Pastor John’s Ten Commandments for Marital Love
Rev. Dr. John Fullerton
The theme today is love between spouses, so married people, listen up. Single people, take note if you plan on being married or even in a romantic relationship. Over the years as a pastor, I realized that strong and healthy marriages have common patterns. Many books from family and marriage therapists have been written, but I found it helpful to compile for myself a list of attitudes or patterns that make up those strong marriages. If you are reading this as a forward from someone else, know that I am a Christian and a pastor, so matters of the Christian faith are on my list.
#1 Remember that next to God, no one matters more than your spouse.
Notice the first part of this statement. “Next to God.” God comes first in all of life. This top ten list begins and ends with this theme. When God is central in a marriage, when both spouses yield humbly to God’s will and earnestly seek to love with the sacrificial love of Jesus the overwhelming majority of the time, you have a strong and healthy marriage.
Next to God, make sure your spouse is your first priority. In problem marriages, this priority does not exist. In marriages filled with conflict, contempt, distance, lifelessness, and dysfunction, one or both spouses put hobbies, activities, work, circle of friends, extended family, and even children above their spouse. Some of those people or things that are placed above spouses become an escape to avoid problems or intimacy. The relationship will drift apart if spouses don’t make each other a priority. No one matters more than your spouse. Act like that’s true.
#2 Get a life.
This is the counterbalance to the first principle. Have interests of your own. Woodworking, gardening, baking, fishing. You name it. Something that is for you. Nothing is more smothering than one or both partners who have nothing but the other person. I do know couples who own businesses together and thrive as they literally spend almost every hour of every week with each other between home life and work life. They are rare. Most couples need a balance of together and away time. So, make sure you get a life of interests on your own.
#3 Work on your marriage.
Like a garden, if a marriage is left unattended, weeds will eventually choke out the life. If a marriage is worked on like a garden, however, it will bear delicious fruit such as love, joy, peace, forbearance (patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see Galatians 5:22-23).
How does a couple work on marriage? It begins with a decision to do so. It is much better if both decide, and both are motivated to work on marriage. It is so much more challenging if only one decides and is motivated. From there, the possibilities are limited only by the imagination. From regular date nights to book studies to marriage counseling, each couple can talk about what is needed most and decide.
The following are a few resources I have personally used or heard of others using. The overall commentary on these has been positive.
- Book: The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Tim Keller, 2011.
- Book: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert by John Gottman, 2015.
- Book: The Love Dare by Alex Kendrick, 2013.
- Book: The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman, 1992.
- Book: His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage (Revised Edition) by Willard Harley, 2011.
- For something fun together: The Adventure Challenge: Couples Edition.
#4 Get help when you have a problem.
It happens all the time. Life gets busy, stress gets high, careers get demanding, and the marriage begins to suffer. Finances, extended family, friends, and sex are often sources of frustrations and conflict. The bedroom is always a symptom of other problems—seldom the problem itself—but it is a symptom. Pay attention to a marriage in trouble and be ready to take action.
If you see that there is a problem and you can’t make progress or solve problems on your own, find someone to help you. Too many do nothing, and the results are tragic. Low-level issues are often handled well with an accountability couple. Pastors are always good for listening and making referrals, if needed. Deeper or more difficult issues usually are best helped with a qualified counselor. Get help when you have a problem.
#5 Remember your relationship is much more than your sex life.
When a marriage is young, sexual intimacy takes on a larger importance and that is a good thing. This is a good and God-given part of married life. When one spouse makes this the only important part of the relationship, or when emotional or spiritual intimacy is ignored or minimized, however, the relationship will suffer.
At the risk of overgeneralization, men tend to prioritize sex over all else. Yet, in their honest moments, men realize they also want affirmation, encouragement, companionship, and someone to bring balance where they are not as strong. In my experience talking with many wives, women tend to prioritize intimacy and a sense of security over all else. Yet, in their honest moments, they also want that same affirmation, encouragement, companionship, and someone to bring balance where they are not as strong.
A strong and healthy marriage has multiple levels of intimacy: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Your relationship is much more than your sex life.
#6 Don’t forget to say, “I love you.”
Your love may be constant, but your spouse needs to hear those words often. Say it when you say goodnight. Say it when you say goodbye. Say it for no reason at all. If you are next to your spouse, say it right now.
I know many people who did not grow up hearing or saying, “I love you.” It may be uncomfortable at first to say this often. I also know those same people who learn to value hearing and saying those words because they matter. Loving another and knowing you are loved is a deep longing. Saying it matters. Don’t forget to say, “I love you.”
#7 Willingly share everything with your spouse.
This one usually comes up when talking to couples about separate checking accounts of which I’m not a fan. Even when there are separate accounts for good reasons, it is important that each spouse have full access to every password for every account held by both spouses. If a spouse is incapacitated or, God forbid, suddenly dies, access to critical information like banking is challenging to say the least. If full access to all passwords causes any hesitancy, I immediately raise questions of trust. If there is a trust issue, there is a problem. If there is a problem, refer to principle #4 above.
This principle applies to bank accounts and passwords, but it is about more than that. It is about every part of life, including material possessions. I realize that my wife Cile will never use the ignition timing light in my toolbox for my 1966 Mustang, but that tool is still part of our household. I may be the one that uses it, but it is ours, not mine. That is the mindset of healthy couples. It’s no longer “yours” or “mine,” but think instead “ours.” Our tools, our cookware, our children, our bodies, our hearts. Willingly share everything with your spouse.
#8 Pray together.
A substantial body of research shows that the quality of a relationship is higher for marriages in which partners share common religious affiliations, practices, and beliefs. This includes Christian couples who pray together. Think about it. When both partners are motivated by and committed to prayer, in that direct conversation with God, both partners are acknowledging that self-interest cannot and must not be central to a good life. Living with and for God must be central, and speaking with God with adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (praying for personal needs), is the pattern of those whose lives are so centered.
To say it another way, prayer done with the right motivation of desire for God has the incredible benefit of blessing the person or persons praying. So, pray together. Not just a quick prayer before meals, but on your knees together speaking with God. Couples who do this and both want to do this not only stay married but are the most vitalized of all couple types. Pray together.
#9 Forgive each other as God has forgiven you—with grace.
You don’t have to be in a relationship for long before one person will disappoint or fail the other. Can you think of a moment right now when you have failed another person, or when your sins have damaged a relationship? I imagine that is easy for you. I know it is for me. Who among us does not need to be forgiven?
In many ways, the seven most important words in any marriage are, “I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” Learn to say these words and mean them. No equivocating. No dodging or blame shifting. If your spouse says that to you, learn to say, “I receive and accept your apology.” That is the starting point for working through sin and failure toward restoration and wholeness.
At the heart of the Christian faith is a God who looked at a world full of sin, declared that sin damnable, and chose to take personally the care of the consequences of that sin. The motivation for God becoming flesh and blood in Jesus Christ was to right the wrongs of the sins of this world. That is basic nuts and bolts, bread and butter teaching of the faith. The Gospel. The good news of God’s work in Jesus Christ is God’s response to the problem of human sin.
If the central work of God is liberating forgiveness, imagine couples humbly applying this same costly and yet liberating grace to one another. I need forgiveness. You need forgiveness. So does your spouse. God has forgiven you. Forgive each other with grace.
#10 Honor and enjoy the Lord every day of your life individually and together.
I started here—God is first priority in life—and I’ll end here. Honoring, serving, worshipping, enjoying God is our highest and most holy calling.
Long ago, a group of Christians asked themselves a series of questions about life. The first question they asked was about the highest priority for human life. The words they used were, “What is the chief end of man?” In other words, what is the main way for people to find their ultimate meaning and purpose in life, or in this case, for couples to find their ultimate meaning and purpose as a couple? The answer written long ago is just as true today. The chief end of men and women, the main meaning and purpose in life, is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”
Imagine if each spouse lived this way. Imagine if God was the highest priority at home, with the children, among family and friends, at work, at social activities, at school, and at church. Whatever else would happen, the perspective of each partner would be outward and upward toward God. There would be a selflessness that would serve the marriage well. So, honor and enjoy the Lord every day of your life individually and together.
Rev. Dr. John H. Fullerton, Jr.
Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Florida, he worked in business for nine years. God then had other plans for his life that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity and then ordination as a pastor. In 2010, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He grew up in a military home that took him all over the United States but considers Palatka, Florida, his hometown. He and his wife, Cile, have been married since 1983 and are proud parents of three daughters who have given them five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading, running, golf, and spending time with family.