TGC Q&A: How Do I Honor God When Marriage Gets Tough?

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Josh Squires: Hi, you’re listening to TGC Q&A, a podcast from The Gospel Coalition. This is the biblical counseling series, featuring hopeful answers to your questions on navigating fear, anxiety, ministry, marriage, and everything in-between. My name is Josh Squires and I’m the minister of counseling for First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Today I’ll be answering some important questions receive from you on marriage and family. We received a number of questions. Some of those are: How should I support, encourage, and submit to my husband who isn’t taking a spiritual leadership role? How should I approach my spouse who is often apathetic? What is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in marriages today? What is the hope and encouragement for married couples?

Okay, first I think I’d want to say that these are relatively common questions. I get these pretty frequently that women tend to be more spiritual or spiritually sensitive than men, but it certainly seems to be at least a time-bound truth in that for as long as I’ve been in ministry, that’s been true, so women are oftentimes trying to get their husbands to engage in the spiritual leadership role and what that looks like. What might be helpful for us to talk about, maybe: What is functionality? What does functional look like? Then maybe we can talk a little bit about what we do when we’re not functional when we’re not reaching that ideal, knowing that all of us don’t reach that ideal, all of us fall down in word and thought indeed every single day and need God’s grace to make it through.

The ideal of a complementary marriage, where you have a leader and then you have someone supporting that leader, when I do premarital counseling, I often tell people, because this is a big issue and people hate the word “submission.” There’s a sense in which our hackles get up when we hear that word: What does that mean? A fear, sometimes a right fear, that in hearing that word, that means a loss of personhood, a loss of voice, a loss of value. What happens if I have to submit to something that’s immoral or wrong?

To try and allay some of those fears, the picture I paint is that of servant leader and sacrificial submission, right, so that the servant leader, the husband, is always trying to lead in such a way, not that his own desires are always being met, but that his wife, his bride, his family are more and more seeing Jesus because marriage should be about sanctification more than it is our own individual satisfaction.

It also isn’t aligned with what Christ says when he says “The son of man came to serve and not to be served.” If Jesus Christ is our leadership model, then we as leaders as under-shepherds, not even the shepherd, but under-shepherds, trying to be like the shepherd should, like him, try to come and be those who serve rather than those who would be served. In our leadership, we’re always trying to be those who serve our family and serve our wives. I also think that that’s exactly what Paul’s trying to hint at in Ephesians 5 when he talks about us doing what we should, that our wives might then through Christ be sanctified, that she might be brought before him holy. Leadership in that sense isn’t about “Hey, this is my desire and I want you to go and execute it right now.” It’s not like a militaristic way of leadership.

On the opposite side, then, it’s the sacrificial submission, it’s submitting to the desires of your husband and at times, when even it’s very difficult, at times when it requires sacrifice. The husband thinks we should go to the left and has a reason righteously that he thinks we should go to the left and you might think that it’s better to go to the right and you might be correct that going to the right is better, but that you’re going to submit to that leadership sacrificially, knowing that it might be painful, it might hurt, it might be the wrong thing, not immorally wrong, just not the ideal, and that what you’re doing in that submission is you are, again, manifesting something of the character of Christ to your husband and to the world around when you do that.

The other thing I tell my husbands is the more you’re willing to be a servant leader, you are leading so that your wife can see your leadership is meant to build her up, the more able she is to submit in a way that feels trusting, that that never feels great, right? It never feels great to be a servant leader and it never feels great to be a sacrificial submitter, but if you’re doing those two things well together, it’s this weird thing where through mutual dissatisfaction, you’re both well-satisfied, right? You’re both built up and you both feel okay, and that you’re both sacrificing for one another. That’s the ideal of how I would want a marriage to look, but again, oftentimes it doesn’t look that way and maybe it doesn’t look that way in an instance, or maybe it doesn’t look like that overall, like the whole climate of the marriage isn’t that way. Then that brings hardship itself.

What do you do when you are in a marriage where you have a husband who’s not leading, right? A couple of things that I would say there. One is just knowing what your expectations are in leadership, right? Making sure that those are communicated in a kind, gentle, winsome way. We want to be like that Ephesians 4, “Speaking the truth in love.” It’s funny what Paul does there in that particular expression. He uses truth and makes it a verb, right, because he can do that: “Truthing in love,” is what he will say there. That’s kind of an odd thing to say, but it’s supposed to be characteristic of who and how we are when we communicate with one another.

Trying to have what our expectations are of our husbands in` their spiritual leadership, if it’s, “Hey, I would really prefer you lead us in prayer every day. I would like a Bible study devotional. I would like you to pray with the kids. I want you to lead and make sure that we’re involved in our church, our community,” whatever it is, all of those good, right, and righteous things, that those expectations are communicated well and clearly in a way that also gives grace that, again, none of us live up to all expectations or do things well.

The second thing is that I would want to understand exactly why a husband isn’t leading. By that, I mean, we rush to answers without first listening, right? Proverbs say “He who speaks more, he listens. It’s to his folly and to shame,” right? I would want to be someone who explores “Here’s a desire of my heart and here’s how I would like to be led. You seem to be reticent in leading this way. Would you just help me understand what it is about that that seems maybe scary or frustrating or whatever it is?” in a way, again, that’s kind and gentle and gracious.

One of the reasons I say that is that one of men’s greatest fears is to be incompetent, right? Being incompetent in front of those whom we care about most, our wives and our children, is scary to our core. Oftentimes, what you will find, guys are not necessarily always the greatest emotional communicators, so sometimes you got to work with them a little bit, right? The only way I can do this is because I have literally thousands of hours of experience and two counseling degrees. That’s how I, as a man, get to talk about feelings, right? But most of us are just terrible at it. However, just know that that really is a very deep fear, to be incompetent and to be seen as incompetent in front of those whom we love.

Therefore, to try to offer assurances and grace and be able to say, “Hey, just the fact that you were trying really means the world to me. It really encourages me to see it. You don’t have to worry that if you stumble in a prayer, right? We’ve all done that where you’ve stumbled in some sort of public prayer and you thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. Everyone now knows I’m an absolute idiot.’ You can do that and know that I actually respect you more. I love you more because I see that effort in you and you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be John Piper leading our devotionals, right? Or Ligon Duncan or Derek Thomas. You just be you reading Scripture, saying a word or two, leading us in a prayer or two. That would mean the world to me,” right?

I think those are some of the ways that you begin to encourage someone into leading. It’s much easier to build on wins than it is to try and overcome a string of losses, right? Just trying to find those wins and me encouraging on those wins I think is super helpful.

Okay, one of the questions that got asked was “How do you engage with a spouse that seems to be apathetic toward spiritual issues?” That’s really tough. There’s not much more difficult than when we love Jesus and He is everything to us and there is a spouse who should be part of our one-flesh union that doesn’t seem like they really care about that. That’s a deep, difficult ache and hurt, so I want to recognize that from the get-go. For those people who find themselves there, they need to find supportive communities. By supportive communities, I don’t mean communities that are telling you, “Hey, you need to dump that person and move on,” but communities that tell you how to be loving to that spouse who doesn’t seem like they have the same sort of spiritual inclination that you do while not allowing that apathy to then infect you and turn into your own sense of apathy, which is the other side of it.

I would say first off, you can’t make a spouse become interested in spiritual things, right? It’s funny. So often, we have this high view of God’s sovereignty over all things and including our own lives, except for the salvific nature of those we love, right, like our kids and our spouses. “If I could just come up with the right responses, the right Scripture at the right moment, they’re going to love Jesus like I love Jesus,” right? We try to put ourselves in the role that is only the Holy Spirit’s role, really, in all of that. You can’t make your spouse be spiritually sensitive or love Jesus or want to be involved spiritually.

At first, I’d be praying down heaven, praying down heaven for your spouse, that there would be a spark that would then grow into a fire for the gospel and that they might even outdo you in your zealousness for Christ. I mean, how wonderful would that be, to go from having a co-laborer that’s really not lifting any weight to one that that’s outperforming you? That would be fantastic, right? Really committing to consistent prayer, which isn’t difficult. Oftentimes, again, when I see this in the room, people are already praying for their spouse.

However, apathy is usually a sign that somebody is, when it comes to change, when it comes to actually wanting change, they are in the first stage of change. There’s this theory out there. It’s one of the more well-researched theories. You have to be somewhat cautious with secular data, right? I’m one of these guys, I just hold it loosely. I’ll read it and I’ll take it and if it helps me to get someone to Jesus, it helps me get them to Jesus. That’s all I really care about, right? If it doesn’t help me get them to Jesus, then who cares? Throw it away. But this particular paradigm, there’s just been a ton of research on. A meta-analysis recently was done, over 30,000 participants in different studies. Super helpful. What it says is that there are five stages of change. ‘Kay, let me give you those five stages. Five stages are pre-contemplative, contemplative, preparation, enactment, and maintenance, ‘kay?

The first stage is pre-contemplative. I’m not even thinking about change, right? Let’s just use me as an example. I get winded if I go up two flights of stairs, right? It would probably be helpful for me to get into a gym. The closest I get to a gym is when I drive by one. In pre-contemplative, I don’t even care. I’m not thinking about going to a gym, nothing about a gym, people can come up to me all day and tell me how wonderful a gym is, they can tell me that they sense a need in my life for a gym, not going to make a difference one bit, right?

The second stage is contemplative. That is, I’m thinking about, “Ooh, maybe it would be nice to go up two flights of stairs and not get winded, right? Maybe it would be nice to be able to go on a walk or a jog with my family and not be huffing and puffing after one street.” You know that someone’s gotten into that second stage when they’re the one who begins generating the conversation. All of a sudden, I’m the one who starts, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about maybe joining the gym.” “Okay, great. Let’s talk about now what it is to join a gym.”

Third stage then is preparation. Now you’ve decided that you want to join a gym. You haven’t enacted in your life, but you’ve decided, “Yeah, it’s probably where I’m going to go,” and there’s stuff you have to do to prepare: You got to get the gym clothes and you have to decide where you’re going and you have to buy the membership and you have to do all the things, right?

Then enactment: “On this day, I’m going to start going to the gym. I’m going to start doing this routine.” Then that lasts a certain period of time, depending on the habit that you’re trying to engrain.

Then lastly is maintenance: “I’m just going to start doing this for the rest of my life.”

Where people often get tripped up is they get tripped up in-between stages one and two. Because I want someone to change, I treat them like they’re in stage two rather than stage one. When someone’s in stage one, they don’t want change. Again, let’s look at me. I don’t really care about the fact that I’m out of shape and I have no desire to be in a gym, right? The two best things that you can do is have good healthy consequences and model health, right? There’s no set of stairs that goes, “Aw. Josh is a really good guy and he’s been working really hard. I mean, he’s had like nine counseling appointments today. We’re going to be an escalator today for Josh,” right? They’re just stairs. They’re always stairs. There’s a consequence every time I go up those stairs. Every time I go up the stairs, I get winded, right?

On the other side, there are people who go up those stairs and don’t get winded. That’s a model of health, right? It’s really those two things. Now, again, let’s be clear: The Holy Spirit can change someone in an instant. He doesn’t need five stages. He doesn’t need time. He can work radically and in a moment, which is why we always front prayer, because prayer is the thing that can make that happen, but humanly speaking, right, those are the two things you do with somebody who’s in stage one. It’s not until they start having those conversations, “Hey, I’m thinking about changing,” that you then begin to talk about pros and cons: “This is what I think would be helpful. This is why I think it would be helpful for you. These are going to be the costs of change.”

For a spouse who’s apathetic, going back there, apathy is a sign that someone’s in stage one, they’re pre-contemplative. They aren’t concerned about being spiritual. You can talk to them until you’re blue in the face about all the wonderful things that spirituality will do for them about being engaged in the church and what will do for them and it’s really probably not going to make a hill-of-beans difference. Instead, it’s living before them in a way that is transformed by the gospel, it is displaying the fruit of the spirit, that love joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, having those pieces and letting them see those pieces in our own lives, that’s beautiful. That enraptures people and brings them close.

Then having things that are consequential, not punitive, you don’t want to punish them, but that are consequential, right? “Hey, I’m going to take time by myself to do some Bible reading,” or, “to go to church,” or “to be with this group,” and “You don’t get to be with me in that. Oh, there’s this part of my heart. That is about what the gospel is doing and my care for the kingdom. Man, I would love for you to know me on that level, but you don’t get to know me on that level because that’s not something you care about, right?” It’s knowing that that’s where you are. That can, again, humanly speaking, get people to begin to get out of apathy, while the same time, making sure that you’re surrounded by people who can help you and bear your burdens as you deal with a spouse who is apathetic. That’s very difficult.

Yeah, this question: “What’s the biggest challenge that I see in marriages?” That’s a difficult question because it is difficult and it’s not difficult. There are many expressions of pretty much the one biggest challenge, which is our own pride, right? That tends to be our biggest challenge in marriage is that we want to be satisfied, we want to be the one who gets out of our marriage and is well-pleased in our marriage rather than being the one who is willing to sacrifice, that they might be well-pleased even when we don’t get recognition for our sacrifice. That’s really difficult in and of itself. A lot of people are willing to sacrifice as long as they get credit for sacrifice, right? Jesus did not get the credit for His sacrifice that He deserved and will not until the eschaton, until we get to glory. We truly understand all that He forgave in us, He will not get the credit that he deserves, right? It’s an impossible standard for us to believe that somehow we can get the credit we deserve.

In a sense, philosophically, the way people approach marriage is by game theory. This is also one of my critiques for most of secular marriage therapies is that it comes down to game theory. Hopefully when you get to the end of this thing, you’ve gotten as much as you’ve given, right? You’ve gotten as much out of it as you’ve put into it. If you won the marriage lottery, you’ve gotten more, right? That’s really all the more hope that you can have out there. What I often tell people is that it is not game theory, it’s God theory, right? It’s you are trying to be more and more like Christ.

Your marriage is not about your satisfaction, though we hope that you have a super well-satisfying, happy, wonderful marriage that exudes the grace of Christ and has the peace and satisfaction and joy that only Christ can bring, but that’s not its main purpose, its main purpose is actually sanctification, not satisfaction. If you misorder those two things… An illustration I’ll give people is that steps matter, what you do matters, but the order of those steps matter.

When I was a young adult, I had a friend who was moving into a dorm, right? It was back in those days where you had the big, old TVs, like the massive… It’s not like the thin things now, the big old tube TVs, showing my age a little bit, and everybody had to have an entertainment center where you put your DVDs and VHSs and this big ole massive television, whatever. I had this friend moving off to a dorm and we went to a Walmart and bought the cheapest particle-board entertainment center we could because he needed something to house his TV and his gaming console.

We get it back to his dorm, there’s like five of us, and we open the box. We thought it would be easy and that here’s a little stack of instructions. Then you open it and like accordion, it just keeps on going, right? It just rips and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, there’s like 400 steps here.” We decided, being smart, that we would divvy it up, right? “‘Kay, you take steps one through 20 and I’ll take steps 21 through 40 and you take whatever and we’ll just get these pieces made individually and bring them all together towards the end, right?”

Sounds really smart. That way it cuts it to a fifth of the time that it was supposed to, except by the time we got done, we had this leaning mess that couldn’t support a thing because you had to do it in order. Each step mattered as you fleshed everything up, right? Everything had to be able to come together tightly in order to hold that weight, right? Doing everything matters, you had to do all the steps. If you’d left out these steps, obviously, it would be unusable, but also doing the steps in the right order matters as well.

If in your marriage, you think number one, it’s about satisfaction, “I need to be happy generally in my marriage, right, and then it’s about sanctification, like, okay, sometimes you suffer for Christ, right?” you’re going to be disappointed and you’re going to be hurt and you’re probably going to find yourself somewhat bitter, right? Versus if you flip that order and say, “Okay, this marriage is really meant to show me something about Jesus, about His love for His spouse, the church, and the times when He was willing to sacrifice or lead or work for the church at times when He was completely unappreciated, un-understood. Misunderstood. I think just made up a word there. But doesn’t get the sort of credit and following and satisfaction that He deserves, right?

When we say, “Okay, I’m willing to be like that. I’m willing for my marriage to be more about me getting an opportunity to know and love Jesus more than me being satisfied and finding some sense of joy and happiness,” then you’ll get yourself to a place where it’s not easy, but it’s worth it, right? Opportunities of suffering gives you a sort of Romans 5 mentality, which tells you that “suffering requires endurance, but that endurance leads to character and then that character yields hope, a hope that can’t be put to shame.”

I think there are a number of expressions of that one issue. If it’s issues of money… The top three reasons people come for marriage counseling are money, children, and sex, right? I think all three of those can be manifestations of pride, but if you are willing to submit your pride to Christ and to your spouse so that you might be more like Jesus and you might build up the person across from you, that you might see more of Jesus in them, that they might love Jesus more because of your actions, I think it’s going to undercut a ton of the problems that people tend to see. That might sound a little ethereal, a little high-handed. I guess we might be able to talk about practicals, about individual things, but I really do think that it’s a priority and ordering of the heart that leads to the ability to overcome some of those hurdles versus getting stuck in some of those ruts.

It’s not about not being satisfied, right, or not communicating your desires in order that you might be satisfied, but it’s just understanding that there are seasons when it’s going to be primarily about your sanctification rather than satisfaction. That’s really, like you said, some of my… I find books like Five Love Languages by Chapman and His Needs, Her Needs and some of the other things, I find them generally helpful, but this is probably my biggest complaint or concern on some of those is that it’s good stuff, again, those steps, but out of order, that the first thing you need to be able to put there is, “Okay, what is the purpose of marriage? The purpose of marriage is not just so that I might be happy, it’s that I might love Jesus and that the person across from me might love Jesus.”

The first thing that I would say, just wrapping up, is if you get to the point where you notice you or your spouse are struggling, you’re having problems. You are, as a member of the body of Christ, a part of a community and a community that should do one-anothering. You have to be discerning about who you invite in. There’s some people whose besetting sin is gossip and you don’t want them to be the person you go to for all your confidential stuff and there are other people who themselves are being overwhelmed with their own marriages and stuff like that, so you’ve got to be somewhat discerning, but don’t be alone and don’t just try and stick it out on your own. Don’t try to be a Christian on an island. The Greek for one another, “allelon,” is one of the most commonly used Greek words in the entire New Testament. We weren’t meant to be Christians on an Island.

It’s not that once you find your spouse, “Oh, now I found my perfect mate. We don’t need anyone else.” No, no, no. There’s levels and you found that person that is your one-flesh union, but you continue to need other people and the community of believers, so continue to plug in and have your burdens born along in that Galatians 6:2 sort of way, by the loving fellowship and community of Christ. When you get to a place where you find yourself in a rut, usually, again, when I’m talking to my premarital counselor, counselees, what I tell them is scale everything. You know someone’s come to speak to me if they scale everything, right? “A scale of one to 10, how do you feel about this? Scale of one to 10, what about this? Scale of one to 10, what do you feel about squirrels?” Right? It’s like one to 10 about everything.

For me, it’s like if we keep recycling on this issue and on a scale of one to 10, it seems like it’s a steady, not a momentary, but a steady six or seven, that’s the time you want to seek help, right? If you can seek help when something’s at that level at a six or seven, the likelihood that you end up with a positive outcome is actually pretty high. If you wait, like most people do, until it’s a nine or a 10, you may have a positive outcome. With the help of the Holy Spirit, anyone can have a positive outcome, right? Pray down to heaven. But humanly speaking, it’s just more difficult. You’ve just got so much more bitterness, hurt, anxiety, fear that you’ve got to be able to unpack, so don’t be shy in leaning into your communities.

The other thing that I would say is, and again, this is a secular research study, but one that I think has been relatively helpful and been validated, excuse me, a couple of times and that is if you’ll put a marriage or a parenting book, kind of alternate in your yearly reading, so one year you read a marriage book, the next year you read a parenting book, next year a marriage book, some of them are better than others, right? Some you’re going to fall in love with and others, you’re just going to be, “I don’t even care about,” but you’ll run into, especially, especially if you are reading from good writers, right, hopefully Christian writers, you’re going to run into the same broad ideas again and again.

It’s going to remind you of those truths and it’s going to help you to focus more and more on where you can apply the gospel to your marriage. That’s really important, that day by day, you’re applying that gospel of hope to your marriage as a spouse who fails your spouse and as a spouse, who’s been failed by your spouse, but as the spouse who will never be failed by your heavenly spouse, right? You read those and you put that in the rota, in your just annual reading, and more and more, it’s going to lead to building a skillset that will help you make it through in a wise, godly, pious way, and ultimately, hopefully where you’re one of those people who can be the community for other couples someday when they’re struggling so you can then be that what you were looking for when you began.

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