The wife walked into my office alone. She informed me that her husband would be arriving separately. When he finally came, they talked to me, but not to one another. After some small talk, I finally asked them, “How are you doing?” They only shared as much as their shame would allow, but opened up enough to convey that their marriage was deeply broken. They had arrived in my office because they felt helpless and hopeless. They had come to a point where divorce seemed inevitable.
For many years, these types of encounters caused me to panic. But for some reason, with this couple, I felt a sense of confidence and peace. I told them that I believed there is hope for their relationship, even though I could only articulate a part of the reason at that moment. But I had seen other couples who had come into my office, desperate and injured. Months and years after those initial encounters, those marriages somehow recover. I sensed that this particular couple would follow that same path. After that meeting, I thought about the common signs of couples who recover from near disaster and how they are different those who continue to the brink and disappear into brokenness.
1. They began with blessing
All marriages begin with a honeymoon period. After this often comes a time of conflict and doubt. Husbands and wives who begin their marriages with the full support of friends, church and family seem to handle this difficult period better. When couples have doubts about whether they married the right person, they need to rely on the witnesses, blessings and counsel of those who know and love them. The couple can be reminded that they did not make a mistake and lean on the blessing of those who love them for assurance.
2. They are engaged in a spiritual community
The second sign is that they are regularly engaged with a spiritual community. Just as preventative care is crucial for your long-term health, a spiritual community is the best preventative medicine for marriage.
A spiritual community is more than well-meaning family and friends, who, if they are not gospel-minded, can encourage couples into demands, discord and divorce. A spiritual community is more than a group of friends who happen to be Christians but do not meet regularly. Rather, a spiritual community occurs when a couple regularly meets with fellow believers who understand the power of Christ in the sinner’s life. A spiritual community will urge a couple toward repentance and forgiveness over immediate personal happiness (Hebrews 10:24-25).
I love it when a spiritual small group has become so close that their meetings can often serve as group therapy. It’s not a surprise that a study by Harvard researchers prove that couples who attend religious services are 30-50% less likely to get a divorce. I imagine the success rate in marriage is significantly higher than those who are engaged in spiritual community.
3. They submit to spiritual authority
Another sign that a couple will survive is that they come to spiritual authority for guidance. A couple can go to a therapist for advice, which they can choose to follow or ignore. For a Christian couple, their pastor plays a different role than a therapist or an attorney, who might focus on only one side of the argument or can't change stubborn minds. When a Christian couple go to their pastor, they are communicating a willingness to submit to spiritual authority, and ultimately God’s authority. The very act of seeking spiritual counsel shows a willingness to submit and change.
4. They have been immersed in the gospel
The most important sign is that the couple is immersed in the Word of God and the gospel. The world is broken and marriages are broken. During difficult moments, many couples have doubt about the future of their marriages. Their emotions, scars, family and friends will often whisper in their ears that they have no hope, they deserve better and they need to make a change. But the Christian who sits under gospel teaching is urged to have humility and not blame others. The gospel teaches them that the answer lies not in their own goodness or the change in their spouse, but in the power and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Almost every couple I know struggles. Many become helpless and hopeless. If a couple has started without blessing, are isolated from spiritual community, are resistant of spiritual authority and are immersed in worldly thinking, I conclude that they will ultimately do what is right in their own eyes. But no matter how deep the scars or traumatizing the conflict, when a couple has started with blessing, is connected to spiritual community, is open to spiritual authority and is immersed in gospel teaching, I have hope.
When I look out on Sunday mornings, I see the couple who walked into my office separately. I see them along with many other couples who have recovered from near disaster. Their marriages are far from perfect. Yet, I see Christ working in them. I see hope.
Pastor Steve Chang is the Lead Pastor of Living Hope Community Church and a board member of Crossroads Campus Ministries.