A few years ago Katie and I faced the biggest crisis of our marriage. I started pastoring Woodland Christian Church when it was fairly small. Within three years the congregation had tripled in size. I admit that before I became a pastor, I was completely unaware of how much work is actually involved in shepherding a church of even a few hundred people. I had been an Army officer, a supervisor at a distribution center for Target, and an elementary school teacher. But none of those occupations approached the amount of mental and emotional energy and sheer hard work pastoring entails!
We had no secretary or associate pastor at the time. Almost all of my waking hours were packed with studying, teaching, counseling, making phone calls, sending e-mails, meeting with people, addressing administrative responsibilities, and tending to benevolence issues. When I was home, I should have been an engaged father and husband. Unfortunately, I did not have much left for my family emotionally, mentally, or physically.
Although I was failing as a husband and father, I was able to convince myself I was still pleasing the Lord. I compartmentalized my life by saying, “I am a Christian first, a spouse second, a parent third, and an employee fourth.” Instead, I should have said, “I am a Christian spouse, a Christian parent, a Christian employee.” The danger of seeing ourselves as a Christian first and a spouse second is we can find ourselves believing the lie I bought into at the time: “If I can be a good pastor, I can please God even though I am not the best husband.” The truth is that I was a poor husband, and I should have recognized that meant I was not pleasing the Lord.
The reason we cannot please the Lord while failing as a spouse is marriage is a reflection of our relationship with Christ
Our marriages are outpourings of our relationships with Christ. This means our Christianity is directly related to the way we treat our spouses. We treat our spouses the way we do because of our relationships with Christ.
In Matthew 7:16b, Jesus asked: “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?”
In James 3:12, the apostle James asked: “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?”
The point of these verses is that we reveal our Christianity by the way we live. As Jesus clarified: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16a). Since our relationships with our spouses are our most important earthly relationship, what we are as spouses is a reflection of what we are as Christians. If we keep this in mind, we’ll be prevented from thinking we can be “good” Christians while being bad spouses.
Marriage problems are only symptoms
The actual problem is our relationships with Christ. In my own marriage, for instance, the “problem” looked like I did not have enough time for my wife and children, but that was only a symptom. The problem was that I would not obey the Holy Spirit’s conviction to put my family ahead of the church, make my wife a priority, spend more time with my children, etc. Plus, I was being consumed with anxiety, versus trusting Christ like I should have. In other words, the marriage problems I was experiencing were directly connected to my relationship with Christ.
A couple’s marriage problems can only be fixed by focusing on their relationships with Christ
This is why any biblical marriage counseling must address the husband and wife’s relationship with Christ. Couples I counsel are often confused when they share marriage problems they are experiencing and I respond by asking:
“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 will say, “I just told you my husband yells at me. Why are you talking about his time in the Word?” Because the hope is that as a husband reads God’s Word he will become convicted of his sin and repent. He will become a more patient and loving leader. I do not have the power to change a husband’s heart (and apparently neither does a wife or there would be no need for counseling). A husband can only become a new man through a relationship with Christ.
Likewise, a husband will respond, “I just told you how my wife humiliates me in front of our friends. Why would you mention joining a small group?” Because other believers can provide accountability, vulnerability, and transparency. You can learn from others and be challenged by their examples. When you are not involved 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 couple 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, and when we do not have it, that lack manifests itself in other areas, including our marriages.
Two situations I have witnessed a number of times…
A husband and wife are having marriage problems. They submit to Christ, and soon their marriage problems improve. 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, the marriage problems were shown only to be symptoms.
Conversely, 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
Start wavering in church attendance and spiritual disciplines
Fall out of fellowship
Soon their marriage suffers. Why? Their relationship with Christ was suffering.
So remember: Marriage “problems” are really only symptoms—or negative consequences—of not having Christ as the focal point in the marital relationship. If couples want a strong, healthy marriage, they need a strong, healthy relationship with Christ. When a couple’s relationship with Christ is weak and unhealthy, the marriage will be weak and unhealthy.
Discussion questions for husbands and wives:
Consider marriage is a reflection of our relationship with Christ. What three adjectives would you use to describe your marriage?
Are these the same adjectives you want to describe your relationship with Christ? If not, what changes do you need to make?
While remembering to focus on yourself, if a “marriage doctor” were to examine your marriage, what are three “symptoms” he would observe?
What does your time in God’s Word look like? If you are unsatisfied with your answer, what changes should you make?
Are you involved in a church? Notice the question is not, “Do you go to church?” Or “Are you a member of a church?”
If you are involved in a church, in what ways do you share the marital challenges you are experiencing so God can use your church family to help you?
If you are not involved in a church, what changes need to be made so you can be active and involved?
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