Healthy things grow. Generally speaking; all things being equal; a marriage is rather like a garden: you don’t need to supply the miracle, you just need to stay on top of the weeds. Mistakes happen. Habits form. But in a healthy marriage all such invaders are immediately recognized and removed. As you monitor the health of your marital garden, these 5 weeds should be at the very top of your search and destroy list. These mistakes – if unaddressed – have the capacity to completely destroy an otherwise healthy marriage.
Refusing to forgive
Jesus commanded his disciples to forgive. He said:
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3–4 ESV)
To state the obvious, before you are husband and wife you are brother and sister before the Lord; therefore, forgiveness isn’t optional.
If your brother sins rebuke him; if he repents, forgive him.
That very simple formula, if carefully and sequentially attended to, should ensure that your marriage remains weed free particularly through the early stages when character is being developed and covenant faithfulness is being learned.
Sin should not go unaddressed in a healthy marriage.
If the husband sins, the wife should rebuke him.
If the wife sins, the husband should rebuke her.
If the rebuke does not produce immediate repentance the wronged party should make use of the process outlined in Matthew 18.
Assuming that the process produces repentance there should be an immediate offer of forgiveness. The immediate offer should be followed by a sustained and prayerful effort. Practically speaking this means not continuing to punish the person who did wrong. It means not bringing it up as evidence in subsequent proceedings. It means believing in the other person’s capacity to grow and change.
This isn’t an advanced marital technique, this is just basic Christianity. Directly after the Lord’s Prayer Jesus told his disciples:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14–15 ESV)
Grace and mercy are basic to the nature and substance of our faith. Grace gives us the ability to grow and change; mercy gives us the ability to forgive and to move on. These two forces combined should address most of the weeds that can threaten the life of an otherwise healthy marriage.
There is obviously a relationship between this mistake and the one that precedes it. If you are withholding sex from your spouse that is clear evidence of unforgiveness. It is not just counterproductive, it is also a direct violation of Scripture. The Apostle Paul said:
“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:3–5 ESV)
According to the Apostle Paul, unless you are in the middle of a 3 day prayer retreat you ought to be having regular and generous sex with your covenant partner.
I understand the reason why you might not be.
Disagreements and disputes tend to put a damper on romantic attraction. Resentment and bitterness are intimacy killers.
I get it.
But I also know from over 20 years of working with couples that there is no faster way to destroy whatever love there is left in your marriage than to weaponize sexuality.
Don’t do it.
Sex doesn’t always need to be the climax of a perfect evening, a fight free week or an extended season of wooing. Sex can be given even when it isn’t deserved. That’s grace and it works as well in the bedroom as it does in every other arena of human life. As I’ve written elsewhere:
“Few things are more therapeutic and more restorative than generous sexuality. There is a sense in which you can “sex your way out” of a great many marital troubles.”
Of course there are a few wise (and rare) exceptions to this general rule. I am not talking about situations of abuse or situations where the safety of either of the partners is in jeopardy. I’m talking about run of the mill, everyday marriage. In regular marriage we far too often weaponize sex in an effort to manipulate and control one other.
It doesn’t work.
But sex does.
Sex is restorative. In it you rediscover your essential oneness. In it, you forget the things that drive you apart. In it, you remember how good it is to be together.
Sex is therapy. Be generous in your application.
Maintaining a fantasy
Adultery begins in the heart.
Few things are clearer than that in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27–28 ESV)
Fantasy destroys reality. It creates unrealistic expectations and it plants the seed of discontent within the fertile soil of covenant marriage.
Ruthlessly weed it out.
Pornography has likely ruined more marriages in the last 30 years than all other sins combined. Have nothing to do with it.
Pornography is changing the nature of marital sex. Young people are entering into marriage with an understanding of sex that is far removed from the biblical ideal and far removed from the experience of reality.
People don’t look like that and good sex bears very little resemblance to that.
Good sex is about trust, vulnerability, exploration, mutual service and delight. It is never about taking or hurting or consuming or demeaning.
For the good of your marriage and for the good of your spouse ruthlessly root out all Hollywood implantations with respect to your understanding and expectation of sexuality.
Fantasy can also infect your marital affections. Social Media can allow you to check in on old flames and to maintain friendships that ought to be deprioritized. Nobody is as good as they look on Social Media. We only share flattering pictures and stories that make us look happy, successful and well adjusted. You aren’t missing out and you didn’t make the wrong choice. You probably know that somewhere down deep inside, but the constant check in keeps you from being content with the life and the spouse that you have.
Let it go.
Stop checking in, stop comparing and stop asking the question “what if”?
Fantasy kills reality.
Fantasy is a mistake that can rapidly destroy an otherwise healthy marriage.
Neglecting the means of grace
The Apostle Paul advised against any formal or structural union between two unequal partners. He said:
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14 ESV)
We normally use that passage to discourage young Christians from entering into romantic relationships with unbelievers but unequal yoking can also occur within a covenant marriage. The original principle that the Apostle Paul is referring to here comes from the Old Testament.
“You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.” (Deuteronomy 22:10–11 ESV)
The law seems to be teaching a certain universal principle: for unity to be maintained all conjoined parties must move at the same pace and share the same essential substance.
As in agriculture, as in fashion so in covenant marriage.
If the partners in your marriage are growing at significantly different rates then your relationship is about to develop a very serious problem.
Most Christians believe that sanctification is a two handed work; meaning that God does something and we have to do something in order for us to grow into full maturity in Christ. A saved and Spirit-filled believer still needs to commit to certain actions, associations and disciplines in order to access the sanctifying grace of God. We usually refer to these things as “the ordinary means”. To the extent that we apply ourselves to these things, we tend to grow and change.
But what if one partner in the marriage is more faithful in attending to the ordinary means than the other?
If one person is rising up early to read their Bible and to commune with God in prayer, and if he or she is faithful in attending corporate worship and sits regularly under the preaching of the Word and has deeply embedded him or herself in relationships of accountability and encouragement and the other person is doing none of those things, then whether you intended to or not you have begun to undermine the health of your covenant union.
If you want to stay together then you have to grow together, therefore spiritual laziness is a serious mistake that unaddressed could eventually destroy your marriage.
Worshipping the kids
Idolatry is when we treat a good thing as if it is a God-thing. Idolatry is about putting things in the centre that ought to be kept at the margins.
As grandma used to say “A place for everything and everything in its place”.
Kids are wonderful. They are a gift from God. Each and every one of them is precious – and yet – it is possible and even common for married couples to esteem them too highly. In a rightly ordered marriage Christ will be in the centre, the marital relationship will be in second place and the children will come in third. Far from disheartening the children, this will actually give them a greater sense of security within the family.
The best gift you can give to your children is a strong and healthy marriage.
If children know that mom and dad love Jesus and mom and dad love each other then they will sleep better at night in their properly ordered universe. Putting kids in the centre is not just idolatry, it is ultimately self-defeating. It hurts the marriage and it hurts the kids. When we treat children like gods they inevitably turn into demons.
Don’t do it.
Help children find their place.
Put a lock on your door and place a guard around your schedule.
Certain times in that calendar should be sacred and every child should discover their inability to force themselves into events and commitments from which they are appropriately excluded.
Wise couples will occasionally outsource Johnny and Susy to Camp Grandma. Like Solomon and his bride they will seek out a quiet place in which to explore and refresh their marital love.
“O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.” (Song 2:14–15 ESV)
Every so often a husband and wife need a weekend away from their little foxes. They need to take hold of their distractions and fence them safely away so that they can attend to the vineyard of their love and desire for each other.
Johnny and Susy will be fine.
It will be good for them to be excluded.
It will remind them that they are not the centre.
It will comfort them to know that mommy and daddy are ok – maybe even a bit too ok.
It might gross them out if they think about it too much, but thankfully, they probably won’t. They’ll be having too much fun at Camp Grandma.
Your marriage is a gift. God gave it to you because he loves you and he knew that you would need it. So steward it well and weed it often.
And renew as needed.
Your garden will thank you – and eventually so will your little foxes.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.