By Jennifer Slattery, Crosswalk.com
This Valentine’s Day are you tempted to give up? To harden your heart, pawn your wedding ring, and simply walk away?
Nothing hurts quite like a failing marriage, and there is no loneliness as intense as living with a stranger, especially one that used to be your best friend.
So how did you get here, and is there any way to get back to the love you once knew? To that giggly, hand-holding stage you swore to one another you’d never leave?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. The God who raised Christ from the dead and who breathed life into man can indeed breathe life into your dead and decaying marriage. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, In fact, it will take a great deal of prayer, inner strength, perseverance, and surrender, but it will be worth it. So very worth it. Let's take a closer look at these five steps to marital healing.
Denise Friesen, co-founder of the non-profit marriage ministry, SOS Marriage Care, Inc., reminds us that God is the designer of marriage, and as such, should be our first source of wisdom. “So many times it’s easier to pick up the phone and call a friend to discuss your dead marriage,” she says, “than it is to do the right thing and turn to God first for his direction.”
Going to our friends first can create numerous problems. Mankind’s wisdom often directly opposes God’s. In our give-me, grab-it culture, many encourage a self-centered solution, even those in the church. This isn’t intentional on their part. Rather, it comes from having a sin nature while living in a deceived and sinful world.
“We have been living a false lie in society that has wreaked havoc in many marriages,” Friesen says. “This lie tells us that we get married to be happy for the rest of our lives, and that our souse is responsible for making us happy. When this doesn’t happen, we become bitter and angry that our expectations aren’t met. This is very far from how God designed marriages to work. God designed marriages to encompass spouses who mutually complete one another and serve one another selflessly.”
There is a second and larger problem with going to our friends first: Doing so can easily fuel our negativity and bitterness. First off, our friends will only hear one side, which happens to be ours—the only side we know. This will rarely help us dig deeper, to the root of the problem. More than likely, our friend will validate our feelings, becoming our ally in this “war.” What we need is not someone to make us more entrenched in the battle but rather a peacemaker who will help us lovingly work our way out.
The role of a peacemaker is a difficult one to fill, one that requires strength, honesty, and Christ-like wisdom. Few friends have the strength and courage to speak the complete truth regarding our situation, especially when we’re going through a tough time. Christ, however, the Prince of peace, fills the peacemaker role perfectly, and he is ready and available to walk us through the worst relational issues. The One who reconciled us to Christ has given each of us the role of reconciliation. More than that, he’s given us everything we need to fulfill that role, if we’d but seek his wisdom and follow his lead.
Surrender means giving up all our rights, expectations, and desires for Christ’s sake, out of obedience to him. This step has absolutely nothing to do with our spouse. In other words, it doesn’t matter if we think our spouse deserves our Christ-centered actions or not. Christ does. He gave everything, his very life, so that we may live, and he asks us to give our lives back to him.
Romans 12:1-2 says, “And so dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behaviors and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (NLT).
Notice, this verse doesn’t say, “In view of everything your husband has done,” or “Because your wife genuinely apologized,” or even, “Because, if you do X and Y, all will go well for you.”
No. It says, “because of all he [God] has done for you,” the biggest being surrendering his very life so we could live. Because of that, Paul urges us to give our life back to him. This means living in a way God desires, regardless of the outcome.
This begs the question, how does God want us to live? According to Jesus, the answer to that is relatively simple. We are to love God with everything we have and love others as ourselves. The problem in most marriages is that we have the latter part of that command flipped. We love ourselves as we’d like others to love us. Meanwhile, our spouse is likely doing the same, leading to disastrous results as each of us feeds our negativity and bitterness, leading to further isolation.
God’s way, however, leads to life, love, intimacy, and freedom. And this freedom often comes through the third step:
For years, I hung on to my pain, feeding it until the very thought of an event or individual spiked my pulse. I knew I needed to forgive, that God had commanded me to do so, but I was so consumed by the injustice of it all, I refused to take that step. As a result, I grew increasingly angry until this anger began to seep out into my daily life. I grew impatient, easily irritated, and easily offended. My unforgiveness became a growing poison that stole my joy and isolated me not only from the one who had wounded me, but from all my relationships.
One evening my local Bible study group launched a study on forgiveness. Concluding the study, we were each invited to write on slip of paper the name of an individual or event that had hurt us deeply. We were then to toss that slip of paper into a bonfire burning in the study host’s backyard. As we did so, we were to release our anger, choosing to forgive and asking God to give us the strength to act on that choice.
That night, as I watched the flames flicker, my wadded paper in hand, realization swept through me: God didn’t want me to forgive for the other person’s sake. He wanted me to do so for mine. He longed to free me from the bitterness that was stealing the peace and joy he died to grant me.
I cannot explain the incredible joy and healing that realization brought, and the overwhelming peace that followed, once I released my pain, anger, and need for vindication, to Christ. That moment paved the way for great inner growth, and allowed me to proceed with thoughtful intentionality rather than emotional reactivity. In other words, I became proactive about my relationships and determined to rebuild that which had been lost.
This leads me to the fourth step toward marital healing:
4. Fight with Everything You’ve Got
Fight—not with your spouse but for them. Because isn’t that what unconditional love is all about? Isn’t that the kind of love each of us longs for? A love that sees us at our worst but chooses to remember us at our best? A love that becomes our support when we feel like we’re going to crumble? One that looks past our actions and reactions to our heart within—a heart that usually won’t reveal itself until all fear of abandonment and retaliation is gone.
This kind of love is tough. It doesn’t come naturally. In fact, initially, our self-protecting heart might rally against it. When this happens, we might need to seek reinforcement. Never be afraid to use the C word—counseling. I’ve often said my husband and I have our counselor on speed dial because we’ve sought outside help on so many occasions. Doing so has given the tools we need to deal with difficult issues and resolve conflicts effectively. Meeting together with an unbiased professional has also has given us a safe place talk openly until we reach the root of the problem.
Remember the vows you spoke on your wedding day? To love, cherish, and honor, forsaking all others, in the good and the bad? This Valentine’s Day, God is giving you an opportunity to put feet to your words—to make good on your promise. More than that, he’ll give you the strength to do it, if you’d but stay in the fight. For as long as it takes, trusting not in your spouse and their ability to change, not even in yourself, but rather in Christ and his ability to radically transform.
Because nothing—nothing!—is impossible with God. So rest in him, trust in him, and, walking forward in the freedom and strength he provides, choose to begin again, today.
This leads me to step five...
5. Choose Hope, and Always Be Ready to Begin Again
I love Lamentations 3:23 which tells us God’s “mercies begin afresh each morning.”
The question is, do ours? Can we begin afresh today, offering our spouse that clean slate of grace? That doesn’t mean we won’t deal with the issues that are weakening our marriage, but it does mean we’ll view them through a different lens, that of love and hope.
It won’t be easy. Long-term, committed love never is. But we’ll never find the intimacy we long for if we walk away, because the problem doesn’t lie entirely with our spouse. Until we learn to resolve conflicts God’s way, turning to him in prayer, following with wholehearted surrender in whatever he asks us to do, and fighting for those we love with everything we’ve got, we’ll continually move from one broken relationship to the next. But if we turn to and lean on Christ, trusting in his wisdom, strength and power at work within us, we can find healing, restoration, and a love deeper than we’d ever imagined.
How do I know? Because I’ve been there, and standing on the other side of the fight, preparing for an epic 20th anniversary celebration, I never plan to go back.
Jennifer Slattery lives in the midwest with her husband and their teenage daughter. She writes for Christ to the World Ministries, Internet Cafe Devotions, and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and compilation projects, and currently writes missional romance novels for New Hope Publishers.