Doyle, Wright G. The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful: A Handbook to Marriage. Durham, NC: Torchflame Books, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-61153-293-7. Paper. 137 pages, including 7 appendices and references.
As I sat down to review G. Wright Doyle’s The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful: A Handbook to Marriage in a coffee shop one morning, nearby two women were listening to a third, talking animatedly about the near break-point in her marriage and how her husband has “checked out.”
She (rather loudly) declared, “I’m just in it for the kids and the house at this point. I mean, I could make it work. I can put my head down and grit it out. But do I want to live with these feelings? And what about our kids?” Her friends were full of both consolation and advice: “You need to focus on yourself and do what makes you happy. Life is not a smooth journey. That would be very boring. People say you are supposed to be with one person your whole life. Some people are, but some aren’t. You’re smarter and tougher now than when you got married, you live and learn and maybe need to start acting on a divorce…”
I was tempted to walk over and hand the disillusioned woman the book resting on my table. This weary wife had at some point been drawn to the “good” in her husband and to the promise of a shared life, but was now in the thick of “the bad,” and voiced little hope for the “beautiful” being realized in her marriage. Likely a non-Christian, her struggle and the advice of her well-meaning friends are probably accurate reflections of our culture and “wisdom” of the day.
In his handbook to marriage for those professing to belong to Christ, however, Doyle calls his readers to remember how Jesus changes everything, especially our human relationships. The book is slim though rich in content, and indeed a condensed Biblical overview of God’s design for marriage. Though Doyle directs his audience, through a recommended booklist at the back of the book, to other titles for more exhaustive and illustrative marriage advice, his brief volume teems with 51+ years of experience and practical wisdom gleaned from his own marriage to his wife, Dori. His burden to equip Christians to enter into marriage with eyes wide open and hearts dependent on Christ is apparent, and couples would do well to work their way through this book annually.
This reviewer happens to know the Doyles personally, and can verify their marriage is indeed a humble, beautiful work in progress that sings of the servanthood and glory of Christ. Doyle and his wife have indeed sought to practice all that he is preaching in this volume. This review will briefly summarize the three main sections of the book, which generally follow a “creation – fall - redemption” outline, and give some reflective remarks.
CHAPTER ONE: THE GOOD: GOD’S ORIGINAL PLAN FOR MARRIAGE
Chapter One anticipates questions about the purpose and meaning of marriage on both institutional and personal levels, and takes a thorough look at God as the originator of marriage. Throughout the book, the author takes us directly to and through the Bible with ample Scripture references. This opening section goes straight to Genesis chapters 1 and 2, which proclaim the creation of, and union between, man and wife as rooted in both the mystery and magnitude of the Trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Man and woman are made in the very image of God, and together show His triune glory even more fully, so Doyle proclaims, “marriage possesses priceless value, for it somehow represents in fleshly form the invisible character of God” (11).
Many more examples are given of the good design of marriage and how our image bearing expresses itself through the God-given desires of delight, sexual union, and companionship being shared and upheld by couples. The beauty and uniqueness of masculinity and femininity is also explored, giving specific lists of physiological and emotional differences.
Doyle heralds the Bible’s teaching of the marital union as a picture of the relationship of God and His people, chronicling the marriage metaphor that runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Particularly powerful is the idea that husbands and wives are together intended to be recipients of God’s revelation, receiving words of both blessing and command directly from their Creator. As they respond to and follow such revelation, couples have the rich opportunity to display God’s purpose and glory in relationships with their parents, among the children they may bear, within the dominion of the walls of their home, and to the world beyond.
CHAPTER TWO: THE BAD: WHAT WE HAVE DONE TO MARRIAGE
The middle section of the book is both a reality check and honest lament of the inevitable effects of sin, which quickly mars even the healthiest of marriages. Turning attention to Adam and Eve’s choices and subsequent fall in Genesis chapter 3, and exploring just how far the curse can be found in marriage, Doyle emphasizes the bad “we (all) have done,” thus bringing the battle home to his readers’ own hearts and relational dynamics. Building off the topics of the first chapter, such as image-bearing, revelation, communication and intimacy and leadership, the author describes what brokenness in marriage looks and even feels like, challenging couples to identify and examine their struggles to heed those revelatory “blessings and commands” of their Creator.
Chapter Two also delves into dynamics of families of origins, and why it can be so hard to leave one’s parents, or why relational intimacy may be broken due to wounds or idols individuals may have carried since childhood. The café scene at the beginning of this review gave a real glimpse of what happens when husbands check out and wives seek control. Doyle adeptly describes how strained the relationship can become when couples function with such patterns:
“Husbands desert their posts when they fail to listen, neglect to partner with and lead their wives in planning, put off making decisions, cave in to follow anything their wives want, or bury themselves in work or entertainment…[and] a woman who frequently questions her husband’s judgment, counters his wishes, critiques his actions, and contradicts his commands to [their] children will reap a very bitter harvest of resentment and perhaps worse” (51-52).
Every couple is bound to find themselves in desperate seasons they never imagined back on that joyous day when they made vows before God to one another. The diagnosis is bleak but honest at the end of this middle section, as Doyle doesn’t downplay – and in fact helpfully normalizes – the common temptations to divorce, or simply remain stagnant in survival mode.
One of the best things an honest book on marriage can do is help couples admit their struggles really are that deep, but that they are not alone in such valleys, which is what the middle section accomplishes. It also doesn’t let husbands or wives off the hook in calling them to repentance based on the kindness of our Lord: “Friends, marriage can bring to you the most exquisite pleasure, but it will also inflict the most exquisite pain, caused by our indwelling sin. But God’s grace is greater than our sins!” (69). Another crucial element for couples in acute crisis, subtle defeat or simply stuck in the daily grind is hope that Christ indeed forgives and restores, and that brings us to chapter three.
CHAPTER THREE: THE BEAUTIFUL: A DEEPER PURPOSE FOR MARRIAGE
The third section of the book throws couples a redemptive lifeline of sorts, pulling them out of the murky, sin-infested seas in which they often choose to swim, and redirecting them to the fresh, living water Jesus offers. Doyle helps his readers see that the beautiful calling of marriage outlined in Chapter One is only possible with Christ at the center. He emphasizes the ultimate marital goal of holiness over happiness, thus giving a prophetic word to our largely hedonistic culture. Through insightfully naming some of the common tapes running through many a husband’s or wife’s head, Doyle helps his readers see the need to imitate Christ in rejecting conditional love, and releasing expectations we may hold over one another.
But, spouses can’t imitate Christ if they don’t really know Him, so Doyle boldly exhorts them to make God’s word central in their union with very daily, practical examples. Continuing the theme of being “responders to revelation,” Doyle transparently describes his own need for prayer and supernatural aid in one of my favorite quotes:
In my experience, as I have prayed for my wife, God has answered, and worked miracles in her life…when I am interceding for her, I often get ideas about how to love her; these are usually actions that speak her “love language” and would not come naturally to me. I believe that the Lord plants those thoughts in my otherwise thick skull (76).
Along with the graces of worship and prayer, Doyle urges other safeguards for couples, such as a church community, Christian counseling, and wise boundaries that prioritize a husband and wife’s relationship above all the demands and temptations clamoring for their attention.
Chapter Three brings closure to and paints a thoroughly redemptive picture of topics already addressed in prior sections, such as leaving and cleaving, leadership in marriage, and male and female physiological and communication differences. Encouragement to appreciate, rather than disdain, such differences is boldly given. A weekly “check-in” with each other is one practical step that the author and his wife suggest for sharing grievances, extending forgiveness, and speaking words of faith, hope and love to one another.
Finally, the book holds out God’s glory and presence as both a balm and a buoy. As one who has been cynical, weary and at times tempted to give up in her own marriage, the words offered at the end of “The Beautiful” chapter deeply encouraged me to press on with eyes fixed not on my spouse, but on Christ: “The main way to avoid disappointment in marriage is to set our hope fully on the grace to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ…marriage is one aspect of our pilgrimage, and an important one, but it’s not the sum and substance of life. Christ alone is our life” (101).
The final section of the book contains seven concise appendices for difficult – yet not uncommon – issues such as divorce, infidelity and sexual addictions. Like the rest of the book, these sections anticipate genuine questions and assumptions, and are replete with Scripture. They are not intended to be exhaustive, but could serve as good launching pads for more in-depth Biblical study (or long-term counseling) for couples navigating such struggles.
The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful succinctly covers a wide breadth of marital topics with a thorough Biblical foundation, making this a useful primer for Christians making their way toward the altar, or who want to recalibrate their commitment to one another. G. Wright Doyle doesn’t mince words and especially younger generations may find his direct exhortations strong, but hopefully also refreshing and a true call to action.
The book’s descriptions of male-female dynamics occasionally tend toward the stereotypical. A mild example: Even though I am the female in our relationship, I tend to value non-exaggerative communication, whereas my husband is much more hyperbolic. The example on page 70 about communication styles is reversed for us – and yet, I could still apply Doyle’s wisdom to our marriage! Some complicated topics, such as women working outside the home, could benefit from mention of different perspectives within orthodox Christianity. Doyle is humble to let us know when he is giving us his opinion or own experiences, and the honor he bestows upon women primarily investing their energy in the household domain is affirming and empowering. Some inclusion of the Biblical notion of women as “ezer” (the Hebrew meaning being “warrior-helper” in Genesis 2) would benefit the “Suitable Helper” sections in helping women realize and respond to the true strength of their God-given role in marriage.
Though Wright Doyle obviously writes from a husband’s perspective (and with the admitted priceless input of his wife!) he gives even handed treatment of both players in a marriage, exhorting and encouraging both men and women equally and again, specifically. The book took me through an honest assessment of many aspects of my own marriage, and ultimately made me yearn for more of Christ in all of life. The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful faithfully upholds the highest standard for marriage God has instituted – yet celebrates and cements God’s grace as the only possible foundation. In the author’s words, indeed, “marriage can be a beautiful experience – not perfect, of course, but lovely in its own way” (63).