On broken marriages and the role of the church…

October 5, 2023 | Written by Jonathan Cleveland

Something has been happening this year.

I’ve served in ministry in churches for 26 years (at Pulpit Rock for 19 of those years), and in all my time being involved in leadership in communities of faith, I have never experienced a year of marriage struggles within the community like we have this year.

Something has been happening. I have seen long-term problems become insurmountable issues for couples. Unattended wounds have created intense struggles. I’ve been thinking for months about why that is and how we can support one another at Pulpit Rock.

The complexity of marriage struggles is such that there is no one answer. Nevertheless, I thought it would be good to share some of our collective wisdom about marriages and what you should do when you and your spouse start to struggle.

So If your marriage has been struggling, or if you love someone who has been struggling in their marriage, this article is for you. It isn’t a fix… but rather it is an attempt to capture some solid advice that can guide us in moments when our marriage is suffering.

Here are 10 things that we need to know, do, and realize about struggling marriages.

  1. Even when marriages are struggling, they should be safe, and respectful and both spouses should be engaged.

We have to start here before we talk about anything else.

Safety in marriage matters. So does faithfulness and engagement. This is why scripture (in my opinion) highlights abuse, infidelity, and abandonment as big issues that can legitimately end a marriage.

God recognizes the destructive power of those 3 things in a direct way. And the biblical ethic is that even a struggling marriage should be safe and respectful. That means…

  • When there is anger between spouses there should never be abuse.
  • When there are sexual struggles there should still be faithfulness.
  • And when there are huge disagreements there should still be engagement, not abandonment.

There is no case where abuse, infidelity, or abandonment are justifiable. And in some of those cases, the marriage is irreparably damaged.

To state it positively – no matter how mistreated you feel by your spouse God is calling you to be respectful, faithful, and engaged with them.

And if you find yourself in your heart beginning to justify abusive behavior, or sexual unfaithfulness, or abandonment. Then you need to understand the seriousness of this moment. Repent from it and change.

We all want our spouses to be safe for us and respectful to us. God wants us to experience those things too. AND he absolutely calls us to provide those things for our spouse no matter how upset we get with them.

If you are experiencing abusive behavior, marital unfaithfulness or abandonment from your spouse – full stop. The rest of this article may not be for you. Some of what I’m about to say may apply to these 3 issues but you should not just try to live out what I’m about to say without first addressing the violation you are experiencing.

(There are some helpful resources at the end of this article, but I want to especially recommend the local organization TESSA https://www.tessacs.org/ if you believe you are experiencing abuse. I also wanted to recommend this online resource https://www.affairrecovery.com/ if you have experienced infidelity).

I encourage you that if abuse, infidelity, or abandonment are a part of your marriage story take action to address that before considering the rest of the advice in this article.

  1. Marriage will surface your deepest brokenness.

We all need to realize this. Every human desires intimacy with others. And every human struggles to find that intimacy. If you haven’t realized this already – our struggle to find lasting intimacy is not because everyone else is a narcissist. It is because we (like everyone else) carry around deep brokenness that makes it difficult for us to walk in intimacy with another broken human.

It is a sin. It is woundedness. It is our selfishness. It is our unhealthy and untrue thinking. It is the reason Jesus came to save us. And it is what makes intimacy and love difficult for humans.

If there is any true intimacy in marriage, then those parts of ourselves that are flawed will come out. You could argue that is part of God’s purpose for marriage (a good reference for this is Tim Keller’s book “The Meaning of Marriage”).

Marriage is not about personal fulfillment and compatibility (sinful and broken people are never truly compatible with each other). Marriage is about being formed in the image of Jesus.

The intimacy of marriage is an environment where our brokenness is revealed and revealed for a divine reason. Our brokenness is revealed through marriage so that we can humbly bring it to Christ and experience the healing only he can bring.

So if you are married and your brokenness and your spouse are coming out in painful ways, I want you to realize you are not alone. I want you to realize that some of that is to be expected**.

((** I have to throw in one huge caveat here. While we should expect our brokenness and our spouses to come out in the context of marriage intimacy, we need to differentiate between the pain that is typical to expect in marriage and those things that should not be expected. Abuse, infidelity, and abandonment should never be expected in marriage. And when we talk about marriage surfacing your deepest brokenness we are not talking about indulging our brokenness by being abusive, unfaithful, or abandoning your spouse.))

Marriage is an environment God uses to make us more like Christ. A big part of that process is revealing things that need to be healed and transformed. When those are revealed in marriage, humble responsiveness is what is needed.

  1. Our church will always be on the side of the work.

When our brokenness and our spouse’s brokenness surfaced, that is not a sign that we should give up. That is a sign that we have work to do and we should humbly do it.

To the degree that the leaders of Pulpit Rock have influence in a person’s life, we will use that influence to encourage them to do the work God is calling them to do. The work is not that we fix our spouse. The work is that we bring our OWN brokenness to God so that he can heal us.

Doing the work doesn’t just mean we try harder. It likely means things like therapy and mentorship and help from outside sources. Sometimes doing the work could mean making significant changes to the marriage pattern. In some intense situations, couples need to talk to wise counsel and even consider things like moving out for a time so that the personal work that is needed can proceed in a more focused way.

The bottom line is this – when a couple is struggling that is a sign that they need to involve someone else who can help them know what work needs to be done. That process is not always easy. Not every therapist is good. Not every friend gives wise advice. But the goal is to continue to seek out the work God has for you.

This is the hill that we will die on as leaders at Pulpit Rock. Slow down and take the time to do the inner work God is calling you to do.

  1. Therapists don’t heal marriages. The church doesn’t heal marriages. God heals marriages in partnership with the humble hearts of the couple.

You can go to hours of therapy and walk away unchanged. You can hear a lifetime of sermons and walk away unchanged. Those things only have an impact on soft and humble hearts who are willing to listen to God’s voice.

There is very little hope for a couple who has hardened their hearts to each other. But the good news is each of us can do the hard work with God to soften our hearts. Having a soft and humble heart doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge our pain. It just means that we are open to God healing our pain. And without that openness, there is no possibility for healing.

(Picture all the times Jesus asked sick people “What do you want me to do for you?” It is obvious what they needed. But even so, Jesus asks them to express openness to him. It is that important)

Every marriage is different and every struggling marriage needs different things. But the one thing that every HEALED marriage has in common is the humility of the couple. It is that humility that helps us hear from God.

Related to that…

  1. Marriages don’t heal when we focus on the problems of our spouse.

Picture 2 people standing at the fence that marks the property line between their 2 yards. Each person is standing at the fence pointing out all the weeds in the other’s yard. And each has turned their back on the weeds in their OWN yard to do so.

This is what a lot of marriage struggles become. We get hurt and we get frustrated until all we can see is the problems in the yard of our spouse. When marriage struggles become like this the only solution is that both people stop and pay attention to their own side of the fence for a time.

That doesn’t mean that you surrender the option of bringing up ways you’ve been hurt. But it does mean that we don’t allow our hurt to blind us to our own brokenness**.

((**Again – I’m talking about some of the more typical hurts we experience in marriage. I would put abuse, infidelity and abandonment in a different category. And they do need to be dealt with directly. Someone who is experiencing abuse doesn’t need to “focus on their own side of the fence” they likely need to leave the neighborhood and make sure they are safe before they do anything else))

  1. Go slow. Most marriage problems take years to form and they will take some time to heal or adequately understand. You can’t rush it.

There is a shame that comes with marriage struggles. We worry about what it says about us that we are struggling. And that drives us to try to fix them quickly.

But think about it. If someone picked up a Violin and tried to become proficient at Mozart in 6 months we would call them foolish. It takes a lifetime of practice to become a proficient classical violinist.

Or consider an athlete who has a catastrophic knee injury. They need time to heal, but they also need to do different kinds of work in the healing process. They would be foolish if they just took a month off and then tried to go back to normal activity.

The point of both metaphors is it takes time to develop something as important as intimacy. And when there are struggles, you have to address them and adjust how you are interacting for a season.

Healthy intimacy in marriage is not an easy skill to master. And just when you think you have it figured out you both change and grow and you have to renegotiate it. Intimacy in marriage takes our whole person and our spouse’s whole person. It is beautiful. But it is complicated and takes time to understand and learn new ways of relating.

When you face a problem in marriage be willing to go slow and take the necessary time.

  1. Restoration is really possible. Fight for it!

You may not know this, but there are marriages in our church that have been through hell… all kinds of hell, and they are still standing and healing. They are a testimony to the grace God has for us and the hope of reconciliation. It is possible. Before you give up, it would be worth talking to some people who have faced tough things and made it. They have incredible wisdom to share.

What I’ve noticed about those marriages that make it when there is a struggle is a few themes.

  • Humility and honesty,
  • A willingness to do their own work,
  • They invite others to help,
  • A value on forgiveness,
  • Patience and willingness to give time to healing.

Those are some of the trends I’ve seen.

Those are the ways we fight for our marriage. It is a holy work. And it takes both spouses. You have people in your life who have done that work even when the deck is stacked against them. Find some people like that and listen to their stories.

  1. Your marriage will need help at some point. Start finding “your people” now!

Whether you are struggling right now or not there will be a moment when you need to talk to a therapist, a pastor, a mentor, a wise couple who have been married much longer than you, a peer who can support you, or all of those. Begin finding some of those people before you struggle.

And if you are in the midst of a struggle, realize that no person has the “magic” answer for you – but that listening to outside perspectives will be part of the answer for your marriage.

Part of the benefit of listening to others is that marriage struggles are often very isolating. When your marriage is not doing well it is easy to believe the lie that everyone else’s marriage is doing well. Knowing genuine people who can be honest with you will truly help us maintain perspective in the hard times.

Diligently cultivate other voices to speak perspective and wisdom to you about your marriage. And then practice ruthless honesty with those people.

And if you are in a good place in your marriage right now, consider that you could be a support for someone who is struggling. It could be as simple as asking a question and lending a listening ear.

  1. All life (including marriage) is about being formed in the image of Christ so that we can become more whole and learn to love others (including our spouse) well.

This may go without saying but one of the best things you can do for your marriage is give the Holy Spirit access to your heart to heal and form you.

It is tempting to believe the lie that if our spouse could just love us better then our marriage would be great. But that lie is just our enemy using marriage struggles to blind us to the most important work God wants to do in us.

God is working in you. And he is working with your spouse. That is partially why we struggle in marriage. Because in our flesh we would rather avoid his pruning work by blaming our spouse.

Our marriage is one more tool he will use to shape us and transform us. Seeing his work helps us to not resist it.

That’s why my last thought is really a question…

  1. What do your marriage struggles tell you about the work God is doing in your heart?

Answering that question is SO important. It may be the most important thing to do when you are struggling in marriage.

And a failure to answer that question will always prolong the marriage struggles.

Even if you end your marriage, if you don’t have that question answered you just keep kicking it down the road to the next relationship.

If you want to understand how God works in us here are a few places to start in scripture. Pray through these verses and humbly listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit:

  • Hebrews 4:12-16
  • James 1:19-27
  • Romans 7:7-8:39
  • John 15:1-17
  • 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
  • Colossians 3:1-17

He is seeking to transform you into the image of Jesus. Identifying how he is doing that in you and being honest and humble about it is the best response to marriage struggles possible.

This question should be deeply and prayerfully considered with God.


A lot more could be said about marriage, but I have found myself saying these 10 things a lot this year, so I thought I’d try to capture them for all of us to think about.

Hear this: you are not alone and there is help for you.

  • If you want to talk to one of our pastors or elders: click here
  • We have a marriage class and marriage coaches: click here
  • We have a great list of therapists and resources: click here

Lastly, if you are in crisis now and need a place to start, we have 2 couples who are willing to sit down and talk right away (Suzy and Matt Bates & Caitlin and Jason Garret). They will listen with a kind ear and help you figure out what the work could look like for you and your spouse. If you would like to talk with either of those couples email Suzy at sbates@pupitrock.com

May we all support each other and do the work together!

I love you people.

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