Pastoring a strained marriage needs much patience and wisdom from God. As a pastor are you ready & willing to walk the rocky road with a struggling couple?
Pastoring Strained Marriages
Marriage is not primarily about us, that becomes idolatry. It’s about God.
Even when you know that you have to do a lot of peeling of the onion to try and get to the bottom of things, it’s important to recognize that at this stage, there is a crisis. And like a good doctor who is able a differentiate between symptoms and a diagnosis, you don’t overlook the symptoms. At least say something, give counsel for the immediate situation.
Topics & Timestamps
00:00 – Pastroring strained marriages
03:44 – Reasons for an unhappy marriage
15:43 – For better or worse
22:16 – Sinfulness in marriage
28:07 – How to pastor strained marriages
31:21 – God in the home
35:14 – Submission & headship
42:22 – The problem-solving mechanism
47:10 – Hope for healing in marriages
Top Quotes: Pastoring Strained Marriages
“In the original definition of marriage there actually is no exit door, not even death because marriage was given to us prior to the fall.”
“Marriage is not primarily about us, that becomes idolatry. It’s about God.”
“Ultimately it is where there is a stubborn sinfulness that a difficult situation in marriage becomes hopeless”
Other Content On This Topic
Text: Matthew 19:3 – 10
Date preached: 7 January 2020
Location: Grace Ministers Conference, Johannesburg, South Africa
Pastoring Strained Marriages
Do turn with me once again to Matthew 19, Matthew 19. While you’re turning there, let me again, just remind us of the ground that we covered yesterday. We were looking at preaching biblical marriage in a secular age. And basically, what we saw there is that there is a contrast or a tension that we need to face because the age in which we live has its many and varied views concerning marriage. And yet in the Christian Church, we don’t have that luxury. We can’t be like a chameleon that is constantly changing colours depending on the environment in which we are.
We noted that from the example of our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 19, that we have the user’s or operator’s or manufacturer’s manual depending on what you want to call it, which is the good old book, the Bible. And we ought to keep going back to it in order for us to teach concerning marriage. We also emphasised the need for us to define marriage as it came off the factory line – so that we are not beginning to modify it to suit our fallenness. That’s what the Lord Jesus Christ did as he was confronted with the views in his own day especially with respect to divorce, and that’s what we also need to do today.As we are instructing concerning marriage we ought to go back to marriage before the fall. Yes, there’s the reality of sin in the world and largely that is what will occupy us in this particular session.
Now today, we are looking at the subject of pastoring strained marriages in the Church. And if you are a pastor in here today, and this is not where you spend most of your time, then I want to make a very serious proposition that we swap pastorates. Because that’s where I spend most of my time. It’s where a lot of supportive counselling has to take place. Where you have to break a lot of unyielding wrong attitudes over a length of time; through God’s word and through the work of the Holy Spirit. And we’ll tend to find that our greatest joy is often when situations that looked completely hopeless become situations of marriages that are healed, and restored, and rejoicing in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Reasons For An Unhappy Marriage
Well, let’s quickly look at this, and we will do so by starting where we left off yesterday. So back to Matthew 19, and we will read Matthew 19:3-10 this time. The bible says, “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and he said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh?’ So, they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of the man and his wife, it is better not to marry.”
The question that was asked of our Lord in Matthew 19:3, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ Is really betraying behind it something that is terribly ugly. And it is the fact that, a relationship that would have begun with the words, ‘I love you’ should soon betray a heart, if not actual lips saying the words, “I hate you. I’m sick and tired of living with you. If I could make time go backwards, I would not have married you.”
A joke was once cracked about an individual who was always found watching his wedding video in reverse. And when he was asked why he said, he just finds it so refreshing to see himself walking out of his marriage. Of course, it’s a joke, but it does betray how so many individuals feel. That they are just trapped in this thing. And if there was a way out, they would gladly use it. So, the debate that was the between individuals, Pharisees in the Shammai or the Hillel schools of thought or philosophy, they were not just philosophical debates. They represented heartache and pain. They represented strained relationships, strained marriages. And this can be for many, many causes. I just want to list a few here and my list is in no way exhaustive. One major cause for a strained marriage relationship is that of sexual sin. It may be but a one case of adultery or it can be persistent sexual misconduct.
Or sometimes, it is due to an abusive spouse. The abuse may be physical – in which case individuals can show from what has happened to their bodies that they have been violently related to. But sometimes, it can be verbal abuse – words that cut and burn. You cannot see it in terms of a person’s physical body changing, but on the inside a person has been run over by a truckload of words. Or, sometimes, it is because of marital neglect. It could be because a person has been so carried away with their work, or business that they have overlooked the fact that there is a spouse to be loved, to be cherished, to be nourished. It may be a blind spot but sometimes, it is deliberate. It is an individual who has decided that I’m not going to as it were beat my wife or spouse out of the home but I’m going to pretend that they are not there. And so, although they are together in the home, the one party is as good as absent. Or, it could be major areas of incompatibility. Again, this is an area that is real but nonetheless it is not something that immediately suggests that a marriage should come to an end. It does cause a lot of strain. Another possible area is that of financial mismanagement. One party is frugal in the way in which they handle money, another one is, let’s use a good term, let’s call it generous but often, it is careless in the use of finances. And sometimes it can be gross financial mismanagement that can even be so stubborn as to threaten a family economics to run aground altogether. Sometimes it’s chronic deceitfulness particularly by one spouse making the other reach a point where they cannot trust the words of a spouse. White is not always white in fact, often it is black. A person who cannot simply say the truth.
I recall a young man who in fact in their case it wasn’t even marriage it was in courtship, who ended the courtship relationship primarily on this score. He said that, “I will be with my girlfriend and she gets a call on her cell phone and with a straight face, is saying, ‘I’m here’ when I know that’s not where she is, we are somewhere else.” And trying to help the person see the sanctity of truth never helped. Until trust will so disfigured, marred and broken that the young man just said, “No. I cannot proceed into marriage.” Another area is that of having or not having children, wanting or not wanting children in the marriage. That itself can be a real source of strain in the marriage relationship. Let’s quickly add to this, persistent alcohol and drug abuse – that again becomes a real source of other problems in the marriage relationship. We could go on; the list is endless. I’m just trying to paint a few to enable us to see the variety of situations that we often have to deal with in the marriages that are in the church in the context of our society. I want to add in our society because a lot of the marriage issues that I deal with are not related to our own church members, it’s outsiders.
Since the year 2005 I’ve been running a weekly column in a national newspaper, and its entitled, ‘Your Family Matters.’ You can well understand the amount of correspondence that comes out of that. Thankfully, I have a team of other pastors that I send all these emails to so that they could put in their wisdom in dealing with these issues. But also, for a number of years I’ve been running a radio program, and that in itself again, brings so many individuals asking for help and those who are in the neighbourhood, those who are in the city I often would sit down with them for a while, for a number of sessions and then pass them on to others to help. So, when I speak about all these situations, they’re not only situations you will meet with in the context of your immediate church, you will find that there are so much part of the environment in which we are. However, with respect to the topic at hand, we’re talking about pastoring strained marriages in the church and assuming therefore we are dealing with believers there.
For Better Or Worse
What is our Lord saying here that gives us a good starting point? Well, first of all, it is the fact that in the original definition of marriage, as we saw at the end of the session yesterday, there actually is no exit door not even death, remember because marriage was given to us prior to the fall. It is permanent. You walk in freely, and the door bangs closed behind you, that’s it. The two as we saw yesterday, they do not simply live together. They are no longer two, but one flesh. The Lord said in Matthew 19:5, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast, cleave onto his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” So, there are no longer two, but one. We spoke about the fact that it is God who has joined them. “…what therefore God has joined together, let no separate.” And we said not even themselves. Well, we also saw that due to the coming of sin and death into the world, we have added the phrase, ‘For better or for worse and until death, parts us.’
In the original definition of marriage there actually is no exit door, not even death because marriage was given to us prior to the fall.
Again, so many jokes about weddings and marriages. One of them being a wedding rehearsal and as the pastor said, okay, for better or for worse, the groom said, “Pastor, let’s skip that worse part, shall we?” Well, the truth of the matter is it’s part of the package. It’s two sinners coming together, not two angels. There will be the ‘worse’ part – it ought to be added to the vows because it’s the reality on earth. There will be difficulties and the difficulties will not just be difficult circumstances from the outside in, there will be difficulties that are between the two individuals, strained relationships. We notice later that the Lord Jesus Christ gives one exception as a kind of door, and that is something he calls sexual immorality. Paul later on in 1 Corinthians 7 gives the abandonment of a non-believing wife. But my interest is the spirit in which Jesus spoke. Because even when he gave this door, this exit door, listen to the way his disciples understood him. We saw that from our brother Tim Cantrell he referred to it. When they said in Matthew 19:10, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” They were not saying that, “Wow, thanks Lord, we now have a door. Hurray! We can jump out.” They were shaking their heads and saying, “No, no no, this is not good news. You are clearly suggesting that when we get in there, we are stuck.”
These are men who realized that strained relationships will be a reality in marriage. That there will be those seasons when marriage is tough, when individuals will entertain the thought of singleness oncw again. And that’s where this pastoring comes in – this big responsibility that we have in the context of the Christian Church. We must help our members to see that what we are dealing with in strained relationships is essentially a matter of the heart, the condition of your hearts. This is what Jesus said here when the Pharisees came in quickly, in Matthew 19:7, “…And said to him, why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and send her away?” If you are saying that marriage is permanent, aren’t you contradicting Moses? Well, Jesus’ response was this Matthew 29:8, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” Because of your hardness of heart. In other words, sin is ugly, sin hardens human hearts. It hardens wrong attitudes. And in the end, it makes marriage impossible. Hence the allowance that Moses gave.
Sinfulness In Marriage
Now, wherever a marriage is continuously strained, it is due to one or both parties being stubbornly sinful. Take that as a maxim. Wherever a marriage is continuously strained, you can be sure that either one or both parties are stubbornly sinful. Because even where there is a case of adultery, where the guilty party is genuinely repentant, the innocent party who is walking with the Lord will want to forgive. Because that child of God knows, that he or she has sinned against the Lord more times and in worse situations in the eyes of God, and the Lord has forgiven. And in the midst of the struggle, that child of God, in the presence of God, will say, “I forgive you. May God help to heal my heart.” And also, where God’s children are in a healthy relationship with him, they view those tough situations in marriage as a means of grace. And I will come to deal with that again as we proceed. In other words, the first instinct is not to opt out, to run away. It is to say, “Lord, what are you teaching me? What’s this university that I’m having to go through? Lord gives me grace to handle this.” In fact, sometimes, the so-called innocent party realizes that, “I also need to be forgiven. That I have caused what has happened in the marriage. I have driven in my friend, my partner, my spouse to the point where their back is against the wall, and therefore they have reacted. They have acted wrongly, yes. But they have reacted to something I have done. I also need to be forgiven.” So, you soon realize that what you are dealing with ultimately is the condition of the heart. Hence the words of Jesus here, because of your hardness of heart.
Usually, when you get a phone call, asking you to come over, because there’s a situation in the marriage, you soon realize when you get there, and you listen to the first account that all you’re beginning to do is the process of peeling an onion. Because when you now turn to the offender and say, “Okay, so you know, how do you explain this?” And they begin to explain, you realize, “Uh-oh, we have to get back to this person again.” So again, you come to the first complainant and you say, “Okay, so why did you do that?” And when the first complainant finishes their side of the story, you realize, “Uh-oh, I need to get back to this person. In other words, what you begin to realize is that layers upon layers of tit for tat unresolved issues were allowed to accumulate it. What you were called to deal with was actually the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much that was allowed to go wrong in a very irresponsible way often because of the ‘I’ in the middle of the word sin. That’s selfishness, that self-centredness, that I don’t care attitude is what has brought this marriage to where they are. And that’s very sad. It’s very sad because often when you are called in, the marriage is at the cliff edge already. To begin pulling them back, to allow that safe space is what demands the best from the best of men. In other words, it will take you to your limit in dealing with them.
How To Pastor Strained Marriages
What should you do in pastoring strained relationships? I think first of all, it is to simply learn to give those strained marriages your time, a lot of time because there will be a lot of listening that you have to do. Don’t go in there with your panacea that heals all marriages. So that as soon as they open their mouths, you’re saying, “I know it all, here’s the answer.” You have to learn to give time. But having listened, the next is to realize that the very reason why you were called in was because, there is a present crisis. So, even when you know that you have to do a lot of peeling of the onion to try and get to the bottom of things, it’s important to recognize that at this stage, there is a crisis. And like a good doctor who is able a differentiate between symptoms and a diagnosis, you don’t overlook the symptoms. At least say something, give counsel for the immediate situation, the immediate situation. Having done that, and here is the ultimate point, it is crucial for you as a pastor to insist on what I’m calling here a structural overview. Remember, as you are peeling that onion, what’s happening is that your mind like a good physician of souls is looking out for the real diagnosis. What are that structural weaknesses that have finally brought this about? That’s what you’re listening for. And that’s what you ultimately want to deal with. And I want to suggest three important areas that God has provided us with which once they are in place, two sinners can have a heaven on earth in their marriage.
God In The Home
The best way to look at them is to go to the famous Ephesians 5 passage. So, let’s quickly go there, Ephesians 5. Number one, I call it, God in the home. God in the home. In other words, you want to listen to whether the couple, man and wife are God-centred, Christ-centred. Whether religion in terms of the outworking of the Christian faith is central in that relationship. Because it is not an optional extra. Marriage is not primarily about us, that becomes idolatry- It’s about God. You notice in the passage before us, Ephesians 5, we could begin earlier, but I want to begin with Ephesians 5:21, “… submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” So, this is not a mere mechanism to be used in order to know that, rather to realize a happy marriage. It is first and foremost about your relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ, your submission to the Lord Jesus Christ, you’re ensuring that you are running your marriage and your home in a God- centred way.
Marriage is not primarily about us, that becomes idolatry. It’s about God.
As we said earlier on, are you reading the Bible together? Are you praying together? Are you attending the means of grace together? Are you responding to God in a way that in fact honours God in the realities of your marriage? That’s the first foundational block. And where you find that that’s been thrown out in a corner, and usually that’s the case. You say to a couple, “We need to work at ensuring this comes back in centre stage. There will have to be quite a bit of repentance on this. Because you thought you could manage pretty well without God. He has now shown you you can’t. So, let’s put this back into place. Out of reference for Christ.” And this manifests itself right through the rest of the parts of Scripture in terms of not just husband and wife, but also in terms of children and parents, and also in terms of bond servants and masters. You read through all of these and again and again, you find that the centre block as it were is Christ, Christ, Christ in all these relationships. And we should ensure that in pastoring and counselling strained marriages, we make them see that they need to get back to this.
Submission & Headship
Number two is that of headship and submission, headship and submission. We find it again in this passage of scripture.” Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …” That’s the second, it is where you are insisting that God provided a structure for marriage. As I said yesterday, it is not a two headed beast or monster. It is not to be lived by the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest. Whoever has the strongest personality then gets away with things. One of the little tests I often use when I’m dealing with counselling marriages in trouble is; At the very beginning of my next visit, I say to the husband or wife doesn’t matter where I start, if it’s a wife I say to her, “Can you say from the depths of your heart that your husband really, really loves you?” Then I say this, “If you give an answer, and then you say but, and then add whatever comes after the but. What comes after the but becomes your husband’s responsibility. That’s his homework until out next meeting.” But I also turn to the husband and I say, “Can you say from the depth of your heart that your wife supports and submits to your leadership in the home?” And often, there will be yes, ‘but’ and then some details and I say, “Those extra details after the but that’s the homework for your wife, until next our meeting. So, let’s discuss what came after the ‘buts’ because this is the structure.” We cannot form marriage in any other way.
And it’s interesting that the person who was teaching this that is the Apostle Paul was himself not a married man. Or some people think he may have been married earlier but, you know, those are now just people conjecturing. But the bottom line is, he was an inspired Apostle It’s not just here, but also in the book of Colossians, that this issue of the divine structure in the marriage relationship is taught by him in very clear terms. Wives, submit, husbands, love. And again, you will find that in strained relationships, either one of the two parties is in a state of criminal negligence of their part here. Or it’s both of them. And usually, in fact I would say always, it is the same thing Jesus spoke about, the hardness of your hearts. For the man, it is often, “Yeah but she must obey me, and obey me, and obey me.” And when you say, “But, are you showing her that you cherish her? Are you deliberately nourishing her? What an expression of hardness of heart. You wooed her into this relationship; You didn’t go to her with a pistol in your hand saying, ‘Come on, move in there, move in there. You’re going to serve me for the rest of your life.’ No, in fact like we often see on social media these days, I think perhaps for our western cultures that might be possible. I often joke with fellow Africans that is just putting up a show. You know, the man is even kneeling down and is saying, “Will you marry me?” And then she said yes jumping into the air. Well in the African context, you go to do it at her parents’ home. That’s where it all happens. That’s where finally you get a yes and you can jump out of that place jumping into the air. And say, “They said yes.”
But the point nonetheless is, you humbled yourself, you had a wooing attitude. And that must remain so. In fact, it ought to grow. Your wife should want to live with you because of your love. But you find the same hardness of heart with respect to the wife. Which is also putting in so many conditions, “Before I can support his leader, I can submit to his leadership…” And again, you have to say it to the woman, “Come on, your husband has an ego. How does he lead you conditionally? And the condition is that he is submitting to you. How?” So, it’s this hardness of heart that destroys the structure that God has provided.
The Problem-Solving Mechanism
But thirdly, and lastly, again, this is just the structure that needs to be put in place as we are dealing with the symptoms, the issues that are coming up. It is the problem-solving mechanism, the problem-solving mechanism. Jesus with respect to his Church has provided instruction, regular instruction in order to ensure that the church is healthy, that the church’s submission to him is one that grows out of the heart in due season. In other words, sanctification is provided for. There is a deliberate effort for to learn, but part of that learning also becomes dealing with stubborn sin, addressing it. So, the Christian Church for instance, doesn’t just learn principles. Where there is true and faithful preaching, there is also actual application to those areas where things that are wrong are being addressed. I’m sure we all know that.
The picture that we have here is exactly that. We see it in terms of the submission to Christ. But we also see it in terms of, “… that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” In other words, there is a deliberate way in which Jesus is reforming his Church. Dealing with the wrinkles, dealing with the spots, dealing with the blemishes, and hence the church becomes better. Marriages should be like that as well. Often these layers upon layers of tit for tat issues are because of a failure in that marriage, for especially the head of the home, to say, “Let’s sit down. Let’s talk about this with an open Bible. I am not the primary authority, Jesus is. His word must guide us. Let’s talk about this. Where I’m wrong, I will ask for forgiveness, I will repent and I hope you will do the same where this word shows that you are wrong. Let’s talk about it.”
Ultimately it is where there is a stubborn sinfulness that a difficult situation in marriage becomes hopeless
You often find and it causes me to shake my head and I need to rush on to close here in a moment. That when you said to a couple and they’re going through all these things, and you ask them, “Okay, when did you last sit down and say let’s talk about this, let’s deal with this?” They can’t remember. All that’s been happening are people who are at adults throwing up tantrums as if they are toddlers. No, so you start saying to them, “Okay, we’re going to have to learn how to deal with this. So, between now and my next visit, here is an issue that we’ve clearly noticed. I want the two of you to sit together with an open Bible and discuss. When I come back, I want to hear how you proceeded.” Because it’s something they just have to learn. These are two sinners, they are not unblemished, they are not unspotted, they are not smooth. They have to be dealing with these matters.
Hope For Healing In Marriages
Well brethren, let me hurry on to close. But I wanted us to see that there will be the crisis that must be dealt with but then we realize that dealing with the crisis alone is insufficient. We need to help them to establish the foundational, structural issues so that even without you, they will learn to deal with issues better over time. Ultimately, it is where there is the stubborn sinfulness that the situation becomes hopeless. One or two words as I close this session: First of all, In the midst of the counselling, this is what we are trying to say to them back to Matthew 19, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” And then we’re trying to say this to them, “… but from the beginning it was not so.” That’s what we’re trying to say to them. We’re trying to say to them, you are supposed to be Christians. Christ came to save, to redeem, to change darkness to light. In other words, that which was achievable before the fall is our target. So, aim for that situation that Jesus speaks about when he says it was not so in the beginning.
And then secondly, we are seeking to say to them that trials come to make us strong. Often when we run away from trials, we’re just postponing the trials. We will land in another trial maybe even worse. So, as James says, consider it all joy when trials of various kinds come into your life, this may be one of them. So, it’s going to teach you to be on your knees, to bruise your knees. It’s going to teach you to be pleading to God for grace. Because you know that without his grace, you cannot do it. It’s going to teach you to trust in him. That’s the second message we give to them. One thing we should definitely not give to them is the message if you are unhappy, then quit it. That’s what the world says, that’s a secular world. That’s not our message, because as we learnt in the last session, there is a bigger picture with such complexity that we cannot ultimately just reduce it to two or three things. And therefore, we need to learn to leave God people with God. That God may continue dealing with them.
Sadly, there will be those days when although we don’t want to encourage divorce, we must finally admit that all we could do we have done. And we cannot stand in the way any longer of that member who says I’m heading in that route. Because of the stubbornness of his or her spouse in sin. But at least by that point, we should be able to say honestly, we did the best we could to pastor that strained marriage in Christ. Let’s pray.
Our father in heaven, all of us who are here, we recognize that we’ve also been there. Not only as those who are pastoring others but in our own marriages. When we have looked around us for a door. Thank you for your grace that has helped many of us in this room to work through issues. Some of us have had to call in others to help us. And where we have been successful, and we’ve got a stronger marriage, where ourselves can say, thank you Lord. Thank you for the blood of Christ, thank you for the work of this Spirit in our hearts. Thank you for your word that has guided us as a light in the darkness. Thank you. And thank you Lord that we have been able to turn around and see so many hurting marriages in our own congregations. And we have said there go I, but for the grace of God. Thank you for the victories that we have scored as we have seen marriage that at one time were tutoring towards the divorced courts and they have made the U-turn. And now there might even be marriage counsellors in our own churches, thank you. We don’t deserve those victories. They are trophies of grace. And yet lord, we also are mindful even as we’ve heard this morning’s message, phase upon phase of current strained marriages. We pray that some wisdom picked from this message, might make us better stewards of your people, better physicians of souls and of marriages. That Lord we may see better fruit as a result of our own ministries. Thank you that a number of us belong to elders who have different giftings. And some of them are better marriage counsellors than ourselves. Lord, we thank you that you enable us to work in such teams. Thank you, Lord, thank you Lord. Help us to spend and be spent in bringing about Godly marriages, happy marriages that stand as a contrast to the world in which we are where so many marriages are ending before death sets them apart. Father help us, we pray. In Jesus’ name, Amen.