If You Pray Hard Enough, Will God Save Your Marriage?

by | Sep 23, 2022 | Resolving Conflict, Theology of Marriage and Sex | 12 comments

If you just pray hard enough, will God save your marriage? Prayer is important, but let's take a look at why this theology isn't biblical and actually sets up marriages for more heartache and failure.

If you just have enough faith, and if you just pray enough, then shouldn’t God save your marriage?

The first women’s Bible study I ever went to, I think right around the time Rebecca was born, was for the book Power of a Praying Wife. The book has sold 8,000,000 copies, and chances are if you’re a woman who has grown up in evangelical spaces, you’ve studied it at some time, too–or at least heard of it.

The thesis of the book is that prayer is the most powerful weapon we have in our marriage, and if we want our marriage to be strong, we need to pray. And through prayer, God can do amazing things. 

Here’s some of what Stormie Omartian says: 

We can take a stand against any negative influences in our marriage relationship and know that God has given us authority in His name to back it up.

You have the means to establish a hedge of protection around your marriage because Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).

You have authority in the name of Jesus to stop evil and permit good. You can submit to God in prayer whatever controls your husband—alcoholism, workaholism, laziness, depression, infirmity, abusiveness, anxiety, fear, or failure—and pray for him to be released from it.

Stormie Omartian

Power of a Praying Wife

(And you can download our rubric and scorecard from The Great Sex Rescue to see why the book scored in the harmful category on sex!)

Here’s my question: Does God change a marriage where a husband (or wife) is selfish, is committing adultery, or is abusive if we just pray hard enough?

To be fair, even Stormie Omartian says that sometimes prayer doesn’t result in our hoped for outcome. But she still spends a lot of time insinuating that those who pray hard enough see great results.

As we’re talking about marriage misdiagnosis this month, and looking at how the common advice often given with regards to marriage can be so off, this is one I think we need to examine, because doctrinally it seems to forget something pretty major:

God gives us free will, and He doesn’t interfere with it.

God created us with free will to make choices. Remember that scene in the movie Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey, where Jim is given God’s powers temporarily over Buffalo? And Bruce tries to make his girlfriend forgive him and love him, but he can’t.

Love is only love if it is freely given. And so the whole earth is set up with free will at the heart of it (my husband loves to talk about the physics implications of this, but I won’t get into that now!).

When we say that if you just pray hard enough, someone can defeat an addiction; stop watching porn; stop an affair; stop being abusive; start actually treating you well–we’re getting the lines of responsibility all mixed up.

In a similar way, if we pray with the goal to have prayed hard enough that God will make someone accept Christ; choose to love us; choose to ask us to marry them–we’ve got the lines of responsibility mixed up.

How Does God Work Then?

That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in people’s lives. We see that multiple times in Scripture, and we know it from our own experience:

 How Does God Work in People’s Lives to Save a Marriage?

  • He can soften hearts and he can harden hearts (but this is usually just helping people experience the consequences of their actions and reinforcing what they have already chosen). (Exodus 9:12).
  • He can change circumstances to affect what we may choose to do. (Judges 6:36-40)
  • He can give dreams which can influence our decisions. (see Acts 16:9-10; Matthew 2:13-23).
  • He can send people into our lives to give a special word at just the right time. (Philip in Acts 8).
  • He can convict people of sin. (John 16:8)
  • He can talk to people directly. (Acts 9:1-6; Numbers 22:21-35)
  • He can draw us to Himself. (John 6:44)

And there are many, many more examples of each of these things, and likely even more you can think of!

Do you see something that’s missing?

What God doesn’t do is force someone to change their mind or force someone to act in a different way.

Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

Joshua 24:14-15

God lets us choose. And that means that God lets our spouse choose.

God wants all of us to choose to do the right thing! It’s his will that we be transformed into the likeness of Jesus (Acts 8:29); he doesn’t want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9). God wants our best! He has planned good things for us, not bad things (Jeremiah 29:11).

But he does not force people to obey him. He always gives choices.

And that leaves us with an unfortunate truth: we can pray hard, and God can want someone to change, and that person may still choose to walk away. 

Jesus didn’t force people to believe in Him; He actually let people walk away.

And He didn’t chase after them, either!

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So what does this mean for those of you waiting for God to save your marriage?

I think we need to redefine our goals.

Prayer helps us get our will aligned with God. It helps centre us in Him. It helps us be transformed into the likeness of Jesus.

It can help clarify what we need to do next.

But God is far more interested in saving you than He is in saving your marriage.

You are what matters to Him (and He loves your spouse, too!).

And that’s why it doesn’t mean God didn’t listen to your prayers if your marriage isn’t saved. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t have enough faith if your marriage isn’t saved. It doesn’t mean that God is angry at you if your marriage isn’t saved.

It may actually mean that God is really sad alongside you, at the waste and the heartache and the destruction. God is upset too that your spouse would throw away a marriage to protect porn, or an affair, or their own selfishness. God is upset that your spouse may choose to walk away from your children.

When we talk about praying hard enough that God saves your marriage, we end up making God distant from the person who needs God the most.

If your marriage is falling apart because of choices your spouse is making, and you’re then made to feel like you’re just supposed to persist in prayer, or that your prayers should have changed things, well–how are you supposed to feel loved by God? How are you supposed to feel like God is your safe place? Instead, God seeems like the one who is angry at you or disappointed in you for not doing your part. God thinks you didn’t try hard enough.

What an awful message.

When I asked on Facebook about how women felt hearing the message, “just pray hard enough for God to save your marriage,” that’s what I heard again and again:

“Yes. Trapped in a toxic marriage way too long, AND blamed all the problems on myself. Destroyed my physical and mental health and wasted years of my life.”

“I heard it, and believed that doing that and generally “being better” would save us, and make him stop hurting me. It didn’t work. God wasn’t in my marriage. I’m not sure he’s even real but I did believe very strongly for so long and it did nothing for my marriage.”

“This was my mindset and could be part of the reason I stayed for as long as I did. In the Bible, Esther spent three days in prayer and fasting for an ENTIRE nation. I spent way more than that and countless hours on my face fasting and praying. And I know many other women who have done the same. So, when is it “enough”?”

“Tried it. With all my heart. Submission, more gentleness, extra undeserved respect, none of it worked. God had better plans for me, but it did make me bitter for a bit and I’m now a bit more cynical about all advice.”

That kind of teaching/thinking kept me from leaving an abusive situation. I tried and prayed for many, many years, feeling like it must be my fault.”

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We tell women that they just need to pray harder because then the onus is on the woman to stay.

I understand this can go both ways, but there’s a reason that Power of a Praying Wife has massively outsold Power of a Praying Husband.

It is easier to tell a woman who desperately wants her marriage to be saved that she just needs to pray harder than it is to get a man to stop having an affair, stop watching porn, or stop treating his family badly.

And so the person who wants the marriage to work is given an extra burden that wasn’t theirs to bear.

I can’t imagine how this must grieve God’s heart. He’s already upset at the injustice being done to one spouse as the other cheats, ignores their responsibilities, or abuses. But now God is also put in the hot seat, and when He just wants to comfort the one who is grieving, instead others tell that grieving one that God must be angry since their prayers aren’t being answered.

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We need to remember free will when it comes to saving marriages, and stop saying things like this:

John Bevere is actually one the marriage authors that I tend to like, and so this was disappointing.

I’d prefer instead to change it to this:

Sometimes the marriage isn’t saved.

But you can still be whole.

That’s the message we should have been teaching the whole time, and I’m sorry if you were ever made to feel like your marriage problems were your fault for not praying hard enough.

If you just pray hard enough, will God save your marriage? Prayer is important, but let's take a look at why this theology isn't biblical and actually sets up marriages for more heartache and failure.

What do you think? Let’s talk in the comments!

The Marriage Misdiagnosis Series

 

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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12 Comments

  1. April

    Thanks for clarifying all of this. I know so many people who have stayed because of the church telling them to pray more. It is toxic and I’m glad you are pointing this out and people are listening!

    Reply
  2. Anon for now

    Sheila, I found you back in 2015 because you were writing a series directly with what I was going through and putting words to experiences I was still reeling to process. You were a balm to me then and I’ve loved you and your work ever since.

    And this series feels the same way as all those years ago. I have a protective nature that can very easily twist into control issues, and I have a hard time accepting that there are problems I can do nothing about. Those control issues can get easily fed with scripture “more than victors” “faith like a mustard seed” etc. etc. I need to hear this message.

    Thanks for all you do.

    Reply
  3. Jim

    The thinking that if you pray hard enough and have enough faith that God will change things in the way that we want is a myth about God that I read about as a teen in the book ‘Don’t Check your Brains at the Door’.

    The myth was called the Vending Machine God. The main idea was that faith was the money and prayer was how you requested what you want. If you have enough faith, it will happen. An example would be that if you have enough faith and pray hard enough, a million dollars would appear under your bed.

    That’s not how God works. Prayer is how we have a conversation with God and ultimately submit ourselves to God’s will, not submitting God to ours. Prayer is a conduit thru which we may determine what God would have us do. Sometimes we need to wait and sometimes we need to take action.

    Reply
    • Teresa Simmons

      Thank you for this clear explanation.

      Reply
    • Laura

      Very true that God is not our vending machine. Prayer should be seen as our personal communication with God, not about getting what we want from Him.

      Reply
    • Nessie

      I’ve heard a similar idea with the explanation that God is not a genie in a bottle to grant wishes.

      If praying hard enough or having enough faith was the problem then why, when Jesus prayed for this cup (of being crucified) to be taken from Him, did He not receive His desire? If anyone had enough faith or prayed “hard enough,” it would be Jesus. That helps me anyway.

      I like what Jim said: “Prayer is a conduit thru which we may determine what God would have us do.”

      Reply
  4. Codec

    You can not force God to do what you want by praying. That is not what prayer is for. Good post.

    Reply
  5. Nathan

    The most common things that God does via prayer is that He helps you understand His will, He helps to change YOUR heart when YOU pray, and He comforts us and gets us through difficult seasons.

    Very rarely (not never, but rarely) does He change somebody else or give you things.

    Reply
  6. Mari

    This same premise was thrown in me in dealing with my mother’s husband since she married him when I was 9 years old. He was angry, physically abused (used belts to the point of welts and you could hear it across the house as his form of “spanking”) his biological sons, emotionally negligent and abusive to my mom and myself, and just a very controlling, lazy, and inconsiderate person. I lived in fear every time he yelled and screamed (which was often), was scared the physical abuse would someday turn on me, and took every opportunity that I could to be out of the house and not interact with him. My mom kept telling me that I just needed to pray for him to change. I struggled with how to rationalize why a loving God had me in this situation and there was never any change. The only “change” I saw was my mother enabling him more and stop arguing with him because it kept the “peace”. She would agree with me when something was unfair or I was being treated poorly (ie getting ragefully screamed at in my room for “disrespecting” him), then get in an argument with her husband about it, and then come back and tell me I was in the wrong for feeling the way I did or acting in the way I did.

    All that to say, this message is so needed, even to the children of the people in these abusive, toxic, and/or unhealthy marriages. It would have saved me so much grief and put the appropriate anger on man and not God for the lack of change.

    Reply
  7. Char

    I have seen that God also gives me more of his wisdom when I pray and helps me see life more from his perspective, rather than my own. He leads me to people who help me understand him and his work and his will better. Sheila is one of those people. Thanks so much, Sheila, for putting into words what I was not able to and helping understand unhealthy and healthy ways of relating, especially in marriage. So often I have not known what has been awry in the way my husband and I relate to each other, I just knew something was wrong. I am still learning and improving and I find that the more proactive I am in our marriage, the better. My husband is not normally abusive, but he is neglectful. He has never really taken the lead to work as a team with me. For now, I am practicing healthier ways of relating and if that does not work, our marriage may not last. But, at last, I can see more what my part in the marriage is (which is not only prayer, but much more than that!) instead of trying to do my husband’s part also.
    This article also helped me see that when relatives have told me that my mother should not have divorced my father, that they are buying into the “vending machine” approach to prayer and God and that is not right. My mother could not control my father, he was not repentant of his infidelity, and she (and no one) could change that.
    Thanks so much for the comments above as they help me understand more also!

    Reply
  8. Mark

    Hi Shiela,
    Thanks for this post. Is has really spoken to me and helped me to accept the things I cannot change. I have prayed desperately for many years that my wife would change. I now know that God has heard my prayer and answered it in a completely different way than I expected. My wife’s poor treatment of me has not changed at all. God has showed me to Celebrate Recovery. IT IS AN AWESOME MINISTERY that has saved my life and allowed me to have my emotional needs met in a safe and loving way. It has taken away my anger and resentment towards her. I now know I am loved by others and accepted for who I am at CR. This does not take away the hurt my wife has caused me, but has helped me to accept it. I am now becoming a CR leader to give back and help others.

    Reply
  9. Anonymous305

    The mention of John Bevere reminded me of when Sarah McDugal released a video in which she commented on a video by Lisa Bevere (John’s wife). Lisa was saying she wished she’d been more helpful and less critical when John was struggling with his porn addiction. She wished that she’d had the attitude of “us against it” instead of “me against you”. Sarah was saying that Lisa shouldn’t put that responsibility on the betrayed spouse. It seems they had one of the miracle reconciliations you wrote about this week. In that context, John’s post isn’t a surprise, but still a problem.

    I agreed with Sarah, but felt really complicated because I didn’t want to put undue responsibility on any spouse of an addict, but I related to Lisa, somewhat. Not that I wanted to be responsible for someone’s addiction, but wanted to feel like I had the ability to change it, and to feel like the enemy was outside instead of inside.

    Reply

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