A Marriage in Decline

by Steven Harper

Throughout the Bible, God uses the analogy of marriage to describe the relationship of God with His people. In the Old Testament, God spoke of how He was “married to” the ones of Judah (Jeremiah 3:14) and “was a husband to” the Israelites (Jeremiah 31:32), and even used the analogous picture of putting away and giving a certificate of divorce to unfaithful Israel (Jeremiah 3:8). In the New Testament, Paul speaks to the Roman brethren of the need to be “dead to the law” that they “may be joined to” Christ (Romans 7:4) and uses the marriage analogy to explain their relationship (Romans 7:2-3). Paul also compares the husband-wife relationship to that of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33).

With these and many more passages which compare our spiritual relationship with God to a marriage, I believe it would be beneficial to then consider some of the excuses people give for wanting out of their earthly marriages and see if these would be acceptable in the sight of God for wanting to get out of our spiritual relationship with God. When we consider these excuses [some you may have heard before] and when we consider how God would view those same excuses as a way of ending a spiritual relationship with Him, we might just see how foolish they are for ending the earthly relationship, too.

“I don't love him anymore.” In troubled marriage relationships, this may be offered up as an excuse to get out of the marriage after 50 years or even a few weeks. Sometimes, one spouse will seek out the advice of another on what they should do about the troubled marriage and they will offer up as an excuse this sad statement. Often, it is stated to others as an excuse because they are trying to justify themselves in what they are about to do, rather than truly seeking advice. I know of an occasion where a woman in a troubled marriage came to a preacher 'seeking advice' and offered this excuse as to why she thought it should end. To this preacher's credit, he told her, 'You need to go home and learn to love him again!' [Despite the modern concept of love and how one 'falls in' love, love is something that can be learned (Titus 2:4-5).]

I would dare say this preacher's answer would be appropriate to the disciple whose love of God has waned! If we, as children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ, could say we don't love God anymore, then we need to learn to love Him! If we find that our love for God has diminished to the point that we think of our relationship with Him as 'loveless,' we must then see the urgency in regaining that love as soon as possible. If we do not love God anymore, or if we never really loved Him at all, then we must find the reason why we have lost that love, or why we never had it in the first place. Maybe we don't love God as we should because we don't really know God as we should! I am firmly convinced that the more we study God's Word, the more we will love Him, and the more we love Him, the more we will study His Word. And once you begin this circle of more study and more love, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to lose that love!

A song we sometimes sing points to the solution to a diminished love of God:

When my love to Christ grows weak,
When for deeper faith I seek,
Then in thought I go to Thee,
Garden of Gethsemane!

There I walk amid the shades,
While the ling'ring twilight fades,
See that suff'ring, friendless One,
Weeping, praying there alone.

There behold His agony,
Suffered on the bitter tree,
See His anguish, see His faith,
Love triumphant still in death.

Then to life I turn again,
Learning all the worth of pain;
Learning all the might that lies
In a full self-sacrifice.

Friends and brethren, if the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ does not move you to have or regain that love of God, I have no other answer. Don't let your heart become hardened to the greatest love that could be shown to man! John wrote truthfully, “We love Him because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). It is not asking too much to love Him for what He has done, is it?

Let us never forget that God expects us to love Him (Matthew 22:37) and there are rewards for those who love Him (I Corinthians 2:9), rewards that were revealed through the gospel message: forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life in heaven (James 2:5). That crown of [eternal] life is reserved for those who love God (James 1:12) and punishment is reserved for those who do not (I Corinthains 16:22). Love God!

“Don't you think God wants me to be happy?” I have had the unfortunate experience of hearing those very words from a young lady who married too early and without much forethought and who had 'discovered' her marriage was not as blissful as she had imagined it would be. Instead of trying to work things out, she was ready to jettison the marriage and seek the 'happiness' that had so far eluded her in the then-current relationship. To show the lack of thought that went into this excuse, this same young lady could not describe to me what would have to happen in her life for her to actually 'be happy' beyond divorcing her husband against God's will, and she could not guarantee she would actually 'be happy' after she did that!

Sadly, there are some brethren today who would have counseled this young lady to immediately divorce her husband because, after all, 'That marriage is dead, and you know what we do with something that is dead: We bury it!' [An actual response to a woman who asked what she should do because she was in a tempestuous marriage relationship.]

The first thing that should be done in such earthly relationships is to stop and do a quick self-examination. Almost always, when this statement is made, the one who said it is looking at the relationship from a very self-centered viewpoint. He or she is not 'happy' because the other spouse is not 'making me happy.' What about doing your part to make them happy? Many marriage problems could be solved if both spouses literally gave themselves in service to the other and quit worrying about 'being happy' [often an indefinable state]. A husband who loves his wife as he should (Ephesians 5:28; I Corinthians 7:3-4) and a wife who loves her husband as she should (Ephesians 5:22, 33; I Corinthians 7:3-4; I Peter 5:1-5) will find happiness. In a solid marriage, both spouses will be seeking the happiness of the other — rather than their own — and will, as a result, find their own happiness there (I Corinthians 7:33, 34b).

In our spiritual relationship with God, we may know through His revealed Word that all He does is for our own good (Deuteronomy 6:24), and out of love for us (John 3:16); certainly, it could be said that God 'wants us to be happy.' But, sometimes, we forget what true 'happiness' is and we allow the world to define that for us. Let us remember that the truly happy man is the one “whose God is the Lord” (Psalms 144:15) and “whoever trusts in the LORD” (Proverbs 16:20). If we are not 'happy,' then maybe it is our definition or expectation of 'happiness' that is askew and not a problem with what God has done for us. Maybe our expectations of 'happiness' are based on a worldly viewpoint and not a spiritual one.

The world often blithely shrugs and says to our young people, 'Whatever makes you happy!' as the answer to what life is all about. The problem with that answer is that they have not been taught what true 'happiness' is, and even many believing parents are not teaching it to their own children. Soon, our young people will move on and leave God behind as they follow the world down the broad path to what they think is 'happiness.'

If you love your children, lead them to know God — true happiness.

“I've found someone else.” For the spouse on the receiving end of this statement, there's almost nothing worse than hearing this statement. Those words would be devastating to hear, especially after thinking that you had both vowed to stay together for the rest of your lives. When you hear that your lifemate has chosen someone else and whatever vows that were made have been broken and trampled upon, there could be little hope for the relationship's survival. What do you say to someone who has basically said 'I don't want you anymore'? Simply hearing this statement will lead to more questions that must be answered. It is likely that it didn't happen overnight, so now the wondering begins.

First, you might ask, 'When did this happen?' Since it likely didn't happen overnight, you might be wondering when he or she started looking for someone else, and why — which is another question in itself. For what reason did they even look at another? And what did this new person offer that you did not or could not? As legitimate as these questions may seem, often there is no fault in the offended spouse at all; sometimes, the spouse who says they have found another simply doesn't want to be married anymore.

But just because this is now out in the open, does that mean we give up? If you heard this, would you just say, "OK," and let them go without protest? Wouldn't you argue your cause and remind them of the vow he or she had made? Wouldn't you plead with him or her to talk things through and see if the marriage could be saved? Wouldn't you try your hardest to re-establish the broken relationship and do all you could to try to rebuild what has apparently broken down? And, if all else fails, wouldn't you warn him or her of the consequences of the broken relationship and all the trouble it would bring, if the marriage truly did come to an end in this way? Wouldn't you?

These things and more are exactly what you would see if you examined the relationship of God with His people when they basically said the same thing to Him. When they acted unfaithfully and followed after the false gods, they essentially said to God, "I've found someone else." What God said and did in response parallels the response most of us would have if our spouse said the same thing to us.

First of all, God did not simply say "OK" and release them from their vows. God loved His people and did not want to let them walk away from Him and into the arms of the world without a fight. For all they had done to Him in acting unfaithfully, God still said to them, “Return, faithless Israel,…I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever” (Jeremiah 3:12). Time and time again, God would plead with them to return to Him and put away their idols because He still loved them. He did all He possibly could while remaining righteous and just to bring them back, reminding them that He had “sent persistently to them by his messengers, because He had compassion on his people” (II Chronicles 36:15). Though they steadfastly refused to repent, God continued to love them and even while they were in captivity, God pleaded with them to return.

Friends and brethren, this excuse for abandoning God simply is inexcusable. It is not acceptable to God, for He cares too much for your soul to let you simply walk away. God “so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), and He will not just sit back and watch you walk away from eternal life without a fight. He wants all men to be saved (I Timothy 2:4) and wants none to perish (II Peter 3:9) and He has warned us that our end will be worse than the beginning if we turn our backs on Him after having come to a knowledge of the truth (II Peter 2:20-21). Even if you have found someone else, it would be in your soul's best interest to go back to your first love [God]. He is willing to take you back if you are willing to repent.

“We don't have anything in common anymore.” Usually, this is expressed to someone other than one's own spouse as a means to explaining why the marriage is troubled, or headed to a certain end. Maybe it is because one or both of the spouses is overly involved at work or in extracurricular activities and little time is spent with one another to even know what the other's interests are. Maybe they have just never taken the time to get to know one another as they should and they can't even honestly say that they don't have anything in common because they don't know what the other spouse likes or dislikes. Maybe one or both of the spouses has just never put forth the effort to know the other. But, sometimes, it is true that they do not have anything in common anymore.

Again, when this statement is made, it is then that the questions begin. Then, one might begin wondering what does interest the other spouse. And if they had anything in common at the beginning of the marriage relationship, someone might ask why interests changed for one or both spouses. At the very least, this statement may cause both sides to sit down and talk, if they are interested in saving the marriage. If both are interested, they will each begin trying to repair the relationship and get to know one another better and recommit to each other.

In our spiritual relationship, it happens far too often that man begins losing interest in spiritual matters and begins seeking after the earthly, material things instead. It is never the case that God has lost interest in us, or that He has changed (Malachi 3:6). As the old bumper sticker said, "If you seem far from God, guess who moved?" [It wasn't God!] Far too often, man moves further away from God because he has set his eyes on the things of this earth instead of thinking on the heavenly things (Colossians 3:2). It should come as no surprise that, if this is happening, it will not be long before this man will truly say that he has nothing in common with God.

But let us be completely honest with ourselves if we find that we no longer have anything in common with God: It is our fault, not God's. John correctly wrote, “If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:6-7). If we claim to be united with God and Christ, yet walk after the ways of the world, it should be clear that our interests have changed and we are not walking with God. It is not because His interests have changed!

If our worship seems dreary and forced, maybe our interests are no longer on the spiritual things and we are looking for something else, something that is pleasing to us in the flesh. Let us remember, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Our relationship with God is spiritual in nature, and we must be spiritual people (I Peter 2:5) if that relationship is to continue. Paul reminds us, “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). Where, or upon whom, have you set your affections?

“I need my space.” This statement should be bothersome to hear because it is saying, in effect, that one does not want to be around anymore and he or she is seeking some 'freedom' not found in the marriage relationship. The one who says this is effectively pushing the other away and it is evident that there is no desire to continue the relationship as it is [or, rather, as it had been]. The one who hears this will most likely try to find out why the sudden change but, often, the decision has been made by the other and nothing can be said or done to change what is now inevitable.

This statement is usually not said without consideration of what it will mean because the one who says it is seeking to be freed from what they now perceive to be a restrictive relationship and all they can see now is that proverbial "other side of the fence" that continues to look greener than where he or she now is. Sometimes, this 'freedom' is sought because the other has been overprotective and maybe even overbearing and would not allow the freedom-seeker to even be themselves, but it is most often just a case where one or the other simply wants out. There are no real plans for what they will do after they are 'given space' and, sadly, little could be said to prevent them from leaving. When it comes down to it, there can by no denying that the one who says this is essentially saying, "I don't want to be around you anymore."

Many times, this statement ends what may have been a good relationship but it always signals a troubled relationship where one or both sides have not worked at making the relationship desirable and leads to one seeking a way out. Often, the desire to be free comes as a complete shock to the other because things seemed to be going well. But, again, sometimes it is just a matter of one in the relationship who simply does not want to be 'tied down' by the union anymore.

In the spiritual sense, man has said this many times to God, seeking to be released from the spiritual relationship with God that they might go out and seek what, to them, is anything better than being 'tied down' to the spiritual relationship with God. After the initial obedience, some look around and find that the spiritual relationship with God is not what they thought it would be and they quickly tire of what they perceive to be a restrictive relationship — a bunch of "Thou shalt nots", so to speak. They forget their condition before coming to God and convince themselves that they would be happy being 'free' from God's rules.

What they forget is this: “If you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (Romans 6:16). We either serve God or serve sin, but we are servants of one or the other. Leaving God is not 'freedom'; it is slavery to sin! Abandoning God for the ways of the world is not spiritual 'freedom' at all. Jesus plainly said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). And, friends and brethren, if we are not obeying God, we are in sin. Running away from God will not solve what is perceived to be a troubled spiritual relationship; that only makes it worse. The solution is to strengthen the spiritual relationship with God and reevaluate the love we have for Him and for His ways. It is never a good thing to have 'space' between man and God in our spiritual relationship. If we draw near to Him, and He will draw near to us (James 4:8).

“I'm not the same person I was.” Like many of the excuses we have considered so far, this one is often stated with the expectation that anyone who hears it will simply 'understand' and accept it as a means of exiting the marriage relationship. But some may ask, "Well, who were you then, and who are you now?" Or someone may ask, "Why did you change?"

Sometimes, this slide into a deteriorated marriage relationship is not immediately noticed because the change has been so slow and gradual that the change has become complete before the other notices that they are truly 'not who they used to be.' Maybe out of indifference or maybe out of lack of attention, the changed spouse has slowly changed all his or her interests, changed his or looks, and changed his or her mind. Sometimes, the truthfulness of that statement is nothing more than the realization that time changes everything: our bodies change over time [most often, not for the better], our behavior changes over time [they call that maturity], the size of the family changes [couples become parents and husbands and wives individually become moms and dads] and our interests change [not always a bad thing, but dangerous if the 'interest' is in another].

In a good marriage, changes will be made along the way by both spouses, learning and adapting to each other in an effort to continue and to strengthen the relationship. Each side knows the other is one half of the "one flesh" relationship and that their part is to be a complement to that other half, rather than a source of conflict. If each spouse has a true love and desire for the other, each will be doing and living for the other and not for self; each will be looking out for the other's good and not simply making it a one-sided relationship. If and when the changes come, both sides work together to make the change together and if it is change that cannot be avoided [if you are having children, you cannot change the fact you will both now be considered parents], then both sides gladly accept their news roles and make that 'who they are now.'

In our spiritual relationship, there is a truth about change that cannot be avoided: God does not change (Malachi 3:6). If any 'change' occurs in our spiritual relationship, it will be by us, not God. Sometimes that change is natural and acceptable [we mature in the faith and get closer to God] and sometimes it is neither an expected change nor acceptable [we do not grow spiritually and are drawn back to the world]. But let us be clear on this: God's Word accounts for all the changes we may face in our spiritual relationship with Him, but it is up to us to work through those changes with Him that the relationship can continue. No relationship that is one-sided will continue for long; God's love will never fail (Romans 8:35-39), but ours may, and we must do our part to strengthen our weaknesses through the study and application of God's Word to our own particular situations. He will always stand with us and help us through our natural changes, but He cannot stand with us if those changes lead us away from Him. He will be there should we change our minds and decide to renew our relationship with Him on His terms.

A spiritually mature disciple is not the same person he was when he was first joined to Christ; he is more spiritually mature and has a greater love for God than he did back when he was first converted. The changes that he makes always include God, and he knows any future changes will also include God. But for the disciple whose interest changes reflect a love for the world instead of a love for God, those changes are not good. Be honest and admit that such changes imperil your soul and make the change that will save your soul: Strengthen your relationship with God.