By Jeff Reber at Stake Conference: June 13, 2015
I would like to begin my talk this evening with Paul’s words to the people of Corinth found in 1st Corinthians 11:11: “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” These words express a fundamental truth of the Gospel and of the Plan of Salvation: Men and women cannot be “in the Lord” without each other. At every level of the church, men need women and women need men. Every man and every woman here has different gifts, talents, and abilities and different roles to play in building the kingdom of God. These differences, when practiced “in the Lord” are good and complementary and contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Together, men and women constitute the body of Christ, and there is not a single part of that body we can do without. Wrote Paul:
But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body [of Christ], as it hath pleased him. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
Every man and woman in this room is needed; you are part of the whole. This stake is not a complete body without each one of you, whether you are single, married, widowed, a parent, rich, poor, highly educated, fully active or less engaged. Each one of you is a crucial cell in the body of Christ, and without your participation and contribution we are all the lesser for it. As the English Poet John Donne wrote:
No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were.
Adam and Eve and the Lord’s Model of Marriage
We find the superlative demonstration of Paul’s teaching about the necessity of men and women in the Lord in the holy sealing bond of marriage. And our primary model of a marriage “in the Lord” is that of Adam and Eve. Indeed, if there is one “assignment” I hope you will commit yourselves to tonight, it is that you will agree to attend a temple endowment session soon wherein you will be taught in the clearest way possible, the Lord’s model of marriage through the example of Adam and Eve.
It is important to remember that Adam and Eve were married by the Lord for time and eternity in the garden. They were the first of many to be sealed together and to become “one flesh”. This means that after Eve had been tempted by Lucifer to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, if Adam did not eat the fruit as well, husband and wife would have been separated, with Eve living outside the Garden apart from Adam in Eden. The sealing covenant would have been broken. However, the need for man and woman to be together in marriage was so essential to Adam and Eve that Adam partook of the fruit, fully expecting to die as the Lord had promised. This is why, when God asked Adam about eating the fruit, that Adam gave the following explanation: “The woman thou gavest me, and commandest that she should remain with me, she gave me of the fruit of the tree and I did eat.” Adam was not blaming Eve for his behavior. He explained honestly the reason for his transgression, which was to keep the covenant of marriage and remain with his wife, at all costs.
As promised, the consequence of their actions was death, a spiritual death that they and all their prosperity would share eternally, were it not for a Savior, who would redeem Adam and Eve and all their prosperity from eternal separation from each other and from their God. As Paul taught, without each other and without Christ, Adam and Eve could not inherit eternal life, and neither can we. Tonight, I would like to discuss two critical implications that follow from Paul’s words and from Adam and Eve’s model of marriage. First, husbands and wives have covenanted to a marital relationship that is more important than their individual concerns. Second, husbands and wives must be married “in the Lord,” which means the marital relationship itself is in need of Christ’s constant redemption.
Implication #1: The Marital Relationship comes First
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only church that has ever existed or will exist that seals a relationship into the eternities. In every other church, salvation, exaltation, enlightenment, Nirvana, or what have you is always an individual matter. In our church, exaltation is a relational matter. We cannot enter into the highest degree of the celestial kingdom nor achieve a fullness of joy alone. Adam and Eve knew this, and chose to remain with each other, putting aside their comfort and ease in their paradisiacal home in Eden, as well as their fear of death, in order to maintain their marital relationship. We know from Moses 5 that they were “glad” that they made that choice.
My request of you tonight is that you too will choose or re-choose your marital relationship over your individual concerns, and also be glad to do so. What does that mean in practical terms? First, it means you cannot be egoistic in your marriage. Your marriage is not designed to maximize your personal pleasure and minimize your personal pain. It cannot be the means to your selfish ends. If your egoistic gratification is more important to you than your marriage, then the words of Jacob to the Nephite men who pursued selfish pleasures may apply to you: “Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren. Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you.”
Second, putting the marital relationship first also means you cannot be wholly altruistic in your marriage. It is good to serve your spouse and show him or her kindness on regular occasion, but that service should strengthen the marital bond, not just benefit the other person. I have seen too many marriages, including physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive marriages, in which one spouse tries to please the other spouse at all costs, including damaging costs to the marriage, him or herself, and the children. Too often, altruistic spouses are treated more like property or indentured servants than equal partners, and woe be unto the spouse who exploits the tender heart of an altruistic partner.
Third, putting the marital relationship first means our top priority is the marriage itself and we endeavor in everything we do to cultivate that relationship. We are not accustomed to thinking of relationships, the space between people, as having qualities and properties that can be attended to and cultivated, but I am here to tell you that your relationship with your spouse is its own reality and it has properties and qualities that are tangible and depend upon the Savior, just as much as the qualities of individuals do. Indeed, it is possible that spouses may be individually worthy and yet have a sinful marital relationship. You may recall a talk by President Monson given in the priesthood session of the April, 2011 conference in which he visited a couple at 2:00 in the morning who stood on opposite sides of the room and would not speak to each other. He asked them to attend a sealing with him, noting that despite their marital sinfulness, they were “otherwise worthy and held temple recommends.” They were not individually unworthy, but their marriage was steeped in sin.
Taking an inventory of the worthiness, holiness, and righteousness of your marriage is not the same thing as asking yourself if you are worthy and righteous. I ask you tonight that when you leave this stake center on your drive home, take an inventory of your marriage. How is it doing? Does your marriage have the qualities of love, goodness, kindness, gentleness, meekness, longsuffering? If you were to pretend your marriage was an object and set it in front of the two of you to examine it, what would it look like? Would it be dark or would it glow? Would it be atrophied and weak or would it be strong and flourishing? Examine it tonight and then examine it again every night. Give your marriage its own regular analysis and then do not neglect it lest it receive no nourishment and wither and die.
Implication #2: The Marital Relationship Needs Christ’s Constant Redemption
Once you have placed your marital relationship at the front and center of your lives and you begin to examine it in its own right, you will see its weaknesses and its need for Christ’s redemption. Marital weaknesses, like individual weaknesses, are part of God’s plan. They are given to us by God to show us our dependency on Christ and to allow his atonement access to us. As the Lord described it in Ether 12:27, “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
Marital inequality is a common relational weakness that can be made strong by Christ if we humble ourselves and come unto him. The proclamation on the family clearly teaches that husband and wife “are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” On this point, President Howard W. Hunter taught that “A man who holds the priesthood accepts his wife as a partner in the leadership of the home and family with full knowledge of and full participation in all decisions relating thereto. … The Lord intended that the wife be a helpmeet for man (meet means equal)—that is, a companion equal and necessary in full partnership.” President Monson adds that: “Your wife is your equal. In marriage neither partner is superior nor inferior to the other. You walk side by side as a son and a daughter of God.”
Many things can make our marriages unequal but two particular causes of inequality stand out: pride and sin. Pride comes in many forms and we must be constantly vigilant for its subtle encroachment into our marriage. For example, pride can enter into a marriage by a misunderstanding and misuse of the priesthood. Echoing D&C 121, President Hinckley warned priesthood holders: “Any man in this Church who … exercises unrighteous dominion over [his wife] is unworthy to hold the priesthood. Though he may have been ordained, the heavens will withdraw, the Spirit of the Lord will be grieved, and it will be amen to the authority of the priesthood of that man.” We know from that same section of the doctrine and covenants that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood.” A priesthood holder can only act in power and maintain equality with his wife by persuasion, kindness, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering, and love unfeigned. Anything other than behavior that is marked by these Christlike attributes courts pride, not priesthood power, and promotes marital inequality.
Similarly, if a wife becomes jealous of her husband’s priesthood authority and believes equality is only possible if both husband and wife are ordained to the same priesthood, she misunderstands this holy authority, is lifted up in pride, and engenders inequality in the marriage. Other forms of pride that create inequality include being lifted up by or jealous of spousal differences in education, income, status, church callings, and even differences in attractiveness, talents, and etiquette. This list is not all inclusive. It is up to each of you when you take your marital inventory each night to take stock of the inequality that has creeped into your marriage and to identify the specific forms of pride that have contributed to it.
Sin is another prominent source of inequality in marriage. All of us sin. “As Isaiah taught, all we like sheep have gone astray.” But when we do not repent for our sins or accept God’s forgiveness of our sins we are not “in the Lord” and we are not equal partners. The unrepentant sinner lowers him or herself beneath the spouse and becomes a drag on the relationship, often forcing the other spouse to carry more than his or her share of the load. I have met with many couples where one partner in the marriage has stopped attending church and living according to the commandments, and it falls almost entirely to the other partner to get the kids ready for church, hold family home evenings, pray with the children, and so on. This is not an equal partnership and it is not a marriage “in the Lord.”
When I meet with such couples, I notice immediately that the partner who is not carrying their load is not happy about this circumstance. Instead, they are downtrodden and often depressed. They feel like they have fallen into a pit and they can’t get out of it. They have tried repentance, but they keep falling back into sin, and believe they are not forgiven by God. They have cried out for help from God, but they feel alone and abandoned. They tell themselves God won’t answer their prayers because they are too far gone. They are not worthy and deserving of an answer or of God’s love. They slip deeper and deeper into darkness and despair and believe they have found a dark corner of the universe where God’s redemptive power can’t reach them. On top of that, they feel they are ruining their marriage and their family and come to believe their spouse and children would be better off with a different partner and parent.
My heart aches for marriages plagued by this sin based inequality, just as it aches when I see a spouse lifted up in pride. My heart aches even more when I see one spouse lifted up in pride and the other downtrodden in sin. I call this the Pharisee/Sinner dynamic of marriage because it reminds me of the woman who was caught in adultery whom the Pharisees wanted stoned for her sin. They stood above her pointing their accusing fingers down at her, while she could barely raise her gaze above the ground, feeling so dirty and worthless. I have seen a similar dynamic play out so many times as a Bishop and marital counselor. I have seen the husband who is hopeless because he has tried to kick his pornography habit many times since his youth, but continues to fall back into that sin. He has come to believe he cannot kick the habit and cannot be forgiven by God. His wife, feeling exhausted and ashamed of her husband, tired of carrying the load of righteousness alone, can’t help but point the finger of blame at him. If he wasn’t like this, she could have a better marriage, a happy marriage, a righteous marriage. Other women seem to enjoy such marriages. Why must she be burdened with this heavy, unfair load? The deeper he bows his head in shame, the greater her indignation. The greater her indignation, the deeper his despair. They are locked into a vicious cycle.
Then, in my mind’s eye, I see the Lord brought by the Pharisees to the woman caught in adultery. I see him kneeling down by her. I see him stand and challenge the Pharisees, saying “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” I see the Pharisees feeling guilty because none of them keeps the law perfectly and all are sinful, as they depart one by one. Then, I see the Lord kneel down again and ask the woman, his eyes meeting her’s, “Women, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?” She answers, “No man, my Lord.” Then comes the healing balm we all need, “neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” And the Lord raises her from despair with his forgiving hand.
Everything the husband and wife sitting before me trapped in their vicious cycle need to become equal partners in the Lord is here in this story and its symbolism. The wife needs to see the inequality of her pride and stop focusing on his sin, as dire as it may be, and look inward at her sins for which she has not repented—her pride, her resentment, and condemnation of her husband. She needs to come unto the Savior and bring her weaknesses to him and be humble. The husband needs to see that the Lord is right there next to him, no matter how low he sinks, no matter how deep the pit. The Savior who descended below all things, is alongside him extending his hand of forgiveness. The husband must look at the Lord, take his hand and be raised by the Lord out of the darkness into the light. Only then, when both partners are humble, contrite, and broken-hearted before the Lord, can they be equal partners. Only, when we place our marriages on the altar of the Lord and beg him for forgiveness for all of our marital sins and pride, can we be married in the Lord.
One of the things I teach the couples I work with is the practice of relational repentance. Relational repentance is not individual repentance. It is repentance for the sins of the relationship itself. I have never experienced the spirit stronger than I have kneeling with a couple as the husband or the wife cries unto the Lord and begs him to heal their broken relationship. As both husband and wife shed tears and offer the weaknesses of their marriage up to the Lord in humble sacrifice, I have felt the spirit inhabit the room so strongly and I have felt so clearly the confirmation that nothing matters more to the Lord than his children bound together in the covenant of marriage. He wants to heal all of our marriages. He wants to strengthen the bond between us. He stands at the door and knocks, not just to bring you individual mercy, grace, and joy. He yearns to bring you marital mercy, grace, and joy. It is my prayer that you will unlock that door and open it wide by getting on your knees as a couple and crying out with full sincerity, like Enos who prayed relentlessly to his God, until you have felt the loving, forgiving embrace of the Lord through his holy spirit, until your hearts are “knit together in unity” and you both, like the people of King Benjamin “experience a mighty change in you, or in your hearts, that you have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” Then, you will again be equal partners in the lord as you were when you first came unto the Lord at the temple altar.
I leave you my testimony, which is that I know marriage is the hardest thing we will ever do in this life, with parenting as a close second. Marriage is hard, but it is precisely the relationship and experience we need to become like our Heavenly Father. Nothing teaches us his attributes, his character, his way of life better than marriage. Nothing shows us our weaknesses and dependency on Christ and his atonement, better than marriage. There simply is nothing in this life that matters more than our marriage, in the lord. If you are not married, live your life in such a way, that when the time for marriage does come, whether in this life or the next, you will have cultivated your relationships with the Lord, your parents and family, and friends in such a way that you have developed the attributes of Christ that will enable you to be a husband or wife in the eternities, in the Lord. Until then, know that you are an essential member of the body of Christ and your talents, gifts, and abilities are essential to that body functioning as fully and capably as it can. If you are married, practice relational repentance, attend the temple with your spouse often and learn from Adam and Eve how to be married in the lord. Hold regular marital inventories where you examine the qualities and inequalities of your marriage. Beware of pride, do not condemn each other, and repent for your sins and accept God’s forgiveness. Open the door to the Savior whose only desire is to come in and abide with you, to be yoked to both of you, to make your burdens light and to give you rest and comfort.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen