September 20, 2018

The Bloody Hope for Every Marriage

Gary Thomas — 

Some desires in marriage are never going to be fulfilled and need to be “crucified.” In fact, various studies have suggested that more than fifty percent of marital issues will never be resolved. You can fight against this all you want. You can resent it. You can say it’s not fair. But it won’t change what is. If you want your marriage to move forward, you have to live with what is.

Fortunately, life in Jesus provides a brilliant but severe remedy for living with unfulfilled desires and unmet expectations: the cross. We need to constantly remember that our lives shouldn’t be defined first and foremost by our marital happiness, but by seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness. That pursuit will, in the end, produce happiness, but we have to keep first things first.

So here’s the spiritual trick. Transform the focus of your expectations from what you expect of your spouse to what your God expects of you. We can’t make any one person do what we think they should do (that just leads to futility and frustration), but we can surrender to what God would have us do in light of that (which leads to peace with God and divine affirmation).

Patricia Palau discovered that accepting the role of the cross in her life helps her check her own desires.

“Perhaps some things are improved by a lack of inward focus. Instead of focusing on our marriage or our desires, Luis and I have focused on the call of God on our lives. We have lived for a cause that’s bigger than both of us. And after forty years, we like each other, get along well, and have fulfilled one another as much as is possible.

Our fulfillment is doing the will of God. Our heart prayer is, Not my will, Lord, but Yours. This focus kept me from saying ‘I deserve more help than this’ when Luis has been gone for two weeks, leaving me with four little boys. I didn’t think, I can’t believe Luis has to leave again so soon, two or three weeks after his last trip. For me, the Lord’s command to ‘take up your cross and follow Me’ has meant letting Luis go while I take care of things at home. No, it isn’t ‘fair,’ but it brings life— eternal life— to others. And I gain peace, contentment, and satisfaction.

Patricia’s attitude works just as well for wives married to construction workers as it does for wives married to famous evangelists. Patricia surrendered to God’s will, whatever it was. Raising children, supporting a husband, running a small business, staying involved in one’s church— all of these activities can constitute a call “bigger than both of us,” even if such a call will never get celebrated in a history book.

Feel free to say, “This stinks!” but then add, “And Lord, how would you like me to respond in the face of its stench?”

Regardless of your situation, the Christian life does require a cross. Your cross may look different from Patricia’s, but you will have a cross to bear. Resentment and bitterness will make each splinter of that cross feel like a sharp, ragged nail. A yielding, surrendered attitude may not make the cross soft, but it will make it sweeter, and at the end of your life, it may even seem precious.

When Patricia as a mature woman married for more than four decades testifies that she has gained “peace, contentment, and satisfaction,” she means she has found what virtually every woman wants and yet very few find. Why? Because so many women look at the cross as their enemy instead of as their truest friend.

Peace?

Contentment?

Satisfaction?

In a woman who raised four boys with an often absent husband and who endured two years of chemotherapy? How can this be? Patricia understands something the world mocks: “In the end, nothing makes us feel as good as does obedience to Him.”

If you don’t die to unrealistic expectations and if you refuse the cross, you’ll find yourself at constant war with your husband instead of at peace. You’ll feel frustrated instead of contented, and disappointed instead of satisfied. Why? We often forget that both partners in a marriage have their expectations, and sometimes these expectations conflict.

Martie found this to be true in her own marriage:

“When Joe and I became engaged, I had a set of assumptions about how our married life would be. One of those was that Joe would be home most evenings and we’d spend hours together talking, sharing activities, and dreaming together, just like we did when we were dating. But those expectations didn’t materialize. After we were married, Joe juggled school and a full-time job in addition to his commitment to me as his wife. He often came home late and I would be upset about having to spend the evening without him after working hard all day at my frustrating job. I felt Joe was breaking some unspoken promise about spending time with me. But you see, that was the problem: I never spoke with him about my expectations. In my mind he was breaking a promise, but in his mind he was simply fulfilling his responsibilities.”

Eventually, Martie talked to Joe about her desires, and the two of them worked out an arrangement to spend some evenings together. Because of his vocation, Joe is not home every night, as Martie once dreamed he’d be. But he is home more evenings than he probably envisioned as a single man. Neither received all they wanted, but both bowed to something bigger than themselves. That’s why I say that harmony, joy, and peace will never grace a home ruled by expectations instead of by the cross.

In her book It’s My Turn, Ruth Bell Graham got pretty blunt in this regard: “I pity the married couple who expect too much from one another. It is a foolish woman who expects her husband to be to her what only Jesus Christ can be: always ready to forgive, totally understanding, unendingly patient, invariably tender and loving, unfailing in every area, anticipating every need, and making more than adequate provision. Such expectations put a man under an impossible strain.”

And men, we can do the same thing with our wives, can’t we? We take little parts of every “all-star” wife we know, then cut and paste them into some Frankenstein fantasy, and expect our wives to be all of them in one person. This wife earns more than her husband, why can’t you? That wife wants sex even more than her husband does. What’s your problem? That wife has Bible study and prayer every morning before her family wakes up. How come you’re always the last out of bed?  That wife works out six days a week. When’s the last time you’ve even broken a sweat?

The foolishness of these expectations is that they always make us feel worse about our marriage and never encourage our spouse to “improve.” We feel worse and worse, and a “picked on” spouse tends to become more and more stubborn.  That’s a losing game, far more foolish than the victory of the cross.  Marital hope is found in a glorious but bloody solution: crucifying our expectations. Sometimes, the choice comes down to this: crucify our desires or “crucify” our spouse for not meeting those desires.

If you choose the latter, ask yourself in advance how well a pilloried spouse will be able to suddenly start meeting those desires, or even want to?

If you want your marriage to survive, crucify the desire and resurrect your marriage.

This is the fourth post in an ongoing series featuring the message of Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband.

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14 responses to The Bloody Hope for Every Marriage

  1. Desperate for God October 3, 2018 at 6:05 am

    I prayed to God today for direction and was lead to this post. My husband threw his wedding band in the bin this morning. This past month I haven’t been acting with love & respect because I am bitter & angry from unmet desires. Have been married for 8 years & in year 4 I became a Christian wife. Husband still not Christian and has no desire to be one. I have some questions on your post Gary
    Some desires in marriage are never going to be fulfilled. 1. Which desires are non negotiable? I want to live a life where God comes first. I want to not be yelled at when I do something wrong. I would like to be able to express my disagreement with my husband. I would like to be forgiven for my unfaithfulness before marriage. Just mentioning the desires I have.
    The list of what the unrealistic desires of woman was clearly expressed by Ruth Bell Graham. I would like the frankenstein fantasy to be fleshed out more. I genuinely feel my husband does not want me to express my unhappiness with him or my difference in opinion. The post for me, Gary is weighted very heavily on woman having to take up the cross. The question on this. 2. Gary do you educate men as passionately as you do woman on taking up their cross? If yes, where can I find this.
    This third one is not derived from the post, but i think you can address it. I don’t know what submission to my husband should look like. I have been doing the extreme in my opinion and for some reason he just wants more. For example. Everything he says is right & I support him in it. I avoid putting myself in the spotlight (even though that’s my personality). I speak with love & respect even when hurt. I forgive daily without having him know or needing to apologise. Sexually, I aim to reasonably fulfil his fantacies. In short: Where is the line of submission?

  2. This is well stated and packed with truth. I am single again after a divorce awhile ago. I was praying recently in reference to this. Believing, hoping, and trusting. Thanks.

  3. Love the article Gary! Marriage in itself is a hard relationship when expectations are the foundation of the marriage instead of focusing on God’s desires for marriage. It takes constant learning, adjusting and giving daily; just as Jesus did when he walk the earth. His desires were The Father’s desires and not His own, and the sinful human nature of the people around Him required Him to pray and teach The Father’s Love to those around Him. Until I learned to leave my human desires on the cross, marriage was a constant battle. Our personal desires build up walls between spouses and without the cross to bridge those gaps and tear down those walls there is no resolution. Jesus exemplified sacrifice to the world, the kind of sacrifice that every man and woman need to give for a Godly marriage to survive. Hard lessons to learn but the benefits are Extraordinary!

  4. Gary,

    I read this post this morning, and it really spoke to me, as did the last one on giving the benefit of the doubt. Both of them instilled a conviction to do better. Both of them are very relevant right now in my marriage.

    This evening, the subject of conflict came up in a conversation with my wife. We have endured a lot in the last 18 months and unfortunately we each need the opposite thing from the other. She has been building space between us physically and emotionally. Every effort I make to bridge that gap only causes her to push farther away. She told me that in itself caused more conflict than she can deal with, and told me that she will withdraw even more.

    I know what she has been thru this year. She lost both her parents a week apart in January, and on top of that, they left her to deal with the estate(conflict). I lost my own mother this year and had to go thru that alone because she was so emotionally invested elsewhere, there was nothing left for her to give. I can’t recall her even telling me she was sorry
    . I struggled with that, but I understand and forgive. It has only gotten worse since. I try to lift her up and make things easier, and she lashes out at me. Things have been escalating to the point that I had to say something(conflict) and with this new revelation from her I know that all she wants from me is to be left alone. All I want from her is some sign that she is willing to make an effort, and she essentially told me that she had nothing to give.

    I can not give her what she wants/needs without completely denying everything I want, and I do not know how to reconcile that. There is nothing I can do or say to move her. I was willing to give up a lot for just a little effort and acknowledgement that we both have expectations, but I have just been told that mine are completely forfeit.

    • Doug,

      What you’re describing isn’t “expectations.” You just want to be married, and your wife is pulling away. Every teaching can be taken too far. This post isn’t, for instance, necessarily helpful for those who occasionally want sexual intimacy and their marriage has none; need the other spouse to help support the family, and the spouse retreats into total passivity; those are just two examples that I think go beyond “expectations” to “eclipse.” A spouse may not know the kama sutra (expectation), but they should generally be available for intimacy, when reasonable, or now you’re talking about an eclipse.. A spouse may not be able to earn $100k (expectation), but that doesn’t excuse bringing in nothing (eclipse). .

      In your case, you’re dealing with a broken wife. I don’t say that to be cruel, but in the way we talked several posts ago about loving a broken man or woman. Losing two parents in one year can be devastating. And it’s not fair to evaluate your spouse or marriage when they are going through a genuine crisis. It’s unfortunate you both faced similar troubles and both needed comforting at the same time and your wife had nothing left to give, but life can be cruel at times.

      I’d give her a little more time to heal, without expectations and without pressure. But, as wise counsel leads (and you’ll need counseling, alone at first), you’ve got to invite her back into the marriage. I wouldn’t wait too long, though, so that this doesn’t become permanent.

      When a marriage reaches this stage, I think intensives are much better than one hour a week sessions. I don’t think you’ll find much help with the latter. Your wife needs someone to really dig in and help her heal, help you forgive, and then serve as a bridge to bring the two of you back together again.

      In short, every marriage will go through some excruciating seasons and it’s necessary at times to let a spouse work through it as they can. We all grieve in different ways. Eventually, however, there comes a time when we need help not to move on, but to move back together. And I think you’re going to need some help to get there.

      • Thanks for responding. This sentence spells things out perfectly….. ” You just want to be married, and your wife is pulling away”
        I realize this is just a season, and that it will come to an end eventually. It is difficult, often seems unfair, but there is good that has come out of it. My inlaws health started failing about the same time as my mother’s did, and my wife was focused on that, as well as a close friend who had lost her husband. Then my mother was placed in hospice care, and passed away a short time after. I was able to spend 2 weeks with her before she went home to Jesus. I have never seen anyone so at peace with the certainty of their death. She was ready, and almost looking forward to it. Still, I had to grieve alone, and it truly was heartbreaking, because at the time I just couldn’t understand why. There was a lesson in it for me tho, and I was absolutely resolved that my wife would not have to, and that I would be there for her in every way I could. I was not able to be there when her Dad passed away, but I was sitting with her, holding her and her Mothers hand when she took her last breath. In a way, I was grateful for what I endured because I know that I would not have been as deliberate about caring for her otherwise..

        I know we will get thru this. We have the most amazing church and small group family, as well as other friends and positive influences. I still struggle mightily on some days, but as I remarked on your broken spouse post, I know that what is going on right now, is not about me. Sometimes I forget, but I am surrounded by people who love us both, and they won’t let me stray too far i to self pity.

  5. Excellent article. Expectations can truly ‘wreck’ a relationship – especially in marriage. When I ‘expect’ my husband to do something, say something, or be something, that will usually lead to my frustration – just like you mentioned.

  6. Taking up our cross (Matt. 16:24) and submitting to each other out of love and reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21) is indeed part of God’s plan for our walk as Christians, however one of the primary purposes of marriage (and life) is to conform us to the image of Christ (Rom.8:29).
    Without Biblical priorities (God first, Spouse second, Family third, Church / Community / Job fourth), life will be out of balance and not in God’s will. And without honest communication and compromise, one spouse is more likely to remain selfish and unchanged, also not God’s will.
    “As iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). Rather than always crucify our desires, we must communicate our Godly desires to our spouse and then be willing to compromise, keeping Biblical priorities our goal.

    • MSL,

      I agree with everything you’ve just said (and said quite well, by the way). But to assume that “communicating godly desires to our spouse” will ensure change (which you probably don’t mean) isn’t fair for many well-meaning husbands and wives. So there may come a point when those expectations just need to be laid down. Definitely, communicate them. But if they’re not worthy of leaving the marriage over (unfaithfulness, abuse, abandonment), holding on to them will create more contempt than change.

      • Gary,

        I agree. Regardless of the situation, we are responsible before God for keeping our own hearts free of bitterness. “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life (Prov. 4:23 NASB). “And do not give the devil an opportunity [to lead you into sin by holding a grudge, or nurturing anger, or harboring resentment, or cultivating bitterness].” (Eph. 4:27 AMP). “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right (steadfast / NASB) spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10 ESV). Amen!
        Thanks, Gary, for a great blog.

  7. Loving this series Gary…so very true! This is exactly what I had to do to gain His peace…thank you for constant reminders to keep our minds focused on the Lord…Hugs to you and my sweet friend, Lisa❤️

  8. Great information as always, Thank you! But have never heard the word, ‘pilloried’ before. Had to look it up. 🙂

    ttfn!
    Pam
    Lamentations 3:25

  9. Truth, communicated well. Thanks.

  10. This is very clear and insightful truth about how God loves through us!