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Father, Forgive Them: Why and How

(Adapted from Wounds That Heal by Stephen Seamands, Chapter 8)

Throughout His ministry, Jesus consistently stressed that as God has forgiven us, we in turn ought to forgive others. In the Lord’s Prayer, he taught us to say: Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:12).

On another occasion, He commanded His disciples, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone” (Mark 11:25). When Peter inquired how many times He was obligated to forgive, Jesus insisted, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). He then told a story about an unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-34). Although his master had forgiven his immense debt, the servant refused to forgive a minor amount owed to him by a fellow servant. When the master found out what the servant had done, he had the servant thrown in jail. Jesus warned His disciples, “So, my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).

Jesus not only consistently preached radically extending forgiveness to others, He also practiced it. And He practiced it when it was incomprehensibly difficult – as He was hanging on a cross. The victim of gross injustice, His body wracked with pain, the vicious taunts of His enemies ringing in His ears, He gathered His strength and cried out, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,”

The Christian imperative to forgive those who have inflicted pain on us is a call to imitate Jesus. However, we are not called to imitate Christ in our own strength. We discover that as we will to forgive, He imparts His strength to us.

The Process of Forgiveness

I cannot overemphasize the importance of forgiveness in the healing of human hurts. Forgiveness unlocks the door to healing, restoration, freedom and renewal. Until we open that door, we will remain stuck in the past, destined to carry the hurt and burden forever without hope of a restored heart or a renewed future. There is no greater blockage to a person’s receiving healing from God than that person’s refusal to forgive others. We will never find healing for our hurts until, like Jesus, we say, “Father, forgive them.”

What then does true forgiveness – Jesus called it forgiving “from the heart (Matthew 18:35) – involve?

1. Facing the facts. Forgiveness begins when we are ruthlessly honest about what was done to us. We don’t cover up what happened, explain it away, blame ourselves or make excuses for the other person. Squarely and realistically, we face the truth: “I was violated and sinned against. I was hurt. What they did was wrong.” Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and, nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the person who has done it. In facing the facts, it is important to be specific. General acknowledgments of wrong followed by sweeping generalizations of forgiveness won’t do. For many, the first step in forgiving will involve getting out of denial. Truth can be hard to bear, and at times, we will go to great lengths to avoid it. Forgiveness begins by acknowledging the nails in our hearts hammered in by the actions of others and looking at them intently.

2. Feeling the hurt. Forgiveness begins with facing the facts but then goes further. More than “just the facts,” we must connect with the feelings bound up with the facts – feelings like rejection, loneliness, fear, anger, shame and depression that still reverberate in us today. For many of us, the emotions of past hurts are so painful and threatening we have simply disconnected from them. And so we have to persistently ask, “What was I feeling when that happened to me?” Answering that question can be extremely difficult. No one wants to reexperience such unpleasant feelings. Better then to deny them, it seems, or sweep them under the rug. But we can’t reach the threshold of forgiveness until we recover, at least in some measure, the feelings bound up with the painful facts.

3. Confronting our hate. Forgiving involves letting go of hatred or resentment toward the persons who have wounded us. But again, before we can let go of something, we have to acknowledge it’s there. We must admit we resent those who wronged us, for a part of us hates them for what they did. Forgiveness is not blaming ourselves for what happened. We may not be completely innocent, but what our victimizers did was unjustifiable. They are to blame for our pain, and there is a part of us that hates them for it. Forgiveness requires the courage to confront our hatred.

4. Bearing the pain. When others have wronged us, there is a demanding voice within us that cries out, “What they did isn’t right. They ought to pay for what they’ve done.” This is a God-given voice. The desire to see justice in our own – and all – relationships has been planted in our hearts by God. So, when we forgive, do we ignore the divinely implanted desire for justice and set it aside? No. The sin, the injustice, must be taken seriously. But instead of achieving justice by insisting the guilty party pay for the wrong, we choose to pay ourselves. Though innocent, we choose to bear the pain of the injustice. In forgiveness, as the Scripture says, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). It triumphs, however, not by ignoring judgment, but by bearing it. Whenever we forgive, we bear pain. That’s why forgiveness is always costly.

The ultimate example of the costliness of forgiveness is the cross of Christ. The Scripture says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (I Peter 2:24). He took on Himself the guilt, punishment and shame of our sins. We deserved to suffer for them but instead, God in Christ carried them in His own being. God did not overlook our sins or pretend they didn’t matter but bore the pain and the judgment Himself. Christ, the Judge, allowed Himself to be judged in our place. To a much lesser degree, whenever we forgive others, we do the same thing: we take the punishment they deserve, absorbing it ourselves. We bear the pain.

5. Releasing those who have wronged us. Although forgiveness does not set aside the demands of justice, it still seems to run cross-grain to our natural sense of fair play. In part, our anger and resentment is our way of regaining control of an unfair situation and getting back at the persons who have wronged us. It’s our attempt to even the score. But forgiving means releasing our offenders and turning them over to God. It’s saying, “I know what they’ve done and I feel the pain of it, but I choose not to be the one who determines what is justice for them.” When we forgive we relinquish the roles of judge, jury and executioner and turn them over to God. When we forgive, we relinquish control of the persons who have wronged us. We quit playing God in their lives. No longer will we determine what is just for them or make sure they get what they deserve. Thus, forgiveness is an act of faith. We turn the ones who have wronged us over to God. We entrust them to God, saying, “Vengeance is not mine, but Thine alone.” And like all faith acts, forgiveness contains an element of risk. What if God doesn’t get even with those who have wronged us? What if God chooses to extend mercy to them?

By giving the people who have wronged us over to God, we also give ourselves to God. Parts of ourselves we have been holding are now entrusted to Him. No wonder there is such healing power in forgiveness. When we release others and ourselves to God, we give up control, and then His Presence and Power are released to us. Bearing the pain and releasing those who have wronged us constitute the heart of forgiveness. But I want to emphasize that forgiveness doesn’t ignore or set aside the demands of justice. One might conclude that when we forgive, we refrain from any effort to hold those who have wronged us accountable for their behavior, leaving that totally up to God and to others. However, that simply is not true. Forgiveness doesn’t mean tolerating injustice. “Unfruitful works of darkness” should be exposed (Ephesians 5:11). Actions have consequences that evildoers must be forced to accept. When crimes have been committed, offenders should be turned over to the judicial system.

Bearing the pain and releasing those who have wronged us have to do with our attitudes toward those who have wronged us; seeking justice has to do with our actions toward them. These attitudes and actions are not opposed to each other. In fact, practicing forgiveness and promoting justice go hand in hand. Having made a decision to forgive, our concern in promoting justice is not to avenge ourselves or destroy our offenders but to protect ourselves and others in the community from future injury at the offender’s hands. Furthermore, by insisting that offenders be held accountable for their actions, we are actually extending grace to them by offering them an opportunity to face the truth about themselves, admit their wrongdoing and turn from their wicked ways.

6. Assuming responsibility for ourselves. As long as we blame others for our problems, we don’t have to take responsibility for ourselves; they’re on the hook. By releasing them, however, we let them off the hook. Now, we’re on the hook. We must take responsibility and can no longer make excuses for ourselves. Often people hesitate when challenged to forgive because instinctively they know that if they do, they will have no one to blame for their predicament. Unfortunately, we live in a culture of victimization that encourages us to play the blame game. For many of us, portraying oneself as a victim has become an attractive pastime. Forgiveness strikes a blow at the root of one’s victim status. We may have been a victim, but we’re not stuck there. By taking responsibility for ourselves, we declare that what happened doesn’t define who we are. We have an identity apart from our pain. That can be risky and frightening, of course. We may have grown to depend on our excuses and become comfortable with our victim identity. Losing an enemy whom we can resent and blame may disturb us more than losing a friend. We may be meeting needs by our holding on to our pain and resentment.

Yet how liberating it is when, by forgiving, we do accept responsibility for ourselves. The persons who have hurt us no longer exercise control over our lives. When we forgive we not only release them, we also release ourselves from them and set ourselves free to determine our destiny apart from our wounds.

7. Longing for reconciliation. The ultimate goal and purpose of forgiveness is reconciliation, or the restoration and renewal of broken relationships. Thus, forgiveness is not only about letting go of bitterness and revoking revenge. It is about the coming together of persons who have been alienated from each other. From a Christian perspective, forgiving simply so I can get my hurts healed and get on with my life doesn’t go far enough.

Of course, the nature and extent of reconciliation depend on a number of factors, the most important of which is the offender’s willingness to be reconciled with us and to take the costly action necessary for its accomplishment. In many instances we won’t be able to achieve the measure of reconciliation we desire. What do we do, for instance, when the offender refuses to be reconciled with us or persists in offensive behavior? On occasion we will have to settle for less than the best. Still, forgiveness ought to put within us a longing for reconciliation. At first we may grudgingly say, “I’ll forgive them, but I don’t want to have anything to do with them ever again.” And that may be a sufficient place to start. But as forgiveness does its work, it will change our attitude. We will begin to see our offenders through eyes of compassion. One day we will even find ourselves wishing good for them. Our longing for a reconciled relationship may so intensify that we grieve when it fails to work out.

The process of forgiving someone who has wronged us brings us once again to the Cross of Christ. As we stand at the cross, we must remember that initially forgiveness is more about a decision than an emotion. First and foremost, it is a matter of the will. We come to a place where we choose to forgive. We might be struggling with negative feelings toward those who have hurt us, and we may continue to do so for a considerable time. What is most important at first is our willingness. In forgiving, we send our will ahead by express; our emotions generally come later by slow freight.

But what if we are unwilling to forgive? The hurt is so great, the anger and resentment so intense that nothing within us wants to let go of it. Then we should pray, “Lord, make me willing to be made willing.” As a Puritan preacher once advised, “If you can’t come to God with a broken heart, come to God for one.” So if you can’t come to the cross with a willing heart to forgive, come there for one.

On the cross, if Jesus bore both the wrongs done to Him and the wrongs done to us, then when He cried, “Father, forgive them,” could it be he was offering forgiveness not only to those who had wronged Him but also to those who have wronged us? If that is true, then in effect, Jesus has already extended forgiveness to the persons for what they did to us. So if we can’t will to forgive them, we can pray, “Jesus, You live in me. Therefore speak the words in me and through me. Help me to join you in saying, ‘Father, forgive them.’ Even though I can’t speak them myself, I can at least allow You to speak them in me.

We obtain grace in His Presence to release resentment and revenge. As we wait at the cross, Jesus will speak the forgiving words in us. The healing of our hurts and the transformation of our feelings toward those who have wounded us can then really begin. But often this part of the forgiveness process happens slowly – layer by layer. Sometimes after making the decision to forgive, our negative feelings toward the person actually intensify. Repressed emotions surface. Anger may burn more hotly than ever. Or we find ourselves overwhelmed with sadness. Choosing to forgive may cause the pain to intensify. Now that the lid is off, we begin remembering hurtful incidents. Agonizing pictures flood our minds. Old wounds open up all over again. We seem to be going backward, getting worse rather than better.

At this point, we may be tempted to think, I haven’t really forgiven so-and-so. If I had, I wouldn’t be experiencing such intense pain and resentment. The truth is, forgiveness is both a crisis (a definite decision) and a process (releasing hurt and resentment and receiving healing at ever-deepening levels). We have made the decision to forgive, but we are still engaged in the process where many emotional twists and turns lurk along the way. So we don’t need to start over. We simply need to reaffirm our will to forgive, asking the Lord to deepen it. We must also continue to offer our hurtful and hateful feelings to God, praying, “Lord, heal the hurt and cleanse the hate.” As we do, we discover that God, who has begun this good work in us, is faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6). But the healing and cleansing of our hearts is not a one-shot deal. In the crisis of a moment we can will to forgive, but working through our hurt and bitterness happens slowly. We may even find Jesus’ charge to forgive “not seven times, but, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22) applying to the same offense. At the cross, however, grace awaits to see it through, to finish the good work of forgiveness begun in us.

Do you need grace to begin the process of forgiving someone who has wronged and wounded you? Do you need grace to continue as you struggle with feelings of hurt and bitterness? Come to the Cross. It is the Place to remember how we have been forgiven. It is the Place to forgive. Listen to Jesus as He says, “Father, forgive them.” He not only is asking the Father for forgiveness for those who have wronged and hurt us, but He is also asking for forgiveness for you and me.

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Hope for the Depressed

by Ed Welch

Never has so much been crammed into one word. Depression feels terrifying—your world is dark, heavy, painful. Some days you think that physical pain might be easier to endure; at least the pain would be localized. Instead, depression goes to your very soul, corrupting everything in its path. Dead but walking is one way to describe it. You feel numb, but you still remember when you actually felt something. Somehow that makes it harder to bear.

You aren’t alone, of course. Depression affects as much as 25% of the population. But statistics offer little comfort. In fact, a depressive spin on them can make you feel worse: You wonder why so many people are depressed, and you’re afraid that means there is no solution to the problem. Yet there is another perspective. God tells us that he cares about one wandering sheep in a hundred (Matthew 18:10–14) and counts the hairs on individual heads. If he has this much compassion for a solitary, lost individual, he certainly cares for you and such a large group of suffering people. You may not understand how he cares for you, but you can be certain that he is.

SUFFERING MAKES US AWARE OF GOD

You are suffering, and suffering brings God into view. That’s the way it always happens. The soldier who escapes from a treacherous battle will instinctively thank God. The stock broker who just lost a fortune might instinctively curse him. When hardships come we either cry out to God for help, shake our fist at him, or do both. There is actually a picture of this in the Bible: throughout history God has taken his people out into the wilderness, and you are certainly in the wilderness.

The journey in the wilderness is intended, in part, to reveal what is in our hearts, and to teach us to trust God in both good times and hard times. Why does he do this? To show us those things that are most important. Don’t forget that God takes his children into the wilderness. He even led his only Son into the wilderness. We shouldn’t be surprised if he takes us there as well.

While you are in the wilderness what are you seeing in your own heart? How are you relating to God? Do you avoid him? Ignore him? Get angry at him? Do you act as though he is very far away and too busy with everything else to attend to your suffering? Are you frustrated that God is powerful enough to end your suffering but he hasn’t? In your depression, let God reveal your heart. You might find spiritual issues that contribute to or even cause your depression.

WHICH PATH WILL YOU CHOOSE?

You are on one of two roads: faith or isolated independence. On the road of faith you are seeking and following God. You are calling out to him. You don’t understand what is happening, but you have not lost sight of how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ assure you that he is good. You feel like you are walking in the dark, but in your best moments you are putting one foot in front of the other as an expression of your trust in God. Whether you know it or not you are being heroic. On this path, although you are suffering, you are still able to notice and marvel that God’s Spirit is empowering you to trust him through darkness and pain.

The other path is the more common one, even among Christians. Even if you believe that God has revealed himself to you in Jesus Christ, it doesn’t seem to make much difference. You don’t feel as though you are consciously avoiding God. You are just trying to survive. But if you look closely you will notice that you are pushing God away. Look at the tell-tale signs:

  • You have no hope, even though Scripture, God’s words to you, offers hope on almost every page. Here’s just one example, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21–23).
  • You think life is meaningless, even though you are a servant of the King and every small step of obedience resonates throughout eternity. This is God’s purpose for you today, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
  • You think God doesn’t care, even though Scripture makes it clear that we run from God, not vice versa. Listen to what God says to you, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7).
  • In other words, in many areas of life, you simply do not believe what God says.

Practical Strategies for Change

Depression tries to tell us what is true and what isn’t. For example, it says that you will never feel any different, and you can’t continue to live in such a condition. It says that God doesn’t care, and no one loves you. It tries to persuade you that nothing matters. Know, however, that depression lies! You have to tell it the truth, rather than listen to its interpretation of life.

Do you remember times when you were grouchy and everything in the world looked horrible? Or you had PMS and it colored your interpretation of other people? Our emotions are loud, but they do not tell the whole story.

TURN TO GOD AND LISTEN

Turn toward God, and instead of listening to your depression, listen to what he says about himself. The center of his message to you is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, became the Son of Man. He obeyed the Father perfectly, emptied himself, and became your servant. He died to give you life. Now he is the King, and through his death he brings you into his kingdom. Here on earth the kingdom of heaven is riddled with suffering, but we know the King is with us and our suffering is only for a short while. We also know that the King takes our suffering, which seems senseless, and makes it profitable in his kingdom. Read all of Romans 8 and pay special attention to these words, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28–29).

This is God’s message to you. Beg for grace and mercy so you can hear it over the din of your depression.

The Spirit of God speaks most clearly to you in the Bible, so take the small step of opening it and reading it. If you can’t, ask someone else to read it to you. Ask God to speak to you through his words in the Bible. Ask a friend to talk to you about the good news that Jesus lived, died, and rose again. Any friend who knows that good news would love to talk about it.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read about Jesus’ suffering in Isaiah 53 and Mark 14. How does it help you to know that Jesus is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief?
  • Use the Psalms to help you talk to God about your heart. Make Psalm 86 and Psalm 88 your personal prayers to God.
  • Be alert to spiritual warfare. Depressed people are very vulnerable to Satan’s claim that God is not good. Jesus’ death on the cross proves God’s love for you. It’s the only weapon powerful enough to stand against Satan’s lies (Romans 5:6–8; 1 John 4:9–10).
  • Don’t think your case in unique. Read Hebrews 11 and 12. Many have walked this path before you, and God did not fail them.
  • Remember your purpose for living (Matthew 22:37–39; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Galatians 5:6).
  • Learn about persevering and enduring (Romans 5:3; Hebrews 12:1; James 1:2-4).

Gradually a new goal will come into view. Without doubt you will still want depression to be gone, but you will also develop a vision of walking humbly with your God even in the midst of pain. When you read Scripture, you will find that many people have walked the same path.

CONSIDER THE SPIRITUAL CAUSES OF YOUR DEPRESSION

Next, consider some of the spiritual issues that might play a part in your depression. There is no one cause of depression, but there are some common paths that provoke a depressive spiral. Identifying these in your life may help you move out of depression and avoid it in the future.

Depression rarely appears overnight. When you look closely, you usually find that it crept up on you gradually. Take a closer look at its progression. Personal problems that are left spiritually unattended can, in susceptible people, lead to depression. Do you see any of these things in your life?

  • If you made someone besides God the center of your life, and you lose him or her, you will feel isolated and without purpose. Can you see how this can give way to depression? You made another person your reason for living and now, without him or her, you feel hopeless and unable to go on. You may not realize it, but the Bible tell us that this is idol worship—you are worshipping what God created instead of him.
  • If you feel like you failed in the eyes of other people, and your success and the opinions of others is of critical importance, you can slip into depression. Can you see the spiritual roots? Your success and the opinions of others have become your gods, they are more important to you than serving Christ.
  • If you feel like you did something very wrong, and you want to manage your sin apart from the cross of Jesus, depression is inevitable. We always want to believe that we can do something—like feeling really bad for our sins—but that is just pride. We actually think that we can pay God back, but this attitude minimizes the beauty of the cross and Jesus’ full payment for sin.
  • If you are angry and don’t practice forgiveness, you can easily slide into depression. The simple formula is sadness + anger = depression. What makes us angry shows us what we love and what rights we hold dear. Unforgiveness shows us that we are not willing to trust God to bind up our broken hearts and to judge justly. Deal with your sadness and anger by pouring your heart out to God. Use the psalms as your prayers. Ask for faith so that you can trust God to be your defender and your helper.

Even students of depression who reject the Bible acknowledge that anger, resentment, and jealousy can contribute to the beginnings of depression. So take a hard look. Look for sin patterns you can confess. This is hard, but it is not depressing. If punishment was on the other side of confession, it would be foolish to follow such a path. But get to the gospel of Jesus and on the other side you will find full forgiveness, love, hope, and joy. They are yours for the asking. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).

TAKE ONE STEP AT A TIME

Now, take one small step at a time. Granted, it seems impossible. How can you live without feelings? Without them you have no drive, no motivation. Could you imagine walking without any feeling in your legs? It would be impossible. Or would it? Perhaps you could walk if you practiced in front of a large mirror and watched your legs moving. One step, wobble, another step. It would all be very mechanical but it could be done.

People have learned to take one step at a time in the midst of depression. It doesn’t seem natural, though other people won’t notice either the awkwardness or the heroism involved. The trek begins with one step, then another. Remember, you are not alone. Many people have taken this journey ahead of you.

As you walk, you will find that you must tap into every resource you have ever learned about persevering through hardship. It will involve lots of moment by moment choices: take one minute at a time, read one short Bible passage, ask for help, try to care about someone else, move outside yourself, ask someone how they are doing, and so on.

When in doubt, confess your unbelief, trust in Jesus, and look for someone to love. A wise depressed person once said, “The reason I get up—after years of depression—is that I want to love one other person.”

GUIDELINES FOR MEDICATION

The severe pain of depression makes you welcome anything that can bring relief. For some people, medication brings relief from some symptoms. Most family physicians are qualified to prescribe appropriate medications. If you prefer a specialist, get a recommendation for a psychiatrist, and ask these questions of your doctor and pharmacist:

  • How long will it take before it is effective?
  • What are some of the common side effects?
  • And, if your physician is prescribing two medications, will it be difficult to determine which medication is effective?

From a Christian perspective, the choice to take medication is a wisdom issue. It is rarely a matter of right or wrong. Instead, the question to ask is, “What is best and wise?” Wise people seek counsel (your physicians should be part of the group that counsels you). Wise people approach decisions prayerfully. They don’t put their hope in people or medicine but in the Lord. They recognize that medication is a blessing, when it helps, but recognize its limits.

Medication can change physical symptoms, but not spiritual ones. It might give sleep, offer physical energy, allow you to see in color, and alleviate the physical feeling of depression. But it won’t answer your spiritual doubts, fears, frustrations, or failures. If you choose to take medication, please consider letting a wise and trusted person from your church walk come along side of you. They can remind you that God is good, that you can find power to know God’s love and love others, and, yes, that joy is possible, even during depression.

DEALING WITH SUICIDAL THOUGHTS

Before you were depressed, you could not imagine dreaming of suicide. But when depression descends, you notice a passing thought about death, then another, and another until death acts like a stalker.

Remember, depression doesn’t tell the whole truth. It says you are all alone, no one loves you, God doesn’t care, you will never feel any different, and you cannot go on another day. Even your spouse and children don’t seem like a reason to stay alive when depression is at its worst. Your mind tells you, “Everyone will be better off without me.” But this is a lie—they will not be better off without you.

Because you aren’t working with all the facts, keep it simple. Death is not your call to make. God is the giver and taker of life. As long as he gives you life, he has purposes for you. One purpose that is always right in front of you is to love another person. Begin with that purpose and then get help from a friend or a pastor. Depression says you are alone and you should act that way. But that is not true. God is with you and he calls you to reach out to someone who will listen, care, and pray for you.

PERSEVERE IN HOPE

Will your depression go away? Perhaps. If you follow these suggestions, your depression will, at least, be changed. But to guarantee that you will be depression-free is like guaranteeing that you will never have suffering in your life. The cross of Christ is a sign to us that we will share in the sufferings of Jesus rather than be free of all hardships.

Your hope rests on something much deeper than the alleviation of pain. Depression can’t rob you of hope because your hope is in a person, and that person, Jesus, is alive and with you. The apostle Paul put his suffering on a scale and found that it was out-weighed by all the benefits he had in Christ. Of course, that kind of hope and vision doesn’t come overnight, but it does come. Set your sights high. You can set a course where you say “Amen” with Paul.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

Edward T. Welch, M.Div., Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and faculty member at CCEF. He has counseled for over twenty-five years and has written many articles, booklets, and books including When People Are Big and God Is Small; Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave; Blame It on the Brain?; Depression: A Stubborn Darkness; Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addiction; and Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest.

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Marriage: Scheduling Intimacy

Putting sex on the calendar makes it a date to remember!

(by Jill Savage)

The young mom on the other end of the phone poured out her frustrations. She desired sex, but her husband could care less. As the parents of five, all under the age of six, they rarely found time for each other outside the bedroom, let alone inside. She confessed that she felt they were more like roommates than lovers. I listened with understanding. As a mother of five myself, I know the struggle of keeping our family marriage-centered, not child-centered. I know the difficulties in finding time for just the two of us. And I know the challenge of differing sexual drives.

When she finally paused to catch her breath, I explained some of the strategies Mark and I found to keep our marriage a priority. We talked about creative date ideas, inexpensive childcare options, and the importance of connecting on a daily basis. I asked her if she and her husband ever considered scheduling their sex life. She responded with an awkward silence.

Finally, she laughed and said, “You’re kidding, right? Sex is supposed to be spontaneous. Nobody schedules sex.” Pencil it in-in code!

For 22 years of marriage, Mark and I have been at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to our sex drives. Mark thinks about sex once every 17 seconds. I think about it once every 17 days. And this wasn’t our only marital challenge. Eventually, we found ourselves in a marriage counselor’s office.

Our differing sex drives were just one issue of many in our hurting relationship. During that healing season, we learned some new strategies for communication, conflict resolution, and compromise concerning our sexual differences. That’s when we first discovered the concept of scheduling sex.

At first, just like that young mom, we couldn’t get past the misconception that sex isn’t something to be scheduled. Who says sex should always be spontaneous? Movies, television shows, magazine articles, and romance novels, that’s who! If we’re not careful, we begin to use the media to determine what’s “right” or “normal.” But then, we’re using the wrong measuring stick. We can’t allow our culture or the media to set direction for our relationship. Instead, we need to apply our God-given creativity to find the time and set the strategies to make our sex life within marriage work. Once we were able to grasp that scheduling sex wasn’t such a crazy idea, we put it into place within our partnership. Today, we’re still amazed at the transformation it brings to our physical relationship.

How does planned lovemaking benefit a marriage?

Consider these advantages:

It eliminates “The Ask”

In most marriages, one partner possesses a higher desire than the other and requests sex more often, while his or her partner rarely asks for physical intimacy. For the spouse with a higher desire, the fear of rejection often sets in. One becomes weary of having to ask, or even beg, for sex on a regular basis.

When a couple can agree upon a basic schedule for sex in marriage, it takes the guesswork out. While this still leaves room for occasional spontaneity, it reassures the higher-sex-drive mate that it will happen, and not only that-they know when! Usually, the schedule is less often than the partner with a higher desire would want and more frequent than the partner with a lesser desire may want. Instead, it’s meeting on middle ground.

It increases desire

For the partner with a diminished desire, scheduling sex engages the brain, the largest sex organ in the human body. The brain needs to be clued to prepare the body for a sexual response. Most people who have a lower sexual drive simply don’t think about sex very often. Scheduling jumpstarts this process.

Once sex is on the calendar, it provides a reminder to think about sex, prepares us mentally for being together physically, and primes us to “get in the mood.”

When I complained to a friend about having trouble getting in the mood, she said, “Jill, you’re trying to go from making meatloaf to making love in 30 seconds flat? You can’t do that. You have to have a strategy for going from point A to point B.”

Rarely does the partner with an increased desire need to get “in the mood.” In contrast, the partner with a lesser desire may need to work at it. When sex is on the calendar, though, it serves as a prompt to set strategies in motion. Scheduling sex reminds spouses that they’re working together toward the goal of intimacy, valuing their appointed rendezvous, and doing whatever it takes to make it happen.

It increases anticipation

When lovemaking is kept on the front-burner, it builds anticipation. Both husband and wife begin to prepare for their marital recreation.

Have you ever thought of sex as recreation? It is! God gave us the gift of sex as a form of recreation in our marriage. It’s our own private playground where God intends for us to enjoy physical pleasure.

When sex is on the schedule, we enjoy planning our time together, because we both hold the same goal. We can even become a lifelong learner of giving pleasure to each other. Keeping a couple of Christian sexual technique books on the shelf may develop us into connoisseurs of giving physical pleasure to each other, and it builds anticipation as we think about the next time we’ll be together.

It allows for prime-time planning

He prefers nighttime when he can be romantic. She prefers daytime when she’s not so tired. They decide that twice a week lovemaking is on their calendar-Tuesday at noon (he comes home for lunch and she arranges a sitter for the kids) and Friday at night (after a warm bath and an evening of watching a movie together or going out on a date). This schedule worked well for one couple we mentored.

Most couples not only differ in their desires concerning frequency of sex, but also in the atmosphere that’s conducive to sex. Some struggle with making love anytime children are in the vicinity. Others prefer a certain time of the day. When you put your lovemaking on the calendar, you can work to accommodate those likes/dislikes to meet the needs of both.

It helps couples prepare physically

I used to tease my husband that once we got on a lovemaking schedule, it sure took the pressure off shaving my legs every day! On a serious side, there’s value in preparing yourself physically to make love to your mate. A hot bath or shower, a freshly-shaved body, and some great-smelling lotion often relax us for physical intimacy. It also builds anticipation as you prepare to be with your spouse.

If weariness keeps you from being excited about sex, an early evening nap may be just the key if lovemaking is on the agenda that night. Since some of the guesswork is out of the mix, we can prepare not only mentally, but physically.

It builds trust

If we’re going to commit to lovemaking on a regular basis, we need to honor our word and agreement. When we honor our word, it builds trust and deepens intimacy. On the rare occasion that something prevents your regularly scheduled lovemaking, spouses need to communicate their value of sexual intimacy so they can make alternate plans to meet those physical and emotional needs. This is the key to successfully calendaring your intimacy.

Several weeks after that initial conversation, I spoke with that young mom. Her voice held enthusiasm I hadn’t heard before. I asked her how things were going, and she indicated that she and her husband were working on some new ways to energize and invest in their marriage.

She concluded by saying, “Now don’t bother calling Friday around noon, because no one is going to answer the phone!” I knew that she learned the same secret we learned years ago. While spontaneous sex may have its place in life, scheduling sex always has its place on our calendar!

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Jill Savage (www.jillsavage.org/) serves as the executive director of Hearts at Home (www.hearts-at-home.org). She is the author of four books including Is There Really Sex After Kids? (Zondervan)

Impossible Marriage Situation

(Question/Answer re “Impossible Marriage” Situation by Michelle Wiener-Davis, Author of Divorce Busting.)

I’VE TRIED EVERYTHING, BUT NOTHING WORKS !!!

QUESTION —
Dear Michele:
“I’m working on my marriage, but it still isn’t working.” Michele, after reading your books (Divorce Remedy, Divorce Busting and Getting Through to the Man You Love), I have one question: The underlying assumption of all three books is that you DO love your spouse. I am in a situation in which I don’t really love my spouse, and actually often don’t like or respect him. Yet he is a good father, and our children are incredibly devoted to our little family. I definitely believe that a divorce would be the best thing for ME (and probably for him), but the worst thing for my children. It’s been hard for me to try to divorce bust because I can’t seem to get over the hump of feeling I’m knocking myself out to work on something I don’t really want, namely, staying married to my husband. Does this mean mine is just one of the marriages that can’t be saved? Most of the posts I read on the boards seem to be from people who WANT their spouses. Any comments would be appreciated, and I’m sure would be enlightening to many on the board, because I’ve heard from many about to be Walkaway Wife’s who feel the same way I do — little, if any, love or respect for our spouses, and little, if any, desire to be married to them. Thank you. Jenny

ANSWER —
Dear Jenny,
You ask an interesting question and I hope my response will be helpful.

First, I want you to know that your assumption that my books presuppose love for one’s spouse is completely incorrect. My books presuppose a commitment to working on one’s marriage. It is absolutely true that when you love your spouse, it makes going through the hard times more palatable and sharing the good times more enjoyable. No question about it. But I don’t assume people reading the books love their spouses.

I know you won’t like what I’m about to say, but I can tell from your post that you have never really committed to working on your marriage. Yes, I know you’ve had a telephone consultation and some counseling. But that doth not commitment make. Too many people say they’re working on their marriages when they drag their bodies to therapy or talk to some sort of expert. That’s not even scratching the surface. Working on your marriage means making the decision to be there in spirit, not necessarily to be head over heels in love when you start, but to invest yourself fully.

Working on your marriage means giving of yourself completely, putting your spouse’s needs before your own- and vise versa. It means quitting the game of keeping score. It means forgiving and letting go. Working on your marriage means focusing on people’s strengths and downplaying their shortcomings. It means not expecting to have all or even the majority of your needs satisfied by one person. It means vowing to have a full and satisfying life of your own so that you don’t blame your spouse unfairly about your unhappiness. It means appreciating the little things and overlooking life’s annoyances. It means recognizing that no one, not even you or me, is perfect.

I’m not sure why I think this, but I have a distinct feeling that you are holding on to resentments from the past. (I don’t even know you but the feeling is there nonetheless). It seems to me, that your current willingness to stay is built on guilt and self-sacrifice rather than any pleasure derived from the gift you would be giving your children and “your little family” and as a result, yourself. As long as you look at staying through the eyes of resentment, you will not be able to fully immerse yourself in what you need to do to make your family truly work.

Unfortunately, no one, not your parents, friends, family, therapist, clergy or me, can make the decision to have a good, healthy family for you. Only you can make that choice. You have been sitting on the fence- staying but holding back. (Maybe that’s why you chose Paradox as your username.) This won’t get you where you need to go. I can promise you that. Make a decision. Own your decision. Stop fooling yourself into thinking you’re working on things when you’re not. If you feel you can’t forgive and start fresh, take ownership of that. Go. However, you know my first choice. But in the end, that doesn’t really matter. Yours is the choice that matters. If you choose marriage, the rest is relatively easy. You decide. Love is a decision.
Michele

BOUNDARIES – What Are They?

(Adapted from Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend)

Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.

We are responsible to others and for ourselves. “Carry each other’s burdens, ” says Galatians 6:2, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This verse shows our responsibility to one another.

Many times others have “burdens” that are too big to bear. They do not have enough strength, resources, or knowledge to carry the load, and they need help. Denying ourselves to do for others what they cannot do for themselves is showing the sacrificial love of Christ. This is what Christ did for us. He did what we could not do for ourselves; He saved us. This is being responsible “to.”

On the other hand, verse 5 says, “… each one should carry his own load.” Everyone has responsibilities that only he or she can carry. These things are our own particular “load” that we need to take daily responsibility for and work out. No one can do certain things for us. We have to take ownership of certain aspects of life that are our own “load.”

Boundaries help us to distinguish our property so that we can take care of it. In short, boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. Boundaries are not walls. The Bible does not say that we are to be “walled off” from others; in fact, it says that we are to be “one” with them (John 17:11). We are to be in community with them. But in every community, all members have their own space and property. The important thing is that property lines/boundaries be permeable enough to allow passing in and out, but strong enough to keep out danger.

Examples of boundaries:

Words – The most basic boundary-setting word is “no.” Being clear about your no – and your yes – is a theme that runs throughout the Bible (Matt. 5:37; James 5:12). “NO” is a confrontational word. The Bible says that we are to confront people we love, saying, “No, that behavior is not okay. I will not participate in that.” The word “no” is also important in setting limits on abuse. People with poor boundaries struggle with saying no to the control, pressure, demands, and sometimes the real needs of others. They feel that is they say no to someone, they will endanger their relationship with that person, so they passively comply but inwardly resent. If you cannot say no to this external or internal pressure, you have lost control of your property and are not enjoying the fruit of “self-control.” Your words also define your property for others as you communicate your feelings, intentions, or dislikes. It is difficult for people to know where you stand when you do not use words to define your property. God even does this when He says, “I like this and I hate that,” or “I will do this, and I will not do that.”

Truth – Knowing the truth about God and His property puts limits on you and shows you His boundaries. To be in touch with God’s Truth is to be in touch with reality, and to live in accord with that reality makes for a better life (Ps. 119:2, 45). Satan is the great distorter of reality. Honesty about who you are gives you the biblical value of integrity.

Geographical Distance – Sometimes physically removing yourself from a situation will help maintain boundaries. You can do this to replenish yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually after you have given to your limit, as Jesus often did. Or, you can remove yourself to get away from danger and put limits on evil. The Bible urges us to separate from those who continue to hurt us and to create a safe place for ourselves. Removing yourself from the situation will also cause the one who is left behind to experience a loss of fellowship that may lead to changed behavior (Matt. 18:17 – 18; I Cor. 5:11-13). When a relationship is abusive, many times the only way to finally show the other person that your boundaries are real is to create space until they are ready to deal with the problem. The Bible supports the idea of limiting togetherness for the sake of “binding evil.”

Time – Taking time off from a person, or a project, can be a way of regaining ownership over some out-of-control aspect of your life where boundaries need to be set.

Emotional Distance – Emotional distance is a temporary boundary to give your heart the space it needs to be safe; it is never a permanent way of living. Sometimes in abusive marriages the abused spouse needs to keep emotional distance until the abusive partner begins to face his or her problems and become trustworthy. You should not continue to set yourself up for hurt and disappointment. If you have been in an abusive relationship, you should wait until it is safe and until the real patterns of change have been demonstrated before you go back. Many people are too quick to trust someone in the name of forgiveness and not make sure that the other is producing “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Forgive, but guard your heart until you see sustained change.

Other People – You need to depend on others to help you set and keep boundaries. For many, a support system gives the strength to say no to abuse and control for the first time in one’s life. There are two reasons why you need others to help with boundaries. The first is that your most basic need in life is for relationship. The other reason we need others is because we need new input and teaching. Boundaries are not built in a vacuum; creating boundaries always involves a support network.

Consequences – Trespassing on other people’s property carries consequences. “No Trespassing” signs usually carry a threat of prosecution if someone steps over the boundaries. The Bible teaches this principle over and over, saying that if we walk one way, this will happen, and if we walk another way, something else will happen. Just as the Bible sets consequences for certain behaviors, we need to back up our boundaries with consequences. God does not enable irresponsible behavior. Consequences give some good “barbs” to fences. They let people know the seriousness of the trespass and the seriousness of our respect for ourselves. This teaches them that our commitment to living according to helpful values is something we hold dear and will fight to protect and guard.

What falls within our boundaries; what are we responsible for?

Feelings – Feelings should neither be ignored nor placed in charge. The Bible says to “own” your feelings and be aware of them. Feelings come from your heart and can tell you the state of your relationships. They can tell you if things are going well, or if there is a problem. But, your feelings are your responsibility and you must own them and see them as your problem so you can begin to find an answer to whatever issue they are pointing to.

Attitudes and Beliefs – Attitudes have to do with your orientation toward something, the stance you take toward others, God, life, work, and relationships. Beliefs are anything that you accept as true. We need to own our attitudes and convictions because they fall within our property line. We are the ones who feel their effect, and the only ones who can change them. People with boundary problems usually have distorted attitudes about responsibility. They feel that to hold people responsible for their feelings, choices, and behaviors is mean.

Behaviors – Behaviors have consequences. To rescue people from the natural consequences of their behaviors is to render them powerless.

Choices – We need to take responsibility for our choices. A common boundary problem is disowning our choices and trying to lay the responsibility for them on someone else. We think someone else is in control, thus relieving us of our basic responsibility. We need to realize that we are in control of our choices no matter how we feel. Throughout Scripture, people are reminded of their choices and asked to take responsibility for them. Making decisions based on others’ approval or on guilt breeds resentment. Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for our choices. We are the ones who make them. We are the ones who must live with our consequences.

Values – What we value is what we love and assign importance to. Often we do not take responsibility for what we value. When we take responsibility for out-of-control behavior caused by loving the wrong things, or valuing things that have no lasting value, when we confess that we have a heart that values things that will not satisfy, we can receive help from God to “create a new heart” within us. Boundaries help us not to deny but to own our old hurtful values so God can change them.

Limits – Tow aspects of limits stand out when it comes to creating better boundaries. The first is setting limits on others. In reality, setting limits on others is a misnomer. We can’t do that. What we can do is set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly; we can’t change them or make them behave right. God sets standards, but He lets people be who they are and then separates Himself from them when they misbehave. But God limits His exposure to evil, unrepentant people, as should we. Scripture is full of admonitions to separate ourselves from people who act in destructive ways. The other aspect of limits is setting our own internal limits. We need to have spaces inside ourselves where we can have a feeling, an impulse, or a desire, without acting it out. We need self-control without repression. We need to be able to say “no” to ourselves. This includes both our destructive desires and some good ones that are not wise to pursue at a given time.

Talents – Our talents are clearly within our boundaries and are our responsibility. Yet taking ownership of them is often frightening and always risky. The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:23, 26-28) says that we are accountable — not to mention much happier – when we are experiencing our gifts and being productive. It takes work, practice, learning, prayer, resources, and grace to overcome the fear of failure that the “wicked and lazy” servant gave in to. He was not chastised for being afraid; we are all afraid when trying something new and difficult. He was chastised for not confronting his fear and trying the best he could.

Thoughts – Establishing boundaries in thinking involves three things.

  1. We must own our own thoughts. Many people have not taken ownership of their own thinking processes. They are mechanically thinking the thoughts of others without ever examining them. Certainly we should listen to the thoughts of others and weigh them; but we should never “give our minds” over to anyone.
  2. We must grow in knowledge and expand our minds. One area in which we need to grow is in knowledge of God and His Word. We must use our brains to have better lives and glorify God.
  3. We must clarify distorted thinking. We all have a tendency to not see things clearly, to think and perceive in distorted ways. Taking ownership of our thinking in relationships requires being active in checking out where we may be wrong. Also we need to make sure that we are communicating our thoughts to others. Many people think that others should be able to read their minds and know what they want. This leads to frustration.

Desires – Our desires lie within our boundaries. Each of us has different desires, wants, dreams, wishes, goals, plans, hungers, and thirsts. We all want to be satisfied, but too often we are not. Part of the problem lies in the lack of structured boundaries within our personality. We can’t define who the real “me” is and what we truly desire. Many desires masquerade as the real thing. We often do not actively seek our desires from God, and those desires are mixed up with things that we do not really need. God is truly interested in our desires; He made them. God loves to give gifts to His children, but He is a wise Parent. He wants to make sure His gifts are right for us. To know what to ask for, we have to be in touch with who we really are and what are our real motives.

Love – Many people have difficulty giving and receiving love because of hurt and fear. Having closed their heart to others, they feel empty and meaningless. We need to take responsibility for our God-given loving function and use it. Love concealed or love rejected can both kill us. Many people do not take ownership for how they resist love. They have a lot of love around them, but do not realize that their loneliness is a result of their own lack of responsiveness. Often they will say, “Others’ love can not ‘get in.'” This statement negates their responsibility to respond. We maneuver subtly to avoid responsibility in love; we need to claim our hearts as our property and work on our weaknesses in that area.

Considering all of the above, setting boundaries and maintaining them is hard work. But it is worth it!

Does a Good God Want Me in a Bad Marriage?

SOURCE:  Sabrina Beasley McDonald/Family Life Ministry

Editor’s note: As the author states early in this article, her intent is to address unhappy marriages in which there is no unrepentant adultery, abandonment, or repeated physical abuse. As she writes, “They were simply struggling with what most marriages deal with: miscommunication, financial disagreements, selfish attitudes—the things often excused as ‘irreconcilable differences.’” These are the conditions in most problem marriages—and our desire is to encourage these couples to seek reconciliation. However, if you are married and are suffering from physical abuse, this article is not for you. You need help. We suggest reading Dennis Rainey’s article, “Responding to Physical Abuse,” which lists several practical steps to take.

A friend of mine finally walked out on her husband. She was tired of his excuses and irresponsibility. She was finished with his criticisms and cutting remarks. In her mind, enough was enough, and it was time to end the marriage.

Yet as she described their relationship, I couldn’t help but think that this marriage didn’t need to end in divorce. There was no unrepentant adultery, abandonment, or repeated physical abuse. They were simply struggling with what most marriages deal with: miscommunication, financial disagreements, selfish attitudes—the things often excused as “irreconcilable differences.”

When I later talked with her, I asked if she knew that God said, “I hate divorce …” (Malachi 2:16). Or that Jesus specifically addressed divorce in Matthew 19:8-9 saying, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

My friend said she heard this before and added, “But I cannot believe that a good God wants me to suffer in a bad marriage. He wants me to be happy.”

It was a response I’ve heard a dozen times from other women in similar circumstances, and it’s a question that plagues the hearts of many marriages today: If God is good, could He possibly want me to be unhappy? Doesn’t He see that staying in my current marriage would cause me a lot of pain? Can I call God “good” if He allows me to suffer in a bad marriage?

Does God want me to suffer?

No one enjoys pain. Quite the opposite—we long for contentment. The “pursuit of happiness” is so valued in America it’s an unalienable right in the Declaration of Independence.

It’s not wrong to desire pleasure. As a matter of fact, the Bible teaches that God delights in doing good things for His children. Jesus said, “What man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).

The problem is that God also calls us to righteousness, and often that requires giving up our personal happiness for the greater good. This is referred to as sacrifice, and it’s never easy, fun, or “happy.”

The apostle Paul reminds us that part of the Christian life is suffering for the sake of the cross. “… We are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:16-17, emphasis mine).

As Christians we are even called to rejoice and be glad in our trials because troubles are valuable to our character and spiritual growth. Romans 5:3-5a says, “… We also exult [rejoice] in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint … .”

So does God want us to suffer? Suffering for the sake of pain is not His desire, but there is a reason why we go through it.

You may be wondering how anything positive could possibly come from your hurting marriage. The apostle Paul wrote, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, emphasis mine). Christian marriage is not exempt from this principle. Just as we are called to sacrifice in our spiritual walk, we are also called to endure suffering in marriage for the sake of righteousness.

Even though we seldom can see how God is using present trials for our future benefit, He has promised to use them for good, and He is faithful to keep His word. Here are just four of the ways He can bring about His purposes:

First, God is conforming you to His image. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Voluntary self-sacrifice is a necessary part of the Christian life. It is often praised on mission fields or behind pulpits, but in marriage, it’s far less glamorous. Nevertheless, self-sacrifice in marriage is just as Christ-like in God’s eyes.

Staying married isn’t always easy. It often requires that you give up the right to win, stifle your pride, and defer to the needs of your spouse. But the more you practice these principles, the more you become like Christ.

Ephesians 5 explains this phenomenon by referring to the relationship between Christ and the Church. “As the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her …” (verses 24-25). Christ loved the church so much He died for her. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. In the same way, as these verses explain, when you give up your life for your spouse, you are conforming to the image of Christ who gave up His life for you.

Second, God is using these sufferings to bring you to deeper faith and repentance. Difficult times always bring us to our knees. They remind us that we are not in control, and only God is. During this experience you should be asking yourself, “How much of my suffering in this situation is caused by my own sin?”

In addition, prayer and reading Scripture will deepen your relationship with Him as you learn to trust in His sovereign control. These hard times can even give you a greater compassion for others going through tribulations.

Third, God is using these sufferings to teach your children how to resolve conflict. God has given you the responsibility to exemplify a godly marriage to your children. Psalm 78:5-8 declares:

For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel which He commanded our fathers, that they should teach them to their children, that the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children, that they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments … .

God set up the family so that His principles could be passed down through generations. Your struggles give you the ability to demonstrate how to keep a promise through better or worse, how to give and receive forgiveness, and what sacrifice looks like.

Fourth and most important, God desires for you and your spouse to be reconciled. Our God is a God of reconciliation—He shows this over and over again throughout Scripture as He extends grace, mercy, and forgiveness to His people. When we reconcile a broken marriage, it is a picture of His relationship with us, His bride.

A bad marriage in the Bible

The Bible isn’t silent on the issue of tough marriages. The Old Testament tells the story of a righteous man named Hosea who was called by God to marry the prostitute Gomer. Even though Hosea was a kind and loving husband, Gomer left him over and over and ran back to her old lifestyle. Hosea’s marriage was not under the best circumstances. I certainly wouldn’t say it was “good,” but nevertheless, God told Hosea to go get his bride and bring her home.

I can imagine that there were times when Hosea wanted to give up. Why would he stay married to a woman who didn’t love him? Why should he rescue her from the world she loved? Why not move on to someone else who deserved his love?

Hosea was committed to Gomer because he loved God more than he loved comfortable circumstances. More than anything, he wanted to please God, instead of himself. As a result, God used Hosea’s marriage as an example of His unconditional, covenant-keeping love. God told Hosea, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes” (Hosea 3:1, emphasis mine).

Because we are in a covenant with Him, God has said He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). In the same way, choosing to stay married to your spouse despite the circumstances shows a love that is unconditional, long-suffering, and reflects the nature of God (see 1 Corinthians 13). If you have no other reason to endure the suffering in your marriage, do it because you love God. Do it because He asked you to.

Restoring your relationship

If you are in a bad marriage, the answer is not to dissolve the relationship, but it is to restore your relationship the way God has restored our relationship with Him through Christ. Stick through the hard times and work on the tough issues. Even though your present suffering is being used for your good, God has not left you without hope—He desires for your marriage to be restored. Here are five suggestions that will help during your journey to reconciliation.

First, look at yourself. No one is perfect (Romans 3:10). It’s easy to see the mistakes and annoyances that our spouses have. It’s much harder to look inward and identify the ways we contributed to the problems. Think through your marriage and seek the areas where you said or did something wrong. Then ask forgiveness from your spouse. You will be amazed how this small step could eventually turn your bad marriage into a good one.

Second, identify your real enemy. At FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway, we are reminded that our spouses are not the enemy—Satan is. Ephesians 6:12 says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” One of his greatest weapons is to trick you into blaming someone else, usually your spouse, for problems. When you start to bicker and quarrel, remember that your true enemy is the one who seeks to destroy your marriage.

Third, meditate on God’s Word daily. The proper way to battle Satan is with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). You won’t know how to use a sword if you’ve never handled one. The same is true for God’s Word—you won’t know how to wield its power if you don’t read and study. When Satan attacks, the Word of God will give you wisdom and the power to withstand his fiery darts.

Not only is God’s Word a weapon, it is also a guide for life. There are dozens of Scriptures regarding wisdom in everyday living—conflict resolution, handling money, roles of husbands and wives, parenting. You can find the answers you need if you will only look for them. Supplement your reading with Christian authors who can help you understand biblical concepts.

Fourth, appreciate your spouse. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Perhaps you’ve forgotten that your spouse has good qualities. At one time you were attracted to him or her in some way. What were those things that made you fall in love? Once you’ve thought of something, verbalize it or put it in a letter. You’ll be amazed at what a kind word can do for your relationship.

Fifth, pray for your spouse. It’s difficult to harbor bitterness against someone when you’re praying for that person. The more you pray, the more God will change your heart, and you will see a dramatic difference in your attitude. If possible, begin praying together. In his book Two Hearts Praying as One, Dennis Rainey says, “When you pray together, you multiply your joys, divide your sorrows, add to your experiences with God together, and help subtract your haunting past from your life.”

Finally, take action to restore your marriage. What makes a marriage good is hard work and a resolve to stay married. No matter how easy it seems for other people, no marriage can work automatically. Don’t let Satan fool you into thinking that no one else experiences problems or that yours aren’t solvable. If you remove divorce as an option, you’ll find that there are ways to build into your relationship: Attend a Weekend to Remember®, read articles from Christian marriage websites, read books and materials from Christian marriage experts. And then apply these biblical principles to your life.

Pursue all avenues of reconciliation before divorce: professional Christian counseling, intervention with your pastor, and personal forgiveness. Read “Finding a Christian Counselor” to help you find the assistance you need.

There’s no secret formula to dealing with a difficult marriage. Just because you are suffering now, don’t give up on the blessing that God is using to mold you and your spouse into His image. It may not seem like a good marriage at this time, but wait and see what God has in store for you … I’m willing to bet you’ll be glad you did.

Five Key Things To Know About Marriage

#1: Marriage is not all about you. It’s not about your happiness and self-fulfillment. It’s not about getting your needs met. It’s about going through life together and serving God together and serving each other. It’s about establishing a family. It’s about committing your lives to each other even though you may be very different in 10, 20, or 40 years from the people you are now. 

#2: You are about to learn a painful lesson–you are both very selfish people. This may be difficult to comprehend during the happy and hazy days of courtship, but it’s true, and it shocks many couples during their first years of marriage. It’s important to know this revelation of selfishness is coming, because then you can make adjustments for it, and you will be a lot better off.

#3: The person you love the most is also the person who can hurt you the deepest. That’s the risk and pain of marriage. And the beauty of marriage is working through your hurt and pain and resolving your conflicts and solving your problems.

#4: You can’t make it work on your own. It’s obvious that marriage is difficult–just look at how many couples today end in divorce. This is why it’s so critical to center your lives and your marriage on the God who created marriage. To make your marriage last for a lifetime, you need to rely on God for the power and love and strength and wisdom and endurance you need.

#5: Never stop enjoying each other. Always remember that marriage is an incredible gift to be enjoyed. Ecclesiastes 9:9 says, “Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.”

Enjoy the little things of life with your spouse: the food you enjoy together at home or in restaurants … the movies you like … the little inside jokes nobody else understands except for you … the times you make each other laugh … the games you play together.

And focus on making memories together: Plan special dates and weekend getaways. Make sure you reserve time for each other after you have kids. When you are old, you won’t look back and remember how great it was to buy that new furniture or watch that great show on television. You’re going to remember what you did together and saw together and created together.

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