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Reader Warning: There are many types of unchangeable circumstances. Yours is probably different from the one I’m presenting in this chapter. If so, ask the Father to help you see how you can apply these ideas to your life. If you have a specific question, please ask me on our Discuss page or our supporting member forum.
Biff and Mable have been struggling in their marriage for a long time. Biff gets quiet, and Mable gets loud. This method is their standard endless loop of perpetuated interaction. After years of trying and failing, they lost hope that things would ever change. As a last-ditch effort, they came to counseling. Though their hearts were not in the counseling, they were willing to give it a try.
Biff wanted Mable to change, while Mable was frustrated with how Biff’s ability to change moved at the speed of a tortoise. She got mad. He was mentally disengaged. The beat went on.
After listening to them talk (argue), posture for personal rights, and critique each other for a while, I finally told Mable her plan was not working and recommended a new one.
I described her plan as something like two trains headed toward each other at full throttle. They collide. My train illustration is her getting mad and Biff getting quiet.
Her anger does not mean she is the blame more than Biff. It does not matter who is the most blame. The main thing, at least at this point, is addressing their personal stubbornness and anger.
After the trains collide, they go back to their separate stations, and in a day or two, they restart their engines only to run full throttle into each other again. They have been going through this routine for over a decade.
Interestingly, Mable has read half-dozen books on overcoming anger, while Biff has done little to change the spiritual climate in their home.
I told Mable the first place to start is to stop reading all those how to overcome anger, how to jump-start your marriage books. They are not going to work for her. The problem is not primarily her anger or failing marriage. It’s her expectation for a different kind of marriage.
As long as she thinks her situation must change, the more she will build up a head of steam and run full throttle into her husband. Result: He will sulk, she will stew, and they both will do it all over again tomorrow.
But all three of those things are sustained and perpetuated by her expectation (and even demand) for something different. Again, her expectations do not place the blame on her. It’s an appeal to think about how expectations, no matter how aligned they may be with the Bible’s expectations, can derail your heart.
Just because you want what the Bible teaches, it does not mean you will get it. Jesus wanted to live. That was not the narrative His Father had in mind. There are two ditches you must avoid:
In between those two ditches is a practical faith that allows you to be a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) while entrusting yourself to Him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:20-25). The only way to find that sweet spot is through the door of death (Hebrews 2:14-15; Luke 14:26-27).
I told her how things would be easier to understand and accept if she was in a car wreck and relegated to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. A person receiving bad news of this nature would eventually realize how their situation is unchangeable. It is “easier” to get over the disappointment that is final than it is to get over the disappointment of something that could change.
The problem with Mable is she expects her husband to be a spiritual leader. She expects him to be nice, to love her like Christ, and to rear their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). She expects him to set the spiritual tone in the home by fighting sin while modeling Jesus (Ephesians 5:1). She expects to have a Christ-centered home.
Can you see how she has set herself up for disappointment, anger, and possible bitterness? The longer she clings to her expectations, the deeper she will find herself in the slough of despond. It reminds me of Paul “counseling” the Corinthian church.
He knew he couldn’t over-focus on how they were messing things up while doggedly expecting them to change into God-glorifying, gospel-focused, other-centered Christians. It’s like a few counseling sessions I have had.
If I become bound to the expectation that a person’s change into Christlikeness is the only thing that will make me happy, I am going to be in deep emotional weeds. The temptation to sin against them would be inevitable, and my disappointment would only grow.
I have learned–somewhat imperfectly–that I am not called to change people. I am called to love God and others while not hanging emotionally charged expectations on their change (1 Corinthians 3:6). And yes, I’m aware it’s easier for me to be this way with people I don’t live with, but you need to know I do live with individuals who do not always meet my expectations or time frames.
God did not promise I would receive everything I desired when I desired it, and how I desired it. In fact, He promised something entirely the opposite. He promised a boatload of problems. Not just one boatload but many. (See Genesis 3:14, 3:16, 3:17-18)
You will know if you have forgotten about the Christian’s thorn and thistle theology by how you respond to the personal suffering that comes into your life. Both Biff and Mable were resisting this aspect of their death walk with Christ (Luke 9:23).
If God would write “execute my Son” into the story of Christ’s life, do you think it is out of the realm of possibility that He might write something into your life that you might not like (Isaiah 53:10; Luke 22:42)?
Whenever you sin, whether it is the anger of silent treatment (Biff) or the anger of loudness (Mable), you are revealing your thoughts about the Author of your story.
Biff and Mable were eaten up and ticked off by what they could see. Biff lost hope that things would change, so he keeps to himself. Mable lost hope things would change, so she yells at Biff. Think again about the two trains on an inevitable head-on collision course. Now think about it repeatedly happening for over a decade. Would you lose hope? I would.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.
For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Biff and Mable have lost hearts. They are looking at the outer nature of things–the things they can see, the things that are unchangeable, the things that are wasting away. They realize how they can’t fix the other person or their marriage.
For them, it is not so much about their bodies as Paul was referring to, as it is about the wasting away of their marriage and family. Each time they take a survey of their home life, they become discouraged (or angry).
They have habituated themselves into extreme negativity. Just one look at what Biff and Mable can see and the two trains take off toward each other. Because of their fixation on what they want, neither one of them will be satisfied until they get it. Thus, they choose to bite and devour each other (Galatians 5:15).
Think through some of the Bible characters and re-imagine what their lives would have been like if they responded to their problems like Biff and Mable.
For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.
They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth (Hebrews 11:32-38).
Take note of a few ideas that describe their worldview and compare them to how you think about the hardships that are happening to you.
Their predecessor, Moses, responded similarly to the life-altering events the Lord wrote into his story. Take a look at how he thought about and responded to his unchangeable situation.
By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible (Hebrews 11:27).
The only way Biff and Mable are going to endure is if they make a real, volitional, and practical decision to take their eyes off what they can see and choose to keep their eyes on Who they cannot see.
If Biff and Mable do not realign their sights to something more eternal–their great invisible God–they will continue to spiral into relational dysfunction and conflict. Their marriage will not be able to sustain many more of these train collisions.
For the record, the collision they keep having with each other is not really about running into another train at all. It is the hand of God that stands in opposition to both of them (James 4:6).
If there is any hope for their unchangeable situation changing, one or both of them will have to change tracks by doing things God’s way. Sinful methods will never gain the favor of God.
Warning: It may not be God’s will to change your spouse (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Deuteronomy 29:29). Every person does not pursue righteousness (Revelation 20:15).
Though you know this theological truth and probably do not struggle with it in theory, you will be challenged at the deepest level of your soul if the unchanging person is in your life. It is within the realm of possibility for the Lord to use an imperfect marriage for purposes you cannot perceive right now.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
If you are in a miserable marriage, your first call to action is to fight for contentment in your soul before you engage your spouse to change. The hardest battle you will ever fight is a God plus nothing life experience.
What can you do? – James said if you know what to do but do not do it, then it is a sin (James 4:17). With that in mind, is there something you need to do in your marriage that could make it better? How do you need to change to put Christ on display in your marriage?
What are your motives? – While a good motivation is to improve your marriage, your first and most important motive must be to glorify God regardless of the outcome (1 Corinthians 10:31). You will know if your primary motive is about changing your marriage or glorifying God by how you respond when someone does not meet your expectations.
How do you respond? – When you do the right thing in your marriage, but the results are disappointing, how do you respond? If you respond poorly, how do you need to change?
Take your thoughts captive – As you think about the possibility of your situation never changing, what goes through your mind? How is God meeting you while you’re not getting what you want from Him or your relationship? Read my article on how to take your thoughts captive.
Do not do this alone – God made you for a community. Your marriage is your first community. Then your church.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).