It was pitch black as I rode in the back of a safari vehicle, the headlights trying their best to cast a beam down the rocky path through the African bush. In the driver’s seat, a soft-spoken missionary was opening up about difficulties in his marriage: “Sometimes I’d be talking with my wife from another room, and she would burst out in tears. When I came around the corner and asked her face-to-face why she was upset, she said she had heard me say something deeply insulting. The problem was the words she had heard weren’t even close to the words I’d said. After it happened several times, we realized something demonic was going on.” As I listened, a question dawned on me that I’d never entertained before: Do demons actively work to destroy marriages?
We read in the Gospels that Jesus spent much of his ministry fending off evil spirits, and in the Epistles we find sober warnings about the prowling lion seeking to devour us. Despite this, Tim Muehlhoff identifies with many modern Christians in his latest book, Defending Your Marriage: The Reality of Spiritual Battle, when he admits, “To be honest, spiritual battle is simply not on my radar.” In Ephesians 5 and 6, the apostle Paul calls Christians to suit up for spiritual war just after explaining God’s beautiful design for marriage. In Defending Your Marriage, Muehlhoff seeks to do the same.
Muehlhoff begins with a biblical exploration of Satan. Mixing scriptural data with a bit of plausible speculation, he presents an interesting case that Satan’s hatred of mankind is primarily fueled by jealousy. God uniquely bestowed his grace on humanity by fashioning them in his own image and giving them an earthly kingdom to rule. What is more, he foreordained his own Son to die in the place of fallen sinners, a salvation that angels—fallen or not—can only gaze upon as outsiders (1 Pet. 1:12). Muehlhoff explains that Satan’s envy manifests itself in his maniacal endeavor to wrest dominion over this earth from us by force, particularly by undermining our marriages.
He describes the clash of Christ’s kingdom with the powers of darkness: “If Satan’s purpose is to help create cultural terrain that reflects his priorities, then a purpose of your marriage is to counter his priorities by modeling values rooted in God’s kingdom.” In other words, we have to see the spiritual skirmishes in our own marriages in view of the great cosmic battle: “In a world where the fingerprints of Satan are everywhere, we offer marriages that reclaim enemy-occupied territory by being outposts for a different kingdom.” Evangelicals often think of individuals belonging to the kingdom of God, but it is interesting to imagine relationships as kingdom spaces, or outposts, as Muehlhoff does.
Perhaps the most intriguing chapter centers on the question that plagued my mind since page one: “How can I tell if this is spiritual warfare?” What signs indicate that my marriage hasn’t just hit a few bumps in the road but may be a specific target of demonic spirits? Drawing from 1 John 4:1, Muehlhoff lays out this guiding principle: Does the influence of a spirit move a believer toward the fruit of the Spirit or toward the deeds of the flesh? He goes on to mention his top five indicators of spiritual warfare, including inappropriate anger, a strong sense of indefinable dread, and intense feelings of shame. Curiously, the chapter does not survey any of the accounts of demon oppression from the Scriptures.
Using a double-edged-sword approach, Muehlhoff then instructs couples on how to defend against Satan’s temptations and advance in the battle together. He includes some helpful psychological insights about the complex nature of conflict while doing a bit of exegetical gymnastics through Genesis 3. I have to admit, though, that I was a bit disappointed with his treatment of the Armor of God in Ephesians 6. It is long on personal reflection and historical illustrations about Roman soldiers but short on the call to march forth in the finished work of Christ.
I was surprised and humbled that the chapter that affected me most was titled, “Our Greatest Defense: Prayer.” We pick up a book on spiritual warfare thinking there is some special formula or secret weapon we are lacking, but the thing most lacking in most marriages—including mine—is regular, Spirit-led communication with our Father. “The start of [The Lord’s Prayer],” Muehlhoff writes, “is not meant to be a type of etiquette in addressing the divine but rather a powerful means of rebutting the devil’s flaming arrows of accusation.” If there’s one encouragement we need to hear again and again, it’s to pray together more as husbands and wives.
The Enemy Within
In Defending Your Marriage, Muehlhoff has assembled something of a marriage conference in book form—complete with teaching content, panel-style interviews, Q&A, between-session blurbs, and follow-up homework. His writing has a lighthearted and friendly appeal. Unfortunately, Muehlhoff’s humor at times trivializes the very thing he seeks to emphasize. The battleground of marriage is not simply littered with arguments over who will take out the trash. The casualties of spiritual warfare are often divorcees, abuse victims, and cheated-upon spouses—not to mention children deeply scarred by marriages losing the battle. Defending Your Marriage would have done well to use a tone better suited to encouraging contemplation of these very real dangers.
It’s obvious that the book’s target audience is Bible-believing Christians, but I found it odd that the gospel itself felt peripheral to the spiritual battle Muehlhoff describes. How does the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection shape a marriage? How does Christ’s power over sin and death fend off the accusations, attacks, and efforts of the Devil? And how can husbands and wives learn to preach this Good News to one another regularly, practically, and faithfully? Muehlhoff would be just the man to deconstruct our embarrassment around sharing the gospel with one another in our homes.
Defending Your Marriage focuses particularly on habit-training and improved communication, which is not surprising since, as a communication scholar, this is Muehlhoff’s forte. Perhaps, however, the book would have been helped by some discussion about the spiritual battle against our own fleshly desires—a topic treated often in Paul’s epistles. Certainly, we have external enemies to fight, but many of us are losing the spiritual battle with the enemy within. I would have loved the perspective of a communications expert on the importance of open communication between spouses for success in putting specific sins to death.
As the con artist Verbal Kint famously quipped in The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” For many modern Christians, Defending Your Marriage is an easy first step out of false reality into the truth, a reality where “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Muehlhoff’s book sparks a conversation that is strangely uncomfortable in modern American homes but desperately needed. It’s a conversation that I hope more authors will explore and refine in the future.
Chad Ashby is the pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina. He blogs at After Math.