As I was riding the Subway on Valentine's Day I overheard a woman complaining about her husband. She was distraught at the idea he wouldn't get her the gift she needed, according to her own assessment, to feel loved. Clearly this is a touchy subject. While my husband is a great man, often I am disappointed in a myriad of things he does. Not because he is always sinning against me, but because more often than not I have a preference. I argue for my preferences because clearly there is logic in my reasoning. However, my logic doesn’t always make me right, it makes me hard to get along with. Being hard to please is not a godly attribute. . .just in case there’s some confusion there.
There are also husbands who disappoint through lack of spiritual maturity, plain disregard for their wife or even outright abuse. We may think a line of distinction needs to be drawn and certainly there are times where it must be, especially when true abuse is involved.
However, for the majority of us, when we are disappointed with our spouses it is because of the former not the latter.
There's a popular blog that I often agree with and sometimes find hilarious. He writes things irreverently and boldly. While he may or may not be a Christian (I have no idea), this post in particular was about a wife who disrespects her husband. As I read the comments, it was heartbreaking to see how desperate people were for help in their marriage. Women commented asking for “alternative ways” to speak to their husbands instead of being disrespectful in a situation where they wanted him (the husband) to change. While I agreed with much of the blog, it was sad that no hope or answer was given to the women he is referring to.
One of the most profound statements he made in the article was, “You don’t marry someone in order to give them what they deserve. In marriage, you give them what you’ve promised them, even when they aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.”
Um, bingo! This is totally biblical and helpful. Now if only the gospel was shared in the article so readers would know where to find the power to do what He is talking about. However, being a Christian doesn’t mean we don’t struggle to have the right perspective or motivation needed in order to love someone when they aren’t “holding up their end of the bargain.”
In 1 Peter 3:1, 7a, following a whole passage on how Christ suffered as an example for us, showing how he entrusted himself to God instead of reviling against those who threatened him, Peter writes, “Likewise, wives be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct… Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman…”
So they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives. Yikes. When words and communication are kind of your thing, this is terrifying. So how do we do this? How do we respond when we aren’t getting what we want, even when what we want is a good thing (like a loving husband or a respectful wife)?
Remember what Christ has done for you. This is quite possibly the hardest part. It’s difficult to understand the gospel affecting how I walk down the street with my husband pushing the stroller, how he orders in the drive thru or cleans the dishes. While these may seem mundane, they can evoke Spousal World Wars and often reveal unresolved hurt from actual issues in the marriage. Romans 5:6-8 says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We need to remember what Christ has done for us. He's not calling us to the impossible, he's calling us to the impossible if we're without Him.
Ask for help. We need help from the Holy Spirit to change (Eph 4:21-24) and we need help through a community of believers given by God as a means of grace (Heb 10:24-25). The one way of getting help is to simply ask. Yes, this takes humbling yourself before both God and others, but it will bring about honor (Prov 18:12). Hebrews 4:16 tells us that God is available to us in our time of need. True heart change doesn’t happen by human willpower, but through God-wielding power.
Plan and execute practical steps. You need to understand why you can take these practical steps (i.e. the gospel), but once you have that . . . move out. In talking about the “new self, which is being renewed” to look like Christ, Colossians 3:12-14 says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other… and above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Make sure you are truly listening to your spouse. When you listen, you begin to understand, and understanding someone is the beginning of loving them. This is putting their needs before yours (Phil 2:4). “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas 1:19-20). Rest assured that what we call “frustration” is really a pretty word for anger. It's like putting anesthesia on an open wound, just because you numb it doesn't mean it's not causing outrageous pain.
Resolve that your way isn’t the only way, even if you think you’re way is better. Yes, we need to lovingly teach one another, but the key here is lovingly (Eph 4:15). For instance, being "frustrated" because of how my husband packs a suitcase is so unhelpful. “Pick your battle” is another way of saying: lay down your pride (Rom 12:9-19). Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
Be kind. Sounds simple, I know, but anyone who has been married longer than a minute knows it’s easier said than done. Your tone of voice, body language and your facial expressions can directly reveal your heart (back to step 1). Yes, marital issues will likely need to be discussed and communicated, but make sure your heart is right or at least honest before God first. Go into the discussion not trying to get a desired response, but to glorify God more than to glorify your own preferences (Eph 4:17-32).
If you're single and reading this, it still applies to you. Start with your roommates, your parents, your siblings or best friends. If you're reading this and you do much of the above well, then may it cause you to worship God in light of his given mercy and grace to you. If you're reading this and you think it doesn't apply to you at all, go double check that with the most honest person you know well.
I’m the first one to know none of what I have listed here is easy. James 4:1-3 gives us a mirror to look into. "What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." But thankfully there's an extreme make over available that's free of charge.
Our hope to change and be like Christ is rooted in his gospel.
That's just it; it's his gospel, His plan. We have to rely on Him for help. This only happens by engaging in relationship with Him first. There is no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom 8:1) and there is great freedom to be obedient and love one another well. Because Christ was first obedient for us, we are given the Holy Spirit for help in the now and hope for the future (1 Cor 1:22).
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.