It is easier to talk theology than to live it. It’s easier to talk about your problems than to do something about them. Sometimes it’s wise to put the Bible down, get up from praying and start living what you know.
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“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
Mandy has been in a Bible study for eleven consecutive years. She loves her Bible study. It is the third Tuesday of each month from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. Mandy shows up at 7:00 sharp and promptly leaves at the last “amen.” Mandy also has a dysfunctional marriage, fifteen years running.
Mark reads his Bible from cover to cover every year. Bible reading has been his passion and conviction for the past nine years. He also rarely misses his morning prayer time. Mark is married to Mandy.
As a couple, they are hitting all the Christian marks. They attend their local church meeting every Sunday, nearly without exception. They are involved in their gender groups. They are consistent in the spiritual disciplines, but their marriage has gone from rocky to rockier.
There is something wrong with their Christian game plan. It is not working. Mark and Mandy are learning but not transforming. They talk at length about their latest study or how thankful they are to be part of a local body that provides so much, but the divide between them continues to grow.
The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17).
After asking a few insightful questions to Mandy, it became apparent that one of the reasons she liked her structured Bible study was because it allowed her to show up, sit down, soak in, and quickly leave as soon as it ended. The structure of the Bible study did not challenge her by asking questions that probed the real condition of her life and marriage. It was mostly a sit and soak session that required little from her. She liked it that way.
Her biggest challenge was navigating the spontaneity of the break time without being engaged about the personal things in her life or marriage. Attending Bible study was her way of being in control while tacitly participating in Christianity but not being exposed or challenged. She had a false intimacy with God and her friends.
Mark accomplished similar things, though he went about it another way. Mandy would be private in a group setting, while Mark did his devotions in a private setting. Their best defense was being on the spiritual-discipline-offensive. They were hiding in plain sight.
Their stellar attendance and consistent disciplines moved them to the head of the class, but their lives were not transforming. Their marriage is inching toward increasing dysfunction, and now that their children are in the early teen years, it is affecting the whole family.
The tenor of the home has the feel of smoldering anger. Everyone “gets along” though everyone knows it’s a fake perseverance at best. Mark and Mandy figured out how to coexist in the Christian world while maintaining ongoing displeasure with each other.
This fictional story is not fictional with untold millions of professing Christians. They are involved in all the right Christian things, but Christianity is not intruding their lives in such a way that is transformational.
In most cases like this, no one ever learns the real story, not until something blows up in the marriage or with the children. When this happens, someone calls the Christian medics while the onlookers are scratching their heads, wondering how this could happen to such a stellar couple.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12b).
There could be many reasons for what is wrong with Mark and Mandy. Their story is certainly not an anomaly. I have counseled many couples like this and have discovered a few common denominators. Here are two of them.
No Transparency – The most obvious hindrance is they did not want to be exposed. Being transparent may be one of the hardest things for a Christian to do. Sometimes a lack of transparency is born out of a fear of being hurt or slandered.
Though it is a legitimate fear, it is one that denies the power of the gospel. The fearful person who resists transparency has not appropriately dealt with this question: Is God’s opinion of you more controlling than any other person’s opinion of you?
If God’s opinion has more control over you, then you will be less likely to hide, even with the possibility of being hurt by others. That is the power of the gospel working in a person’s heart.
Another reason for a lack of transparency is because the person is hiding some sin. Sinful living can only thrive in inhabited darkness. Nobody can serve two masters; one will have dominion over the other (Matthew 6:24). When you couple hidden sin with a fear of being exposed, you can guarantee the person will not come clean or find help. Christian disciplines will not help this kind of person, though it can provide a cover for him to operate.
Discipleship can only happen when a person is willing to be completely honest about his life. This kind of discipleship occurs in the contexts of honesty and transparency. Without these two things, a Christian is not growing but going through the motions.
Ignorance – It is possible that Mark and Mandy do not know how to disciple each other. You may be surprised to know the most common answer I hear when I ask a husband how he disciples his wife is, “I don’t know how to do that.”
If they give an answer at all, it is usually along the lines of doing devotions, praying together, or going through a book. While those things could supplement any relationship, they should not be the centerpiece of a relationship.
When books, devotions, and prayer time supplant redemptive communication, the community will deteriorate. It is rare for me to counsel a couple who has not read more than one book on marriage.
It is also rare for me to counsel someone who does not have a working knowledge of the Bible. Books, Bibles, and prayer are almost always part of what a couple has tried to rejuvenate their marriage, only to be disappointed because those things did not work. If I were to counsel Mark and Mandy, I would hyperbolically tell them something along these lines:
I want you both to stop reading your Bible, stop reading all those books, stop praying, stop doing your devotions, and start talking to each other. It’s radical, I know. You both know enough about the Bible to choke a Pharisee. You do not need more Bible knowledge, and your prayers are being hindered and rendered ineffective by God (1 Peter 3:7) because you are missing out on one of the most common-sense things you can do: talk to each other.
Knowledge Plus Application
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12–14).
Mark and Mandy need to learn how to communicate with each other. They both are unique people, made by God, shaped by sinful means, and in need of someone coming alongside them to unpack them according to how sin has developed them and how God wants them to be.
For example, Mark needs to set aside all his Bible reading and praying and start exegeting another kind of book—his wife. He does not have a knowledge problem; he has an application problem. He could spend the next forty years reading his Bible and praying every day and still end up in divorce court. His Bible reading and prayer life will not help him until he gets in front of his wife and they begin talking honestly and openly.
One of the reasons churches offer so many Bible studies is because it is easier to tell someone what to do through a study than it is to get into the trenches of their lives where the sin is real, feisty, nasty, and complicated. Mark and Mandy need confronting, not more information about what the Bible teaches. They need some friends who can discern their lives and are willing to cut through the nonsense and help them.
Bible studies and prayer vigils will not do this. Those things are essential, but they are passive ways for sanctification to happen. They are part of how to mature in Christ, but if they are the only parts, Mark and Mandy will not grow in Christ. They will become smarter but not more sanctified.
I’m not dissing studying the Bible or praying. I am saying if you know the Word but are not practically engaging your relationships with the Word, you’re dishonoring God and hating your relationships. People can spend a lot of time praying and studying while their families spiral in dysfunction.
I make a living counseling biblically educated Christians. There is something wrong with that statement. It should not be that way. Christian transformation is knowledge plus application, not just knowledge alone.
How to Apply
If you are a person who is not maturing in Christ or if you are in a relationship that is not growing in Christ, here are two things for you to consider.
Are You Transparent?
Without making excuses for why you are not transparent, the question is, are you transparent? If you are not, you will not mature in Christ. The gospel has the power to transform you, but it will be impotent in your life if you are not willing to engage it the right way.
Part of the right way is for you to be engaged by the gospel in the context of community. If you are not willing to be transparent in your community or if you do not have a community that can know you the way you need to be known, you will hinder your growth in Christ.
Are You Hiding Something?
Counseling can be a lying profession. People lie to me all the time. I do not personally struggle with this, though I do sometimes wonder why someone would want to meet with me to talk about personal or marital problems and choose to lie.
If you want to change, you must be honest about what is going on in your life. You cannot reveal half the cards in your deck and expect anyone to speak intelligently into what you need to change. Transformation does not work that way.
Call to Action
If you are willing to be fully transparent and put all of your cards on the table, you are in the best place to change and grow, whether personally or within a relationship (providing the other person embraces your vision and expectation for transformation).
Two individuals who are open and honest with each other can spur one another on in their sanctification (Hebrews 10:25).
Discipleship happens this way. And from that excellent starting point, it is a matter of ongoing communication.
Let’s say my fictional characters, Mark and Mandy, are being practically animated by the gospel. They have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. They are for each other and want to be a means of grace in each other’s lives. If that is where they are, here are some excellent questions that will radicalize their lives and marriage.
You’re welcome to put your Bible down, walk out of your prayer closet, and engage your closest relationships with these questions too. Pick one and start talking:
- What is God doing in your life? How are you succeeding, and how are you struggling?
- What are some things I am doing that are helping you mature in Christ? How do I hinder you in your walk with the Lord?
- What are some of your fears? What do those fears tempt you to do?
- What is an ongoing struggle you have in your life? When did it begin? What have you been doing about it? How can I help you?
- What is something you would like to control, but you cannot control, and you struggle with it?
- In your opinion, how does God see you? I am not asking for a biblical answer but your answer.
- In your opinion, how do others see you? Are there certain people with whom you struggle? Why do you struggle? What do you think the Lord wants to teach you? How can I help you with this?
- What regrets do you have? What about guilt or shame related things?
- What hinders our relationship, and how could I change to make it better?
- What is something that I am not asking, but you think it would be helpful for me to ask?
Now put this book down and become a practical, active doer of God’s Word.
Also published on Medium.