The vows couples make to each other during weddings are always two-sided. Under anxious breaths and radiant smiles they promise “for richer, for poor; for better, for worse; in sickness and in health” in front of multitudes. The promise is life-long, binding ‘till death do us part’.
But as some couples have usually unpleasantly found out a few months or weeks into marriage, the terrible side of the coin will almost always be the first to face upward right after the toss at the altar. The bliss is fast overtaken by life realities, the ‘unbearable’ worst of each other exposed too speedily to be prepared for.
While some may enjoy reprieve after a while, many others hardly ever get to. Things only seem to go from worse to worse. Their sifting is as sure as Peter’s whom “Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat” – Luke 22:31. The Lord’s promise “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32), however, seeming too distant to lay hold of.
Couples respond differently to marital adversities. Some withdraw, wearing a happy façade whenever in the presence of the many witnesses who watched them say “I do”, while unraveling within. Others muster the strength to seek help and acknowledge things aren’t rosy – quite unsurprisingly.
In that moment they will be met by an avalanche of do’s and do not’s. ‘Do not answer back even when he acts mean and unloving towards you.’ ‘Try gifts and more date nights.’ Believing family, friends, pastors; they will all encourage the conflicted spouses either to match the gentleness in Fire Proof or the prayerfulness in War Room. But as many couples would hate to admit even after attempting the noble suggestions, the strength to keep going has often times failed.
A single heated argument or miscommunication is all it usually takes to set off the mine field – again. Old habits quickly revive, their near immortality painfully confirming true. One wonders if their spouse is even worth the effort. Either he is persistently mean, or she is persistently disrespectful. The aggrieved finds every reason to believe the aggressor will always remain undeserving.
‘He (she) hasn’t changed,’ they lament. That may be true. Your spouse might actually have only grown worse. But that’s never necessarily the reason your marriage has grown worse and unbearable. Your diagnosis of him/her might be right, but what really hurts your marriage is your misdiagnosis of yourself. You haven’t changed! You may have treated him/her differently for some days or weeks, but you did so mostly selfishly.
You loved conditionally, and so you loved only for a season. In fact, you never loved at all. You acted gently, you prayed faithfully, you withheld from answering back, you refrained from shouting, you bought the gift, and you planned the surprise date, all on the condition that your spouse would change. When that change took longer than you expected, you unsurprisingly relapsed.
You withheld good in response to the unending evil you suffered. You resumed to the ‘eye for an eye’ way of life. It feels fairer. But marriage hasn’t felt anything better. If anything, it might be at its worst.
Hope only lies in your death to self (especially when your mate remains too alive to the flesh): death to your rights and expectations. It’s only the love determined on loving the undeserving that persists all the way to death. Such a love repays evil with good (Romans 12:17–21) always. It “bears all things, believes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), not just some. This kind of love alone can transform an unloving spouse, whether it does that in life or death. Yes, the love that changes is the love that does not first demand change!
Goodness is selfless
“It’s been a while honestly, and whenever I’ve prayed it’s hardly been sincere,” a friend confessed recently when I asked if she’d been praying for her husband. She’d tried that and several other things my wife and I had been asking her to do but still came up short. Nothing seemed to win her husband’s affection; not even the War Room type of prayer or the Fire Proof type of meekness.
I wondered what more wisdom was left to share. Was she to blame for giving up too soon? Were my wife and I to blame for asking her to do too little? Was it her husband, perhaps hell-bent on hurting his good thing (Proverbs 18:22) and by so doing hurting himself?
God would answer differently. Hope for her marriage was not to be found in necessarily praying more, though that’s a good thing, but in praying differently. Living out the things my wife and I had been preaching more consistently wouldn’t change much if the motivation hadn’t shifted radically. If she was to do any of the good things she was doing simply to win her husband’s affection, she was aiming far below the mark. Little would change in her man and too briefly would her efforts last.
When Peter counsels wives to “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,” (1 Peter 3:1), husbands’ affection toward their wives is the least of his concerns. His aim is not to yield by his timeless counsel men who buy their women flowers and treat them to coffee dates more frequently. His aim is that husbands would “obey the Word” – there is no other ‘how’ to produce loving husbands.
Peter cares only that the souls of men will be won over to Christ. Included in that is a natural transformation of the hearts of men toward their wives. But too often wives will try everything to win their husbands’ affection and husbands their wives’ respect. Counsel after counsel they will seek and idea upon idea implement to little avail.
Should change be a little too long in coming frustration unavoidably sets in. That’s never because of a perceived rejection of the gospel and a turning from godliness. Frustration always results from the feeling that rights, whether that’s affection or respect, have been withheld. But a godly concern built around the need for the gospel would never take offense at being rejected or its desires delayed. The hope that accompanies it would never throw in the towel.
When the hope that a spouse will change is quickly snuffed out, that hope is obviously built on a weak foundation. It rests on a selfish need and not compassion. It is bothered more that its desires have been denied than that God is not obeyed. But what good is there in gaining the affection or submission of a spouse who ends up losing their soul – Mark 8:36?
If married people appreciated deeply what one of my mentors confessed he always reminds his wife – “you’re only a beneficiary of my commitment to Christ” – they would plead for their spouses’ souls more than for their affection or respect when their marriages are strained. And they would go on to evaluate their own souls, be confronted with their own sins, and the mercy they’ve received would compel them to love when persecuted, and give without expecting anything in return – Luke 6:35.
They wouldn’t be quick to break a covenant that’s been designed to last a lifetime. ‘For worse’ seasons wouldn’t mean time to pull the plug on the marriage for them. Those seasons would instead be received as opportunities to grow more in Christlikeness. Even though ‘for worse’ can be dreadful, it is on most occasions God’s design for bringing about ‘for better’ to the couple that endures to the end – to death – James 1:2–3;Romans 5:3–5.