Rumors were beginning to swirl around our church. Was it true that one of the couples was having trouble with their marriage and even thinking about divorce? The battle in my mind began. Should I say something to them or was it none of my business? What if I said something but it was taken the wrong way? But if I didn’t say something and they later divorced I would feel guilty for not doing anything. They probably needed counseling and since I’m not a trained counselor I was off the hook. But was there anything I could do as a friend and fellow believer to help them with the underlying spiritual issues that were causing the problems?
I decided to pray for each member of the family by name that God would bring peace and good out of the difficulties. Next I asked God for wisdom and courage to act quickly before I came up with more excuses for inaction.
Finally I made the (uncomfortable) phone calls. I contacted both the husband and wife and told them that, as a friend, I would like the privilege of visiting with both of them together within the next few days. If they said “no” I determined to continue praying for each of them every day for the next thirty days.
Fortunately they both said “yes” so we set up the time and place to meet.
He sat in one corner. She sat in another corner. All three of us could sense the tension that comes when there has been unfaithfulness to the marriage vows.
I broke the silence. “Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me. I know this is very uncomfortable but as a friend of both of you I want to help if I can. Here’s what I’d like to do if you both agree. I would like each of you to take exactly five minutes to say whatever you’d like. Then I’d like to say a few things. Is that okay?” He nodded agreement from one corner of the room; she did from the other.
“Mary, why don’t you can go first. When you are finished it will be John’s turn.”
“I know I did wrong, but he is so hard to live with. When he’s not ignoring me he’s putting me down or yelling at me. There is no love there. When someone else started showing me some attention I was so hungry for love that I did some things I shouldn’t have done.” She continued detailing examples of the hardness of her husband’s heart as he sat in the other corner of the room, arms folded high across his chest.
“Time’s up” I said after five minutes. “John, it’s your turn. You have five minutes.”
“I know I haven’t always been the best husband but I had no idea she would be unfaithful to our marriage vows. If a person won’t do what they promise to do I don’t know if there’s any hope for a marriage.” He spent the rest of his five minutes expressing his frustration at his wife.
“Your five minutes are up now, John.” I had been helping couples deal with these situations for twenty five years so I knew what was needed. “God,” I prayed silently, “please soften their hearts and give me wisdom to choose my words carefully.”
“This is an extremely difficult situation. You know this doesn’t happen when two people each have a vibrant relationship with Jesus.” They both hung their heads and nodded agreement. “I don’t know what each of you will decide in the days ahead, but as your friend, I am going to give each of you three assignments. If you do them I know they will help you tremendously. If you don’t do them then I don’t know what will happen. Are you willing to give this a try?” Both nodded again. “Praise the Lord” I breathed silently.
“It’s important to write the assignments down so you remember them. They are to be done individually, not together. And I’d like to meet with both of you about a week from now to see how the assignments are going. Is that okay?”
“The first assignment is designed to help you strengthen your relationship with God. It is based on reading a specific section of the Bible in a very specific way. Do you each have a Bible?” “Yes.”
“Do you each know where your Bible is?” “Yes.”
“Do you know how to find things in the Bible?” “Yes.”
“To assign you the right part of the Bible I need to ask you to answer this question. Which of these four emotions is strongest for you right now— Anger, Fear, Lust or Discouragement. You might have all four but which is strongest right now.” I’ve learned that I must always ask because often the answer is something different from what I would have guessed. Instead of “Anger” John said “Discouragement.” Instead of “Lust” Mary said “Fear.”
“The best part of the Bible I’ve found for discouragement is the little book of Philippians. The best part of the Bible I’ve found for fear is the little book of 1stJohn. Sometime today I want each of you to find a place alone with just you and God, open the Bible to the assigned place for reading, and pray a prayer something like this. ‘Lord, please show me a special verse for me for today.’ Then begin reading. If your mind wanders, like it will often do, just ask God to help you focus back on His word, and He will.”
“I can’t tell you how much to read. That isn’t the goal. Just read until you find a verse that really speaks to your heart. You might find it after reading only a few verses or it may take a few chapters to find it. Once you find it say ‘Thank you, Lord, for showing me this special verse for me for today.’ Read the verse out loud seven times so it can really sink into your mind as you see it, say it and hear it. Then write out the verse along with a simple prayer to God on why that verse means so much to you.”
“Tomorrow start with the following verse and do the same thing. A week from now, if you are consistent, you should have written down six or seven verses and prayers to God. If you come to the end of your reading in less than a week just start at the beginning again and God will show you other verses you weren’t ready for the first time.”
“John, do you know how to find Philippians?”
“Mary, your assignment is the little book of 1st John with five chapters near the end of the New Testament, not the gospel of John. Do you have that?”
“Now let’s go to the second assignment. This is designed to strengthen your relationship with godly, encouraging people. In the weeks and months ahead there are going to be a lot of bumps in the road and you will need all the affirmation and encouragement from others you can get. Here’s the assignment. During the next seven days I want each of you to attend three gatherings where you will be around godly encouraging people. This can be a Sabbath School, Worship Service, Prayer Meeting, Small Group Meeting, Twelve Step program, etc. I want you to write down the three events you attend and one good thing you learned at each gathering. Are you willing to try this?”
“Great! Now let’s go to the third assignment. This assignment is designed to help you resolve a relationship with the person on earth you have the hardest time getting along with. In this case we will focus on your relationship with each other.
“I want each of you to write a letter to the other person, but don’t send it. The letter should have three parts. In the first part I want you to mention 2-3 things you value about the other person. This may be a little difficult right now but I know you can find these things. The second part of the letter should list 2-3 things you would like to do differently in your relationship. The temptation will be to list things you want the other person to change, but that isn’t part of this assignment. Focus on what you would like to do differently that will be positive in the relationship. For example, don’t put ‘I won’t yell at you anymore’ but rather say ‘I want to be calm and to speak helpful, positive words to you.’ The third part of the letter should list 2-3 good memories you have shared in the past and a statement like ‘I hope we can share more memories like this together in the future.’ Any questions about any of these assignments?”
After answering a few questions we set up an hour-long appointment for about a week later. “Remember, when we meet next week almost all the time will be each of you sharing from your assignments. I’ll ask each of you to share 3-4 verses God showed you from your reading and the prayers you wrote to Him in response, plus the list of the three events you went to and something good you learned from each. Also bring your first draft of the letter.”
“And one other thing. I recommend that both of you resign from any church offices you hold so you can focus completely on your personal growth at this time. All you need to do is write a brief note listing the offices you are resigning from and give it to your pastor. This will allow you to grow without other pressures. In the future God will make it clear to you when you are ready to resume any kind of church leadership.”
I closed the meeting with prayer that God would help them be consistent with their assignments and would speak to them everyday. Afterwards they walked quietly to their separate cars and drove away.
During the next seven days John and Mary were often on my mind and in my prayers. I saw them at church sitting separately. Church members who were tempted to take sides seemed to recognize that John and Mary weren’t looking to draw battle lines or seek sympathy from others. Fortunately they had already started to see God transform their own hearts and thinking.
When we met a week later I asked each one to take turns actually reading from their Bible study journal and the notes about their visits to the three groups. Then they read their letters to each other. At the end of our visit they agreed to accept new assignments and to meet again a week later.
This continued for eight weeks. Many times during those sharing times all three of us were wiping tears from our eyes as John or Mary read a verse that spoke to their heart and a heartfelt response in prayer to God. It was evident that God was changing all of us through His word, His Spirit, and His people. By the eighth visit John and Mary were sitting next to each other, speaking encouraging words, crying and hugging and looking forward to a future together with God.
Over the next few months John and Mary started reaching out to other families who were going through marriage troubles. When they found couples who were responsive to their efforts, they invited them to their home, told their story, shared Christian videos on marriage and asked if they could give their friends three assignments! They later arranged for a renewal of marriage vows for several couples, including themselves, complete with wedding cake and punch.
A couple years later our church decided to plant a new church in order to involve more members in ministry. John and Mary saw it as an opportunity for a fresh start, and before long they were leaders in the new church.
Not every struggling marriage will have this happy ending, because each person has his own free will and sometimes-stubborn heart. However I believe God has given His church some simple tools that can make a huge difference when His people— you and me— are courageous enough to get close to struggling people in struggling marriages and offer the supernatural help found in God’s Word, among God’s people and through God’s Spirit.
Blessings to you,
- Outline of the approach I suggest – See Sidebar below
- Marriage Coaching Manual
- Pre-marriage Coaching Manual
Here is an outline of the approach I suggest—
- Listen. Five minutes each. Acknowledge the enormity of the problem(s)
- “These things don’t happen when two people each have a vibrant relationship with Jesus. I’d like to give you each three assignments that will help you in the days ahead, okay?”
- Three Assignments
- Assignment #1 Purpose- To strengthen relationship with God
- Strongest Emotion Right Now?
- Anger- Ephesians
- Fear- 1st John
- Lust- Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on Mount)
- Discouragement- Philippians
- Ask God to show you verse for today
- Read till find it, then thank Him
- Read verse out loud seven times
- Write down verse & short prayer to God
- Repeat daily, starting with next section of reading
- Bring journal to meeting next week
- Strongest Emotion Right Now?
- Assignment #2 Purpose- To strengthen relationship with godly, encouraging people
- Attend three events where you will be around godly, encouraging people (Sabbath School, Worship Service, Prayer Meeting, Small Group Meeting, Twelve Step program, etc.)
- Write down each event and one good thing you learned from attending.
- Bring notes to meeting next week
- Assignment #3 Purpose- To establish/strengthen communication with person on earth with whom you have a very difficult relationship
- Identify that person (For marriage issues write to spouse)
- Write a letter to person without sending it
- Part 1- Mention 2-3 things you value about the person
- Part 2- Mention 2-3 things you would like to do differently in a positive way in your relationship with that person
- Part3- Mention 2-3 good memories you have shared with that person in the past and indicate you would like to have more good experiences like this together in the future
- Bring first draft of letter to meeting next week
- Set the time for next week’s meeting and pray for God’s help in their lives
- Recommend both resign from all church offices to focus on personal growth
- Assignment #1 Purpose- To strengthen relationship with God
- Next Week
- Affirm the two people for meeting again.
- Invite each to read 3-4 Bible verses and prayers to God
- Invite each to read the list of the three events they attended and the good thing they learned at each event
- Invite each to read their first draft of the letter and then share observations about how they can edit their letter to be clearer and/or remove personal attacks, negative innuendos or sarcasm
- Ask if this time together has been helpful. If so ask if they would like to meet again next week with new assignments. If so give three new assignments as follows
- #1- Which of the following three emotions (the three they didn’t choose last week) is strongest for you? Assign Bible section and same way as before
- #2- Same assignment. Same or different groups
- #3- Revise letter (until it is ready to be sent)
- Invite each one to pray a short prayer if they are willing.
- Set the time for next week’s meeting and pray for God’s help in their lives
- Future Meetings
- If they continue carrying out their assignments and giving evidence of clear spiritual growth I will meet with them up to eight times. By the eighth time, in my experience, they have learned how to carry out their own spiritual growth and communication with difficult people.
 All names in this article (except mine) have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty, with the hope that the guilty will confess their sins and find forgiveness and cleansing in Jesus (1 John 1:9).
 “If pride and selfishness were laid aside, five minutes would remove most difficulties. Angels have been grieved and God displeased by the hours which have been spent in justifying self. I saw that God will not bow down and listen to long justifications, and He does not want His servants to do so, and thus precious time be wasted that should be spent in showing transgressors the error of their ways and pulling souls out of the fire.” Early Writings, pp. 119-120.
 According to the Bible, if a believer has a spouse who has been sexually unfaithful he/she is permitted but not required to divorce the sexually unfaithful spouse and later remarry. Matthew 19:8-10; See also Matthew 5:31, 32.
 I have developed this approach to helping solve crises in the lives of believers over several decades. I have seen God heal dozens of marriages, resolve hundreds of personal crises and help thousands of people get on track to grow spiritually through accepting these three assignments.
 My first objective is not to patch up the marriage but to strengthen each of their relationships with the only One who can really heal relationships, and to surround them with people who will help them on this journey.
 Each person needs to have a vibrant relationship with Jesus personally so they will be able to bring something positive into resolving the relationship later.
 Knowing that we are meeting in a week to share progress on the assignments is a very important ingredient for both motivation and accountability.
 If a person needs a Bible I give them one and show them how to find things in the Bible.
 For anger I assign Ephesians and for lust I assign Matthew 5-7 (The Sermon on the Mount).
 Many people in crisis do not listen well. As they learn to listen carefully to God through His word they become better listeners to others as well.
 It is important that they go looking to learn and experience something good rather than go to “critique” what happens, which is sometimes the mindset of a person going through personal crisis.
 Sometimes people in crisis find this challenging because of child care, work issues, etc. so we take a little time to resolve these things if needed.
 If marriage difficulties are involved, we focus on the relationship between the spouses. In other cases you might find the greatest relationship difficulties are with a parent, child, employer, etc. rather than the spouse, so that would be the place to focus.
 Following this counsel allows the individuals to focus on personal growth and also allows the church to focus on helping build up the individuals without needing to sort through who needs to receive what kind of church discipline. Occasionally I have found some who would rather hold on to “forms of godliness while denying the power” of God in their own lives (2 Timothy 3:5), making it difficult not only for themselves but for the church body as a whole.
 The new assignments were the same three I gave the first time with these simple changes—Assignment #1- I assigned one of the three remaining portions of the Bible based on their strongest emotion of the three they hadn’t stated the week before. Assignment #2- They could attend the same or different groups but they still needed to attend three and write a statement for each on something positive they learned. Assignment #3- They were to continue to refine the letter based on counsel I gave and the spiritual growth they were experiencing.
 When I give people assignments to help them, I neither suggest nor discourage other counseling, therapies, medications, etc. My role is to offer the resources of heaven to help them strengthen their relationship with God, godly encouraging people and their communication with someone with whom they need help communicating.
Thank you for using your God-given gifts for His honor and glory. I appreciate this story, your pastoral non-threatening and redemptive approach and the Biblical assignments. Often we see the pain and hidden emotions of others, but don’t know what to say or do. I appreciate the above outline.
I have a divorced friend (do not know the spouse) who is going through a painful journey. I desire to walk beside my friend through this painful journey. In our conversations, I sense a key emotion (self blame. etc.) and a cloudy understanding of God’s love and forgiveness regardless of personal choices or consequences.
Would you recommend a similar or a much different approach? Your blog on “struggling marriages” shows how coaching skills can be combined with pastoral ministry.
Thank you for your input.
I wish every marriage could have that happy ending but any that do are a blessing. I fought 23 yrs and it’ll be done soon. There has to be two who want it. And two willing to be honest.
Your various posts reflect sooooo much spiritual wisdom and practical instruction. Many thanks for sharing!