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?
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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:
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.
Editor’s note added on June 30, 2014: 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.
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Here are three steps you can take to improve your relationship:
Copyright 2006 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved. Used with permission. For more articles on marriage and family, visit FamilyLife.com.
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Walt and Ann Bealke have been married for a long time, just not to each other. They are now 5 years into their marriage (the third for each of them), and are seeing God redeem their pasts and build a Gospel-centered marriage.
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