BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the third of a special BCC Grace & Truth blog mini-series on marriage—timed to coincide with the week of Valentine’s Day. You can read Part One, by John Henderson at 7 Truths for a Christ-Centered Marriage and Part Two by Andrew Rogers at How Do I Enjoy My Spouse?
Beauty and the Beast
Marriage is both beautiful and brutal. This is true even as it reflects the relationship of Christ and His Bride, the Church. Christ gave Himself over to death for His sinful, obstinate Bride who continually chooses to run off toward other lovers. That’s brutal and messy. Yet, Christ transforms His beastly Bride into something lovely and faithful through His unrelenting, redeeming love and grace. That’s beautiful.
My sister has been close enough to see both the brutal and the beautiful in my own marriage. As she and I talked into the night about the joys and challenges of marriage, I stated somewhat matter-of-factly that marriage requires you to lower your expectations of yourself and your spouse and be more realistic about what both are capable of. She agreed, yet asked, “But how do you do that? How do you just lower your expectations?”
To have godly desires and healthy expectations for our marriage is not a bad thing. I would check for a pulse if someone told me that they have no expectations for this most intimate relationship. We ought to desire a God-glorifying, Bible-informed, gospel-centered, Christ-honoring, unconditionally-loving, mutually-satisfying marriage. It’s a good thing to want the best for our marriage. Our expectations of ourselves and our spouse flow from these good desires.
Both husband and wife often start life together, from authentic love and commitment (and a bit of naïve self-assessment), blissfully aiming to meet or exceed every spoken or perceived expectation placed before them in their desire for a great marriage. They may even maintain their success for a while. Yet, given time, we all bump up against our (and our spouse’s) weaknesses, limitations, and tenacious self-centeredness. This is when things begin to get messy.
Good Desires Gone Bad
My husband once said in a sermon:
“When a good thing becomes a god thing, that’s a bad thing.”
Those good desires can covertly morph into unrealistic expectations and lustful demands when the good thing we desire becomes the one thing we think we need for happiness. Paul Tripp has said:
“I’ve had hundreds of women say something like this: ‘All I’ve ever wanted is a husband who will make me happy.’ That guy is cooked! He should nourish you, provide for you in every way he can, but he must not be the source of your happiness. He will never pull that off!”
Neither spouse can pull that off for the other.
It’s also helpful to understand that our expectations can easily get away from us. Proverbs 27:20 unflinchingly asserts, “The eyes of man are never satisfied.” Even if our spouse meets our expectations, we often still experience a down-deep sense that something is still missing. Sustainable, soul-satisfying contentment still eludes us and so we inevitably raise the bar or create altogether new expectations for our spouse. This insatiable, never-ending desire for more or better has the potential to crush our spouse and kill the love and hope from our marriage.
Augustine rightly said of this condition, “We are restless until we find our rest in Thee!” This restlessness often translates into demanding from our spouses what they are not equipped to provide or satisfy in us. Coming to grips with this sooner rather than later can spare a marriage much trouble.
When we anchor our hope for joy and contentment onto the limited shoulders of our fallen spouses, they eventually sink under the heavy burden. This “burden” is reserved for Christ’s strong shoulders. Only he can bear it. He alone has the strength, ability, and resources to satisfy the deepest longings of our heart.
Our spouses were never meant to be a replacement for Jesus. Placing our hope in anyone or anything other than Him is idolatry and will only eventuate in broken cisterns of emptiness, disappointment, and heartache. Idols always dangle elusive carrots but leave us with empty hands and hearts.
How can we discern whether we have moved away from a godly desire and slipped into idolatry? Our response toward unmet desires is often the best indicator of our heart’s investment and expected return. James 4 captures this well when it exposes ungodly responses to our desires as the root of all conflict. When the thing we want (a loving spouse who makes me happy) becomes the thing that we are living for, we will often respond in anger, resentment, bitterness, hopelessness, or despair when we don’t get what we are after. Conflict (or a silent war) often results. This is often an indication that God may be exposing our disordered affections in His aim to reorder our loves.
Grace to Be Human
How do we maintain robust desires that motivate biblically-informed, Christ-honoring marriages, and yet keep our expectations of our spouse at a realistic level? We must give our spouse (and ourselves) the grace to be human. Yes, we are Christian humans. This life-altering modifier implies a new identity, new power, and new imperatives for living a holy life. Though endowed and graced as we are when we were transferred into the Kingdom of light, we are still fallen human beings who will maintain a struggle for holiness this side of heaven and glory. We will continue to be sinners, sufferers, and saints.
- As you are confronted with your own weaknesses, blind spots, and besetting sins that cause you to be desperate for grace, remember that your spouse is a struggling sinner too. At times, we may be called upon to overlook an offense in love (1 Peter 4:8). At other times, we may need to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), from the compassion that experientially understands the nature of sin. We ought not be shocked by sin; rather, we ought to deal with it appropriately in love.
- As you soberly contemplate the suffering that you have endured in this sin-laden world, keep in mind that your spouse has also been affected by the same pervasive brokenness. Pondering the impact of suffering may stimulate compassion and grace as well as help in scaling back expectations.
- As you joyfully recall to mind the growth and change that God has wrought in your own life, look for, appreciate, and affirm the transformation you see in your spouse. This practice of encouragement inspires hope in both of you that He who began a good work in you, your spouse, and your marriage will be faithful to complete what He started (Philippians 1:6). Intentional focus on the beautiful fruit of God’s past sanctification helps us keep our perspective regarding our present and future expectations. It encourages faith-filled confidence and patience in the lifelong process of change.
Remembering the finitude, affliction, and God-granted faithfulness of ourselves and our spouse can allow godly desires and hopes to be present in marriage without the unrealistic expectations that would hinder progress. It allows gospel grace to flourish, which becomes the kindling for a deeper love and camaraderie to emerge. So, cut each other a bit of theologically-informed slack and learn anew how to appreciate and enjoy one another again.
Join the Conversation
What are your thoughts about the concept of “cutting each other a bit of theologically-informed slack?”