Breathing new life into estranged marriages

“And the woman said to Elijah, By this I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” 1 Kings 17:24

“So, have you had your first disagreement?” I was slightly taken aback by this line of questioning by my pastor, but I quickly responded, “Why would we fight? We are in love! My pastor responded to my answer with a knowing smile, turned to his wife and said “They’ve not had their first fight.” The wife also smiled, but then said nothing more. I guess they only knew too well from experience that the reality of marriage would soon set in as it eventually did. My wife Susan and I had only recently become engaged and were still enjoying the innocence of courtship in readiness for marriage. As is normally the case when two people initially fall in love, we could see no fault in each other. In my estimation, she was next to perfection and I am sure that I was not far off that lofty ideal in hers.

The first shockwave that hits most newly wed after the stresses and demanding reality of marriage sets in is the realisation that the person they had held up to be a modicum of perfection is after all a fallible human being with wobbly feet of clay and the wool of innocence starts falling off our rudely awakened eyes. Hence, the challenge of every successful marriage is the ability of those concerned to manage expectations so that we do not have too high or too low an expectation of each other and mediate what we expect from the relationship, seeing that in marriage the degree of disappointment is directly proportional to the level of expectation.

The primary reason majority of marriages fail is because couples allow themselves to travel the dangerous slippery slope whereby an individual, who initially could do no wrong, simply because love covers a multitude of sin, eventually becomes someone who can do no right. So, how is it that a couple who early in their relationship could not bear to spend time apart as they whisper ‘I love you’, ‘Can’t live without you’, ‘I bless the day I found you’ and other wonderful words to each other several times in a day later on decide that they cannot stand the presence of their partner? What is it that happens in marriage that turns hopeful love into naked hatred? Why would individuals who promised to love and cherish each other later on turn out to want to hurt the very person they had vowed to love unconditionally? The simple answer is because they both allowed the hero or heroine they initially saw in each other to die.

In most cases, except in the case when people have no illusions about what they were getting themselves into, when two people get together to begin a relationship, the two words that often characterise how they deal with each other is love and respect. Their ability to grow in that relationship or keep it on an even keel depends on whether they continue to nurture these two pillars of successful relationships. More of this later.

It is the dearth of love and respect in any marriage that often conspires against its success and ultimately consigns it to the scrap heap of divorce. The effect of the absence of mutual love and respect is characterised by the gradual, but progressive erosion of goodwill and the lowering of our estimation of our spouse’s character until it reaches level zero and we feel that we can no longer live with each other. How quickly we fall from the dizzying heights of lovingly adjudging each other as heroes or heroines to becoming relational zeroes depend on the declining rate of the reciprocation and the eventual loss of love and respect in the relationship. Some reach it exceptionally quick in a matter of days while others take a significantly longer time. Nevertheless, the end remains the same – the heart of the marriage has been ripped out even if they, for convenience sake, choose to stay together.

The bible passage on which this article is anchored concerns an odd couple, because they were no couple at all in every sense of the word. The closest you can say they come to being described as a couple is as house mates whom Providence had brought together in difficult times in a symbiotic relationship – Elijah needed shelter and the widow was in desperate need of sustenance both for herself and her son. Regrettably, this is exactly how many marriages can best be described – housemates living with each other out of convenience and whose relationships have deteriorated to such an extent that they lead mutually exclusive lives while living under the same roof. The love is gone. Elijah’s and the widow’s divinely ordained relationship kicked off on a good and powerful note. Nevertheless, by the time we reach the stage quoted in the passage something had occurred to alter the dynamics of the euphoria that initially characterised the relationship – the widow seemed to have lost faith in Elijah. The hero she initially saw in him had died and so had the respect she once had for him.

Elijah was a prophet of God who had performed a good job of speaking God’s will over Israel, Elijah’s apostate nation. He had proclaimed God’s judgement over Israel that there would be no rain in the land for three and a half years as punishment for their idolatrous worship of Baal, the Phoenician god. After initially living by the brook Cherith until it dried up as the famine took hold, God instructed Elijah to move on to Zarephath, a Sidonian town in the heart of Phoenicia, where He had already commanded a widow to feed him. The only snag was that the widow God informed Elijah He had commanded to feed him could not even feed herself let alone talk of feeding another person. In fact, she had gone to collect pieces of stick to make fire on which to cook the last meal for herself and her son when she ran into Elijah by divine appointment. Elijah, speaking by the power of God, asked her to make him a meal first from the little she had declaring that the jar of meal and the cruse of oil would not fail until it rains on the land. She took a step of faith and did as she was told and everything happened just as proclaimed by Elijah. She and her household were saved. A freeze frame of their relationship at this point in time will paint Elijah as a hero to this woman and she would have been regarded as a heroine of faith by Elijah. Since Elijah had no place to stay, it was logical that he moved in with this woman, albeit in a separate living quarter.

However, down the line, it seems as if the relationship began to lose its lustre as the reality of living under the same roof began to bite. We can only make assumptions as per the probable cause of the breakdown in relationship, but a fact that is undeniable is that these relational hiccups eventually progressed to the point where this widow lost faith in or respect for the prophet of God Elijah. Elijah’s humanity and foibles probably caused the widow to gradually lower her initial estimation of the man of God and before long she started doubting if he were indeed a servant of God. It is highly unlikely that Elijah behaved improperly towards this woman and more of the fact that there were difficult issues that they both had to deal with. From the way the bible described him, Elijah was a rough rider and far from domesticated. He was also unmarried and had consequently never been encumbered with the responsibility of taking care of or relating with a family. He might not have had the patience that every woman craves in a man. Then add the pressure and nasty effects of the snide remarks of the jealous and hungry neighbours who might be gossiping about her implying that she was prostituting herself for food and you have a cocktail of disquiet, which, if not well handled, becomes a recipe for relational disaster. This is notwithstanding the fact that this was an association made in heaven. Before long, tension began to set in and the house that was supposed to be a peaceful refuge for Elijah quickly turned into a fiery testing ground of his character, especially for building up the virtues of patience and longsuffering. The miraculous heroics of Elijah in putting food on the table for this desperate family during famine quickly became a distant memory and he that was once respected quickly gained notoriety and became the reviled. The moral of this story so far is that even God ordained relationships are liable to run into trouble if we make the mistake of taking our eyes off God and focusing on our partners or if we allow the pressures of life to drive a wedge between us and our spouse. Relationships, whatever their source, needs nurturing in order to bloom and survive life’s tempest.

So, as the more knowledgeable of the two, how would Elijah have responded to this sour turn of events? More specifically, how should we as Christians respond to the relationship tensions and downturns we undeniably encounter as we seek to live out our faith through our marriages or jobs? From the way he positively responded to the tragedy that befell the widow, we can infer that Elijah consistently dealt in love with this woman irrespective of how badly, justifiably or otherwise, she was treating him. He had to walk in love or he would have messed up his relationship with the God who is love and thus foul the source of his power and ministry, because as the bible says faith only works in the atmosphere of love, and did he need faith to raise the woman’s dead son! I believe that Elijah focused on walking in love with this disillusioned woman and this enabled him to stay in touch with God and to ultimately win over his detractor.

This now brings us to an important point. Why did the widow’s son die? The bible did not exactly tell us what killed him other than presenting the fact that he died. So, allow me to advance a reasonable suggestion as to why I think he died. The bible enjoins us in 1 Chr 16:22 “Touch not my anointed and do my prophets no harm.” However, by not relating well with Elijah, justifiably or otherwise, when the latter was only obeying God, the widow unwittingly opened up herself to God’s judgement or satanic attack because she was living in disobedience to God’s word. Her shoddy treatment of Elijah was in extension a shoddy treatment of the God who sent him to sojourn with her and this will not fail to draw the ire of God, just as honouring God’s servant is in extension honouring God.

The same scenario was what was enacted in the story of Moses and his wife. Moses was initially Zipporah’s knight in shinning armour, but after forty years of marriage, it seemed the gloss had washed off and it wasn’t too difficult to see who was wearing the trousers in the house. It got to the point where Moses would rather disobey God than risk his wife’s ire. The issue finally came to a head when Moses wanted to obey God’s command and circumcise their second son Eliezer. With good reason, Zipporah vehemently objected due to the painful experience she had had with the circumcision of Gershom, their first son and the bitter taste it left in her mouth. So, rather than put his foot down and obey God’s higher command and its greater demand on him, Moses chose to give in to his wife. God ominously kept His peace and chose not confront Moses there and then on his disobedience. However, while His judgement might not be immediate, it is always sure. He waited until the time that He had sent Moses to Egypt with the mandate to deliver his brethren the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh before executing His righteous judgement and attacking Moses. While staying at an inn, Moses became deathly ill by the hand of God. Exodus 4:24-26 The question is why would God want to kill someone He had just mandated to save his brethren from slavery, and why attack Moses in particular and not Zipporah his wife who had caused him to sin in the first place?

God attacked Moses because He held him responsible as the head of the family who was tasked with upholding His law and leading by example, a standard which Moses failed to live up to in this case. Since God had commanded in Gen. 17:14 that every male Israelite child that is not circumcised is accursed and should be cut off from His people, He was only applying His righteous judgement by trying to kill Moses. This was His way of warning Moses that He is not to be trifled with. He has to be obeyed and esteemed higher than any human being even and especially if that person is your spouse. God forcefully and in an unforgettable way communicated His will to both Moses and his wife to the extent that Zipporah was forced to circumcise her son with a flint with her own hands, the very thing that she had vociferously prevented Moses from doing in order to save her husband’s life.

However, Elijah’s case was different as he had not sinned against God, but had dealt patiently and in love with this widow in the face of what must have been severe provocation. He had watched in horror as the disenchanted widow’s estimation of himself plummeted resulting in his sojourn in her house becoming a trial. As was the case with Moses, it seemed as if God kept His peace despite the disrespect shown His servant by this woman, but it also opened the door of her life for the serpent to enter and bite her and the result was the death of her son. So, who did she turn to in her hour of need? – Elijah, of course! God was ready to vindicate His servant and turn the hero turned villain once again into the hero he used to be and that was what He did. The lesson of this story is that you should never open the door of your life to the devil through disobedience or rebellion against God’s word or His anointed. If something is unclear to you, trust God to clarify it in His own time, but don’t rebel or complain as you might attract His judgement. The widow was forced to finally confess that Elijah was indeed a man of God, but she finally came to this conclusion the hard way. A little faith and forbearance on her part would have saved her the heartbreak of nearly losing a child or in Zipporah’s case, a husband.

So, as a couple keen to avoid the trouble of watching the hero or heroine you once saw or perhaps still see in each other die or whose relationship is already troubled and now desperately needs injection of life in order to save or rekindle the relationship and claw back lost ground, what do you need to do? This simply takes us back to the foundational principle of love and respect. The bible says:

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One). Wives, be subject (be submissive and adapt yourselves) to your own husbands as [a service] to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the Head of the church, Himself the Saviour of [His] body. As the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. However, let each man of you [without exception] love his wife as [being in a sense] his very own self; and let the wife see that she respects and reverences her husband [that she notices him, regards him, honours him, prefers him, venerates, and esteems him; and that she defers to him, praises him, and loves and admires him exceedingly].” Ephe 5:21-25; 33

The easiest way to go about resurrecting the maligned hero or heroine in each other is by choosing to concentrate on and honouring the Christ that is living in the other person, if your spouse is a Christian. Nevertheless, if not and irrespective of your spouse’s current spiritual status or who is at fault, resolve that whatever you do, you will do it as unto the Lord. Your motivation is to please the Lord as you do your personal best to esteem the other person, even if they seemingly do not deserve it. It means loving the unlovable and never keeping a record of wrongs done to us as enjoined in 1 Cor 13. Since love never fails, determining to subject our lives to the dictates of God who is love will enlist His help on our behalf and cause us to obtain the object of our desire. Dogged persistence in walking in love and keeping in line with His word will enable God to reward and vindicate our labour of love. In so doing He will prove to our spouses that we are indeed men and women of God, the same way that He vindicated Elijah when the latter either wouldn’t or couldn’t vindicate or defend himself.

Elijah demonstrated meekness, which is aptly defined as power under control and seemingly became weak so that God might prove His strength through him and He ultimately did. Walking in love means that we refrain from insisting on our own rights so as to enable God uphold those rights and vindicate us. A concerned wife once complained to me that Ephe 5:33 is seeming unfairly skewed in favour of the man and at first glance she looks to be right, but a deeper examination will quickly disprove this assertion simply because every privilege has its accompanying responsibilities. A man who continues to enjoy his wife’s respect without reciprocating with love place himself under God’s judgement and will be called to account by Him. In the same vein, a woman who insists on first feeling loved by her husband before showing him respect is as guilty as the man who is not performing his God ordained responsibility of showing love to his wife. Consequently, our individual responsibilities to God and to each other is to choose to obey God irrespective of whether the other person is doing the same and God’s responsibility to us is to ensure that He keeps His promise to us to ensure that our marriage works because we are living to honour His name. Granted, it is easy for a man to love a woman who respects him and much easier for a woman to submit out of respect to a man who loves her, but even if these were not the case, we still need to honour God as our responsibility to obey God’s word is not discharged. Remember that God’s word enjoins us to owe no man anything except the debt of love. This means that we are permanently indebted both to God and man to love our fellow men and in particular our spouses and as we do our part, God will do His and fulfil His promise to us.

John C. Maxwell said that people either rise or fall to the level of our expectation. If your expectation of someone is high and they are aware of that fact, they tend to respond to justify that expectation and will consequently raise their game and put in the necessary effort in order to meet our high expectation of them. The converse is also true of low expectations. So, by walking in love and obeying God’s word, His power within us will enable us to think the best of the other person, irrespective of whether they deserved it or not. We will therefore be able to rightly respond to issues with the wisdom that God’s word affords us and ultimately win our partner over to our godly way of thinking. Walking in love helps us to gain God’s perspective and His high expectation of us and this will enable us to raise our expectation of our spouses and in effect start seeing the hero or heroine in them once again.

So, even if your relationship is presently estranged, the hero or heroine that you once perceived in your husband or wife can still return to life by the power of God. The feeling of love that you once had for each other can again be rekindled and deepened if either or preferably both of you can submit your marriage to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and choose to obey His word in the way you relate with and honour each other. If for whatever reasons as a couple you are unable to take this important step on your own, it might be helpful to seek assistance from those spiritually and professionally qualified to offer such help. This outside input will help keep on track your goal of breathing life into your troubled marriage

While God is not asking us to turn our spouses into idols, He still appreciates the fact that mutual love and deep respect remains the foundation and key to a lifelong and fulfilling marriage. God characteristically always honours those who honour Him, and the aspect of marriage is no different. Choose to honour God in your marriage today and he will cause honey to copiously flow out of whatever rocky patch your marriage might presently be going through. THROUGH GOD, YOUR HERO OR HEROINE SHALL LIVE AGAIN.