I’m concerned about your marriage. I’m not suggesting that anything is wrong with it, but I do know that sometimes marriage issues sneak up on us. They start small and grow from irritations to resentment to divisiveness over time. It would be good to talk about solutions before problems get out of hand.
Furthermore, many people are hesitant to talk about their marriage with others. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s shame or a belief that they’re the only ones with the problems, or they’re merely trying to protect their spouse, but the reality is that even good marriages experience challenges. What makes them good is that the challenges are identified and adjustments are made.
It’s been said that “Marriage isn’t so much finding the right person as it is being the right person.” Although it is important to choose wisely whom you’re going to marry, it’s also true that marriage is a sanctifying process. Even marrying an angel will produce challenges in each of us. When we get married, we learn more about our selfishness and control issues than we ever knew we had.
Furthermore, marriage is a ministry. It’s an opportunity to lay down our lives for our mate. But a healthy marriage isn’t just about keeping the peace and reducing the tension. God wants your marriage to be a mission. Marriage is two people partnering together to serve the Lord in life. And when they have children, those kids participate in the mission to strengthen themselves with God’s grace and bless others.
With those thoughts in mind, let’s turn to some exercises that will strengthen your marriage. Each one is designed to remove a little bit of selfishness and increase Christ-likeness.
But what if my spouse doesn’t want to work on our relationship? Even if your spouse isn’t interested in participating, you can do a lot. The fact is, you are growing and changing, and marriage is one of the tools God uses to change you. These exercises will help you work out your salvation in your marriage and help you grow spiritually, even if no one else in your home contributes. Recognizing that God wants to do a work in you through your marriage can provide you with a mission to move forward.
The key is to start with yourself. Do all you can to be the person Jesus wants you to be. Ideally, your spouse is interested in becoming more Christlike as well, and, then to train and empower children to also grow in Christlikeness. Sharing that message with others outside the family then further blesses the family as a whole and contributes to family identity.
If you and your family can take each exercise, practice it in family life, and then apply it to those outside your home, you will demonstrate what it means to be a missional family.
It’s too short-sighted to think that the goal of family life is to be happy. Rather, the goal is to fulfill the God-given mission that He has given to you. With these 12 exercises, you will become something bigger and better for God’s kingdom. And, if others in your family are too busy or unwilling to participate, then you’ll grow personally in your sanctification before God.
Exercise #1: Practice Thankfulness
Each day identify specific things that you are thankful for that your spouse does. Some of these might be common activities. Others might be incidental. Thankfulness builds a grateful heart and protects a person from developing resentment and a critical spirit. John 12 gives a beautiful story of a contrast between Mary who gave a gift of gratefulness for Jesus’ raising her brother from the dead, and Judas who was selfish, critical and resentful. Be on guard against these dangers and practice thanksgiving to keep your heart in the right place.
Develop thankfulness in yourself, practice it in your home, and together, discuss ways you can thank others outside your home.
Exercise #2: Practice Admiration
Take some time to identify three things your spouse does better than you. What quality in your spouse is demonstrated by these things? Take time to admire your spouse for this quality. This practice will help you reduce your own pride and value the strengths of your mate. It’s especially meaningful to do this with children because it points out their strengths and contributes to their identity. And when they admire something in their parents, it reduces their own tendency toward selfishness. In Song of Solomon 5:14-16, the beloved is admiring her spouse. No wonder their relationship is so special. We all can find others we admire but many people never take the time to share their admiration. You are different and your practice of admiration goes a long way.
Exercise #3: Practice Listening
Ask your spouse a question and then ask a follow-up question to listen deeper. Most people ask a question and then start talking about themselves. If you truly listen to a person, you’ll develop attentiveness in your heart. Listening is a ministry. In James 1:19, we usually emphasize the importance of reducing anger, but the first words in the verse encourage listening. This is often difficult but very valuable to help a person manage themselves internally. Listen to others in your home. Teach them to listen as well, and then look for ways to ask follow-up questions outside your home.
Exercise #4: Practice Prayer
Why do so many couples not take advantage of this opportunity to connect spiritually? Whatever the reasons, it’s best to get over them and reach into this powerful connection tool. Prayer increases vulnerability in one’s heart, an essential quality of a good relationship. You might ask your spouse to pray for something that concerns you or ask how you might pray for your spouse. Praying together is strategic for children as well. It exercises a part of their heart that will accompany them for years to come. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 takes your prayers to the next level and allows you to use prayer as a ministry to others.
Exercise #5: Practice Kindness
It just takes a little more time to consider someone else. It would be helpful to give a gift of kindness each day to your spouse. This exercise builds graciousness in one’s heart and practices servanthood, an important quality of Christians in general, and in marriage in particular. If you’re on the lookout to be kind, your heart will gravitate toward godliness. 1 Corinthians 13:4 reminds us that kindness is an important demonstration of love. Planning random acts of kindness as a family toward people outside your home can increase your family identity and pass on important life skills to your children.
Exercise #6: Practice Joy
Look for ways daily to express joyfulness. If you don’t tend to be emotionally expressive, this is particularly a good exercise. Smile, raise your eyebrows and say something positive about life. Joy causes us to reflect on what’s most meaningful. It doesn’t come from experiences as much as it comes from a depth of God at work. Philippians 4:4 reminds us of the source of joy. This exercise in a family encourages individuals to be God-focused in their lives. As you practice this, you can be the ones who bring sunshine into the lives of others.
Exercise #7: Practice Learning
Relationships can become stagnant and need fresh new insight regularly. As an activity, you might look at a Bible passage together and share with each other an application or insight. The Bible is so practical and reminds us continually of ways we can connect with God, rearrange our thinking and practice life His way. Joshua 1:8 makes the importance of God’s Word clear. Children benefit from regularly seeing their parents readjust life based on the Bible. Sharing scriptural insight with others can touch people significantly.
Exercise #8: Practice Service
One of the things that grow relationships together is to work together on a project or activity. Serving the Lord creates the added benefit of enhancing your vision as partners in service to Christ. Joshua 24:15 expresses the commitment that a family can have to serve God. One of the greatest ways that children can capture the faith for themselves is to see God working through them in service to others. Intentionally approaching church or a sports activity with an eye to serve does something inside of the servant.
Exercise #9: Practice Contentment
People are driven to be happy and often look for activities and things to continually fill that need. Contentment looks deeper and learns to live within limits without feeling anxious. Practicing contentment addresses a core challenge in anyone’s heart: complaining. Look for ways to put a hold on buying or upgrading or the continual need for activity. Hebrews 13:5 is a good reminder of the value of contentment. Children need this life skill because their definition of need is often out of proportion. Look for ways to find enjoyment in a simple lifestyle. Encourage family members to be on the hunt for enjoyment without getting more stuff. Consider how you might encourage others outside your family to do the same.
Exercise #10: Practice Generosity
It’s been said that we are most like God when we give. Look for ways to give to others. Blessing another family or giving to a need at church can draw you closer to your mate because you are focusing on your mission together, to give back, not just to take. Jesus describes the value of giving in Luke 6:38. It’s one of the more powerful exercises for the heart of a person. When you give as a family, children see the benefit, and the exercise contributes to their spiritual development.
Exercise #11: Practice Justice
Look for ways to help those who are suffering in society. Consider poverty, homelessness, abortion, elderly, racism and other social issues. Justice draws two heart qualities together: holiness and compassion. Micah 6:8 is a call for all believers to practice justice in our world. Marriages develop conviction, and children develop passion when they grasp the power of justice in practical ways. This is one of those qualities that’s naturally practiced outside the home.
Exercise #12: Practice Unity
Do you tend to be an agreeable person or a disagreeable person? Agreeable people are warm, friendly, gracious and tactful. Disagreeable people are critical, angry, contentious and argumentative. Take a good look at yourself and make changes to become someone who encourages unity. Identify things you have in common with your spouse and draw attention to them. Regularly look for ways to communicate unity in your home. 1 Corinthians 1:10 is an appeal to unity for the church and is definitely needed in the home as well. Children may become disagreeable and teaching them unity can help overcome this negative tendency. Look for ways to express and develop unity with others outside your home.
In our church, we emphasize one Marriage Exercise a month. It’s our goal to build disciples and to encourage family life as a place to practice. If you’d like the colorful exercise pages that we mail to every married person’s home each month, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll send them to you. You are free to use these ideas and handouts to advance the kingdom.