January 3, 2019

What to do When Sacred Marriage Doesn’t Work?

Gary Thomas — 


I’ve been asked several times, “Gary, what do you do when Sacred Marriage doesn’t work?”

At first, I was confused by the question. What did they mean by “work?” When pressed, they eventually came around to mention that their spouse hadn’t changed. They bought a book that purports to teach us how God can help us grow through marriage but expected it to be about how God can use us to fix our spouse.

If I may be so bold, the message in Sacred Marriage is revolutionary. It was when God first convicted me with it, and it remains so today. It’s so revolutionary, in fact, that I have to be reminded of it at least three times a week to maintain its focus.

If you will embrace and believe its truth, however, you will never look at your marriage in the same way again. And you will never complain that Sacred Marriage doesn’t work.

The message—that God uses marriage, in part, to help us grow—wasn’t discovered by me and isn’t owned by me or unique to me. In his book (which I’m happy to recommend) Louder than Words: The Power of Uncompromised Living, Andy Stanley recounts a conversation with a man that mirrors several conversations I’ve had about the purpose of marriage.

Here is what Andy writes…”A fellow who was having trouble in his marriage came to see me for advice. For forty-five minutes he told me all the things that were wrong with his wife. If half of what he said was true, he had every right to complain. He was a Christian, and he knew everything the Bible had to say about marriage. He was especially well-versed in the portions dealing with wives and submission.

When he finished, I asked him, ‘How can I help?’


‘Tell me what I should do.’


‘What do you think God wants you to do?’


‘I don’t know. I’ve tried everything.’


‘What do you mean, you’ve tried everything?’


He went on to tell me all the things he had done to ‘help’ his wife.


When he finished, I said, ‘I get the impression you want to ‘fix’ your wife.’


‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I do. But I don’t know how.’


As we talked further, it became evident that this biblically astute believer was operating from several false premises.  Assumptions he wasn’t even aware of. Assumptions that contradicted several passages of Scripture he firmly believed. But the truth of these passages never made their intended impact because of the undetected, covert lies that were warping his mindset.

False Assumption #1: Husbands have been given the responsibility of fixing their wives. That’s what he actually believed. And since he believed that was true, he acted on it—which only made the problems worse. The truth is, God has not called men to fix their wives. He has commanded us to love them.

The interesting thing was that this man could quote the verse about husbands loving their wives. He knew it. He just wasn’t operating from it. He said he had tried loving her. ‘I’ve tried being nice and sweet and patient, and nothing changed!’ This brought to surface another false assumption.

False Assumption #2: Love is a tool, and if it doesn’t get the job done, it’s okay to use another tool. He tried loving her to get her to change. And when it didn’t get the job done, he put down that tool and picked up another. But love isn’t a means to an end. Manipulation is a means to an end. And when love is used as manipulation, it isn’t love.” (End of Andy Stanley’s excerpt.)

Let’s be honest. There is a natural but near-demonic bent in us that redefines love as manipulation. I’ll do this for you, but then you have to respond the way I want you to. We’re like the Godfather who told the “beneficiaries” of his “generosity,” “There will come a day when I will need a favor from you…”

It sounds so evil to hear a crime boss utter those words. When the very same sentiment comes from our mouths, however? Well, we define that as “marriage.”


I’ve just finished and sent to the publisher the manuscript for my next book: When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. One of the key insights for me personally in doing that study was comparing the generous, no-strings attached love of God who invites us to freely make wise choices, with the controlling, manipulative actions of toxic people. Control and manipulation are tools of toxicity. They are doubly dangerous when we try to redefine them as caring and loving.


This year, let’s be ruthless and honest regarding our motives in marriage. Are we loving our spouses, or are we trying to manipulate them? Are we trying to turn them into “love me like I want to be loved” machines, or are we partnering with God to help them flourish as the people God created them to be?

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24 responses to What to do When Sacred Marriage Doesn’t Work?

  1. I love this! Both men and women need to do what is right regardless of what anyone else is doing.
    Andy Stanley’s story is so funny .I’m so used to seeing men that are well versed in the scriptures that deal with wives submission. They zoom in on that and it’s almost as if they interpret the command to a husband as if it says ‘husbands get your wives to submit’ when the command was clearly to the wife alone, to use her free will to submit to the Lord Jesus and submit to her husband’s leadership. Her husband’s leadership is righteous love. The command to husbands is to love. Of course then some men who want to fixate on trying to get the woman to do what they want her to do, say “well love is corrective.”
    They can’t seem to be able to stand the fact that love is sacrificial and it’s giving; instead they seem to want to mold her into someone who makes their life easy. Seems they feel that in order to love her they will micro manage and control her. Funny thing is, men are called to leadership and some of them refuse to understand it in the correct context, instead they see it as clubbing the wife with what she should be doing instead of stepping up, manning up, taking godly leadership, just like Jesus took leadership and loved us 1st. Of course each individual is responsible for their own behavior. A wife should not wait for a husband to do what’s right. women are told what to do when their husband is disobeying the word. Women are to be subject anyway and perhaps her behavior may win him over and if not, she is in obedience to God, which is the main thing.
    I think men and women are to have a clear enough understanding of godley headship and godly submission, before marriage and should refer to the Bible, and ought to extensively discuss it with each other and with perhaps godly mentors, because some people seem to be very confused about what it means. It’s not a master slave relationship; the woman is not a mindless, drooling, drone who is a near helpless baby making machine. Mentally and biblically sound men know this. She may be more competent in many areas than the husband is; and yet somebody has to be held accountable as the head. 2 people become one. Can’t have 2 different heads pulling into different directions.

  2. Hi Gary;
    I am so glad that you are writing about this. Yes, I bought the book wanting to fix him, but it completely changed me. It still is revolutionary and I tell everyone about your book and how it put a mirror to my way of being in this marriage and it broke me. It did nothing for my spouse. I also have to remind myself what Christ has done through your book. When I saw you in Ottawa I said to you that it saved my marriage, but it saved me. It is lonely at times on this journey of marriage but Christ is here with me always.
    Thank you for always seeking what God’s best is and for being that humble servant that He has called you to be.

  3. I am so pleased to hear that a Godly man is presenting a book to those that have been in an abusive relationship. I look forward to reading it the minute it’s available! Thank you so much!! I needed this…

  4. Good morning Gary Thomas, I read your book Sacred Marriage some years back. The book was recommended to me by a pastor who also was a marriage counselor. I understood what all the book had to say BUT I also needed the counseling too. I believe that is the mistake people make, they depend on the book only. Seeking marriage counseling, reading the book, staying in Gods word all work for his glory. I can’t say my marriage is a healthy one because my husband is not saved (yet) but it’s on a much better path then before. And for the first time in many many years my husband went to church with me recently, it was only once but I am hopeful he will go again.

  5. Oh how I wish your new book was out now. Need to give it to some young people who are in dating relationships that are just toxic. What do you do, other than praying, when they can’t see what you see? Thanks for your ministry. My husband of 25 1/2 years, and I are working our way through your books, tapes, and sharing with others. I also did a study with some ladies as well. Powerful truths Thanks so much.

    • Hi Jovial,
      Have you read or recommended they read Gary’s book that specifically addresses dating relationships? It is called Sacred Search:)

  6. Is there a way we can be notified when your new book comes out please?

    • Thanks Claire. The official pub date is October 6. And I’ll plan on running a few excerpts before then to remind everyone.

  7. Hi Gary;
    I am so glad that you are writing about this subject and in this way. Yes, I bought the book wanting to fix him but it completely changed me. I still find it revolutionary, and I tell everyone about your book and how it put a mirror to my ways of being in this marriage and it brought me to the end of myself. However, it did nothing for my spouse. I have to be reminded often when things are not going so well what Christ has done through your book for my life. When I saw you in Ottawa I said to you that “Sacred marriage” saved my marriage but it saved me! It is lonely at times in this journey of marriage but Christ is here with me always.
    Thank you for always seeking what God’s best is and for being that humble servant that He has called you to be. Blessings for this new year 2019.

  8. Madelaine Smith January 3, 2019 at 10:10 am

    I’m quite excited about your new book! I have counseled so many people about the difference between manipulation and love, so to have it in a book I can give people to read will be so helpful. And I’m sure you will add helpful insights to what I’ve already learned about manipulation. I actually first began to understand the need to pull away from toxic relationships from an article your son wrote in college on Augustine’s view of friendships. I still refer to the article now and then. Tell Graham thank you very much!

  9. Your sacred marriage book was instrumental for me when my husband chose to have an affair in 2009. I had to draw a boundary and we were separated for a year until he dealt with his issues and recommitted. However this blog is a reminder to me. Even though my husband and I are back together I often feel cheated. He changed his ways and recommitted to being married but he didn’t change his desire to serve God or became a deeper conversation kind of person that I long him to be. Learning to love a person has taken on a whole new meaning to me and giving up that fairy tale has been a lesson God is teaching me. I often think back on your Sacred Marriage book theme.

    • Cathleen,

      Bless you. You sound like an earnest follower of Christ. I’ll repeat one of the key verses of Sacred Marriage: “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (2 Thess. 3:5)

  10. Debbie Macauley January 3, 2019 at 8:29 am

    Dear Gary,
    I wish my husband and I could sit with you to ask a few questions. To me they are not in the gray area so a yes or no answer is what I would love. Ha, I know, wouldn’t that be nice.
    Because of you ministry in marriage I would love some clarity.
    1. The verses in Timothy about man of one wife to be an elder.. do you believe it’s.
    a. Man of one wife his whole life? Pre salvation and after.
    b. After salvation

    2. Can an elder be married twice if his wife has abandoned him and has gotten remarried?

    3. I know that people brake the marriage covenant but does that also mean that God does on his side? I thought Gods character makes it impossible for him to do so?
    I’m so confused why pastor are remarrying so many people when it seems like it’s not biblical.
    Thank you.

    • Debbie,

      I never present myself as the Bible answer man. I have a master’s in theology, but don’t purport to be a scholar. There are other women and men with a greater grasp of the language, clarity, cultural context, of tricky passages whose opinions would be far more valuable than mine. I’m trying to serve the role of a practical applicator of God’s truth, which is why I tend to shy away from making pronouncements on passages that aren’t as clear.

      Having said that, I wouldn’t, as a pastor, participate in a re-marriage with someone who didn’t have a biblical divorce and for whom reconciliation is still possible. If someone was cheated on or abandoned, my best understanding of Scripture is that divorce is allowed and, accordingly, remarriage.(I’ve read the arguments and am not going to argue with others on this blog; feel free to disagree with me but don’t expect me to engage with you on it.).

      If someone was in an abusive marriage and had to flee for their safety, denying them remarriage in a sense allows the past abuse to continue (sentencing them to be without a healthy marriage) so, on a case by case basis, I’d certainly consider hearing someone out in those circumstances.

      I agree with you that today’s church probably leans way too far toward being permissive of remarriage. Yet, as a pastor, I also believe in grace. We need to uphold the truth of sacred marriage vows, while also pastoring/friending others in a fallen world, where the “best” is often wrecked and no longer achievable. I have two chapters in my upcoming book “When to Walk Away” that seeks to find the most God-honoring balance of being people of truth who live in a fallen, evil world.

      But here’s the thing: I’m not passing judgement on others. I’m going to hold myself to what I believe God has called me to do in my own life. When asked as a pastor about a specific situation, I’ll listen to the details and seek to apply the Scriptures and listen to the guidance of the Spirit. I don’t seek to judge or denounce others who I have no connection to or who I’m not called to minister to. I fall so short in God’s best for my own marriage every day that I’m too busy trying to be the husband God calls me to be to worry about the failures of others.

      • After 29 years of marriage my wife left without giving any reason…still hasn’t…after 26 years of being gone and experiencing 2 short failed attempts at marriage. We now talk, have family times pretty often, and I help…keeping vows that I made “till DEATH shall part us”. I see God working on Reconciliation, which is one of 2 choices that He gives us after experiencing divorce. (Remain as you are [divorced] or be Reconciled to your mate.)

      • Dear Gary, thank you for a well articulated explanation of that balance. I look forward to your new book as well. My favorite of your books has always been Authentic Faith which seems to mirror Sacred Marriage in its focus on hardships leading to growth and strength in God, if you let them. That book was so encouraging to me. I have it on my coffee table so I can see it and be reminded to look at my life through that lens. I can forget all that God has done through the wilderness seasons of my life. But to look back and see beauty where there was just ashes is so worth it. The choice to trust God and do (whatever it is) his way is always the best option, always. But only God himself is omniscient; I cannot ever know completely another person’s heart or path. May God’s Spirit guide us all.

  11. I thank God for using you for His glory! I have been truly blessed by your writings. May God continue to shower you with His mercy and favor!

  12. Gary, thank you so much for this devotion. My husband and I have been at odds with each other for almost 4 weeks. This is our second marriage and this devotion confirmed some things I knew. I have to keep reminding myself who I am to God and how he loves me. The Lord used this devotion to confirm some things to me.

    • So pleased to hear that Bridgette. I know you especially want this second marriage to work. I am often in need of the reminder and constant “confirmation” myself, so it’s especially gratifying to hear God used these words to encourage you today.

      • How does one un-say lifetime vows or make the same lifetime promises to someone else, when the first person they were spoken to is still alive?

  13. Its a hard but honest truth. This is Gods will and we have to act accordingly to it. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. Sacred Marriage changed my life, while my marriage still did not survive, I did and I know a lot of it surrounded what I learned in this book about marriage and myself. I had been married 22 years when I read this book and my marriage was in a very bad place. I was so bitter and angry, did not know why at the time, but know now.

    This book changed me and it brought me into a place where I knew that my covenant was with God first. My husband has a lot of narcissistic traits and I was angry and bitter about feeling controlled, but could not voice that. God created marriage and I did all I could to save my marriage but I could not control him or his decisions. For a while, I was frustrated that I stayed so long, but God was preparing me, each day, for the day my marriage would fall apart so that I would not and would come out healthier, still hurting, but healthier. If my marriage had ended prior to that time, I may not have never gotten over my bitterness and anger for my husband, and potentially God.

    I read the book 5 years ago and this past year my husband walked out for a “newer model” but is he going to have the same issues in every relationship until he gets right with God and does his own work. Thank you for this book, I give it to young couples as I wish I had read it years ago.

    I look forward to your new book as I am now recovering from codependency and from a toxic relationship of 27 years. I always thought that toxic people and narcissists were overtly cruel, I did not realize it is just a cycle of manipulation and abuse, that I allowed because of my own fears of abandonment and rejection. Thank you again.

    • Denise, this is a painful but powerful testimony. Sometimes we do have to go through the difficult times rather than prematurely escape them in order to avoid short-circuiting God’s lessons for us. You sound like a wise woman who has gained even more wisdom in one of the most difficult ways possible. May God richly bless you in 2019 with his grace and healing as you move forward in this new chapter of your life.