Marriage is hard. Even in the best marriages, the heart of each spouse tends to turn inward and build the kingdom of self. Most of my marriage counseling clients at least claim to be believers in Christ. Most of them regularly attend a bible-teaching church. Most of them are in some kind of small group community within their church. And…most of them are seeking biblical counsel because their marriage is struggling in some way— perhaps profoundly.
The Scriptures tell us that marriage exists to bear the image of the triune God and to put on display the glory of Christ in the gospel through His covenant-keeping relationship with His bride, the church. In a healthy Christian marriage, husbands and wives desire the glory of Christ more than their own glory, they desire to reflect the image of the triune God in the way that they relate to each other, and they desire to incarnate the gospel in the way that they pursue each other’s hearts. Therefore, a working definition of a healthy Christian marriage is one in which both partners are actively pursuing deeper, gospel-fueled relationship with the Lord, both together and individually, while actively pursuing deeper, gospel-displaying relationship with each other for His glory. In my counseling practice, I strive by God’s grace to help couples grow in marital health according to this understanding of it.
However, as a coach who shepherds several HomeGroups in a large gospel-centered church, such marriages often seem more like the exception than the rule. Biblical community can provide consistent Christian friendships, accountability, mentoring. It provides fewer places to hide, and many opportunities to confess and repent of our sin and walk righteously with others. All the church leaders I disciple want this to be the case with the communities they lead. My hope for this blog is to consider ways we can be more intentional about encouraging marital health within gospel-centered community.
Our goal as church leaders is never to “fix” or “save” marriages. Thankfully, the Lord whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, has taken that off our plates. Only the Holy Spirit can transform hearts and convict those we lead concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. Because a marriage is essentially a spiritual union, it cannot be saved apart from the Spirit’s work. Instead, our goal as shepherds is to walk with couples in various stages of conflict, faithfully modeling and presenting the gospel and its implications with the hope of helping struggling husbands and wives see their own sin, repent of it, and honor Christ in their marriages. As we faithfully walk with struggling couples, let’s challenge ourselves to engage them intentionally, uphold the beauty and meaning of marriage faithfully, and love them compassionately and wisely.
Engage intentionally. As we spend time in groups discussing the Word of God, the work of God, and our lives, we ask each other questions—questions which help us examine our priorities, our hearts and our relationships with the Lord and others. With regard to marriage, the questions can often be really general: “How’s your marriage?” or “How are you and your spouse doing spiritually?” While such questions suggest that our marriages are important, they don’t help teach or encourage those practices which would lead to loving God and our spouses better. Here are a few suggestions for questions we could be asking that are more to the point:
- When are you and your spouse praying together? How often, other than at mealtimes, do you pray together? What are you asking God to do in life/marriage that only He can do?
- How are you and your spouse spending time in the Word together? What is God teaching you? Does your spouse know what God has been teaching you?
- Where are you and your spouse struggling to understand or apply the gospel?
- How are you pursuing your spouse’s heart? What are your spouse’s dreams, hopes or desires at present? What do you talk about together? What do you like to do together?
- What is your practice of confession and repentance with your spouse? What sinful patterns are you aware of in your own heart that you need to repent of? When was the last time you apologized and were truly sorry for something you said or did to your spouse?
Questions like this, asked routinely, can help strengthen and encourage marriages towards health. These questions can also reveal where a couple’s marriage may not be as healthy as they thought.
Uphold the beauty and meaning of marriage faithfully. Let’s constantly speak of marriage in the terms with which Christ speaks of it – as a picture of the gospel and of His covenant love for His bride. We can’t do this too much. Every chance we get to talk about how marriage gives us the chance to show gospel love to the glory of God, we should. When we love the unloving, when we are kind to the ungrateful and the evil, when we are patient with someone who gets on our nerves, when we pursue the heart that has rejected us—that is gospel love and it glorifies God. We have opportunities daily to live out these same gospel implications in our marriages. Elevating gospel love will not only help struggling couples, but will enable friends and fellow group members to be better counselors. For instance, when a hurting wife shares with other women close to her that her husband is selfish and mean, her friends may be tempted to take sides. They may sympathize and shake their heads and promise to “pray for him, that he can see how wrong he is.” When a husband shares with his friends that his wife is nagging and never satisfied, they may nod and slap him on the back and offer to pray for patience for him and for repentance for her. This is not the gospel, as a gospel response does not take sides. It upholds the unity of marriage—it is FOR the marriage, not the individual. It asks, “How can you show gospel love to your wife/husband?”, instead of promoting the him-against-her dynamic. As shepherds we need to relentlessly uphold and live out the gospel and its implications in our marriages and those we lead.
Love compassionately and wisely. I began by saying that marriage is hard, and it really is. Most people, including most of us if we are honest, have struggled in marriage at one time or another. Nothing, except maybe parenting, will reveal our wicked hearts and selfish motives more than marriage. It is extremely sanctifying – and that is a good thing. When a couple is going through marital stress, they need us to engage them intentionally, and proclaim God’s design for marriage faithfully, but they also need us to love them compassionately and wisely. Listen to their concerns and struggles – without taking sides and without making excuses. Ask questions like the ones listed above and others that get to the heart. Seek to discern what is holding them back from trusting more fully in the gospel and living it out. Is it pride? Fear? Indifference? Pray for them — when you are together in community and privately. Marital reconciliation is God’s work, not ours, and we need His constant help. Don’t promise confidentiality when that might result in one spouse’s confession being kept a secret when it needs to be brought to light. Encourage appropriate openness and transparency in community.
Within the covenant family of faith, let’s intentionally engage couples to uphold the beauty and meaning God intended for marriage and love them compassionately and wisely toward the goal of seeing more marriages that pursue the Lord and each other for the sake of the gospel and the glory of Christ.