Each of us knows couples whose marriages fray and unravel when problems strain their relationship, while others only pull closer together. What is it that enables a couple to endure and sustain each other through adversity?
The Doctrine and Covenants supplies some of the answers. Among the greatest truths it teaches is that we must center our lives and our marriages in Jesus Christ. It also teaches that adversity plays an important role in strengthening us and our marriages and that adversity can be overcome as we make and keep covenants with the Lord and with each other.
Christ Our Center
The essential message of all scripture is that we must come unto Christ. Relationships built upon any other foundation have limited duration, not only because of the necessity of proper sealing authority, but also because intimate relationships require ongoing, day-to-day assistance from the Spirit of the Lord if they are to become celestial.
For example, the Doctrine and Covenants teaches that because of pride, many men and women are concerned primarily with themselves. They fail to seek the Lord to “establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world.” As a consequence, they pattern their lives after the image of the world, “even Babylon the great, which shall fall.” (D&C 1:16.)
This description is characteristic of the selfish approach some couples take toward their marriage vows. Faced with the normal difficulties of marriage, these couples find it tempting to follow the fashion of the times, and some needlessly terminate their relationship. Marriage is considered merely an optional life-style.
“Although men set at naught the counsels of God, and despise his words—
“Yet you should have been faithful; and he would have extended his arm and supported you … and he would have been with you in every time of trouble.” (D&C 3:7–8.)
Far from being a casual alliance, marriage is a covenant centered in Christ. President Ezra Taft Benson has stressed that we must all, as individuals, become convinced that Jesus is the Christ, then come unto Christ by “being committed to Him, centered in Him, and consumed in Him.” (Ensign, Nov. 1987, p. 84.) This is sound counsel for husbands and wives, too. As both partners become committed, centered, and consumed in Jesus Christ, they establish a solid foundation for their relationship—“a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.” (Hel. 5:12.)
One reason why Christ is the only sure foundation for a marriage is that if love is to have any kind of staying power it must be centered in the divine nature. “Charity,” wrote Mormon, “is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever. …
“Wherefore, … pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God.” (Moro. 7:47–48.)
As the Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “Sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.” (D&C 20:31.) Those so sanctified are able to love as purely and eternally as God loves, for “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” (1 Jn. 4:16.)
The growth that can come from the intimacy present in a family setting is at the very heart of the gospel. But only as we make discipleship with Christ our first priority will we have the wisdom, strength, and ability to bring to and draw from our family relationships all that God intended.
The Role of Adversity
Like Thomas Marsh, an early member of the Council of the Twelve, many of us “have had many afflictions because of our family.” (D&C 31:2.) But adversity has its uses. Life’s most perplexing circumstances can become stepping-stones to exaltation. “Whom I love I also chasten,” the Lord reminds us. (D&C 95:1.) “For all those who will not endure chastening … cannot be sanctified.” (D&C 101:5.)
We must not make the mistake of assuming that problems are evidence of the Lord’s inattention. On the contrary, many of life’s most discouraging situations can reveal our strengths and weaknesses in ways unmatched by prosperity and success—enabling us to focus our energy on developing a Christlike character. (See Ether 12:27.)
At one time or another we all echo the plea Joseph Smith made from the depths of Liberty Jail, where he had suffered for many months. “O God, where art thou?” he prayed. “Where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1.)
These were desperate pleadings for understanding. And the comforting reply came from one who can see the end from the beginning, as recorded in section 121:
“My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;
“And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” (D&C 121:7–8.)
Then, in section 122, the Lord intimates that Joseph may yet have many more things to suffer, much of it revolving around his family, and comforts him with these stunning words: “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7.) The Lord concludes by gently placing Joseph’s (and our own) afflictions in proper perspective: “The Son of Man hath descended below all suffering. Art thou greater than he? …
“Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever.” (D&C 122:8–9.)
I recall how as a youth I received great strength as I memorized and pondered an MIA theme: “Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted one with another.” (D&C 90:24.)
I believe that God can and will deliver on his promises.
Because the stakes are so high, marriage and family relationships are often the source of our greatest trials and our deepest sorrows. But the Lord has promised that as we turn to him, “after much tribulation come the blessings.” (D&C 58:4.)
The Power of Covenants
The words promise and covenant appear 197 times in the Doctrine and Covenants. Most verses where the words appear reflect the promise made in verse 24 of section 35: “Keep all the commandments and covenants by which ye are bound; and I will cause the heavens to shake for your good, and Satan shall tremble.” [D&C 35:24]
The Lord’s promises in the Doctrine and Covenants are glorious—from the description of an eternal marriage (see D&C 132:19–20) to the rewards for those faithful in receiving and magnifying the priesthood (see D&C 84:33–40). But to obtain any of these great blessings, we must keep that law upon which it is predicated. (See D&C 130:20.)
It is largely for this reason that the Lord makes covenants with us. The laws upon which the Lord’s blessings are predicated are identified and proffered by the terms of the covenants he makes with us. Furthermore, specific blessings are based upon specific laws. “All who will have a blessing at my hands,” the Lord declares, “shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world.” (D&C 132:5.)
The Lord makes it clear, for example, that if we want our marriage to “be of full force when we are out of the world,” we must enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, keep the terms of that covenant, and be “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed … to hold this power.” (See D&C 132:6–7, 19.)
The stability such a covenant can lend to a marriage is largely unappreciated by the world. Unfortunately, we live in a day when a promise or contract does not have the same meaning as it did even a generation ago, and many find it easier to simply ignore promises and covenants when life gets difficult.
But couples who have received the promises attending a marriage sealed in the temple know that keeping their covenants with God and with each other is worth any effort. They hear, as it were, the same promise the Lord gave the Saints in 1833:
“Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks;
“Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament—the Lord hath sworn and decreed that they shall be granted.
“Therefore, he giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good.” (D&C 98:1–3.) It has been said that there are three components to love: emotion, behavior, and commitment. Our behavior toward one another is usually steadier than the emotion we feel for one another, which can be characterized by ups and downs. But the component most important to a marriage is commitment. Commitment (or covenanting) is what keeps the emotional and behavioral components from deteriorating and possibly destroying a relationship during times of stress.
A humorous example of the fluctuating nature of emotion in contrast to the steadfastness of covenanting is illustrated by a note written by a wife after a disagreement with her husband: “Dear Charlie. I hate you. Love, Martha.”
Those couples who understand the seriousness of the covenants they made to each other when they were sealed in the temple do not treat their union lightly. When problems arise, they explore every possible solution before even considering divorce as an option. They recognize that next to their covenant to be a disciple of Christ, their marriage covenant is the most important commitment they make in mortality.
I remember one particularly difficult weekend when my wife, Amaryllis, and I had miscommunicated with each other to such a degree that both of us were feeling hurt. The following Monday, however, I found in my briefcase the following cheerful and creative note:
“I’m not sure why we pull away from each other at the times when we need each other the most, but sometimes we do. I’m sorry that my comment offended you so much. It seems I brought on exactly what I was hoping to avoid—but how could I have known?
“The new medication kept me awake all night, so I may be sleeping when you leave. I just want to remind you that I love you and that I appreciate your kindnesses and acts of caring. The food storage room looks wonderful!
Amaryllis wrote the note because of the covenant component of her love for me. It was not based on emotions, for they were still somewhat negative. Nor was the note written on the basis of behavior, for we had not treated each other in a celestial manner. Amaryllis simply would not allow our relationship to deteriorate emotionally or behaviorally any further, so she took the first step to repairing the damage: she remembered the covenants we had made with each other twenty years earlier.
It would be nice if all our marital and family problems could be resolved by a single note. But like most families, we face challenges that may take years to resolve. We are learning, however, that the covenants we have made with each other and with the Lord have a marvelous power to keep us pressing forward together toward eternal life.
As we study the Doctrine and Covenants this year, we can follow Nephi’s suggestion to “liken all scripture” unto ourselves. (1 Ne. 19:23.) The power of keeping covenants, the uses of adversity, and the necessity of making Christ the center of our marriages and our lives are only three of the principles outlined for us in the Doctrine and Covenants. Many of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants meant for Church leaders or the Saints in general have equal validity when applied to marriage.
“Rely upon the things which are written,” the Lord told Oliver Cowdery. (D&C 18:3.) Seek wisdom “by study and also by faith,” He told others. (D&C 88:118.) The Lord has promised that if we search his word for solutions to our problems, he will speak peace to our minds. And “what greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:23.)
“Fear not to do good,” the Lord tells us. “Let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail.
“Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.” (D&C 6:33–36.)
Other Counsel from the Doctrine and Covenants on Marriage and Family
How to relate to our spouse and children:
The importance of fidelity:
The proper attitude toward material possessions:
The eternal nature of marriage:
Our responsibility to our children: