An unchanging spouse can complicate any marriage, especially when you want your spouse to change so badly that you use sin as a way to make it happen. The Bible has another way; it offers the gospel of hope, but it only comes through sacrifice.
In This Series
- How Your Thoughts Reveal Your Functional Identity
- How to Change That Annoying Voice in Your Head
- How to Turn Your Arguments Into Redemptive Communication
- How To Bring the Gospel of Hope To a Bad Marriage
He hurts, crushes, and destroys my hope at every turn. I’m dying a slow soul death, drowning in hopelessness and negativity. I intensely, desperately want to escape this prison of pain, fear, insecurity, loneliness, and lack of intimacy that holds me captive.
Simultaneously, I feel a sense of extreme pity and sorrow for this hollow shell of a man, and I realize I must extend to him the same kindness, love, mercy and forgiveness the Lord has shown me, even when I have been at my worst.” (Titus 3:4-6, Rom. 2:4, Col. 3:12, Eph. 4:30-32, Gal. 5:6)
These counseling situations are the ones that weigh heavy on a counselor’s soul. God may or may not grant repentance for the husband (2 Timothy 2:25), and the local church is often unable or ill-equipped to engage him or minister to her soul. She has no shepherd. How can the Gospel soften this difficult situation?
To help organize your thoughts, I have two mind maps:
- An internal plan to nurture her soul.
- An external plan to cooperate with the Lord in creating an environment to minister to her husband’s soul, hoping to lead him towards repentance and growth.
Although each story is different, I have observed four fundamental themes that provide a context of this all too common marriage dynamic. (The assumption for this discussion is that husband and wife are both Christians.)
The gospel is shining brighter in the woman than in her spouse. God has opened her spiritual eyes, and her grasp of the gospel and desire to follow Christ is greater than that of her husband.
Her “in Christ” identity drifts. Healthy wishes of love and marriage often elevate to idolatrous levels, and over time, these controlling desires commingle with the wife’s identity. The health of her soul becomes a dependent on the health of her marriage. Yes, God’s design is for the husband to care for the wife’s soul, but the headwaters of soul care is always Christ.
The husband is gospel-immature and will turn to passive or aggressive self-reliant responses as he responds to the fallenness in his life. When passive, he shrinks back from his God-given responsibilities through withdrawal or blame-shifting. He occupies his time with distracting activities such as sports, career, or video games.
Other times, he takes the aggressive approach in an attempt to restore his internal peace by regaining control through anger and manipulation.
Steps to isolate his wife also come into play. He may use the trappings of legalism to gain control, using scripture passages like Ephesians 5:22 to evoke shame and fear. Some husbands become master manipulators.
Both the wife and the husband has a history of poor soul care that predates the marriage. The additional negative consequences of not raised by godly fathers (Ephesians 6:4).
The wife’s father, coupled with past opposite-sex relationships, did not minister to her soul, which often elevates her desires for male love and affection to idolatrous levels.
The husband’s father did not provide a good model of soul care to his wife, leaving the son to learn from the world’s teaching. He may know how to provide for her physically, but not spiritually.
The gospel can improve the situation, but you must maintain a proper understanding of change. There is the potential unchangeability of our Adamic natures. The Holy Spirit can transform hearts, but we are all works in progress, and fleshly temptations linger. Often sanctification is slow.
The goal must not be to change the husband’s behaviors; it must be personal growth in worship and service, which leads to a restful soul. The wife seeks to develop two game plans: she needs to institute a plan to nurture her soul (internal), and then look to help her husband (external).
An Internal Game Plan
The first mind map outlines the plan. To start this journey, she must expand her thinking to include God. She is not able to receive God’s grace or minister to her husband until she has wrestled with God.
What makes this step so important is that it gives her time to perceive the Lord’s mind, as much as she can perceive it, about what happened to you. You must establish a theologically precise view of God in your mind, which means He has convinced you that He is working good in ways you did not expect and had not perceived up to this point. – Rick Thomas
She also needs to gain a gospel view of suffering and an understanding of her heart to know how the nemeses of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness are in play in her responses to this challenging situation.
Many times, a wife will take a “soft approach” by placing the burden of change on herself, believing her shortcomings as a godly wife are to blame for her husband’s actions. Her indwelling shame can lead her to over-submit and not confront evil, leaving the husband caught in a sin (Galatians 6:1).
Other times, a wife can fall into a legalist, self-righteous mindset and begin to judge her husband’s behaviors; she becomes the moral police. With the lack of change in the husband, the wife will become frustrated and head down the path of cynicism and bitterness. Roots of unbelief can grow, leaving her vulnerable to fleshly temptations.
The common error in both approaches is the wife’s belief that her happiness, or soul health, is dependent on the actions or love from her husband. If the husband is unable to serve as a godly leader, the wife must repent of her idolatry and find other sources of Christ’s grace. This change in her mind is the key to her survival.
Experiencing the full life with Jesus, we say with David, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7). We can be infinitely and enduringly more happy with Jesus than with anything or even everything in a world without him. – Marshall Segal
There are three areas of focus for soul care.
First, she must embrace her new identity as a daughter of God. The thoughts of being unlovable, unworthy, et cetera, must be replaced with her true identity of in Christ (Romans 8:17).
Once she begins to understand all she has in Christ, she can learn how to be content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11-13). The health of her soul improves as she begins to detach from her physical environment.
Secondly, through daily meditation on the gospel, she must learn how to put on a repentant mind-set. To walk in the Spirit, she must enter through the gate of spiritual bankruptcy. Poor in Spirit leads to mourning, which leads to meekness (humility), which leads to a thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:3-6).
Now her heart will start to have a change in desires. The focus is no longer on herself, but on living out her new identity in-Christ. She will extend mercy, seek purity, and extend peace (Matthew 5:7-10).
As she grows in understanding her heart, her ability to discern Godly sorrow from worldly sorrow will increase allowing her to seek God’s wisdom. She will know when to let love overlook sin (1 Peter 4:8), or when to speak into her husband’s life to confront evil.
Thirdly, she must consider how God is using this season to refine her taste for Christ. Her flesh can train her tastes to be satisfied with the junk food of the world. She can place her hope in marriage, sex, health, wealth, looks, and other things that can’t hold water (Jeremiah 2:13).
She must lean into Christ through reading the Word, prayer, worship, fellowship, church, and service. Sometimes fellowship with the Lord will be sweet and other times dry, but she must continue to seek biblical paths (Jeremiah 29:13). As Tim Keller said, “quality time with the Lord is obtained by quantity.”
As Christ’s grace feeds her soul, she will feel like she now has a rudder to maneuver through the storm. She is now in a position to help her husband.
External Game Plan
To serve as a helper to her husband, she must view her husband through the gospel while looking to cooperate with God, as shown in the second mind map.
When he struggles to love his wife as Christ, she must remember the spiritual conflict context of the Christian life. The indwelling sinful nature rebels against God’s authority and his enemies tempt him to doubt God’s goodness. He struggles more about his relationship with God than with his wife.
Her actions can help or hinder, but she is not capable or responsible for him to change. Her call to plant, water, and tend (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Second, she must pray for Spiritual discernment to determine if her husband is faint-hearted, weak, or idle (1 Thess 5:14).
- If discouraged, look to encourage.
- If weak, look for ways to help him battle his natural tendency of self-righteousness and self-sufficiency.
- If idle, admonish in humility (Matthew 7:1-5). The fleshly motivations methods of shame, threats, and fear hold no value in God’s economy.
Remember, Christ’s main admonishment to his disciples was calling out their unbelief (Matthew 8:26, 14:31, 16:8). His biggest issue is unbelief, which prevents him from moving forward in God’s call on his life. The wife must look to steward her submission to help him overcome his unbelief.
If he is in sin and not willing to repent, she must follow the example of Matthew 18 and seek help from church elders. Outside counsel can sometimes help if he is willing to listen.
She must continually seek prayer and counsel from others to determine how to bring God’s glory and produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
Who are the godly men or women in your church that can come alongside you during this season? Become a member of our ministry; let this community serve you. Remember that your flesh and the world continuously highlight the joy found in romance and marriage. The gospel teaches something different.
I am never going to have paradise in my marriage. Paradise is to come. I am never married to a perfect person. That person will never be my Messiah. The person I am married to has no capacity whatsoever to change my heart. That person I am married to has no capacity whatsoever to bring satisfaction and contentment to my heart. They have no ability whatsoever to deliver me from my sin. They just have no ability to do any of that. – Paul Tripp
I pray as you tap into Christ’s grace that your soul finds rest, peace enters, and you find joy in worshiping and serving the Lord – always looking for where He is working.
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