“What’s wrong with wanting a godly marriage?” It’s a question that’s been asked by more than one person in counseling sessions. In my experience with couples it is almost always asked by at least one spouse over the course of our counseling relationship. The obvious answer is, of course, “nothing.” There is nothing wrong with wanting a godly marriage. In fact, if you don’t want that there is probably something wrong with you. The problem arises, however, when we assume that God wants to give us that, and therefore demand it. Godly marriages can become serious idols.
The Bible has a lot to say about marriage. It speaks to the ways in which husbands and wives should interact and relate, it speaks to the roles of spouses, and defines love and forgiveness within relationships. Most pointedly, it describes marriage as a living model of the gospel (Eph. 5:32). So, does God want us to have godly marriages? In one sense, yes. He commands, after all, that we live as certain kinds of spouses. On the other hand, however, he nowhere promises us that our marriage will be all that we want it to be. He nowhere promises us that marriage will be easy and sweet. He nowhere promises that our spouses will pursue godliness in their own lives and interactions. In other words, God may not give us a godly marriage.
A godly marriage is a good desire, but it can become an awful master. When we demand something that God has not promised, or desire it to such a degree that it become ultimate, we will actually increasingly harm our marriage and frustrate ourselves. The idol of a godly marriage will cause us to manipulate, pressure, nag, and try to control our spouse. We will attempt to force them into the model of godliness that we desire. If, however, they do not desire to grow and change we cannot make them. Attempting to force them to become a godly husband or wife will only further compound our relational problems. Furthermore, demanding a godly marriage will tempt us to sin to get what we want (as is the case in manipulation and control of our spouse). It will also tempt us to become bitter towards our spouse (and likely God) for not doing what we expect and demand. Ultimately, the demand for a godly marriage will actually impede our own spiritual growth.
The idol of a godly marriage puts our relationship at the center of our happiness. We can only be happy, only find peace and joy, only be godly, if our marriage is functioning in the spiritually ideal way we expect it should. Your growth as a Christian, however, is not dependent upon your spouse. Winston Smith helpfully writes:
God offers something much better than a changed spouse; he promises to change you. He gives himself to you. When you’re tempted to believe that your spouse stands between you and all the joy you hoped to find in marriage, hear God’s invitation to something far better. This doesn’t mean that your spouse won’t change; it means that whether your spouse changes or not, you’re invited to become part of the most important program in history – the program of letting God live inside of you so that his love becomes visible in our broken world. (Marriage Matters, 12)
Your joy, hope, purpose, happiness, and godliness our not entirely bound up in your marriage. If you think they are then you will suffer spiritual stagnation because of your idolatry. A godly marriage is a good goal, but if it becomes a little god then it will consume you.
None of this makes living in a broken or stale marriage easy. It is one of the most difficult things we can be asked to do. Because marriage is so often at the center of our lives a broken or frustrating marriage can be very discouraging. Yet, following Jesus is called “carrying our cross” precisely because it is hard (Matt. 16:24). It is hard to love in difficult moments. It is hard to sacrifice and show grace. It is hard to forebear and forgive, especially when it is so frequent. But where there is difficulty there is also grace, and God’s grace abounds in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Look to God to help you find joy, peace, happiness, and growth in the midst of less than ideal marriages.
A few simple suggestions can help you keep the goal of a godly marriage from becoming an idol:
- Prioritize Obedience to Christ – Paul sets out the goal for all Christians when he says, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9). The goal of all Christians, in all of life, is to please God. We want to “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). If your first goal is to love God, serve God, and honor God then you can do that regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen in your marriage. Even difficulties, then, become opportunities to honor Jesus.
- Seek your own growth first – Most of our concern over our marriages focuses on how our spouses need to change and on what we can do to make them change. Jesus warns us that before we start looking at other’s shortcomings we need to check ourselves first (Matt. 7:3). Be more concerned with evaluating and correcting your own attitude, responses, character flaws, sins, and selfishness. Where can you continue to grow? You can’t change your spouse, but you can grow personally.
- Discern when to “let it go,” when to confront, and when to seek counsel – In difficult marriages every offense can become an argument or occasion for conflict. Usually this is because we interpret each offense through the history of our relational tension. It’s important to discern how we should respond to each individual offense. Sometimes we should let “love should cover” the wrong (1 Peter 4:8). There are offenses that we simply need to get over and look past. Some issues are actually about us, our sensitivity, our preferences, and our demands. Some “offenses” are more personal than interpersonal. Sometimes we need to believe the best about our spouse (1 Cor. 13:7), even when they sin against us or wrong us. Other times, we must recognize that if we can’t get over an offense we need to raise the issue in love. It is better to confront the problem than to become bitter. Where there are patterns of offense we need to address those issues too. How we do so is important, and will be my next point. Finally, there are times where we need to seek counsel. When you don’t know what to do, when your spouse refuses to change or repent, when you and your spouse can’t agree on the problem or solution it’s best to seek wise godly counsel. One final point here is worth mentioning: abuse is not a marital problem. It is a serious issue that requires immediate help. If you are experiencing abuse do not stay in it or accept it as just a part of marriage. Get help from a wise godly counselor.
- Confront in love – Confrontation is always hard and how we confront needs to reflect the love we have for the person. Attacks and accusations will not result in progress or resolution, instead they will only further entrench a person in their sin. Ask questions, seek to understand why a person responded the way they did, said what they said, or treated you the way they did. Confess your own uncertainty about what happened, or why they expressed themselves they way they did. You want to seek clarity not assume motives. Express how you felt more than what you think they meant. Share how you were hurt, or how you perceived offense. Speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
- Don’t Accept Responsibility for Your Spouse’s Growth – Confrontation does not mean that there will be change, even when you do it with the best of intentions. Sometimes our spouses don’t know how to change, or don’t see things our way. Sometimes they are stuck in cycles of self-centeredness and sin. You are not responsible for them. Don’t take their spiritual growth as your responsibility, don’t take their sin as your burden to bear. They must answer to the Lord for themselves, just as you must answer for yourself. Don’t attempt to be the Holy Spirit in their life by constantly reminding them of their sin, their failures, and their need to change. God is better at conviction than we are, let Him do that work.
- Pray – The most valuable thing you can do for your marriage is pray for God to bless it. Don’t underestimate the power of prayer as God delights to answer the pleas of His people. Be fervent and unceasing in asking God to resolve conflict and tension, to motivate your spouse to godliness, to give you peace in the midst of difficulty, and to grant your joy in the midst of sorrow. Trust your marriage to the Almighty.
There are many more things that we could say regarding difficult marriages, but these will help us to keep the goal of a godly marriage before us, while also recognizes that God may not grant us this. We want to do our part to work towards a godly marriage even while we keep ourselves from making a godly marriage an idol.
God created marriage and loves it, but in this world even marriages are broken by the curse of sin. Sometimes, that means our marriages will not be good, healthy, and godly relationships. Do your part, trust God with the rest. Make it your goal to please Him in all things and you will find joy and peace.