Marriages Under Fire

Three practices for navigating the joys and pains of marriage

If we give just a cursory glance at the landscape of marriages across the Church—both our local body and the Church at-large—marriages are under fire. One of the best and most beautiful pictures Paul gives us for the church is under attack, by the Enemy, on all sides. Although divorce in the U.S. has decreased during the last few decades, the rate still remains at a discouraging 39 percent. In 2018, there was more than one divorce or annulment for every three marriages.

Something must be done. We must fight for our marriages as much as the Enemy is fighting against them.

Husbands and wives alike are being deceived and are walking away. Some attempt counseling, but have already decided in their heart that they are done. Some listen to social media over God’s word and form their thoughts from a “me-first” culture. Some pastors and ministry leaders sacrifice their marriages on the altar of ministry and a decade later, look around at the ashes, wondering what happened. Some harden their hearts, a little each day, until their sheets are cold and their communication icy. Some stop praying for their marriages, stop looking for good in their spouse, stop serving one another in love.

Something must be done. We must fight for our marriages as much as the Enemy is fighting against them.

I’m not naive to imagine that one article will fix any marriage. But as I recently sat with a crying wife, who said she was thankful for my marriage and wanted to know what kinds of practices we had in place after 18 years, I was able to point to a few things.

The joy and the pain of marriage is that it involves not one, but two people in one covenant together. The joy is that your spouse can be your greatest friend, lover, advocate, confidant and partner. The pain is that this same spouse is the one who can deeply wound, attack, blame, shame and hurt you in the greatest way. The whole endeavor of making a covenant with another human is truly an act of faith. And it takes that same faith to fight for a soft-hearted, prayer-covered and friendship-oriented marriage.

Stay soft-hearted

Listening to this wife share her marriage struggles, I felt the pain and frustration she expressed. I, too, had experienced times in my marriage when, after hurtful words were exchanged, I closed off, with no plans of opening back up to him for a while. We are two broken humans, united together, bound to hurt one another.

But the fight to stay soft-hearted to our spouse is a worthy fight. At the beginning of the gospel of Mark, Jesus is angered at the hardness of heart he finds in the temple on the Sabbath. He questioned the leaders if He should heal on the Sabbath, and no one responded. As Mark records:

“And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mark 3:5 NASB, emphasis mine).

Later in Mark 6:52, Mark writes that the disciples’ hearts were hardened. And then Jesus says:

“Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it doesn’t go into his heart, but into his stomach...for from within, out of the heart of man, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adultureis, deeds of coveting and wickedness, a as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.” (Mark 7:18-19 NASB)

God is our hiding place and our strong tower; we can trust that God will protect our hearts and keep them safe as we soften them toward our spouse.

A soft heart is a big deal to our God. It is a soft heart that often asks for the Spirit to empower it. It is a soft heart that looks at the one who just hurt her with compassion and forgives. It is a soft heart that authentically smiles at his wife each day, deciding he finds her lovely and will continue to do so. A soft heart senses when it is closing off to her spouse. And a soft heart sits at the Shepherd’s feet, gaining strength and sustenance. By no means is keeping a soft heart easy. Softness opens us up to possible hurt, pain and rejection. But God is our hiding place and our strong tower; we can trust that God will protect our hearts and keep them safe as we soften them toward our spouse. He is our heart’s keeper.

There have been many moments in my own marriage where I have come to a crossroads—I could keep a soft heart or harden it, closing off toward my husband. Recently, I asked my husband for some feedback about a creative project. He gave me his honest feedback...but it was less than the glowing review for which I was hoping. I immediately walked away, with both my feet and my heart.

My thoughts raced: How could he tell me it “could be better”? Why wouldn’t he be FOR me in this? Why isn’t he cheering me on? After longer than I’d like to admit—and a slow walk around the block—I had to make a choice: to become soft toward him and believe the best in him, or stay hard-hearted and make him the bad guy. By God’s grace, I chose to believe the best in him and to stay soft. We both ended up apologizing and staying soft toward one another. I learned that, if I ask, my husband will be honest. And I also learned what I really wanted from him was to be cheered on and fully supported—not to be critiqued.

After 19 years, we are still learning how to communicate and we still have plenty of opportunities to stay soft or to push each other away. May we pray for love, humility, gentleness and soft hearts toward our spouse.

Stay friendship-oriented

“When God brought the first man his spouse, he brought him not just a lover but the friend his heart had been seeking. Proverbs 2:17 speaks of one's spouse as your "'allup," a unique word that the lexicons define as your "special confidant" or "best friend." In an age where women were often seen as the husband's property, and marriages were mainly business deals and transactions seeking to increase the family's social status and security, it was startling for the Bible to describe a spouse in this way. But in today's society, with its emphasis on romance and sex, it is just as radical to insist that your spouse should be your best friend, though for a different reason. In tribal societies, romance doesn't matter as much as social status, and in individualistic Western societies, romance and great sex matter far more than anything else. The Bible, however, without ignoring the importance of romance, puts great emphasis on marriage as companionship.” (Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage)

We need to be careful not to miss out on the great gift of friendship in marriage. On the gift of a confidant and companion. On how friendship enhances sexual intimacy, and sexual intimacy enhances friendship. Call to mind the friendship component of your spouse at the beginning. What kinds of things did you enjoy together? Where have they gone? What could you try now? What were you like before the stress of life squeezed out the playfulness of your friendship? And if physical attraction was what connected you, consider how friendship will keep you connected for a lifetime. Yes, your spouse is absolutely your lover, but so much of life is outside of the bedroom; so much is perfect soil for good growth and healthy marriages.

My parents, married for 46 years, regularly take walks, play cards, go to movies and have folks over for dinner. They are some of the best friends I’ve seen. They support each other’s dreams and work. They share the deep parts of their hearts with each other. They fight and forgive. They laugh and cry. They give space for one another to grow individually, while growing together. They have chosen to find things they both enjoy, and they regularly do them. Of course, they have their own interests apart from one another, but their companionship continues to be a source of strength to each other and to the world around them.

Stay prayer-covered

This same wife, through tears, also shared that she and her sister just committed to calling each other for five minutes a day just to pray for their marriages. What a simple, but beautiful investment. She needed God to intervene and speak. She told me she wanted to practice speaking less and praying more for change in her husband and in her marriage. And the fruit of her faith has been really sweet.

We can come to cover our marriages in prayer and find our own hearts are also covered in His banner of love and His shield of grace.

Her husband came to her a few weeks later and said he had been listening to sermons on his long marathon training days, and it has greatly helped the way he is seeing the world and thinking about his life. She was shocked. He had made a choice to invest in his thought life, and it was changing him. AND this was the work of the Spirit, not the work of her nagging. This increased her faith, and she has prayed even more for God to work in their marriage.

Is prayer a magic wand that fixes everything? I wish. But it is the place where the one praying gains a softer heart, a deeper friendship with God, and a strong tower to find safety. God is our refuge and our strength, and He cares about every one of our tears. We can come to cover our marriages in prayer and find our own hearts are also covered in His banner of love and His shield of grace.

May we be people who are fighting for our marriages in many practical and prayerful ways.

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