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Reader Warning – This article does not apply to every marriage in trouble, specifically a marriage where the husband is abusive. The assumption I’m making is both spouses are maturing, humble, and willing to communicate on the level in which this concept requires. If either one is not these things, this idea will not work.
Paul answered the “how I compare myself to you” question in 1 Timothy 1:15 when he said he was the most significant sinner he knew. His assessment flies in the face of our self-esteem culture, which cannot handle this kind of biblical scrutiny.
The irony is how Paul’s view of himself is an honest, hope-filled assessment that leads to personal freedom and relational harmony.
Humble admission to the reality of who you are is the only way you will experience rescue from who you are (James 4:6). Paul was not discouraged by how he thought about himself. His “healthy view” was a robust platform upon which he could serve others, a platform you must erect if you want to help your husband.
If you understand how what you did to Christ is far worse than anything done to you, then you are positioned to be a powerful means of effectual grace in your husband’s life. You see this idea in Matthew 18:33:
Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow-servant, as I had mercy on you?”
The person that the master was talking to had more significant debt. The master released him, but he was beating up an individual with a smaller deficit. His question–should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had compassion on you?–is practically relevant. You could practicalize it by asking, from your perspective, who is the most prominent sinner you know?
If you are convinced your sin against God is more significant than anything ever done to you, there is no reason for you to be sinful toward others. Even if you cannot transact forgiveness because the offender is not asking, you should have an attitude of forgiveness toward him (Luke 23:34) while hoping God will grant repentance (2 Timothy 2:24-25) so you can transactionally forgive him.
An attitude of forgiveness is the antidote that will keep criticalness, bitterness, anger, and other spiteful characteristics from sabotaging your soul. You can have this kind of attitude if you have the right view of yourself.
To withhold kindness from someone who has sinned against you is a denial of the gospel you say you love (Romans 2:4, 5:8). Being unkind transgresses gospel lines (Ephesians 4:29).
Reader Warning – Abusive relationships are not biblical relationships. Therefore, a biblical process like this will not work. The classic manipulation of the abusive husband is to convince his wife that she is wrong and needs to repent while he continues his abuse. If the husband and wife do not love God and each other more than themselves, this process will not work.
Whenever you step outside biblical boundaries to acquire something you want, you have become idolatrous. Idolatry is an attitude of the heart that acts out in sinful ways to satisfy unrighteous desires.
Let Me Illustrate: A child wants a toy. It’s not an evil desire, but his parent does not give him the toy. The child throws a temper tantrum until the parent acquiesces. The attitude of the child’s heart turned evil because what he wanted was more important than anything else.
This behavior happens all the time in marriages, and a wife is particularly susceptible, especially if her husband is not learning, loving, or leading her according to her “biblical” expectations. The blindside is her desires are biblical.
Good desires not met put the wife on dangerous ground because of how easy it is to fall into the “unmet desires” trap. If she does not appropriate God’s power to her unmet “biblical” desires, it will only be a matter of time before she becomes critical, bitter, resentful, cynical, harsh, unkind, and full of regret.
She will need to do some soul work, which can begin by a robust self-assessment. For example, is she quicker to let herself off the hook than her husband? An ordinary human problem is glossing over personal sins while lingering long over the sins of others.
The temptation when a person does not receive their desires is to elevate the failures of the person who did not meet the wishes while downplaying any self-righteous judgments about that person. Sin comparing is a dangerous game.
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men (Luke 18:11).”
If you do not see yourself as the same as others, you will begin to elevate yourself above people, especially those who disappoint you. Nobody is better than anyone else, no matter how disappointing the other person is.
There is no biblical warrant to look down on another person as if that person is a worse sinner. Self-righteousness is the heart condition that exalts superior attitudes. God does not bless these attitudes (James 4:6).
To sin against someone in response to sin reveals a person’s authentic walk with Jesus while creating an awkward dualism with the person they sinned against in the relationship. I call this dualism the sinning/victim construct.
There are few discipling situations more challenging than the sinning/victim construct. It happens all the time. It’s the wife sharing how her husband sinned against her and her sinful responses to him.
It is a delicate process as you walk her through the complexities of what is wrong with the marriage. Part of what’s wrong with the marriage is her culpability in the deterioration of the marriage.
You cannot move too fast with this kind of person. You begin by carefully understanding her suffering while sympathetically listening to the hurt and fears she has experienced. Her pain is real. Her story is dark. And more than likely, she is correct: Her husband has been a problematic, insensitive person.
It’s essential you give her appropriate time and space to weep over and work through the disappointment that has characterized the marriage (Romans 12:15).
You do not want to introduce more tension into the narrative by addressing her culpability until you have competently, compassionately, and completely communicated your care for her (Romans 8:31).
You want to slowly bring her to the place where she can hear the whole truth about what is wrong with them. Your goal is to position her heart to receive God’s full help, not just fixing her husband.
These good things can happen if she will simultaneously (1) grieve over the brokenness (2) while taking her soul to task to fix what she can change about herself.
The most common question about this type of marriage is, “How do I do this?” The first step is to make sure she is not complicating the problem through personal sinfulness.
As you are doing this, you must discern how God is guiding you (John 16:13) while trusting Him to work through you to restore her back to Him and her husband.
One of the things you don’t want to do is assume both spouses will repent and live happily ever after. Your marriage is not a movie. It’s real life.
Scriptwriters do not factor in how the doctrine of sin practically works out in our lives. They are making movies. Every story does not end according to how you want it to stop. You are not in control of the narrative (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
Sin is messy, and there will be times when things are not made right. Families do divide. Marriages do fail. Christ experienced crucifixion (Isaiah 53:10). Counseling does not assure preferred outcomes.
It is possible the husband never becomes what the wife wants him to be (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). This possibility is where the wife of an unchanging husband needs the gospel in a different kind of way. The gospel can give her what she needs to find restoration, and it can give her all she needs to live in an unreconciled situation with her husband (2 Peter 1:3). There are two options to consider:
Attitudinal forgiveness does not release him from his sin, but it can release her from it–at least in her heart. The best she may be able to do is free herself from his sin because he chooses never to be free.
This issue is where the “victim person” will have to work hard to guard her heart against being a sinful, self-righteous person. God does not grade on a curve.
Nobody receives special favor with God as though one person is better than someone else–we’re all rotten to the core and stand in need of His favor (Isaiah 64:6). There are only two grades of people:
I was a depraved human that God regenerated by grace (Romans 3:12). My good fortune did not come because I turned over a new leaf and became a good person. My redemption and ongoing restoration to God is an undeserved gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-10).
I have no right to think my effort makes me better than you. If my works are good, it is because God works through me. He is good. I am bad. Paul could not be more explicit:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12).
We are not allowed to grade each other on a curve so we can feel better about ourselves while belittling others. You and I are bad to the bone. We are simultaneously sinners and victims.
Though some sins are consequentially worse than others, we know that any sin is big enough to put Christ on the cross (James 2:10). It is this kind of gospel-informed thinking that releases you from being controlled by the sins of others, primarily by disappointing people who never change.
If you understand and apply these truths, you will be positioned in the best possible place to help your spouse overcome the things that disrupt your marriage. I’m not saying your husband will change.
I am saying you can rise above the fray by living a gospel-centered life. Here are a few questions I hope will help you practicalize the gospel in your life and 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).