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Reviving a Broken or Stagnant Marriage

In order to get unstuck or to see any significant healthy traction in a marriage, both people need to understand the purpose of marriage.

Mar 31, 2021

Too often when marriage goes off the rails or gets stuck, we jump right in with things like communication, conflict, finances, sex, what he should be doing, and what she should be doing; but there is something else far more important than all of that, which too often is either being ignored or assumed: What is the purpose of marriage?

In order to get unstuck or to see any significant healthy traction in a marriage, both people need to understand the purpose of marriage. For something to function well, and even to thrive, you need to understand the purpose for which it was designed. Let me ask you: Do you know the purpose of marriage? What does the Bible teach? What did God have in mind? Why did He design it and give us this good gift?

This problem of not understanding the ultimate purpose for marriage is not only a problem out there in the world. I find that it is a problem in the church of Jesus Christ with believers and even with Christian counselors that are trying to help people get unstuck. Even if your counselees profess to know Jesus Christ, so often when you ask them what the purpose of marriage is, most will answer one or more of the following: for companionship; to make me complete; for raising children; for sexual pleasure; to feel loved, secure, and accepted; to avoid loneliness; or to be fulfilled. However, there is an ultimate purpose of marriage that overshadows all of those, and yet it often goes undiscussed by married couples, and even by counselors who are trying to help people who are stuck.

In this hour, I want to bring back into focus God’s purpose for marriage. If you are going to help a broken, stagnant, or stuck marriage, one of the most important things you can do is to bring back into view the purpose of this good gift. You can see that purpose when you look in the Bible instead of other books. You need to go back to the Bible because God was the author of marriage and He has given us some great insights about it. When you go to other books, even Christian books, you will not see it in there.

There is truth in many of the best-selling books such as His Needs, Her Needs or Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus or Love and Respect. I am not saying that there is no help. However, most best-selling marriage books—even Christian marriage books—ignore or assume altogether the purpose for marriage. They do not explain it. All of those books have some insights about what husbands and wives each value and desire most, but so often when you take them through a book that only clarifies what each of them wants, you have not solved the problem. They both still know what they want and now the book affirms that. They turn, look at the other person, and say, “Now do more of that for me and we will have a great marriage.” Each spouse needs to be reminded of something that they have not been thinking about that would bring each of them to the middle: What is God’s great purpose? What did He have in mind when He gave us this good gift?

In fact, so often your counselees are so focused exclusively on one or more of the previously mentioned answers for the purposes for marriage. The Bible speaks to companionship, friendship, avoiding loneliness, and sexual pleasure. All of that is mentioned and is not bad, but it has turned their marriage into a war zone: “This is what I want. This is what I need. This is what I desire. You are not giving it or enough of it to me.” It is a war zone. Clarifying what each person wants (or even says they need) or desires is not solving the marriage problem. If you want to help rebuild or revive a broken, stagnant marriage, you will have to help them see something bigger, something greater in the purpose of marriage that has nothing to do with his needs or her needs and everything to do with God’s original purpose.

1. Marriage was designed.

Jesus Christ has to have center stage in every marriage. Click To Tweet

Marriage was designed to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church: a bridegroom and a bride. Marriage was designed to reflect, to put on display, to be a platform for, and to be a billboard for something bigger. In other words, this marriage has to be about something bigger than only what the husband wants or what the wife wants. Jesus Christ has to have center stage in every marriage. Both husband and wife need to be relating to each other in light of who Jesus Christ is. Here is so often the problem: the moment that any marriage shrinks down to nothing more than a husband and a wife working hard to tell each other what they want or need, it is doomed.

I remember the early years of our marriage when we were not getting along. We were not doing well. We were not thriving. We were both shocked and disoriented. My wife left James Dobson’s book What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women on the coffee table. That did not cause me to want to do better. It ticked me off and made me think, “Oh, yeah. I have a book that I can lay on the coffee table. I can go find a book that points in the other direction.” Again, I am not saying that those books offer nothing helpful, but they do not ultimately move you from a log jam, from a stuck place, from a place of hurt and demandingness. Each spouse needs to be called to something bigger and higher.

I find that when teaching, preaching, or reading at wedding ceremonies the go-to marriage passage of Ephesians 5, even as Christians we tend to stop reading too soon. Again, the focus is all on what the husband is supposed to do and what the wife is supposed to do. Then, “Now—Nike—just do it and you will have a great marriage.” People stop reading too soon. Often, they are too busy looking for themselves in the passage and missing the main central character on whom all that God has called us to do hinges. Let me show you what I am talking about. Turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 5.

As I read Ephesians 5:22-33, I want you to be looking for someone or something bigger that is in the text and then for a purpose that is bigger and grander.

Ephesians 5, beginning in verse 22 (NKJV):

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.”

Did you see it?

Did you see how Jesus Christ is woven all through this passage and is actually the central or main character? You need to show your counselees how Jesus Christ is the reference point for all of our actions in marriage. If you miss or marginalize Jesus Christ, then marriage makes no sense. Let us be honest; we are sinners. What husband ever, in his own strength and in his own ability, laid down his own life and loved sacrificially to the point that this passage is talking about? None. Would a wife ever submit to, respect, and complement another sinner when she sees all his flaws and foibles? No. This passage only works and can only be lived out as the roles and calls of both husband and wife are hinged and connected to Someone greater who did it for us and who now lives in us to enable us supernaturally. News alert: God never designed marriage to work well without Jesus.

Certainly the world, and sadly we in the church, keep trying to figure out a way to do that. People are just looking at themselves in this passage and either trying to do it in their own strength or, worse, looking at their spouse’s role in this passage, pointing it out, and saying, “Do more of that. As soon as you start doing what God has called you to do, we will have a great marriage.” No one is looking to Jesus. Look at it again.

Verse 22: “Wives, submit to your own husbands.” It does not stop there, but adds “as to the Lord…”

Verse 23: “For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church.”

Verse 24: “Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands…”

Verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself…”

Verse 29: Husbands should nourish and cherish wives just as Christ does the church.

If you eliminate Jesus Christ—and that is what so many people have done—and you throw the spotlight on one man and one woman, naked on the stage of marriage, with no resources, power, or reference point greater than their own desires, needs, and demands, then you have doomed that marriage to a war zone.

That is so often what is going on in our Christian homes. It is a war zone, because everybody has lost sight of the main character. Everyone has lost sight of the reference point. When you lose sight of the reference point—Jesus Christ, who He is and what He has done for us—you lose the motive behind the sacrificially loving, submitting, and respecting. None of it makes sense unless there is someone greater and bigger who has done this for us and done it in a far greater way than what God is calling us to do in the context of marriage. If you leave a husband and wife with only their own resources and no bigger drama or purpose than their own wish list of “What I want” versus “What she wants,” you have doomed that marriage to a war zone and ultimate failure. God never designed marriage to work well without Jesus Christ at the center of it as the reason and motive. So often you hear people as you counsel, and you begin to present what God tells us. The pushback is: “But he does not deserve that,” or “But she does not deserve that.” They are simply looking at their spouse for a reason to obey the passage. God tells us in this passage that you do not look to your spouse for the reason why, but instead you look to your Savior. Your servant, suffering Savior is the reason why and is your reference point. We cannot do it in our own strength.

Here is what is scary: we really do not have what we need to do marriage effectively for a lifetime, but we all bring to the table everything necessary to destroy one. For example, there is still so much of our selfishness in us, and our pride rears up and causes us to only see our spouse’s problem and not our own. We bring everything necessary to destroy a marriage and have in our own strength nothing that we need for a lifetime of a God-glorifying marriage. It is outside of us and found in Christ.

I try to read the entire Bible every year. I tell my church family all of the time that the longer that I read my Bible, I am becoming more and more convinced that we need to “back it up” and “push it forward” as we read passages. If you were to do that with this marriage passage, you would get greater insights about what God thought we needed to understand and what God thought we needed to anticipate and be ready for with relation to marriage.

If you are still reading your Bible and books of the Bible as if they are separate categories, you may describe the book of Ephesians as: “Oh, He is talking about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6” or, “Oh, He is talking about being filled with the Spirit in the early part of chapter 5.” However, if instead you were to back it up and push it forward—connecting everything and making a note that He placed His instructions, guidelines, and design for marriage in between the Holy Spirit and spiritual warfare so that you would know that it is going to turn into a war zone if you do not have everything you need in Christ—you would understand marriage far better. You would understand why you have the struggles that you have. Look at what I am talking about.

He does not jump into verse 22 about wives being submissive to their own husbands.

Chapter 5, verse 18: “Be filled with the Spirit.”

Each husband and wife needs to be filled with the Spirit and not themselves. Click To Tweet

Each husband and wife needs to be filled with the Spirit and not themselves. We have too much of ourselves coming into it. To be filled with the Spirit would mean to be emptied of self. That is what you need to live in marriage effectively the way He has called us.

Chapter 5, verse 20: “Be thankful.”

Marriages are being destroyed because it seems as if we immediately begin to only see what we wish were different. So often I find myself in counseling—maybe you do too—literally stopping because everything I am hearing is awful. Then I will say, “What attracted you to your spouse when you dated them? What attracted you to your spouse when you believed that you should marry them?” The response is almost like a deer caught in headlights. This is America. We do not have forced, arranged marriages. People choose who they want to marry, and yet within a matter of months, if not a few years, it is as if there is nothing good. There is nothing to be thankful for and it is almost never true. Rather, they have lost sight of gratitude. A marriage will die when there is only criticism and a focus on unmet desires, or establishing the bar of expectations for one’s spouse as if to say, “I know you are at such-and-such point, but here is where you need to be.” Instead, we need to be thankful. We need to be filled with the Spirit and have a context of gratitude. “When did you stop being thankful for your spouse?” I would even push it further: “When did you stop expressing gratitude? For example, when did you stop saying, ‘Thank you for the way you…,’ or ‘I really appreciate…'” The day gratitude stops being felt and stops being expressed is a really bad day for your marriage. We have not even gotten to the roles of husband and wife yet. Gratitude. Be thankful.

Chapter 5, verse 21: Be ready to lay down your rights.

Notice that before Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, ever said “wives be submissive to your own husbands,” he spoke about “submitting to one another.” God never designed marriage to be where the husband comes in without having to change or give up anything and still does and gets everything he wants, except for the fact that now he is married. On a regular basis, I have to remind men of this who want to live like they are still single, but they are married. When you said, “I do,” you gave up your right to be totally autonomous and make unilateral decisions, with the attitude of “I will still do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it.” That is no longer the case. Both husband and wife must submit to one another. For marriage to glorify God and thrive, both have to be ready and willing to lay down so-called rights and begin to prefer someone else. Then we get through the husband’s role and the wife’s role, but do not stop thinking about marriage there. Do not treat the passage as if it ends there.

Chapter 6, verse 12: Spiritual warfare—be alert to who the real enemy is that wants to destroy marriage.

Let us put this in the context of marriage. We love to quote this passage, but it is almost like people never think of it in terms of marriage where he says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood.” The war is not between husband and wife. We wrestle against principalities and powers and forces of darkness. I am convinced that this is true in marriage because the relationship between husband and wife is the only earthly relationship—not the mother-child relationship, not two buddies that have been through a war and now are so close, not girlfriends—that God said is one flesh and was designed to put on display His Son and His love for the church, his bride. As a result, Satan goes after marriage.

I am convinced of this. Satan hates marriage more than any other relationship because more than any other relationship marriage is designed to reflect Jesus Christ and His love for the church. Satan wants to obliterate that and destroy that as often as possible. If we were aware of that, it would be helpful. Your spouse is not your enemy. I tell people that in counseling a lot. “She is not your enemy. He is not your enemy. You both have a much greater enemy, and I need you to come together and recognize that you should work together on this because there is an enemy that is coming against both of you.” It is not “you coming against me,” but that is the posture that they have when they come in for counseling. It has deteriorated to that point.

Chapter 6, verse 13: Be armed for spiritual battle.

You are going to have to know that there is going to be a battle. Marriage will not be easy or automatic, but it is worth it. After almost 34 years now, it is so worth it. It is a fight worth fighting for the glory of God, but there is going to be some warfare in the midst of it.

Chapter 6, verse 16: Be full of faith.

One of the first things that happens is that one or both spouses stop believing that God can help, that God is with them, that God led them together. Their favorite thing to say is, “Oh, we never should have married each other.” That is not true, but I get it. Listen to me. My knowledge of this is not only from sitting with so many people, even though I have counseled for 30 years now. Do you know why I know this? Because I said it. That is right. As a youth pastor and music guy with a full head of hair, in the worst days of our marriage in those first three to five years, I literally said out loud, “I married the wrong person.” It was so hard. It seemed like we were on completely different pages that I literally thought, “This cannot be right. This should not be this hard.” I have a very different opinion now. I love my wife so very dearly and would not trade her in for ten younger women. She is beautiful. She is delightful. She is my best friend. But we both had to choose to have faith that God led us together, that He knew what was coming, that He wanted to grow us through this, and that there was something sweet on the other side of this.

You need to have faith; you need to believe. Yes, God’s Word is true. Yes, God can work.

Chapter 6, verse 18: Be praying constantly.

I am convinced that so often the people who I am trying to help and who have the worst marriages are talking to everybody else—to a girlfriend, to a guy friend— and they are not talking to God about it. They are not praying. They are complaining to people instead of praying to God.

It is often an awkward moment when I ask, “How much are you praying for your spouse?” I do not mean prayers that imitate imprecatory Psalms, saying “God, dash his head against the rock.” I am talking about prayers that say, “God bless her, encourage her, and grow her,” or “God bless him and encourage him.” Other examples could be “Show me how to love her” or “Show me how to love him.” Here is one of my prayers that I get people praying that they have not been praying: “Show me everything that you want me to see about me that is a part of this problem.” If they have been praying at all, they were not praying that prayer. In most cases, they are only praying, “God change her” or “God get him.”

Instead based on Psalm 139:23-24—which says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me”— they ought to pray: “God, show me.” I tell people all the time that there is one person that he or she can change. There is one person that an individual has the most influence and power over: himself or herself. Therefore, why not focus on that? Ask “God, what do you want me to see about me because by Your grace and with Your power and by Your Spirit I can do something about that. But I cannot work on it until I see it.” I am convinced that as much as Christians complain saying, “God does not answer prayer” and “Prayer does not work,” that this is a prayer that God would love to answer. I picture Him leaning out of heaven saying, “Somebody ask me, and I will answer.”

“Search my heart, O God. Try me; see if there be any wicked way in me.”

God loves to answer that prayer because it demonstrates a posture of humility and it matches what He teaches us in His word in Matthew 7 to first get the log out of our own eye so that we can even begin to see the speck that is in our brother’s or sister’s eye. He would love to show you the log, but you are going to have to pray. If you could see it, you would not be in counseling. Of course, people are sitting there saying, “I really do not think that the problem is mostly me.” That is why that person is in counseling. Instead, they ought to pray: “O God, show me the log in my own eye; show me what I have not been seeing about me that does not just cause me to struggle, but also causes me to be unclear even in the way that I view my spouse.”

Back it up; push it forward, and set marriage (husband, wife, Jesus Christ) in a broader context of: 1) be filled with the Spirit; 2) be grateful; 3) both of you be ready to lay down your rights; then 4) husbands love and wives submit, respect, and complement; and then 5) both of you anticipate that you have a greater enemy. He or she is not the enemy. There is spiritual warfare. You need to arm yourself and be ready to fight a good spiritual fight and you need to be praying and crying out to God.

That would make a huge difference in helping couples get unstuck or get some healthy traction in their marriage.

2. Marriage was ultimately designed for God’s glory.

Marriage was not designed only for our comfort, our delight, and our pleasure. Abraham Heschel said this: “Forget your sense of awe…and the universe becomes nothing but a marketplace for you. The loss of awe is the great block to insight.”

If your counselees have ever had any sense of awe for the Lord, for God’s glory, for the goodness of God, most have lost it. Just because they are Christians does not mean that they have a big world view with a glory-of-God motive about their life. When you get them in counseling, in most cases, their world has shrunk down to no bigger than: “me and what I want; the universe is a marketplace for me and my marriage is a marketplace for me.” That is why it is so popular—sadly, even among Christians—to say, “Oh, this marriage is no longer meeting my needs. I do not feel fulfilled and actualized in this marriage.”

It is not all about you. It is about the glory of God.

Your counselees are not likely to see much traction in their marriage until they get ahold of the bigger purpose: marriage was designed to put on display Christ and His love for the church—which should cause you not as quickly and easily to toss it away and say, “We are done”—and for the glory of God. It was designed for something bigger.

You will need to be the one, as a counselor, to bring that into view. Trust me, the conversations with her girlfriends at work are not bringing that into view. They are likely saying to her, “Girl, you do not have to put up with that. Oh, no, no, no, no. I would be so out of there.” Similarly, as he has conversations with the guys at the gym or work, nobody is bringing into view something bigger. In most cases, everyone surrounding them is just affirming: “It is all about you. Is it not meeting your needs? Are you not happy? Is it not what you signed up for? Is it not what you imagined? Then you have every right to be bitter or angry and even hit the exit door.” Therefore, you will need to be the one to bring this into view. They need to understand that marriage was designed to be a reflection of God’s glory. When you lose sight of that and you start trying to make it all about you, too much of you and too much of me in marriage is toxic. It begins to sour; it begins to stink; the gears begin to grind; things do not go well; it does not work.

The tiny world of you and me creates a suffocating marriage. If you want that marriage to be refreshed and if you want that marriage to get unstuck, throw open the window and breathe in again repeatedly “for the glory of God.” Every marriage was designed to be thriving. You want the marriage to thrive on the fresh winds of God’s grace and for God’s glory. There are too many marriages with the windows snapped shut, and the universe and their marriage have become a marketplace for them. It stinks in that marriage. Nobody is happy in that marriage and they do not understand why. That is why Paul’s discourse does not conclude at Ephesians 5:32 when he finishes giving instructions to husbands and wives. He keeps going. It is as if Paul almost runs out of words to express what he wants to bring into view as he sticks the landing with marriage.

Look at what he says: “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” He wants you to lift your sights beyond that man or woman on stage and realize that he is saying, “Even as I describe marriage, I am describing something bigger. There is a mystery.” God knew it would be two sinners that would be trying to pull this off. If you are thinking, “How did God think that we would be able to do this?” that is why we need to back it up and push it forward. He knew that you could not do it, but He has given you His Spirit. He knew that you could not do it, that is why Jesus died on the cross to pay for all of your sins and laid aside His rights and left the glories of heaven, coming as a humble servant, being obedient even to the point of death. That is why Jesus Christ’s last sermon had few words, but a lot of power when He washed the disciples’ feet and said, “If I am your Lord and Master and I did this for you, do it for each other.”

It does not work without a Savior who died and rose again and who lives in you. It does not work without the Holy Spirit, which is power in you. It does not work unless you recognize that there is a greater enemy coming against marriage. It does not work unless you cry out in prayer and say, “Oh God, help me. Oh God, show me what I am not seeing about me so that this marriage—it will never be perfect—can begin to reflect and put on display just a little bit of Christ and how He loves His bride, the church.”

People are asking: Is there anything good in this broken world? Is there hope in this broken world? Has anyone done something about this broken world and will anyone do something greater about this broken world? When people ask these questions, may they get the sense from our marriage that the answer is “Yes, Jesus Christ has come and yes, Jesus Christ is coming again.” As we live in between those two, marriage was meant to be a bit of a hopeful focus pointing towards redemption. Look at what He has done that two people could function like this and He is going to do more; He is coming again. Paul says that there is something at the very heart of marriage that preaches a sermon about Christ and the glory of God, which means that a strong Christian marriage was designed to be a billboard that reminds people of the gospel, and of God, and of a Savior.

The flip side of that, which I wish more Christians would get ahold of, is an ugly, hurtful, destructive Christian marriage. So often each person is so focused on how miserable they are in the marriage. I do not doubt that they are miserable in it, but it is also like throwing graffiti all over that billboard and what God designed marriage to be. As you stay in that situation, without getting help, without looking up, without grabbing hold of a bigger purpose, I know that you are miserable; but there is something even worse about that: it is graffiti on the billboard that God designed to remind this broken, dark world that there is a Savior, that there is a Redeemer, and that there is hope.

The real goal for husband and wife is to see how their marriage can adorn the doctrine of God. We have a lot of doctrine, but very few people are coming to church anymore. Very few people are clicking online to listen to or download a sermon. How is the world going to know of some of these things that God has done and who He is? One way God designed for this world to know is for the way that we live and the way that we interact with each other to adorn the doctrine of God. It would cause people to say, “How do you do that? I cannot do that. What do you have that I do not have?” Doctrine just stays doctrine until it gets lived out in radical ways that penetrate the darkness, confusion, and despair of this world. That is how Paul talked about it in Titus 2:10: “that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.” You will never be perfect. Vicki and I are not perfect. But when you, by God’s grace, begin to live in your marriage relationship differently than the rest of the world, it adorns the doctrine of God.

The Bible never says, “Just do it.” It always gives the why behind the what. The why almost always lifts our sights beyond the horizontal—what he wants, what she wants, what he said, what she said—and sets it on a vertical relationship with God and God’s glory through his Son.

3. Marriage was designed to expose us and to help us grow spiritually to become more like Christ.

I wish that people would realize this. It was a shock to me 34 years ago. That is why you feel so shocked. That is why in most cases, in those first few years of marriage, it is like everyone is running and scrambling to hide, similar to Genesis 3 with Adam and Eve. People do not realize until they get married—but when you do, you feel it—that nothing pushes to the surface your level of sinfulness and selfishness as well as a sense of being exposed in front of someone else quite like marriage. Marriage is just a context. That was not a mistake. If you ask, “Are we doing something wrong?” I do not think so.

As I already touched on, until you know the deficiencies and the problems, you cannot begin to work on it and grow. It is painful. I did not want to know the version of Brad Bigney that I discovered in the context of marriage. I had quite a high opinion of myself: voted most likely to succeed in high school, president of the National Honor Society, and loved by lots of people. Then, I got married, and I was like, “Wow.” I was being forced to see a version of myself and things about myself. I still remember the turning point in our marriage counseling. We actually went and received biblical marriage counseling. That is what made me excited about biblical counseling—not a book. I did not learn it in seminary. It was in that context that I saw the power and effectiveness of God’s Word and of another believer walking us through this by asking good questions, drawing me out, and confronting me.

We were living in a trailer at the time. I had been defending myself and saying, “I am a great guy. She has never had it so good. What is the problem?” I remember one Saturday, sitting on this little couch in our trailer, and for the first time—by God’s grace and by God’s spirit—an overwhelming thought came into my head and I began to see myself. I realized, “This must be what it is like to live with me.” I saw the difficult side. We are not talking about abuse. I was not hitting her; there was no profanity—none of that. It was still a horrible marriage because I was very selfish, very self-focused, and very driven. Then, for the first time, I had this incredible “Aha” moment as if a light clicked on. There was a download of information that was not fun to see or to process, but it was the beginning of a way out. If you are ever going to get where you should be, you need to have an awareness that you are not where you ought to be. It was not only pleasing Vicki. It was not an awareness that meant to start doing all of the things that my wife was saying. It was about becoming more like Christ. I was humbled to realize that even though I had a Bible college degree and had almost finished a seminary degree, I was not as godly, loving, gentle, kind, others-focused, and servant-minded as I should be to imitate my Savior. It is about becoming more like Jesus.

I repeat: Marriage was designed to expose us and to help us grow spiritually to become more like Christ. In other words, too often people think that the wedding day when you say “I do” is the end. You have been praying, searching, dating, getting counsel, and the process is complete now that you have a wife. It is not a stopping point; it is a starting point. The work has only just begun. Now there is going to be opportunities for incredible growth. However, similar to anything else in life, as soon as I say that word “growth,” it means there might be pain. If you have had kids, you know what it is like to have nights where the kids are crying and experiencing growing pains. Growth can be very painful, but very good.

a. I believe marriage was designed to help each person grow in holiness, but not necessarily in happiness.

Though remember, as you become holy, happiness is an incredible by-product. You will find happiness almost always in close range right behind holiness. On the other hand, when you pursue happiness, you rarely ever get ahold of it and holiness certainly does not happen.

God has called us to holiness and He knows what is best for us. It is not like, “Oh, I am going to be holy, but miserable.” When you become more like Christ, you also have great joy, contentment, and happiness. One of my favorite marriage books written by Gary Thomas is Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? It is a rhetorical question. That is exactly what God did. That question does not need to be answered. He designed marriage to make us holy. Gary Thomas says:

“To spiritually benefit from marriage, we have to be honest. We have to look at our disappointments, own up to our ugly attitudes, and confront our selfishness. We also have to rid ourselves of the notion that the difficulties of marriage can be overcome if we simply pray harder or learn a few simple principles. Why is this? Because there is a deeper question that needs to be addressed beyond ‘How can we improve our marriage?’ What if God did not design marriage to be easier? What if God had an end in mind that went beyond our happiness, our comfort… What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”

God gave us marriage to expose us so that we could begin to grow in becoming more like Christ. Even as I say that, I want to insert a caution because I believe that our single brothers and sisters in the church too often have been hearing the church talk about marriage in a way that makes it sound as if without marriage you are not even a full or whole person, cannot even glorify God, and cannot become more like Jesus apart from marriage. The Bible does not teach that.

b. Although marriage is designed to be the norm for life on earth, it is not required to glorify God, grow spiritually, or impact others.

Think about what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7: “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife and his interests are divided.” In other words, the single Christian actually has a greater potential. There is a potential for glorifying God because they do not have the distraction of marriage. Marriage is great. Marriage is a billboard that puts on display the love of Christ and His church. But in many cases, couples get distracted, their world has shrunk down to a marketplace of them, and their marriage is not accomplishing God’s purpose in any way while they are miserable.

Single Christians have a great potential for glorifying God, becoming more like Christ, and having greater intimacy with Christ because they do not have the distraction of marriage. Tim Keller, quoting Stanley Hauerwas, says this: “Christianity was the first religion that held up single adulthood as a viable way of life.” He writes: “Christianity’s founder, Jesus Christ, and its leading theologian, Saint Paul, were both single their entire lives. Single adults cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realized human beings. Paul’s assessment in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God and in many circumstances is actually better than marriage.”

One of the worst things that I believe we have done is to talk in terms of “I am not fulfilled until I find my spouse” or “Life has not even started until you find that mate.” Similarly, we put pressure on singles by the questions that we ask: “Are you dating anyone yet?” “Have you found that guy yet?” “Have you found that girl yet?”

Marriage is wonderful and God gave it an incredible purpose. However, the Bible does not teach that singleness is a sin or that in singleness you will limp through life with little or no ability to glorify God or to become more like Christ. You do not find that in the Bible. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 11:2-3, Paul speaks to the whole church, both married and single, when he says: “I betrothed you to one husband to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that … your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Every believer is betrothed or engaged to Christ the moment he or she puts his or her faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit is our engagement ring, the pledge, the reminder that you are spoken for, taken, and claimed, and that you have an identity in Christ. He loves you. He is coming back for you and He wants to use you now for His glory.

4. God never designed marriage to fully satisfy us or to replace Him.

As I sit at close range with couples trying to help them, I am finding out more and more that part of the problem is that expectations are off the chart. We live in a culture today that tells us that we need to get everything the way that we want it. Even when we try to do that, we are still not happy. News alert: God never designed marriage to fully satisfy you.

If you have this sense that “Man, I am glad to see that these things are getting better, but if only…” Welcome to a fallen, broken world. I am convinced that couples are helped by coming into counseling, by beginning to see what they had not been seeing about themselves, by learning a greater purpose, by beginning to repent of bitterness, and by learning how to communicate in a more godly way. However, one of the best things that can happen for any marriage is for both husband and wife to take a deep breath and let up on their spouse on some of these high expectations. In many cases, one or both need the other way too much. God never designed marriage to take the place of your Savior. In fact, if you are single, do not be thinking, “Yeah, I know I really need Jesus now. Oh my goodness, I need Him. But if I had that husband…” Trust me, if and when you get that husband, you will need Jesus even more.

Of every good thing that God has given us in this world, is marriage a good gift? Yes. Children, are they a good gift? Yes. Work? It is the same answer, my friends, work is good. We are created in the image of God. He is a worker and we are workers. These are good things, but they go off the rail whenever you begin to build your entire world around one of these. You can make your entire world marriage so that you think that you need everything from your marriage. You can shift and make your entire world your children so that they have to fulfill you and the way that they turn out is your level of happiness. You can take work and build your whole world around it. If you build your world around anything in this world and expect it to fulfill you completely—even if it is good and God gave it to us—you will end in disappointment and brokenness.

There is a hole in the bottom of all marriages, even of the best Christian marriages. There is a hole in the bottom of children and there is a hole in the bottom of work. Everything leaks and everything is groaning right now. We ought to thank God for the measure of pleasure, oneness, and goodness that we taste in marriage in the midst of a broken world, but we ought to stop expecting it to be everything that we would have hoped, dreamed, and wanted. That would really help a lot of marriages.

a. You are going to have to help your counselees to see how they might be taking a good thing—marriage is good—and making it a ‘god’ thing or an ultimate thing.

Romans 1 shows us the tendency of the human heart. Three times in Romans 1 Paul uses the word “exchanged:”

1. They have exchanged the glory of God—which is what we were designed to live for—for something created in this world.

2. They have exchanged the truth of God for the lie. The best translations say “the lie” and not “a lie.” What is the lie? The lie that if you get enough of the right things in this world—whether it is the right marriage, the right kids, the right job, the right image—you can be totally satisfied without God and you do not need God.

3. Then he goes on to give the example of homosexuality, which is an example of twisting God’s original good design and exchanging the way He said to use things. We say, “Oh, if it is good, then should we not be allowed to use it in any way that we want?”

We are guilty of these three great exchanges that all turn us away from God. “I do not need God. I think I can do this without God.” You cannot. We cannot do life without God. We cannot do marriage without God.

You will actually help your counselees the most if you can help them to realize that a person loves his or her spouse best when he or she loves God most. You do not want your spouse to make you “number one.” I just officiated a wedding a few weeks ago and literally I have my vows written this way: “George, do you before me, your pastor, friends, and family now commit before God that for the rest of your life your number-one allegiance will belong to the Lord Jesus Christ and your first earthly love will now belong to your new bride, Sally. If so, please say I do.” She will be loved best if this man keeps loving Jesus most.

When you love Jesus most, when you are satisfied in Jesus, when He is real to you, when you are delighting in Him and intimate with Him, you do not need as much from your spouse and you can extend grace and mercy to your spouse when he or she falls short of what you had hoped for or even when he or she sins against you. You do not want your spouse making you “number one.” You want him or her making you “number two.” Jesus first; Jesus Christ first.

b. Marriage was never designed to fully satisfy you.

You are going to have to help your counselees accept that there is a measure of futility still present even in the best of Christian marriages. I know that it can be shocking and rocking when you think, “But she is a Christian.” I mean Vicki and I met at Bible college. She grew up in a great church in Georgia, Sherwood Baptist Church; I grew up in church my whole life. She was saved at a young age; I was saved at a young age. What could go wrong? Lots, because she is still a sinner, I am still a sinner, and we still desperately need to reorient ourselves in the ways that I have been bringing to you in this hour. There is a measure of futility that is still present in the best of Christian marriages. That is why Romans 8:20 says: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope.” Everything in this world is groaning and has a measure of futility.

c. Encourage them to groan or long for something better that will fully satisfy.

It is not wrong to have a holy groaning and longing for the new heaven, the new earth, King Jesus, and for everything to be made right. However, in the meantime, He has given us glimpses of that original goodness and earth before sin wrecked it, and He has given us hope that something better is coming. There is redemption even in the midst of this. The Holy Spirit is with us in this. We have God’s Word with us. We have direct access to His throne day and night. We have brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ—the church—around us. He has given us everything we need for life and godliness right now, but it will be hard; it will be painful. It will be discouraging at times. You will be tempted to lose heart at times. C.S. Lewis said: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Yes, you were. Yes, I was. You were made for another world. Nothing in this world is going to fully satisfy.

For marriage to go well, every husband and wife have to be tapping into a superior satisfaction in something outside of that marriage. Without a superior satisfaction outside of that marriage, a husband will not be able to lay down his life for his wife and a wife will not be able to submit, follow, respect, and complement. In other words, the power and motivation to keep loving and to keep sacrificing year after year for a sinful imperfect husband and a sinful imperfect wife has to come from being so satisfied in something outside of that marriage: the grace of God and the glory of God that is found in your relationship with the Son of God.