From my vantage point, there is probably nothing the church struggles to address more than a wife whose husband has failed. To be fair, I’m not sure we handle it any better, when the shoe is on the other foot. After almost 25 years in the church, I’ve born witness as women have struggled with and for their husbands around issues from pornography to adultery, from mental illness to drug abuse. Many times, in these situations, women (and men) lose their marriages, their faith communities, and sometimes even their faith. The impact of this failure continues into the next generation, where children hurt by the failures of the church, and their parents, build their lives with a hard edge of skepticism and fear toward “church people.”
It is not all bad. My own marriage, and many others, survived difficulties and failures (on both sides) with the help of the church. Men supported my husband, and women spoke difficult truth into my life during hard times. We both walk with more grace and humility because of it. Good teaching, faithful preaching, and humble counsel have born fruit in my life and countless others. The timeless truths of the scriptures have sheltered my heart, our sometimes tenuous connection, and our family through a multitude of storms. At the end of the day, our continued commitment to each other is forged by a humble acknowledgment that Jesus, and His miraculous sustaining power in our lives, has brought us here. There have been times in both of our lives, that we wanted to give up and give in, but He did not let us go.
Trouble seems to be right around the corner, and the more connected you are in the church, the more often you may find yourself with the opportunity to encourage someone in difficult times. Some things I’ve been thinking about…
The sudden crisis is rarely sudden. Marriages and families are built day by day, hour by hour and they often unravel long before they break. That recent separation has a long history. The fresh faced, dewy eyed newlyweds already have baggage. They bring sin with them in their own hearts and tangle it all up in their wedding vows. Marriage is not for the faint of heart. It can be a street fight for truth, respect, humility, and love. Those of us on the sidelines would do well to remember that we don’t really know… what goes on behind the four walls of a home. For all of the “he said, she said,” it is really no one else’s business. These two humans stood before God and their community and pledged their love, respect, and commitment for a lifetime. They alone (and their children) will bear the consequences of their actions. While trouble and marital strife always impact those around them, it is their life, their home, and their family. Not ours.
Forgiveness may not be enough. When people fail, and a marriage begins to sink, often well meaning people offer easy words of truth, without context. Like a bandaid on an amputation, this rarely has the desired effect. Yes, forgiveness is necessary, but often so is actual help. When someone struggling with mental illness puts their children in danger through poor decision making, or addiction’s stranglehold undermines the home financially and emotionally, or a hidden life of pornography and adultery break the bounds of love, the impact is deep and wide. Often, it has taken years to even begin to understand what is happening, because all of these behaviors are covered up by layers of lies. When a marriage implodes, there are rarely easy answers, indisputable victims and villains, or a simple three step formula to put it back together. We must be ready to stand and bear witness to the devastation, weep with those who mourn, comfort those who have lost and are grieving. Much of the work of ministry is not to fix, but to stand for marriage, even in the rubble of brokenness and strife to hold out hope for restoration and reconciliation as people move through their loss and help them look for healing, hope, and restoration in the person of Jesus.
My fear and vulnerability can get in the way. Years ago, a friend told me that every time a couple’s marriage failed, all the marriages around it were shaken. I have found that to be very true. How people in the church handle their own fear and vulnerability, will impact how effectively they minister to those who are hurting. Anger, control, and manipulation are all very human responses to difficulty, but rarely are they avenues to real growth and healing. When I look to the ministry of Jesus, I see love personified, and full of mercy. I Corinthians 13, captures the heart of God as He deals with the lives of His broken children. In the church, we often get caught up in “knowing all mysteries, and all knowledge” and forget to apply the rule of love. Yes, the Bible is clear about God’s attitude toward divorce, and it is also clear about division, dissension, gossip, and angry outbursts. God’s love is poured out to all who are lost, and received by those who will accept it. Although He could, He choses not to control us but asks us to respond to His love and sacrifice freely. We would do well to remember the model He gave us. Love in marriage, like fellowship with the Father, is a voluntary commitment based on mutual love and respect, it is best when it is sacrificial not controlling, freely given not demanded.
As I consider the vulnerability in my own heart, the sin that so easily entangles me, and my own frailty, which I sometimes glimpse in others… I have some thoughts for my sisters…
Tell the truth. So often when I talk to women as their homes and lives unravel, they talk about all the years they spent trying to make it look a certain way. The ways they covered up for him in order to maintain the illusion. They talk about the freedom of no longer controlling “the spin” of their life. They are free to live honestly. It is so sad to me, that we continue to care more about what our lives look like, than what they truly are. I have noticed, that by the time women are ready to speak the truth of their lives, they have often given up hope. My prayer is that we might open our lives to trusted others, who can help us make small (and large) corrections that prevent us from ending in disaster. Our God can use the truth to strengthen and restore relationships, the disciplines of honesty and vulnerability are easier early than they are late.
He is not your enemy. Strong marriages require more than is reasonable. There are seasons, when one or the other partner would rather do anything than keep at it. Sometimes those seasons are long. When we choose to see the person across the dinner table as just another struggler, it helps. We are not enemies, just folks. All of the things that annoy and hurt us are real, few of them are intentional. What I do with my own pain, frustration, irritation, and disillusionment matters, what I do with his matters too. If I could see the wounded, fragile heart across from me through the wall of angry words, broken promises, and shattered dreams I might be willing to do one more hard thing. When I lose sight of that heart, and lose hope for a brighter future, I simply want to end the pain. Keep your eye on his heart, you once promised to love it for ever.
Don’t go it alone. At any point along the way, you can invite the Power of God into your marriage. It only takes one person, fully submitted to God, to change everything. While seeking to change my husband rarely works, asking God to work in me never fails. He shifts my focus from what “they” are doing, to what I am doing. From the inside out, God is able to bring healing, restoration, order, and peace… with or without the help of anyone else. Oh, what God can do with a single heart fully surrendered. I can’t promise He will save your marriage, that requires two willing hearts, but I can promise you will not have to go it alone.
From my vantage point, there are also a couple things I wish my brothers knew…
When women gather. Please don’t fear our friendship and our counsel. Over the years I have struggled in my relationship with men during times like these. You can be confident that when we gather around our friend, we long to push her toward the One whose love and faithfulness is infinite. We pray and work for reconciliation, for healing, and for restored relationships… we enter in to this situation as servants administering God’s grace with both boldness and humility. Our lives are shaped differently, but our goals are the same. We are rightly suited to enter in, and we do, but our ministry looks and feels different than yours.
Dealing with choices. Please don’t judge my ministry by her actions. We may caution, exhort, and confront, but that doesn’t mean she will do what we suggest. My God has created us as with the ability to choose, I will respect His design. Strong emotions often push her to act out in ways that are harmful, we neither condone nor encourage this. We are going to stay there in it with her, trying to help her deal with the consequences. I have often wondered at the sense I get from my brothers in Christ that I should just “make her stay.” It is clear to me, that there is nothing on the planet I can do to “make her stay.” As is true with her husband, she is free to make her own decisions but she is not free of the consequences.
Some perspective. I often hear concern about how I may not know all that is happening. Let’s be clear, I don’t believe I need to know everything that is happening. Yes, I know she may withhold important facts. I am not depending on my understanding of this situation, but I will trust in His. I will pray, seek counsel from His Word, and trust the Spirit of God to help me navigate this. She may manipulate the situation to gain support and comfort. She may use my practical help and emotional encouragement to gain the upper hand. I know. I will continue to stand in the midst of the situation, for as long as she will allow me access to her heart. After that I will continue to
pray. Only time will tell, how she will respond to the ministry God has called me to in her life. Fruit may be evident now, or twenty years from now… I am still called to be faithful here. I have learned to take the long view to these things and to trust God with the outcome.
One of the best things about this season of my life is the chance to see a longer arch of God’s faithfulness. I look around and see His faithfulness in the lives of people who have moved through devastating times, and remember He is able. I have seen both the fruit of restored marriages and new life after divorce. He is committed to people, marriage is His idea, and He intimately knows the lives of the folks around me. I am simply called to join Him for a time of intercession, sharing His Word, and sharing in a part of the path with my sisters and friends. That is enough.