Diagnosing All Your Marital Problems

For a few months, I’ve been working hard on finishing my basement. It’s going to be a great space, but I’ve had my challenges. One of the challenges was installing my pre-hung doors. That’s not easy to do, by the way. I got three of them done; I couldn’t get the fourth to work. Folks, it seemed to me that I was doing it right, and yet the door still wasn’t right. I just couldn’t get it right, and it was frustrating, very frustrating, and I didn’t know why it wasn’t right. I became so frustrated and beaten down, I called Trent, a dear brother, who came over and nailed it. Pun intended. I’m grateful for Trent’s skill.

You might feel about your marriage a bit like I felt about that one double door. Maybe it seems to you that you’re doing the right things which are not working, and you’re frustrated that things are not working. Maybe you feel beaten down. With the door, if I would’ve known exactly what the problem was, I would’ve fixed it and the door would’ve worked. I couldn’t see what the problem was. Maybe you are still trying to understand exactly what’s wrong with your marriage. Maybe you think it’s your spouse. Maybe there are things about you that you can’t yet see. Maybe you should call Trent.

I’m aware that marriage difficulties are often complex, much more complex than installing a door, but wouldn’t you agree that every marriage difficulty you face can be traced right back to sin in your heart and your spouse’s heart? I don’t mean to oversimplify things. I don’t mean to dismiss the complexities of marital problems. I do mean to get to the point. Sin is the real problem. Remove sin from your marriage, and you have a wonderful marriage. Right?

I admit, some difficulties are not sins, like cancer, broken pipes, or financial stress. Those are problems in marriage. However, they are not ultimately the problem. Right? Jesus had these kinds of difficulties, yet because there was no sin in his heart, his joy, contentment, peace, love, etc. remained unwavering. Jesus responded to his circumstances without sin which allowed him to love perfectly in all circumstances, even a cross. We are not like Jesus. We have sin in our hearts which impacts our response to everything. The ultimate problem for you and your spouse is the sin in your heart, their heart, and the more you understand that, the more hopeful the gospel will be for you.

I believe what I’m saying. Many people, probably some Christians, would challenge me on this. They probably think I’m being simplistic, but I don’t think I am. I believe that sin is the core reason why your marriage is not working perfectly. I believe that if sin was entirely removed from your heart and your spouse’s heart, your marriage would be instantaneously and perfectly loving and harmonious. I believe that though you would experience grief in life (like Jesus did), though you would experience pain from outside your marriage (like Jesus did), though you would face many challenges in this life (like Jesus did), if sin was removed from your hearts, your marriage would be entirely loving, supportive, encouraging, healthy, and strong. Your biggest problem is not outside you, it’s inside you; it’s inside your spouse too.  

We need to understand what the real problem is in our marriage, and when we understand the biggest problem, we can understand the solution and address the problem together. The thing that makes your marriage less than it ought to be is inside you and your spouse. Jesus lived like he did because there was no problem inside him, though there were unfathomable problems outside him. Jesus loves because his heart is entirely pure.

We’re not at the solution yet. We’re just trying to better understand the problem so we can be clear about the only solution. How do you begin to understand what’s wrong with your marriage? Another way to ask that would be: How do you begin to understand how sinful you are? How do you begin to understand your own misery? How do you begin to understand the deep struggle within yourself and within your spouse? Knowing will make a huge difference for you in your marriage. You need to accept God’s diagnosis of your problem. You don’t need the world’s materialistic worldview to figure out what’s wrong. You need to hear, loud and clear, God’s law, which shines a big bright light directly on your greatest problem. Listen to God’s diagnosis.

Heidelberg 3 asks, “From where do you know your sins and misery?” It answers: “From the law of God.” Now, that’s pretty basic, but it’s also true and quite profound. The better you understand God’s law, the better you will understand why your marriage isn’t working right. The less you understand God’s law, the more confused and frustrated you will be about the problems in your marriage and the more inclined you will be to seek solutions that don’t address the problem. You’ll listen to a bunch of snake oil salesmen instead of listening to God. God’s law will help you understand what’s wrong with you, and secondarily, God’s law will help you understand what’s wrong with your spouse. Since you both have the same insurmountable problem, you should both be quite humble as you seek the remedy together.

Listen very carefully to Romans 3:20: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Did you get that? Through the law comes knowledge of sin. Paul said in Romans 7:7, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” It’s true. You would have no idea why your marriage is not working perfectly if God’s law did not tell you exactly why your marriage is not working perfectly. I guess the question is whether you’re listening to God’s law, whether you can see what the law’s pointing at.

God’s law will do more for diagnosing your deepest marital problems than a thousand marriage counselors in a thousand marriage counseling sessions! Quick clarification on that. Trent helped me with my door. A good Biblical counselor can help you with your marriage. I highly recommend marriage counseling! I recommend that you get marriage counseling, even if your marriage is good, to help you improve your marriage, and the best marriage counselors will use God’s law to help you get to the root of your problems. So, my point stands. God’s law will do more for diagnosing your deepest marital problems than a thousand marriage counselors in a thousand marriage counseling sessions! Don’t go to marriage counselors who do not use God’s law to help you get to the root of your marital problems. They will probably simply misdiagnose your problems and give you snake oil.

We’re not finished. We’ll pick up where we left off next time, but today’s point is an important one. God’s law effectively diagnoses the root problems in you and your spouse. God’s law defines sin and then shows you where sin is in you and your spouse. You can’t sit in judgment over your spouse because you too have a sin problem. Realizing this unites you in facing your shared problem together as a couple. Sin makes you both miserable, so rather than attacking each other, link arms and humbly begin to address the real problem together. Realize that God gave you one another in part to address your biggest problem together, with humility, patience, grace, and love; but I’m getting ahead of myself because those marvelous things exist in marriage because of the gospel. Till next time, chums.   

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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