Coming in Second

The only way to win at marriage is to let your mate take first place

Last summer Karen and I got into an interesting fight. I'd been mowing the lawn in the heat and humidity, and I was sweating. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to spray Weed & Feed on the lawn. It was freshly cut, and no rain was forecasted for days. All I needed were the chemicals.

"I'm going to the store," I told Karen.

"But the kids and I are waiting for you to go to the pool with us," she said. "And we've got to be back by 3."

"That can wait."

"Honey, we promised the kids we'd all go."

"Well, they'll just have to wait."

Karen was upset. "Why didn't you get the stuff before? I thought you said you had some."

"So I was wrong, already," I shot back. "I want to go to the store."

I'll spare you the rest of the conversation. But we went back and forth, and I got mad. Later, I chided myself: What were you thinking? She wanted you to go to the pool and cool off. And you fought with her so you could toil and sweat in the yard?

There was a force greater than logic at work: This was my project. What Karen wanted could wait.

Verbal Dynamite

At moments like those, it would help if the apostle Paul could walk right into my house to remind me, "Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Eph. 5:25). Those poetic-sounding words are verbal dynamite; they blow apart the way I want things to work. And when the dust settles, their wisdom remains: "Put your spouse first."

A wife is supposed to do that as well, the passage goes on to say, by showing respect, listening to her husband, honoring him and not tearing him down. A husband is called, meanwhile, to sacrifice himself for his wife. Make her feel special. Help her become a more holy, gracious person because of what he gives up for her.

This is a frighteningly high standard. It means dropping whatever I'm doing if it stands in the way of my wife's wellbeing. Not buying something I want, for her sake. Not working as long as I'd like, for her sake. The thing most essential to Christian marriage is the one thing I most don't want to do.

A lot of Christians stumble over this point. They can't accept that God would command them to do something so painful, so difficult, so outrageous as self-sacrifice. Recently I read about Leo Tolstoy, the world-class novelist and a Christian of strong principles. In a burst of compassion, he freed his serfs so they would no longer live in grinding poverty. But Tolstoy overlooked the person right next to him. After he died, his wife, Sonya, wrote this:

"There is so little genuine warmth about him … His biographies will tell of how he helped the laborers to carry buckets of water, but no one will ever know that he never gave his wife a rest and never—in all these thirty-two years—gave his child a drink of water or spent five minutes by his bedside to give me a chance to rest a little from all my labors."

Tolstoy, a great Christian in so many ways, couldn't bring himself to lay down his life for his wife.

Marriage Isn't Fair

Most of us stumble over this command—"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ"—because we're concentrating on what's fair. We expect our spouses to see how frazzled we are and give us a break. When there's a conflict, we demand what's rightfully ours: 50-50.

But if we play out marriage the logical, natural way, insisting on what's fair, we only bring pain to our spouses and ourselves. To paraphrase Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof,"If you insist on an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you'll both end up blind and toothless." God wants to spare us that pain, so he gives us a better way: "Submit to one another."

Mutual submission will look different in every marriage. My first clue that I need to start submitting to Karen in some area is when I feel irritable about doing it. Should I sit and talk with her when I've got a hundred other things to do? Do I really have to go out with her and a couple of her friends—who are not my favorite people? Why must I remain open to her when I'd prefer to close off?

These things don't come naturally. That's why the Scripture has to remind me: Exaltation comes after humility. For your marriage to go up, you must go down. You have to descend into greatness.

In the movie The Poseidon Adventure, the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon is on the open sea when it hits a huge storm. A wall of water crashes through the ballroom chandelier. Men in tuxes and women in evening gowns scream and run. Lights go out, smoke pours into rooms and, amid all the confusion, the ship flips over.

Because of the air trapped inside the ocean liner, it floats upside down. But in the confusion, the passengers can't figure out what's going on. They scramble to get out, mostly by climbing the steps to the top deck. The problem is, the top deck is now 100 feet under water. In trying to get to the top of the ship, they drown.

The only survivors are the few who do what doesn't make any sense. They do the opposite of what everyone else is doing and descend into the dark belly of the ship until they reach the hull. By going down, they actually reach the ocean's surface. Rescuers hear them banging and cut them free.

In marriage, it's as if God has turned the ship over and the only way for us to get free is to choose what doesn't make sense: We lay down our lives by serving, supporting and sacrificing for our spouses.

Make the Impossible Possible

But such self-sacrifice raises a real problem. Often when our spouses need us to give to them, we dig deep down in ourselves and find there's nothing left to give. We scrape the bottomof the well and pull up nothing but mud. That's when we need a fresh-water spring fed by the Holy Spirit. The impossible demands of God become possible when he lives in us.

In Karen's third year of graduate school she was carrying a full course load, working 20 hours a week as an intern and writing a senior research paper. I'd come home from working a full day and then have to get dinner ready, put the kids to bed, proofread Karen's papers and sit alone while she studied. I was tired and lonely.

Halfway through the year, I didn't think I could go on. One day during the Christmas break, I took a walk to clear my head. I bundled up and walked down a snow-packed farm lane and began to talk to God. I could see my breath hanging in the air.

"God, I can't make it," I said. "She's got five more months of school, and I don't have it in me to support her through it. I can't keep giving for her sake anymore. I don't have the strength."

Then I sensed God say to me, "I'm going to help you through this." The next five months looked more like five years. But I knew that if I went forward, God would give me the strength each day to make it.

Five months later, on a sunny Sunday in May, I watched Karen put on a long black robe with a mortarboard and tassel. She marched across a stage to receive her diploma and the graduate hood. She had finished a lifelong dream, and I felt such joy for her that I cried.

When I threw myself on God, he gave me the power to obey his command: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." It seemed impossible, but the resentment that almost defeated me was gone.

Kevin A. Miller is a regular contributor to MARRIAGE PARTNERSHIP. He and Karen, co-authors of More Than You and Me: Touching Others Through the Strength of Your Marriage (Focus on the Family), lead the marriage ministry at their church.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Marriage; Marriage Struggles; Submission
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 1996
Posted September 12, 2008

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