How do you defend your marriage from spiritual attack? How should we even think about spiritual warfare as it relates to marriage? Sean and Scott interview Biola professor and marriage expert Tim Muehlhoff about his newest book Defending Your Marriage. They discuss how to identify spiritual warfare in marriage, common lies Satan propagates about relationships, and how to have a biblically healthy marriage.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, professor of Christian apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here with our special guest today and good friend, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, who's professor of communications here at Biola University. An expert, in particular, in communications in marriage. He also serves as one of the ... he's one of the founders and serves as one of the partners in Biola's Center for Marriage and Relationships. Does a ton of speaking all over the country doing marriage workshops for FamilyLife®️ ministries.
We're here today, particularly, because Tim has written a fascinating new book that puts a different twist on marriage and communication in marriage than you might have thought about before. The book is entitled, Defending Your Marriage. Tim, tell our listeners exactly what the book is about.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well yeah, the complete title is, Defending Your Marriage: The Reality of Spiritual Battle. You guys know, as authors, when you put together a book proposal, you always put together books that are common to the one that you want to try to write. I could not find one book that was specifically about marriage and spiritual battle. There's a ton of great books about spiritual-
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: ... battle. There's a ton of great books, but ... and there's some books that might have a chapter on, like, the family. Like Russell Moore has a great new book out on families and marriage. I think he has one chapter on spiritual battle. But I couldn't find one book that talked about marriage and spiritual battle. Imagine what the apostle Paul would think about that when he, specifically, links anger as a foothold for the devil. Yet, every marriage book would talk about conflict, but almost no marriage books from a Christian perspective would link it to spiritual battle.
Scott Rae: Why do you think that's so? Why do you think there's such a dearth of material out there that addresses, what seems, to us, to be an intersection that's really worth talking about?
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, Scott, I think one of the strongest, most enduring stereotypes of Christians is that we're anti-intellectual. That we put our brains on hold as we embrace issues of faith. So when it comes to the devil — for crying out loud, right? — a literal Satan, it just feels weird to us. Like, I had a Christian friend tell me, when I was going to write this book, he literally said to me ... he's a writer and a Christian speaker, he said, "Tim, do you really want to be known as the devil guy?" I mean, think about that.
And you know what's funny? I don't want to be known as the devil guy. I really don't, but I just felt compelled to write this book after a couple of personal experiences. And, rubbing shoulders with Clint Arnold, speaking of Talbot. Clint is a world-class theologian who's written on spiritual warfare from Paul's perspective. So my personal experience and plus reading Clint's book really convicted me that ... I give lip service to spiritual battle.
If you were to ask me as a Christian, do you believe in the devil and do you believe in spiritual battle, I would say, "Well, yeah, of course." But it did not impact my life one bit, nor did it impact my marriage.
Sean McDowell: So you mentioned, twice, personal experiences and just left it hanging there. In a book on spiritual warfare of marriage, you've gotta unpack at least one of those for us.
Tim Muehlhoff: So here's what happened. There was a large church in Southern California that was between pastors. They asked if I would consider, for a year, being interim teaching pastor. Adding that to being a professor at Biola University, that was a big decision. So I told them I would obviously have to think about it, pray about it. Well then, just as that happened, I started to have violent dreams. I mean, dreams that were so real and so violent. Like, it was always the same dream that people were coming up the stairs to our bedroom. They weren't there to rob us, they were there to kill me and my wife.
It was so specific that I would get up out of bed, literally, assume a fighting stance by the door waiting for these guys to come through the door that I was going to try to intervene, and tackle them, or whatever. Then, eventually, I'd realize nobody is coming through the door. Why didn't the alarm go off, why didn't the dog bark, and the hallway was empty. Okay, this went on for three days. Then, I get a call from one of the elders of the church just checking up on me, saying, "Hey, we're praying for your decision as well. Is there anything specifically we can pray?"
So I told them about my busy schedule, my teaching load. Here it is, the end of the conversation and I am leery to bring up these dreams. I finally say to them, "Hey, can I be honest with you? I'm also having these incredibly violent dreams." There was dead silence on the other end. He goes, "Hey, Tim, I'm calling the elders together tonight. You're under spiritual attack and we need to pray for you."
Scott Rae: Wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: But here's why I wrote the book. Why is it that I didn't want to mention to an elder who's asking me for prayer request ... I almost went the entire phone conversation and never brought up that I was under spiritual attack. What was it that stopped me from doing that? I think it's pride. I think it's the fact that I have a Ph.D., and am I really going to admit that I might be under spiritual attack? That just seems so weird to me, yet it was supremely unbiblical.
Sean McDowell: Well, let's ... before we get into some of the specifics about how this relates to marriage, you talk about some of the things we just need to know about Satan and demons. Give us like a 101 on the core truths about how Satan works, about the nature of demons, and then let's see how we see some of these lies translate specifically to marriage.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, Satan 101 is that Satan was an angel in charge of worship; he was a cherubim. And apparently, became jealous of God, wanted a place in the universe that he would rule. Now, there's not a ton about the actual fall of Satan. There are some passages from Isaiah and Ezekiel that are a little bit debated. But a lot of people feel they are describing both an earthly king, but then they're also describing Satan's fall. So we know that Satan wages war against God. We know that he's defeated.
We know that God makes an interesting decision to ban Satan and angels that fought with him. We now call those angels demons. And they were banished, but they were banished to planet earth. So here you have Adam and Eve, the first couple in paradise having a unique relationship with God. Yet, Satan is banished to earth and has access to Adam and Eve in paradise. Now, he comes in the form of a serpent. But we have very vivid passages that talk about the tactics of Satan. How did he actually go about getting Adam and Eve to distrust God and eventually rebel against him?
I have a whole chapter on just the Genesis narrative of how Satan was able to separate Adam and Eve psychologically. There's an interesting phrase in Genesis when she does sin, Eve. She says, "And she gave the fruit to her husband who was with her." So a lot of theologians believe Adam was there but didn't support her, didn't defend her and that Satan was able to psychologically split the two.
So just know in the book, I have a reader who pops up every once in a while. I absolutely stole this from Peter Craft, I give him full credit, a wonderful apologist. But at that point, the reader steps in and just says, "Hey, I don't get it. Why would God do that? Why would he take Satan and banish him from heaven, but send him to earth and have access to this couple?" So the book is still with apologetics trying to answer questions like that.
So Satan 101 is that every New Testament writer talks about spiritual battle. Twenty-five percent of everything Jesus says is centered on spiritual battle. John-
Scott Rae: Wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: ... even goes so far as to say the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. So what does that look like? How do you flesh out such a powerful statement like that? That's what I try to do in the book, is to say through culture how is it possible that Satan is creating a culture that is antithetical to the spiritual disciplines, is antithetical to being Christ followers. I explore a couple different cultural trends. Not to say all of culture is bad, of course that's not true. But there's parts of culture that seem to be really opposed to following Jesus in practical ways.
Scott Rae: Tim, before we apply this to marriage, let me back up just a little bit. What do you say to the skeptic that says, "Come on, we're in the 21st century. Angels, demons, Satan, seriously?" What do you say to the skeptic?
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, I like what Keith Fernando said. Keith Fernando was a theologian who wrote a powerful book on spiritual battle. He said, "Listen, we believe in angels, we believe in demons, and believe in a literal Satan. Not because we have empirical proof, but because the Scripture affirms it." We believe it on the authority of Scripture. Again, that's where we get all those unbelievable statistics about how many times the New Testament writers talk about Satan. Jesus, absolutely, interacted with a literal Satan in his own tempting with Lucifer.
So we're kind of in a place of saying, do we believe the Bible is authoritative? Do we believe the Bible accurately reflects reality? Or are we gonna go in more of enlightenment type sense that I only trust what I can empirically prove? So, Scott, I really think it's a gut check for Christians to say, "Listen, I don't get to cherry-pick from the Bible what I think is appropriately suitable for the modern hearer. I have to take the Bible cover to cover."
The Bible, cover to cover, it starts in Genesis with the tempting of Adam and Eve and ends in Revelation with the great battle in which Lucifer the Dragon is thrown into imprisonment. So it's cover to cover and we really have to take Scripture as being authoritative and that's why we believe in it. Not because we can prove it via science. Again, I think as an academic, I want to empirically prove these things. But as a Christian, I believe in the authority of the Bible. If you believe the Bible, you have to believe in spiritual battle.
Scott Rae: I'm glad you mentioned that. That seems to me that one of the things that motivates that skepticism is just a general anti-supernatural view of the world, just in general. Seems like at the philosophical level, what you said about the only things that we can know are the things that we can verify with our senses. That's the worldview that we need to assess and evaluate. One more on that, you cite, I think, a pretty well known quotation from C.S. Lewis about how we approach this area. Tell our listeners about that and how it sort of governs your approach to this.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Lewis, of course, this was his most popular book is not Mere Christianity. His most popular book is The Screwtape Letters, where he very creatively imagines communications between a senior devil and an apprentice. I have a whole chapter on that, by the way. One of the funnest chapters of the book is, I took The Screwtape Letters and particularly highlighted sections where Lewis talks about love, marriage and commitment and how Satan and demons want to undermine that. So it's a really fun chapter.
But Lewis has a very famous quote that says, "Listen, we can make two mistakes with Satan. We can attribute everything to him or we attribute nothing to him." I think the modern church, we are not in danger of attributing everything to him, I think. You know what I mean?
Scott Rae: Here, here.
Tim Muehlhoff: I go up to my friends ... When I was writing the book, I interviewed couples. This was so interesting. I said to them, "Hey, how many times in the life of your marriage have you been under spiritual attack?" The answer I got, the average answer was zero.
Scott Rae: Wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: Because, I then later asked them, "Okay, when I said spiritual battle, what did you imagine? Like, what did you envision?" They envisioned what Hollywood envisions, right? A person levitating in a bed, people speaking in guttural Latin phrases. I said, "Okay, if that's spiritual battle, then my wife and I have not experienced that either." But Satan was crafty in the garden. In Hebrew, crafty means subtle. So I argue that most Christian marriages, because the whole world lies in the power of the evil one, they are under spiritual attack. But Satan's greatest tool is to disguise that so that we don't associate spiritual attack with the dramatic.
Sean McDowell: Tim, you identify three lies that Satan has fostered. It seems like they've been bought in the wider culture, also in marriage. If we can, let's take them one by one and bring some clarity for us. The first one, is you contrast marriage as contract versus marriage as covenant.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. So we're in the divorce culture today where people now view marriage ... unlike my father. My father was in a difficult marriage for 48 years, but he stayed in it because he made a promise and he stayed in it for the kids. For me and my two older brothers. Today, people have the exact opposite impression of marriage. I divorce for the kids; why should the kids grow up seeing me unhappy? My happiness, I have a right to it and I'm not gonna stay in a marriage where another person has abdicated the marriage or they’re not putting in as much effort as I do. Well, that's a contractual view of marriage.
We hired a person to paint our house. Well and like anybody, we only paid him half, right? We'll pay you the second half when you've finished painting our house and we judge the quality of your work, then you'll get the second half. I think people enter marriage the exact same way. Hey listen, I'll put in a hundred percent if you put in a hundred percent. But there's no way I'm doing a hundred percent and you're doing 70 percent, or 50 percent, or 40 percent. I'm not gonna get walked on in this marriage. If you're gonna walk on me, then I'm outta here. I'm leaving the marriage.
Our view towards divorce have so changed today that it's not shameful. It's not seen as even a black mark against you. So a lot of people today are like, "Yeah, I'll stay in this marriage. Let's see where it goes. Let's see how this thing actually pans out." Well, a covenantal approach is, "Listen, we're in this for life. Of course, we're gonna have ups and downs and struggles. But I'm in this marriage not based on how well you do as my spouse. I'm in this marriage because I signed onto this for life. From a Christian perspective, when you take away the idea of divorce, then a marriage can really flourish. But that's not the culture today. We've taken a very different approach to marriage today.
Sean McDowell: That's really helpful. The second lie that you discussed that Satan has kind of propagated is the multitasking marriage versus focus marriage. Can you explain that one?
Tim Muehlhoff: So I do this ... I'm gonna do a shameless plug for my podcast with Dr. Chris Grace, he's a psychology professor. In our podcast, The Art of Relationships, Dr. Grace has really opened my eyes to the fallacy of multitasking, that we're now understanding from neurologists that multitasking is a myth. Basically, it means you're not doing anything well, you're just doing a bunch of different things. The brain just simply doesn't work that way.
So if we agree with Dallas Willard, a brilliant writer on spiritual disciplines, that solitude is the central spiritual discipline — being silent and having your thoughts be focused just on God and not anything else — well then, Satan wants to get in and disrupt that. So what he wants to do is to inhibit our ability to be mindful and think about just one thing at a time, and that would be focusing on our relationship with God.
So today, and I'm not anti-technology, but today, the results are coming in that technology is ruining our ability to be mindful. To just focus on one specific thing for a particular length of time. This is the research of Nicholas Carr. So Satan is indirectly getting at solitude by creating a culture where very few of us can just sit in a room, be silent and think just about one thing, be it God, or a spouse, or something like that. That's one way I think Satan is just kind of undercutting our ability to practice meditation, solitude and be mindful.
Sean McDowell: Let's look at the last one. These are really, really helpful and practical. Is romantic love completing us versus God fulfilling us?
Tim Muehlhoff: Gosh, Sean, this is probably the biggest one. We teach this wonderful class at Biola called The Christian Relationships Class. We teach it with three different professors: Jon Lunde and his wife, a New Testament professor, Dr. Chris Grace, and myself. I just say, listen, we are putting so much pressure on marriage, so much pressure on relationships, and God never intended marriage to be that. I think what St. Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless, so they find peace in God."
Yet, we want to find peace in relationships. We want our satisfaction, our identity, our self-image, all of that, to rest on marriage. I'm just saying to couples, "Listen, you will inherently be disappointed in marriage if you expect it to do only what God can do." If you take a look at cinema, if you take a look at films, or sitcoms, man, it promises over and over and over that you can find your soulmate. That you can find that person that completes you. Then, you'll finally be happy.
I think the book of Ecclesiastes is saying, "Listen, trust me. Education won't do that, career won't do that, kids won't do that, marriage will not do that. You were created to have a relationship with God. If that's not in place, everything is gonna be disappointing."
Scott Rae: Tim, let's be a little more specific on some of this for particular couples. Most marriages have kind of normal ups and downs. You have conflicts, you resolve them. You have other conflicts, you resolve them. How do you distinguish between what's normal in a marriage and spiritual warfare?
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, in preparation for the book, I read, like, 20 books on spiritual battle. Then, I started to keep a chart. I wondered to myself, with all of these great books on spiritual battle, were there any indications of spiritual opposition that made everybody's list? Were there anything that made everybody's descriptors of spiritual battle. I came up with what I call the “power five.” Then, I also had an honorable mention list, which was some mentioned them but not everybody mentioned them.
So here are the top five indicators, Scott, that I would say couples just need to be aware of. The first one is, anger. Now listen, anger is part and parcel of being married. Anger is part of being a parent. You just get times when you're upset. That's not, in and of itself, spiritual battle. But when you can't let go of the anger, you go to bed angry, you wake up angry. It's like, "I can't shake how upset I am at my spouse. I try to rationalize in a way, I can't do it. I am just really upset."
I think this is what Paul's saying, deal with your anger before the sun goes down as not to give the devil a foothold. So if that anger is perpetual — I can't get rid of it, I cannot shake this anger — then, I think our spiritual antennas go up and we think, "Man, I need to start looking at this through spiritual lenses." Not to say that every time you get angry at your spouse, that's spiritual battle. But if it's perpetual, then I think our antennas go up and we need to respond to it in spiritual ways, not just relational ways.
Scott Rae: Okay. What else is in your top five?
Tim Muehlhoff: A hatred of Ohio State, no I'm kidding. No. Number two is, a sense of impending doom. Like all of us wrestle with anxiety. We want to give more to church, but we wonder if our budget can sustain it. We want to switch jobs because this job is kind of killing us a little bit, our marriage. It's okay to have anxiety. I wouldn't say that's necessarily spiritual battle. What's spiritual battle is this sense of impending doom.
Like, if we give by faith, it's going to ruin us. If we switch jobs, it'll be financial ruin. If I stop working to stay home with the kids, it's gonna be the end of us. With that kind of fatalistic thinking, again, I think our spiritual antenna go up. Again, we say, "Boy ..." We are just imagining the worst over and over and over and over and over. I just wonder where faith comes in, I wonder where trusting God comes in.
So anxiety, in and of itself, isn't necessarily spiritual battle. But if I always imagine the worst case scenario and never take steps of faith, that might be because Satan is trying to stir the pot.
Sean McDowell: You make a connection I thought was really interesting between sexual intimacy and possible demonic activity. What should couples look for in a marriage, related to that?
Tim Muehlhoff: So we all know that sex is just a very intimate form of communication. And it kind of is a Litmus test for the health of the entire marriage. Like, I like to think of it as a thermostat ... as a thermometer, not a thermostat. But Hollywood would tell you sex is a thermostat, right? It turns up the heat. You can even have vast differences between you and this person, but if the sex is good, the intimacy is good.
I think sex is more like a thermometer that registers the temperature of the marriage. So when you're in ... you're being sexually intimate with your spouse, it starts to surface selfishness. It starts to surface a little bit, like am I other-centered or is it just all about meeting my own needs? I think it's a great test to see if I'm putting Jesus first, if I'm putting my spouse first.
So I have a bunch of statistics in there about ... and it's kind of wild to write about this, obviously. But how quickly a man achieves pleasure being sexually intimate compared to a woman. For a man, it's anywhere from three to five minutes. For a woman, anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes.
Scott Rae: Wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: So think about that. For a guy, I achieve pleasure in four minutes. I can immediately think, "I bet you the fourth quarter just started." You know what I mean? Your wife, your spouse, is not even close to being halfway to achieving pleasure. So here is what is supposed to foster intimacy, but I think Satan steps in and just says to the wife, "Boy, that's all he cares about. He just cares about himself, because you're not even close to being satisfied and he's already distracted, falling asleep, or literally leaving."
So what is meant to foster intimacy, now, is a strong wedge against a couple. So when we speak at these marriage conferences, I'm shocked how many couples no longer have sex. They're like, "Hey, this is too confusing. I'd rather go to porn, I'd rather go to fantasy novels, because then I don't have to think about anybody else but myself. I can just get satisfied and not have to be other-centered." Sex is inherently other-centered in a biblical framework and that's where we are countercultural the most.
Scott Rae: That's really helpful, really insightful. Tim, one last question here. Give our listeners, if you could, a concrete example of a couple that moved from just having normal disagreements to showing signs of spiritual warfare. I'm thinking, I mean, you have a handful of these couples that you cite in the book. I'd love for you to just tell us about one of those.
Sean McDowell: Maybe how they addressed it, too.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, so let me give you ... I'll be honest and share one from my own marriage. Obviously, you clear all these with your spouse, Sean. You guys know this, right? You clear this ... you only don't do it once publicly and you never make that mistake ever again, because your spouse says, "You shared what in front of a thousand people? Excuse me, heads up."
So we were literally leaving for LAX to speak at a FamilyLife®️ marriage conference. Just as we're leaving, Noreen checks ... for some reason, checks under the sink and the pipes are leaking underneath the sink. But we've gotta go catch a flight to LAX and you know how crazy LAX is. So now, what are we supposed to do? So now we're driving in the car and it's dead silent. Now, I make it very clear in the book, I don't think Satan took a wrench and unloosened the pipes underneath my sink. But he wants to use it for fodder to separate us.
So as we're driving, Noreen and I are both having thoughts. Again, in the book, I justify using the research of Clint Arnold, that Satan can plant thoughts in your mind. He can't read your mind, he's not omniscient. But there's a lot of biblical evidence from King David to Jesus that Satan can plant thoughts in your mind. So as we're driving to LAX to speak at a marriage conference, here are the thoughts Noreen is having.
"How many times did I tell Tim, you've gotta fix the pipe underneath the sink? How many times have I asked him to do that and now we have to leave and it's leaking. Now, we're gonna have to call somebody, try to get them in our house to fix it. This should have been done well in advance." I'm driving the car thinking, "I know Noreen's mad at me about the pipe. But come on, I'm trying to finish a book, I have a teaching load, there are a million reasons. By the way, I wanted to hire a plumber, and Noreen wanted to save money, and have us do it."
So you see how Satan's doing that? He's saying, "Each one of you is justified in your anger towards the other. You're frustrated with each other and I'm gonna use that to get a foothold because I want you distracted as you're heading to speak at a marriage conference." So now Noreen and I are in silence the entire trip. We get on the plane, we're still kind of silent with each other, upset. We're making these emergency phone calls to get the pipe fixed, because we don't want water leaking for an entire weekend.
Then, finally, we're in the hotel room. This is what's funny about speaking at Christian marriage conferences. It's 7 o'clock, you need to go down to the ballroom. Whether you're doing well or not, there's a whole ballroom waiting to hear from you as a speaker couple. So I finally turned to Noreen and I said, "N, I'm sorry I didn't fix the pipe." That was a spiritual process for me to admit that. "But right now, we need to really focus on those other people and our marriage, so I think we need to pray for protection right now, I think this is spiritual battle."
Noreen said, "Boy, I agree." So by faith, we both took each other's hands and just claimed our authority as believers and said, "Satan, if you're trying to stir the pot between us, we absolutely in the name of Jesus ban you from planting thoughts in our minds that are not charitable towards each other." That's the kind of spiritual ... then we needed to talk about why the pipe wasn't fixed, right? That isn't a magic bullet prayer. But that kind of an attitude is like something else is happening, because I'm really upset about this more than what I think I even should be.
Scott Rae: Now, that's really insightful. I appreciate you being so specific about, not only the situation as it arose, but how you addressed it, and recognized it for what it was, and dealt with it accordingly.
Tim Muehlhoff: But you see, Scott, I could've done it in a way that would've given Satan even more ammunition. For example, I could've just said to Noreen, "Hey, N, I think this is spiritual battle, we need to pray about it. I think this is Satan trying to divide us." Where I think Noreen's thinking, "And, it's you not fixing the pipe. Let's not wipe this away all spiritual battle." So it was really important for me to listen to the convicting power of the Spirit to say to Noreen, "Noreen, you're right. You asked me weeks ago to address this and I just didn't do it. I do apologize for that."
See, if I wouldn't have done that, Satan could've said, "Oh, and here he is again, Mr. Defending-Your-Marriage wants to sweep it all underneath the rug of spiritual battle and not own anything." So I think it was important for me to step up and to say, "Hey, you know what? I should have taken care of it and I'm sorry I didn't."
Scott Rae: Had you not done that, I'm not sure how that 7 o'clock session would've gone with the two of you working together on that.
Tim Muehlhoff: I say to couples, "How many of you have had an argument on the way to the conference?" People raise their hands. I said, "Imagine having an argument on the way to speaking at the conference."
Scott Rae: Something tells me that might not be the first time that's happened.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, God, come on. I am a mature Christian.
Scott Rae: Sorry, that must have been an isolated episode. Well, Tim, thank you so much for being with us. This is incredibly insightful stuff. I want to recommend your book again to our listeners. Defending Your Marriage by Dr. Tim Muehlhoff. It's so insightful, really appreciate the work that's gone into this. Gosh, just highly recommend the book. So, Tim, thanks so much for being with us and for the insight that you've provided today.
Tim Muehlhoff: I appreciate you guys. Thanks so much for having me on.
Scott Rae: You bet. This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening. Remember, think biblically about everything.