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When Biff and Mable were married, they appeared to be the perfect pair. They were high school sweethearts and were virtually inseparable. They went to the same church and kept themselves pure throughout their courtship.
After marriage, Biff went into the ministry, and Mable was excited to be married to her “preacher man.” They were best friends who enjoyed doing things together.
Then life happened.
Initially, it was their jobs. Then came the bills. There were a couple of unexpected medical emergencies that set them back, and by year five they had two children. Mable quit her public job to be a mom, which they both agreed was the right thing to do.
They never saw it coming.
By the time the second child arrived, Biff and Mable had already drifted apart. They were civil to each other, but the marriage had evolved into a business partnership rather than a spiritually dynamic marriage.
Biff and Mable’s scenario can happen to any couple in today’s culture. It’s called “life happens.” The bad news is when life does happen, couples do not know how to adjust. They don’t know how to respond to each other and, more importantly, they do not know how to respond to God.
One of the things I’ve seen with Christian couples is an assumed relationship with God. The husband assumes his wife has a relationship with God. The wife believes her husband has a relationship with God.
Neither one of them is actively involved in each other’s spiritual lives, even though they both attend separate Bible studies and rarely miss their local church meetings.
These Christian activities have become nothing more than feel-good social gatherings with a sprinkling of Bible on top. Biff and Mable made no plans to become spiritually intrusive with each other or with their friends.
This case study represents some of the most common patterns for people with marriage problems that end in divorce. There is an appearance of sanctification, but in truth, it is more like group participation in the customs of religion that has no transformative power.
Being transparent and vulnerable about their true selves is hard for them. They do not have this kind of relationship with each other or with their friends, though Mable has been more honest with her friends, but she is not married to them.
She is one flesh with Biff. No matter how much she is invigorated by being with her friends, she has a disease in her one flesh body. Her relationship with her friends only highlights the problems in her marriage as they remind her of what she is missing.
They can only rehabilitate their marriage when Biff, Mable, and God enter into a threefold relationship. This process won’t happen by attending more church services or by participating in additional Bible studies.
Their primary problem is not about the church or the Bible. The issue in view here is about a couple and the Lord and how they relate to each other. The church and the Bible can facilitate their spiritual relationship, but their problem is that they don’t have a spiritual relationship with each other.
Only when they revive the spiritual dysfunction in their one flesh-ness will the church and the Bible be able to help them. At this point, the church and the Bible are like pouring water on a duck’s back. You have to change the duck so it can absorb the water.
Biff and Mable have to change to receive the ongoing and mutual benefit of the many “means of grace” that can help them mature into a God-centered one-flesh union. This change begins with a spiritual transformation of their hearts.
They are spiritual beings. A spiritual Being created them in His image. God designed them to relate to Him and each other spiritually. This type of community is how the first couple functioned (Genesis 2:18-25).
It was when Adam and Eve decided to break up their trifold relationship with God that things went wrong for them (Genesis 3:1-15). The missing piece that will kill any marriage is when God, the husband, and the wife are not dynamically involved with each other in a deeply committed spiritual way.
This spiritual malfunction is what happened to Biff and Mable. The busyness of life and the ministry put them on a path that sucked the spiritual sustenance out of them. They never saw it coming because they were “in the ministry,” as though the ministry insulates a couple from trouble.
In time, they were doing ministry by rote rather than by relationship. It was a “form of Christianity” that was devoid of the power they needed to keep them spiritually in tune with God and each other. Their trifold relationship began to drift from each other.
It is a simple matter to diagnose a broken marriage. You only have to ask a few questions to get at the heart of what has gone wrong between a couple and the Lord.
Here are five straightforward queries that you can use to assess your marriage as well as the marriages of your friends. The answers to these questions will give you an accurate picture of how a marriage is thriving.
With each question, give specific and detailed answers. Avoid Christian-speak and ambiguity. Focus more on being practical rather than theoretical. Above all, be honest.
Your answers will reveal your spiritual interest and intentionality with the Lord and with your spouse. The questions go beyond the activities that you do together, the jobs you have, or the respective events you engage with each other.
Your answers should not be, “We go to church together.” I’ve already addressed the problem with “going to church” while having a spiritually distant relationship with each other and God.
These questions are spiritual. They represent the foundation of your marriage–the most critical aspect of your life. How you answer them will determine the quality of your relationship and whether you will be able to persevere as a married couple joyfully.
These questions reveal the systemic core of all marriage problems. If a couple has communication problems, it means there is something broken in their spiritual lives. If a couple has financial issues, it says there is something afoul a the level of their hearts.
You name the problem in any marriage, and you can trace it back to its core–the couple’s trifold relationship with God. If you fix this core problem, which is spiritual, you’ll be able to resolve all of the other issues in the marriage.
Once the man’s “wonderfulness” begins to wear off or the wife’s beauty begins to fade, you’ll have to find something else to be excited about in the relationship. The culture’s solution for this is to make more money so they can spend more money.
They present a pretense of happiness, but they are not happy. They are scrambling to figure out how to replace God with something else in their lives. Some Christians attempt to replace God with their jobs, children, and cultural hobbies. Biff and Mable used the ministry, though they did not see it that way.
The ministry is a more sanitized solution and gives the perception of being right, but a marriage can still rot from the pulpit or the front row. The reason this was the case for Biff and Mable was that they did not know how to have a triangulated relationship with each other and God.
What might surprise you is how simple it is to have this kind of relationship with God and your spouse. The catch is that both partners must be willing to humble themselves to put forth the effort to love each other the way God intends.
Many times my initial counsel to a couple like this is as simple as praying together. The way I present this idea to them goes like this:
I want you both to go home, and at some point today, I want you both to sit on your bed, hold hands, and begin talking to God.
It is straightforward counsel, and if a couple chose to humble themselves, they would see God do some remarkable things in their lives (James 4:6). What they would be doing is building a triangulated relationship between themselves and God.
Because their problems are primarily matters of the heart, they must work on their issues at that level. Spiritual problems need more than partial or shallow solutions.
One couple told me recently how they were counseled to mirror each other. Mirroring is a counseling technique where one spouse reflects back on what the other spouse is saying to enhance their communication. They ended up arguing. Regrettably, as they were telling me about mirroring, they were arguing.
Why were they arguing? They don’t like each other. There were layers of unforgiveness, bitterness, hurt, resentment, harshness, grudges, and disappointment in their lives. These are spiritual (heart-related) issues.
While communication techniques can help, they won’t resolve the problems until the couple addresses their spiritual issues. Unforgiveness, bitterness, hurt, resentment, harshness, grudges, and disappointment can only be rooted out with the Spirit’s intervention.
This process means they must have God’s solutions more than they need man-centered communication techniques. Until God implodes these spiritual problems, there will be no technique that will work for them. It’s like trying to paint over a stain. It won’t work. You must remove the stain.
The simple act of sitting on the bed, holding hands, and talking to God is a practical first step in breaking the bondage that has been crippling their marriage. Think about what would be involved in doing this simple task.
Humility – First of all, the couple would have to humble themselves. Resisting pride is usually the hardest part for individuals. As they humble themselves before the Lord and each other, their sin will become exposed.
Transparency – Their humility will lead them toward openness. Being open and honest with each other will be new for the couple. It will feel mechanical or wooden because it’s not Biff and Mable’s habit. In the past, they were defending their positions.
Vulnerability – Humble transparency has an element of weakness. Up to this point, the couple has been unwilling to let down their guards.
Now they are laying their weapons down, and rather than seeking their interests, Biff and Mable are trying the benefit of the other (Philippians 2:3-4). Rather than demanding personal rights, they are attempting to model the gospel (Philippians 2:5-7).
You begin to sense a tonal difference in their relationship. They sound different, and they talk differently. Humility, transparency, and vulnerability are far different from their former punitive demands.
Intimacy – This simple act of prayer has another element too–they are holding hands. This physical activity is an intimate act. Physical intimacy has been missing in their relationship.
They are now willing to take baby steps with the hope of restoring not just the spiritual brokenness but the physical brokenness as well. Much resentment can vanish with the touch of the hand.
I recommend to couples that they practice hand-holding as well as putting their arms around each other. It seems rare for couples in their forties and beyond to hold hands or sit with their arms around each other and show public affection for each other.
Prayer – There is one more element to this simple act of praying together, which is the most crucial aspect of all: they are talking to God. Before, they were talking to each other in aggravated tones or maybe they were implementing the silent treatment.
Now, rather than distancing themselves from each other and God, they are choosing to build a threefold relationship together. In time, they can enjoy a spiritually dynamic relationship with each other and God.
The first group of words sits upon a spiritually dynamic, triangulated relationship between God, a husband, and a wife. The second group of words is devoid of God while leaving the couple in a Darwinian survival of the fittest, loser leaves town match.
One of the best things a broken couple can do is to pray together actively. Praying together removes the walls that divide. As they begin to build their relationship with God and each other, they will be able to address some of the other problems in their marriage.
While this is the first step on a long journey, it is probably the hardest one of all. It takes a lot of humility for two stubborn people to set aside their disappointment for a higher good. If this is you, I appeal for you to take steps to begin rebuilding your marriage from the ground up.
At some point today, I want you both to sit on your bed, hold hands, and begin talking to God because your most perfect relationship will be when you, your spouse, and God become one.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).