An embittered wife sits across the desk of a marriage counselor, her heart aching from some cutting remarks her husband has uttered against her. She makes a brave front of ignoring the offense, but deep down she is seething with resentment. It is eroding their marriage, and she knows it.
The counselor begins to talk about forgiveness. But she retorts, “But what he did was so hurtful! Where’s the justice?”
Shifting gears, the counselor gently probes, “Tell me about your relationship with God.”
She spits back, “You don’t understand. I don’t have a problem with God. My problem is with my husband!”
Does this scene sound eerily familiar? Why do we see so many marriages, even among Christians, floundering and even failing?
Psychologist Larry Crabb made this astute observation, “The problem beneath our struggles is a disconnected soul.”1 Could it be that we are disconnected from God, hence we have become disconnected from our spouse? We think our problems solely lie in our horizontal relationships (with our spouse, children, employer and so on), whereas they are really symptoms of problems in our vertical relationship with God.
This leads to the key principle: Marriage does not begin between you and your spouse. It actually begins between you and God. Therefore, nurture your vertical relationship before you repair your horizontal relationships.
It takes more than Bible knowledge. One can know, even teach, what the Bible says about marriage but remain mean-spirited towards his spouse. Rather, one has to experience the sheer goodness of God. Notice that Psalm 34:8 does not say “Know that the LORD is good.” Rather, it goes “Taste and see that the LORD is good.” It’s one thing to peruse a recipe for a steak. It is another to sink your teeth into sizzling, tender, juicy Australian beef.
In our story, the wife wailed “Where’s the justice?” Answer: It’s all paid for at the cross.
Your sins? And those of your spouse? Jesus died for all of them. It’s all grace. Tim Keller said it well, “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”2 I am not saying that you condone wrongdoing. What I am saying is: let God ravage your heart with His mind-blowing grace, then you will be able to extend the megadoses of grace which your marriage needs to flourish.
So many marriages run on empty in two extremes. One is to pray, pray, pray as if it all depends on God. The wife pleads “Lord, please help me forgive my husband” but resists bestowing the actual forgiveness. The other is to do, do, do as if it all depends on us. The wife musters all her will power to forgive her husband, but the hurt is so overwhelming, she just doesn’t.
The balance is to begin with God, draw upon His grace and be enabled by the Spirit. Suppose the wife realizes how much the Lord has forgiven her. Sheer grace! She will tend to confer that same forgiveness to her husband. It’s the whole point of Jesus’ parable of the ungrateful servant (Mt. 18:21-35).
When a couple affirms that God is at the center of their marriage, it is usually understood as living based on what the Bible says, having regular devotions, being active at church and so on. And they are all wonderful. But at that center must be the Cross that radically transforms a spouse’s heart. God is declaring through the Cross: You are utterly loved. You are accepted. You are whole.
Think about it. No more expecting (or demanding) the spouse to make us happy. No more panic when we lose “that lovin’ feeling.” No more Jerry Maguire with his famous “You complete me.” No more insecurity whether we are good-looking enough, smart enough, performing enough. No more hiding dark secrets. No more fear that to say “I’m sorry” will diminish you.
Do you want to have a happy, healthy, holy marriage? Don’t begin with your spouse. Begin with God. A good way would be to rethink your devotionals. I have found that I am the most tender and affectionate towards my wife Lucy after spending time with God through His Word.
But what if your quiet time with God is, well, “quiet”? Read your Bible through the fresh lens of grace. When you read a narrative, a psalm or an epistle, ask yourself: Where is the goodness of God in all this? Get to know the heart of God, let it touch your own heart, and you will be able to touch the heart of your spouse.
May your marriage be a foretaste of heaven.
1 Larry Crabb, Connecting (Nashville, Tennessee: Word Publishing, 1997), xvi. Italics are Crabb’s.
2 Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Riverhead Books, 2011), 44
Note: This article is adapted from a seminar based on Nelson’s book The Honeymoon Never Ends, which won the 2012 Gintong Aklat award in the inspirational category. It is available in major bookstores nationwide, especially in OMF Lit bookshops and online through https://www.passagesbooks.com.