr Phil writes in his book Relationship Rescue:
An interesting statistic shared by David McLaughlin in his wonderful series entitled The Role of the Man in the Family reflects that the divorce rate in America is at a minimum one out of two marriages. But the reported divorce rate among couples that pray together is about one in ten thousand. Pretty impressive statistic, even if you reduce it a thousandfold.
If David McLaughlin is right, one simple action could dramatically change the national divorce statistics.
Leeanne and I pray together most nights. It was awkward to start with but it gradually became normal and is a really important part of our journey together.
Pamela and Andrew were wise to select this passage as a foundation on which to build their marriage.
The enemy’s agenda is to kill communities and marriages. We all need to learn what it actually means to stand firm.