Marriage—Not to Make you Happy, but to Make You Holy

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Over the past few blog posts, our picture of a biblical family is now taking shape.  Paul tells us as husbands we are to “love (our) wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25), and confidently lead our families in the direction God has shown us they are to go. In response, our wives are to “submit to their own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). Paul is saying that our wives are to submit themselves to us just as if we were the Lord Himself, not just in the issues where they agree with us, but in “all things” (Ephesians 5:24). All we must do is strive to diligently follow this prescription and, voila, a perfect kingdom family!

Are you serious? How can God make such an impossible demand? How can a husband unconditionally love a controlling, independent women who is not remotely interested in him leading her? But just as unreasonably, how can a wife submit herself to a passive or domineering husband who doesn’t love her?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this prescription. It is the Bible’s teaching of how a kingdom family functions. The fact that no family follows it is not God’s problem but entirely ours. We are totally incapable of fulfilling the roles God has assigned us, no matter how hard we try.

We have discussed in previous postings that to think sinful husbands will love their selfish, rebellious, unlovable wives with unconditional, agape love is a pipedream. But husbands are commanded by God to do so. “That’s unfair. She’s getting off scot free,” they may say.

However, God is an equal opportunity demander. Listen to God’s demand of the wife with a domineering, selfish, disinterested, lazy husband who as yet doesn’t have a clue about loving his wife and tell me if you still think they have it easy. “In a similar way, you wives must submit yourselves to your husbands so that, even if some of them refuse to obey the word, they may be won over without a word through your conduct as wives when they see your pure and reverent lives.” (1 Peter 3:1, 2). God says that wives are still to submit to their husbands even if the husband refuses to even try to love them with agape love, and then to do so “without a word!”  

This situation is faced in every single marriage to one degree or another, and it was explicitly and beautifully designed by God in His curse on Eve in Genesis 4:7 that that would be the case. By asking us to do what we cannot do God, is bringing both husbands and wives to the end of themselves and their own efforts to have a good marriage.

After many years of marital counseling, I have found that there is one common problem that makes it almost impossible for many married couples to have a permanent, happy, successful marriage. It lies at the heart of every single marital difficulty, and really every difficulty of any kind we may have.  Without addressing it specifically, all other efforts will be ineffective long term. The supposed solutions, and there are a whole range of them proposed at counseling sessions, will be less than satisfactory if this one issue is not addressed and dealt with. What is it?

In every marital conflict, there is always plenty of sin to go around. Generally, there is a black horse rider wearing a black hat, probably the spouse who is by nature a rebel. This is the spouse who is overtly sinning for all to see. This is the “bad person” in the marriage, and undoubtedly is aware of this.

There is also a white horse rider wearing a white hat, the spouse who always does everything right, by nature a Pharisee, who is most obviously the “good person” in the marriage. This spouse sees themself as “right” because they make “good” decisions and thus are “good.”

However, the idea that there is ever a white horse rider wearing a white hat is a blinding misconception. In Romans 3:10-12, Paul is describing all mankind, both Jews and Gentiles, with the following words: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” In other words, we are all wearing black hats, astride black horses!

As a matter of fact, Jesus reserved His harshest words for the most righteous-appearing, the Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).

So, we are both wicked sinners, according to Paul in Romans 3, but I can do something about the sins of only one of us—myself! I can do nothing about the sins of my wife. They are completely her responsibility before God. It is His job alone to sanctify her, and none of my business whatsoever.

My leadership in the family has nothing to do with her relationship with God. That is her job alone. My job is to love her, no matter her degree of sanctification, and to lead her in the direction we are going in the family. It is her job to submit to that leadership and respectfully follow, not mine to get her to do so!

The exact thing is true with the wife, with this exception. In 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11, Paul tells married women not to leave their husbands, but if they do, remain unmarried or be reconciled. I believe he is addressing the situation where the wife fears bodily harm from the husband or in some other way the situation at home becomes untenable.

Paul’s thinking, I believe, is this: God applies the screws to us in our marriages to force us to ultimately look at ourselves and our own sin and not our spouse’s. Divorce allows us to evade that pressure. Temporarily leaving the home keeps the wife from harm yet preserves the effectiveness of the process of sanctification God is working in the lives of both of them.

The wife can tell her husband that she loves him, wants to be his wife, but until he gets help she must leave, and then do so. First be sure you have looked carefully at yourself. Have I played a part in his behavior? Don’t threaten, but after speaking truth to him in love for an appropriate time, find a temporary place you can stay and then leave him. Don’t return until it is evident that God has used the pressure to indeed bring about repentance and change in his life.

All that God does in our lives is a blessing, including marriage difficulties, though they are severe blessings, not obvious ones. Marriage is not to make us happy but to make us holy.

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  1. Kristin says:

    I just love this! Your blog has made a great devotion time for my husband and me. Your insights about marriage are not only spot-on, but also well-delivered, in tactfulness and in grammatical prowess. I particularly liked your article describing the Hebrew translation of the word “desire,” used only twice in the Pentateuch. That was a lightbulb/humbling moment for me! Thank you!

  2. jane dyson says:

    Divorce is a way to escape or avoid the pressure. Unique and helpful way of putting it. It points to the fact that God is using all this junk we go through for our further sanctification.

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