05 June 2012

Marriage: the one in the twoness

by Dan Phillips

Last time we busted a couple of marriage myths, one of which was the notion that it takes two to create marital ill health. We should dismember, bury, and forget the distracting lie of the Democratic Causality Myth, and we should take "blunt force trauma" (verbal or otherwise) out of our toolbox and toss it into the Atlantic, to sink down into the darkness forever after Rose's big dumb diamond.

So there are still problems in the marriage. What do we do?

I'll address pastors, but write with the assumption that all other interested parties are reading along. It won't be difficult to adjust and apply.

So here's the dilemma most pastors face most frequently. The person who's talking to you is unlikely to be the cause of the problems. I mean, look — show of hands, brothers: how many of you pastors have had a lady walk into your office and say, "You know, my husband's actually a pretty decent guy — loving, faithful, godly, devoted to me and the kids, hard-working... but I just can't seem to help verbally tearing him down to bloody shreds just about every chance I get. You got something for that?" Or how many men make an appointment to say, "My wife is an amazing lady. She's godly, incredibly competent and wise, treats me with love and respect, terrific mother... but I just like to spend every spare moment sitting around playing video games as if I was a no-account ten-year-old. Got some advice for me?"

No, in those situations, it would likelier be the husband or the wife (respectively) who's in the office, lamenting about the other's behavior. The other person doesn't have a problem — or so she thinks, so he thinks. But they aren't there. So, what's to say to the person who is actually in front of us?

Though conscious that my readership bristles with far wiser and better pastors than I, probably we all agree that the person we need to help is the person who's there. We won't really get anywhere talking at great length about the person who isn't. Right? Of course, if anyone has ideas about how to revolutionize the life of Party B by having a heart-to-heart with Party A, I'd love to hear it. I'll write a book. But meanwhile, on Planet Earth...

Not only can't we "fix" the absent party, we can't even really assess him. Remember Prov. 18:17? The soul before us could be a genuine suffering martyr, or (s)he could be a Suffering Martyr©, if you know what I mean. So whatever (s)he says about the other, we simply are not in a position to adjudicate, most of the time. Therefore, if we approach the time as "Sixty minutes to assign blame," it's likelier to be "Sixty minutes down the drain," isn't it?

What to do? Just this:

Deal with the person in front of you. You have plenty to say to that person. For instance, check this and this and this, just for starters. If you'd just read those thoughtfully, we might be done here. But let me assume that you have, and add just a couple of specifics.

Let's say you're talking to a wife in a troubled marriage. I don't know that there's really any great payoff (for her, for God's glory) in spending much time debating the truth of her complaints. Is there? Wouldn't it work to say something like, "I'm sure you understand, only you and God and your husband was there when that happened. I don't have any personal knowledge. But let's say that everything is exactly 100% as you say it is..."

Then where do you go? First, isn't it the case that most of the things that enrage the wives who come in for help are complaints, and not sins? I'm not saying that complaints don't matter, I'm just saying let's categorize them. She's enraged or frustrated or depressed or distraught because of his communication, his use of his time, his habits — not his frequent acts of murder, his constant adultery, his serial thefts. Right?

Wouldn't it be wisdom then to ask her, "Is this a sin? Do you have a Bible verse telling me this is a sin?" And then, whatever the answer, wouldn't it be wisdom to ask, "Do you know what God tells you to do even when your husband is actually sinning — not just failing to live up to your expectations and preferences, but sinning?"

Then go to 1 Peter 3:1-6. Expound. Discuss. Apply. (I'll have more to say in just a tick.)

Perhaps it isn't the wife. Maybe you're talking to a husband in a troubled marriage. What do you do?

Much the same, only go to 1 Peter 3:6, and then perhaps to Ephesians 5:25ff., and Colossians 3:19.  Expound. Discuss. Apply.

And here's the point, bringing together those passages plus the articles linked above: be sure to point out that none of those passages is conditioned on the other person's behavior.* That is, the apostle never says, "Wives, respect and subordinate yourselves to your husband only when you agree with what he's doing." Nor does he ever say, "Husbands, you must love your wives as Christ loves the church when and only when you find her lovable, submissive and pleasant."

On the contrary, do not all the passages rather assume imperfection in the object loved? Peter does so explicitly; what of Christ in the church? Just think, for a moment, if Christ loved the church only when the church deserved His love — but at all other times He felt free to withdraw in sullen poutiness, or respond in kind? Think, I say, then shudder in horror, and be wiser.

As long as we are married to each other,** we are obligated — personally, individually, each of us — to do all that God says we are to do. He does not condition it on the other's behavior.

That truth is both heavily obligating and freeing. You don't need me to expound how I am obligated by it. But it frees me from trying to decide how to behave, whether to be loving-Christlike-husband guy or fridge-fisted-boxer-guy (verbally or physically). Simple: I'm never called to be fridge-fisted-boxer-guy. I'm always called to be loving-Christlike-husband guy, irrespective of how my wife treats me.

Then you begin to realize that all those verses you thought were out-there are suddenly right-in-here, verses like Matthew 5:9-12, 21-26, 38-48; 7:12; Rom. 13:10-21, and all the rest. They aren't for then. They're for right now, right here, in your marriage.

I know. It's not worldly wisdom. The flesh hates just about every word I've written.

But insofar as it is Biblical, it is wisdom.

*Well, you almost could argue that 1 Peter 3:1ff. is an exception, couldn't you — but in the other direction? In other words, Peter doesn't say, "If your husband does this good thing, you must then do that good thing." Rather, he says, "If your husband does this bad thing, you must then do that good thing."

**In this way, once again, I am removing divorce from this entire discussion. We aren't talking about whether and how and when to end a marriage. We're talking about how to think behave within a marriage.

Dan Phillips's signature


Marla said...

This post in particular reminds me of the classic Pyro post "Why being a computer technician is better than being a pastor.".....

Thanks, though. These are all good reminders. :)

DJP said...

LOL! Shhh, nobody's supposed to remember that!

Marla said...

This is the one I was thinking of:


I'm not a pastor (obviously) but I've had my share of trying to counsel friends in troubled marriages. Only one success -- but that is because both parties really did love Jesus and cared about pleasing Him more. That was a joy, and still is to see the restoration and righteousness shining out.

(and I can't believe no other comments yet -- feels like an alternate universe or I got Left Behind.... ;D )

Marla said...

I went back and read the classic post and that comment thread still brings giggles and out-right laughter.

Thanks Dan --- Indirectly you have improved my day. I was doing belated spring cleaning, and feel motivated to keep. (Needed some humor).

Marla said...

*keep going*...laughter got in the way....

(I'm leaving now, so someone else can comment.)

Kerry James Allen said...

I think as pastors we need to also remember what Jay Adams (disclaimer: not a huge fan) calls the "presentation problem," that being the fact that we deal with people (ourselves included) that usually have a story that presents ourselves in the best light first. Kind of like what a pastor friend of mine says about the reason why people leave a church.
1. The reason they tell the pastor.
2. The reason they tell their friends.
3. The reason they tell themselves.
4. The real reason that God knows.
Hope springs eternal, however, and we press on using God's Word as DJP has done.

Kerry James Allen said...

"Married life is not all sugar, but grace in the heart will keep away most of the sours."
"They multiply their joys by sharing them, and lessen their troubles by dividing them: this is fine arithmetic." Spurgeon

Jared T. Baergen said...


Good post! I was thinking, though, since all this talk of marriage is on the table, has anyone written on the subject of what to look for in a potential spouse?

I know you have some posts on being single, and many posts on dealing with marital issues, but what about the person who is looking for a potential spouse and trying to discern what to look for?

Some think this is such an easy thing that it's a non-issue, and others think we shouldn't have qualifications for a potential spouse to fit because then we are aren't able to love and care for the person for who they are. Instead we are adding "personal preferences" to the prospective spouse.

You can see how the argument goes. Any suggestions or links to anything? Perhaps this is a question worth its own blog. Not sure. Either way, I just want to be discerning when it comes to thinking about marriage :)

DJP said...

You may have to sign a "I wasn't put up to this" statement, Jared, but yes, I have written on that at some length. It's in the Proverbs book, chapter seven.

Kerry James Allen said...

Third party endorsement: A guy named Dan Phillips has a few good chapters on the subject in his book on Proverbs.

Nash Equilibrium said...

My nomination for the first thing to look for in a potential spouse: Trustworthiness. If they don't have that it doesn't matter what else they do have, "they got nuthin'."

Same goes for the person looking for that potential spouse!

(BTW fortunately I did find such a person and have been married to them for 30 years).

Jared T. Baergen said...


I've let you down. I'm practically a TWTG vendor and yet I haven't even purchased your book on Proverbs yet. Sad panda.

I wasn't put up to this, though. I promise. This question was prompted by three things:

1. I was reading Prov. 31, Titus 2, and 1 Tim. 2 this week.

2. I was battling some feminazi's over these passages last week.

3. And I have been watching the Dick Van Dyke show before bed.

In the midst of reading Scripture, facing some opposition, and realizing the complete role reversal in marriage since the 60's (Laura Petrie was a good housekeeper and Rob Petrie went to work), as a single guy, I started thinking about what to look for in a future wife.

How high of standards should I have, or should I not have any? Common sense says there has to be a few qualifications for a potential spouse (I.e. being a Christian, trustworthy, etc.), but how far does that go, and what kind of standards (especially for someone who is potentially going into full-time ministry)? Should I check her credit report before considering marriage? How's her driving record? Does she respect her own Father? Does she submitt to the leadership she is under (I.e. Pastor, parents, employer, etc).

Well, that's the short version of what has been rolling around in my brainium* that prompted this question.

Davo said...

Dan, you are absolutely right. The flesh hates every word you have written. It is a daily struggle. The flesh has had enough. The spirit knows what it must do, but it is hard.

Nonna said...


Is she a virtuous woman? Of course there are a variety of good answers that one could give you. Why not ask someone who actually knows you personally, someone that you trust, what sort of qualities you should look for in a potential mate? Because there are the general answers, but then there are the narrowed-down ones as well. Someone who knows you quite well can give you a more suitable answer that is based upon knowing your proclivities & idiocyncrasies.

As a Christian, I would not be surprised if generally speaking, you know what you should be looking for in a mate. The specifics I'd suggest have more to do with your distinct affinities, i.e.: personal tastes.

DJP said...

Yeah, Jared, you may not need me to tell you this, but what Nonna just gave you is in no way what you're looking for as a Christian.

Kerry James Allen said...

Dan's next book: "The fist-tilted nose!" :)

Andrea said...

The flesh does hate every word of this. But the spirit of this reader can say amen that it is good and can in fact make changes even for the spouse who doesn't come in for advice.

Someone showed me 1 Peter 3 when I most needed it, and God alone knows the full depths of how that wise counsel worked in our lives.

But even if it had done nothing at all for my husband, the chance to trust and glorify God all by itself is precious beyond words.

Sir Brass said...

And this single man is copiously taking notes and realizing how HARD marriage is going to be whenever it may be that I be married.

Strange then that I look at the challenge and say, "Bring it on. I still want to be married."

Jared T. Baergen said...

Noted, Dan. Not really what I had in mind at all.

Nonna said...


I get the distinct impression you got a problem with me. :-) Like, I dunno...always some kind of snide remark concerning various comments I make.

Btw, if you care to...perhaps you have some advice you could give Jared. After all, my answer wasn't meant to be comprehensive or even scratching the surface. But a virtuous woman...t'aint many of them around, I'd say.

Oh yeah, thanks for sending Christian love my way. It's so rare to find these days.

Nonna said...

And Jared, perhaps the best thing is to get advice from your pastor, or a godly Christian that you know and trust.

Sound like a plan?

Jared T. Baergen said...


Good advice. Now you know why I asked Dan.

Jared T. Baergen said...


Also, Dan isn't obligated to give me a response. I was merely asking for a possible resource, which he has already given; of which he himself wrote. I think that will suffice, unless otherwise necessary to link to something else or provide a new resource altogether.

Anything besides which is an aside to the intention of this comment feed.

Thanks for the input, though :)

Rachael Starke said...


Not to pile on, but if you read Dan's comment as though he were saying it aloud quite cheerfully, perhaps after his morning coffee, you'll see he wasn't being cranky, just truthful.

If your criteria for finding a spouse is primarily subjective, you might be tempted to make that your same criteria for keeping a spouse.

And that's no good.

The money line (perhaps one to be expounded on in the future, as it's the one that I've been pondering in the midst of a difficult season in my own marriage) is this one:

"Just think, for a moment, if Christ loved the church only when the church deserved His love — "

That's objective. That's where we start when we're looking to marry - we look for someone who expresses with their life that they understand what that means. And that's where we live after we marry - we live every day with our spouse as if we understand what that means.

But yes, if they happen to also like the same TV shows you do, so much the better. :)

Jared T. Baergen said...


Speaking of money line's, that was the money comment. Too bad we're fresh out of Facebook like buttons. Well said.

Nonna said...


As far as DJP's comment, well...let's just say there are repeatable patterns - and that's being said aloud in a quite cheerful manner. Now to move on.

If your criteria for finding a spouse is primarily subjective...

I'd say that the first thing a committed Christian should do is pray for & seek a committed Christian spouse. Not just a Sunday-go-to-meeting kind of spouse, but one who is working out his/her salvation with fear and trembling on a daily basis. One who prays for the needs of others and seeks to build up the body of Christ through love and good deeds. One who loves unbelievers and desires to fulfill Christ's command in evangelization.

We look for someone who expresses with their life that they understand what that means.

I'd say understanding that kind of Christ-like love is only a beginning. It's when the rubber meets the road in real life situations that we find out what's required of us in order to put that love into practice. On a personal note, the love I had for my husband was put to the test a few short yrs. after being married. What I understood and knew in my head had to be translated into my heart and shown in my actions. Conversely, my husband's love for me has also been put to the test. And the example he has shown me in putting into practice that self-less love has helped me to persevere in times of trouble.

if they happen to also like the same TV shows you do...

TV never entered the equation for us since we did't own or watch TV for the first 5 years of our marriage. But we read the Scriptures together and prayed with one another.

Davo said...

Hmmm, almost turning into a "help Jared" thread. So, why not. Jared, I'll give you the same advice I give my children. "Stop looking".

Instead, focus on serving Christ. Do this in the context of community. As you do this, you will develop friendships with like minded Christians who have similar goals as yourself.

There is much to be said for being friends before you become more. When you find this friend where you both want to be more than friends, prayerfully seek God's guidance.

Above all, seek God first. It is His strength that is going to get you through the difficult times ahead in marriage. While your partner will be a big part of your life, it is God who defines you, not your partner. If you start to look to your partner to fulfill God's place in your life, you are headed for a world of pain.

You want a partner who will support you in placing God first and expects the same of you.

Matt 6:33

Jared T. Baergen said...


The specifics I'd suggest have more to do with your distinct affinities, i.e.: personal tastes.

I think what Rachael was getting at is that your initial comment centered on looking for subjective characteristics.

While I'm sure these things might come into play somewhere, these things such as personal tastes, blond hair vs. brown hair, etc. are irrelevant to me and this conversation. Whether that was your intended meaning or not, it is what you said, unless somehow all of us read it wrong.

Jared T. Baergen said...

Okay, so far we have a potential spouse who is definitely a Christian; one who understands love and how to apply it all the time; one who is trustworthy, and... Be friends, pray, and wait for the magical appearance of this "right one."

Anyone else want to add to the perfect potential spouse model in the "help Jared comment thread"?

If anyone else wants to add something, instead of adding something on the common sense level, lets try and answer this question:

Is it possible to have too high of a standard when observing* a potential spouse?

DJP said...

Jared - sorry for taking so long to respond; very busy day plus other issues.

You have IN NO WAY let me down, so don't even say it in jest. What you have done, for instance, to spread the ministry of TWTG within your abilities was amazing, and I'll never forget it. If high-visibility folks who have a reputation for caring so much about the Gospel and longing for deeply-Biblical yet accessible expositions of its broad range of doctrines had done in their measure what you did in yours (and what they have in fact done to raise visibility of Driscoll's latest sex book, and another writer's sex-with-God type book), it would have been a NY Times bestseller.

Not nec. saying that's a good thing. Just saying.

So thank you. We're good. We're more than good.

DJP said...

Nonna: sorry if I'm only giving you an impression. I wasn't meaning to be subtle. I find your comments invariably self-referential and distracting from the point of any given post. I decline to interact with you, because I observe that when others do so, it turns into a tar-baby situation, resulting neither in your benefit nor in value-added to the post in question.

And since it happens as a rule in the metas of others' posts, I leave it to those authors to ride herd. But this is my post, so I commented, to make sure no one falsely concluded that my silence indicated agreement with your comment.

I trust I've been clear.

Jared T. Baergen said...


If high-visibility folks who have a reputation for caring so much about the Gospel and longing for deeply-Biblical yet accessible expositions of its broad range of doctrines had done in their measure what you did in yours (and what they have in fact done to raise visibility of Driscoll's latest sex book, and another writer's sex-with-God type book), it would have been a NY Times bestseller.

Exactly! Kind of a disturbing thought when you think about it, though.

Something Frank said to me early on as a Christian changed my perspective on being a Christian, which led to the whole TWTG thing:

I had found something that I felt needed its own Pyro critique, so I sent the link to Frank. The only response he gave me went something like this, "How does this affect the Gospel?"

I realized through that simple question the importance and centrality of the Gospel. Then I read TWTG, which forever altered my walk with Christ, and the rest is history.

I'll have to purchase your book on Proverbs and check out chapter 7 dealing with the topic I brought up. I'm sure it has plenty of good wisdom in it.

Jared T. Baergen said...

Until then, kids, go by a copy of The World-Tilting Gospel if you haven't already, and read it. Every Christian today needs this book!

*I am in no way related to or obligated by DJP in any way to endorse or otherwise promote his book for sales purposes or fame. The book is just that good...

one busy mom said...

Along the "help Jared line":

ditto on TWTG....great book!

From the perspective of a mom, what I would tell my son:

You asked if it was possible to have too high of a set of standards for a potential spouse.

Along with all the basics requirements you've already listed, Imho the answer is "no" - As Long As you always personally and honestly hold yourself to an even higher standard than you set for your future wife. Hold yourself to 150% of the standard you set for her, be quicker to forgive, kinder, more compassionate, and more cheerful.

If you become the best "fleshed out" example of a Godly man, your character will then attract the type of young woman you are looking for in a wife - kinda like bees to pollen.

If you continue, throughout your marriage, to hold yourself to those higher standards your future wife will be very blessed!

Jared T. Baergen said...

One Busy Mom:

My thoughts exactly. Well said!

I think the problem comes when we think we can have too high of biblical standards for a potential spouse because we are so used to the Western lingo of falling in and out of love, as if love is some mystical blob that empowers you and can leave you at random. Advocates might say, "well, if you have standards, then you don't leave room for love." And yet we have to have some kind of standards, as we have noted.

So it appears, and I'm really just thinking out loud, that the problem with this whole discussion stems from our understanding of relationships, love, and biblical principles. Of course we don't want to put someone on a pedestal by holding them to higher standards then ourselves (like you mentioned), but we also need to be discerning when it comes to the true nature of love and the biblical principles we need to set forth.

That may sound vague, but I think I'm onto something here. Thanks for your input!

Nonna said...

My husband and I promised not to ever mention divorce no matter what the circumstances we encountered. A few times when our marriage was tested to the limits we remembered our promise and divorce was never considered an option. Regretfully we were married by a Justice of the Peace and did not recite the vows which are recited in a church wedding ceremony. Attribute that to our youth and lack of direction from mature Christians. On our 25th anniversary we recited our vows and recommitted our faithfulness to each other in the presence of family and Christian friends.

In an age when personal happiness and fulfillment are emphasized to the extreme, divorce is used as an excuse out of an unhappy situation. I've met numerous Christians who divorced for reasons that could not be justified from Scripture. Sadly, the church has often been complicit in the dissolution of these marriages.

Nonna said...


Both being united in the same purposes and goals brought my husband and I together. We both were deeply involved in evangelization and discipling new believers. A common bond was our love for Christ and unbelievers. We were willing to confess our sins to each other and learned the necessity of forgiveness in this process. Honesty and trust go hand in hand and without these a marriage will be strained.

I mentioned the same purposes and goals in that I have known marriages which have become unbearable because the couples were not on the same page in this regard. A dear friend of mine married a man whose goal was to be a pastor. Last year when she visited us spoke of how stressed their marriage had become. She had never wanted to be a pastor's wife. So she sought one career and he another. The result has been that of two people living in opposition to each other. He pastors, she counsels in a secular setting but they do not support one another in these areas.

Make sure the woman you marry wants to share in your goals and support you in that endeavor. If you have a desire to evangelize, or to pastor, or to be involved in a particular outreach ministry, make sure she is right there with you, and giving her support.

Anonymous said...

I think the number one problem with marriage (and any personal relationship) is self centeredness.

I know that when I am annoyed with my husband it is usually because I am not getting what I want. I am thinking of me, me, me.

One of my favorite marriage books is Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas, subtitled, "What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?" Zing!

One of the most encouraging and instructive things I have seen in my life regarding marriage is my parents' marriage. Neither one of my parents is a saint or has ever conducted their marriage very well. My mother has been, however, committed to her marriage and keeping it together even in the face of a husband who would never acknowledge that he has any faults let alone do anything about them.

My Dad is the most self centered person I have ever met. He has mental issues which do not help, but it is all about him - all the time.

I won't go into all the issues in their marriage, but I will say that my mom's willingness to be faithful and obedient to God has been a testimony to me. Marriage (or life for that matter) is about obedience, growing in holiness, and living for others. It is not about being personally fulfilled and/or happy.

That's my two cents. By the way, I have been happily married to a wonderful Christian man for almost 26 years. :-)

DJP said...

Dang, that is a good subtitle.

Aaron said...

Jared: The problem most singles have is not that their standards are too high or too low but that they treat selecting a spouse as if it were a trip to the local market. You can't choose a spouse by using a grocery list. Furthermore, because singles tend to hang out with other singles instead of older married adults they don't even know should be on their list to start with.

Jim Pemberton said...

Good post. You have to take the one who has given you their ear and focus on optimizing their input into the marriage. And you have to start with scripture.

But I have to consider the occasional case where the errant one comes in looking for justification for leaving the marriage: "I'm good. The other person is bad. And God just wants me to be happy, doesn't He?" At that point, you know it's likely that person won't be a member of the church anymore very soon and some other pastor will be saying to their congregation: "...and (s)he comes to us from a sister church. What is the will of the congregation?"

I wonder what the percentage of church membership changes in the SBC are due to divorce.

Nonna said...


I'd suggest no denomination is immune to divorce. Sadly, it has permeated the entire Christian spectrum.