The vicar in a small British village had heard enough of Jean’s complaints. “All I’ve been hearing is continual carping about how awful it has been for you being married to Reg, how mean and bad-tempered he is. I’m fed up with hearing the same old thing week in and week out. I don’t want to hear any more. Before we go on, I want you to go into the church and ask God to show you just what life must have been like for Reg and why he’s become as he is.”
Jean found herself “dumbfounded.” “How could a man who called himself a priest be so unchristian and insensitive?…Of course he was a man—men do stick together. He probably thought it was the woman’s fault, as always!”
But then Jean went into the church to pray.
At first, she recited to God all the good things Reg had going for him, including a sexually willing wife—what more could he want? What was his problem, God?
Once Jean’s opinions ran out, God’s thoughts crept in. God reminded Jean that two months after their wedding, Reg’s partners in his advertising firm misspent company assets, forcing them out of business and Reg out of an income. Jean became disabled shortly thereafter and lost her job as well, leaving Reg and Jean all but homeless.
Then, Reg’s mother died, suddenly and unexpectedly. With little time to grieve, Reg had to find a place for his family to live, so they moved to Cornwall, but that didn’t work out, forcing Reg to move his family back to his father’s rather dank and dark house in London (which was more humiliating in the seventies than it would be today).
Jean found herself speechless as this account rolled through her mind. She had been so full of words with the vicar—with God, not so much.
“As I sat there in that church, looking back into the past, it slowly dawned on me how all this must have affected Reg. His dreams had all been shattered in two short months—firm collapsed, mother dead, home gone—and he was back where he had started. He must have felt an utter failure. No wonder he seemed to turn against me and his son. He had to use us as a fuse or he would have blown his mind.”
It’s painful for me to copy that last sentence. No, Reg didn’t have to use his family as a fuse, but let’s allow Jean to finish her story, because that’s the main point: “I’d never before thought about any situation from another person’s viewpoint. I’d never experienced such hurt as I now began to feel on Reg’s behalf—my own hurts, hates and frustrations seemed nothing in comparison. Tears ran down my cheeks for him and all the unspoken feelings which he’d obviously had no idea how to cope with.”
In prayer, Jean’s angry accusations transformed themselves into tears of empathy. She was no longer a prosecuting attorney; in prayer, she became his counselor of defense.
This is the journey marriage calls us to, to seek to understand, to seek to empathize, to strive to become a redemptive partner rather than a legal opponent. We must be for our spouse, as God is for us (Romans 8:31), as God was for us even in our sins.
Evil in my spouse can’t be excused, but it can be understood. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. I don’t want any wife to try to “explain away” physical or sexual abuse, for instance. But marriage does call us to at least try to understand our spouse’s struggles as God understands them—looking through the kindly paternal eyes of our loving heavenly father instead of through our angry resentful eyes of judgmentalism.
Have you ever gone into prayer and asked God to show you why your spouse—His son or His daughter—acts the way he or she does? You’re not looking for an excuse—there usually is none—but for a reason, and that’s an important difference. We can have empathy for someone even while despising what they are doing. We can completely disagree with their response even as we feel for their pain.
That’s the key—God never loses His empathy for His children, even as He truly hates when we sin or hurt others. We must not lose our empathy either, especially for our spouse. When we go into prayer as Jean went into prayer, if we will listen, God can help us see the “other side”—that is, the burden and hurts of our spouse, instead of being consumed by our burdens and hurt.
Try this; set some time aside in the next few days. If you have to spill out your frustrations and accusations to clear your mind, have at it. God is big enough to handle it. But stay on your knees long enough for God to wait until you’re finished, and then listen to His still small voice as He re-directs your thoughts to see your spouse’s life as God has seen it—the hurts, the struggles, the disappointments, the heartaches. This doesn’t mean there will be no consequences to our spouse’s actions, but it does mean we will feel differently about those consequences and let them unfold with an entirely different motivation—a holy one.
It is God’s call, and our privilege, to let God so transform us that we can respond to evil with a holy, empathetic heart.