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Putting Yourself Last

If you feel the need to spice up your marriage, make sure you don't leave out the key ingredient

If you've read one of the "how to add life to your marriage" books and your relationship is still floundering, try something new. Check out how you and your spouse are growing spiritually. Have you spent as much time thinking about how to become more like Christ as you have on how to spice up your marriage?

I don't believe couples fall out of love—they fall out of repentance. I'm convinced that when couples commit themselves to growing in the virtues taught by Christ, there's little chance for their relationship to fail. When you're focused on growing in humility, gentleness, patience, love and generosity, you're creating the building blocks that nurture and maintain intimacy.

Actually, humility is a great place to begin. Peter urges us, "Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another" (1 Pet. 5:5). I'm afraid most of us spend more time worrying about our outer appearance than we do about the inner clothing of humility. But I'm determined to do better at clothing myself in a way that will strengthen my marriage.

What Humility Looks Like

When my wife and I got married, I was shocked at how different two people could be. It showed up in the little things—like where we'd keep our medicines and spices. To me, it seemed inherently wrong to store Pepto-Bismol next to the vanilla, but that's the way my wife's family had always done it.

We also had widely divergent eating habits, which weren't a big deal until we had kids and one of them complained at breakfast, "How come Daddy's cereals have toys and ours don't?"

These differences shined a light on my pride. A proud person never thinks to question something he's always thought was right. He doesn't feel a need to see a divisive issue from someone else's point of view—he simply wants to win the argument.

What does this have to do with humility? If you look in our cereal cupboard now, you won't find any boxes with toys. I had to admit I was wrong for passing on an unhealthy eating habit to my kids. Thank goodness for the give-and-take of marriage, which forces us to understand another person's perspective.

But humility is more than just being able to admit being wrong. It isn't thinking less of ourselves; it's thinking less about ourselves. Obsessing over what you aren't makes you as self-absorbed as the person who obsesses about what she is.

Humility is placing others above ourselves. Jesus was humble, yet he never pretended he wasn't the Son of God. He never claimed that his mission in life wasn't important; he just used his power to serve and love rather than to dominate and manipulate.

A proud person doesn't want to see things from someone else's point of view—he simply wants to win the argument.

Humility gives us the strength to accept who we are, respect others and escape from an egocentric worldview in which we expect everyone (especially a spouse) to bend to our demands and desires. Humility is the Christlike spirit of becoming a servant. Humility is essential to marriage because without it, two strong egos do nothing but butt heads.

Providing a Service
Humility exerts itself through service. It proves itself when, moment-by-moment, you decide to make yourself a servant. Andrew Murray noted that "it is in our most unguarded moments that we really show and see what we are. To know … how the humble man behaves, you must follow him in the common course of daily life."

My family spent the night at a friend's house one New Year's Eve. I flew into town that day from the Midwest, so my "body clock" was already two hours ahead of everyone else. When midnight rolled around, I was exhausted. I went to bed and was dropping off to sleep when our friend came in and whispered, "Lisa!" I knew what was coming. "One of your kids is sick."

My wife started stirring, and I knew I could pretend I was asleep. After all, our friend wasn't talking to me. I'd been up for almost 20 hours. It would be so easy for me just to stay in bed. But I'd been reading and studying about humility—and I recognized my chance to practice it.

"I'll take care of it," I told her.

That's almost embarrassingly insignificant, but humility lives in such small decisions. I may never become humble, but I can learn to practice humility in the routine acts of service in which I put others first.

The radical truth of Christianity is that love isn't based on the other person becoming more lovely, but on our willingness to act lovingly. A person in search of virtue finds fulfillment from the inner witness of acting in accordance with God's will and purpose. That's good news, as actions are something we can control—unlike our emotions, which constantly ebb and flow.

No License to Judge

When I'm experiencing persistent anger with Lisa, almost always I can find a point where I'm judging her—calling myself "right" and my wife "wrong." Christ took away our license to judge. A humble spouse focuses on changing himself.

Without humility, we become thoroughly disagreeable and demanding characters. Estrangement, hate, anger, bitterness and resentment—the killers of human relationships—are born in judging others, in putting yourself above others. Where I fail in humility, I fail in love. Without humility, what starts out as a mutual affection can collapse into a contest of wills, judgment and accusation.

Years ago, I finally realized that marriage is for holiness more than happiness. Marriage creates the best environment in which I can serve God and grow in the character of Christ—and that's what I should expect from it more than anything else. This doesn't mean that happiness and holiness are mutually exclusive; often they aren't. But the primary purpose in my life is not to pursue happiness, it's to become like Christ. How thankful I am to be married—to be in an ideal environment for spiritual growth.

When I was married for happiness, and I went through the inevitable seasons of unhappiness (or just the routines of life), I assumed my lack of happiness meant my wife wasn't measuring up. I judged her failings and she judged mine.

When I realized I was married for holiness, I knew that I never measured up. I became more than satisfied with my wife as I focused on what I needed to change. My wife didn't change, but my perspective did.

Humility gave me a new marriage because it gave me a new me. If God, who is perfectly holy and righteous, can delight in my wife as he does then I can respond with similar delight.

Eventually, a proud man or woman becomes a lonely man or woman, because pride erodes relationships. Relationships are based on entering into other people's lives, but when we're so focused on ourselves it is impossible to care genuinely about others.

The beauty of humility is that we become empowered to respect others—beginning with our spouses. Paul encourages us to "show true humility toward all" (Titus 3:2). We can't control a lot of things in life—including our mates. But we can control how we respect our spouses, how we serve and honor them and how we try to start seeing things from their perspective.

And when we do that, we'll discover a whole new marriage.

Gary L. Thomas is the author of Seeking the Face of God (Harvest House) and The Glorious Pursuit (NavPress). He and his wife, Lisa, have been married 15 years.

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

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Humility; Marriage; Selfishness
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

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