by Gary Thomas
Even if I’ve never met you, I know one thing that is true about you and your spouse: you’re both married to an imperfect mate.
I also know another truth about you: the Bible calls you to still respect and appreciate your very imperfect spouse. This is true whether you’re a husband (1 Peter 3:7) or a wife (Eph. 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
James 3:2 lays out the human condition as clearly and as succinctly as anyone can: “We all stumble in many ways.” Think about the impact of the words “all” and “many.” What James is telling us is that if you were to divorce your spouse, interview two hundred “replacement” candidates, put them through a battery of psychological tests, have follow-up interviews conducted by your closest friends, spent three years dating the most compatible ones, and then spent another forty 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.
The word “all” means there are no exceptions. A new spouse might stumble in different ways, but he or she will still stumble. This is the reality of human relationships in light of sin. Your spouse is human; therefore, they stumble—and not just once or twice, but in many ways.
Once I accept that my spouse will regularly stumble, the point of evaluation changes dramatically. Some people compare to their mates to perfection. Well, there was only one perfect person who ever walked this earth, and he never got married. When I embrace the biblical truth that every spouse stumbles in many ways, when my wife acts up, 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. Every spouse stumbles, 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 came up to 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 what I was saying 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 stumble in many ways. How can that possibly be 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 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 that has told me their marriage has been “easy.” Rewarding? Yes. Soul-forming? Absolutely. But easy? Never.
This understanding gives me great appreciation for my spouse, who is willing to engage in a difficult task with me. Even though it can be really hard, 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 Harlequin romances and I 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, in which she wounded and humiliated her husband about as deeply as a wife can, she wrote to me, consumed with how 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.
While 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 turn around and disdain husbands who struggle with pornography. I’ve seen controlling and arrogant husbands disdain wives who watch too much television. Both seem completely blinded 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 have 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 your spouse’s weaknesses won’t make them go away. You may have done that for years—and if so, what has it gotten you, besides more of the same? Author and speaker Leslie Vernick warns, “Regularly thinking negatively about your husband increases your dissatisfaction with him and your marriage.” You will have to 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 day. 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 are likely more apt to define your mate by the bad days than you are to accept the good days as the norm. 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 Reality of Your Decision
Everyone comes into marriage with their own hurts, wounds, and spiritual “baggage.” Maybe your wife’s siblings teased her. Maybe your husband’s former girlfriend cheated on him and broke his heart. Maybe your spouse’s parents were abusive, or neglectful. The possibilities, sadly, are endless.
Before a casual relationship morphs into a permanent commitment, many men and women see a hurting person and think, I want to help them. But something about marriage often turns that around and makes us say, “Why does he have to be that way?” Our spouse’s needs once elicited feelings of nurture and compassion; now those same hurts tempt us toward bitterness and regret.
Before we get married is the time to make a character-based judgment (“Do I really want to live with this person’s wounds?”) Once the ceremony has ended, God challenges us to maintain an attitude of concern and nurture instead of resentment and frustration.
Can you maintain a soft heart over past hurts, patiently praying for long-term change? Or will you freeze your spouse in his or her weaknesses with judgment, resentment, condemnation, and criticism? Can you maintain a nurturing attitude instead of a judgmental one? Remember: this is a spouse you chose to marry. Will you abide by your own choice?
6) Accept the Biblical Call to Respect
Here’s what it comes down to. 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 unusually 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).
Your spouse, because he/she is your spouse, deserves respect. You may disagree with his judgment; you may object to the way she handles things—but according to the Bible, their position alone calls you to give them proper respect.
7) 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 can be a very practical tool in this regard. Simply 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 had 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 slip into what I call “brain suck.” I start 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.
I started thanking God for a quality in Lisa’s personality for which I feel very thankful. That reminded me of something else, which reminded me of something else, which reminded me of yet another quality. After about fifteen minutes, I literally 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 very 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.
8) Ask God to Change You
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 comes home and 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.
We’re All in This Together
Every one of us is married to an imperfect spouse. We confront different trials, different temptations, and different struggles—but each one of us faces the same reality: living as imperfect people, in an imperfect world, with an imperfect spouse. Learning to love, appreciate, and to be thankful for that imperfect spouse is one of the most soul-transforming things you can do. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s a profitable one, and I urge you to remain committed to it today.