Several weeks ago Wendy Alsup wrote a striking post about how complementarians (folks who believe that men and women have differing roles in society, the home, and the church) are shooting themselves in the foot with faulty reasoning and extra-Biblical teaching. It seems that on our way to understanding manhood and womanhood, our generation has started taking some shortcuts—shortcuts that are going to have significant consequences for whether or not we develop a fully biblical understanding of gender and human relationships. In this sense, the concerns she mentioned are serious; but even more so is her overarching point: while we may have a seemingly noble goal, if we don’t reach that goal in an authentic and legitimate manner, we undermine everything we are trying to accomplish.
This is not a new problem for us humans. Whether it’s yelling at our kids to be quiet or speeding down the highway to avoid being late to an appointment, we regularly—although often unintentionally—conduct our lives under the assumption that the end justifies the means. Wendy’s post also got me to thinking about how this kind of pragmatism can invade our relationships, specifically our marriages.
Is it possible that in our attempts to reach an ideal, in our progress toward becoming “good” wives and husbands, we could actually be harming each other? I think it’s more than possible; I think it’s very common. And like so many areas of Christian living, the danger is not so much in what we’re doing, as what’s happening in our hearts and revealed through the process of doing them. And while I can’t speak for the men, here some problematic tendencies I’ve observed among Christian women—they are simply things I’ve heard, things I’ve seen, and truthfully, things I’ve done myself at times.
Let’s just file them under: “It’s a bad thing when…”
1. You encourage your husband to be a leader…the same way you encourage good behavior in your child or pet. Many women I know are not truly satisfied with their husbands, but they are “gracious” enough to give them time and space to develop—much like they are gracious enough to give their children time and space to mature. While waiting, they offer false praise or over-praise them for small acts of kindness or what they consider to be “growth.” This is dangerous for two reasons: First, it is fundamentally condescending. And second, people know when you are not being truthful. What your husband learns is the same thing that any of us learn once we realize praise is false or overinflated: he learns that he cannot fully trust you or worse, that you didn’t think he was capable of success in the first place.
2. You heap massive expectations on your husband to be the god-figure in your home…and then are disappointed when he isn’t perfect. Perhaps worse than underestimating a husband’s potential is over-estimating it. When a wife looks to her husband to provide what only God can, she sets him up for failure. And there is nothing more damaging to a man’s spirit than failure—especially failing those he loves. When you expect him to be what he in his humanity simply cannot, you set a trap for him. He never even has a chance. Instead, recognize who your husband is and who he is not: he is your fellow traveler, your fellow sinner on this road to glory. Celebrate his strengths; accept his limitations. And love him regardless.
3. You don’t disagree with him…because privately you don’t believe he can handle it. On the surface keeping quiet when you don’t like what someone else is doing can pass for deference when in reality it can be arrogance. Some women don’t disagree with their husbands simply because they don’t really believe he can handle it. They see his manhood as fragile, so much so that he is in constant danger of emasculation. The irony of this is that refusing to disagree with him has less to with respecting him than it does with feeling superior to him. Of course there are ways to engage in debate that can belittle and harm another person—but that’s true regardless of gender or marital status. In the long run, disagreeing with your husband (with kindness and a keen sense of timing) may be the best way to respect him because it says that you see them as the mature human being that he is.
4. You pray for your husband to be a better a) father, b) husband, c) leader, d) all of the above…and ask others to pray as well. Now of course, you should pray for your husband, but there are ways of praying that are actually harmful. (Just ask the Pharisee and the publican.) If you pray for your husband out of a heart of discontentment, you are fundamentally praying a prayer of judgment. You are telling God (and anyone else who is praying with you) that your husband does not meet your expectations, that he is not performing well enough, that he is a disappointment. Instead your prayers for your husband should be like Christ’s prayers for you – prayers of unconditional love, protection, affirmation, and support. They should be prayers directed toward what God is doing in his life, not where he needs to pick up slack. If you are really struggling with a behavior or habit of his, love him enough to actually talk to him about it. Love him enough to engage him instead of whispering behind his back—even if it’s only to God.
5. You don’t confront him when he sins…and then taking it personally when he fails. While wives must accept that their husbands are human, they must also accept that God has providentially placed them alongside their husbands as meet helpers in their struggles. Sometimes when a husband sins, his wife won’t approach him out of fear that doing so will somehow usurp his spiritual headship. And so instead of being the first line of defense against spiritual attack, she stands by and watches as her husband gets pummeled. Worse, she takes it personally and feels like he is somehow failing her. But our husbands are just as much flesh and blood as we are, and we are best their helpers when we actually….help them. This is something of what Solomon was referring to in Ecclesiastes 4:
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up…. And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him.
Ultimately, we have to remember that simply aiming to be a “good” wife will never accomplish all that God has ordained for us in marriage. It will never make us more unified, it will never make us more sanctified, it will never make us one. That road is a lot harder and there are simply no shortcuts. And it is a road we walk—one day at a time—through honest communication, unconditional love, and large doses of grace.