It’s heartbreaking to read emails from disheartened wives, like this one from a listener named Stephanie. “Hello, Pastor John. In reference to episode 1301, “Prioritizing Marriage Over Work and Kids,” and the older episode about husbands leading their wives — oh, how I long to be led by my husband in the ways you describe! But he’s not there.
“I have hoped and prayed for it and asked of it from him for many years now. I want to pray together regularly, have husband-and-wife meetings, spiritual goals, and many other important things involved in stewarding a family. But I feel like I’m pulling a ship up a mountain. He wants to take life easy and enjoys TV and sports. I long for deeper things. I realize it’s not my job or in my control to change him. I’ve been married for fourteen years. What would you say to me, Pastor John, a waiting wife?”
It’s really significant when Stephanie says, “I realize it’s not my job or in my control to change him.” Now, mainly I want to agree with that, but not entirely. Let me give the qualification and then circle back to agree with her.
My agreement is that she’s right that in the end only God can go deep with her husband and awaken the kinds of longings and passions that she is eager to see. I think her impulse is right that efforts to change a husband usually backfire because he may so easily interpret your efforts as making him a project, or treating him like a child, or oppressing him with endless disapproval, none of which produce what you long for.
But it’s not quite right to say, “It’s not my job to change him.” The reason I say that is because of what 1 Peter 3:1–2 says: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”
Peter is telling these wives to make it their hope, aim, and prayer to change their husbands into believers. That’s what they want. “Do it so that they may believe. Live this way so that they may believe.”
Of course, that does not mean that it lies within a wife’s power ultimately or decisively to convert her husband. But Peter isn’t talking about what’s ultimate and decisive. He’s talking about what’s secondary and possible, causes that really matter. God may use a wife’s humble, godly, loving, supportive behavior to change a husband’s willingness to hear the gospel and be saved.
Now, I think the same principle holds to a husband’s sanctification as well as his initial salvation. “God may perhaps grant them repentance” (2 Timothy 2:25). That’s the initial and the ongoing repentance. God does it, but he uses means. And one of the means to wake him up is how a wife lives, and believes, and loves. He may or he may not do it. God may grant repentance.
Now, Stephanie, however, is mainly right to be very cautious about thinking of her relationship to her husband as primarily calculated to change him. Her position is analogous, I would say, to a single woman who would like to be married. Her focus in life should be on living a productive, Christ-honoring single life, rather than turning every situation into an effort to win a man. That backfires, and so do marriages where the spouse thinks of every situation as calculated to bring about change in the other spouse.
“God’s purpose for you is to refine your faith through the disappointing parts of your spouse’s personality.”
But when Paul tells us how to love in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7, he mentions fifteen things that love does toward the beloved or spouse, for example. Not one of them includes changing the other person. Here they are. Count them:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
Let me be really sober with Stephanie, having seen marriages now for seventy years. I think you should go deep enough in your own soul and in the word of God to realize your husband may never be the deep, spiritually strong leader you want him to be. You need to reckon with that.
I think, frankly, that is the way most marriages go. Ten, twenty, thirty years in, you realize it’s not turning out according to how you dream. She or he isn’t all I wanted, hoped for, or even think is right. It’s just not happening. That is where most marriages are, I would say.
This means that God’s purpose for you is to refine and deepen your faith and your holiness through the disappointing parts of your spouse’s personality. I’m going say that again. God’s purpose for you is to refine and deepen your faith and your holiness through the disappointing parts of your spouse’s personality. The fight of faith is to treat your spouse better and better out of the resources that you find in Christ.
God’s Plan for Change
Paul said to the church in Thessalonica, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). It’s very likely that the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak were married. That’s the kind of spouse people had in that church.
“God will provide every grace you need to make your marriage the most fruitful place for growing in godliness.”
It’s helpful if you meditate on those three words, especially in the Greek. First, we have idle: undisciplined, disorderly, and lazy. Then fainthearted: small-souled, incapable of feeling large and great things with any attraction, easily discouraged, and content with insignificant experiences. Finally, weak: vulnerable to something incapacitating — some debilitating limitation. It could be physical or mental.
Paul gives little indication in that verse that these kinds of people are going away. They will always be with us in the church, and maybe in a family. We pray. We hope for growth. And that is not wrong. In fact, I think it’s essential. We pray, and we hope for growth. But the word to us is to be patient with them all. Love suffers long and is kind.
How long? Well, the marriage vow says for better or for worse as long as we both shall live. God will provide every grace you need to make your marriage the most fruitful place for growing in godliness.