I occasionally get emails or requests for appointments from people who have Christian backgrounds, but broken marriages. Every couple is different, but generally one spouse will reach out to me (or to the church), asking what they can do to keep their marriage from ending in divorce.
I’ve noticed that generally the kind of people who reach out to random churches in search of help have a Christian background, they know the gospel, but have never given their lives to Christ. Often they were living together before they were married, and strangely enough the marriage ceremony did not some how sanctify their union—it just made the break-up that much more expensive.
So how do I respond when asked “what can I do to save my marriage?” Below is an email I sent to one such husband:
I want you to recognize two things, or the rest of this won’t make any sense. First the gospel is true. Second, your marriage is in disarray as a consequence of your lack of wisdom. Here is what I mean: There is a right way to live, and a wrong way. The right way is to repent from sin, and believe the gospel. Submit to Jesus’ demands for discipleship, bring your life under the authority of God’s word, and try to honor Christ in how you live. There is forgiveness for sins, but that is only through faith—and not the kind of faith that is faked. Rather, the kind of faith that saves is the kind that transforms your life, and causes you stop living for yourself and start living for Jesus.
The second: your marriage is in disarray as a consequence of your lack of wisdom. Stay with me here; I don’t mean this as an I told you so, but as a simple lesson in how the world works, so that you can work on fixing your marriage. You understood that sex before marriage was wrong and an assault on God’s character and the nature of the gospel, but you did it anyway. You also knew that living with your girlfriend apart from marriage was wrong, and that it too was mockery of God’s standard and design for the family…but you did that too. Now don’t delete this yet. I’m not just beating up on you, but I’m going somewhere with this.
The fact that your marriage is now in bad shape PROVES the truth of the gospel. It proves that the way you previously lived was bad. If I sell you what I say are seeds for an orange tree, and you plant them, water them, and care for them, and an avocado tree grows, then I am a liar. But if you plant them, water them, care for them, and then reap oranges, I was telling the truth. In this case, you planted, watered, and cultivated seeds of sin. What grew is destruction in your life. I hope you see that there is truth in the demands that the Bible has laid out for your life, and that when you disregard them, you reap the consequences of sin, which in this case might even end up being divorce.
But this is a two-way street. If you sow righteousness, then you can expect to experience the fruit of the gospel in your life. So, what do you do?
1. Decide if you are going to finally be serious about your relationship with the Lord. Unless you love Christ more than your wife, your life, and this world, then none of my advice on marriage will do anything at all to help you. My help only comes in the context of loving Jesus. If you are unwilling to submit your life to him, and to sacrifice your dreams and goals, and replace then with serving the Lord, then this letter should end here.
2. Confess your sins to the Lord, and ask for forgiveness based simply on the fact that Jesus was sinless, bore your sins on the cross, and offers life to those who believe.
3. Find a church that teaches the Bible, and join it. Ask the pastor for help with your life and marriage.
4. Confess all of your sins to your wife. Let her know how you have failed. Accept full responsibility for your failings, and for causing her to compromise with you.
5. Explain to her that your life is different now because of your love for Jesus. Tell her that you want her to love Christ as well—not in the superficial way, but in a way that transforms her life like it transformed yours.
6. Ask for patience as you start to grow in your understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be a Christian husband.
7. Additionally, make sure she knows that you are not expecting her to believe what you are telling her. The way you have led her in the past has cost you trust, and so it is likely she will rightly be skeptical of you playing the Jesus card, and expecting everything to be different now. The Christian life requires work, and it requires you to learn how to lead her.
Understand that she may not want this to work out. She may be done, and want the marriage to end. If this is the case, there is nothing you can do, except pray and continue to care and provide for your children.
There are no secret recipes here for a happy marriage. There is no trick to winning your wife back. A field sown in sin will produce a harvest of tears. But there is hope that through the gospel your sins may be forgiven. Avail yourself of that, and find your life by losing it. If you do that, and the gospel radically changes your life, then who knows? Perhaps the evidence of a changed life will change your wife’s life as well.
Finally, don’t make the mistake of seeing a relationship with Jesus as the means to an end, if the end is rescuing your marriage. Jesus is not a genie, he does not answer your wish, and does not put Humpty Dumpty back together again. He does offer grace and forgiveness, and together those two elements and show you how to live through trials. Jesus is a means to an end, but the end is giving honor to God, not fixing your marriage. If you believe that, you will turn from sin and love Christ. As Christ becomes your life, you will be amazed at how that changes everything.