I participated in a Q&A recently where a woman anonymously submitted this question:
The Word instructs wives to submit to their husband’s and RESPECT them. How can I respect a man who is not respectable in my eyes?
Bigger Picture Advice
First, my big picture advice was this: Be willing to go to your pastor or a godly couple in the church to talk these things through. The local church is designed to help us walk through life issues just like this. Marriage is not easy. It does not float off into the sunset on a Nicholas Sparks sailboat. Marriage requires hard work. However, it is good, and it is a sacred bond between a man and a woman that is worth fighting for. I didn’t say fighting each other! I mean it is worth making the intentional effort to preserve, no matter what.
Also, sin issues can arise in a marriage that need to be dealt with in a biblical manner in the local church. They need to be lovingly confronted just like any other sin. There may be patterns of behavior that a spouse is exhibiting that others are noticing whereby people in the church must be loving enough to confront the sin issue.
More often than not, however, there is something else that can be done. How do we really go about changing our spouse? If the husband isn’t leading well enough or if the wife isn’t submitting well enough, what do we do to fix it? Should the husband just go vent to his guy friends? Does the wife just need a girl’s night out to complain a little? Should we call someone else in to prove us right and our spouse wrong?
Work on You
Here is, in my opinion, which I feel is both biblical, and extremely practical advice:
Take the focus off the other person for a moment. (Maybe a long moment!)
Again, I’m not saying there aren’t serious issues that arise in a marriage that need to be dealt with by going to counseling with your pastor or even confronting particular sin issues. But here’s what I’m saying for you today: focus on your sanctification for a season. Consider what needs to change in you.
You see, marriage is a beautiful covenant between two broken people. The only marriage ever to occur between two non-sinners happened at the end of Genesis 2. And it took less than a whole chapter for that to mess up. In this cursed world, marriage is messy because each spouse is a sinner.
Paul exhorts husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:22,25 “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord…Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Paul doesn’t say “Wives, work on your husbands” or “Husbands, fix your wives.” He addresses the wives to submit, and the husbands to love. Sufficient for the respective spouse is the weight of each command without adding the pressure of carrying the other’s failures too.
No Exception Clauses
Often times in marriage disagreements I hear the wife say something like “I would follow you if you would lead better” or the husband says “I would lead better if you’d submit better.” Yet, here is another important reality of Ephesians 5: There are no exception clauses.
Paul doesn’t say only love perfect wives, or only submit to perfect husbands, for if he did, these exhortations would be completely meaningless! It’s not the lovely wives that are to be loved or the respectable husbands that are to be respected (see this similar post). That’s not what Paul says. He says to wives, submit to your own husbands and to husbands, love your wives. We can’t weasel out of these commands by claiming that our spouse is imperfect.
In fact, in other places in Scripture, all Christians are told to submit to governmental leaders (1 Peter 2:13ff) and we know that the leaders of the New Testament era were certainly not Christians. The point being, instead of waiting around on your spouse to do what they are supposed to do, first focus on doing what you are supposed to do, as plainly revealed in the Bible. You don’t have to pray about God’s will for how He wants you to act in your marriage – He’s already shown you!
The Fullness of Christ
Let the fullness of Christ in you spill over into your marriage relationship. Focus on being the spouse God has called you to be first, in your particular role. No, you can’t be perfect, but there are areas we can all grow in. There are areas you can grow in today.
Wives, follow your husband’s leadership even if it is imperfect. This doesn’t mean you have to be a ‘slave’ or do something that Christ forbids, but it does mean that you can follow in areas your husband is leading even if you don’t always agree. Honor him. Encourage him. Don’t make his obedience to Christ, or lack thereof, your joy, or lack thereof. Cultivate joy in Christ above all else.
Husbands, love your wives even if they are contentious (My friend Jim Elliff recently wrote an excellent article about the sad story of James Fraser). Does not Christ continually love the church even though she is imperfect? Is He not full of grace toward Her? Did He not give up His life for Her? Strive to love your wife that way, even if she balks sometimes. You keep doing what God has called you to do. Encourage her. Buy her small gifts unexpectedly. Send her thoughtful text messages. Love her well.
None of this is to imply that the other person doesn’t need work too. In fact, I may not know your spouse personally, but I already know this one truth: he or she does need work. Why? Your wife, or your husband, is a fallen human being! If he or she is a Christian though, I am certain that your joy in Christ will eventually rub off (of course, marriage counseling might be a tremendous help too. And there is no shame in wanting to work on your marriage through biblical counseling!).
Most importantly, let your fullness in Christ spill over. Let your meditations on Scripture, and prayer, and love for the local church pour over in your life so that your husband or wife sees your joy and love for Christ. May your witness show them that obedience to Christ brings delight. If they are not a Christian, your fullness in Christ might just win them to the Lord (see 1 Peter 3:1).
Now, don’t try this for two weeks and then say “Well, I tried to change you by changing me and not even that worked!” First and foremost do this for the glory of God. Wives, submit to your husbands for the glory of God. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church for the glory of God. Commit yourself to being the godliest spouse you can be for the glory of God.
As you strive to do what Scripture teaches regarding your specific role in marriage, pray for your spouse. Pray that they would understand the role God has for them as well; that the gospel would continually work in their hearts. Pray that you would love and cherish them as the gift they really are to you. Pray that they would seek to live for God’s glory too.
Finally, let me appeal to you that you need help outside of your marriage. Even the best and godliest marriages need the consistent encouragement, exhortations, and examples of other marriages within the local church. They need regular fellowship with other godly couples, and men need time with men, and women with women, to grow in godliness in the context of our respective marriage roles and life in Christ in general (see Titus 2).
Additionally, the regular intake of Scripture in the context of the corporate gathering of the local church is vital to any marriage. Furthermore, seasons in marriage do arrive where godly counseling, a marriage retreat, or an intentional date night/getaway may help. Be willing to be humble enough to invest in your marriage in all of these areas. It’s that important. If your spouse isn’t willing to commit to these things, you must not walk away. You keep pursuing Christ. And thank the Lord for giving you such an instrument of sanctification in your life!
Marriage is hard work. But the hardest work might be overcoming your own pride and seeking the Lord to work in your life before you worry about what your spouse needs to fix. However, your relationship to Christ and your spouse are each worth it.