Staying in Marriage Well

Through the years of working with Christian couples struggling in marriage, I often found a common theme of couples desiring to stay married in effort to honor God. God hates divorce right? It’s a piece of scripture that most in the “church” are intimately familiar with. A scripture that has led many to white knuckle marriage through for better or for worse to prevent dishonoring God even if the “worse” is miserable, destructive, and possibly abusive. Choosing to stay can be a fear based response of divorce causing disappointment or disconnection from God rather than a divine drive to truly honor God in marriage. 

The question I often pose to couples in this position is, “If you are staying married to honor God, does your marriage truly honor God?” I would encourage you to pause and ponder this question. In a culture where almost half of marriages end in divorce, and only about 14% of those that stay married are considered happy, we may question how could marriage honor God? Is there even hope that marriage could honor God? One challenge I see is that we as a culture have adopted “legal marriage” over God’s design of biblical marriage even in the church and in ministry leadership.  We make staying in marriage a priority over staying well. 

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What happens if instead of staying in the marriage for fear of ramifications of divorce, we choose to stay “well?” What happens if we strive for biblical marriage rather than settle for a legal one?

As I am working with couples, I tell most of them, “We aren’t here to simply save your marriage, but our desire is that you thrive in marriage.” To thrive in marriage, we must take a courageous 18 inch journey from the head full of defenses to the heart that longs for meaningful connection. It is a journey that requires commitment, intentionality, and vulnerability, but one that positions us to do marriage well and to realign to the biblical call God ordained.

Having spent forty years in church, I have heard my share of marriage sermons on submission. I heard “women are to submit” so often that it began to feel like condemnation rather than a covenant call. I have also counseled even more women hurt by the church because they sought refuge for a troubled and even destructive marriage. Tragically, rather than finding shelter in what should have been the “safest place,” they were reminded in scripture their call to submit while minimizing the unhealthy and ungodly patterns in the home. Scripture was used like a sword rather than as a salve to heal a wounded soul, and far too often this is the case. However, I rarely recall ever hearing a message of the true biblical call of marriage. This call is not just for wives to submit to husbands, but for husbands to emulate Jesus’s life on the cross through marriage. We aren’t simply emulating the life of Jesus through marriage, but we are called to display the moment of His life that demonstrated the greatest act of love and sacrifice in human history through marriage. I wonder what happens to marriage statistics in church if we start striving for this way of marriage rather than simply staying together believing the absence of divorce honors God. What if we choose to do marriage well and in doing it well live out the commission given by the Apostle Paul. 

Paul speaks to biblical marriage in a text that is should be familiar to most Christian couples. Perhaps these words were shared at your marital union along with the call in 1 Corinthians 13 of what love looks like demonstrated. As familiar as this text is, I charge you to read it slow as if for the first time and truly take in what God is asking of us through marriage:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, His body, of which He is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a glorious church, without stain or wrinkle or any such blemish, but holy and blameless.  In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  Indeed, no one ever hated his own body, but he nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.  For we are members of His body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.  Nevertheless, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Ephesians 5:21-33

These words may be so familiar that they no longer move your heart, but could we look deeper at the magnitude of the call. Yes, God indeed calls us to submit to one another and wives to submit to their husbands. However, God follows these words by giving the greatest call and demonstration of Christ life and death to husbands. It is through marriage that men display the life of Jesus in the earth most profoundly. The call is great! Think about this…the greatest example of love displayed biblically is a life on a cross to redeem the lives of the world, and Paul extends that same call to be displayed through a husband’s love for his wife. In essence, God is telling us to model the life of love and sacrifice in marriage. 

Marriage spiritually should retell the story of the Gospel through love, sacrifice, and submission. 

We so often read text without tone, yet tone often speaks louder than words. As I sit with this text, I can imagine Paul speaking these words not out of condemnation or burden, but a calling to be honored and to move us with awe. What a privilege to demonstrate the life of Christ through marriage? What a holy calling we have been entrusted with?

 As you ponder this scripture, could you say your marriage honors God? 

For husbands:

  • Does your love for your wife speak louder than your tone, work ethic, need for order and desire for submission or even call to ministry? 
  • Would your wife describe your role as husband as loving, sacrificial, nourishing, and cherishing as scripture calls? 
  • Could she say that your leadership prepares her to be the spotless bride maturing as God intended? 
  • Is your marriage a demonstration of Christ’s love in the earth?

For wives:

  • Do you respect your husband’s role and honor the position God has given him in you home? 
  • Do you respect your husband by giving him your truth rather than shutting down or avoiding it out of your own fear of rejection? Do you honor him with your words of affirmation speaking truth in love?
  • Do you honor him in conversations with others that build him up and edify your marriage?
  • Is your marriage a demonstration of Christ’s love in the earth?

Reasons why is it hard to stay well emulating Biblical Marriage?

Biblical marriage wasn’t modeled. 

We find that many couples often replicate roles and rules of their family of origin. We learn how husbands and wives relate, communicate, submit, resolve conflict, and show love from what we behold as children. According to the Barna Research Group, while 51% of Christian claim a Biblical Worldview only 6% of Christians actually live a Biblical worldview. Sadly, this means that a majority of those that think they are living out their faith are not. This gauge also tells us there are most likely few that see biblical marriage modeled.  Rather than fostering a home that exudes love and nourishment filled with peace, the home can feel unsafe, heavy, or laden with egg shells where members conform not to disturb peace. Rather than being seen, known and valued the family members may experience parents that are busy, distracted, and escaping through social media, Netflix, work, or addiction. The aspired roles of love and respect have been often replaced with less than ideal patterns of partnership and the label of narcissism appears to be overplaying the covenant call of empathy in more and more families. 

Emotions aren’t always welcomed visitors.

It is evident from scripture that Jesus is full of emotion. We know He wept with Mary at the loss of her brother Lazarus. He was moved with compassion on several occasions to heal, deliver, and pardon. He showed His holy anger at the misuse of the Father’s house as He flipped over tables in the temple. No doubt, Jesus was emotional. This emotional Jesus is far from the John Wayne movies that have embedded our culture with the image of how “real” men should present as strong always pulling themselves up by the boot straps. It is understandable how men could feel weak and vulnerable to move from the head to the heart, especially if emotions had no space in the family of origin. However, Jesus extends this emotional call to husbands with words like love, nourish, and cherish her. While emotions may not feel welcomed, they are certainly the way of Jesus. As a counselor, I have seen many women equally leery of touching emotions because they weren’t allowed or safe or perhaps shame has been attached due to life experiences. Ultimately this can lead to anxiety and depression due to the war with self to contain or keep emotions buried rather than integrating them as a part of the authentic self. 

Our defenses are driving us rather than our heart.

Gary Chapman says People tend to criticize their spouse most loudly in the area where they themselves have the deepest emotional need.” We see this so often in first counseling sessions with couples wanting to improve communication. The heart of one is longing for connection but the truth feels so vulnerable and perhaps positions the person for rejection, and even without realizing it the critical part that seeks to protect their heart shows up. It seems safer to be critical than vulnerable, but in reality the critical part could hinder them from getting what they really need which is meaningful connection. Hillary Jacobs Hendel in her book, It’s Not Always Depression describes defenses as “the brilliant and creative maneuvers the mind makes to spare us the pain and overwhelming sensations that emotions can cause.” She goes on to say that defenses can be both adaptive and beneficial to help us break from stress or they can be destructive if we become out of touch with our feelings that our bodies become adversely affected. These defenses can range from sarcasm, joking, perfectionism, and working too much, to addiction, anger, and shutting down. Our goal is to create safety in marriage that couples can communicate from their hearts without need of the defenses that hinder the couple from emulating Jesus in their relationship. 

Our history hasn’t made emotional vulnerability safe.

I often have wives surprised at how vulnerable their husbands gets in session. They will say things like this is not the husband I typically experience. One of our roles as couple’s counselors is to create the safety in a relationship where emotions can come forth. It is to model the safety that we desire to see without me in the room in the months ahead. The reality is that the communication of conflict in marriage has given both spouse’s nervous systems the lived experience that things may not be safe.  Thus the nervous system responds accordingly and unconsciously in effort to assure safety. With great intention to improve communication, couples can end up frustrated and disconnected unaware of the cycle that keeps them spinning without control. Cultivating a felt sense of safety allows the nervous system to rest and makes way for deeper emotional connection.

Where do we go from here?

Remember the Good

We see a theme in scripture of God calling his chosen people to repent (think differently) and return to their first love when they have fallen. This biblical model of God reaching for his people (his bride) is one that we can glean from. Set aside time together to remember the moments that knit your hearts together. Remember the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that moved you to make the decision to spend your life together. Pull out photo albums or do something you did when you first met or married. As you are remembering the good, notice how it softens the space between you and how it makes you feel.

Recommit to Staying WELL

Read Ephesians 5: 21-33 together and talk about the ways your marriage honors God. Talk about the ways your marriage can grow towards honoring God. Share with your spouse how marriage was modeled in your family of origin. What rules or roles did you learn as a child that you replicate or avoid? Come together in prayer recommitting your marriage as a covenant one to be joined with God. 

Rest in God’s Grace

I love that God doesn’t ask us to do hard things in our strength but to rest in His. When marriage is hard and conversation is hard, we can go to the Father and seek His power to rest on our marriages. Grace is the power of God that rests on us when we are weak empowering us to respond in His strength. Ask for His Grace to live out your marital call daily. 

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

Re-engage with Support

Get Support with a Christian Counseling trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy that can come along side you creating the safety to guide you to heart level engagement. It is at this level that we live out the call to love deeply and sacrificially as Jesus so beautifully demonstrated. It is also at this level that we see lasting transformation neurologically. 

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