Chapter 181

The Ever-More-Difficult Marriage Sermon

In an age of divorce and remarriage, how can you preach graciously about lifelong commitment?

I never used to speak on marriage. As a young preacher, I didn't have much personal experience in the matter, and I had grown up with parents who truly loved each other. I had no idea how stressful marriage was for many people.

As I began speaking about marriage, though, I discovered hurting people had been sitting in church for years, putting up a front, and wondering, Is our marriage abnormal? After a sermon on marriage, I'd hear, "It's so good to know we're not the only ones who struggle."

I concluded that most people want help with their marriage, even when they believe there's nothing more to do, so I decided to preach more intentionally about the subject.

The challenges

As I did, I found that it's easy to preach about marriage but difficult to do it well. And it's getting more difficult. One major challenge is how to make everyone in today's congregation feel included. Some have happy marriages, others have seen a divorce lawyer that week; some have been married three times, others have never married.

Another difficulty is how to illustrate the message. Stories carry emotional impact, and everyone in the congregation holds strong feelings about marriage—either their own, their parents' marriage, a failed marriage, or a marriage they wish they had.

A third challenge is how to talk about my own marriage, without making myself look better or worse than I am, and without invading my family's privacy. Some preachers also wrestle with the need to preach about marriage when their marriage is struggling, or when they are not married.


Here are some principles I've found helpful.

Use positive examples, without glamorizing. In a day when so many marriages break up, it's more important than ever to hold up successful marriages as examples. One idea, which I got from a friend, is when preaching on marriage to say occasionally, "I'd like for everybody who has been married for more than fifty years to stand." As they stand, I say, "These are heroes of our church." People burst into applause.

I tell of men and women who have stuck by their spouses. I told the story of Jim Irby, preacher at the church where I served as youth minister years ago. I saw him and his wife at a convention a while back. An elegant woman, his wife now has a disease that has deteriorated her muscles until she can barely walk. As I saw this dignified couple in their late seventies walk into the room, Jim was walking at the same slow pace as his wife, bent in the same places she was bent, so he could hold onto her in support. "That's what we all want," I said. "To have a companion who really believes what he or she said—'I'll stand by you in sickness and in health.' "

I also use strong examples of fidelity. When my friend Russ Blowers retired recently, somebody asked him, "What's the greatest accomplishment in your ministry?" He was president of our convention of Christian churches. His was one of the largest churches in Indianapolis. He headed the Billy Graham crusade there. Yet he didn't mention any of those things.

Russ said, "I'm most proud of the fact that I never had to go into my children's bedroom and try to explain to them why I had been unfaithful to their mother."

On the other hand, it's possible to glamorize marriage too much. I've used a cartoon I found years ago of a beautiful girl driving an Italian sports car. The top is down on her convertible, she's smiling, her long hair is blowing in the breeze. There are two haggard, miserable looking women, with babies on each arm, looking at her saying, "Poor Nancy. She could never find a husband."

Include everyone. When preaching about marriage, it's easy to make certain people feel excluded. I used to hear comments like, "Why is it you never say anything about divorce?" or "How come you never preach to singles?"

In recent years I haven't heard that as much, because I now do two things.

1. Listen to the experts. I've never been through a divorce, but that doesn't mean I'm not authorized by God to preach on divorce. Since my experience is limited, though, I go to those who've experienced it. A few years ago, I preached a sermon on divorce and one on remarriage. To prepare, I gathered six or seven people who have wrestled with those issues firsthand and said, "I've got some questions to ask you." Later, when I preached, I said, "I've never been through a divorce, but I have some friends who have. Let me tell you what they said to me."

In addition, I scan periodicals geared for singles, divorced people, and single parents. There is an avalanche of information available on these issues. I have no excuse if I come across as ignorant. Recently two women came to me and said, "We are a part of a support group for women who are abused physically. Could you address this subject a little more in preaching?"

I was hesitant. The topic was so foreign to my experience. But two weeks ago, while talking about forgiveness and overcoming the pressures of the past, I said, "Maybe you have a husband who has beat you up." We could have heard a pin drop. After the service, a woman came to me and said, "I'm in an abusive situation right now. I don't know where to turn. Can you help me?"

2. Include specific, one-line illustrations of various situations. People need to know that I know they are present, and that the message is for them too.

It's easy to be generic in preaching: "Maybe you need to forgive somebody in your family." It may take me another fifteen minutes of thought to come up with a specific illustration: "Your dad ran out on you and your mom when you were 6 years old. When will you forgive him?"

By being more specific, I communicate, I know you're out there. This sermon is for you, too. Such one-line illustrations also communicate, I recognize that your parents got a divorce. There are others here just like you, and you are welcome and accepted here.

Balance hero and goat. I try to balance illustrations in which I'm the hero, or our family is ideal, with illustrations that show me as the goat or that highlight us in our day-to-day struggles.

Once I told about a time we were traveling on the East Coast and disagreed about whether I was driving in the right direction. Judy said, "You're going west."

I said, "I'm not either. I'm going east. We're going in the right direction." Each of us was convinced the other was wrong.

Then I saw a sign that she didn't see that told me I was going in the wrong direction. I drove past the next two exits trying to think of some way I could get off for gasoline and get back on without telling her I had changed directions.

Often, it's harder for me to use an illustration that reveals the tenderness of our marriage. Several years ago, we went through a difficult period with Judy's health. That time of our lives was too tender to talk about for some time, but I finally got to the place where I could tell it without tearing up. One of the first times I made more than a passing reference to it was with this story:

When we celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary, I wanted to get Judy a ring that cost more than I felt I could afford. I'd always been a little embarrassed about the ring I gave her when we got engaged. Even after I took her engagement ring and the new ring to have the stones set, I kept debating whether I should have spent so much money.
But just a few weeks later, when Judy lay in the hospital bed after a stroke, her left hand partially paralyzed, I looked down at her hand and said, "That sure is a pretty ring on your finger."
She replied, "I think it is too."

I wanted the story to remind people to demonstrate love before it's too late.

Sometimes, of course, a preacher may not be able to use personal illustrations because of marital struggles. I have a preacher friend who has been holding on to his marriage with his fingertips for more than twenty years. He dreads preaching on marriage, because he feels like a hypocrite. But he grits his teeth and looks for illustrations from the marriages of others. He might say, "My friend, Bob Russell, tells the story … " That technique may limit his effectiveness, but I respect him, because he rises above his situation to preach on a subject that needs to be addressed.

Bring up sex—discreetly. When anyone talks about problems, needs, and expectations in marriage, sex always is near the top of the list. I preach on the topic because I believe in preaching the whole counsel of God and because I want to speak to real life.

We encourage parents to put their kids in children's church, yet I'm more discreet about how I discuss sex than I was fifteen years ago. Back then I might have used the word intercourse in a sermon. Now I use the word intimacy. That may seem counterintuitive, given our exposure to the subject from pop culture. For example, fifteen years ago, many people recoiled at hearing the word condom. Few are shocked by it anymore. But it's because people get the full frontal approach from television and movies that I want my approach to be tasteful.

I use personal illustrations on this topic only with caution, discretion, and permission. I've shared that one thing I love about Judy is she is really affectionate. She's kind of formal in public, and it surprises some people that she would be that warm at home.

One night, Judy and I were eating pizza with the youth after church in the church kitchen. Judy really looked pretty that night. She looked my way, and I winked at her. She looked away like she was embarrassed, but later that night at home, as I was sitting in my chair reading, she came up behind me and put her arms around my neck. She asked, "You know what it does to me when you wink at me like that in public?"

"No, not really."

Well, I found out, and I'm going to do it more often!

A story like this has an important purpose: it signals to married people that it's okay to be affectionate, to desire your spouse, and to initiate intimacy.

Point to practical help. I want a sermon on marriage to point people to the Source of hope. But many people need additional, practical assistance. Whenever possible, I point people to that. In one message, I brought up the subject of being a single dad. I said:

Our society is becoming more sensitive to single moms; when you hear of single dads, it's usually deadbeat dads and dads who have abandoned their families. But statistically, fourteen out of one hundred custodial parents are fathers. Then there are dads who wish they could go back and relive their situations, but they can't. So if you're in that situation, there's a support group here that can help you.

Believe in preaching's power. Despite the challenges, I keep preaching on marriage.

One couple, now married for more than twenty-five years, was in deep marital trouble about six years ago. They were not members of our church. They were separated, he had been running out on her, and a divorce was in the works. Somebody gave the wife a tape of one of my sermons on marriage, and she listened to it. When the husband came to pick up his things, he saw the tape on the counter and said, "What's this?"

She said, "It's by some preacher at Southeast Christian Church."

"Do you mind if I listen to it?"

"You can have it," she replied. "I'm finished with it." He headed to his apartment and started listening to the tape. He kept driving around until it was over. Then he drove back home and said to his wife, "I want to work on our marriage again."

They started coming to our church regularly, worked through their issues, and today are still together. They are so happy. They recently stopped me to introduce me to their daughter.

When I see God's Word turn around a marriage, that makes the hard work of preaching worthwhile.