“We live in a culture that promotes a Hollywood fantasy that if you’re with your soulmate, everything will be hunky dory—you’ll live happily ever after—and there will be no issues,” said Rev. Deb Koster, producer of Family Fire. “The reality is that we’re all broken, and we’re trying to find ways to live together in fellowship, sharp edges and all.”
Marriage is a portrait of God’s love for the church, Koster noted, and healthy marriages characterized by mutual forgiveness reflect God’s sacrificial love for the church. Marriages affect not only two individuals, but also children, families, church congregations, and whole communities. The mutual sacrifices required in healthy marriages bear witness to God’s lovingkindness. But people around the world struggle with ideals, habits, and cultural norms that hinder God’s purpose for marriage.
Through its agencies, ministries, and congregations, the Christian Reformed Church strives to help partners throughout North America and the world reframe, renew, and restore their marriages so they reflect God’s heart for redemption.
Reframing Marriages in North America
In a May 2017 Banner article, Koster shared the story of Carletta and Lyndon, who started using Family Fire resources to restore their crumbling marriage. “I’m always looking for something that could enrich our marriage, but I hadn’t found anything that met our needs,” said Carletta in the 2017 article. “We fought, but not fairly. Then I found Family Fire.”
Two years later, Koster calls Carletta a Family Fire “superfan,” referring to the ways she tries to help others reframe their marriages. Carletta and her husband started bringing Family Fire resources to their church. She and her husband are also planning to lead their own marriage retreat using Family Fire resources later this year.
Carletta, in particular, is passionate about walking alongside women whose marriages are stressed or in crisis. She’s also an active member in Family Fire’s closed Facebook group “Women Praying for their Marriages.” With about 500 members, the group uses media to provide support and a safe place for women to share their challenges in marriage and to encourage and pray for one another.
“The biggest thing for people in hurting relationships is they don’t have great support networks,” said Koster. “[Maybe] they’re not wanting to tell their church friends their marriage is a mess, or they’re not wanting their family or friends to know how bad things have gotten.”
Because shame often prevents people from seeking help or confiding in family and friends, Family Fire provides support and resources to strengthen marriages in North America that people can easily access through social media.
But people throughout the world struggle in marriage relationships.
After 26 years of marriage, Samira had had enough.
Most people knew Samira’s husband for his leadership roles in their church, but behind closed doors, he was abusive. As a wife and mother living in Burkina Faso, Samira felt helpless. While programs exist in many parts of the world to support women in Samira’s situation, there were next to none in her community.
“Often when a woman in Burkina Faso has children with a man, she doesn't want to leave him no matter what,” said Rev. Marc Nabie, BTGMI’s French ministry coordinator in Burkina Faso. “Socially, divorce is not well-taken, and most women depend on their husband financially. So where would they go if they leave?”
Samira’s feelings of helplessness are all too common in the country. In response, Nabie and BTGMI’s French-language ministry team created an entire radio series, From Harm to Blessing, dedicated to marriage issues. In these programs, Nabie and volunteers such as Mrs. Nacro discuss God’s vision for marriage and help couples build a biblical foundation for their relationships.
Samira first heard Nacro’s voice on the air during a radio message about wounds and healing. The message helped Samira realize that how her husband treated her was not OK. She also realized that even if her husband did change his behavior, she would never be able to forgive him without God’s help. She reached out to Nacro for help in taking the next step. Nacro invited Samira into her home, where Samira quickly broke down. Soon, both women were crying, and Nacro offered to pray for Samira.
“The two spent almost seven hours together that day,” said Nabie. “They prayed with all their heart for the salvation of her husband, that Samira would have courage to speak up for herself, that her husband would be able to change his behavior, and that God would help Samira forgive him.”
The day of prayer didn’t change Samira’s husband in an instant, but God began working in his life. After weeks of more counseling and prayer with Nacro, Samira reported something amazing. “Her husband went down on his knees in front of her and their children,” said Nabie. “He begged for their pardon, crying.”
Because she had already prayed about this and told her husband how she deserved to be treated, Samira was able to reach out in forgiveness.
Stories of transformation like Samira’s and her husband’s don’t happen in every marriage. For every couple like this, the ministry team meets several others who aren’t in a position to reconcile and restore their marriages.
“Not every relationship is healthy enough to find a place of restoration,” said Koster, speaking from her Family Fire experiences. She points out that it may be necessary for one partner to leave a marriage when it is an abusive situation.
“Restoration is the ideal, and it’s what we’re called to strive for, but the reality on this broken side of heaven is: it’s not always possible when you have people enmeshed in addictions and abusive habits and behaviors,” she said.
BTGMI’s French-language ministry team has been overwhelmed with listeners who want to follow up with them for support. For many people, the ministry team is the only place to turn.
Renewing Marriages in Mexico
Sometimes marriage struggles are not evident in daily life. Pastor Israel and his wife, Elizabeth, thought their marriage was healthy, but they weren’t always honest with each other.
They acted differently as a married couple at church than they did at home. Church was a stage where they were polite and respectful. But at home, behind the scenes, they were blunt and would often bicker. Their children noticed.
When Resonate Global Mission missionaries Abe and Elaine Lee invited Israel and Elizabeth to participate in a marriage seminar, the couple opened up.
“They brought up a lot of issues they were having,” said Elaine. “[But] when they communicated with each other, they were able to share what was hurting them and what was making them happy.”
Recognizing that they were having trouble communicating with one another, Israel and Elizabeth asked for advice and were able to come up with a plan. In the months after the seminar, they worked on being honest with one another both in and out of the home.
“Now they talk more, talk to each other,” said Elaine. “As they’re getting better, their children are responding to that.”
But it’s not just Israel and Elizabeth’s children who notice. As a pastor couple, Israel and Elizabeth often provide marriage counseling to married couples in their church. Church members noticed a change too. Israel and Elizabeth are now more authentic and vulnerable when sharing about marriage challenges.
“Marriage ministry is so important,” said Abe. “First of all to our pastors, and through them, their churches.” He added, “We want [the pastoral couples] to see their weaknesses. They don’t have to be perfect to counsel other people. But they need to recognize their own weaknesses, and by sharing their weaknesses, give other couples hope.”
Marriages are intimate bonds that take a lot of work to maintain and strengthen, and the challenges cross all ages, socioeconomic sectors, and national boundaries. But marriage is an important covenant designed by God—a portrait of God’s own love for his church. That’s why CRC ministry leaders work so hard with people from every country and every walk of life.
“The church has so much to say to a broken, hurting world that’s struggling to make sense of living relationally,” said Koster. “It’s part of our work because it’s part of God’s heart.”