By Joshua Waulk
Note: What follows is a composite of counseling scenarios. It is not necessarily reflective of any one case.
She sat down in my office, looked at me from across the desk, and began to cry. Her story wouldn’t ever make news headlines—there were no grandiose acts of physical violence or police involvement to report. What had infected her marriage was a spirit of burdensome expectations levied against her by a man, her own husband, who thought more highly of himself than he ought (Rom. 12:3).
Through his own bitterness, he had established himself not as a loving, kind, and gracious spiritual leader within his home, but as a tyrannical malcontent who managed his family supremely as a law-giver and judge who walked not with his wife but who presided over her. His preferred method of relating to his wife left her emotionally tired and spiritually defeated.
Their marriage was, as we say, on the rocks.
Hope for their marriage would eventually be connected to opening his eyes to the deeply embedded patterns of behavior long adopted by his own self-righteous heart. While the man’s personal life-story involved the modeling by his father of an anger-driven life, part of the task in counseling biblically involved helping him discover how the sins of others could no longer warrant his anger-driven response.
A lifestyle of anger motivated by the enforcement of law within a marriage relationship is devoid of hope for producing the joy of the Lord or the righteousness of God (Neh. 8:10; Jm. 1:20).
Instead, as a professing believer in Christ, he had the responsibility and the spiritual capacity to learn how to avoid harshness with his wife, but to love her with grace and compassion for the glory of God (Col. 3:17; 19; 2 Pt. 1:3). Disordered, selfish desires would have to give way to a spirit emanating from his own heart that considered his wife as more important than himself (Phil. 2:3).
From the counseling chair this seemed a stretch, given the depth from which his heart overflowed with malice and pride (Lk. 6:45). Still, our hope for the marriage was rooted in the power of the Gospel to transform the mind down to the very level of desire (Rom. 12:2; Heb. 4:12).
Breakthrough came when, by the grace of God working in him both to will and work, he understood his attitudes and behaviors were not only sinful, but had been carried out in his covenant of marriage before the very eyes of God, his ultimate victim (Ps. 51:4; Phil. 2:13).
The apostle Paul taught that marriage was designed by God to serve as a testimony of the grace found uniquely in the Gospel and revealed fully in the eternal relationship between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32). For this reason, while God has given man good instructions as to how marriage is to be lived out temporally, and while violating these instructions is certain to bring hardship, the covenant of marriage itself isn’t properly founded upon law, but is rooted in grace.
By works of the law no man will be justified (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10).
Similarly, by the enactment and enforcement of law no marriage relationship will thrive. After all, who can fully and perfectly live up to the demands of a spouse determined to see the other person perform? In light of these spiritual truths, husbands, whether offenders or victims, should lead the way in modeling a sacrificial love that serves according to the example given by Christ (Mk. 10:45).
Here, we discover the proper ethos for marriage.
And yet, we confess that our best efforts will fall short. We are sinners in need of grace (Rom. 3:23). But, this fact doesn’t undermine the point of this post, it serves it. Marriage is a glorious, God-established covenant between two sinners. It’s hope for flourishing isn’t found in the performance of its members, but in the God whose promises are true.
Therefore, as recipients of God’s unending and unmerited favor and grace, so we seek to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10). As you seek to embrace a grace-driven view of marriage, remember:
1. Your role as husband doesn’t involve you becoming a type of giver or enforcer of law, but a source for your wife to experience the grace of God. Give life. Don’t take it.
2. If God’s good law can’t give life, what do you hope to accomplish with your own burdensome expectations? Love your wives. Do not be harsh with them.
Join the Discussion
1. How have you been tempted to relate to your spouse through law, rather than grace?
2. How might a grace-driven approach to your marriage glorify God and increase marital intimacy?
Josh is the Founder and Executive Director of Baylight Counseling, a nonprofit biblical counseling ministry in Clearwater, Florida. He is married with four children, three of whom are adopted. Josh earned the MABC and is now pursuing the D.Min. in biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is ACBC certified.