As the pastors of marriage and parenting at Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, Clayton and Ashlee Hurst know a thing or two about relationships. They've been married for more than 20 years, have two children together, and counsel countless couples on how to develop a Christ-centered, meaningful marriage.
Yet, there was a time when their relationship was anything but healthy.
"We both grew up in Christian homes and our parents had stable marriages," Ashlee told CP in an exclusive interview. "So we went into marriage thinking it would be easy. We put a lot of effort into the wedding day, but none into the days that followed. Slowly, because of our lack of knowledge of what marriage was truly about, we descended into a valley of hopeless and miscommunication, and pride."
It's only by the grace of God, Clayton said, that their marriage was able to heal after five years of suffering. Now, they want to help others avoid the pitfalls and traps that so easily entangle people in this world of romantic comedies and unrealistic, Nicholas Sparks-esque relationship expectations.
The Hursts share their story of struggle and pain, healing and forgiveness in their new book, Hope for Your Marriage: Experience God's Greatest Desires for You and Your Spouse. They combine their personal experience with biblical wisdom to address the most common roots of marital decay and outline small, manageable changes that can be implemented to get a marriage back on the right track.
"We want people to know, 'Here's what we did, don't do this,'" Ashlee said. "Here's the things we wish we would have known to help other people along the way. People who are in that hopeless place, we want to give them hope."
"We were shocked at the number of people who would come up to us in the sanctuary after service and ask for prayer for their marriage," Clayton shared. "Marriage turned out to be the number one thing people ask for prayer about. Across the board, people are looking for hope."
While couples struggle with a number of issues, from lack of communication and unforgiveness to mishandled conflict and unrealistic expectations, it "always boils down to pride," Ashlee said.
"There's so much pride built up in marriage, and humility is the first step to healing in your relationship," she explained. "We see pride promoted everywhere in culture, yet the Bible is very clear on humility and and the dangers of pride. The Bible says, 'Pride goes before destruction,' and that's exactly what happens in far too many marriages."
In every counseling session, Clayton said, he and his wife ask couples: "Are you willing to do whatever it takes to have the marriage you hoped and dreamed of having?"
"It comes down to willingness," he said. "Am I willing to lay down my pride? Am I willing to put my husband or wife's needs before my own?"
"In Ephesians 5, it says that we must submit one to another, and that's not always easy. Men and women are different; for the most part, our brains are wired differently, and that's where communication issues creep in. But ultimately, we are on each other's team. When she wins, I win. If she loses, I lose. We are meant to work together. That's God's intention for marriage."
One way the church can help prepare Christian singles and engaged couples for marriage is by talking about the hard —and awkward — issues like sex and intimacy.
"Growing up, you always heard, 'No, no, no' when it comes to sex but you never heard the 'why' behind it," Ashlee said. "Sex was presented as dirty and bad, and if you did it, there was so much shame. That's where I found myself once we got married, it was hard for me to be intimate because I had all these hurts from my past, and it took me years before I'd open up to Clayton about it."
In their counseling sessions, the Hursts said, they work to create a safe place where people can open up about issues and ask vulnerable questions to get the help they need.
"Isn't it just like Satan to keep us isolated and think we're the only ones? We want people to know they're not alone, to ask the sensitive questions," Ashlee said.
The Hursts also encourage both singles and dating couples to prepare themselves for marriage by studying Scripture and declaring life over their current and future relationships (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
"Put the word of God away when you don't need it, so when you do need it it's here for you," Clayton said. "To have a successful marriage, you must have the Word of God stored in your heart. It's about taking steps of faith and trusting in God's power. These things have a huge impact."
Finally, it's important for couples to refrain from falling into complacency when it comes to their marriage, the Hursts said.
"Never stop learning. Always be a student of each other, always be a student of marriage," advised Clayton. "Whether you're newlyweds or a seasoned married couple, find people farther along in their marriage, mentors who can challenge you and help you grow. Even if your marriage is great, there's still another level you can reach."
Added Ashlee, "God can work anything out. Once couple in our church had an affair; there was still hope. One couple literally tried to kill each other; there was hope. One faced the challenges of having a child with autism; there was still hope. There is always, always hope."