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The Marriage Mindset: “I Am Third!”

Does anyone remember Gale Sayers? Chicago Bears fans know the name well. Sayers was a speedy running back who played for their team during the 1960’s. For many, however, Gale Sayers is most remembered for the statement: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third!”

I can’t remember off hand what Sayers’ religious background is, but his statement is certainly one we Christians would applaud. It fits with what Christ teaches in the law about one’s relationship with God and neighbor.

It also fits with what Christ teaches about marriage. There are three individuals involved in your marriage. There is you, your spouse, and the Lord. In which order should each appear? Who should be first in importance? Who second? Who third?

Submitting To Christ

The Bible teaches mutual submission in marriage. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” says St. Paul in Ephesians 5:21. Reverence for Christ implies that married people submit to Him first, and then, secondly, to their spouses. The apostle’s divinely inspired pecking order for marriage would go like this: Christ first, spouse second, you third. Scripture advocates an “I am third” mindset for marriage!

The world and our flesh, of course, protest against such a notion: What kind of wacko talk is that? Everyone knows you have to look out for number one, especially in marriage. Everyone knows you’ve got to stand up for your rights. Everyone knows one’s personal happiness should take priority.

The “I am first” mindset pushes aside love for God and love for spouse in favor of its own priorities. It will not sacrifice its personal success at work, its enjoyment of some hobby, or anything for the sake of God or mate. It will not listen to God, but will go ahead and get a divorce — if that’s what it takes — to protect its own interests and happiness.’

How sad when two individuals live under the same roof, but yet share so little of one another’s lives because they’re too wrapped up in themselves. Does this kind of living make for happy and healthy marriages? No way! Is that what God had in mind when He described marriage as a “joining together”? Of course not! Is it any wonder that with this kind of mindset, marriages today have so many problems?

As a pastor counseling couples in troubled marriages, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when married people won’t see that it’s often their own self-centeredness which is the cause of their problems. Pastors or not, we’ve all heard the oft-repeated phrases: “If only he would listen to me! . . . It’s not me! She’s the one who needs to change! . . . What about my happiness?!” And on and on it goes. What miserable marriages when these are the prevailing attitudes!

The Holy Spirit’s Work

Unfortunately the sinful flesh just can’t see the damage this kind of thinking brings to marriage. More than that, it doesn’t want to be second, let alone third, to anyone. It’s altogether proud and self- absorbed.

Does your marriage suffer because of your selfishness? Mine does! Whose doesn’t? What must happen to make things better? Repentance must happen! Repentance is the Holy Spirit’s work to change our hearts and lives. In repentance the Spirit, by God’s Word, leads us to bring our selfishness (and all other sins) to Jesus’ cross for forgiveness. In repentance the Spirit replaces sinful pride with Christlike love — with love that puts God first and others before self.

Through repentance God works a radical readjustment in married people. He works to put God first in their hearts, spouse second, and self last. God knows that’s how marriage works. He knows that if we try to reverse His order we end up with all sorts of marital unhappiness. Self-centered people are never happy. Marriages in which husbands and wives are self- centered are never happy either.

But with the self-sacrificing love of Christ pulsating through their souls, married people learn to see themselves as humble servants of both Christ and their spouse. All that mushy, early marriage talk about being a “beautiful princess” and a “prince charming” becomes a wonderful reality when married people, for Christ’s sake, begin to treat one another like royalty. Hearts captured by the Gospel just don’t worry about self that much anymore. This Spirit created mindset makes marriage a truly blessed union — a union held together and made joyful by Christ.

However, as every Christian couple knows, it’s a daily battle to keep things in the right order. Our flesh is constantly pushing self toward the front. That’s one reason why Christian couples keep Jesus’ cross close at hand. They know their marriages stand in constant need of true repentance; of Christ’s healing; of the Spirit’s transformation. They know that only God can keep the “I am third” mindset alive and active in their marriages. They know that such a mindset makes for a healthy and happy marriage — a truly Christian marriage!

Except Thou build it, Father,

The house is built in vain;

Except Thou, Savior, bless it,

The joy will turn to pain.

But naught can break the marriage

Of hearts in Thee made one,

And love Thy Spirit hallows

Is endless love begun. Amen! (TLH 621:4)

— Pastor Michael Wilke