My Biggest Problem with “Pray for Your Marriage”

It’s October, and I’m still talking about prayer! That’s because my goal this year has been to pray more, especially for marriage.

I’ve encouraged you to be praying for your marriage and your marriage bed as well, including unity with your spouse, sexual temptation, and perspective. And I’ve been encouraged by you sharing your prayer habits and thoughts. But today I want to tackle one of the problems I see with the ongoing appeal to “pray for your marriage.”

blog post title + black-and-white image of woman praying (close-up)

Sometimes prayer is touted as the cure-all to every ill in marriage and life. You’re arguing with your husband? Pray for unity. You’re struggling with your sex drive? Pray for its awakening. You’re battling a porn habit? Pray for release. You’re two steps away from divorce? Pray for restoration of your marriage.

And all of that is great. You definitely should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18). The problem is when we stop there and make it sound like prayer will resolve all of your issues.

But prayer is communication with God, and we have to also listen to what He says in those moments and in His Word and then apply it to our lives.

I know this from experience, because in the pit-dwelling years of my marriage, I prayed. A LOT. Everything from quiet reflection with God, to Scripture-focused prayer, to yelling and crying at Him for help. It felt like He wasn’t answering my prayer, because hadn’t He promised to deliver me? Psalm 91:14 says it this way:

“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation” (Psalm 91:14-16).

I was acknowledging His name regularly, loudly, desperately, yet my marriage slipped further and further into a black hole of despair.

Ah, the power of hindsight! It frankly makes me want to kick that younger me who expected God to fix everything while I continued to hold on to my mistaken viewpoints, my poor habits, and my selfish plans.

Let’s flip a couple of pages further in Psalms and learn more the character of God:

Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord,
  the one you teach from your law;
you grant them relief from days of trouble,
  till a pit is dug for the wicked (Psalm 94:12-13).

Wow, that doesn’t sound nearly as awesome as Superhero God swooping in to rescue me with little effort on my part — just holding on to His caped person while He flies me away from trouble. But that ignores that God wants us to be a part of the plan.

Or rather, that IS the plan. Our Lord longs to rescue us, but He won’t swoop in when He knows that we need to grow more through the experience.

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Imagine God like a father with a toddler learning to walk. If the dad grabs his daughter every time it looks like she might fall, she won’t ever take those first steps. Instead, He’s there the whole time, listening to us, teaching us, scooping us up and comforting us when we stumble, and helping us learn to walk and then to run.

Prayer is inviting God into that experience. It’s reaching out your arms, looking directly at your Father, and walking toward Him. And then, applying what you’ve learned to the life you lead.

You have to act. What actions you need to take depend on your situation. But let’s take the issues I mentioned above:

  • You’re arguing with your husband? Pray for unity. And take an in-depth look at what changes you need to make, speak candidly and calmly with your husband, and consider attending a marriage course or getting marriage counseling.
  • You’re struggling with your sex drive? Pray for its awakening. And see your doctor to determine if there are health issues involved, check out a low libido resource like the online course from Sheila Gregoire or the devotional study from Bonny Burns, and listen to our podcast for regular tips on improving sexual intimacy.
  • You’re battling a porn habit? Pray for release. And confess your struggle to your spouse and a trusted mentor in your church, install filters on your computer or get rid of devices that tempt you, and seek out ministries that can help you break free like XXX Church.
  • You’re two steps away from divorce? Pray for restoration of your marriage. And see a counselor, either with your husband or without, to figure out what you can do to actively work toward reconciliation, and tell a church leader what’s going on and invite their intervention.

Also, let me add that the times when this advice to “just pray for your marriage” make me crazy are when:

  1. A spouse is serially unfaithful. If your spouse doesn’t give a hoot about the damage they’re doing to your marriage with their infidelity, you don’t cower in your closet and simply pray. Yes, you pray mightily, but you also set boundaries and leave if they don’t change their behavior.
  2. A spouse is abusive. You can’t just pray that a spouse will stop smacking you or calling you every name in the book. Jesus Himself said that He was sent here in part “to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). Get out, and if he wants to stop being abusive, he can change, win your heart back, and renew the marriage covenant.

Should you pray for your marriage? Absolutely! Just don’t stop there. Also actively work toward resolving the problems you face.

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This shift started me on the path to healing and happiness in my own marriage: I stopped expecting God to swoop down and fix it all and started applying Scripture and the insights He showed me to my daily life. I continued to pray, but I also got off my butt and put real effort toward making our marriage better. Or rather, making me better, since I was the only one I could change.

Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12-13).

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17 thoughts on “My Biggest Problem with “Pray for Your Marriage”

  1. Nick Peters

    Nehemiah 4: 9 is one of my favorite verses on prayer in the Bible. Nehemiah is rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and their enemies are all around wanting to end the project. What does it say that they did?

    We prayed and posted a guard.

    Augustine once said pray as if everything depended on God. Work as if everything depended on you.

    Reply
  2. Debbie

    Yes-the listening part is often missing in the pray about everything , thanks for the reminder that we are to be actively involved, not just a bystander in the process.

    Reply
  3. E

    My favourite verse on prayer is in James. James 1:5 if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.

    I recently did Jen Wilkin’s study on the book of James, and this was one of the verses that really stuck out to me,and is now regularly used in my prayers. I think it really encourages the ‘listening’ aspect of praying, because how else is God going to give us wisdom if we are not listening for it?

    Reply
  4. Ashley

    Another problem I have when people talk about praying for one’s marriage is the advice that you shouldn’t pray for your spouse to change, you should pray for God to help YOU to change. This may be right in many cases, but if one spouse is cheating or abusing, or addicted to something, or I could go on, the other spouse SHOULD pray for the one in the wrong to change (along with taking appropriate action, like you said). I get sick and tired of the the burden of needing to change being put on the spouse who is already faithful, committed, and trying so hard.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I think it’s perfectly fine to pray that someone’s heart will change! The issue becomes when you expect God to do that without taking into account the person’s free will. I want God to nudge (shove, really) that person, but ultimately it’s their decision.

      Meanwhile, I’d also pray for wisdom on how to handle the situation, courage to combat unrighteousness in my midst, and support to get out if I need to.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Q&A with J: “My Sexless Marriage Is Making Me Lose My Faith in God” | Hot, Holy & Humorous

  6. Pingback: How Should You Pray for Your Spouse? | Hot, Holy & Humorous

  7. Sean

    You said this…
    “A spouse is abusive. You can’t just pray that a spouse will stop smacking you or calling you every name in the book. Jesus Himself said that He was sent here in part “to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). Get out, and if he wants to stop being abusive, he can change, win your heart back, and renew the marriage covenant.”

    In addition to sexual refusal, my W also did this. She did stop hitting me in 2004, because I began working as a prosecutor & I told her that even though I would never hit her back, I would have her arrested if she hit me again. But the verbal abuse never stopped.

    She told me many many times that I was a terrible husband and leader, all of her friends’ husbands were better, and she could easily find a better husband. So it is not just men who can be abusive.

    But thank you for writing this. It is very good to read that someone else thinks that abuse should never be tolerated.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Thanks for sharing that it can happen to men as well, Sean. I skew my marriage quite a bit toward wives, so I tend toward that language. But I know I have a lot of husbands reading as well.

      As for the verbal abuse, I hope you set boundaries with that. If not, I encourage you to get Boundaries in Marriage by John Townsend and Henry Cloud, which will walk you through some options. Many blessings.

      Reply

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