How to Avoid Making an Idol of Your Marriage and Spouse

How to Avoid Making an Idol of Your Marriage and Spouse June 13, 2024

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 for 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.

The Priceless Friendship of Jesus

God used my wife to meet deep needs in me, and He used me to meet deep needs in her, but He was our greatest source of happiness and contentment. That’s why both of us could live without the other when He chose to take one of us home to Heaven first. And He has truly been my best friend.

The friendship of Jesus He promised in John 15 has been my daily reality. I tell myself that Nanci is literally living in the presence of her best friend, and I am experiencing and sensing His presence with me every day. So at her death, neither of us lost our best friend. He is still with both of us, even though we are not yet reunited.

Nanci is at a higher level of relationship with Him than she has ever been, and I believe in a lesser way, so am I. This is the proof that our marriage was not our idol. We didn’t worship it or each other; we worshiped Him, the only One worthy of worship.

When a spouse dies, it’s normal for grief to be intense, because the only way to avoid grief is to avoid love, and the greater the love, the greater the grief. However, when grief remains inconsolable over a period of time, it’s a sign that quite possibly you are looking to your partner, even after their death, as your primary need-meeter. In other words, this exposes your idolatry. How much better to reach that conclusion and express that to each other in your lifetime. Nanci and I did, and I am profoundly grateful. (However, it’s never too late to come to the right conclusion, and to ask the Lord to help you make Him first! Every day we walk with Jesus is a second chance.)

Sorrowful, Yet Always Rejoicing

I can’t live without Jesus, and while I don’t want to live without Nanci, that is the way it is, and for now I must. I am sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:10. I love that we are to be always rejoicing, instead of always sorrowful—the joy eclipses the sorrow.

When I remember Nanci, which I still do daily two years after her homegoing (which was on the other side a homecoming), it’s true I experience a certain amount of loneliness for her. What I tell people is: I am not lonely in general; I am lonely for Nanci in particular. That delivers me from having to search for a new primary need-meeter, since while she was chief of the secondary, she was not the primary.

The memories are so good and so precious that they make me smile and fill my heart. At first after her death, it was nine parts sorrow for every one part joy. A year later, it was five parts of each, and now it is nine parts happiness and one part sorrow. I look forward to seeing her again. I have wept often, but I experience more joy in reflecting upon her than I do sorrow. There is no despair, only gratitude.

I can’t tell you how thankful I am for those last four years of being her primary caregiver, and seeing the power of God in her life. My second best friend led me daily to the feet of my best friend Jesus, and I will be eternally grateful to both Him and her. Had she or our marriage been my idol, my present grief would be a profoundly different experience, and much less healthy than it has been. It’s been hard, but still healthy.

Traveling Heavenward Together

I still find immense happiness in reading Nanci’s journals she kept during her cancer years, and pondering the quotes she wrote out by hand from Charles Spurgeon, John Piper, Paul David Tripp, Andrew Murray, and many others (I smile when I see a quote that sounds familiar, and then under it she has written “Randy” �). There is such delight in remembering the things we did together all over the world with each other and our children, including the wonderful vacations and the ways we served the Lord, gave to God’s kingdom, and invested in eternity together. Knowing her death was coming soon, we could honestly say to each other, with all our imperfections and because of His forgiving grace: we had no regrets.

A couple of weeks before she died, Nanci was sitting up in bed, and I was holding her hand and she said, smiling but in tears, “Randy, thank you for my life.” I said in tears, “Nanci, thank YOU for MY life.” I thought it was so beautiful that we saw our lives as so intertwined, we really had become one. God had used us in each other’s lives to grow us spiritually, and to make us better lovers and followers of Jesus.

More Resources for Further Reflection

Here are some resources I hope might be helpful:

I listened to this 11-minute Ask Pastor John that I hadn’t heard for years. It doesn’t get much better than this. The entire portion is worth listening to, and it’s all in the transcript at that link. He asked three good questions, but it was the second that most resonated with me:

2. Does your affection for and delight in your husband detract from or diminish your delight in the word of God, the people of God, and the service of God? Or does your affection for him, your enjoyment of him deepen and intensify your love for Christ, your enjoyment of his word, and your engagement with his people?

“Happy is the husband, and happy is the wife, whose love for each other is secondary to their love for Christ.”

In other words, the first suggestion asks, what are the effects of losing your husband? And the second suggestion asks, what are the effects of the ongoing presence and enjoyment of your husband? Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

I think he would say, whoever loves husband or wife more than me is not worthy of me. We can measure the superiority of our affection for Jesus both by what would happen if we lost our best earthly beloved and what happens while we enjoy our best earthly beloved.

Here is a 45-second clip on idolatry.

Here is a 7-minute video on idolatry, taken from a message on happiness.

This is an article I wrote on idolatry, and this is an article that has some good points in it about how you can know if your marriage becomes an idol.

Photo: Pexels

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