After several minutes I still sat staring at the blank piece of paper. Lord, please help me think of something.
This was my first night attending a marriage class. I hoped I'd learn something that would save my marriage. Randy and I started out as two happy people. But the fun-filled man I married was now dread-filled every time we needed to communicate. From the little things, such as which route to take to the grocery store, to bigger issues, such as whose parents we'd spend the holidays with, we'd choose our positions on opposing teams and scrap to the finish, each assured our side laid rightful claim to the playoff trophy.
With each argument a little more of my love for him would die. Insults, hurled like javelins, struck deep into my heart, killing what little feeling lingered. I, too, hurled insults, bringing up past failures at just the right moment for optimum impact.
Exhausted and worn down by the daily battles, one day after Randy went off to work I fell to my knees. "I know when I got married I promised you it was for life," I cried. "But I can't go on this way, God. Please, do something!"
A few moments later, the phone rang; it was my friend Lynn. No one knew of our struggles—or so I thought—but that day I took a chance and shared the whole story.
Her gentle reply surprised me. "I've been waiting for you to get to this point. A Bible study's just beginning at a church up the street. It'll be difficult, but it may be what your marriage needs."
The class was for couples, but since I figured this was something I had to do alone, I didn't bother telling Randy. When class began, I noticed Dick and Lynne, the couple who were our leaders, appeared so happy. I recognized the way Dick looked at his wife; Randy had once looked at me that way too. I realized I wanted that back.
At the end of the session, Dick passed out sheets of paper and pencils. He said, "If you're serious about making your marriage a priority, then this assignment will be your test. I want each of you to make a list of specific things your spouse does well. Then over the next week, draw from that list to compliment him or her."
It had sounded simple. So why, after what seemed an eternity, was I now staring at my empty piece of paper?
I thought, If I were to make a list of things he does wrong, this paper wouldn't be big enough!
Then I remembered the lawn. I never had to mow our lawn. That was something, right? I proudly added that one, lonely item to my list.
Later that evening Randy came home, changed clothes, and mowed the lawn. As he worked, a battle raged within me. Sure, he mows the lawn, but I clean the house, do the laundry, the shopping, and the cooking. Why should he be praised?
Just then the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit whispered, Trust me.
I gritted my teeth in response.
When Randy came inside, I handed him a glass of water. As difficult as it was to force the words from my mouth, I told him how much I appreciated that he mowed the lawn and I never had to worry about it. Then an amazing thing happened. Before I knew what I was saying, I added, "I'm thankful I married a man so trustworthy."
To my surprise, my husband peacocked. He straightened, drew back his shoulders, and did what looked like a ruffling move. Reaching out his hand to touch mine, he said, "Thank you."
I stood stunned as the hardness of my heart began to melt, and for a moment, I caught a glimpse of the man I'd married.
Could it be that simple, Lord? I prayed. In the days and weeks that followed, I clung to the apostle Paul's words in Romans 8:24 as my hope grew for rekindling those lost feelings of love: "For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?"
I began praising Randy for even the smallest kernel of good. At first it was difficult because I was used to focusing on the irritating things—the areas where he didn't measure up. But as I prayed, God helped me see the good, such as when Randy would take his plate to the kitchen after dinner. One night I thanked him and he retorted defensively, "I always do that."
Instinctively, I wanted to respond with equal sarcasm, "Yeah, how big of you," but instead I swallowed hard and said, "I know, but I wanted you to know how much it helps." Proverbs 15:1 became my new weapon: "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger."
I practiced envisioning what Randy would be like if those kernels of good grew into a dominating feature. Then holding that vision in my mind, I treated him as though it were reality.
Transformation didn't occur overnight. In fact, I sowed seeds of gentleness, love, and acceptance for nearly a year without any signs of new life. Then one night after dinner, Randy picked up his plate and mine, and took them to the kitchen. I collected a few more dishes, and before long the kitchen was clean. I casually thanked him and then we both fell into our evening routine. Later as I was readying for bed, it hit me: Randy helped me clean the kitchen! We'd worked together without fireworks. How could I have missed that?
My mind raced to other examples that week—little things he'd done and I'd accepted. He helped me unload the groceries from the car trunk, and wiped out the sink after cleaning his electric shaver—something that had always sent me into a tantrum. Why hadn't I noticed?
Then I understood—for a long time I'd focused on Randy's faults, making him responsible for my happiness. But if Randy was the source of my happiness, God couldn't be. When I focused on Randy's goodness, God could focus on my needs. And now that my needs were being met, I was free to accept Randy any way he came. It was that acceptance that had caused Randy's turnaround, and mine. And it all began with words of praise.
I wish I could say our marriage immediately turned around, but it took years to repair the damage. Little by little, bridges replaced the walls, and the love we'd once enjoyed returned to full bloom.
Over the years, we've learned many more lessons about praise. For instance, all of us like to be thanked for the things we do and praised for who we are. Yet praising is not something most of us do well. Repeatedly, however, we're told that God's people will be known by their praise. "This is how the Lord responds: 'If you return to me, I will restore you so you can continue to serve me. If you speak good words rather than worthless ones, you will be my spokesman'" (Jeremiah 15:19).
And yes, God knows that praising our spouses, even when by our standards they are less than praiseworthy, is difficult. But he didn't call us to love others only when they are loveable. That's a good thing, for I'm amazed at what God sees when he looks at me. He looks not at what's on the outside, but what's inside, tucked beneath the folds of my self-righteousness. There in the dark recesses of my soul is an awkward little girl, longing to be loved and adored. With words of praise, God coaxes me from the shadows. He calls me righteous and good; he tells me he values me above all creation, and I'm forgiven because of what Christ did on the cross—and I peacock.
"Now go and do likewise," God tells us. So I look to fill my husband's soul with words that build him. I desire to see him the way God sees him, and to fill him to the brim with praise till it overflows. And I look to my heavenly Father to meet and fill my needs, freeing me to love others however they may appear—lovable and praiseworthy, or a little rough around the edges, but lovable and praiseworthy still the same.
Cheri Cowell is author of Direction: Discernment for the Decisions of Your Life (Beacon Hill Press). www.chericowell.com
Copyright © by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.