As one who has dealt with many marriages that have or are struggling, I absolutely affirm what Owen Strachan, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College in Louisville has to say below. If you grasp this one concept about yourself and your marriage, you will resolve much of the struggle of family living.
Every marriage is under attack. Marriage is given to humanity by God as, ultimately, an expression and picture of his love for his people. Satan, the anti-aesthete and anti-tutor, wants to tear this living image down.
There is much to work on in marriage, but it strikes me that there is a single key that unlocks the door to health: humble repentance. As sinners living together under the same roof, husband and wife will annoy one another, hurt one another, and fail to edify one another as they should. Sin and its baggage are not only possible, but inevitable for even the godliest couple. If we pretend otherwise, if we act as if we can bat 1.000 all the time, if we plaster smiles on our faces and project the image of perfection, then we lie to ourselves and to others.
Most significantly, we lie to God, who knows the depth of our fallenness, and who is justly offended by our sin.
The single most important key to a strong marriage, it seems to me, is humble repentance. Sin is the fundamental problem of our marriages; humble repentance is the fundamental solution. What does this mean? It means that husbands and wives must train themselves to be experts in the art of saying “I was wrong. I hurt you. I get that. I am so sorry.” What a simple collection of words, but what a punch they pack.
It is surprisingly easy for even loving couples to get out of this habit. You hurt your spouse, and she lets you know as she should, but you don’t apologize. You skate over it. We all come to a moment on a regular basis when we arrive at a fork in the road: we can take one path and evade meaningful confession, or we can swallow our pride and take the route of humility. Whether you’re married or not, you know what I’m talking about. Taking the first path guarantees that things will get harder, that sin will calcify. Taking the second brings light into the marriage; the pressure releases, and it’s as if someone opened the blinds in a gloomy house. The light of the gospel shines again.
Christians are called to be experts in repentance. We may not always feel that way; some of us, relatively young in our marriages, are working on establishing good rhythms, and training ourselves to take the good path. But this is a crucial part of what distinguishes us as a people. We have seen by God’s grace that we are wrong and that God is right. The cross of Christ is a summons to this confession, and the means by which we are made right. But being cleansed by the blood of Jesus does not free us to to live as super-people deluded by our infallibility. Instead, the confession of repentance that marks our conversion is the initiation into a lifetime of the same.
So believers are not first and foremost practitioners of ritual. We are not primarily people who merely enjoy gathering together. We are students in the school of repentance. This is not theoretical, though; it is by nature intensely practical.
If your marriage has run aground on the iceberg of unconfessed sin, the way off is humble repentance. Husbands are to lead in this discipline. Being the head of the home doesn’t mean that men are untouchable potentates. It means that men are lead repenters. This is part of what opponents of manly headship don’t understand. Being the “head” or the leader in biblical Christianity doesn’t mean getting off the hook and doing whatever you want in the most lordly and officious way possible. It means leading in all the hard stuff: sacrifice, humility, change, growth, confession, and yes, repentance.
Displace men from this God-given role and you set them up to wither, and the family to suffer, over and over again.
Wherever your marriage is today, break up the ice by initiating humble repentance. If you’ve gotten locked into patterns of hurting one another and never confessing it, get a babysitter tonight. Go get dinner somewhere. Talk about this. There’s a place for unwinding what has happened, and you’ll need to identify how not to hurt one another going forward. But make sure that your conversation leads ultimately to full-throated, whole-hearted confession of sin. Claim the gospel, practically, afresh in your marriage.
Along these lines, a former pastor of mine and very wise man, Mike Bullmore, once recommended that I have a weekly conversation with my wife to do just this. Some weeks get busy, but I think this has been the single most helpful piece of practical advice Bethany, my sanctification partner, and I have received.
This is needed, by the way, not just by the downcast among us, those who cannot help but wear their pain on their faces. It is needed by high-achieving couples, those who are always smiling, those who seem impervious to normal struggles. Healthy marriages definitely do exist. But we can also paper over our hurts. As a husband, take time this week to ask your wife, without any arguing back, how you can care for her better and not hurt her through sin. Perhaps you don’t browbeat her (you better not); but are there quieter, more obscure ways that really do wound her? Are you two locked in patterns that make you ships in the night–the marriage hums along, things seem fine, but there’s little direct spiritual edification happening?
In truth, all of us are fighting sin together. Every marriage requires hard work. Don’t pretend. Don’t mask sin. Don’t say you’re a sinner but then act, practically, as if you’re not. The most mature among us are not those who seem never to offend God and man, but those who know they are going to sin and who actively hunt their sin down, in part by engaging with their spouse or loved ones.
Christians are not perfect people who can avoid repentance. Through Christ, Christians are called to be experts in repentance. The good news: wherever we find ourselves, we can grow, and change, and light can flood the room.
This past weekend, Deb and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary. We reflected on many things that we have gone through and happenings over the years. We also rejoiced in that we are “more in love” with each other than before.
Paul David Tripp writes in his outstanding book, “What Did You Expect, Redeeming the Realities of Marriage,” (Crossway, 2010) the following 22 ways that love is to be an action. Deb and I are imperfect examples of each but we can confidently say that we are positive examples of every one of them. If I was to sum up our marriage, it is based upon the grace that has been extended to us by God through Jesus Christ and his love, we have chosen by our wills to be committed to such love.
I share these with you in celebration of my love for Deb and pray there are many other marriages like ours.
- Love is being willing to have your life complicated by the needs and struggles of your spouse without impatience or anger.
- Love is actively fighting the temptation to be critical or judgmental toward your spouse while looking for ways to encourage and praise.
- Love is the daily commitment to resist the needless moments of conflict that come from pointing out and responding to minor offenses.
- Love is being lovingly honest and humbly approachable in times of misunderstanding, and being more committed to unity and love that you are to winning, accusing, or being right.
- Love is a daily commitment to admit your sin, weakness, and failure and to resist the temptation to offer an excuse or shift the blame.
- Love means being willing, when confronted by your spouse, to examine your heart rather than rising to your defense or shifting the focus.
- Love is a daily commitment to grow in love so that the love you offer your spouse is increasingly selfless, mature and patient.
- Love is being unwilling to do what is wrong when you have been wronged but to look for concrete and specific ways to overcome evil with good.
- Love is being a good student of your spouse, looking for their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs so that in some way you can remove the burden, support them as they carry it or encourage them along the way.
- Love means being willing to invest the time necessary to discuss, examine, and understand the problems that you face as a couple, staying on task until the problem is removed or you have agreed upon a strategy of response.
- Love is always being willing to ask for forgiveness and always being committed to grant forgiveness when requested.
- Love is recognizing the high value of trust in a marriage and being faithful to your promises and true to your word.
- Love is speaking kindly and gently, even in moments of disagreement, refusing to attack your spouse’s character or assault their intelligence.
- Love is being unwilling to flatter, lie, manipulate, or deceive in any way in order to co-opt your spouse in giving you what you want or doing it your way.
- Love is being unwilling to ask your spouse to be the source of your identity, meaning and purpose, or inner sense of well-being, while refusing to be the source of theirs.
- Love is the willingness to have less free time, less sleep, and a busier schedule in order to be faithful to what God has called you to be as a husband or wife.
- Love is a commitment to say “no” to selfish instincts and to do everything that is within your ability to promote real unity, functional understanding and active love in your marriage.
- Love is staying faithful to your commitment to treat your spouse with appreciation, respect and grace even in moments when he or she does not seem to deserve it or is unwilling to reciprocate.
- Love is willingness to make regular and costly sacrifices for the sake of your marriage without asking anything in return or using your sacrifices to place your spouse in your debt.
- Love is being unwilling to make any personal decision or choice that would harm your marriage, hurt your husband or wife, or weaken the bond of trust between you.
- Love is refusing to be self-focused or demanding but instead looking for specific ways to serve, support, or encourage, even when you are busy or tired.
- Love is daily admitting to yourself, your spouse, and God that you are not able to love this way without God’s protecting, providing, forgiving, rescuing, and delivering grace.
I am currently going through the book “When Sinners Say I Do” (Shepherd Press) by Dave Harvey for about the sixth time. I decided a couple of years ago to use it as a guide for pre-marriage counseling and the results have been transforming and powerful to the counselees as well as myself. Here is a quick review of what this book brings to our understanding of marriage and will hopefully compel you to read it as well:
Many of the books on marriage address the symptoms of marital challenges but neglect what is the real problem. Dave Harvey states, “the cause of our marriage battles is neither our marriage nor our spouse. It’s the sin in our hearts – entirely, totally, exclusively, without exception. This is taught clearly and consistently in Scripture, from the first sin to the final judgment.”
In reading this book we are encouraged to develop the tools to diagnose our heart and then flee to the gospel for help. “God wants Christians to delight in marriage. And He has made provision in the gospel to do so. But we can’t truly understand the gospel, or even the basic problems of every marriage, until we come to terms with the undeniable reality of sin. Men and women (and me) find real hope when we realize that God uses marriage to reveal the heart and change the soul.”
So what is wrong with my marriage?
Me and my sin. I am the sinner or as Apostle Paul states in 1 Timothy 1:15, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” To say that I am a sinner is to stare boldly at the fundamental reality that many people don’t even want to glance at. But when we acknowledge the fact that sin holds considerable sway in our lives, several things become clear.
First we find ourselves in some pretty good company including all the heroes of the faith in and not in the Bible from Old Testament times until now. They all experienced the battle with sin.
Second we acknowledge what everybody around us already knows – particularly our spouse. But, by far the greatest benefit of acknowledging our sinfulness, is that it makes Christ and his work for us precious to us. Only sinners need a Savior. Jesus said in Luke 5:31-32 “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Often we think that issues like communication are the biggest problem with our marriage. But when we realize that our battle is against sin, it helps the gospel shine brighter in our heart and marriage. Bad communication can be a big problem in marriage, but it is not fundamental. Bad communication is the result of ignoring sin that desperately needs the grace of God and hope of the gospel to speak life.
What shapes your marriage comes down to your theology. By theology I mean your view of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, God’s Word and the gospel. Theology governs your entire life and it determines how you will live in your marriage day-to-day and year-by-year.
The Foundation of our marriage is the Bible: The center of the Bible is Jesus Christ. The Bible fills marriage with significance as it speaks as an authority on what marriage is to be.
The Fountain of marriage is the gospel. God did not just send Jesus to be an example of moral goodness and to teach us how to live – He sent Him as the answer to the sin dilemma and to propitiate His wrath against sin in order to restore us in a relationship with Him. The gospel is the ultimate solution for our sin and is the center of theological truth. We remain in our sin even though we have been saved and we need the gospel every day to resist sin.
The Focus of our marriage is the glory of God. Marriage is not just something God invented – it is something that belongs to Him. It exists for Him more than it exists for you. It is for our good but more so it is for God’s glory.
So, what is the key to a thriving marriage?
It is dealing with sin. When we apply the gospel to our sin, it gives hope to our personal lives and in our marriage. The sin that remains in our heart opposes God and our spouse. It obstructs our joy and our holiness and eclipses thriving, healthy marriages.
The hope that arises from the gospel is the beginning of a sweet relationship and marriage can become a living, thriving union where sins are confessed and forgiven.
As Thomas Watson once wrote and Dave Harvey repeats often in his book, “When sin becomes bitter, marriage becomes sweet.”
Seems like in our part of the country we are being bombarded with the issues of homosexuality and same sex marriage. Our brother, Erik Raymond, who is the preaching pastor at Emmaus Bible Church in Bellevue, Nebraska wrote the following article on his blog OrdinaryPastor.com which I want to share because in the midst of the information blitz, we cannot lose sight of a biblical worldview of what is happening. We have a tendency as Evangelicals to fall into one of two extremes, becoming blind or picking specks out of other people’s eyes. This will help sharpen your focus. Erik writes:
President Obama’s recent statement concerning his views of same sex marriage has generated no small amount of discussion and controversy. In what was doubtlessly a political calculation the President made that statement couched in political and attitudinal terms. That is, this new take is his personal view. He has personally has come to a place where he can now accept and stand behind same sex marriage.
This change is not restricted solely to the President. Advocates for Gay rights have tirelessly worked to change the public perception of same sex couples. Over the last 15-25 years America has done a near 180 on the issue. The attempt has been to sanitize and normalize homosexuality.
There have been countless actors, musicians, athletes, and politicians who have publicly spoken out in favor of Gay rights. Many from these same spheres have themselves disclosed that they themselves are gay. It has become commonplace to have television shows and movies with gay characters. Characters like Oscar on The Office have helped to gradually move the meter on public opinion.
Now NBC is set to debut a new show this fall entitled The New Normal. What is the premise? Two guys are married and of course can’t have a child of their own. They hire a surrogate to begin their family. This is not simply an attempt at normalization from Hollywood it is a realization of it on Main Street. In a short period of time recently my wife and I saw a gay couple walking on our block, my son saw two guys kissing at their lockers at school, we visited a potential home purchase owned by two men, and have seen many (many) gay couples at the grocery store. And listen, we are in Omaha! This is, after all, “somewhere in Middle America.” While it may not yet be “The New Normal” homosexuality is surely becoming more or prevalent and more accepted.
Now, what does this mean for Christians? What does this mean for missions?
Among other things,
It means that we better get justification and sanctification clear. This is such an epidemic in evangelicalism; we aim to justify the church and sanctify the world. The world is not going to keep the Ten Commandments, walk in the Spirit, or glorify Christ…they can’t! They are unbelievers and they will act like it. This should not surprise us. We can recall our own unbelieving lives and we have read passages like Romans 3. The transformation into Christ likeness comes out of being declared not guilty and righteous in God’s eyes (Rom. 5.1). This comes by the merit of Christ in his doing and dying for sinners like us. We cannot expect unbelievers to look and act like believers. Having our these theological categories straight will greatly aid our interaction with the new normal.
It means that we better be clear about the character of God. The repeated theme is that “God made me this way and he would not want me to be unhappy.” The issue is not as much about the morality of the unbeliever but the character of God. Who is God? How did he create? Why did he create? How does he communicate what morality is? How do we know what he values? All of these questions drive us back to the Word of God for objectivity rather than subjectivity. God’s love is characterized by holiness and truth. You cannot know or experience the love of God apart from truth. In order to feel his love we must know him. Before we go about arguing about the cultural usages and understanding of particular Greek words there is priority to understand and communicate who God is.
It means that we better be clear about the problem. Far too many times I have heard evangelicals talk about homosexuality like our job was to get them to become heterosexual. If we can just get them to be straight then our work is done. The Christian objective in missions is to see people become Christians! This means that we want to see all sexual sinners become worshipers of Jesus. This includes fornicators, adulterers, porn-addicts, homosexuals, or whatever other category you can think up. The goal is to become a believer who turns from the worship of self to the worship of God. It is to turn from rebellion that is characterized by the suppression of truth to the submission that is characterized by obedience to the truth (Rom. 1.18-25; 3.19-27). The central issue is worship, or idolatry. The central answer is always the gospel.
It means that we better be clear about our tone. Can you lovingly engage a homosexual with the gospel in a winsome, tactful and still faithful way? Can you love them? This is really a question that I think evangelicals need to wrestle with and decidedly answer “yes, we must!” Pivoting out of the points above, that is out of the gospel, we have to see our own weakness and neediness. Who among us is not needy of the grace of Christ? Then we must lovingly and faithfully talk to others about it. If you can’t get control of yourself and speak the words of grace and truth to someone who is straight or gay then you need to ask God to give you a bigger heart. Ask him to shake you of pride and work gospel compassion down into you. I know that God is saving a lot of people from a gay lifestyle and I pray that he will continue to do so. As missionaries we need to speak and act like we actually want him to.
CONCLUSION–Be Prophetic from the Center!
The “new normal” is upon us. How will we respond? D.A. Carson has rightly said, “It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins, what we need is to be prophetic from the center.” That is, preaching against issues that flow out of a rejection of the gospel (sexual sin, abortion, etc) are peripheral and must be addressed by means of the core gospel, that which is of first importance.” (1 Cor. 15.3-5) In light of these ever-changing times, may this timeless charge become the “new normal” for us as evangelicals.
Ian and Larissa’s Story
I wanted to share this video with you not because it is so moving emotionally (for it is), but because it powerfully displays the truth about the gospel and Christian marriage.
Marriage as an institution is shared in what can be called the common kingdom of the world. Believers and non-believers alike participate in marriage as it was given by God to the human race. But Christian marriage is distinctive in that it represents something beyond us. It is the picture of the mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ where God would love us sacrificially in that while we were yet sinners, Christ would die for us.
In this 9 minute video there are so many highlights that point to the gospel but here are a few that struck me to start with:
1. Love is not about what the other does but what I give.
2. Commitment is based upon who God is, not my circumstances.
3. God does not change and I need to quit thinking of his goodness to me based upon my circumstances.
4. What it means to serve your spouse.
5. Larissa’s submission to her husband’s spiritual leadership and her willingness to let him lead in their own unique way. My wife Deb has no excuse for not allowing me in my clumsy ways to lead her.
6. I can lead my wife spiritually – I am out of excuses now that I saw this video and so is every man!
There are many more but please watch this video and absorb the message. Also the book mentioned, “This Momentary Marriage” by John Piper is available in a variety of ways:
1. You can read it for free by downloading it online here.
2. You can buy the book online. Here is the cheapest price.
3. If you read the book electronically, it is available through Amazon.com.