We have to work with married disciples on the biggest area of their lives: their families. Again, marriage and family counseling are such vast areas of need that we can only mention some of the most common areas and refer the reader to further reading.
- Some marriages are “unequally yoked.” (2 Corinthians 6:14) In an unequally yoked marriage, one spouse is far more interested in pursuing the things of God than the other. Sometimes one spouse may be a non Christian or an ambiguous Christian, in the sense that their testimony is unclear and you see no evidence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the uninterested spouse.
- Sexual dysfunction is also common in marriages, and may come up in discipleship. Here, some good reading in the field of marriage counseling can help.1
- In the field of parenting we commonly see two areas that may need attention: failure to invest and avoiding extremes in the permissive-controlling continuum. If you share insight with your disciples in a way that helps them win their kids over to a life centered in God and his values, you will have helped both your disciple and the kids in a profound way.
More ideas for helping people with their marriages
In all these cases, the whole church has to become involved in an effort to win the unwilling person over to commitment. You, as the discipler, are typically working with the committed spouse, so you need help from those of the opposite sex in trying win over the reluctant spouse. The most natural choice for a helper is your own spouse.
These situations are painful to both spouses, and have to be handled with care and patience. Consider calling on the committed spouse to hold back in some areas of involvement for the sake of the uninterested spouse. Some new believers who get too involved in Christian activities too quickly fail to win their reluctant spouses. But spouses who agree to drop all involvement in the church usually fail to win them as well. Common sense tells us that a spouse who suddenly begins leaving the house several nights a week poses a threat to the status quo of the marriage that will be hard for a disinterested spouse to accept. Sometimes, these marriages are distressed, and the spiritually eager spouse is happy to have an excuse to get away from her partner. This is wrong. We have to persuade our disciples that their future with the Lord needs to include their spouses, and put the burden on them to bend over backwards to win that reluctant spouse.
Consider with your disciple: is her recent conversion to Christ making her more appealing or less appealing as a spouse? Nagging and browbeating are harmful. But she does need to lodge periodic appeals—perhaps offering to trade off on interests. “I'll go to the game with you if you try out my home group.”
Situations where the man is the reluctant partner are particularly difficult, and seem to be more common as well. Many men don't like the idea of being told what to do by their wives. Some wives have seen good results from simply asking their reluctant husbands questions about spiritual matters on a regular basis. By asking the reluctant husband, “What do you think this passage means?” or “Why do you think our friend is so uninterested in God?” the wife creates a leadership vacuum that tends to make the husband feel like learning more. Whereas her coming home and telling him why some of his ideas are in the wrong has the opposite effect.
Our main goal is to get some kind of action from any reluctant spouse. Then we have something to encourage. If a reluctant wife finally agrees and comes to a Bible study group or church service, her husband will hopefully be in a position to share how “So and so was saying how much she enjoyed you.” Anything like praying together, or discussing something spiritual should be viewed as a big opportunity to shower appreciation and praise on any reluctant spouse.
One thing is clear. Groups that only win one spouse end up in big trouble. Their discipling ministry will not go forward easily, because a reluctant spouse is usually in a position to stalemate the ministry of the eager spouse.
Sexual Dysfunction: General Tips
First, we are usually safe to assume that enhancing the personal part of the marriage relationship will also enhance the sexual part. Re-read the chapter on friendship building with your disciple in mind. Can you help him become a better friend in his marriage? Does he invest? Does he take an interest in her apart from sex? Is the relationship warm and positive? Any seriously sexually dysfunctional marriage should really go into marital counseling. Unless you see big results soon, plan on trying to persuade the couple to go to counseling.
Secondly, you should check on whether your disciple is erected any barriers to successful sexual relations. For instance, we know of cases where a wife or husband are unhappy with their spouse's disinterest in sex, but have overlooked the importance of their own fifty pound weight gain. We have found ourselves engaged with disciples in efforts at weight management because over-eating is causing serious heartache. Disciplers have to be ready to engage in any area for the good of those they love. Usually, joining a disciple in a diet or exercise regimen does the discipler no harm, and can become a clear area of victory to celebrate together.
Other obvious barriers could include pornography addiction on the part of the husband. These secrets come to light surprisingly often in close discipleship relationships, especially if the discipler is being open about his own sin problems. Western culture has reached a point today where raw porno is piped directly into people's households in unlimited quantity and virtually free of charge. We have abundant evidence today that pornography is rampant in the church in America. A husband who gratifies himself with pornography may reach a point where he prefers pornography and masturbation to sexual intimacy with his spouse. One of the main appeals of pornography for married men is the ease and convenience that comes without messy relational overhead. In a word, this kind of sexual gratification is selfish. No progress is likely in a marriage (or in other areas of spiritual living) when a man is hung up on porno. If a problem like this surfaces, don't just pray that it will go away. Work together on realistic, practical solutions like porn blockers,2 good reading,3 and learning to confess to an accountability partner.
Thirdly, most sexually dysfunctional marriages involve a demander and a refuser. One spouse wants more sex, and the other wants it less, if ever. If our disciple is the demander, we have to persuade them that demanding is the worst thing they can do for their sexual relationship. Healthy sex involves winning the attentions of your partner, not demanding it. Anyone who is even partially uninterested in sex becomes more uninterested the more they see it as a duty. Legalism kills sexual responsiveness. Grace will gradually enhance it. Instead of demanding sex, work out a strategy for becoming more of a servant at home.
If, on the other hand, your disciple is the refuser, try to work on the idea of gradually seeking for responsiveness and taking the opportunity when it appears. Praying along these lines can really help. Teach disciples to watch for Satan accusing their spouses to them. Satan relentlessly seeks to divide Christian marriages.
Above all these issues, however, the most potent help for most sexually dysfunctional marriages is enhancing the quality of their personal relationship. Failure to communicate is at the root of most problems in marriage. Your church may offer marriage communication seminars. Or you could go over one of the numerous quality books on the subject. The best situation is one where you and your spouse can work with your disciple and his or her spouse as a couple. We often see noticeable improvement over time in these situations. See a larger discussion of this area in Spiritual Relationships That Last
Finally, if your disciple refuses to play the kind of role in marriage that God prescribes, you may need to be ready to put some godly pressure on. See the chapter on discipline in Organic Disciplemaking.
1 Titles we have found helpful include Neil S Jacobson and Gayla Margolin, Marital therapy : strategies based on social learning and behavior exchange principles (New York: Brunner/Mazel,1979); John M. Gottman, Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999); Leslie Vernick, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong, (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2001); John Gottman, A Couple's Guide to Communication, (IL: Research Press, 1979); Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, Crucial Confrontations, (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2004); Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999).
2 Anyone hooked on porno, but unwilling to introduce a porno blocker on each and every computer he has access to, is fooling himself about his willingness to change. Even though some of these may be a nuisance, serious believers are willing to pay that small price for freedom. Cyber-Sitter blocks porn successfully, and can also block peer-to-peer file sharing, which is essential. Peer-to-peer is the premier way for many to acquire pornography. For adults, we suggest configuring it so that only adult, sexually-oriented sites are blocked (instead of including violence, hate, and the other blockers that are default, but which cause over-filtering). A less-restrictive approach is accountability software that sends a record of your web access to other partners. XXX Church offers a free program, and there are several other commercial packages. While porno blockers won't stop a determined person from accessing pornography, they do reduce the temptation caused by constant, easy access to porno (the so-called, crime of opportunity). We find that those who have the desire to avoid pornography do much better when they set things up so that accessing more porno would require a deliberate series of actions, like going to a porno store or trying to defeat a porno blocker.
3 We suggest Bill Perkins, When Good Men are Tempted, or Larry Crabb The Silence of Adam (for married men)