If mama ain’t happy . . .
Husbands in Sri Lanka may not have the same expression, but forty years of marriage have taught Ajith Fernando a similar lesson.
Living in the impoverished and war-torn island-nation south of India also has taught Fernando that a husband doesn’t need money to make his wife happy. What she wants most isn’t something he can buy, but it is something that’s very costly to give: himself. She doesn’t want his shell, but his attention, his energy, his creativity and awareness and engagement — and especially when it’s most difficult.
Americans have no corner on the market of marital happiness, and many husbands today would profit greatly to get themselves outside their cultural assumptions, patterns, and blind spots and hear from a veteran Christian husband born, raised, and husbanding in a society and environment very different from our own.
Learn from the Sri Lankan
Ajith Fernando is an internationally known and loved Christian author and teacher, called “the Asian John Stott” by some. He was born in Sri Lanka, came to the United States for graduate studies, and returned to his native country, which was engulfed in conflict, and served for 35 years as the national director of Youth for Christ. Most of his career he has served in the perils, pains, and relentless frustrations of the Sri Lankan civil war that began in 1983 and lasted more than 25 years, until 2009.
One thing, among many, Fernando has learned, while living simply in an impoverished and embattled land, is that “date night” doesn’t need to be expensive. Profitable time away with your wife from the rough and tumble of everyday life is not about having money in your pocket, but about having a heart to make your wife happy.
He has tasted what it means to have a happy marriage, but he’s quick to admit that it didn’t come easy.
I had the privilege of having coffee with Ajith recently when he came through Minneapolis. He is a serious man — joyful and sober. He has lived with too much tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, and danger for flippancy. He doesn’t want to play around with small talk; he prefers to get to substance. He is author of the award-winning A Call to Joy and Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry, along with his most recent book, The Family Life of a Christian Leader. His vision of husbanding is both convicting and inspiring.
Happy Wife, Holy Ambition
No matter which angle I pressed him from, Fernando’s core message for young husbands like me is make it your ambition to make your wife happy. Prick him on husbanding, and he says to make her happy. It’s simple enough on the surface, but his counsel has the textures, layers, and nuances ready to back it up in the real world.
Ambition is a key word for Ajith. The heart of husbanding, he says, is an ambition, not a burden, to gladly empty oneself of selfish comforts in order to fill one’s wife with joy — to find your own joy less in small private pleasures and more in shared happiness with your wife. It’s his way of pressing home the truth of Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
While ambition is an inspiring word, and a fresh way of capturing a timeless truth, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to bring her joy. It’s costly. We call it “sacrifice.”
At the heart of what it means to be a husband is to give of yourself — not mainly your money, but yourself — for the eternal and holy temporal joy of your wife. “Keep your wife happy,” the wizened Sri Lankan says with a smile and utter seriousness in his eyes. Holiness as a husband means spending yourself for her.
Fernando acknowledges that it’s one thing to say “make her happy,” but it can be quite another to persevere in self-sacrifice for a persistently unhappy wife. But just because she is unusually hard to please doesn’t change the heart of a husband’s call. Sorrow doesn’t always melt into joy overnight. “Don’t give up. Pray that God will change her, and wait patiently.” The call to bring one’s wife joy is, with marriage, the calling of a lifetime. It’s not always, or typically, a quick turnaround.
Labor to make her happy — as an ambition, not a concession. Don’t feed her appetite for sinful pleasure. Making her truly happy doesn’t mean making her life easy. And it does not mean avoiding conflict.
Joy Won Through Struggle
Ajith is quick to confess that marriage is not easy. His hasn’t been easy, and the majority of the marriages he observes are not easy. God didn’t make marriage to make life easy, but to make us holy. He didn’t give us marriage to make us comfortable here, but to deepen our joy in him and prepare us for the life to come.
Marital conflict, then, is not something to be avoided at all costs, but an opportunity for grace. Making it your husbandly ambition to bring her joy doesn’t mean avoiding tension, but making it your calling to approach conflict with gentleness, care, and loving persistence.
“God didn’t make marriage to make life easy, but to make us like him.”
As Christians, we have a great hope to hold to in any marital struggle. “God is above all our problems and will help us,” says Fernando. “God is committed to this marriage. And real happiness in marriage is learned in struggle.” We can give ourselves to our spouse fully, in the most frustrating times, knowing that God is committed to our being together.
Struggle is another important word for Fernando. It’s a biblical term, and is inevitable for joy-seekers living in a sin-sick world. “We are bruised people,” he says. Conflicts will come. Often. But “struggle doesn’t need to be unpleasant.”
“What ruins life is to think that struggle means winners and losers. Struggle means becoming more like Jesus. Struggle is part of our journey to be more like Jesus. We are not afraid of battle.”
But we do need to learn how to struggle well. Fernando points to what he calls “the love fight,” which means caring enough to confront, being truthful, not sinning in what we say, and truly forgiving by not bringing up the past.
“Debate is very important in a happy family, but must be done Christianly. We need to learn how to fight without hurting each other, how to be frank without bruising each other.”
And lest it go unsaid, he stresses the role of prayer not just in our marriages in general, but specifically in our tensest moments — not just prayer about our marriage struggles, but in those struggles. “When you are having a fight, pray most — ears listening to wife, mouth talking to her, heart listening to God.”
The Key Is Costly Grace
What unlocks the door for Fernando’s very Christian Hedonistic vision of husbanding is the costly grace of God for us in Christ. Husbands can keep giving, keep sacrificing, keep pouring out, even when they feel their resources are spent and they have come to the end of themselves, because they are not the ultimate source of their strength. That comes by the grace of God, which empowers both a husband’s best efforts to bring his wife holy joy and to press gently into marital conflict, instead of running from it.
“We are not afraid of sin; we are afraid to sin, but not afraid of sin, because God’s grace is greater than sin. When we do fall short of the ideal, we have the freedom of knowing we are all weak people struggling to live the Christian life, but we are all relying on his grace.”
At the heart of Fernando’s theology is the grace of God, rescuing rebel sinners, giving of himself fully all the way to the end, enduring injustice, not demanding his rights, but laying them down for the good of another. Such grace, then, is also at the heart of what it means to be a husband.
A husband’s wallet may be empty, and his energy may be depleted, but by the grace of God, he has the opportunity to be a channel for his wife’s truest joy.