Sally was born in a verbally abusive home. Her daddy was a strong-willed man who controlled others. He doled out critique like it was candy and Sally was the main recipient of his hate speech.
Each unkind word was like a paper cut on her heart and by the time she became a teenager, the wounds were too deep to heal. She tried to circumvent his anger by being perfect, but the barrage was too much for her. She wilted under the pressure she placed on herself to be perfect.
Her husband married her because she was beautiful, but he did not perceive the depth of the hurt she carried. He was a Christian and had a passion for the LORD, but he was not perfect either. He struggled with anger.
Though her father and husband were different, it was more of the same. Manure can be shoveled from a barn or perfume factory, but it’s still manure. Because of Sally’s sin training she reverted to her old responses in her new marriage.
Like Pavlov’s dog, who salivates each time he hears the ringing of the bell, Sally’s soul withdrew little by little under the anger and critique of her husband. Sometimes she would lash out and fight fire with fire. Other times she turned her fear inward.
She hoped she could leave her fear of man at the marriage altar, but it did not work out that way. She is now forty-three, married for the past 20 years, and the knot inside of her continues to twist tighter and tighter.
Fear of man
Sally’s core issue could be stated as having fear of man. Proverbs 29:25 tells us what that is and I’ve written several articles on this universal struggle that we all labor to overcome.
Sally would have liked to be approved or accepted by her father. This cannot happen now since he passed away three years ago. Though he is gone, her desire to be treasured is still alive.
Today, she craves a similar kind of approval from her husband. We could argue over the merits of this desire: is it an idol, a craving, a lust, or all three? Is it a legitimate, God-given desire? You can read more about these arguments in my work on needs vs. desires.
The main point for now is she wants to be valued by her husband. This craving for his positive assessments tied to his impatient anger toward her have worked together to bind her heart.
Rather than perceiving and shepherding this problem out of her, Bob has complicated her struggle. There is dual-culpability that lands in the lap of both marriage partners.
One of Sally’s responses to compensate for the hurt and fear she carries in her soul is to be critical, particularly of her husband. This is easy for her to do because God has given her the ability to think in a way in which her husband does not think.
Rather than knowing how to use her strengths to mature the marriage, Sally has used them against him. This is her way of doing to him what he had done to her–make him feel small through critique.
Because she wants to be approved and her husband does not do this well, Sally can feel better about herself by bringing negative critique to her husband. One of the techniques for a person who craves approval is to figure out a way to affirm themselves.
They find something they can do well and then use it as a weapon–like what Sally is doing to Bob. Sally can feel superior in some ways to her husband. She does not do this with clearheaded premeditation. It is more of a learned behavior that is disconnected from conscious thought.
Her form of self-righteousness is born out of deep hurt, anger, bitterness, and un-forgiveness toward her dad. Because she never secured full victory over her sin, it had a dulling effect on her mind–just enough for her to not see clearly how she is complicating her marriage.
I will fight you
You don’t typically think of a person who struggles with fear of man as a battler, but Sally is one. When she is right and knows she is right, she can go tooth and nail with her husband.
In some ways she can out argue him. Without careful examination you would not think of her as being a fragile person, but that is the part she tries to keep hidden from those she believes have the potential to hurt her.
When Sally is working within her strengths she can wear Bob down to the point where he quits trying. Bob would say,
It’s Sally’s way or no way at all. She is relentless when it comes to what she wants. It’s easier for me to give in rather than fight her on everything that comes up in our marriage.
He is right. Sally is a fighter, but she only fights the fights she knows she can win. If fearful people are going to fight at all, they will only fight when there is a predetermined outcome–the outcome that has a win at the end of it.
They can’t lose because to lose is to fail. This would open the door to critique, being put down, or made to feel insignificant, unloved or rejected. When Sally goes to war with you, the outcome is already decided. She will win.
I will hide from you
But the complexity of her sin is not that clear-cut. Sally is a hider as well. There are pockets of silence or secrets that she does not expose to her husband because she is afraid of him verbally stomping on her.
Like a little girl holding a delicate butterfly, Sally has a fragile soul (1 Thessalonians 5:14) that she can only protect by keeping it hid (1 Peter 3:7). In this way she is silently suffering in plain sight of her husband.
Bob can only see her argumentation. He sees Sally as a battler on the outside, but not as a broken little girl on the inside. Though he would say he knows she struggles with fear of man, he does not connect the dots between a wife who wants to die on every hill and a wife who is wants to hide behind every hill.
I’ve argued in other places how the self-reliant man is standing on a platform of fear. What appears to be strength is not as strong as you might think. His fear is masked by his bravado.
In a sense, Sally is this way. It’s not unusual for our sins to manifest in diverse ways. Sally is this way. She fights her battles with predetermined outcomes, while hiding her weaknesses when there is a possibility of being hurt.
Fighting the wrong fight
Breaking down these kinds of sin dynamics of the heart is more of a challenge for Bob. He mostly sees the one side of Sally–the battling side. He will give tacit acknowledgement to her insecurity, but it does not compel him to disciple her through these life-dominating sin patterns.
Because she is an arguer and he is gifted in his own way when it comes to debate, he does not mind, at times, entering into the fray with her. He sees it more as an argument to be won rather than a twisted soul given over to survival techniques.
Sometimes he will acquiesce and give Sally her way and other times he will run her down the rabbit hole of her soul by either out-arguing her or blowing up–a manipulative tactic to shut her down.
In either case, the effect is the same: she does not feel nourished—to grow or cherished—to warm (Ephesians 4:29). She feels defeated, hurt, and the bitterness that she harbored toward her dad has metastasized to more bitterness toward her husband.
There seems to be three parts of this problem that Bob needs to interact with in order to help disciple his wife through her forty-year battle with bitterness, un-forgiveness, anger, and fear.
Discern his wife
The first thing he will need to do is think more deeply and more broadly about the problem. It’s not exactly what meets the eye. Yes, she can fight fire with fire, but fear of man people can use more than one unbiblical solution to manage their sin.
The two most common methods are to fight or to take flight. Sally will employ both of these at different times with Bob.
If she can match him punch for punch, she will give it a go. If she is not confident she can win, she will not take the risk. There can only be one outcome for her–she cannot be rejected, hurt, or unloved.
The pragmatic way in which she accomplishes her hope to not be hurt depends on the person she is with and the situation at hand. Once she determines the method needed, she employs it.
Defeat his sin
Bob has to conquer his anger. When he responds with impatience, hurtful words, or general frustration toward his wife, he is complicating the problem. She is already struggling with sin, but when he piles his sin on top of her sin, there will be no marital solutions forthcoming.
If he begins to see his wife as his primary disciple to serve rather than an opponent to defeat, he will not only be able to help her, but he will begin to gain victory over his sin.
God will have to give him a different kind of affection for his wife. He needs to see her through a Galatians 6:1-2 grid. He is the head of his wife. He is the leader in their home. He is the spiritual pace-setter who is called to bring redemptive care to her (1 Peter 3:7).
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.
Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:1-2 (ESV)
The word restore in this verse is the same Greek word used in Hebrews 11:3 where we learn God created the world by speaking His Words. The LORD brought order from chaos.
Bob must gain a vision for bringing order into the chaos of Sally’s soul. He can do this when the words he chooses to use to speak into her life become more redemptive than corrupting (Ephesians 4:29).
Disciple his wife
Yes, this kind of disciple-making should be reciprocal. Sally should seek to partner with him by pulling the marriage wagon in the same direction. I suppose if we lived in a perfect world, that would be the case.
Because we don’t live in a perfect world and two partners rarely repent at the same time, I typically start with the leader of the home (1 Corinthians 11:1). The husband sets the tone for the home when it comes to disciple-making.
In the case of Bob, his wife is like an addict in the sense she has been caught in sin for forty years. His heart should be broken for her.
Rather than getting tripped up by what she is doing wrong, he should be teared-up because of the bondage of her soul. Isn’t this hard for all of us to do?
It is much easier to defend our positions and make our points than live out the other-centered demands of the Gospel. If Bob wants to help his wife, the first place he will need to begin is with his heart. He must come to terms with the Gospel. His prayer should be a simple one:
LORD give me the grace to do for my wife what you have done and continue to do for me (Matthew 18:33; Romans 5:8).
If he will submit his soul to this Gospel expectation, he will begin to experience the favor of God (James 4:6) on his life and marriage. He will also become a more effective part of the solution rather than a person who tears away at the fabric of the marriage.
A call to action
Give me the empowering grace to set aside my hurts and wants for the sake of your glory and your mission. Help me to be a better representative of the person and personality of Jesus Christ to my wife.
Rather than highlighting what she has done wrong, teach me how to come alongside her the way you always come alongside me.
Our marriage should not be about what I get out of it. This is my opportunity and context to bring the life of Jesus to bear on a broken woman. Forgive me of my sins and teach me how to help her overcome her sins.