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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. Paul’s self-assessment flies in the face of our self-esteem culture, which cannot handle this kind of biblical ego chastening. The irony is how Paul’s view of himself is an honest, hope-filled assessment that leads to personal freedom and relational harmony. It is honest because the biblical record is clear—we are unworthy sinners who put Christ on the cross (Romans 3:10-12). It is hope-filled because Christ came to free sinners from captivity (Luke 19:10). Humble admissions to the reality of who we are is the only way we will experience rescue from who we are (James 4:6).
Paul was not discouraged by how he thought about himself. His healthy view became a robust platform upon which he could love God and others most effectively, a platform a wife should construct to help her husband mature into a God-honoring leader. If she understands how what she did to Christ is far worse than anything anyone has done to her, she will position herself as a powerful means of effectual grace in her 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 than the fellow he was beating up, but the master released the greater debtor. His question—should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had compassion on you?—is practically relevant for all of us. We can practicalize it by asking—from our perspective—who is the most prominent sinner we know? From Paul’s perspective, it was him. From my perspective, it is me. What about you? Who is the biggest sinner that you know—from your perspective? I trust you would argue Paul and me down from our chief sinner seats, recognizing that you are the chief of all the sinners.
If we are convinced our sin against God is more significant than anything ever done to us, there is no reason for us to be sinful toward others. Even if we cannot transact forgiveness because the offender is not asking, we should have an attitude of forgiveness toward those who have sinned against us (Luke 23:34) while hoping God will grant repentance to them (2 Timothy 2:24-25) so we can transactionally forgive them. An attitude of forgiveness spills out of the chief sinner’s heart, becoming the antidote that keeps him from criticalness, bitterness, anger, and other spiteful characteristics from sabotaging his soul. We can have this attitude if we have the correct view of ourselves. To withhold a heart of pity and forgiveness from someone who has sinned against us denies the gospel we say we love (Romans 2:4, 5:8). Unkindness transgresses gospel lines (Ephesians 4:29).
We become idolatrous whenever we step outside biblical boundaries to acquire something we want. Idolatry is an attitude of the heart that acts sinfully to satisfy unrighteous desires. For example, 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 consents. The attitude of the child’s heart turned evil because what he wanted was more important than honoring or respecting a fellow image-bearer. The child’s behavior too often happens 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 that her desire for a biblical marriage is appropriate, proper, and something she should expect.
Good desires not met put the wife on dangerous ground because she is a hairsbreadth from falling into the unmet desires trap. Suppose 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 significant soul work, which starts with a robust self-assessment of who she is in light of the gospel’s narrative. For example, is she quicker to let herself off the hook than her husband? A common problem is glossing over our sins while lingering long over the sins of others. The temptation is that when a person does not get what they want, they will elevate the unmet craving over any self-righteous judgments or sinful reactions toward the person who did not come through for them. They are playing a dangerous sin-comparing 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).”
Suppose we do not see ourselves as similar in kind to others—from an Imago Dei perspective. In that case, we will elevate ourselves above those who disappoint us (James 3:9). No matter how disappointing the other person is, no one is better than anyone else. There is no biblical warrant to look down on another person. Self-righteousness is the heart condition that exalts superior attitudes toward others. God does not bless these attitudes (James 4:6). To sin against someone in response to their sin reveals a person’s adverse, albeit, authentic walk with Jesus while creating an awkward dualism with the person they sinned against in the relationship. This dualism is the sinning victim construct. There are few discipling situations more challenging than the sinning victim. It happens too often.
For example, a wife shares how her husband sinned against her and her sinful responses to him. He has sinned against her, making her a victim. She sins against him in response, making her a sinner. It is a delicate process as you walk her through what is wrong with the marriage. Part of the problem is her culpability in the deterioration of the marriage. You cannot move too fast with this knowledge because she will misunderstand you, perceiving you as harsh with your accusation and assuming you do not recognize what her husband did to her. Thus, 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.
More than likely, she is correct: Her husband has been mean and insensitive toward her. You must give her appropriate time and space to weep over and work through the disappointment that has characterized their marriage (Romans 12:15). You do not want to prematurely introduce more tension into the narrative by addressing her guilt until you have competently, compassionately, and thoroughly 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 their covenant. Your ultimate goal is to position her heart to receive God’s help, not just fix her husband.
These good things can happen if she grieves over the disorderedness in his soul and their marriage while taking her soul to task by fixing what she can about herself. You want her to grieve but not fall into despair. You want her to correct unbiblical thinking but not crush her spirit (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20). The most common question about the process is, “How do I do this?” The first step is to ensure she is not complicating the problem through personal sinfulness. As you do this, you must discern how God desires to guide you (John 16:13) while trusting Him to work through you to restore her as the precursor to working on what’s wrong with him.
If she is going to be a gentle restorer of her husband, she must keep watch over her soul, ensuring the evil one has not entrapped her (Galatians 6:1-3). Don’t assume she is ready to be part of God’s restoration team when sin is harboring in her heart. It would help if you also let her know that they will not likely simultaneously repent during this season. Their marriage is not a happily-ever-after 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, but in real life, every story does not end according to how you want it. We are not in control of the narrative (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). Sin is messy, and there will be times when things do not end with everyone smiling, hugging, and heading over the horizon as the sun fades to black. Families do divide. Marriages do fail.
Christ experienced crucifixion (Isaiah 53:10). Counseling does not assure preferred outcomes. The husband may never become what the wife wants (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). This potential is where the wife of an unchanging man needs gospel clarity. 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 for her: If her husband does not repent, will she forgive him attitudinally? If her husband does repent, will she forgive him transactionally? Attitudinal forgiveness is about her heart’s attitude toward him; perchance he does not change. She does not want his unrepentant sin to manage her. Thus, the best she can do is free herself from his sin. She can be free even if he never chooses to be free.
The challenge in an unchanging marriage is whether the “victim” will do the work to guard their heart against being a sinful, self-righteous person. God does not grade on a curve. Nobody receives special favor from God as though one person is better than someone else; we’re all rotten to the core and require the Lord’s favor (Isaiah 64:6). There are only two grades of people: The Father gives us an F-. He gives His Son an A+. 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 anyone. If my works are good, it is because God works through me. He is good.
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 cannot grade each other on a curve to feel better about ourselves while belittling others. We are bad to the bone. We are simultaneously sinners and victims. Though some sins are consequentially worse than others, we must recognize that any sin is significant enough to put Christ on the cross (James 2:10). This kind of gospel-informed thinking releases us from being controlled by the sins of others, especially by disappointing people who never change.
If you understand and practically 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 spouse will change, but you can rise above the fray by living a gospel-centered life that recognizes that God made both of you in the Imago Dei. It’s never right to sin in response to sin. You can forgive in your heart regardless of what the other person does, and with a spirit of humility, you’re in the best place to courageously and compassionately confront, correct, care for, and compel your spouse to change their ways. If they do not choose to change, you will have no regret because you’ve done all that depends on you to be the most effective spouse you can be (Romans 12:18).
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).