My wife and I have tried, throughout our 22 years of married life, to find a happy compromise between what the two of us consider "food." I grew up a junk-food junkie; my wife grew up eating 100 percent whole wheat bread and, well, things that grow. She washes her food; I open mine. (Yeah, she's better than me.) Our family's eating habits are best summed up by a question my then five-year-old son asked his mom: "Mommy, how come Daddy's cereals have toys and ours don't?"
So you can imagine the potential for conflict, especially the day I came home from a Costco trip carrying a dozen chocolate chip muffins—a special treat that rarely crosses our threshold—just as Lisa walked into the kitchen. She took one look at what the kids and I were carrying and said, "I can't take seeing all this food come in. I have to go upstairs."
I thought she was criticizing me for buying muffins, so I not-so-politely told her to lay off: "I was trying to do you a favor by taking off time from work to go shopping, and this is how you treat me?"
And then the bomb fell. I remembered she was fasting that day and discovered she was salivating over the oranges I'd also purchased, not the muffins. And I was a jerk for taking offense at what I assumed was another (justifiable) attack on my buying habits.
Given what I do for a living as a speaker and writer on marriage, I probably think about my marriage more than most men. I try to be the best husband possible. I pray for Lisa; I listen to her; I make sacrifices on her behalf. And sometimes, I'm still an insensitive jerk.
This isn't just my wife's reality—it's yours as well. Even if I've never met you, I know one thing is true about you: you're married to an imperfect mate. And here's the spiritual reality that flows from this difficult truth: even though our mate disappoints us and hurts us, the Bible still calls us to respect and appreciate our imperfect spouse. This is true whether you're a husband (1 Peter 3:7) or a wife (Ephesians 5:33).
How do we do this, in a practical sense? How can we honestly and sincerely respect and appreciate someone who is so imperfect?
1. Accept the reality of human relationships
The apostle James lays out the human condition as clearly and as succinctly as anyone can: "We all stumble in many ways" (James 3:2). James is saying that if you were to divorce your spouse, interview 200 "replacement" candidates, put them through a battery of psychological tests, have follow-up interviews conducted by your closest friends, spend three years dating the most compatible ones, and then another 40 days praying and fasting about which one to choose, you'd still end up with a spouse who disappoints you, hurts you, frustrates you, and stumbles in many ways.
Lisa and I listened once to a couple's testimony about the difficulties of making their second marriage (for each of them) work. Although divorce had released them from previous problems, it also created entirely new ones: "Jim" no longer had a wife who ran up credit card debt, but now he was married to one who was unorganized, chronically late, and messy. "Jill" had escaped a husband who was frustratingly passive, but now she was married to a man whose anger sometimes got the best of him.
A new spouse might stumble in different ways, but he or she will still stumble. This is the reality of human relationships. Our spouse is human; therefore, they stumble—and not just once or twice, but in many ways.
Once I accept that my spouse will regularly make mistakes, my point of evaluation changes dramatically. When I embrace the biblical truth that every spouse stumbles in many ways, if my spouse has a bad day, I realize she's acting normally. This means that, instead of focusing on the occasional disappointment, I can be grateful for the positive acts of love: every spouse stumbles, but not every spouse acts so kindly toward the spouse who stumbles. Every spouse disappoints, but not every spouse would put up with me for 22 years! By accepting the negative as inevitable, I'm able to appreciate and showcase the positive evidences of God's grace.
2. Accept the reality of human marriage
During a Sacred Marriage conference, a woman approached me and said, "I have a very difficult marriage …."
"You don't have to tell me you have a difficult marriage," I answered. "That's redundant!"
It took a while for my meaning to sink in, but eventually it did, and the woman smiled.
Because of the reality of sin, every marriage has difficult moments. We're not marrying gods and goddesses! We're marrying people that the Bible promises will mess up in many ways. How can such a marriage possibly be easy?
My wife and I are in a difficult season at the moment.
I travel about 100 days a year, so I come home tired, wanting someone to take care of me and allow me to relax. My wife is a single mom about 100 days a year, so she hangs on until her husband comes home, wanting someone to take care of her and allow her to relax.
Life isn't always easy.
Once I accept that marriage is inherently difficult, I'll no longer resent it when my marriage is difficult.
Disappointment and a lack of respect are often birthed out of unrealistic expectations. It's not fair to compare your marriage to something you've seen in a movie or read about in a novel—that marriage isn't real. And even if you see a seemingly ideal marriage at church, you don't know what's really going on during less public moments.
Because of my occupation, I regularly speak to thousands of married couples, and I haven't found a single one who has told me their marriage has been "easy."
This understanding gives me great appreciation for my spouse, who's willing to engage in a difficult task with me. Even though it can be difficult, my wife has hung in there with me; we confess to each other, we forgive each other, and sometimes we have to learn to forget what each other did. What an amazing thing that another human being would do this with me instead of running away.
3. Accept the reality of your own sin
"Gary," the email read, "what does a wife do when her husband doesn't love her like Christ loves the church?"
The woman then shocked me by giving the rest of her story: "Before I got married, I read many romance novels and thought marriage would be like that. For a while it was, but then things cooled off. A couple years later, I found that exciting love once again by having an affair; but after a number of months, that too cooled off."
At this point, she threw herself into the church, but after a while even God became boring. That's when she "fell" into yet another affair that—no surprise, here—also eventually cooled off. In the aftermath of those two affairs, which wounded and humiliated her husband about as deeply as a wife can, she wrote to me, upset that her husband wasn't loving her like Christ loves the church.
Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but all of us have hearts that tend toward dismissing our own faults while magnifying the flaws of our spouse. Sometimes we need an extreme example to show us how dark our own hearts really are.
Jesus could not have been clearer: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye" (Luke 6:41-42).
If you're thinking, But in my case, my spouse really is the worst sinner, then know this: Jesus is talking specifically about you. This is precisely the attitude he finds so offensive.
Although we tend to rank certain sins, in the glory of God's goodness every mark of sin—whether an errant attitude, a prideful spirit, or a lust of the flesh—is vile and offensive in his sight. I've seen wives who have abused food disdain husbands who struggle with pornography. I've seen controlling and arrogant husbands disdain wives who watch too much television. Both seem completely blind to their own shortcomings.
We're not called to judge our spouses—ever. We are called to love them. We are not called to recount their failures in a Pharisaic game of "I'm holier than you"—we're called to encourage them. We are not called to build a case against them regarding how far they fall short of the glory of God—we are called to honor and respect them.
We learn to appreciate our imperfect spouse by getting in touch with the reality of our own sin, humbly asking God for forgiveness and honestly realizing that we'll never be asked to forgive anyone as much as God has forgiven us.
4. Accept the call to praiseworthy thinking
I've found Philippians 4:8 as relevant for marriage as it is for life: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."
Obsessing over our spouse's weaknesses won't make them go away. In fact, it makes things worse. Christian counselor Leslie Vernick warns, "Regularly thinking negatively about your husband increases your dissatisfaction with him and your marriage." You will have to fight the natural human tendency to obsess over your mate's weaknesses. When I urge you to affirm your spouse's strengths, I'm not minimizing their many weaknesses. I'm just encouraging you to make the daily spiritual choice of focusing on qualities for which you feel thankful.
To make this realistic, you have to keep in mind that no man or woman is ever "on" all the time. This explains why your husband can be so thoughtful, caring, and attentive one day, and so aloof, harsh, and critical the next. You have to give your spouse room to be a less-than-perfect human, to have bad days, "off" days, and "average" days. The spiritual challenge is that you're more apt to define your mate by the bad days while taking the good days for granted. Hold on to the good; begin to define him by the good; thank him (and God) for the good; and thereby reinforce the good.
5. Accept the biblical call to respect
If you're a believer, the Bible calls you to respect your husband (Ephesians 5:33) or your wife (1 Peter 3:7). It doesn't say wives should respect perfect husbands, or even godly husbands. It doesn't say husbands should respect agreeable or loving wives.
There are no qualifiers, because biblical respect, in one sense, comes with the position, not with the person. The apostle Paul insulted a man with bold language ("You whitewashed wall!") but then apologized after he learned he had been speaking to a high priest: "Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: 'Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people'" (Acts 23:3-5).
Imagine if your son or daughter looked at you one afternoon and said, "Mom, you've had a bad attitude all day. I don't think you're worthy of my respect at this moment, so I'm not going to listen to you." Even if you knew you had been misbehaving, you wouldn't put up with this, would you? In the same way, our spouses, because they are our spouses, still deserve our respect. You may disagree with your husband's judgment; you may object to the way your wife handles things—but according to the Bible, their position alone calls you to give them proper respect.
6. Form your heart through prayer
It's one thing to know I'm supposed to respect my spouse, but it's another thing entirely to do it. Can I retrain my heart? Can I spiritually form my mind to accept them as they are?
Yes, I can. Prayer is a practical tool in this regard. Practice praying positive prayers for your spouse. Find the five or six things he or she does really well—or even just one or two!—and try to tire God out by thanking him for giving you a mate with those qualities. Follow up your prayers with comments or even cards that thank your spouse personally for who he or she is.
I've practiced this with my wife. One morning I awoke early and immediately sensed my frustration from the previous evening. We have an issue in our relationship that we'd talked to death over the previous two decades. Lisa acknowledged her need to grow in this area, but events of the previous weeks had convinced me that nothing had changed.
I felt resentful, and in my resentful mood, I can start mentally building my case. Like a lawyer, I recall every slight, every conversation, and prove to my imaginary jury how wrong my wife is and how right I am.
To break out of this, I started thanking God for a quality in Lisa's personality for which I feel thankful. That reminded me of something else, which reminded me of something else, which reminded me of yet another quality. After about 15 minutes, I started laughing. I saw so much to be thankful for that it seemed preposterous that I should waste time fretting over this single issue.
Prayers of thankfulness literally form our soul. They effectively groom our affections. Make liberal use of this powerful tool. We have to give it time—one session of thankfulness will not fully soften a rock-hard heart. But over time, thankfulness makes a steady and persistent friend of affection.
7. Ask God to change you
During the prayer time I just mentioned, I kept hearing the enemy's whispers: "But remember the time Lisa did such and such? And don't forget how she always does x, y, and z!"
As soon as you begin offering prayers of thankfulness for your spouse, be sure of this: the enemy of your soul and the would-be destroyer of your marriage will remind you where your mate falls short. You can count on it.
You'll find yourself growing resentful: "Why should I thank God that my husband works hard when he won't even talk to me at night?" "Why should I thank God that my wife has always been faithful to me when she's so critical?"
You need to respond to this temptation with a healthy spiritual exercise: as soon as you recall your spouse's weaknesses—the very second those poor qualities come to mind—start asking God to help you with specific weaknesses of your own. That's right—as backward as this may sound, respond to temptations to judge your mate by praying for God to change you. Go into prayer armed with two lists: your spouse's strengths, and your weaknesses.
This exercise will help maintain a positive spiritual balance of remaining aware of your own shortcomings and of staying sensitive to your spouse's strengths.
Gary Thomas, MP regular contributor, is author of numerous books, including Sacred Marriage and Sacred Influence: How God Uses Wives to Shape the Souls of Their Husbands (both Zondervan).
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