Our horizontal Christian marital “problems” are really symptoms of something wrong in our vertical relationship with Christ. Read this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way to find biblical advice for marriage problems.
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Because our relationships with our spouses reflect our relationships with Christ, our marriage “problems” are merely symptoms. The actual problems are in our relationships with Christ. The horizontal relationship with our spouse is suffering because there’s something wrong with the vertical relationship with Christ.
For instance, in my own marriage, the problem looked like I did not have enough time for my wife and children. But that was a symptom. Actually, the problem was that I would not listen to the Holy Spirit’s promptings to meet my family’s needs, and I was not trusting Christ enough. Instead, I let anxiety consume me.
Thus, the first place to address any symptoms—the things that appear to be problems between the husband and wife—is to look at each person’s relationship with the Lord. When I counsel couples and they share a problem they are experiencing, they become confused when I ask, “What does your time in God’s Word look like? How is your prayer life? Tell me about your involvement in the church.”
A wife might say, “I just told you that my husband yells at me. Why are you asking about his time in the Word?” Because the hope is that as a husband reads God’s Word he will be convicted of what he is doing wrong, repent, and become a more patient and loving man. I do not have the power to change a husband’s heart, and neither does a wife, or there would be no need for counseling. A husband can only become the man he should be by having a good relationship with Christ.
Likewise, a husband might respond, “I just told you about the ways my wife humiliates me in front of our friends. Why do you ask whether we are part of a small group study?” Because ongoing connections with other believers can provide accountability and require vulnerability and transparency. You can learn from other believers and be challenged by their examples. When you are not actively involved with others who are in the body of Christ, you will not receive the encouragement and exhortation God wants you to have. You will feel alone, as though you are the only people having these problems. You will not have anyone in your life through whom God can regularly speak to you. We are made to have fellowship with other believers. When we do not have it, that lack manifests itself in other areas, including our marriages.
Here are two situations I have witnessed many times. A husband and wife are having marriage problems. They submit to Christ, and soon their marriage improves. Why? Did their difficulties simply disappear? No, those difficulties had been symptoms of the real problem—Christ was not supreme in their lives. When they put Christ first, their marriage improved.
Similarly, I have seen a couple plugged into church. The husband and wife pray and read the Word together. They are doing well spiritually, and their marriage is healthy. Then, for various reasons, they get distracted from the Lord and their priorities shift. They start wavering in church attendance and the spiritual disciplines. They fall out of fellowship. Soon their marriage suffers.
So remember: Marriage “problems” are only symptoms—or negative consequences— of not having Christ as the focal point in the marital relationship. If a couple wants a strong, healthy marriage, they need a strong, healthy relationship with Christ. When a couple’s relationships with Christ are weak and unhealthy, the marriage will be weak and unhealthy.
Your Marriage God’s Way is not split into one section for husbands and another for wives. The biblical passages on marriage, such as the New Testament imperatives (commands) in Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3, and the Old Testament narratives (accounts) about Abraham and Sarah, Samson and Delilah, and David and Michal contain intertwined exhortations for both spouses. Husbands should read the instructions for wives and wives should read the instructions for husbands so they can understand what is commanded of both of them. If a husband knows what is expected of his wife and a wife knows what is expected of her husband, they can help each other fulfill their biblical responsibilities.
Although there is also a danger you must watch for as you become aware of God’s calling for your spouse. Because the standard set by God’s Word is so high…
- a husband could easily become frustrated that his wife is not more respectful or submissive, as God’s Word commands, and
- a wife could easily become frustrated that her husband does not cherish her or provide the spiritual leadership God’s Word commands.
This is illustrated by a situation that took place years ago when I was teaching on marriage. I was discussing the importance of husbands loving their wives when a woman raised her hand. I called on her, expecting that she would ask a question. But she stood up and began criticizing her husband in front of everyone. I could have interrupted and said, “Can we all pray for you two?” or “Let’s meet this week at my office,” or “Why don’t we talk about this after the study?” Instead, I was so caught off guard that I did the worst thing possible— nothing! I simply stood there with a dropped jaw while the angry wife berated her husband.
After that, I decided that whenever I taught on marriage, I would remind couples that the goal in every situation is to improve marriage relationships, not to arm people for World War III. With that in mind, here are three encouraging guidelines I want to give for handling any frustrations that might develop as you read the following chapters:
- We all have plenty of weaknesses that need to be addressed. Instead of keeping a mental record of all that your spouse does wrong, remind yourself of your own struggles and failures as a spouse.
- Ask yourself: How can I encourage my spouse to fulfill the role God has given him/her? Is there anything I can do that will make being married to me easier? If you cannot think of any answers to these questions, you are not thinking hard enough. And if there’s a possibility you may be prideful about how “good” of a spouse you are, you’ll want to repent of that.
- Whenever you start to become frustrated toward your spouse, turn your frustrations into prayer. Yield your feelings of hurt, betrayal, or disappointment to God, and pray that He will help your spouse grow in the area that is upsetting you. Pray also for God to help you be as forgiving and gracious as necessary. When it comes to our spouses, most people—myself included—are far more likely to complain, gossip, yell, threaten, pout, or ignore than to pray. If we would spend as much time praying for our spouse as we do getting frustrated with him or her, our marriages would be much better.
EMBRACE THE STRUGGLE WHEN EXPERIENCING CHRISTIAN MARITAL “PROBLEMS”
As you work your way through this book, if you find yourself feeling frustration toward your spouse, recognize that God can use this for your good. Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” This can apply to marriage problems too. God is calling your attention to the areas in which you need to improve, and the best way to help each other grow is to be willing to ask each other tough questions.
For example, a husband might say, “Outside of the Lord Himself, do you feel like you are taking second place to anything in my life?” If a wife answers that she does not feel she is the supreme priority in her husband’s life, the husband should not try to talk her out of the way she feels or persuade her to see things differently.
Likewise, a wife might ask her husband, “Do you feel like I respect you?” If the husband shares how she makes him feel disrespected, the wife should not argue with her husband and try to convince him he is wrong.
To try to disagree with how your spouse feels could make things worse. Rather, each spouse should listen to the other, acknowledge any weaknesses that are pointed out, and try to make changes that will remedy the situation.
When couples ask each other these kinds of difficult questions, they should expect some painful discussions. That might not seem a positive path to take toward marital growth, but in reality, it’s very beneficial. Let me illustrate this using an analogy. A few months ago, I hurt my lower back—again. The injury is a recurring one that reminds me I am getting older. I returned to the chiropractor, and if you have ever been to one, you know they can be forceful as they work on your body—pushing, twisting, snapping, and popping. Frequently you are left feeling sore, but that is supposed to happen. The temporary soreness results from the chiropractor’s adjustments to your body, and in time, you’ll get better.
But what if you went to the chiropractor and all he did was rub your shoulders, pat your back, and tell you everything looked fine? How would you respond? I know how I would react: “This is not why I came here. I know that if you are going to help me, you have to apply pressure to my body and do some pushing and pulling. I expect tension and discomfort. I realize there will be soreness afterward.”
Likewise, if we want to improve our marriages, we need to expect some discomfort, struggles, and tension. We should not be alarmed because it’s as we deal with the difficulties that the healing process is able to take place and God is able to work in our hearts.
And what is the alternative? Simple. Close this book. Be lazy. Do not ask each other the difficult questions or have the tough conversations. Do not take your marriage seriously so that you can improve as a husband, a wife, or a Christian.
If you avoid discussing the biblical teachings in this book with your spouse, you will not have any tough issues to wrestle with, but you also won’t grow and your marriage won’t be strengthened. If you choose to avoid the discomfort now, you will more than likely experience even tougher and more painful situations later.
So I want to encourage you to embrace the struggles because of what they are going to produce. The apostle Paul tells us, “We…glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3- 4). Glory in the struggles you are having, knowing that they are producing good results as you, your spouse, and your marriage are refined!
GOD’S CHASTENING IS NOT PUNISHMENT, BUT A FATHER’S LOVING DISCIPLINE
Hebrews 12:5- 6 says this about the way God produces good in our lives:
You have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.”
We often apply these verses to God’s punishment of sin, but the context is God working out certain issues to produce fruit and righteousness in our lives. Because none of us are perfect, we all have weaknesses in our marriages. We have certain behaviors and struggles God needs to fix as we grow in our sanctification and become more like Christ. When necessary, God will chasten us to make that happen. While that does not always feel good, we should embrace the chastening, understanding that God is doing something good and worthwhile in our lives.
The author of Hebrews goes on to say this in verses 11-13:
No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.
How true are these verses! Nice, gentle shoulder rubs feel good and are enjoyable, but they don’t do much for our back problems. If we want improvement, we must experience discomfort. Likewise, it is not easy or enjoyable to deal with our weaknesses. People do not want to talk about their struggles as a husband or wife, but this is how we grow and allow God to work in us. Indeed, this is how “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” is produced in our lives and marriages.
Interestingly, the above verses suggest that this does not happen for everyone. Only certain people receive the “peaceable fruit of righteousness.” According to verse 11, it is those who “have been trained by [the chastening].” The New Testament Greek word translated “trained” is gymnazo, which is related to our English word gymnasium. It means “to exercise vigorously.” Improving our marriages is hard work. As we embrace the struggles in our relationships, talking about them and working through them, we need to give ourselves the exhortation the author of Hebrews gives to his readers. Let’s strengthen our weak hands and feet, trusting God to make straight paths for our marriages to be healed.
LEARNING FROM PAINFUL SEASONS CAUSED BY CHRISTIAN MARITAL “PROBLEMS”
At the opening of chapter 1, I shared about the painful season Katie and I endured in our marriage when I hadn’t prioritized our relationship as I should have. I am thankful for having gone through and learned from that. As awful as that season was, God used it for our benefit as He does all our trials. James 1:2-4 says:
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
We don’t like trials, but there’s nothing else in life that can perfect us and complete us like they can. What does this have to do with marriage? You’ve experienced trials in your relationship with your spouse, and you can be encouraged by the great blessings that come from them—the powerful lessons God teaches you through them. It is not easy to understand the importance of obeying Scripture until you have disobeyed it and experienced the negative consequences. It is not easy to understand how God’s Word works when you have not applied it. But after you have, you gain firsthand experience in its power, which gives you greater confidence in how it can help you. That difficult time in my marriage taught me the importance of doing what God’s Word says and leaning on the Holy Spirit for help. That season taught me several of the principles I will share with you in this book.
I also had to embrace our marriage problems so our relationship could improve. I had to ask Katie tough questions, such as, “What do we need to do to make this work? In what ways have I sinned against you? How do you want me to change?” I had to ask her to forgive me for the ways I had failed her.
Are you willing to do the same? If so, then you can be confident the trials you experience won’t be wasted. You can look forward to the wonderful ways God will use them to strengthen your marriage. My prayer is that the following chapters do just that, and help you enjoy the blessings God desires for your relationship. I’ve seen the biblical principles that I’ll outline work in my marriage, the church, and the lives of people I’ve counseled. They can work for you too! Be encouraged that we’ll go through this together. Each step of the way I will be with you, and most importantly, so will God!