Welcome back to the podcast. We end the week talking about a marriage struggle. We have talked about many of the struggles and tensions marriages face over the years. Here’s another one of those topics, one we have not directly addressed yet. It comes to us from a young wife, who writes in anonymously to say this: “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for this podcast! I have a question about your point that men owe women a special kind of care. You’ve made this point several times on the podcast.
“In particular, Paul commands husbands to ‘not be harsh’ with their wives. He says this in Colossians 3:19. You say, ‘This admonition to men is owing to a peculiarly male temptation to be rough — even cruel — and to a peculiarly female vulnerability to that violence, on the one hand, and to a natural female gladness, on the other hand, to be honored with caring protection and strong tenderness.’ My question is this. My husband is not violent to me, praise God. But he is harsh. He’s just not a gentle man. How should I approach this topic with him?”
Well, if I’m talking to the husband — I need to just say this to get it out of the way and make sure it doesn’t go unsaid — I would have lots to say biblically, spiritually, relationally, about how he needs to deal with his own sins and personality quirks or weaknesses. But that’s not the question she’s asked. She asked us, How can I most helpfully approach him on this topic? So that’s what I’m going to talk about, perhaps with five suggestions. So, here they go.
First, I would encourage our friend to pray both for her husband and for herself in this matter of his harshness. Jesus said that we should ask God that his will would be done on earth — and that would include in our marriages — as it’s done in heaven (Matthew 6:10). And that includes that his will be done the way the angels would do it. Husbands would love their wives, and wives would love their husbands, the way angels obey God — namely, joyfully and fully and without begrudging.
“It’s completely fitting that she would intercede with her Father in heaven that her husband would be softened.”
So, it’s completely fitting that she would intercede with her Father in heaven that her husband would be softened and moved toward greater Christlikeness in his demeanor toward her. And I say that she should pray for herself as well, because even though he bears his own peculiar burden of responsibility before God for his own change, we know from Scripture and experience that God uses the behavior of husbands and wives to bring about change in each other. He uses the people around us to affect the way we do things and feel about things. So, what God does in her will have an effect on what he does in him. So, she prays for herself as well.
Second, in 1 Peter 3:1–2, Peter says to wives that they should try to bring about godly change in their husbands by means of their “respectful and pure conduct.” In other words, Peter underlines what we know from experience, that a person may be helped in his deliverance from his own sinning by the godly way that others behave around him, especially people close to him that he loves, like his wife.
I would guess that among the kind of conduct that God might use in the case of a harsh husband to bring about change would be what God said in Proverbs 15:1 (for the wife, for example): “A soft answer turns away wrath” — or maybe “turns away harshness.” Or Proverbs 25:15: “A soft tongue will break a bone” — the bone of harshness. In other words, I would encourage her not to return evil for evil or harshness for harshness, which will probably only spiral into a worse situation, but rather to try to win him toward gentleness with gentleness.
Third, there will probably come a point where she desires and needs the support of others in this effort to love her harsh husband. She will need them to pray for her and encourage her and counsel her. But I would earnestly caution her against bad-mouthing her husband behind his back with other people. This will almost certainly backfire in a more hopeless situation.
“There will probably come a point where she desires and needs the support of others in this effort.”
So then, the question is, “Well, what can she do?” Well, let me illustrate maybe what might happen. During some of our darkest days of marriage, Nöel and I both knew we came to a point where we needed to have others to counsel us. We weren’t sure yet whether it needed to be a professional counselor, a Christian counselor (which it did eventually), but we wanted some friends to encourage us and pray for us, where we could unburden ourselves and be heard with sympathy — and yet not naively, as though everything is her fault or his fault. We wanted others to pray for us.
So, we knew we did not want to talk about our problems just randomly to everybody that came along. That would’ve been harmful. So we asked each other, and we just agreed with each other on a handful of very trusted friends. And we gave each other the trusted permission to say anything that seemed helpful to say, and to ask that other couple not to share anything.
In fact, it was interesting. One of the counselors that we did choose to go to insisted that we bring with us to every counseling session — well, not to every one, but to most of them — another couple with us. Isn’t that amazing? What a strategy! I thought, That’s really good. It’s a huge commitment of time for the other couple to invest, but it means somebody else always knows what you’re dealing with, and you can’t get away with too much when that’s happening. That requires an enormous amount of trust, but that was our way forward. And it kept us from speaking about our problems with just random people. We trusted each other with those we had agreed upon. So, that’s a possible way forward, perhaps.
Fourth, I would encourage this wife to recognize that very likely, part of what she is experiencing in her husband’s harshness is owing to sin, and part of it is probably owing to — what should we call it? — the inherited genetic tendencies embedded in his own basic personality or in his upbringing.
Now, I’m not excusing any sin by saying this, but I am being realistic and acknowledging how complicated human beings are. I know people whose personality is such that you wish they would smile more. You wish that they would oil the relational wheels with a few more kind words or forthcoming encouragements or affirmations. But instead, there’s almost continual bluntness, terseness, unemotional communication.
And I have learned over the decades that in certain cases this is simply not sinful. This is a deeply ingrained personality trait with no ill will. There’s no ill will behind it. You know this over time. And it will only make matters worse if the people around these folks continually impute sin to them, where in fact that’s not mainly what’s going on.
Finally, last point. When it comes to actually approaching the husband, here are a few thoughts about how to go about that.
It is perfectly biblical — as you can see from the way Paul approaches the problems, say, in 1 Corinthians — to find explicit things that you can say by way of thankfulness and encouragement and affirmation (call them evidences of God’s grace that you see in his life), so that criticisms, when they come, are embedded in a rich context of love and verbal affirmation.
In the overall context of your relationship, then, also ask him from time to time, perhaps, if there is there anything in your own behavior or your own attitudes that are bothersome to him or frustrating to him or maddening to him or annoying to him, and ask him to point out any ways that he would like you to make changes.
I’m saying this in the larger, bigger context — no artificial way of saying, “Okay, here are three affirmations I’m going to make and three vulnerabilities I’m going to express, and now here comes my criticism.” It’s just a bigger, healthy relationship that you try to build so that when you broach a problem, it’s not part of an ugly pattern.
When you try to describe to him what you mean by his harshness, try not to globalize. This is something I had to learn about myself in dealing with my wife. Try not to globalize. That is, try not to say, “You always do this. You’re always saying it that way. You always do it that way.” I can tell you, human beings do not like the word always. If you want to push somebody away, make it sound like this criticism is global; it’s all-consuming. “That’s all you are as a human being.” Because what that says to the other person is this: “There’s no hope for you.” They will feel paralyzed and helpless.
So instead, you give one or two concrete examples that you wish they did another way — a different tone of voice or a different way of answering. And that gives them some sense, “Okay, I get that. I can see how you would hear that. I’ll try not to do that anymore.” And incrementally, then, who knows how God might be pleased to work.
And then, finally, I would say that if he indicates a sense of openness to talk about this, then you can explain your feelings more fully, you can ask for what you long for and maybe explain why it would be so happy for the relationship if he would be less harsh in these several ways. And if you both feel stuck after a while, it is perfectly biblical and right to seek help from close friends, or even, if it comes to that, from a wise Christian counselor.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith?