Pastor John, what hope would you offer a stressed wife, or a stressed husband, who is disappointed in their spouse, frustrated with their marriage, and is now considering divorce as an escape out of the frustrations?
Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is that more pain is experienced in marriage and parenting than anywhere else in the world.
“Marriage was created by God as a picture of the covenant-keeping love of Christ and his church.”
This is the cost of covenant-making and covenant-keeping love. It cost Jesus his life to be in that kind of relationship. So I am not ever making light of the kind of pain that can be sustained in a parenting or a marriage relationship.
And the first thing I would say to this woman is that the path to hope is not the path of divorce. God can rescue sinners from the disaster of a divorce, but he warns: Let us not sin that grace may abound (Romans 6:1).
Planned sin is not accompanied by any promises of hope. Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). And the deepest reason for that prohibition of breaking a marriage is that marriage was created by God from the beginning as a picture or an expression of the covenant-keeping love of Christ and his church (cf. Ephesians 5:22–33).
So my word of hope begins with a plea. I have given it countless times to women and men. Put divorce out of your mind as a remedy. Don’t consider it. Say to yourself, in the truth of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit: This is not an option. I am not going to pursue this. It may be forced upon me, but I am not going to pursue it. Don’t want it. Pray and work in the other direction.
You might have sinned your way into this marriage. Lots of people say, “Well, I just blew it at the front end. I made all kinds of stupid judgments about this man. I wasn’t acting in a mature, biblical way.” And I say, “That is true. You may have sinned your way into this relationship, but now that you are married, this man is God’s man for you.”
That is an amazing truth. He is God’s choice for you. Yes, he is, no matter how you may wish that you could do it all over again. So, look to Jesus as the one who satisfies in measure now and immeasurably later. Believe that the path of lost dreams in this life is the path of greatest joy overall.
Your Greatest Happiness
Know this: Maximizing your earthly happiness is not the goal of life or marriage. Maximizing your eternal happiness is, because God said — this is really crucial, I think, of marriage — “Rejoice in tribulation because tribulation works patience and patience works approvedness and approvedness works hope and this hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:3–5).
“Believe that the path of lost dreams in this life is the path of greatest joy overall.”
In other words, marriage may disappoint with a thousand tribulations, but hope-filled obedience to God will never, never disappoint us. God says so.
Hope does not disappoint. But escaping tribulation — the tribulation that obedience calls for — escaping tribulation that is not hope-promised or hope-filled is not the path to greatest hope or greatest joy.
It is good, and it is right to want things to change now. Oh, yes, we all do. We want things about our spouses and ourselves to change now. And I think that is why Peter wrote 1 Peter 3:1–7 for wives in particular, because these words are meant to help a woman know how to think about changing her husband, in this case, an unbelieving husband.
She should pray earnestly for him and for the whole situation. That is why those verses are there. I would recommend that she pray over them long and hard. But don’t stake your greatest happiness on his change.
If you do that, you will probably become demanding and nagging and angry, all of which will be self-defeating. So, focus your main heart energies not on fixing his failures, but on deepening your own godly responses to those failures. That is what God expects from you. God does not hold you accountable for your husband’s sins. But he does hold you accountable for the godliness of your responses to those sins.
There will be a thousand acts of grace that your husband will not reward, or perhaps not even notice. And you will feel so alone in your sorrow. But hold fast to this truth: God sees in secret. That is Matthew 6:3–4. God sees every tiny expression of your patience and mercy and respect. He sees them all and he writes them all. Your quiet sorrows are never wasted. You will be repaid at the last day and, perhaps, in this life more than you could ever imagine. When the decades have gone by, God might work a miracle in that man, and your life might end in a way that you never dreamed.
One Wonderful Testimony
Let me close with one illustration. A woman came to me one Sunday about thirty years into my ministry. I remember it so clearly. It was at our south campus. She reminded me that when she was about to leave her husband twenty years ago, she came to me and I pleaded with her: don’t do it.
“God does not hold you accountable for your husband’s sins but for the godliness of your response to those sins.”
She gave me all the reasons why: he was just totally unresponsive, unaffectionate, traveled all the time, didn’t pay any attention, didn’t care for the kids — every reason that he was just not there.
Now at this point, twenty years after that, having stayed in the marriage, she said, “He is building a room on our house for my mother to stay with us in her final years, which is the most wonderful, sacrificial act of love he could possibly have done for me.” He had become a kind and thoughtful and very different man. And she just thanked me and said, “That’s what I would be missing today.”