It might begin as early as the honeymoon.
A little smudge has appeared on her halo, a little tarnish on his suit of shining armour. He’s not the gentle man she thought he was. She makes plans without consulting him. He makes financial commitments without telling her. She ends their arguments without resolution.
She’s disturbed by the thoughts she’s having about her husband. He has become preoccupied with her shortcomings. She remembers how good it felt to be a single, to be able to make her own decisions and spend her money on whatever she wanted. As more time goes by, both have become more and more unhappy and disillusioned.
Every marriage, says Christian counsellor Norman Wright, goes through stages of disillusionment. This happens when both husband and wife run headlong into the gap between what they expected of their marriage and how it is actually turning out.
It may occur on the honeymoon or while they are arranging the furniture in their new flat. They work it through, only to discover that disillusionment keeps on coming.
It appears during the first months of the pregnancy, while their children are small, in the midst of career changes, when their children become teens, during their late 40s and middle 50s, and even into their 70s and 80s.
This is the reality of how it is with a man and woman. Neither can be God to the other. Both are inclined towards their own selfishness. Neither is always satisfied to find contentment in God (Philippians 4:11–13). Both struggle with and often give in to a heart that is sinful (Romans 7:14–25).
At the Threshold of Fulfilment
When disillusionment sets in, the key question that couples face is: “Now what? Now that we have hit this rough spot in our marriage, what are we going to do about it?”
This is the reality of how it is with a man and woman. Neither can be God to the other.
This is where it is vital for both husband and wife to work through and resolve the issues creating this disillusionment. It can lead to the kind of reconciliation and acceptance that makes marriage worth it for life.
If we feel that our marriage is stuck or isn’t growing, we need to remember that all is not lost: there is still hope. In fact, our disillusionment has actually brought us to the threshold of the very love and security we’ve been looking for.
Consider how we can cross over this threshold of fulfilment:
1. Let our marital disappointment help us to face our disappointment with God.
God is the One before whom we took our vows. He is the One we asked to bless our marriage. Yet, we may sometimes feel that He is the same One who seems to have let us down.
We may be angry with God because our marriage is not going as we expected. We may be holding Him accountable or accusing Him of breaking His promise of happiness to us.
We may even be tempted to say: “Should I be surprised? Isn’t He the One who let me have a violent father or a suicidal mother? Should I now be surprised that He didn’t reach in and stop me when I drifted into a difficult marital relationship? He’s the One who hasn’t answered my prayers. He hasn’t changed my mate or taken away the gnawing emptiness inside me.”
God is the One before whom we took our vows. Yet, we may sometimes feel that He is the same One who seems to have let us down.
In his book, Bold Love, Christian counselor Dan Allender wrote: “A sexually abused person once told me, ‘When God did not intervene to stop the abuser, He lost any right to require me to do anything. He owes me; I owe Him nothing.’ Her words are stark and brutal, but I believe she represents the core posture of the heart that struggles with God. She simply had the angry courage to put words to the battle to understand God’s goodness, His response to injustice, and the burden of fulfilling the royal law of love.”
As we struggle and take our thoughts and feelings to Him openly and honestly, we are at least taking Him seriously. In our struggle, we can compare our experience with the stories of other people who were disappointed with God before they found fulfilment in Him.
For example, we’ve read in the Bible the story of Job, who felt that God had been unfair to him. Of Joseph, who was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, and then falsely accused of trying to rape his employer’s wife. Of the nation of Israel, who, after being delivered from the slave-yards of Egypt, concluded that God had led them out into a barren wilderness to destroy them.
And of Jesus, the Son of God, who on the night before His betrayal and death pleaded with the Father to deliver Him from the suffering He was about to face.
Over and over, the Bible introduces us to people whose disappointment with God bleeds through the pages of their lives. Yet, again and again the Bible also shows that disillusionment can become the doorway to fulfilment.
Job lived long enough to see his confidence in God restored and deepened (Job 42:1–6). Joseph lived long enough to say to those family members who had harmed him: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). The children of Israel saw bitter and frightening experiences that turned into opportunities to witness the power and goodness of God.
In time, God always shows himself good and powerful and faithful to those who are willing to trust Him to the end.
And Jesus endured to the point of saying in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
No one has ever suffered the betrayal, aloneness, abandonment, and abuse that Christ did in the course of His life and death. No one has experienced the kind of unfair treatment that He endured when He paid the price for our sins.
Yet He lived and died and rose from the dead to declare along with Job and Joseph and other godly men and women of Israel, that, in time, God always shows himself good and powerful and faithful to those who are willing to trust Him to the end.
God can do the same for us in our marriage. Christ showed us by His own example that we were not made to find complete fulfilment or security in any human relationship. He showed us that we are made to find our protection and contentment in God, and that only in this realisation can we be free to love and submit to one another.
2. Let our relationship with God become our source of marital fulfilment.
Followers of Christ are in a great position to face the issues that have brought disillusionment to their marriage.
Biblical counselor Larry Crabb wrote:
“The difference between godly and ungodly people is not that one group never hurts and the other group does, or that one reports more happiness than the other. The difference lies in what people do with their hurt. Either they do what comes naturally: use their hurt to justify self-centered efforts to relieve it, caring less about how they affect others and more about whether they are comfortable; or they do what comes unnaturally: use their hurt to better understand and encourage others while they cling desperately to the Lord for promised deliverance, passionately determined to do His will.”
Once we learn that our ultimate well-being depends on God and not on our spouse, we will begin to experience the strength of the Lord.
Husbands, once you believe that your relationship to God is more important than your relationship to his wife, you will begin to find a personal sense of significance that doesn’t depend on your wife’s responses or affirmation. You will begin to love her out of the love that you have found in Christ (Ephesians 5:25).
And wives, once you believe that your relationship with Christ is more important than your relationship to your husband, you can begin to find a source of security and acceptance that doesn’t depend on your husband’s ability to meet your needs. You can begin to accept your role as a wife out of the conviction that rightly motivated submission is actually a way of submitting yourself to the lordship and provision of Christ (Ephesians 5:22–24).
This is not to say, however, that godly husbands and wives become independent of one another. It is important that we also . . .
3. Let our dependence on God become a basis for loving interdependence.
A husband and wife who depend on God—who find their strength and sufficiency in Him—will not be overly dependent on each other. Nor will they demand an unhealthy independence or domination.
God made man and woman as unique, specially gifted beings in His image. Neither of them is to rob the other of that God-given uniqueness. But when they say, “I do,” they are choosing to give themselves to each other in a lifelong relationship.
The Bible helps us to understand how a husband and wife can be one, yet also be true to the unique person God made each to be.
A husband and wife who depend on God will not be overly dependent on each other, or demand an unhealthy independence or domination.
There was an interdependent relationship between the couple in Proverbs 31. God gave the wife multiple gifts, including good business sense, and her husband apparently was not jealous of her gifts, nor did he deny her their use. He did not try to remake her into something she was not. Instead, we see a relationship built on mutual trust, respect, and admiration.
This kind of interdependence may not come easy. Yet, for those who find their security in the Lord, and for those who are rightly motivated, it is possible.
The Binding Actions of Love
Ultimately, of course, what makes fulfilment in a marriage possible is love—both as a motive and as an action.
In a marriage where the promise is fading, love translated into action can bring the brightness back into the promise.
1 Corinthians 13, the famous chapter about love, highlights the importance of application, and nowhere is this more significant than within the context of marriage. Verses 4–8 tell us what love does: It suffers long and is kind; does not envy; does not parade itself and is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
Consider how these verses apply to your marriage. You can even try this: Where the word “love” appears, put in your name, and ask yourself: Is this how I treat my husband or wife?
People who experience the joy of marriage for 20, 40, or 50 years without one “swallowing up” the other have learned how to work through the differences that lead to disillusionment. They are not merely “married to marriage” for the sake of marriage, but because it is a fulfilling, rewarding, adventurous, loving relationship for both, built on the love of Christ. They have stayed together in part because of a mutual willingness to talk, compromise, and work through their differences in humility and forbearance.
Love takes action and trusts God to fulfil the promise of marriage to couples who are willing to trust Him.
Consider the example of a wife who is a “neat freak” and a husband who is kind of sloppy. This difference can drive them apart if she nags incessantly and he gets a severe case of “selective deafness”, which leads to both withdrawing from each other.
What would love do? It would take action. Facing the problem, love would initiate the kind of communication that would lead to resolution, calling constantly on the help of our all-sufficient God.
But how do we do this? One way is to make a determined effort to look at the issue through the other person’s eyes. See it from that person’s perspective.
In this case, the husband needs to remember his wife’s home life and understand how insecure she feels when things are out of place. And she needs to admit that it’s not a major crime nor a sin to leave a shirt hanging on the back of a chair. Then they both need to change their behaviour in love—love for one another that is an outpouring of the love lavished upon them by the Lord himself.
True, it will be hard. In deeper marital issues, such as rage or emotional abuse, it will seem impossible. But the principles of love are backed by a God who is love (1 John 4:7–8), and by a Saviour who fills us with His power. In some cases, Bible-centered counseling may be necessary.
The point is that love takes action and trusts God to fulfil the promise of marriage to couples who are willing to trust Him. Husbands, wives, let us learn to trust the Lord with our marriage, and to take action spurred on by love.
Extracted and adapted from What Is the Promise of Marriage?, a Discovery Series booklet by RBC Ministries © 2010 Our Daily Bread Ministries, Grand Rapids, MI. Visit discoveryseries.org for more.
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