Watching husbands and wives in marriage counseling is sobering. The ugliness is piercing, but it’s also obvious. While I can easily recognize someone else’s problems, issues, and attitudes as blatantly sinful, I can have a hard time seeing my own that way. This is where the sobering part settles in. When I hear a wife say something to her husband that's similar to what I once said to mine behind closed doors, it’s like being hit with a two-by-four of sinful reality. Turns out, I’m not above the mire.

Your sin isn’t special.

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). This promise is really good news because God gives no exceptions to the kinds of sin he will help us overcome. He says there is always a way out of sinning. That means in moments of marriage where I would prefer my husband to do something a different way, or say something a different way—where I want him to be already perfectly sanctified in a particular area—I don’t have to sin in response. I don’t have to get sinfully angry. I don’t have to manipulate him to change. I don’t have to think or talk badly about him.

The one way out of sinning is to love Jesus more than you love your personal desires. The more you become like Jesus, the more you will desire what he desires. Putting your spouse’s needs before your own will not work unless you put Jesus’ desires above everything.

Stop pointing fingers.

It’s so easy for my husband to see where I need to change. He knows me better than anyone else because I am “unplugged” more with him than with anyone else. At the core, my true self is a real sinner in need of a real Savior. My husband may not see all, but he sees a lot. But, the flip side is also true: I have a front-row seat to my husband’s sin. I must remember that God’s sanctification plan for my spouse is better than my sanctification plan for my spouse. If it was up to me, I would selfishly already have him be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:2). My husband’s sanctification affects me, but it isn’t about me. I would make a selfish god who would desire my husband to glorify me at the expense of what is good for him. God desires for us to be like him in perfection, but he does it in a way that includes loving relationship with him. Sanctification is personalized for Christians as individuals. God works out our desperate need to be like him within the context of personal relationship because he’s not a taskmaster. He’s a kind father teaching disobedient children how to make wise choices that lead to ultimate satisfaction forever.

Dying to self is a painful privilege. 

Dying to self in marriage is likely more painful than you thought. But it’s also a lot easier than you think. You really don’t have to have things a certain way. The bed doesn’t have to be made a specific way; there is more than one way to fold laundry; if a bill isn’t paid on time the world will not end. Sure, your spouse can make bad choices. He or she can act out in front of the kids or spend money in a way you don’t like. But at the end of the day, God wants him or her to make right choices way more than you do.

If dying to self wasn’t painful, it wouldn’t lead us to Jesus. “. . . Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pt 2:21-23). Make no mistake about it—God will not let your spouse’s sin go without confrontation. He is the perfect judge. He doesn’t give spouses so we can dispense judgment on one another. He gives spouses so we have help to display the beauty of brokenness redeemed by perfect love from a kind Person who does not threaten others when they insult him. The point of dying to self in marriage isn’t to be miserable, the point is to actually love better.

Be responsible for yourself.

There are clear constructs in God’s Word of how a husband and wife should treat each other. I am not going to be held accountable for what my husband does or doesn’t do. I am going to be held accountable for how well I die. With the help of my perfect Savior, empowered by his Spirit, I answer to God. This means that even when I am tempted beyond measure to nag or to yell or to {insert your choice of sinful response}, I know that there is a way out no matter what. No matter how outraged I may feel, no matter how devastating I believe the consequences of my spouse’s actions may be, I don’t have to sin, or threaten, or revile in return. If Jesus didn’t have to, why would I? Dying to self is painful, but dying in miserable sin is way worse.

“Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself, but he who reveres the commandment will be rewarded. The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death. Good sense wins favor, but the way of the treacherous is their ruin” (Prov 13:13-15).

Read part 1, Is Marriage Going to Kill Me?

Resources for learning how to die to self:
The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller
Die to Self to Grow in Love by Heath Lambert

Rebekah Hannah is a biblical counselor at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling in Jacksonville, Florida. She is married to Andrew and has three daughters.