Early on in our marriage my wife and I attended several marriage conferences. Our marriage was not on the fritz or anything like that. We loved each other deeply but we needed some assistance in how to do life together. Seldom did these marriage conferences have lasting results. They gave us a few practical tips to take home and apply but within a few weeks our marriage slipped back into our natural way of doing things.
What was seldom addressed in these conferences was my heart. Oh, there was the obligatory session on making Jesus central in your marriage. But this was usually nothing more than a well meaning attempt to share the gospel with unbelievers. As the conferences progressed it seemed as if the gospel was left behind and we went forward into the really practical stuff. Most of this advice was nothing more than Christianized psychology or sociology class. All of the advice could have just as easily been taught in a secular setting minus the Bible verses.
Because my heart was never addressed all these conferences did was make me a more crafty and sinful husband. I could manipulate these “Christian” principles to get my way. They made me a more polished sinner.
Why Our Marriage Retreat is Not “Practical”
There are scores of Christian books and conferences out there that are very practical and honestly can be very helpful. Most people that come to a marriage conference want tips for changing their marriage. They want to know a seven-step process for changing their marriage. And so we acquiesce and give the practical stuff that people can take home with them and immediately apply to their marriage. The problem with seven-step processes though, is that they either work or they don’t.
One couple attends the marriage conference (couple A) and they find these practical tips helpful. They take these tips home and apply it to their marriage. Things begin to change. They are so excited about this new material that they invite their friends (couple B) to attend the next marriage conference. They assure this young couple that learning this will help their marriage become as happy and pleasurable as their own.
Couple B attends the marriage conference with Couple A. They learn the seven-step process, take it home and immediately apply it to their marriage. They have a new found hope that finally their marriage is going to be as happy as it was supposed to be on their wedding day. But then they hit a wall. It doesn’t work. For couple B these biblical principles “didn’t work”.
Naturally the struggling couple slips back into unhealthy, unbiblical, and even worldly practices in their marriage. Eventually couple B goes to the courthouse and files for divorce. They tried the Bible thing but it didn’t work. It didn’t fix their marriage, so God obviously wants them to not be together. (That may sound A to Z but I have witnessed this happen more times than I have fingers).
The difference between couple A and couple B is theology. Couple A went to the marriage conference with a relatively healthy theology of marriage. These practical tips assisted them in applying their theology. Couple B had a poor theology of marriage and so their application of the practical tips did little because they never addressed the heart.
Every problem that we have in marriage is fundamentally a theological problem. Or to put that another way, every problem that we have in marriage is a “gospel” problem. It is not necessarily that we do not know the right answers to Bible questions. But it is that because of sin in our hearts, or perhaps because of ignorance, we are not applying the gospel—we are not applying our theology—to our marriage.
This is why our marriage retreats are not “practical”.
Or are they?
I believe giving people a theology of marriage coupled with a few helpful pointers is more practical than giving people seven steps. It is similar to the old adage that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish you feed him for a lifetime. When sinners are given practical tips but they are not taught how to address their hearts it is similar to just giving them a fish. But teaching people how the gospel informs every component of their marriage helps them fish for a lifetime.
Address the heart and apply the gospel. You’ll be eternally practical.