Thoughts on Submission, Passivity, and Vigilant Love in Marriage
“I just can’t do this anymore!” said a hopeless and exasperated Gina, following yet another relational bomb that had gone off over the weekend with her husband Mark. Gina and Mark have been married for 26 years. They are both believers who are active in church and ministry.
Mark is a very structured man who is always in control. He lives life on his own terms, managing his life to the minute. When his scheduled plans fall into place like clockwork which they often do, Mark is easy to get along with. Yet when people or circumstances impact his rigid schedule, sinful anger is quick to flow which leaves a wake of relational damage in its trails.
Gina is normally an easy-going person who does not like conflict. Overlooking Mark’s anger has often come easy for her. Lately, however, she has been finding it harder to forgive and move on, simmering over past events, stewing in her own frustration. She feels powerless to control her own angry eruptions. She is desperate for help and prayer.
While I agreed that change is needed in how she responds to Mark, she gave a shocked look when I asked her if she planned to speak to Mark about his sin and how it impacts relationships. She quickly dismissed the thought and retorted, “Why bother? He is so set in his ways. He will never change!”
The Perils of Passivity in Marriage
Unfortunately I have seen in many broken marriages the damaging results that years of passivity toward sin can bring. Frustration, disappointment, apathy, and hopelessness are often the result. This passivity essentially chips away at the foundations of love and respect in the marriage and weakens its structure. When life in a fallen world has finally applied enough pressure, the weakened structure may begin to crumble as the sin that has been ignored for years often becomes the sin that we can no longer tolerate.
Exasperated wives are often confused, shocked or even angry at the suggestion that they may be just as responsible for the current condition of their struggling marriage due to their passivity and unwillingness to speak the truth in love regarding sin. Confusion regarding submission is often a culprit.
What’s a Submissive Christian Wife To Do?
With a biblical understanding of complementarian roles, submission, and the Genesis 3 curse, are Christian wives limited to merely “submit, pray ,and get out of God’s way” when faced with our spouse’s sin? Though widely misunderstood and attacked in our culture today, biblical submission is undoubtedly a powerful means of grace in any marriage. It is a beautiful, God-honoring, divine calling of a wife to honor, respect, and uphold her husband’s God-given leadership in the home.
However, does the call to submission negate a wife from lovingly speaking the truth to her husband when he is either blind or stubborn toward the destructive patterns of sin in his life? Would confrontation violate the call to submission?
John Piper has said:
“Submission…does not mean that a wife cannot seek the transformation of her husband, even while respecting him as her head—her leader, protector, and provider… Wives are not only submissive wives. They are also loving sisters. There is a unique way for a submissive wife to be a caring sister toward her imperfect brother-husband. She will, from time to time, follow Galatians 6:1 in his case: ‘If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.’ She will do that for him.”
Love for our husbands would move us to these measures.
The Call to Vigilant Love
Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III define love well in their book Bold Love.
“Bold love is courageously setting aside our personal agenda to move humbly into the world of others with their well-being in view, willing to risk further pain in our souls, in order to be an aroma of life to some and an aroma of death to others.”
Genuine love for our husband would compel us to not only “cover a multitude of sins” by extending grace (1 Peter 4:8), but also, when appropriate, courageously stand against the sin that mars the beauty and grace that God desires (and purchased through Christ) for our husband.
Standing against sin because we love requires sober conviction regarding the bondage and evil of sin and its devastating consequences. It is motivated by a deep longing for, and envisioning of, the beautiful freedom from sin that the application of the gospel would bring to our husband. Loving desires would compel the pushback, yet self-interested fears may keep us from it.
The Obstacles to Overcome
There are many obstacles that may need to be overcome in order for us to love boldly. The love of comfort and/or the desire for peace at any cost may keep us from “rocking the boat” through humble confrontation. Nevertheless, resting in the unshakable peace with God that we have through Christ may free us to risk discomfort for the sake of the one we love.
Fear of man may also keep us ensnared and be a barrier to love when we hang our hope for happiness and meaning in life on the approval we are after from our husband (Proverbs 29:25). However, understanding that we already have the approval from God that we most need because of Christ’s atonement, we can be liberated to love our husband well for his ultimate good.
Fear of our husband’s rejection or retaliation may also paralyze us from engaging in truthful love toward him. Yet, marinating in the perfect love of God through Christ and the resulting fear (awe) of the Lord casts out immobilizing fears regarding the consequences of this bold love (1 John 4:18). The perfect love of Christ in the gospel both sets us free us from our fears as well as informs the manner in which we love.
Jesus’ Valliant Love
Rather than remaining passive toward our sin and the devastating consequences of wrath incurred by it, Jesus’ fierce love compelled Him to act valiantly on our behalf! Throwing off comfort and forsaking all fears, He loved sacrificially and intentionally by atoning for sin by His own death, thereby purchasing our eternal acceptance before God. Though God accepts us solely and fully on the merits of Christ’s death, it is also true that He accepts us with an agenda to change us.
God’s love for us motivates Him to continue to mercifully confront the sins that beset us with the gracious goal of transforming us into the image of Christ from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18). This process involves ongoing sight, confession, and repentance of our sin alongside the forgiveness and grace that our Savior purchased for it. Sight of sin, Lord-willing, leads to gospel gratitude and grace-empowered change. Sight often comes by way of loving, gospel-soaked, grace-filled confrontation. Wives, are you willing to love your husband in this way?