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If someone placed you under the scrutiny of a Relationship Competency Exam, how would you do? Do you qualify to lead a wife? Do you qualify to follow a husband?
The closest thing we have to this in our Christian culture is premarital counseling, but that is mostly a collection of meetings to rubber-stamp the inevitable. The young couple may be trying to listen, but the outcome is already predetermined—they are going to get married no matter what you say.
I’m not seriously suggesting a Relationship Competency Exam, but I am suggesting we need to give more attention to what it means to be a spouse. There needs to be more mature critique and practical solutions to the real problem of marriage dysfunction.
I’m not speaking about marriage dysfunction among the unregenerate. The world’s problem is easy to understand—they must be born again (John 3:7). I’m talking to the born-again ones—those who say God is their King, and they are willingly giving up everything to follow Him.
Those are the ones that I interact with weekly. They come for help because one or both partners do not know how to be a spouse. There is a significant competency problem in these Christian marriages. They do not “qualify” to be married.
It’s a general assumption that you know how to be a husband if you’re a male. And if you’re a female, you know how to be a wife. Not true. The current divorce rate would say that it is a false continuum–being male equals being a good husband.
The truth is, being a male or female does not automatically promote you to a competent husband or wife status. There is more involved in qualifying for marriage.
I have written scores of articles on being a husband or wife, but I want to take a slightly different approach in this post. I want to take Peter’s word—understand—and unpack it, not just for the husband to learn, but for the wife to learn as well.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7).
The word understand means precisely what you think it means. It means to understand. Do you understand your spouse? In this case, I’m asking the husband and the wife. Do you understand the person you married?
Do you know you married damaged goods? How well do you understand this? If you do not understand this, there is a good possibility you’re going to mess up things.
This kind of knowledge and the willingness and humility to act on this knowledge is marriage-altering. It reminds me of the movie The Hurt Locker. It was about a three-person Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team during the Iraq War.
They would go into a town, hoping to defuse a bomb. Marriage can be like that. If you don’t know whether to cut the blue wire or the red wire, there might be an explosion in your home.
This problem is what can make dating so foolish for some people. If half the current marriages blow up (divorce), how in the world can a teenager understand the intricacies of the opposite sex? It’s setting them up for failure.
I’m aware some exceptional teens already know all you can know about the opposite sex. Omniscient is a marvelous thing—unless you’re not. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say most kids have not hit the level of omniscience, and there is more “operative ignorance” than real biblical understanding.
The first time we were damaged was at our birth. We were born corrupt, bent toward sin, tempted to fear, and covered in shame. We came into this world messed up. Did you know your spouse entered into this world like you: messed up? (Read Romans 3:10-12, 5:12.)
Yep, you married damaged goods. Nobody gets a free pass on this one, except the Savior of the world—He was without sin. We all came out of our mother’s wombs speaking lies. We’re “totally depraved”—sinful through and through. (Read Psalm 58:3; Job 5:7.)
How well do you understand this, and how comfortable are you helping your spouse overcome the damage they received at the hands of Adam and Eve? Because your spouse is a unique individual, how discerning (understanding) are you regarding the specific and particular ways your spouse has been messed up?
Everybody comes out of the womb messed up, but nobody comes out messed up the same way. Though we are depraved, our fallenness manifests differently. Your spouse is unique and needs individual discipleship care to become Christlike. God calls you to discern where your spouse is and help bring them from that point to Christlikeness.
I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Galatians 4:19).
Paul was in anguish as he thought about how to help the Christians of Galatia. He wanted them to get to the place where there was a mature formation of Christ in them. I think most Christian parents understand this when it comes to their children.
Many of them spend a lot of time thinking, worrying, praying, and fretting over their children, hoping there will be the forming of Christ in them. I wonder how many spouses spend that kind of intellectual energy thinking about how to help their spouses have Christ formed in them.
The biggest problem that hinders this kind of humble discipleship is a person’s breaking of the two greatest commandments. They are to love God and to love others (Matthew 22:36-40). It is hard for some partners to put their spouses before themselves.
Too many of them demand what they want while relegating their role as a discipler to an unimportant function. Nothing will blow up a marriage quicker than self-centeredness.
Selfishness is contrary to the gospel. The gospel teaches us how to set aside our desires to help a broken person. This concept is what Christ did, and this is what He expects us to do.
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility, count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others. He was in the form of God but set that aside to become the form of a servant to transform us, who were damaged by Adam. His work is the gospel (Philippians 2:3-10).
Most of my marriage counseling is spent trying to press this kind of gospel thinking into the minds of folks in trouble. Not until they get the gospel right will they get their marriage right. You cannot fix your relationship, no matter how loud you yell or how much you demand. Your spouse was wholly and utterly broken down by Adam, and she needs your help to overcome it. Do you understand this?
In some ways, this problem in your marriage is not about you. It’s about your spouse and Adam: their pre-existing condition. Someone else caused the work you have to do. Getting angry about the state of your spouse is not a wise approach to redemptive care.
There is a possibility your spouse had terrific parents and grew up in a near-perfect setting. Even so, the world damaged your spouse. We call this their shaping influences. They are those things that happen to us that shape us into the adults we are today. Sadly, most of us who came into this world damaged by Adam incur more damage by the nonsense that came into our lives as youngsters.
Typically, the negative influences in our lives are more significant than the positive ones. The condition of the human race is bent toward selfishness, which tends to leave children in vulnerable and hurt places. We understand the worst of the cases where sexual abuse and rape are involved. But the more common types of shaping influences are distant or angry dads and demanding or distracted moms.
Most of us did not have horrible backgrounds, but we were damaged nonetheless, even if in subtle ways. My wife grew up in a Christian home, and she talks glowingly about her childhood, but she was also negatively affected by her childhood.
Our children are no different. No child will get from birth to marriage without being messed up in some way by the shaping influences in their lives. It’s not possible. We’re sinful people, living among other fallen individuals, in a sinful world. And there are demonic influences whose main job is to destroy lives.
You’d have about as much of a chance to walk through a car wash and not get wet as you would have of not being shaped adversely by our corrupt world. The nature of sin and the tactics of the devil will not give you a free pass. By the time you get to the marriage altar, there will be double damage.
It is hard for me to guard my heart in some marriage situations where the spouses refuse to understand what I’m saying here. For example, the angry husband or the demanding wife, who refuses to be governed by the selflessness of the gospel, is challenging to help.
This behavior has a triple damaging effect on the recipient—damaged by Adam, the world, and the spouse. I have done this to my wife too. In the first five years of our marriage, I was not attentive to her by applying what I’m writing here. While I did not abuse her in the sense that people understand that word, I was not mature in my care for her.
I did not truly understand her the way I needed to know her. The other complicating factor was my ongoing demands for her to “meet my desires” first. I was more preoccupied with how she responded to me than how I systematically, intentionally, and purposely got into her business. I did not approach her like the boys in The Hurt Locker.
I lacked attention to detail, as well as the application of kindness. Lucia felt it too. One of the main ways I did not serve her was my lack of confession of sin against her. In the first five years of our marriage, I did not confess a single transgression to her or ask her to forgive me for them.
If I were genuinely interested in her, I would have been quick to remove the sins I placed on her. It’s like a teen and his car. He’s careful to keep his car clean. Whenever there is a spot on it, he’s quick to remove it.
If I cared about my wife, I would have been quick to remove the sin I placed on her. How fast are you to remove your iniquities from your spouse? Think about defiling a double-damaged person. It’s digging a deeper hole and causing a more complicating effect.
Here are six things you can do to reverse the curse on your spouse.
Concur – First of all, agree that your spouse is messed up. She (or he) is not entirely sanctified. There are things wrong with her. What are those things? Can you identify them?
Confess – Make sure you are not compounding the situation by adding your nonsense to her problems. Lead her in confessing your sin and seeking her forgiveness. Seek God’s too.
Communicate – Once you adjust your mind to the reality of her struggles and temptations while humbling and repenting, start talking about how you can serve her. Tell her your intentions, and you both collaborate on a plan for sanctification.
Collaborate – Your collaboration must be practical. Much of this plan will regularly be talking. One of the best things you can do for your spouse is to talk to her.
Community – Let others into your world. Let them know you are like them—sinners in need of a grace-filled community to help you change. The nature of sin is to isolate. Don’t fall for this trick of the devil. Bring your sin and your marriage into the light of a small community of friends.
Continue – After you place this article aside, continue to think about and discuss the things in it. Develop your plan and implement it. Here are some things we do.
These ideas are not God’s way—in that the Bible does not say, “This is the way, walk in it,” but it is our way—a way we can practically apply the gospel to our lives and marriage. My hope is this will give you clarity on what you can emulate in your marriage:
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).