My wife and I had the worst fight of our marriage several years ago. The argument occurred following the period of some of the greatest ministry successes we had ever experienced. I was teaching, counseling, and leading conferences. Wendy was planning and organizing major ministry events.
Our ministry was having a global impact. We were loving the work we were doing and didn’t mind the sacrifice of time apart because of the fruit we were seeing from our efforts, as well as the personal satisfaction we were both experiencing from our work. Things just couldn’t be any better.
Things Are Not As They Seem
Except. . . they could have been a lot better. Slowly, quietly, and insidiously, our marriage was drifting. I was traveling the country leading conferences telling people how to have great marriages. But talking to others about marriage wasn’t enough to protect my own marriage from the peril of inattention. Weekend after weekend, I was away from home. When I was home, I was working on preparing to teach, meeting with students, or administrating a doctoral program. So, I really wasn’t “home.” We were slowly drifting apart, and unbeknown to either one of us was the severity of the divide that was developing.
Don’t get me wrong, Wendy and I still loved each other immensely. We still wanted to be good spouses to each other and good parents to our children. We still desired the best for one another. But as the divide grew, our patience with one another waned. Our ability to believe the best in one another diminished. Our expectations became unrealistic, and we saw each other as the problem. As things got worse, we fooled ourselves into thinking that when things slowed down, everything would go back to normal. But things didn’t slow down, and they certainly didn’t go back to normal. Instead, the distance grew larger and larger. Eventually, distance turned into resentment.
Our ability to believe the best in one another diminished. Our expectations became unrealistic, and we saw each other as the problem.
Then the fight happened. I dug my heels in. I said some hurtful things. She didn’t think she had done anything wrong. I was livid she wouldn’t see my point of view. So, I (the marriage counselor, marriage educator, and marriage conference speaker) stormed out of the house. I violated virtually every principle I teach in my conferences. I knew better. My emotions got the best of me. Because of the growing resentment and distance, there was no desire to fix it. I just wanted to get away. Later that night, I returned home.
A Painful Discovery
After taking some time to sort through my own emotions and really process what happened, I knew I had messed up – badly! I knew I was mostly to blame. I knew my own neglect of Wendy had caused most of the problem. That’s not to say there weren’t things she needed to change or do differently. The real problem though was ME. My joy, my fulfillment, my excitement, my identity, and my confidence was all coming through what I was doing in ministry. The activities of my ministry had taken center stage in my life. I was sacrificing everything upon the altar of ministry. I was pouring everything out to help others and giving the leftovers to my wife. A few weeks later, Wendy and I found ourselves sitting on a counselor’s couch.
The next three months were some of the hardest but most enriching months of our marriage. We tackled difficult issues. We apologized for our shortcomings. We repented of some unhealthy habits we developed. The most significant thing I learned during those three months is that there is a major difference between knowing what a healthy marriage is and actually being in a healthy marriage. Intentions and actions are not the same things. While I knew all the right things to do, I wasn’t doing them. I was so busy doing ministry that I failed to be the husband that I was commanded to be. I thought my service to others would justify my failures as a husband.
The most significant thing I learned during those three months is that there is a major difference between knowing what a healthy marriage is and actually being in a healthy marriage.
Two Lessons About Marital Unhealth
Reflecting on my experience, I learned two lessons.
First, inattention to my marriage turned into marital unhealth a lot quicker than I would have imagined. The precipitous fall from marital bliss to marital unhealth occurred in a matter of months. Just nine months earlier, Wendy and I were lounging by the crystal blue water of the Bahamas, celebrating our 25th anniversary. It was the trip of a lifetime. We celebrated a quarter of a century together. We laughed. We reminisced. We planned. We rested. It was glorious. Then in just nine quick months, our marriage was in trouble.
James 1:14-15 says, “But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.” The temptation of allowing other things to capture our attention and affection is subtle. We don’t see the effects immediately. We certainly don’t see the impending “death” that is coming. We fool ourselves into thinking our neglect is “no big deal,” or “just for a little while.”
Second, neglect of my marriage destroys my opportunities for ministry. 1 Timothy 3:2-6 says, “An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy. He must manage his own household competently and have his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?)”
Unfortunately, we have often glorified the pastor who neglects his family for the cause of ministry because “the ends justify the means.” If he is growing the church and helping others, then his neglect is seen as an occupational hazard. We fail to realize that neglect of my family is not something that should be glorified; rather, it is a disqualification from ministry. God is not pleased when we, as ministers, fail in our most basic responsibilities of being a husband, not even when the excuse is ministry.
In part two, I’ll discuss five practices of pastors who take their marital health seriously. You won’t want to miss it.