by Alasdair Groves
The preface to Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change Through Ordinary Moments (MM) opens with a question: Why yet one more book on marriage? Winston Smith, a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, answers his own question by describing MM’s basic purpose: to help people in struggling marriages see their need for deeper change than they had ever thought they needed and experience true transformation in Christ.
I would add a second reason why the church needs this book. MM expertly weds profound theological reflection with practical application that is wise and will be broadly accessible. Very few books have interwoven these two as skillfully. Every spouse will quickly find himself or herself captured in Smith’s illustrations and will be drawn compellingly to see the bigger picture of God’s redemptive work in even the hardest of situations.
MM is practical theology at its best. Smith has a knack for capturing complex ideas in simple, memorable phrases. Non-Christians, believers who are young in their faith, and I-am-not-into-books types will all find themselves welcome. Further, while Smith says quite clearly that his primary audience is the spouse in a hard marriage, any counselor who chooses to listen in on the conversation will find depth, wisdom and refreshing insights.
How does MM achieve this balance of depth and accessibility, of rich theology and application? Fundamentally I believe its secret is the interweaving of talk about who God is and how He works with gripping and convicting explorations of the myriad of ways we tend to go wrong in marriage. More specifically, Smith marries biblical insight with street-level practicality by using the three main sections of MM to build on each other, giving the reader the spiritual context, practical knowledge and Christ reliant motivation to grow and change in the midst of the conflicts and hardships in marriage.
The first section sets the spiritual context by expanding the book’s subtitle: “Extraordinary Change Through Ordinary Moments.” Smith convincingly argues that God is actually working in and through the trials and conflicts you face in marriage. Rather than seeing conflict in marriage as evidence that you are failing, Smith casts a vision of hope for “the way God uses marriage to shape our souls” as Gary Thomas (author of Sacred Marriage) puts it in his commendation for MM on the back cover. Smith spends section one portraying marriage as a key crucible in which God molds us and teaches us to trust him as he changes us, reinforcing his message by laying bare one bad afternoon he experienced in his own marriage. By opening his own life—with sins, doubts, fears and desires he admits he is sad to find in himself—Smith underscores the freedom the gospel holds out to strugglers: Christ’s forgiveness and love allow you to take the log out of your own eye, seeing that your contribution to the problem is far larger and more deeply rooted than you thought.
Section two thus dives into common practical problems in marriage, focusing in on areas where we can be blind to our own need to change, especially our response to our spouse’s sin. As a counselor, I found section two very helpful in naming some of the problematic cycles and patterns I see most frequently in troubled marriages, especially as Smith fleshed out many different—and often subtle—forms of manipulation. For example, he says “[w]hen we make our personal desires the measure of our spouse’s worth, we’re playing God…When you need someone like a starving person needs a meal, you’re putting him or her on the menu.” Indeed, treating our spouses as if God had placed them in our lives to meet our needs leads inevitably to manipulative attitudes and behavior. This kind of profound diagnostic simplicity allows Smith to offer an equally profound and simple solution that is rooted in the gospel: honor your spouse as belonging to God, not to yourself.
Section two goes on to engage many other issues—difficulties with sex, the importance of loving honesty, communication in conflict, wives’ and husbands’ roles in marriage, frameworks for identifying typical patterns of dealing with conflict, and so on. Smith is keenly aware, however, that many readers will collapse exhausted at the end of all this practical help, overwhelmed by the extent of the problem and the enormity of the transformation God needs to work.
Like the wise counselor he is, Smith ends MM with a final section called “Staying on the Path” which is a refreshing and reorienting encouragement to persevere. The last few chapters remind the reader of simple, encouraging things, like living before a God who is actively working through your every thought and deed means everything you do genuinely matters even when you do not see the impact. One finishes the book with a sigh of relief, drinking in the hope of the gospel afresh as it applies not simply to the day to day challenges of being married, but as it applies also to the day after day challenges of walking in hopeful obedience.
Winsome, personal, practical and compellingly Christ centered, MM never ceases to gently clear the fog from around our perspective on our sins and struggles, and it always offers the gospel as the core of our hope for change. I would strongly recommend this book not only to those who are hurting, but to counselors, small groups and any spouses looking to grow in their marriage!
. . . .
Alasdair Groves is the Director of Counseling at the New England office of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. He received his Master of Divinity in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair has also served as a pastoral counselor at Westerly Road Church in Princeton, and prior to seminary was a campus minister with the Navigators Christian Fellowship at Dartmouth College. Alasdair and his wife, Lauren, are parents to Emily. Alasdair is a fiction enthusiast, plays ultimate frisbee, and loves to produce and enjoy both good food and good music.