What makes a marriage? – Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog
Gary Thomas has become one of my favorite authors and marriage mentors. There was a time when I didn’t feel that way, mainly because his book sacred marriage was used as a weapon to tell me that I should have stayed in my marriage. While I agree that marriage is sacred and divorce should never be a first option, there are times when divorce is appropriate. In my case, years of infidelity, a refusal to return to the marriage covenant, and a pattern of verbal and emotional abuse were enough to bring me to a place where divorce became my only option.
And I know God gave me permission to go.
As I walked the devastating path of divorce, my Father was with me every step of the way. Now that I’m on the other side, I see his provision and guidance so clearly at every turn. I know the intimacy I gained on the journey and how I came to know the Greater I Am along the way. While I would never wish divorce on anyone, I can look back and say I wouldn’t trade the trip for anything in the world.
Due to my divorce experience, I have expunged Thomas and his marriage books. Until I read his blog post Enough is enough. Suddenly I realized that it was a minister of marriage who had understood it! Soon after, Thomas wrote a book titled When to go in which he discussed the importance of recognizing toxic relationships (including marriages). He earned my total respect with this book!
That said, I recently had the opportunity to interview Thomas. Since Valentine’s Day is next week, I wanted to share this interview with you as we reflect on the beauty of marriage as God intended.
It is said that the best way to spot a counterfeit dollar bill is to become familiar enough with the genuine product that the counterfeit becomes obvious. Do you think this concept applies to a godly marriage? Why or why not?
[Gary Thomas]: Absoutely. When people come out of a bad marriage or remember their parents’ bad marriage, they often base their next marital choice on this perspective: “I don’t want this.” But there are many ways to be wrong! Avoiding one mistake does not guarantee that you will not choose another. It is best to aspire to a positive example of couples loving each other out of reverence for God, husbands seeking to love their wives as Christ loves the church, cherishing relationships, etc. When you see what marriage can be like, it helps you assess whether your relationship is what it should be.
How would you describe a marriage that honors God?
[Gary Thomas]: First, it is an act of worship. I love my spouse out of respect for God. She is the daughter of God, precious to Him. Out of reverence for Him, we can love our spouses even if they are unlovable because we owe God so much. When we consider God not only as our Father, but also as our heavenly father-in-law, we gain an entirely new motivation.
Second, it is based on biblical love. Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:25-26). Wives are urged to seek training to learn to love their husbands (Titus 2:4). The culture defines marriage by its emotional euphoria (infatuation). The Bible urges us to use marriage to express love, develop our capacity to love, and make love our policy.
Third, it’s service-based. We are all called to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), not a fun marriage, successful children or financial prosperity – the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Hebrews 10:4 urges us to stimulate one another to love and good works. Thus, a God-honoring marriage is brought together around fulfilling joint service in the name of the Kingdom of God.
Fourth, it is marked by cherishing each other. A marriage that honors God is not only quantitative (persevering through the years without divorce) but also qualitative – cherishing our imperfect spouse as God cherishes us.
How the concept of your book sacred marriage that marriage is designed to make us holy more than happy applies to a marriage such as my marriage as described above? (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book, but critics have used this concept to tell me that I should have stayed in my marriage.)
[Gary Thomas]: Holiness is defined as Christlikeness. Christ stood against evil. Acts 10:38 describes Jesus’ ministry as “doing good and healing all who were under the tyranny of the devil.” The CSB is actually a brilliant translation here as it correctly understands Luke’s intention to go far beyond just casting out demons. New Testament scholar CK Barrett puts it this way: “The work of Jesus is God’s decisive attack on the… power of evil. In our holy crusade to help people be faithful to their marital vows (“do good”), we do not want to preserve a platform for evil (abuse). Our mission, derived from Jesus, is to undermine the power of evil, not support it.
Jesus said what he said about divorce to protect first-century women from financial and social ruin, not to imprison twenty-first-century women in abusive relationships. I have worked with and counseled many “victims” of divorce, from marriages where there were no grounds for divorce and where the outgoing spouse broke the other spouse’s heart simply because he was not more “happy” or that he no longer felt “in love”. We must continue to face such selfishness. It does not honor God and it offends the teachings of Jesus.
But there is a difference between denouncing a divorce born out of selfishness or sentimentality and refusing a divorce when mistreatment kills one of God’s children. I believe God hates divorce based on selfishness and “falling in love” with someone else. But he also hates abuse. As much as I dedicate myself to helping those married couples who “stumble in many ways” (James 3:2) learn to forgive each other, show grace and kindness, and grow together into greater Christlikeness, we must not forget those who ‘not only face the normal difficulties of marriage, but an abusive marriage. There is a difference. God has a very different word for them, and in many cases that word is Course.
So in these cases, part of becoming a saint might be learning the courage of Christ to walk away.
I was raised in a Christian home and taught that Christian women should be kind, submissive, and considerate. I was taught that a good Christian wife never mentions the word divorce and stays in a marriage at all costs (except adultery). I believe my heart to please God pushed me to stay in an abusive marriage longer than I should have. How do we as Christians walk that line between holding on to the sanctity of marriage and protecting individuals like me from the harm caused by an abusive spouse?
[Gary Thomas]: We need to help people discern the difference between a “difficult” marriage and an abusive marriage. A book isn’t the best place to do this, however. A two-way conversation, with lots of clarifying questions, is usually best. Look, I’m a book lover! But books are not the be-all and end-all. They are necessarily limited in that they must address a large audience in a one-sided monologue. This is why a licensed individual attorney is so vital. If there are questions about abuse, couples counseling is not recommended as a first step, as some abusers are expert manipulators and doers. The woman should see a counselor who has experience in violence training and who performs safe separations herself.
What do you think are the biblical reasons for divorce? Remarriage?
[Gary Thomas]: Adultery and abandonment. Abuse. The latter can include an addiction problem that puts the health, safety, security and finances of the family at risk. If anyone has been a victim of any of the above, I believe that after healing and counseling they can remarry. If they are the ones who caused the above, I believe they should repent and wait to see if their ex-spouse would consider reconciliation (granting that the ex-spouse’s counselors may warn against a back together). Part of their repentance is to fix what they have done wrong.
What qualities would indicate an abusive or destructive marriage?
[Gary Thomas]: They don’t all have to be present. One of them should concern:
Control. We are called to seek first the Kingdom of God. Our highest allegiance is to Him. If someone tries to override that allegiance, it’s toxic. There will be a time when all of us, like Vashti, will have to tell our spouse “No” and the spouse will have to receive that.
emotional abuse Paul lists the poisonous qualities in Colossians 3:8: “Anger, rage, malice, slander, foul language and lies.” A little later, in 3:19he tells husbands never to be harsh on their wives.
Physical violence. Causing physical harm or even the threat of physical harm is abusive.
Sexual abuse Marital sex should always be consensual and mutually pleasurable.
Degrading Make someone feel small; deprive them of joy; undermining their self-confidence is spiritual assassination. The joy of the Lord is our strength, so undermining that makes us weak. Self-confidence is essential to serving God and reaching out to others; removing it makes us unsuccessful.
Do you have a final word for Christians who have been through an abusive marriage?
[Gary Thomas]: God hates what is happening to you (or has happened to you) and wants it to stop. It is not selfish to seek security; in fact, it is an act of worship.