Not long ago, a friend on a forum shared a difficult situation he was going through, and I told him what I learned through a similar situation in an attempt to encourage and help him. After hearing his story, I thought, “Wow, next to his suffering, I’ve hardly suffered at all.” Then he wrote that after hearing my story, he felt that next to my suffering, he had hardly suffered at all. We laughed about that.
I’ve been writing about the difficulties I’ve experienced in my life, and what God taught me through them. Sometimes I think, “Wow, I have had a lot of difficult things in my life!” Other times I think that I haven’t endured much at all. When I look at what God has accomplished in my life through difficulties, the I am grateful for them, and they seem like nothing:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
When JJ was young–maybe 4 or 5 years old?–he came inside one day after playing with the neighbor kids and told me that one of the kids had talked them all into playing a game in which they “pretended” to summon demons. I told him not that wasn’t a good game to play and not to play that game again, he said he wouldn’t, and I thought that was he end of it. But after that, some scary things happened, and difficulties increased, I got sick (with chronic sinus infections, several bouts of mono, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), EJ worked long hours and his back problems flared up, our hearts were broken, and my marriage almost fell apart. But we learned a lot about God, faith, prayer, love, and many other things.
I want to tell you that I grew up trying to earn or deserve love. I was a pleaser and a praise-aholic. Praise didn’t make me feel superior, it just made me feel that maybe I was so bad. I excelled in school, getting good grades, graduated 18th in my high school class, was part of the honor society in both high school and college, and graduated summa cum laude from college. Good grades and honors did not make me feel smart, they just made me feel less stupid. Condemnation and criticism made me wither inside and feel worthless.
EJ became a jerk who was very difficult to get along with. He criticized me for every little thing I did. If someone complimented me, he’d later take it away, saying that “They don’t live with you. They don’t know you.” He’d tell me to ask him for help moving heavy things or getting something done around home, but if I asked him for help, even if I only asked once, he’d tell me to stop nagging him. If I did a task myself, he told me I was undermining his authority and “wearing the pants in the family.” There were times he had a day off, and he’d say, “What do you want to do today?” and I’d say, “Well, we could always do this…..” and we’d do it. Later he’d grumble that he had plans that day, and he never got to do what HE wanted to do. I’d say, “Why didn’t you TELL me then? My idea was a suggestion, not a command, and we could have done what you wanted.” He has always worked second shift, getting up a few hours after we did. When he woke up, I’d stop our homeschooling and ask, “Do you want me to fix you breakfast?” He’d say no, that’s ok, I got it. The next day I’d ask, “Do you want me to fix you breakfast?” “No, that’s ok. I got it.” So after a few days, I quit asking, and then one day he’d yell at me, “You never fix me breakfast!” I’d say, “But I asked you, I was willing to, and you always said you would fix your own breakfast!” We’d fight, make up, and the next day I’d ask, “Do you want me to fix you breakfast” and he’d say, “No, I’m sorry I complained, I got it.” But a while later, he’d yell at me for not fixing him breakfast. Grrrr.
I could never please EJ no matter how hard I tried, I never knew what he wanted, I withered under his condemnation. One night I got so mad at him, that I packed a suitcase and was going to leave him (with our son). But we fought instead, and he emotionally backed me into a corner, and then he said, “You never fix me breakfast.” I saw red. I said, “You want me to fix you BREAKFAST? I’ll fix you BREAKFAST!” and I reached into the fridge, grabbed a raw egg, and threw it at him with all my strength. It hit him in the chest, dripping down. I was never a person who did things like that, and he told me later that when I reached into the fridge for the egg, he really thought I was seriously going to fix him breakfast. It was like, “Oh Wow! She’s going to fix me…” SPLAT! He was shocked when I threw the egg at him. We laugh about it now. He has never again said, “You never fix me breakfast.” And, by the way, I fix him GOOD breakfasts.
I tell you these things so you will know that it was bad. We had promised when we got married that we’d never mention the “D word” (divorce) no matter how tough things got. But I sometimes wondered why I had ever married such a jerk. I lost all respect for EJ. I decided that I would live with him, but I would never again give him my heart. We’d live together as two strangers, not as one flesh. God asked, “Is this the kind of marriage you want?” and I miserably said, “No. I want a loving marriage. I want my husband to be my best friend.” God said, “Then don’t settle for such a marriage. Fight for your husband and marriage.” So I did.
I think the most “dangerous” type of prayer is praying for change in yourself. It’s easy to say, “Change that other person, Lord!” but very difficult to pray, “Change me, Lord.” If you pray for change, God will answer the prayer, and not in expected–or desired–ways. Anytime I pray for someone else to change, I pray for me to change. Yikes.
I sometimes asked God why He was always telling ME what I was doing wrong and asking ME to change, and He never dealt with EJ about HIS failures. Unknown to me, God was dealing with EJ in the same sort of way that He was dealing with me. I never knew until later. EJ was going through his own difficulties. I was sick, tired, and dealing with his unreasonable expectations and condemnation. He was dealing with 12-16 hour work days and horrible back pain. We were also dealing with my difficult family, and facing our greatest heartbreak. At one point EJ had to be off work for a couple months because of his back. He was on pain killers that made him feel very angry when he was getting off them. He said he was horrified to hear himself say he most nasty things, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. (Last year I was on Prednesone for a health problem, and it had the same effect on me. It amplified all my emotions like super duper turbo-charged PMS. Thankfully, my family patiently endured me until I went back to normal.) He went to a life-style counselor to help get his life in order–he was using the credit card to buy himself happiness. The counselor told him to dump his job and dump his wife (me). Instead, he dumped the counselor.
Here is how our hearts were changed from my perspective (remember, EJ also had a perspective) and sometimes from both of our perspectives.
1. I prayed for God to teach me to love and respect my husband and to be a woman of grace.
This was difficult because EJ had lost my respect. I didn’t know how to respect someone that I didn’t feel was worth respect. I was afraid that if I submitted to him (Eph 5:22) I would be robbed of my voice, my opinions, my value, and my identity. My Mom, through her emotional abuse, had robbed me of my identity. I didn’t want my husband to take my identity from me too. I was afraid of becoming a victim of abuse. So I resisted him.
Abusive men often use Ephesians 5:22-23 to abuse their ways, commanding them to “submit, woman.” They usually ignore verse 25, which says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” I realized that the verse about wives submitting is written to WIVES, not husbands. A husband can’t force his wife to submit to him, she must give it voluntarily or it is ABUSE. The verse about husbands loving wives are written to HUSBANDS, not wives. A husband must learn to sacrificially love and understand his wife.
EJ and I have discussed that in Ephesians 5, God was asking women to men what they need (respect) and men to give to women what they need (love). It was difficult for me to give EJ respect when I felt he didn’t love me, and was difficult for EJ to give love to me when he felt I didn’t deserve it. In giving to EJ respect even when he didn’t love me, I felt that I was being crucified. In loving me when I didn’t respect him, EJ felt as if he was being crucified. We each, slowly and painfully, surrendered to God the one thing we felt we couldn’t life without (love and respect) to sacrificially give to the other the one thing they most needed (respect and love). Neither one of us knew that God was asking the other to make the same sacrifices. Slowly, eventually, Eric felt my respect and I felt his love. It took a long time, with many sacrifices.
I remember times when I was so painfully trying to sacrifice for EJ, and he’d pick a fight with me, criticizing me horribly. When I had had enough and fought back, EJ would say, “See? I know you hadn’t changed. You are just the same.” I, also, didn’t recognize sacrifices EJ made for me. I remember my astonishment the day I overheard EJ say to JJ, “Your mother is the most grace-filled person I have ever met.”
2. Sacred Marriage
During this difficult time of marital problems, I found a book called “Sacred Marriage” written by Gary Thomas. In his book, Thomas asks, “What if the purpose of marriage is not to make you happy, but to make you holy?” He suggested that the weaknesses of one spouses results in the other having to deal with weaknesses, dysfunctions, and failures.
This changed my thinking about marriage. As I mentioned earlier, I was a people pleaser who sought the approval of others and had always withered under criticism and condemnation. EJ’s failures attacked me at my greatest weaknesses. I had a choice at that point: Either criticism would destroy me or I would learn to get my approval from God. I thought I would be destroyed, but instead I really did learn to get my approval from God and to accept how HE saw me. My sense of self-worth, value, and identity were strengthened. God helped me to grow through EJ’s failures. And my failures helped EJ to grow as well.
For awhile, I saw EJ as the enemy who harassed, criticized, and condemned me. But gradually God helped me understand that
…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:12)
I saw that my struggle IS NOT AGAINST FLESH AND BLOOD. EJ was not my enemy, Satan and his demons are. Once I understood this, I began to fight for EJ against the enemy, not see EJ as my enemy. EJ did likewise. We began to pray for each other. When one of us was unreasonably angry, the other two prayed for him. If two argued, the one not arguing prayed. Sometimes when EJ and JJ fought, I’d pray for them and IMMEDIATELY, within SECONDS, they went from heated argument to apologizing to each other and saying “I love you.”
As we died to self and sacrificed for the other, as we began to see that the other’s weaknesses were being used by God to strengthen us and make us holy, as we prayed for each other and against our true, our hearts, lives, and marriage were changed and strengthened. Today, I respect EJ more than I have ever respected anyone in my life. He feels my respect and it strengthens him. I feel very cherished and loved by him. He sacrifices for me, and I sacrifice for him. He is my best friend, and I am his. Yes, sometimes one or both of us are grumpy, irritable, or unreasonable, but we are aware how much we love and respect each other.
I have a friend whose had two marriages to abusive, alcoholic men. Both marriages ended in divorce. She thought both were godly men when she married them. She wasn’t perfect either, though toward the end she gave tremendous gifts of grace to her second husband. She once asked me why our marriage made it and hers didn’t. I don’t know why exactly. I don’t think we were stronger, less selfish, or more godly than others. We struggled greatly. The only thing I can think of is that we were willing to face ourselves and our failures, to die to self and sacrifice for each other. But how we were able to do this, I don’t know.
One more thing: Some people are married to very abusive spouses, and they struggle with submission. I think that “submission” is often used to control and abuse, but true submission is a mutual love and sacrifice for the other. It’s a lifting up, not a beating down. I also think that there are some marriages that a person ought not to remain in. Abuse is dangerous. I am not wise enough to know when a person ought to stay in a marriage and when they ought to escape it. That’s between them and God. I only can say that this is what we did, and how we sacrificed and loved, and how it changed us and our marriage. Through the difficulties of my marriage, I learned the following:
How to love/respect sacrificially
How to die to self
The importance and power of prayer
Who my real enemy is
That God uses difficult people to help me confront and overcome my own weaknesses
How to get my approval, worth, and identity from Him
I probably learned more things that I am unaware of or have forgotten to mention. I am really glad that I went through this difficult time, and that neither EJ or I gave up on each other. There is so much joy and love we would have lost out on if we had given up.Oh! And our struggles has also enabled us to help others who are struggling in their marriages. I have had several friends who have told me that they come to me with their struggles with their husbands because I’ve been here and they know that I understand. They sometimes have said with relief, “I’m so glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this!” Some have said, “I am so glad that you went through this–because you have helped me….” I know EJ has counseled people too.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3-7)