Why Holding Up Stories of Radical Healing and Forgiveness in Marriage May Backfire

by | Sep 21, 2022 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 26 comments

We have an addiction to fairytales–even when it comes to marriage.

We love the Disney princesses who are rescued by the princes. We love stories of redemption. And we love our miracles!

But sometimes I fear that our love and longing for the extraordinary is used in Christian circles to make us feel unworthy or less Christlike if the extraordinary does not happen.

I see this a lot in Christian marriage books. We’ll read stories of the woman married to the alcoholic who prayed for fifty years for him to repent–and he finally did, and everyone was saved before he died. We’ll hear about couples where he was a violent decades long porn addict, and he went to jail for sexual abuse, but he repented and became a changed person, and now speaks about the dangers of porn. We’ll hear about two people who had an affair and cheated on their spouses, but they repented and now the two couples are best friends.

And of course we’ll hear about the abusive husband who changed and became a model father.

Here’s the thing, though: these things are above and beyond the ordinary. These things require a big work of God, PLUS a major repentance on the part of the one in the wrong.

And what is it called when God does a big work in someone’s life? A miracle.

Miracles in the physical realm are easier to identify. But in the emotional and relational realm, they’re trickier, because we all know stories of people who have radically transformed, so it seems very possible within our grasp.

But those things are so, so rare.

And radical restoration of relationship after betrayal is not what the Bible calls us to.

Yes, it’s absolutely wonderful to dream about. But we not called to radical restoration after betrayal.

We are called to forgive.

We are called to have boundaries, and that means walking away from toxic situations.

We are even called to live at peace with others, as much as it depends on us (recognizing that it does not all depend on us).

You cannot achieve radical restoration and reconciliation on your own.

It requires the other person to do their bit–and when someone has chosen evil, that is very, very rare. True change needs a person’s repentance plus a major work of God, and if you are the aggrieved spouse you cannot make either happen.

That’s why our focus, when giving advice, should be on helping people with boundaries and emotional wholeness, not trying to achieve radical reconciliation and restoration, which is actually outside their grasp.

So much of the Proverbs is dedicated to helping people deal with “fools”–and many that the Bible calls fools are your narcissistic or selfish abusers and addicts. And what does the Bible say to do? Walk away from them, keep your distance from them, be wary of them.

 

Marriage miracles can happen, yes. But when we hold them up as something people should aspire to, we diminish God.

Miracles are miracles because God does them, for His purposes.

Yet marriage books will often share stories that are basically miraculous, and hold them up as the ideal for all of us to follow. This puts incredible pressure on the woman married to an abusive man, or to an unrepentant porn addict, or to an alcoholic (realizing that these categories often all overlap), or to someone else in the throes of addiction, betrayal, or destructive behaviour.

Here, for instance, is something Gary Thomas wrote complaining about the pushback he gets when he shares a radical story of restoration:

In my upcoming book Making Your Marriage a Fortress, I purposely chose to make the first story of betrayal about a wife who is unfaithful to her husband, and the husband takes her back. Why? I never get pushback from a husband taking back an unfaithful wife. Not once has someone challenged a blog or a book where I recount a husband forgiving his wife. But just about every time I recount a story where a wife takes back an unfaithful husband, the angry social media mob trounces, suggesting I’m telling every betrayed woman to stay put. The fact that a woman may leave doesn’t mean every woman should leave. And the fact that one woman stays is not making a statement that every woman should stay.

But No Nuance Nancys and Normans don’t like nuance.

Gary Thomas

No Nuance Nancys and No Nuance Normans

What Gary’s not realizing is that he is the one who isn’t seeing the nuance here. He’s failing to recognize that the reason female abuse survivors speak up when he tells those stories is because he is ignoring the literal decades of grooming many women have received from the church and books to stay with abusive and unfaithful husbands that men have not received. He is equating the two when they are not equal because the sexes are coming to this situation with wildly different backgrounds and vulnerabilities. But additionally, his readers’ concern is coming from Gary’s choice to hold up the radical as something to aspire to, rather than spending the bulk of his time talking about the norm and how to be wise.

Yes, we are called to forgive people. But we are not called to reconcile or restore relationships when such action would not be wise.

When such miracles of restoration and reconciliation happen, we need to remember that these are not the result of the victim’s strong faith. They are the result of the repentance of the one who did evil, and of God’s working.

When we keep the focus on radical inspirational stories, we actually change the message.

We keep those who are sinned against always feeling like they should go the extra mile, rather than putting the onus on the sinner to go the extra mile.

This is an incredible burden to put on those who are already suffering, and yet often the authors refuse to hear the cries of those who are begging them to stop setting the standard higher than God even does.

Even look at his comment–note how he’s talking about a husband taking back an unfaithful wife. Why isn’t he talking about an unfaithful wife recognizing what she did wrong, doing everything she can to make amends, and being content to live without her husband if that’s what he chooses, while she prays that he will see her change of heart? Why does he frame the story around what the aggrieved party does, rather than focusing on what the party who sinned should do?

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Let’s take this into the realm of physical miracles for a moment.

Imagine a speaker was presenting to a group of parents with terminally ill kids, and she told a story of how God healed a child with cancer after a month of fasting and prayer. The shocked parents, crying in horrendous grief, complain to the speaker that their pain is being ignored. But she replies, “You’re denying what God did in that family’s life! You’re invalidating their story! You’re ignoring nuance.”

No, it’s just that that is not the story these parents needed to hear.

They needed to hear that God can be there, in the midst of your suffering, even when the miracle doesn’t happen. They needed to know that their faith does not rest on the miracle, and that miracle does not rest on their faith. Instead, everything is anchored in the peace of Christ, no matter what happens.

Sometimes the miracle is not the healing, but just that you survived the grief.

And let’s be frank: when abuse and betrayal are involved, God’s work is usually not seen in the marriage restoration, but in emotional healing after betrayal.

We should not tell people that God will do the exceptional thing in their life, because the whole point of an exception is that IT IS AN EXCEPTION. It is not the rule.

When we do share the exception, we need to point out that it is what GOD has done, combined with the radical repentance of the one in the wrong. It is not that one particular person forgave more, had more faith, or was more Christlike than your average person in that situation.

It was that a sinner truly repented and then God did something extraordinary, and that can be celebrated, certainly. But it should never be held up as the ideal. That diminishes the work of God by making it seem within reach of mere mortals. We should not hold up the exceptional stories of abusive marriages that have been mended, or radical restoration after betrayal as the ideal, any more than we should hold up the stories of children cured of cancer as the ideal.

We would never make it sound like the mother whose child was cured of a heart defect had greater faith and greater love of Jesus than the mother of the child who died–at least I hope we wouldn’t (ask me how I know). And yet how many women are left feeling like they only have a C+ faith rather than an A+ faith because they couldn’t reconcile with their abuser, or they couldn’t maintain a relationship with their best friend who cheated on her husband?

Forgiveness is wonderful.

Boundaries are essential.

Radical restoration and reconciliation is a work of God.

And those things should not be mixed up.

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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26 Comments

  1. Angharad

    If you look at the dictionary definitions of ‘miracle’, they use words like ‘extraordinary’ or ‘exceptional’ or ‘inexplicable’. By definition, a miracle is not expected all the time or in all situations. So why do we take an example of miraculous physical healing or marriage restoration and expect it to become the ‘norm’. It wouldn’t BE a miracle if it were normal!!!

    Reply
  2. Laura

    “They needed to hear that God can be there, in the midst of your suffering, even when the miracle doesn’t happen. They needed to know that their faith does not rest on the miracle, and that miracle does not rest on their faith. Instead, everything is anchored in the peace of Christ, no matter what happens.” – This right here is what should be shown and taught, not those radical stories.

    This is a much-needed post and something I wish I saw years ago. If my prayers for many things in life did not get answered, I would wonder if my faith was not strong enough. Maybe I didn’t pray hard enough or long enough. Maybe I didn’t fast correctly or tithe the right amount every single week, etc. These radical restoration stories are part of that prosperity gospel.

    Prayers always help, but it’s up to the person who was in sin to repent and change their ways. I know of those stories. I’ve been part of Celebrate Recovery for five years and have seen lots of people recover from addictions with restored relationships with their families and spouses. But, the ones who were in the wrong did the changing. They turned from their addictions and made healthy changes in their lives. I admit that when I hear these stories, I have felt like a failure because my first marriage did not work out. But, I was not going to keep praying for God to change my husband. I wasn’t safe anymore; getting out was a priority and at that time, my safety and sanity mattered more than waiting on some “radical” transformation to occur in my husband.

    As a long-time divorcee of 20 years, I’ve gone through seasons where I fervently prayed for a husband. I would be super specific with my prayers because I was told God wanted me to be specific to a T and if I was not specific enough, then my prayers would not get answered. There’s that whole prosperity gospel bit. A lot of well-meaning people (I sure have a lot of those in my life) would tell me if I did A, B, and C, then my prayers would be answered because that’s how it happened for them.

    Thank you for this much-needed post because I have always felt troubled by these rare radical transformation stories. Of course, they’re not rare for Debi Pearl who has made these stories the norm in Created to Be His Doormat, er Helpmeet.

    Reply
    • Sarah

      I’m facing this right now with my mother. After repeated and sustained infidelity on my father’s part, she’s contemplating going back to him because he’s in a country where she’ll get more immediate (not necessarily better) access to an operation she needs for a chronic condition. No mention of how she’ll recover from said operation, as I imagine my father’s patience will run out pretty quickly as it’s major surgery, she’ll be off her feet for a long time. Oh, and my 13 yo sister would have to go back too, as there’s a good school for her there (along with a father she no longer likes or respects!) My mum had had it pretty engrained in her that divorce is a big no-no and my worry is that my father will persuade her to stay in the marriage without him changing or coming to any sort of repentance. He says he’s sorry, but I don’t buy it – he’s not demonstrating any real fruit. She’s feeling under a lot of pressure to rush forgiveness and my fear is that she’ll now it it. Would love any prayers please, BM gang. Feeling v discouraged right now.

      Reply
      • Rebecca Lindenbach

        Oh I’m so sorry, Sarah. That’s so incredibly difficult. I said a prayer just now for your family.

        Reply
        • Sarah

          Thank you Rebecca 💜

          Reply
  3. Jane Eyre

    Great post, as always. The analogy to the parents of sick children is right on.

    We have martyrs, whose incredible faith lead them to death rate than denounce God, but that incredible faith did not save them from torture and death. Why would anything else be any different?

    Not a marriage counselor, but I think there is also a need for the wronged party to have time to process, work through emotions, and consider next steps before FORGIVENESS is shoved in their face. When I dated, a few men dis things to me that were really, really wrong (cheating, assault) and it was horrible how fast the pressure came to FORGIVE or at the very least, LISTEN TO HIS APOLOGY. What I most wanted was him and all of the the relationship cheerleaders out of my face so I could lick wounds and process.

    No one is obligated to make binding decisions immediately after a breach of trust. They are even allowed to try to make it work, then change their minds because it just hurts too much.

    Reply
    • Laura

      Jane Eyre,

      I agree that forgiveness should never be rushed. I left an abusive marriage over 20 years ago and the process took several years for me. I was trying to forgive before working through my emotions because I was told that I had to forgive or else God would not forgive me.

      Reply
      • Jane Eyre

        I agree, Laura, but it’s not “just” forgiveness. A woman can forgive your ex-husband for committing adultery but still decide to leave him, and the latter part – the decision to stay or to go – can take time. That’s what I’m trying to highlight here. The push to “forgive” is part of forcing her to stay, because she’s too off-balance to make a good decision. But that doesn’t mean they are the same thing, just because unhealthy people mash them together. The decision to stay or to go, and the ability to forgive, are completely separate issues for the betrayed spouse.

        Reply
  4. CMT

    These are great points. I think your analogy to physical healing is very apt.

    The other thing that comes to my mind with these “relationship miracle” stories is that, while it’s great that the abuser reformed after 50 years of the wife praying, or going to jail, or whatever, what might have happened if those women had prayed, AND set boundaries decades earlier? When someone says “Enough, you deal with your stuff or I’m out,” that can be a huge wake up call. Ofc not always, but it can lead to change. And we know passivity doesn’t promote the offender’s repentance. It’s just enabling, really.

    Reply
  5. Andrea

    “No nuance Nancys and Normans” — how do you even argue seriously with a guy like that? You do actual research, he has an English BA and an MDiv, and he’s just always wanted to be a writer. And he’s not even good at that — “No nuance Nancys and Normans don’t like nuance” is too repetitive, the “no” before their names already indicates they have no nuance. I think I might go over to his Facebook page just to critique his style.

    Reply
    • Laura

      Yeah, seriously why is it okay for him to call people names like that? Why doesn’t he see it as beneath him? It sounds so petty.

      Reply
  6. Anon

    Why have you removed all articles or blog posts regarding wives with a higher libido on the new site? For someone who claims to want to bring attention to the fact that a lot of wives are often the higher drive spouse, why do you have no materials on this? Just looking for some solidarity while trying to sort out the mess of being a higher-drive wife raised in purity culture. It’s been a literal culture shock for me since being married. My husband is wonderful and giving/loving, but my own emotions on this are confusing at best.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Hello! We are working on moving over our posts but some of them are more complicated formatting-wise than others, so you’ll have to be patient with us! Unfortunately, we are a small team who has to go through all of this manually. If you are looking for info specifically on high-drive wives, you can go here: https://baremarriage.com/category/sex/libido/ and scroll through our posts on libido until you find some! There are still many here on the site, and I hope that as we continue to tune things up it gets easier to find. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Gail

    I think you could take the analogy a step further. When you or your spouse or child is very sick, you go to the doctor, right? When people focus on Scriptures about healing, and believe that God will heal them or their child if only they have enough faith and obey the Word of God, and they refuse to go to the doctor or use modern medicine, 99.99% of us call that neglect at the least, and some parents have even been arrested for child abuse becausethey didn’t take their child to a doctor.

    In the same way, it is wrong to tell people that they should just pray more, be more obedient, love more, serve more, and trust God. Those giving marriage advice should recommend going to a professional for help as soon as possible. Just like you would want to get the right medical diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible, before it gets worse or too bad to treat, it should become normal for couples to go see a professional so they can get back on track before they are so off track it really would take a miracle.

    Reply
  8. Mara R

    Then there are the urban “Christian” legends that have taken on a life of their own, about the woman who finally submitted to her abusive husband enough that he finally repented and got saved.

    That one’s been around a long time.

    The final version I heard was the Paige Patterson version where he told a wife to pray for her husband in right in front of him, and so she did. But then she came back with two black eyes complaining to Patterson that it didn’t work. But he claimed that it did because her husband came to him, repented and gave his heart to Jesus.

    I never believed that story for a minute. I recognized it as that urban legend preached by many men before. He just took it, personalized it by putting himself in that false narrative and regurgitated it for all to hear and believe in as the gospel truth.

    I think of this verse in Ezekiel 13:6 concerning the false prophets in Ezekiel’s day. I feel this word applies to those who put forth their view of marriage and how submission of the wife somehow saves it and saying that this is what God has said. (when God clearly hasn’t). They want it to be true so bad that they even make up stories about. But it isn’t the good news that they desperately want it to be.

    Anyway Ezekiel 13:6 “They see deceit and lying divination, those who are saying, ‘The Lord declares,’ when the Lord has not sent them; yet they wait for the fulfillment of their word!”

    Sorry if I’m way off on this. This is just may long way of saying that I’m glad this misdiagnosis series is going on and that I appreciate this one in particular. Thanks so much.

    Reply
    • Melissa W

      I just read all of Ezekiel 13 because of your comment and wow! All of the “false prophets” who have ensnared people and led them astray and are now being called out for the harm they caused, are shouting that they are being “persecuted” but in reality the torrent of voices speaking out against them are exactly what Ezekiel 13 is all about. Here are verses 20-21:
      20 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare people like birds and I will tear them from your arms; I will set free the people that you ensnare like birds. 21 I will tear off your veils and save my people from your hands, and they will no longer fall prey to your power. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”

      This movement of calling out the harmful teachings and harmful power structures that have laid such a heavy burden on people and caused so much harm to God’s children is absolutely of God and I am so grateful to be witness to it. I pray that more people will find their God given voice and refuse to put up with false, harmful teaching!

      Reply
  9. JB

    Thank you for this post!
    From when I was a kid until my young adulthood, I remember hearing stories of couples healed (or “healed”, A.K.A. “not divorced”) after infidelity, porn use (which is also infidelity), horrific verbal abuse, etc. Porn use was pretty normalized for both boys and men in the environments I was in (because it’s “every man’s battle”).

    So, a few years ago, when a bible school friend who I had mutual feelings for flew to the US to visit and officially “court” me, and told me about his “struggle” with porn and masturbation AFTER he arrived (when we were literally alone in the woods together), I thought it was fine. I also thought all the verbal abuse, and his lustful character were just normal guy things. Heck, I even thought I could be friends with him after the breakup and that I should take some of the blame for his abuse, since that’s radical forgiveness!

    It’s been four years now, and I am still processing that year of abuse.

    Reply
  10. Sarah O

    Hard read, but needs to be said. When you’re hurting, and you have no control over it, the radical miracles give you something to DO, to TRY, to ASPIRE to. The acceptance part is hard. Thank you for saying so.

    Reply
  11. Kevin W.

    This post makes me think of Pat and Jill Williams. He was a famous basketball executive and their marriage encountered difficulties. They went through a period of renewal in the early 80s, wrote a book called Rekindled, and went on Focus on the Family’s radio show to talk about how their marriage had been saved. Then about 10 years later they divorced, and he remarried. You can read more about their story at https://tinaseward.medium.com/when-the-formula-doesnt-work-f6eed29402a

    I think it’s dangerous anytime we put someone on a pedestal or give them a platform because of a recent conversion, repentance, or recovery. Especially if the goal is to take advantage of their celebrity from something like sports or entertainment or to restore a famous Christian leader. Even the Apostle Paul spent several years in the wilderness, suffering for his faith, and serving God without prominence as the church got to know him before he was called to travel and preach the gospel.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Such a good point!

      Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      I remember that interview on Focus on the Family! I didn’t know that they had later divorced. How sad. And how unsurprising, given what we now know about the need for long-term, visible, intentional change.

      Reply
  12. Jennifer

    This exact kind of discussion happened in my church small group last night. Someone brought up an example of a wife who prayed for her husband who was unkind and demeaning to her for 40 years, and after 40 years of praying he changed and all was well. When I tried to suggest that the wife do something much earlier than 40 years about her husband’s bad behavior (I meant boundaries, but forgot to use the word), I was quickly shot down. Apparently this is a story our pastor tells. I am so tired of the continued advice (almost always given to women) of just pray and eventually God will change him—and the expectation that this is about the only thing that the woman should do.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      UGH I HATE THIS. Yes, that may have been the story for one couple–but even for that couple. WHY is the best-case scenario 40 YEARS of being mistreated? Why not telling him to shape up year 1? The first time he called her a name in public? Why is the winning story never a woman standing up and saying “enough”?!

      I’m glad you spoke up. Maybe you planted some seeds in people’s minds!

      Reply
  13. Lisa Johns

    I am actually someone who is currently (cautiously) living out one of those “miraculous” heart changes in my husband. Seriously, God is doing some AMAZING things!
    But hear this, sisters!
    I laid some serious boundaries over 2-1/2 years ago, and I have stayed within them like my life depended on it. (Part of that was, we had zero physical relationship from December 2019 until August 2022. I was that serious.)
    I stopped allowing myself to be shut down, and I did not allow my husband to put the blame for all his issues on me.
    When I found out for sure he was using porn, I let him know that I knew, and I did not accept the blame he tried to put on me.
    I finally (by invitation) told his counselor EXACTLY what our marriage had been for thirty years, and that was the day I said I wanted him to move out.
    It was a difficult day. But it was that afternoon when he finally decided to choose the right thing. He repented, he made phone calls, he confessed to our children what he had been all those years (the children are grown and ready to hear this), he did NOT try to cast blame on me (!), and he has been walking this out ever since. It has truly been amazing. And (as I have done many times over the last couple of years) I really wish I had laid these boundaries earlier. I’m still kind of hyper-vigilant (there could still be another shoe to drop), but I am fairly optimistic about our prospects. We have had disagreements, but for the first time ever, we are able to talk and resolve them.
    So anyway, in reading that, I think maybe this doesn’t quite qualify as one of those “miracle stories,” but it still feels miraculous to me. But never forget that it came because I set boundaries, and when it finally came down to the wire, HE MADE A CHOICE. I couldn’t have made that happen, and if he hadn’t made it for himself, we would be separated even now.

    Reply
  14. Lisa Manske

    What those people (the ones who hold up the miracle marriages) are selling is prosperity gospel. If you do all the right things in exactly the right way, you too will have a miraculous story to tell! And it is also saying the opposite–if you wind up divorced and living in poverty with your children, it’s because you didn’t do all the right things in exactly the right way. Which is false. Sometimes you do what you have to do, divorce, and everything is still really, really hard. And it was still the right choice.

    As far as Gary Thomas “never getting pushback” about a story of a husband taking back a wife, I’ll give him pushback. Frankly, he’s not qualified to talk people through that. It’s not his place to try and convince people to choose that path over divorce. I’ll also claim that it’s not possible to make your marriage a fortress. Every married person has a spouse that is a human being with free will. There’s no guarantees, no formula, no acronym, no seven steps to make your marriage impervious. If Gary Thomas cannot take criticism for his public writings without referring to his critics as a social media mob, he can stay off social media. He wants to have his say in public and criticize others for having their say. There’s a name for that behavior.

    Reply
  15. Bonnie

    Sheila, you are very wise and discerning as always. Many thanks for this.

    Reply

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