Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Dave Harvey's book, When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage, (Shepherd Press, 2007).
All too often, marriage problems are blamed on issues like personality clashes, communication failures, schedule stresses, or money woes. But while many issues are symptoms of a troubled marriage, there is only one root cause – sin. Once you face the reality of your own sin and your spouse’s sin, you can find hope in the Gospel’s power to transform your marriage.
Here’s how you can overcome sin in your marriage:
Pay attention to your theology. Understand that what you believe about God determines the quality of your marriage. Realize that your theology governs how you think, what you say, and how you act. Recognize that it’s sin that is ultimately causing problems in your marriage (and every other relationship you have). Know that the Gospel is the only remedy for sin, and your only true hope for change in your marriage.
Adjust your expectations. Realize that some of the expectations you and your spouse have for each other (and the underlying perspectives from which those expectations emerge) are not biblical. Ask God to align your view of reality with His perspective so you can adjust your expectations to what is right to expect.
Fight the battle within. Instead of blaming God or your spouse for the problems in your marriage, recognize and acknowledge that the sin inside you is causing much of the trouble. Take responsibility for your own desires that are at war within you, and pray for the grace to choose faithfulness over selfishness when facing decisions. Know that, although your spouse sins as well, your real opponent is not on the opposite side of the bed, but in your own heart. But remember that, in Christ, you’re forgiven, and you can always count on God to give you the power to overcome sin. Pray for fresh power each day to confess sin, love your spouse, forgive your spouse, and restore your relationship.
Pursue humility. Be suspicious of any claims to righteousness that you think you can bring to your relationship with God. Realize that it’s only through Christ’s work on the cross that you can enjoy a right relationship with God. Guard against self-righteousness and embrace humility.
Pursue integrity. Consider your own sin before your spouse’s sin, rather than automatically placing blame on your spouse. Inspect the accuracy of your perceptions about your spouse and issues in your marriage, realizing that you could be wrong. Ask God to correct your perspective so you can see a more complete picture of what’s going on in various situations. Check your motives, honestly asking yourself whether or not you’re intending to serve your spouse or yourself by speaking or acting in certain ways.
Don’t play the blame game. Understand that it’s common to notice more sin in yourself when you’re married than when you’re single – but that’s not your spouse’s fault. Realize that the experience of living with someone in an intimate relationship naturally brings your sin to the surface as you’re dealing with the realities of learning to work together.
Focus on undeserved grace, not unmet needs. Instead of dwelling on what needs your spouse isn’t meeting for you and letting resentment poison your marriage, remember that neither one of you deserve God’s grace, yet He has chosen to freely give it to you anyway. Ask God to help you freely extend grace to your spouse, no matter what the current circumstances of your marriage. Rather than trying to manipulate your spouse to meet your needs, try to be a blessing to your spouse, trusting that your love will change the dynamics of your marriage.
Pass along mercy to your spouse. Thank God for the mercy He has given you, and decide to obey His call to pass mercy along to your spouse. Ask God to help you see your spouse as God sees him or her – through the eyes of mercy. Recognize that every married couple has profound differences, but that mercy makes it possible to work together despite those differences instead of giving up on the relationship. Pray for the mercy you need to move beyond arguing over your own concerns and trying to win battles, to representing Christ well in your marriage and loving your spouse steadfastly. Ask God to help you be kind to and patient with your spouse no matter what. Resist acting as prosecuting attorney against your spouse. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. When you’re not in conflict, ask your spouse: “What behavior of mine expresses anger or a lack of love for you?” Then take your spouse’s answer and try to do the opposite when you feel sinned against. When sin patterns are causing persistent problems in your marriage, seek help from trusted friends, your pastor, or a counselor. Choose to overlook some of your spouse’s offenses and wipe the slate clean between you. Sympathize with your spouse’s weaknesses and remember how much you need God’s mercy because of your own weaknesses.
Forgive. Realize that the greatest agent for change in your marriage is forgiveness. Understand that, just as God has forgiven you, He expects you to be willing to forgive others. Know that you can count on God to help you forgive your spouse, no matter what. Recognize that all sin against you is also against God, and the gospel of Christ’s forgiveness encompasses your spouse’s sin as well as your own. Rely on God’s power to repent of your own sins, forgive your spouse for his or her sins, and pursue restoration in your marriage.
Confront your spouse wisely, and allow your spouse to confront you. Ask God to give you the wisdom you need to confront your spouse lovingly about sin, and give your spouse permission to do the same with you. Before confronting your spouse, ask yourself if your observations are based on patterns of sinful behavior, or just a single incident. When discussing your concerns, focus on just a one issue at a time. Don’t overwhelm your spouse with information or punish him or her with condemnation; be gentle. Humbly offer observations instead of assumptions or conclusions. Make it your goal to promote God’s truth rather than just your own preferences. Remember that a confrontation isn’t designed to dump your anxieties, secure confessions from your spouse, indulge fears, or punish your spouse. Use confrontations only to encourage your spouse toward God and entrust your spouse to God. Keep in mind that repentance and change takes time. Stay committed to helping your spouse grow over time.
Let grace take you where God wants you to be. Invite God to meet you right where you are and give you the grace you need to take you – and your marriage – to where He wants it to be. Ask God to show you specific areas of sin and empower you to renounce them and grow beyond them. Be patient as grace does its work in you, knowing that transforming your character at deep levels often takes time. Encourage your spouse in God’s grace by reminding your spouse to trust in God’s power for change rather than his or her own efforts. Remind your spouse that God is at work in your lives even when you all don’t notice it. Celebrate the growth you can see, and take specific action steps toward change as God guides you. Remember that everything you do in this temporary world is training for the permanent world yet to come; keep the ultimate goal of heaven in mind. Point your spouse to God, who gives grace, rather than just the grace itself. Pursue the Giver instead of the gift.
Enjoy a healthy sex life. Talk openly about temptation. Figure out where your spouse might face temptation for physical and emotional intimacy outside your marriage, and let your spouse know what temptation you face. Once you know each other’s vulnerabilities, help each other battle them. Discuss each other’s expectations for how often you should have sex. Set a common goal for frequency that respects each other’s desires. Then work together to change your schedules and environment to help you both achieve that goal. Don’t use sex as a bargaining tool to get what you want, or withdraw to punish your spouse. Stay committed to each other’s pleasure. Be specific with each other about what enhances or inhibits your sexual pleasure. Educate each other so you can enjoy your time together more. Don’t let laziness rob you of an exciting sex life; keep coming up with creative ideas for romance together. Realize that no problem in your sex life is beyond God’s reach; believe that He can and will answer your prayers to help solve problems. Get rid of bitterness by regularly forgiving each other so you can remain close. Woo each other as you did before you were married, so you won’t take each other for granted and will be able to continue to enjoy each other.
Look forward to heaven together. Know that, if you’re both connected to Christ, you and your spouse can look forward to the ultimate wedding feast in heaven, celebrating your union with Him. Remember that the sin and struggles you experience in our fallen world are nothing compared to the joy you’ll experience when you get to heaven.
Adapted from When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage, copyright 2007 by Dave Harvey. Published by Shepherd Press, Wapwallopen, Pa., www.shepherdpress.com.
Dave Harvey is senior pastor of Covenant Fellowship Church (Glen Mills, Pa.), part of a family of churches called Sovereign Grace Ministries. He received his Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Care from Westminster Theological Seminary. Dave lives in West Chester, Pa., with his wife, Kimm, their four children, and (despite his many protests) one stray cat.