By / Jul 11

Your wife feels lonely after two years of COVID-induced isolation. Your husband was recently laid off and feels rejected and insecure. Your wife struggles with depression and is having a particularly rough day. Your husband just lost his father, and his heart is bleeding. Your spouse is emotionally suffering. What do you do? 

In a broken world that only seems to be breaking more with each passing day, the question is important. How do you minister to a suffering spouse who is riddled with heartache, hopelessness, anxiety, angst, disappointment, doubt, or despair? A spouse who is overwhelmed, overworked, or overstressed? A spouse who is battling fear, guilt, shame, exhaustion, grief, or a plethora of other soul-testing emotions? 

What do you do when your spouse is suffering on the inside?

What not to do

First, let me share three things not to do:

1. Fix. Don’t put on your relational tool belt and offer quick fixes. It makes your spouse feel like a problem to be solved, not a person to be loved. It’s dehumanizing. It certainly doesn’t mirror the way that God treats us in our emotional distress. He rarely gives us quick fixes. He meets us in our pain, links arms with us, and walks with us through our suffering. Do the same for your spouse. 

2. Make it about you. It’s easy to make your spouse’s emotional pain about you. How does the pain make you feel? What impact is the pain having on your life? How did you possibly contribute to the pain? STOP. Stop making your spouse’s suffering about you. It’s impossible to love your spouse well when your eyes are fixated on yourself. Adjust your lenses, and focus on your spouse. Not on you. 

3. Make it not about you. It’s also easy to check out when your spouse is hurting inside. Why do we check out? We don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to help. So we walk away. Don’t. Stay connected. You are one flesh with your spouse (Gen. 2:24). Just like shedding a hurting body part is not an option, abandoning your hurting spouse is not an option.

What you should do: BLESS  

So what should you do when your spouse is in emotional distress? Allow me to provide a step-by-step framework. I call it BLESS. It stands for Be, Listen, Empathize, Speak, Solve. Before I explain, I want to share three disclaimers:

First, this is a framework—a rule of thumb. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula. Every spouse is different. Every situation is different. People are complex. Life is complex. It won’t work for everybody—just most people in most situations.

Second, order is important. If you go out of order, you may frustrate your spouse at best or cause additional emotional damage at worst. 

Finally, you might only do the first one, two, three, or four steps. That’s okay. Not every situation calls for all five steps. Be prepared to stop at any point in the process.

Be: Sometimes all your spouse needs is your presence. Not your listening ear. Not your words. Not your actions. Your spouse only needs to know that you are there. You are not going anywhere. Your shoulder is there to cry on. Your hand is there to hold. You are there to hug and be hugged if necessary. You. Are. There. 

I suspect this might be tough—to simply be present without saying or doing anything. It is. It requires self-control. It requires patience. It requires you to relinquish control and know that God is God (Ps. 46:10); that his love and sovereignty are ruling and reigning over your spouse in that moment. It requires you to surrender your spouse into Christ’s hands, which are far more capable hands than yours.  

Listen: If your spouse speaks, close your mouth and listen (James 1:19). Concentrate on what is being said; not only the words but also the body language. Don’t think about what you are going to say. Don’t think about how your spouse should feel. Don’t think about how to make the pain go away. Don’t think about anything except what your spouse is saying. Just. Listen.

Empathize: If, and only if, you’ve thoroughly listened to your spouse, you may now open your mouth. What should you say? Precisely what your spouse said—in your own words. In other words, empathize with your spouse. Speak what you heard back in a way that makes your spouse say, “Yes, you get me.” If you aren’t sure what your spouse just said, ask questions to gain clarity. 

Why is empathy important? It makes your spouse feel known—the first half of the core human desire to be fully known and fully loved. It lets your spouse know that you are tracking, that you care, and that you are, once again, 100% present. It’s healing. It’s restorative. It says, “I know you, and you are worthy to be known.”

Speak: If, and only if, you’ve been present, listened, and empathized with your spouse, it may be time to speak words of life into your spouse’s heart (Prov. 18:21). You might share a passage of Scripture. You might offer a nugget of theological truth. You might give a word of encouragement. You might even (and tread lightly here) tell a joke! The point is that your words should be specifically calculated to build up your spouse (Eph. 4:29). They should infuse life. They should revive, refresh, and restore. They should heal your spouse’s heart.

Solve: If, and only if, you’ve been present, listened, empathized, and spoken life-giving words, it may be time to offer advice. Perhaps you suggest a list of action items that will assuage your spouse’s pain. Perhaps you point out ways that your spouse is unknowingly and unintentionally exacerbating the pain. Perhaps you offer a gentle admonishment if you see sin in your spouse’s life. Again, be careful. You don’t want to unintentionally wound your spouse with an ill-timed solution. One helpful tip is to ask if your spouse wants a solution. If the answer is yes, then proceed. If not, put your tool belt back in the closet. 

Conclusion

Be. Listen. Empathize. Speak. Solve. In that order. It’s hard. It’s unnatural. It takes discipline. You might not see immediate results. But that’s okay. It isn’t about results. It’s about love. It’s about incarnating the love of Christ and about being a blessing to your suffering spouse. 

Questions for reflection

  1. Why is it so hard to enter your spouse’s emotional pain without offering solutions? Why is it so hard for you to listen without speaking? What in your heart prevents you from following the sequential steps of BLESS?
  2. Have you ever been in a state of emotional turmoil, and somebody offered you a trite platitude or a quick fix? How did that make you feel? 
  3. Psalm 139 tells us that we are fully known and fully loved by God. He sees and understands us and still loves us. Why is this so healing? What can you do to make your suffering spouse feel this way?
By / Feb 10

A happy and healthy marriage is one of God’s sweetest gifts to us. And one of the best ways to nurture your marriage is through the power of prayer. In their new book, 5 Things to Pray for Your Spouse, Michael and Melissa Kruger help you to pray bold and biblical prayers for your husband or wife that will strengthen and enrich your marriage. As Nancy Guthrie says in her forward:

There is a great deal we can do for our spouses. But there is so much that only God can do, so much that only he can develop, and so much that only he can provide. So we pray. And as we pray instead of worry, pray instead of complain, pray instead of strategize, we find that God is not only doing a work in our spouse, he’s doing a work in us too.

The book makes a great wedding, anniversary, or Valentine’s Day gift. It covers 21 prayer themes, and each one includes five prayer prompts from a particular passage of Scripture. You’ll be equipped to pray deep and effective prayers for your spouse’s character and spiritual walk, for your life together as a couple, and through challenging seasons.

Below is a sample passage from the book — five prayer prompts for handling conflict in your marriage based on Ephesians 4:25–32:

Father, if we have conflict with one another let us . . . 

1. Speak truthfully.

“ Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully.” (v. 25)

In every quarrel there is always the temptation to exaggerate the other person’s sins and downplay our own. Pray that God would allow each of you to speak truthfully in the midst of conflict. Also, ask the Lord to give you the courage to speak the truth, even if it’s difficult or awkward, knowing that it’s better to be honest than to suppress the truth and let bitterness grow.

2. Reconcile quickly.

“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” (v. 26)

When conflict is left unresolved sometimes it can become entrenched. As a result, some conflicts can last days, weeks, and even years. Pray that any conflict you face would be resolved as quickly as possible. Ask for grace to be the first to apologize, the first to forgive, and the first to move toward the other person.

3. Put away bitterness.

“Get rid of all bitterness.” (v. 31)

If conflict occurs over the course of many years, bitterness has a way of setting in. Spouses can begin to resent one another if they have been hurt over and over again. Pray that the Lord would prevent a root of bitterness from taking hold in your marriage. Ask the Lord to reveal in what ways you might need to apologize to your spouse for past wrongs.

4. Be kind.

“ Be kind . . .  to one another.” (v. 32)

Praise God today for his kindness to you — even though you did nothing to deserve it. Ask God to give you a heart that is tender and affectionate toward your spouse, demonstrated in simple acts of kindness toward them each day. Pray also that the Lord would show you tangible ways to do good to your spouse, even if they are not always good to you in return.

5. Forgive one another.

“Forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (v 32)

It’s hard to truly forgive those who wrong us. Sometimes we may even want to withhold forgiveness. Rejoice that Christ forgave you when you were undeserving. Pray that God would give both you and your spouse a heart that recognizes how much you’ve been forgiven so that you can, in turn, freely and readily forgive one another. 

By / Nov 3

Our hearts are never fully prepared for a drastic change. But loss does that to you — it changes your course. Over time, the once raging grief finds a softer place to live, but when special days or holidays approach, those wounds can be reopened. As a widow, that loss and change stings every inch of your life and is certainly amplified during the holiday season. Each date on the calendar and special occasion screams the absence of your loved one. 

Even though it is painful to grieve, it’s not harmful. Grief is the process that leads to healing. We must walk through it, but as believers, our journey is accompanied with certainty and assurance. We have God’s promises to cling to as we grieve. His promises aren’t simply a wistful hope: the promise is Christ. The cross is a constant reminder that we are never forsaken or alone in our grieving. 

I would like to offer some practical advice, first to the widow or widower and then to local churches to help those who have suffered a loss not just survive the holidays, but thrive during them.

To the widow or widower

The loss of a spouse is disorienting and seems impossible to make it through. But the Lord is faithful to walk with you every step of the way. There are several things I’ve learned as I’ve navigated the loss of my husband — especially during the holidays — that have helped me grieve, heal, and grow. 

Carve out time to grieve, privately if needed. Holiday get-togethers are special, but they will be emotionally difficult. It is joy and sorrow hand in hand. It’s joyful to celebrate with family and see one another, but there will always be the backdrop of loss looming. Set aside private time in your schedule to grieve what needs to be grieved. 

Slow your pace. Slow down. Too many activities only add stress. Do whatever you need to in order to reduce extra stress by remembering the holidays are a season, not just a day. Spread out your visits and responsibilities over days.

Communicate. Talk with your family sooner rather than later about the schedule. Let them know you need your pace to be slow and easy. Tell them you may need alone time, and reassure them that your absence will only be temporary. 

God understands. Remember that although no person will truly understand the weight of the significance of your loss, God does. We serve a God who sees and knows every crevice of our hearts. He not only sees it, but his mercies are sufficient to meet our grief with strength. Lean into the grief, and take it to the Lord. You need his Word more than ever, so get into it, and meditate on it. Rediscover the joy of the Lord this holiday season!

To the local churches 

Your fellow brothers and sisters suffering from loss need you. They need the community, care, and comfort God designed you to offer. Though the holidays are busy for you, too, please don’t miss the chance to hold out the hope of Christ. Here are a few ways I was ministered to by the body of Christ.

Engage the bereaved. What an opportunity for ministry. First, know that tears are a gift from God. They help us release emotional grief. Too often, we avoid engaging the bereaved in an effort to help them avoid tears. But not acknowledging the loss of a widow or widower hurts more than crying ever will. So, engage those who are hurting. Isn’t that what Jesus did? Sit down, look that widow in the eye and say, “How are you”? Then, listen. If he or she cries, let them. Remember their loved one together, share stories, and mostly, just listen. There is nothing more Christlike than loving one another, and one of the most loving things you can do is mourn with those who are mourning. 

Encourage with the Word. Time doesn’t heal, but our God does. Send encouragement from the Word. Human words are good, but God’s Word is best. Send cards, texts, or emails of with Scripture. God grows a faith that gives new life by revealing himself in the midst of our deepest, most painful places. And we most often experience him through his Word. Be a life-giving Word-giver this holiday season. I promise it will nourish a broken soul. 

Equip widows or widowers to be ministers. As a widow, I have been entrusted with suffering toward a divine purpose: to minister to others and comfort those who need comfort (2 Corinthians 1:4). Encourage your widows to minister to one another. The goal of grief in God’s hands isn’t healing — it’s holiness. Holiness is healing plus purpose. God can use your widows and widowers to minister in your church like no one else. Remind them of Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Equip them slowly and gently, as they are ready. Don’t be pushy; just watch for where God is working and help them see it too. 

Hebrews 5:8-9 is one of the most profound verses as it relates to suffering. It says this, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Christ didn’t need to learn obedience, as if he wasn’t doing something. He willingly submitted to the experience of suffering in the flesh and experienced persevering in obedience. He tasted death on our behalf and made the way for our deliverance. For those who are approaching the holidays under the cover of grief, this gives great hope. Our suffering Savior has made a way for us to hope in the midst of our hurt and minister to those around us. Cling to God’s Word this holiday season and remember the joy of your salvation. I am praying for you.

By / Jun 9

Editor’s Note: This Q&A is not intended to apply to marriages where abuse is present. 

Will you tell us a little bit about the hardships your marriage has faced? 

Sure, I’ll (Jeff) do my best to condense the past 15 years. Less than three years into our marriage, we welcomed our first child into the world. All was going well until he spiked a fever and was hospitalized with a severe infection at 7 weeks old. After five days in the hospital with terrifying, inconclusive reports, we were sent home without answers. We thought it was an isolated incident, but over time it turned into years of life-altering neurological challenges that have forever changed our family’s lives. Every day, we helplessly watched as our sweet, smart, funny little boy would turn into someone else, displaying behavior that was extremely difficult to control and navigate. Countless consultations, tests, and evaluations left doctors shaking their heads, and all we were left with in the end was an increased financial burden, a stressful home life, and growing fears for him and us.

Along with that, Sarah’s health was rapidly declining, and with each of our four children that she bore, she was increasingly unable to function through her chronic pain and illness. On top of that, an ankle injury that she sustained in high school has now led to five surgeries and an inability to do much of what she loves anymore—and is taking her ability to walk.

As our son’s disorder continued to intensify, and as Sarah grew sicker and our younger children began to exhibit their own chronic pains, my job as a consultant to orthopedic surgeons often kept me from being home. Our marriage began to suffer under the weight of it all.

In 2015, we were led to a group of doctors who connected Sarah’s many symptoms to Lyme disease, and over the following year, the growing symptoms in each of our children led to testing that revealed the illness had been passed on to each one of them. The medical community gave us conflicting advice and very little support, but the growing neurological and physical ailments in each of our children were impossible to deny, and became increasingly confusing and expensive to navigate.

When we were at our lowest point, convinced that we couldn’t endure anything else, it became clear that I could no longer sustain my on-call job. So I left it behind, along with half of our income. We sold our dream home and downsized to a smaller rental home. A year later, my new company began to struggle, and suddenly I was without a job—leaving us with no income at all.

Our family was in crisis. Most of our time spent together as a couple consisted of doctor appointments, navigating challenges with our son, soothing crying and hurting children, discussing what treatments we could afford, healing from each of the nine surgeries undergone between the two of us, dealing with Sarah’s chronic pain, and stressing about our draining finances, all the while being too exhausted to address the tensions that were building within our marriage. We were both broken and both wondering where God was and why he was allowing such deep and layered suffering. As we endured one loss after another, we found ourselves battling despair and hopelessness, and being confronted with deep questions of faith that neither of us had faced before. We were surviving, but we—and our marriage—were hanging on by a thread.

But we’re still here. Still together. And, somehow, God has not only held us together, but he has used these trials to strengthen our marriage in the process.

What were some of your greatest temptations durings those hard times? 

I’d say that the greatest temptations have been two sides to the same coin: to either turn against each other or look to each other to be the answer to the trials we’re facing. Trials have a way of squeezing us and drawing our sin to the surface—sin we were once able to keep hidden behind comfortable circumstances. But when we’re both feeling the pressure, it’s tempting to take our disappointments, pain, and fears out on each other, rather than acknowledging them and taking them to the Lord. However, we’ve also been tempted to have the opposite response, and look to each other to be our primary source of comfort, security, and hope, rather than the Lord. 

Not surprisingly, both temptations come when Christ isn’t in his proper place in our marriage. But by God’s grace, he has grown us to come more quickly to Christ in our pain, sorrow, and need, depending on his comfort, strength, and hope, rather than each other. And when we look to Christ as our Savior and Provider, rather than to each other, it guards us from both turning against one another and expecting something that the other can’t give. Although these temptations will always remain to some degree, God has grown us to see each other as a gift that we’ve been given to walk this hard road together. 

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your marriage? And what would your advice for couples be as they face this unusual strain? 

On one hand, having been through many years of deep suffering, we found ourselves not as thrown by the challenges of the pandemic. However, on the other hand, it also further complicated many of the challenges that were already there (job loss five months prior, special needs, chronic illness, etc.), while adding new challenges to the mix. Needless to say, like most, we’ve been thrown into uncharted waters. Because of that, it was easy for misunderstandings to happen as we navigated new roles, new pressures, and new unknowns, tempting us to grow impatient and short with each other. 

As painful as these seasons can be, they can also end up being some of the sweetest seasons of learning to rely more fully on Christ for our every need, and experiencing his comfort, provision, and peace.

However, what God has been showing us and what we’d encourage other couples to see in this unusual time, is that God is not surprised by any of this—and he is at work within it. Rather than viewing our lives and marriage as if they’re being tossed wherever the wind blows, we have to remember that God is sovereign over both, and is able to guard and even grow our marriage through them. Instead of fixing our eyes on what feels impossible or what we can’t control right now, let’s allow this season to drive us deeper in God’s Word and prayer, asking him to provide for what we need, both in life and our marriage relationship. As painful as these seasons can be, they can also end up being some of the sweetest seasons of learning to rely more fully on Christ for our every need, and experiencing his comfort, provision, and peace. 

Friends, as our earthly securities are shaken, it will either lead us to anger and despair or it will cause us to seek a firm and lasting foundation to set our feet upon. Therefore, if you or your marriage feel unstable right now, I encourage you to take your eyes off of each other, off of your circumstances, and fix them on the promises of God through Christ, who promises to be faithful—even when we can’t see it in the moment.  

During the lowest points of your marriage, what has helped you turn from sinning against one another and turn back to loving one another? 

The turning point in our marriage came after we had exhausted ourselves by trying to change each other. By God’s grace, he gradually opened our eyes to the futility of our efforts and, rather than fixating on each other as the sole problem, we each began to plead with the Lord for healing, change, and growth in our own hearts. And in the areas where we each had felt hurt and misunderstood, we prayed that God would open each other’s eyes in his timing and as he saw fit (although neither of us knew the other was praying the same prayer!). Although it wasn’t overnight (and it’s still a process), a profound work of healing began in our marriage. Our conversations became more fruitful, our hearts began to soften for each other, and God began opening both of our eyes to areas that we had been blind to. 

Sometimes couples just need to have fun together. What have you done to enjoy your marriage during hard times? 

We’ve needed to work hard at not allowing suffering to define our relationship. Since our trials can feel all-consuming at times, it’s easy to lose sight of the friendship that initially drew us together. Therefore, we’ve needed to be creative in keeping fun and laughter in our relationship. One way has been to find ways to laugh and enjoy each other outside of our typical conversations of life’s challenges. For example, we try to make it a priority to go out on a date and set aside a certain amount of time that we won’t discuss any of our challenges or other heavy topics. And because we often feel like a deer in headlights when we suddenly step out of the chaos, we often bring along a set of cards with lighthearted questions about likes and dislikes, traveling, childhood memories, etc. We’ve found this to be incredibly helpful in reminding us to laugh, enjoy each other, and gain perspective outside of trials.

By and large, what has helped your marriage weather the storms you’ve been through? 

The truth and promises of God’s Word. If he is good, then we have to believe he won’t waste this. If he is faithful, then we have to believe he will carry us through what he has called us to. If he is sovereign, then we have to believe he has purposes beyond what we can see. If he loved us enough to save us, then we have to believe that he is only allowing this pain if he has something greater for us in it—and one day, he will fully redeem and restore us in his presence. 

By God’s grace, he has held us up and enabled us not only to survive, but to see the good gifts he has given us along the way. Though it’s been harder than we ever imagined, there have also been moments of laughter, sweet memories, and undeserved gifts. Somehow, in each moment of each day, God has helped us press on, has held our marriage together when we haven’t had the strength to fight for it ourselves, and has taught us to find joy, even within the sorrow. And by his grace, he continues to hold us up each and every day, despite many of our circumstances remaining the same. He continues to teach us that our hope is not found in this world or in our marriage—it is found in Christ alone. And as he loosens our grip on the things of this world and drives our faith roots deeper into the truth of his Word and the hope of the gospel, he has grown in us a steadfastness and joy in the life and marriage he has given us. 

What would you say to the couple whose marriage is hard or failing to live up to their expectations? 

First of all, I’m so sorry. There are so many incredibly difficult circumstances that couples are facing—whether that be from outside trials pressing in or difficulty within the relationship itself. I pray that those who find themselves in a difficult situation or marriage will seek wise and godly counsel and support, because we aren’t called to walk through this alone. 

But in the end, the central truth to remember is this: Our relationship with Christ is not dependent on our spouse. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Our relationship with our spouse is dependent on our relationship with Christ. That truth doesn’t guarantee a perfect marriage, but it is the source of hope for our marriage and even more, it is the hope we can rest in, regardless of the state or outcome of our marriage.

Brother, sister, let your marriage be a place where you learn more of who God is, rely on him, and press on in faith as you move toward the day when you will see Jesus. Let it be that when you get there, you can look back at your marriage as one that endured through trials, where you clung to Christ, encouraged each other, displayed Jesus, and came to see and know the unending faithfulness and goodness of God—together, through the storms.

Check out the Walton’s new book, Together Through the Storms

By / Nov 3

Andrew Walker moderates a panel discussion on Embracing God’s Design for Manhood in Marriage at the 2018 ERLC National Conference with Erick Erickson, Nathan Lino, and John Powell.

By / May 21

With his characteristic biblical insight and cultural engagement, Tim Keller’s book on marriage, The Meaning of Marriage, is filled with wisdom and encouragement. Aimed at those who are married and singles considering marriage (and singles who have sworn off the institution), Keller provides a helpful look at God’s design for this covenant.

He spends the first chapter considering the state of marriage today. He recognizes the way in which marriage has been assailed by the culture, and he makes a cogent argument for its enduring goodness in a secular age.

I want to share a few quotations from this first chapter that reflect on the pain of marriage, the enduring goodness of marriage, the perversion of marriage (i.e., how redefined expectations for marriage have twisted God’s original design), and the way the gospel brings hope and meaning to marriage.

If these quotes resonate with you, I encourage you to pick up Keller’s excellent book.

The pain of marriage

If we are honest, marriage brings with it incredible blessings, but also incredible pain. Therefore, any consideration of marriage must tackle both the goodness and fallenness of marriage. As Keller observes,

“No marriage I know more than a few weeks old could be described as a fairy tale come true” (21).

“Like knowing God himself, coming to know and love your spouse is difficult and painful yet rewarding and wondrous” (22).

“As comedian Chris Rock has asked, ‘Do you want to be single and lonely or married and bored?’ Many young adults believe that these are indeed the two main options. That is why many aim for something in the middle between marriage and mere sexual encounters—cohabitation with a sexual partner” (22).

Cohabitation is a prevalent option in our day, and any full-throated defense of marriage must consider why this is a popular option, and why God’s vision of marriage is both better and more satisfying.

The enduring goodness of marriage

In response to cohabitation, Keller shows why all of its promises fail under closer scrutiny.

“Cohabitation is an understandable response from those who experienced their own parents’ painful divorces, but the facts indicate that the cure may be worse than the alleged disease” (23).

Cohabitation is a prevalent option in our day, and any full-throated defense of marriage must consider why this is a popular option, and why God’s vision of marriage is both better and more satisfying.

Keller identifies at least five ways that marriage, specifically considered, provides greater enduring happiness and security than anything approximated by cohabitation.

First, Keller reminds us that divorce is not inevitable in marriage. He writes,

While it is true that some 45 percent of marriages end in divorce, by far the greatest percentage of divorces happen to those who marry before the age of eighteen, who have dropped out of high school, and who have had a baby together before marrying. [Quoting Bradford Wilcox of the The National Marriage Project], “So if you are a reasonably well-educated person with a decent income, come from an intact family and are religious, and marry after twenty-five without having a baby first, your chances of divorce are low indeed” (23–24).

To be sure, this argument depends on socio-economic realities, but it also mirrors God’s design. When a couple grows up, leaves home (implying some measure of economic stability), and waits to be sexually active until after marriage, the blessings are profound—including a lower chance at divorce.

Second, related to the order of marriage and sex, statistics also show economic security is improved by marriage.

A 1992 study of retirement data shows that individuals who were continuously married had 75 percent more wealth at retirement than those who never married or who divorced and did not remarry. Even more remarkably, married men have been shown to earn 10–40 percent more than do single men with similar education and job histories (24).

Third, marriage has a track record of improving mental and emotional health.

Marriage provides a profound “shock absorber” that helps you navigate disappointments, illnesses, and offer difficulties. . . . Studies show that spouses hold one another to greater levels of personal responsibility and self-discipline than friends or other family members can (24).

Fourth, despite much anecdotal evidence and popular myth, marriage on average improves happiness.

All surveys tell us that the number of married people who say they are “very happy” in their marriages is high—about 61–62 percent—and there has been little decrease in this figure during the last decade. Most striking of all, longitudinal studies demonstrate that two-thirds of those unhappy marriages out there will become happy within five years if people stay married and do not get divorced (25–26).

Fifth, the stability of marriage greatly improves the emotional health of children.

[Citing Bradford Wilcox again], Children who grow up in married, two-parent families have two or three times more positive life outcomes than those who do not (26).

In short, these five benefits show why marriage is happier, healthier, and more stable than anything cohabitation can offer. That said, a Christian view of marriage must go beyond the common graces offered by marriage. Indeed, it must uphold and extol a biblical vision of marriage that finds its origin in Eden and its pinnacle in Christ and the church—a vision that has been increasingly turned and twisted by the ideals of individualism and self-expression.

The perversion of marriage

By perversion I’m not talking about sexual orientation; I’m describing the way the Enlightenment changed the fundamental orientation of marriage from self-giving to self-expression. Keller highlights this in a number of ways.

“Instead of finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms, and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family, marriage was redefined as finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization” (28).

“The Enlightenment privatized marriage, taking it out of the public sphere, and redefined its purpose as individual gratification, not any ‘broader good’ such as reflecting God’s nature, producing character, or raising children” (28).

“Marriage used to be a public institution for the common good, and now it is a private arrangement for the satisfaction of the individual. Marriage used to be about us, but now it is about me” (29).

All of this self-orientation in marriage has led to unrealistic expectations for husbands and wives. As a result, marriage can no longer deliver “apocalyptic romance” (41) that is offered by it today. But the problem is not with marriage; the problem is with how it has been redefined. As Keller puts it, the modern world “look[s] to sex and romance to give us what we used to get from faith in God” (41).

Gospel hope for marriage

With all of these factors in mind, is there any hope for marriage?

Absolutely! There is hope for marriage when it is considered in light of the gospel. When the gospel of Jesus Christ is brought to save, sanctify, and strengthen husbands and wives, then pain, problems, and perversions of marriage find new light.

This gospel hope is where Keller brings his readers, and where we must begin in our conversation about marriage, especially as we talk about marriage to a culture that despises it. For that reason, let me conclude with Keller’s words focused on the gospel and its relationship to marriage:

Marriage is a major vehicle for the gospel’s remaking of your heart from the inside out and your life from the ground up.

The reason that marriage is so painful and yet wonderful is because it is a reflection of the gospel, which is painful and wonderful at once. The gospel is this: 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. This is the only kind of relationship that will really transform us. Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace (48).

Truly, with this focus on the gospel, there is hope for marriage—for yours and any marriage that looks to Jesus Christ. Ultimately, this is why God gave it to us, and why we must look first to Christ and the church as the model and motivation for all marriages.

This article originally appeared here.

By / Feb 14

During the last few weeks before she died, my wife asked me to leave the bedside lamp on at night. She didn't want to wake up in the dark, even with me close beside her.

So I left the light on. It eased her anxiety a bit, and helped us both focus on Jesus, "the light [that] shines in the darkness" (John 1:5). Sometimes when I walked my neighborhood's streets at night for air, I searched for that light in the corner window as I neared home. 

Hwa Chong Bridges — my beloved wife, best friend, inspiration, sister in Christ and mother of our children — found a lump in her left breast in 2014. It was aggressive "triple negative" breast cancer, and already had spread to lymph nodes in her arm. 

She did well through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, resuming a relatively normal life for a year or so. But the cancer returned in 2016, first in her colon (another surgery) and later raging through her abdomen. No effective treatment remained. Hwa was tired, and ready to behold the Lord face to face. She began home hospice care in early January 2017. 

She died a little more than a month later, on Feb. 12, nearly 33 years after our wedding — and two days before Valentine's Day.

Church folks, friends and family members surrounded us during and after the final days, helping care for Hwa, cooking meals, comforting me and my adult son and daughter. Their love, and the blessing of numbness, salved the pain for a while. 

But real "grief work," as the counselors call it, begins after the initial shock subsides — when the house grows quiet and friends go on with their lives. 

The knives of darkness carved up what was left of my wounded heart: despair, depression, self-pity, guilt for the ways I failed as a husband, regret for things I didn't say or do. Most of all, aching emptiness. Nights were bad; mornings were worse.

I walked from room to silent room, like a ghost. I drifted alone through the places we had once enjoyed together. Did I even exist anymore?

Pastor-author Jim Conway confessed that after his wife died, "it was as if someone took a giant samurai sword and cut me right down the middle. I kept asking myself and God, 'How am I supposed to go on with one leg, with one arm, with half a brain?'"

Long-married couples become one person in many ways. When one dies, the other must rebuild identity from scratch. I soon discovered I wasn't the only one struggling.

"Who am I?" was the first question Bob McEachern asked me when we had lunch a few weeks after Hwa died. 

Bob's wife of 53 years, Judy, had died three days before Hwa. Bob and Judy met in high school, married after graduation, served as missionaries in South Korea, worked together in ministry, parented together, suffered together during Judy's years of illness. Then she was gone. 

Bob and I have become "grief buddies." We are members of what our fellow widower, retired IMB President Tom Elliff, called the fraternity no one wants to join, for which the dues are too high — and payable hourly. But at least we can encourage each other. We meet weekly.

In addition to Bob, other grief buddies appeared. Bill and Frank, whose wives died a few years ago, took me under their wing. They told me what to expect and how to endure it. I joined a local "GriefShare" support group[1] and learned from others coping with loss. Too many men try to do it alone.

I now understood the meaning of "weep with those who weep." The Lord has begun to bring others experiencing loss across my path. I try to comfort them as I have been comforted.

The first birthdays, anniversaries and holidays without Hwa have come and gone. The one-year mark falls just before Valentine's Day. Counselors say the second year of grief is sometimes harder than the first. I hope not, but God is with me either way.

I have learned how weak my faith was, how much I depended on Hwa for things only God can provide. I have learned anew how strong His love and grace are. His Spirit sustains me. His Word is life itself; I couldn't go on without it. He is the Shepherd who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Hwa entered His eternal presence in that valley. But He is still walking with me, day by day, until He leads me home.

One Sunday last summer, I listened to my friend James Hering preach about the wedding at Cana, where Jesus quietly changed the water to wine (John 2). The wedding guests thought the bridegroom had saved the best wine for last, not realizing the Kingdom of God had come upon them. I felt tears on my cheeks, and imagined the heavenly wedding feast in heaven, where Hwa glorifies the Lord even now.

I look forward to joining her there one day for the celebration.

This was originally published by Baptist Press

Notes

  1. ^ GriefShare (www.griefshare.org) is a Christian support network that connects grieving people to others who care. GriefShare groups meet throughout the United States and internationally.
By / Mar 15

When God pointed out, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18 CSB), he was moved to do something good for the man, and ultimately, for the woman. He made them both for each other, showing that the love relationship of a man and woman in marriage is a good gift from God, a demonstration of grace.

Grace did not stop, however, at the union of this first couple. They soon sinned against God and each other. While these lovers were quick to shame and to blame, God was again moved to show grace. They hid, but he found them to correct them, for sure, but also to cleanse and to heal them. Knowing their fig leaves could never camouflage their guilt, God tailored new clothes from the skins of an animal to show them just how far grace goes.

In our romanticized culture, gifts are often rightly connected with love. The two naturally go hand in hand, but not necessarily in a way that comes natural to us. We often give gifts to express our love. That’s good, but grace does more than show love. Grace makes love possible. So, here are four everyday graces that create an enduring love, even in the most imperfect marriage:

1. The grace to fail

No one likes failure, but every relationship is full of it. The “better or worse” of wedding vows is not an abstract idea, but a practical reality. There are seasons of better, and there are seasons of worse. Sometimes the worse is gross sin or betrayal, and sometimes it’s less dramatic than that. Whether the dip is big or small, it always begins with subtle neglect that we allow to grow into something more than it should.

That’s how it went for Adam and Eve. Apparently, Adam simply neglected to adequately pass on God’s command to his wife. Eve showed an interest in the fruit of the tree. Adam was inattentive to her wandering heart, and then present but silent when she fell to the temptation. The explanation of their failure is amazingly run-of-the-mill, but the consequences were no less devastating.

The “worse” was so unnecessary, yet every married couple has been there. He knew better, but he did it anyway. She was warned, but didn’t listen. We have a right to be angry. We have a right to condemn. We have a right to leave, but we don’t have to do any of that because the “worse” is where grace shows up the best.

We do not sin so grace may increase (Rom. 6:1), but the failure of our spouse gives grace the chance to shine. The consequences of sin are a good tutor, but the demonstration of grace transforms the relationship and makes space for the lasting love God designed us to experience.

2. The grace to change

The dust cleared. God removed Adam and Eve from the garden, and then Genesis 4 says, “The man was intimate with his wife Eve.” Their living arrangements had been downgraded, their circumstances had changed, and they were different than before, but they found the grace to let their love grow outside of the garden.

We are not the same people we were when we said, “I do.” Our spouses have changed too. Our successes shape us, and our difficulties wound us. Experiences reveal our character in a way that was previously unknown and unseen. In time, we discover the ugly realities of sin in each other. Despite declarations of love, we do not always love well, choose well or forgive well.

We should never overlook or make excuses for sin, but sin is no match for grace. Sin may occasionally win the day, but grace means the scars of sin that disfigure us do not have to destroy our love for one another.

Instead, while success and suffering change us, by grace, they also sanctify us. They make us better, not worse. I do not want my wife to be the woman I married. I don’t want to be who I was back then either. We need each other to be more than that, better than that, and that is the work of grace.

3. The grace to try

Adam and Eve began their relationship in paradise. When Adam first saw Eve, he immediately said, “This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). They were “naked, yet felt no shame” (Gen. 2:24). Life was really good, and then it wasn’t.

Sin separated them from God and from one another, yet God pursued them, forgave them and restored them. He was generous with them. But then they did this: they received his grace. Rather than wallowing in the past or holding each other hostage to previous failures, they tried again. There were only two guarantees: (1) life would be harder than ever, and (2) God’s grace was sufficient.

So outside of the garden, Adam and Eve gave their love another go. After devastating failure, they restarted their life together.

In a healthy marriage with two flawed people, we discover grace, not grit, makes trying again possible. It’s a humbling thing really. Can you imagine Adam’s sense of regret and inadequacy after losing so much? How tempting would it have been for him to push the reset button and just try harder to attempt to reestablish his manhood? Grace, however, doesn’t allow us to try harder. It requires we just try again, and this time by trusting God with empty hands and a yielded heart.

4. The grace to lose

Eve soon gave birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. She knew God had helped her, but we read that as these sons became adults, the Lord accepted Abel’s sacrifice of worship, but not Cain’s. “Cain was furious, and he looked despondent” (Gen. 4:5). The Lord warned Cain not to allow sin to rule his heart, but Cain refused to listen and ultimately attacked and killed his brother Abel.

In a way that is remarkably similar to how he responded when Adam and Eve sinned, the Lord confronted Cain. It’s right to assume that God was willing to forgive and restore him, but Cain denied any responsibility for Abel. As a result, the Lord judged him by exiling him as a “restless wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 4:12).

First, Adam and Eve lost their home to sin, and then they lost their only two children, one to death and the other to disobedience. They were powerless to fix any of it.

None of us can restore to ourselves what sin takes from us. In marriage, these losses threaten our union. As the devil seeks only to steal, kill and destroy, we are prone to turn on each other and demand a recompense that is impossible for anyone to pay.

That was not how Adam and Eve responded. Without the benefit of the Bible, a local church or a certified therapist, they found grace. No doubt they grieved, but by grace, grief does not have to turn into despair. Instead, grace gives more than sin takes. Adam and Eve were intimate again, and Eve gave birth to Seth. In Hebrew, Seth’s name sounds very similar to the word for “appointed.” Adam and Eve knew Seth was a sovereign act of generosity toward them.

When we are engulfed by irreparable loss, God’s grace secures us and binds us together. We may lose and lose greatly, but grace means God never loses us.

Feelings of love come and go throughout the seasons of marriage. Circumstances challenge our resolve and loyalty, but God’s amazing grace sustains us in marriage as a gospel witness and beautiful picture of his enduring love for us.

This article originally appeared here.

By / Mar 10

Is a wedding the mountaintop of a romantic relationship? Or is it the base of the mountain, the foundation for all that follows?

In our time, many people see the wedding as the capstone, or the summit. You start out at the bottom of the mountain when you meet someone with similar interests, and then you decide to climb together. Perhaps you live together for a while, to give your relationship a more serious try. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you and your partner arrive at the summit—the wedding day.

Marriage as the mountaintop. That’s why almost every romantic comedy ends with the wedding—the celebration of a relationship that has endured all the trials of dating and romance (that you can fit into two hours!) and has now achieved success.

The Bible flips this picture upside down. The wedding isn’t the summit; it’s the base of the mountain. It’s the starting point, not the goal. And the pinnacle to which we climb is even grander and more beautiful than the wedding reception.

When I lived in Romania, I served in a church in a small village near the Hungarian border. One of the elders in the church was Mihai. He and his wife were in their seventies and had lived next door to the church building for decades. They were so devoted to the church that when the church built a new building in another part of the village, they moved to a new house right next door so they could continue to be the first ones there and the last to leave. They had four children and lots of grandkids.

On their fiftieth wedding anniversary, the two of them (we called them “Bunu’ and Buni”—Romanian for “Grandpa and Grandma”) hosted a celebration feast in their living room. They brought in a long table that extended across the room, along with dozens of chairs for all their guests. And then this farmer with gnarled hands from years of labor put on his suit and tie and took his place at the head of the table next to his wife of five decades.

Fanning out across the living room, scrunched together in chairs so we could all fit at the table, were children and grandchildren. I was included at this feast, and so were a few more young people doing church work in the village, including the girl who would later become my wife. It felt a little weird for those of us outside the immediate family to be included in this celebration, but I now realize that a good marriage always invites people into its sphere of happiness, especially those who are single and in need of family bonds. We started the meal by singing some of their favorite hymns. Then we had a time of prayer, thanking God for the two of them and for their marriage. Bunu’ and Buni said a few things about each other and about their family, and we ate like there was no tomorrow.

I remember that day well, how it seemed the laughter and love and conversation filled the room and soaked into the walls. I was sharing in the blessing of an ordinary husband and wife, whose faithfulness to the Lord and to one another had been fruitful. Filling that room was the flesh-and-blood, living-and-breathing fruit of their union. As the two of them looked out over that table, they saw the fruit of their love—their four children, all those grandchildren, some of which were old enough to begin having children of their own. They also saw their spiritual kids and grandkids—people like me—who were the fruit of their faithfulness to the church. Five decades of faithfulness, four precious families, the pillars of a strong church.

I wonder if, instead of seeing the wedding ceremony as the pinnacle of a relationship, we ought to see the fiftieth anniversary celebration as the summit. Mihai’s kids passed around a couple of old, faded, black-and-white pictures of the happy couple on their wedding day. Everyone made the customary remarks of how good they looked together. But looking over the room that day, I wondered if this wasn’t the better picture of marriage—not the wedding ceremony, as nice as it was, but the anniversary celebration, the faithful witness to God’s design for so many decades, and the joy that overflowed into fruitful family life.

The Eastern myth of marriage (that it is primarily a contract) and the Western myth of marriage (that it is primarily an expression of love) do not get at the heart of marriage. You don’t endure in a marriage for fifty years simply by gritting your teeth; nor do you endure by “feeling” like you’re in love the whole time. There has to be something more. And faithfulness in our time must display the richness of marriage at its finest.

Excerpted from This is Our Time by Trevin Wax. Copyright © 2017 by Trevin Wax. Used by permission of B&H. www.bhpublishinggroup.com.

By / Feb 13

As working professionals in our late 20s, we had pretty much put our individual hopes for marriage on the backburner. It wasn’t that we had given up the thought of being married but that it seemed to be a remote possibility. Failed relationships and a disappointing dating landscape had caused both of us to put more time into our careers, our friendships and focus on our faith. Little did we know that the Lord was aligning individual things at exactly the same time to prepare us come alongside one another in matrimony.

That’s not to say our initial meeting involved some glorious revelation and we knew instantly we were destined to walk down the aisle. Instead, it began with a rather awkward blind date (are there blind dates that aren’t?) that featured a swimming pool and a setup by our pastor and his wife.

From these inauspicious beginnings, our relationship would find its footing, and within nine months, we were married. We both knew that we didn’t want a long engagement. We were beyond ready to be married. The bigger takeaway is that we found one another when we both had individually made the choice to de-emphasize our romantic wishes and start focusing on our relationship with God. It’s a theme that continues five years later in our marriage.

A case for the joy of marriage

In a culture that has countless individuals thirsting for meaningful relationships, we see a need for married couples to proclaim the incredible greatness of marriage. We believe it is joy-filled partnership, not the ball-and-chain partnership that is portrayed by culture. Perhaps, most important of all, it’s a covenant that isn’t about your own happiness—it’s about bringing you closer to the One who created everything—including the very institution of marriage. Are you willing to chase after God’s heart with someone else by your side? If so, you might be ready for marriage.

There’s a convincing case to be made about the inherent joy, both for the couple and for God, that can be found within marriage. We know that God “rejoices over us with gladness” (Zep. 3:17). Psalm 28:7 tells us our hearts should “leap for joy” because of our relationship with him. And we know that marriage mirrors the relationship Christ has with his bride, the church (Eph. 5:32). So, we’re not venturing very far out on a limb in saying that marriage can lead to great joy.

Think about it: Once you’re married, the competition of the dating scene is traded for committed companionship. No longer are we reduced to measuring up to peers or the anxiety of courtship. Instead, you experience life alongside a partner who has made a covenant with you and with God. That’s where joy comes in. There’s a measure of settled assurance that’s created by a stable marriage. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Yes, it takes work actually loving someone for better or worse. Yes, it means you have to put self-centeredness on the shelf. And, yes, it will take some re-orienting about what’s important in life. But doesn’t today’s culture need more examples of people who are persisting for a cause greater than themselves? Don’t we need to see individuals serving and thriving in a context that’s beyond selfish ambition? Aren’t we aching for examples of individuals valuing love over everything else? The answer to all of these is an emphatic, "Yes!"   

Holiness that leads to happiness

At the end of the day, marriage between a committed man and woman creates a space for flourishing of the two, a support system for them to navigate the vagaries of life and means to express your love and pursue healthy desires. Most importantly, marriage is a vehicle, though not the only one, for pursuing a better relationship with God. In fact, we would submit that last point is the essential element in a healthy marriage that allows for all the other aspects of marriage to unfurl.

Shortly after we said our vows, we discovered Gary Thomas’ book, Sacred Marriage. It posits a simple, yet profound, question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” Culture will do all it can to convince and brainwash you that marriage is ultimately about a shallow, selfish happiness (which, if you play that out, means once you’re unhappy, the marriage can be discarded). But the holiness that God requires leads to a deep and lasting happiness.

Since reading Thomas’ book, we have tried to do the best we can to live out our marriage through that prism. It has been the single-most rewarding aspect of our lives together; knowing that as we’re pursuing Christ, he will not only draw us closer together, but make us more holy.  It’s hard not to be utterly captivated by a spouse who seeks and values the things you do. That is exactly why God created marriage and created the majority of us to be married. He delights in our marriages, he wants us to seek after him in our marriages, and he wants to fill us with joy in that pursuit.

For those who want to be married, but the opportunity hasn’t presented itself, wait and pray patiently. Pray for God to make your heart desire him more than you desire anything else. This will not only serve you well while you are waiting, but it will lay the foundation for a healthy marriage. God has to be the one who fills, completes and satisfies you. Marital companionship is wonderful, but God is the only one who should be the object of our greatest affections. From two people who had to wait patiently and pray very hard for the right mate, we can tell you first hand, it’s worth the wait.