Married and How to Stay That Way - Chapter 1
ARE YOU WILLING TO TAKE ACTION?
“If you are willing and obedient...” Is. 1:19
As you begin reading this book, your marriage is in one of two phases. The first category is typified by times in your relationship when the situation seems as though it will never change. Feelings of hopelessness and despair have become your companions, and you find yourself involved in a marriage relationship that is far from what you expected when you first recited your wedding vows. Everyday living with your spouse has become one of the most difficult things you have ever faced. Is there hope for your marriage? Can these feelings of despair and hopelessness be eliminated? Is there a way that both you and your spouse can come to agreement on the issues that plague you? Yes there is! I invite you to begin one of the most important journeys you will ever take. By God’s power and the life-giving principles in His Word, change is possible and you are about to discover how to do it.
There are others reading this book, however, who are merely looking to strengthen and enhance their marriage relationship. Their desire is a worthy pursuit because there is always a deeper and more intimate relationship waiting for the couple who diligently search it out. As you understand more completely God’s plan for your marriage, you will grow and build your relationship together.
In these first chapters, we will consider the primary goal as well as some of the foundational principles for marriage that are indispensable to building a lasting relationship. A clear understanding of these will ignite a hope in your heart and provide the necessary tools to build your relationship. The illustration of building is appropriate because it is one that we can all relate to. Each of you has seen a house being built and can understand this analogy. A contractor who decides to build a house will always first take special consideration in laying a solid foundation. He does this to ensure the building will stand all the internal pressures and external stresses that will come against the structure. If the walls of your marriage are crumbling at this moment under some difficult problems, you need to strengthen your foundation. If you have no significant problems and you simply want a closer relationship with your spouse, the principles you will learn will be like adding steel reinforcements to the already strong foundation of your marriage.
You may ask, “Where do I begin? What should I do to strengthen the foundation of my marriage? How do I begin to eliminate the despair and hopelessness facing me today?” Let me relate a story to you of a couple I once counseled. To protect their anonymity, I will call them Gary and Susan. Their story will illustrate one of the most fundamental building blocks for any marriage to grow. The principle conveyed in this chapter is critical to every other principle in this book. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that a similar conversation to some degree and at some time has occurred in your own marriage. When I entered my office, Gary and Susan were sitting as far apart as space would allow within the room. They were both looking in opposite directions as I sat down at my desk. They hardly even looked at me. The obvious tension of silence told me there was serious trouble between them. This was Gary and Susan’s first counseling appointment, so I asked them to begin by explaining their situation to me. Susan immediately began to cry as she started to speak. “I had so many hopes and dreams of what it would be like when I got married, but it has turned out so different. When we first married we had such a love between us. Now it seems all we do is fight and bicker over everything. I thought we had so many things in common when we started out, but all those things are gone. We are growing further and further apart every day, and we don’t know what to do. What’s wrong with us?”
I turned to Gary and asked him, “Do you see your relationship the same way?”
Gary began to nod his head in agreement and said, “Yes, that’s about the size of it. We aren’t real happy right now, but I don’t think it’s as bad as she says. We have some problems, but I believe we can work them out.”
“Well then,” Susan interrupted, “why haven’t we worked them out? All you say to me is, ‘We will work them out,’ but nothing happens! Talk, talk, talk, that’s all I hear. I’m sick of talk. I didn’t even want to come today because I knew all we were going to do is talk some more.”
I could see that Susan had a lot of pent-up anger and frustration over these long-term problems, so I stopped the conversation and assured them that I would require each of them to do much more than talk. I explained to Gary and Susan that talking was only the first step to real change. That talk was very important, the follow-through of action was even more important. I then asked them a question that I ask every first time couple who comes for counseling. “How would you rate yourself from 1 to 10 as to your willingness to take real practical action to change this marriage? A 10 would mean you are ready to do anything and everything that God requires of you to change your relationship. To rate yourself a 5 would mean you are somewhat willing, but you’re very skeptical about the possibilities for change. To rate yourself a 1 would mean that you simply want out of the marriage, and you don’t even want to be here today.”
The answer to this question was quite revealing. They both rated themselves at an 8 to 9 on my scale. Even though they were experiencing great frustration, skepticism, and anger, this told me that they were both willing to take real action to change their relationship. I then began to explain why this attitude of willingness to take action was so important.
As you begin to read this book, I want to ask you the same question. How willing are you to make the practical changes necessary to build a strong relationship with your spouse? How would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10? Your answer to this question is the key to how effective this book will be in bringing about real change in your marriage. Let me explain exactly why your willingness to take real practical action is so important.
WILLINGNESS IS THE KEY TO ALL CHANGEFor the last twenty-five years I have counseled many couples through their marital struggles, and I have come to realize that an attitude of willingness to take real action is essential. Partners must be willing to first sit down and talk, and then be willing to take practical action to reconcile the conflicts between them once and for all. Later, I will explain in great detail how to do this, but for now, understand that your willingness to take action is fundamental to beginning the work of building your relationship.
For years I have seen various couples with many different circumstances. For example, one couple came for counseling who had minor problems that could have been easily resolved, and yet, the marriage ended in separation and divorce. One time another couple with very serious problems came and I thought, It will be a miracle if this marriage survives. I then saw this couple have a dramatic change of heart and turn from their stubbornness, becoming willing to make the changes necessary to turn their marriage around. Their relationship went through a glorious transformation and the marriage was saved. For years as a young pastor, I struggled to understand why this would happen. Then one day it dawned on me that there was one dramatic difference; one couple was willing to talk and then act, and the other was not.
Ultimately I came to believe, that God can fix any marriage if He just has two willing hearts. This is what He looks for in a marriage, and when He finds it, He works miracles. It’s not a question of God’s willingness to do His work in your marriage, but of your willingness to let Him. It is much like the leper who came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, if you are willing, You can make me clean. Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing; be cleansed’ ” (Matt. 8:2, 3). Jesus demonstrated that He was more than willing to solve the problems of this leper. He is still ready, willing, and able to do His mighty works today. Are you willing to bring your marriage to Him and ask for help as this leper did, or will you hide your problems and resist taking action? Don’t do as so many I have seen, who wait until they are ready to leave their spouse before finally deciding to take action. If you want to see His miracle-working power in your relationship, you must be willing, at all costs, to do whatever it takes as quickly as you can. The issues that are hindering the intimacy and friendship between you and your spouse will not go away by themselves. You must take action to deal with these issues.
Is this where your heart is right now? It must be if you want to see any real and lasting change in your relationship. This is the first step to building the life and marriage you long for. The Bible is absolutely clear on this point. Let’s look at some further examples of how important willingness is to affecting real change:
1. Willingness determines the greatest change of all. Jesus ministered the truth of His Word to many in His day, but to no avail. They would not change and, as a result, could not experience the abundant life He desired to give them. They refused the greatest change of all–salvation and eternal life. Jesus put His finger directly on what caused them to turn His offer away. He said, “You are not willing to come to Me that you might have life” (John 5:40).
Jesus didn’t talk about meaningless issues that had nothing to do with the problems of man. He went right to the heart of the matter. It was the unwillingness of men to simply come to Him that excluded them from the life and blessing He wanted to give. They were more willing to disobey Him and reject His Word than to come and humbly fall at His feet. Jesus could not do anything about this because it was the free choice of man exercised against His will.
This is what happened in the beginning when Adam and Eve willfully chose to rebel against God. God refused to force them to obey Him. He allowed them to make the choice to accept or reject Him and His commands. In the same manner today, God requires men and women to make a willful choice to surrender to Him. He would not force Adam and Eve to stay in fellowship with Him, nor force them to return to Him. Likewise, He will not force anyone to do His will today. Every individual must willingly choose to come into fellowship with the Father. God makes this clear even in the last call made to man in the Bible. “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come! And let him who hears say, Come! And let him who thirsts come. And whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).
Don’t exclude yourself from the blessings of God because of a hard and unwilling heart. The Father wants to bestow His blessings upon you and your marriage today! Ask Him for a willing heart to take the action necessary to change your marital relationship. This is where you must begin.
2. Willingness was the key to God’s provision for the children of Israel. The Old Testament reveals the many problems and trials of the Jewish people. God spoke through the prophets in an attempt to change His people and to communicate the means of how this work could be done. The prophet Isaiah spoke directly of the essential ingredient necessary for real change. He declared what the people had to do to see God’s blessing and provision for their nation: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Is. 1:19, 20).
Isaiah gave the Jewish people a simple and direct way to be successful and build their nation. If they would just be willing and obedient, they would be divinely protected and enjoy the fruits of the land. Again, God put His finger squarely on the most important issue. This willingness of heart to take action and obey God’s Word was the key. In fact, this attitude along with their obedient action was the catalyst that would enable growth as well as blessing to continue. God is also just as clear about the alternative. If they refused and rebelled, certain destruction would result.
This is God’s word to anyone who desires His blessing and aid in life. Be willing and obedient! If you desire God’s blessing in your marriage, you must follow His plan and His commands. Scripture is clear on this issue. Wherever you will obey and honor Him, there will be peace. But where you disobey and rebel, there will be tribulation and anguish. God declares that He will render “eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good.” (Rom. 2:7-10).
Remember when Jesus stood and wept over the city of Jerusalem? He longed to bless His people, even though He knew they were about to reject Him! Remember what He said to them? “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). He was so willing to give to His people, but they were not willing to receive. God’s heart was breaking because of the rebellious attitude He saw in their hearts of stone. Their unwillingness caused them to lose out on all He wanted to give them. Do you see how critical this attitude is to a person, a nation, or even a marriage? Your attitude will either open wide the door to God’s storehouse of blessings or slam it shut.
3. Willingness is the key to keeping your marriage together. When the apostle Paul sought to answer the questions of the Corinthian church about marriage and divorce, notice what he identified as the key to staying together with even a non-Christian spouse. He said, “If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him” (1 Cor. 7:12, 13).
Again, we see that willingness is the key, and in this case, within the context of marriage. The apostle knew this attitude was the key to solving any problem, no matter how difficult; even if the marriage partner was not a Christian (because a non-Christian would probably disagree over many more issues than a Christian spouse would). Yet, if the non-Christian partner is willing to remain in the marriage, even that couple could live together peaceably.
If you have a Christian spouse, my question to you is no different. Are you willing to live with your spouse, and if so, are you seeking peace with him or her? Are you willing to resolve the conflicts with your mate and build a new and better relationship? Are you willing to be obedient and take the action needed to make the necessary changes? Or do you just want to talk?
Your spouse longs to see this attitude in your life; to see and hear that you are willing to live in peace. You also want to see this attitude in your partner, which is a very natural desire. However, don’t wait for your loved one to demonstrate this willingness. Why don’t you take the first step to start the process?
WHAT IS YOUR FIRST STEP?The first step will always entail action. To have a willing heart is important but is not enough to change anything. You must do something if you are truly willing to see change in your relationship, and taking action is proof of that. For each couple this will be a little different. Let me illustrate.
It was necessary for Gary and Susan to do more than rehash the problems over and over again. They needed to take very practical and specific actions in order to resolve their conflicts. Susan would not have been satisfied with anything less than this on that first day of counseling. Yet, for another couple who doesn’t talk at all about their conflicts, the first step would be to verbally admit to each other that there is a problem. For the couple that is separated, the first step might be for one to write a letter or make a phone call to communicate their desire for reconciliation.
Your first step will always be action of some kind. Action is the other half of Isaiah’s command, “If you are willing and obedient,” you must do something! Don’t wait for the other person, you take the initiative. Humble yourself and ask for his or her forgiveness. Take that hard first step and admit your faults. Make the phone call or write the letter.
Scripture constantly encourages each of us to do this. No matter what the issue, each of us must, at some point, take action on what we know is right. James says, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Self-deception will cause you to talk or listen to your mate, and then do nothing. Don’t be the person who fails to act, and therefore hinders the change that’s needed in your marriage.
Remember, Jesus told the parable of the two builders. One man built his house on the sand, and the other built his house on the rock, and “the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat” on both of these houses; one house stood and the other fell (Matt. 7:24-27). Jesus explained why this occurred. He was illustrating the fundamental difference in the way people respond to what He teaches. He said, “Whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt. 7:24). One took action and obeyed what He taught, and the other man did not. Which man’s example will you follow? Will you only hear and take no action, or will you wisely do what you know is right? This will determine whether your marriage is built on a sound foundation, or whether it will fail to stand against the elements that seek to destroy it.
If you want to build a lasting marriage, then take your first step. Declare to your spouse today that you are willing to work at your marriage and begin to do whatever God requires to reconcile your differences. Tell your spouse that you want to begin to build your relationship again. Often, this first step of verbalizing your intent to change is what begins to soften your mate’s heart and initiates a similar response.
Then take action against the things you see wrong in your life. This will demonstrate to your spouse that you really mean business. Your spouse needs to see you dealing with your faults instead of only trying to point the finger. What faults am I referring to? In each chapter, I will attempt to deal with the key issues that build or destroy a marriage. Take these truths and apply them to your life.
What happens when you make the choice to become willing to obey God? A dramatic change will begin to take place in your personal life and in your relationship with God. The closer you draw to Him as a person, the more you will experience His abundant life, and His love will begin to motivate you to further action. This is a blessing God will bestow upon you no matter what your spouse does. Take this opportunity to go forward and grow in your relationship with Christ, because doing so will give you the strength and the peace to deal with all that lies ahead. Your personal growth will also be a tremendous positive influence on your mate.
I must say, however, that your willingness to take action will not be enough to solve all the problems in your relationship. Realistically speaking, it does take two willing people to completely change a marriage. Your willing heart and your action can only do so much. You can’t change someone who willfully refuses to work at the marriage. It is only when two people wholeheartedly begin to deal with the problems that changes begin to occur. This is the key that determines the success or failure of any marriage. Even in a stable marriage, willingness to take action will determine whether or not the marriage relationship stagnates or flows.
Therefore, let me ask you some questions:
1. Are you willing to come to Him, fully surrender, and receive His abundant life?
2. Are you willing to let the Word of God teach you how to respond correctly to your spouse?
3. Are you willing to do more than talk?
4. Are you willing to do what God requires of you?
5. Are you willing to deal with yourself and your own faults first?
If you have answered no to any of these questions, it will impede your progress toward any changes you want to see in your relationship. Reluctance in any area is like putting up one more road block to change. Will you stop right now and ask God for the change of heart needed regarding any of the above questions? You may be very angry and hard at the moment, not even sure if you want to try and work at building your marriage. So let’s look for a moment at how you get a willing heart if you don’t have one.
HOW TO OBTAIN A WILLING HEARTYou may have to start by first asking God to give you a willingness to be made willing. He can do that too. Ask Him to persuade you and convince you by His Holy Spirit that it is possible to reconcile and build your marriage. Remember, He is able to do anything if you are willing to let Him work in your heart! Paul said, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.” (Eph. 3:20). Ask Him to begin to work in you, to soften your heart, and to make you willing to act.
This prayer is an act of surrender to the Lord in which you give yourself up to Him to do His work in you. As you give yourself to Him, He breathes a willingness into you to do all that He requires. In the early church when the believers in Jerusalem were in financial need, the apostle Paul asked all the churches to contribute financially. Many of those churches that gave were hurting financially themselves and were suffering greatly. What caused these churches to give so sacrificially? Paul attributed the source of their willingness to God’s unmerited favor: “Moreover, brethren, we make known to you the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia: that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. And...not as we had hoped, but first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us by the will of God” (2 Cor. 8:1-5).
Their sacrificial giving began when the grace of God began working in their hearts after they first gave themselves to the Lord. When you surrender and give yourself to Him, God can and will work in your heart that which is “well pleasing in His sight” (Heb. 13:21). “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Literally, anything is possible for a big God. If you surrender yourself to Him, He will give you the desire to do what is right, and then bestow the ability to do it. What more could you ask?
IS CHANGE REALLY POSSIBLE?What God has promised, He is also able to perform. God has always been in the business of restoration. He loves to fix broken people, nations, and yes, marriages. Take the nation Israel, for example. When the nation refused Isaiah’s promise and warning, it turned away from God. The result was just as Isaiah had predicted; great destruction came upon the land, the people were overrun by their enemies, and finally they were taken into captivity. Their crops were eaten by locusts and caterpillars, and their cities were reduced to ashes. Everything seemed to go wrong for them. Yet the prophets of God told them that if they would return to the Lord, He would restore the years that the locust and caterpillar had eaten. He promised to give them beauty to replace the ashes all around them (Joel 2:25; Is. 61:3). The people did return to their God, and just as He promised, He performed His Word. He brought them back into their fertile land and restored them to their rightful place.
You may be looking at your marriage today and see nothing but a destroyed relationship lying in ashes. Or maybe it’s not that bad, and you just need your marriage tuned-up a little to renew the spark of excitement. God is able to restore you and your marriage according to His promise. If He did it for a nation of thousands of people, is He not able to do it with just two? Isaiah declared, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save” (Is. 59:1). He is surely able!
God is described in Scripture as the “builder of all things” (Heb. 3:4). The church is characterized as His building or temple (Matt. 16:18; 1 Peter 2:5). Your individual life is also referred to as His building or temple (1 Cor. 6:19). Your home and family are described as a structure that can be built up or pulled down (Prov. 14:1). God is the master architect, and He has a plan for constructing a successful marriage for you and your spouse. He desires to richly build your life, your home, and your marriage to be a glorious testimony of His power and grace. Therefore, as I use this analogy of building as it relates to your marriage, always remember that “unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps. 127:1). Let’s continue to lay the foundation so that we can get to building!
WILLINGNESS TO ACTAs I said earlier, don’t wait for your spouse to take action. You take the first step to work on your own life. This is the only thing that will bring the happiness you long for. Jesus explained that obedience to the truth you know always brings about happiness. He made this clear when He spoke to His disciples that last night before His crucifixion. He said, “If you know these things, happy are you if you do them” (John 13:17).
If you long for real happiness in your relationship, then take the actions that you know are right. Begin with these:
Actions To Take
1. Ask God to bring you into a closer relationship with Him.
2. Ask God for a willing heart to receive His counsel and commands.
3. Ask God for a willingness to hear what your spouse has to say to you.
4. Ask God to help you begin working on your own faults.
5. Ask God to begin working in your spouse to develop this same willingness.
6. Take the first step that is appropriate in your particular relationship.
Now let’s go on to the next part of the foundation of your relationship. It will give you an overall picture of your marriage and will enable you to see the goal for your entire relationship.
Group Discussion Questions
1. How did your unwillingness of heart hinder you from coming to Christ?
2. Without giving any names or information that would identify the couple, give an example of a marriage you have seen destroyed because one or both partners were unwilling to change.
3. Describe where you have been unwilling and stubborn and how this attitude has affected your marriage relationship.