by Rick Thomas
All marriages experience difficulties. But for some Christians, their faith seems powerless to overcome the discord. They are unable to appropriate the gospel into their marriage practically. There is a solution for these struggling believers.
In other words, they do not have a plan to adequately address and neutralize the unrelenting presence of sin in their marriage (1 John 1:8). Thankfully, the gospel overcomes sin’s curse and restores us to God. Then, through the ongoing work of sanctification (Philippians 1:6), the gospel provides us the potential to change a marriage relationship radically.
This article intends to help couples understand how the gospel should shape their marriage and provide a practical plan to address sin within a marriage.
Purpose of Marriage
To build a healthy marriage, you must start with the right cornerstone; you must approach your union within a gospel context. Unfortunately, today’s culture has become the loudest voice in defining the purpose behind marriage. In the past centuries, marriage was used to secure and stabilize the influence of the family. A few hundred years ago, the concept of romantic love took over, and couples are now encouraged to marry (or not marry) for personal fulfillment and happiness.
The promise of romantic love is desirable and aligns with God’s created intention for relationship. However, under close examination, this view of marriage can quickly become a pathway to satisfy the lusts of the heart. I am not saying romantic love is a sin. But when it becomes the purpose, the marriage takes on a self-centered consumer attitude, “I will be this type of spouse if you are the spouse I want you to be.” Marital conflict results when you don’t meet agreed-upon expectations.
However, gospel love flows out of a covenant, and you don’t base it on the other’s performance. Additionally, the New Testament reveals the mystery of marriage. It is a reflection of the great union between the Messiah and his church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Jesus sees us stuck in our fallen human condition; He lowers and sacrifices Himself, and now leads us on a journey to future glory.
Thus, the gospel purpose of marriage is, “To help your spouse become their future-glory-self through sacrificial service. To help bring them to the full potential God has given them, and to participate in what God is trying to do in their lives.” Therefore, you must have a servant or ministry mindset in your marriage.
This worldview is not a mandate to try harder or sacrifice more. It is a call to repent of your self-serving motives and allow the Holy Spirit to transform the intentions behind your actions. Your motivation must flow from gratitude for God’s love to us through His work of executing His Son on the cross. We must always remember, “there is nothing in our lives that is more profound than what He did for us on the cross.”
Roles within Marriage
Secondly, you must have a correct and precise understanding of the roles within a marriage. Both husband and wife are equals serving in different functions to reflect and bring glory to God through gospel re-enactment. Both parts imitate Christ: husbands in the role of Christ, as He is the head of the church. And wives in the role of Christ, as the Son, who is submissive to the Father for the sake of our salvation.
The scope of this teaching exceeds the intent of this article; however, I will address the topic of submission. Fleshly desires of men have made a significant mess of this dynamic, so here are some key points to remember.
For the Husband
Biblical headship is one of a servant (1 Corinthians 11:3). Sacrificial love is the expression of his authority. Authority is not used to gain privileges but used to meet the needs of the wife/family and to build up the giver of submission.
Submission cannot be demanded, but only given freely by the wife. Thus, a husband cannot require his wife to submit. That is between her and God. If the husband uses anger, manipulations, or forces his wife into submission, he has disqualified himself as a leader in the marriage. A lack of submission is rarely the cause of marital discord.
The husband does possess tie-breaking authority, but he can only exercise the right if the wife is doing something destructive to her or the family. This occurrence should be rare. If both husband and wife are Christians, they both have the same Holy Spirit working within and should reach the same conclusion on the issue. The disagreement may take significant discussion, prayer, heart examination, and humility on both sides, but unity should prevail.
For the Wife
Many women struggle with the term “helper” used to describe the role of the wife. In today’s society, this term indicates a subordinate position. However, the Hebrew word for “helper” most frequently used in the Bible is used to describe God, as in “God our help.”
It is a role of strength or one who can only help from a position of power. It is not the role of assistant. It is also helpful to think about Christ’s submissive role. Kathy Keller states,
If submission is not an insult on the dignity, equality, or value of Jesus, in his submissive role to God the Father, in order to accomplish our salvation, how can I be hurt if I am asked to take on this role in my marriage?
To help accept this command, some women look for practical reasons to understand this arrangement, but this line of reasoning is unhelpful. It is an attempt to understand God’s intentions, and if you find no practical reason for the command, some women will struggle with the command. A better route to take is to is look to Christ (Hebrews 12:1-2) and to rest in God’s sovereign care (Deuteronomy 29:28).
When discussing the subject of submission, many women ask, “should I submit to a husband who is sinning against God?” This question becomes evident if you remember the purpose of marriage. Since your role is to serve him in a way to move him towards his future-glory-self, the answer is no. Your task is to oppose him in a redeeming way.
A Sin Plan
This part brings us to how to handle conflict within a marriage. Generally, this is a difficult subject to navigate for most couples. Hidden heart desires shaped by the shame, fear, and guilt within our souls (Jeremiah 2:13) and forged within our crooked hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) can lead couples to not only forget their in-Christ identity but the real purpose of marriage. This reaction results in quarrels and fights (James 4:1–4) as each party looks to defend their kingdom.
Thankfully, the Holy Spirit gives spiritual insight to understand heart motives and works within to bring humility. This response provides the potential to restore peace within the relationship, but shalom can only achieve if the interactions maintain a proper balance of truth and grace. It’s the balance of cooperating with the Spirit’s work in transforming hearts while continuing to tend and care for the soul.
Many Christian marriages error to the side of all grace and no truth, believing restoration is just a call to forgive. This contrivance allows couples to stay together, but it generates a false peace and hinders spiritual growth. The gospel can neutralize sin, but many times, it must first do its excellent work within the hearts of both spouses; moving them both towards their future-glory-selves.
Examination of heart motives, repentance, and looking to the gospel to overcome pockets of unbelief are often required, which requires speaking the truth. You will need to communicate God’s truth about yourself and what you discern in your spouse.
You will need to be transparent to share the details of your spiritual battle, so your spouse can pray, encourage, share gospel reminders, and help.
You need to speak to your spouse if they appear caught in a pattern of sin (Galatians 6:1). You must share your observations, check on your perceptions, and tell them the impact of their actions on yourself and the family. Truth is needed to help point out blind spots, to build a better relationship, and to assist your spouse in growing towards their future-glory-self.
On the flip side, all truth and no grace will break the relationship and most likely result in divorce. We see this frequently in marriages where the husband or wife does not place a priority on soul care (John 16:12; Romans 2:4). Or when their selfish heart motives have blinded them.
To maintain a healthy balance while engaging your spouse on marriage issues, you will need to prepare your heart before you interact with your spouse. You must first examine your heart to test your motives (Psalm 139:23-24) and make your heart to listen well.
Heart examination reveals if your heart is captivated by the Gospel, or by the flesh (Galatians 5:18-23). If your desires are not in line with the fruits of the Spirit, you must “do some business with God” before talking with your spouse.
If you have a fleshy mindset, you will want to pay your spouse back to prove you are right, or to make them back away from their position. Criticism done in this mode will eat away and erode at your love. However, if you are walking in the Spirit, your observations and views are a form of pruning and watering (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Secondly, you must prepare your heart to perceive. You must make it safe for your spouse to criticize you without fear of retribution. The heart can employ many tactics to avoid, divert, or deflect the criticism. The most common include anger, manipulation, blame-shifting, explaining too much, apologizing too much, escalating (“we should just get divorced”) or attacking back. These techniques are forms of self-reliance that will quench the work of Spirit and wound the soul of your spouse.
How do you respond to criticism? Are you able to seek to understand the concern better and search for possible blind spots within your heart, or do you feel the need to defend yourself? If you struggle in these areas, I encourage you to reflect upon the cross and remind yourself of your in-Christ identity.
I find this preparation is best accomplished by reading and praying through scripture. Matthew 5:1:12, 6:5-15; Luke 18:9-14 are my go-to verses. This process will help you empty yourself of “self” and move you forward in humility (James 4:6).
Finally, don’t forget about practical considerations. You must find the right time to engage with your spouse and avoid times when it is easier to sin (e.g., sick, tired, etc.)
Now, you are ready to talk to your spouse. If you have to speak to your spouse about your marriage problems, begin by owning and confessing your issues. Despite how small you think your percentage is, admit those things without excuse.
Secondly, you attack the problem and not the person. Your marriage covenant is a one-flesh union. Both parties must be part of the solution. The conversation can go something like;
“As I see it, you are doing this?”
“It is affecting me like this?”
“I wish you would do this instead.”
“But I need to find out if I am missing something. Do I have this right or not?”
As the conversation continues, pray and ask for insight on possible heart motives, or pockets of un-belief. As you listen, ask yourself, “What are their thoughts about God, themselves, and the gospel?” If you are correct in your observations, there will be a breakdown in one of these three areas.
Remember, the goal of the conversation is to help move your spouse to their future-glory-self. The discussion should resemble Christ’s example of grace-filled truth, and you can only accomplish this by walking in the Spirit. Thus, you must continue to examine your own heart during the conversation.
If the discussion stays on track, you will get to the point of forgiveness and repentance. Rick’s website has many resources on forgiveness and transformation that will serve you well. I encourage you to visit. I pray this gives you and your spouse a new perspective and a starting point to live out your marriage before the Lord while enjoying the blessings of marriage.
Call to Action
I recommend that you and your spouse both read and discuss the topics of this article.
Are you both in agreement with the gospel purpose of marriage? Are you able to share where worldly views of marriage have infiltrated into your thinking? Are you ready to do this in a grace-filled environment?
Are you both in agreement with the gospel roles within marriage? Are you humble enough to share your doubts and fears about your calling within your one-flesh union? Are you able to pray together, asking the Holy Spirit for help?
Are you willing to help grow your spouse to their future glory self in a way that reflects Christ’s love and compassion? Are you ready to seek assistance in this journey by reaching out to your small group, church leadership, or using the resources found on RickThomas.net?
Disclaimer: The guidance provided in this article is for relatively stable marriages. If the brokenness of your relationship is beyond this guidance, I urge you to talk to your elders. If physical harm is taking place, you must contact the authorities.
Note: Most of the material comes from two sources; a talk provided by Tim and Kathy Keller titled, Cultivating a Healthy Marriage, and from various resources from RickThomas.net. I hope this article offers an at-hand summary of these edifying resources.