Does a “Christian” Marriage Need to Suffer to Grow?

by | Jan 18, 2022 | Uncategorized | 28 comments

Suffering in Marriage: Is it necessary for growth?

Have you ever thought about how much Jesus must have laughed?

And should that make a difference for how we see marriage?

On Tuesdays I like to post something super quick rather than write a long post, and I’ve been listening through older episodes of the podcast recently when I came across this 11 minute discussion between Rebecca and me on the problematic way we can sometimes see suffering–and how we think it’s superior to joy.

We’re talking this month about putting the “Christ” back in Christian marriage advice, and I think this perspective is an important one. It’s not that God doesn’t use suffering (He does!), but that God can use EVERYTHING. And if we’re to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus, that means being joyful, too, not just being holy.

Listen through to around 12:30 when the conversation changes–or, if you want to just hear about the marriage portion of this conversation, skip forward to 8:50 and listen through to 12:30.

Listen through to 12:30 (fast forward to 8:50 if you only want the marriage part)

When we think that it’s suffering that God uses to grow us, then we can stop seeing red flags in relationships, and we can stop realizing that something is wrong and needs to change.

To me, that’s the central problem. We start framing God as wanting our suffering, and so suffering is good, rather than understanding that suffering is a sign that we should be trying to change something.

I’ve got more posts on that here!

I’m not saying that God doesn’t use suffering; only that we need a more complete picture of who God is and what He’s like. God doesn’t rejoice in our suffering because now we can grow; and when we start to think that way about God, it makes him into a monster. God uses everything, and suffering can be a cause of great emotional growth. But people can also learn things in joyful times as well, so let’s not idolize suffering for suffering’s sake.

Here’s a long story by a woman who thought she was supposed to suffer in marriage.

This is the first comment I woke up to this morning, and it’s quite the doozy! It shows how a mistaken view of what God wants for us in marriage can actually mess everything up–and when you realize that God actually wants you to be well, that can change everything for the better–including those around you.

I tried for 16 years to “die to self”:

to have no feelings, opinions, needs, or limits different from those of my husband in order to “respect him.” Doing so left me confused, shrouded in guilt and shame, and steeped in self-hatred for always doing something wrong. I tiptoed and still cracked eggshells all over the place.

“Respecting” him meant:

  • Going alone to a dear friend’s evening wedding 2 hours away because I had the audacity to ask him to please wear pants that didn’t have torn pockets to this special event. I “micromanaged him” and “made him feel badly about himself” with my “criticism,” and I paid for doing so with humiliation, loneliness, and driving home alone late at night. (He didn’t wait up. Why should he when I made him feel so criticized?)
  • Panicking within as I made the choice to grab our young toddler as she reached toward a pot of boiling water on his watch. Would I be accused of “undermining” and “disrespecting” him for doing so? Or would he be grateful that I happened to see something he didn’t? (It was the former. “She’s got to learn somehow,” was his argument for why he didn’t grab her himself when, in fact, he did see her heading that way.)
  • Driving myself for a root canal after a tooth-shattering fall on the street, enduring the procedure alone, and driving myself home again to care for our young children. He didn’t even check in on me that entire day because I had made him angry by disagreeing with him, so I deserved what I got. (“I was angry at you. Why would I check on you?”)
  • Hating myself for not being able to change our Thanksgiving plans two days beforehand. We had made plans weeks in advance to have friends join us for the holiday, then suddenly he wanted to be able to include another couple. Because they had plans with their family that Thursday, he wanted us to change our plans to eat on Friday so we could accommodate them. When I said this wasn’t possible—and even rude—he flipped the script on me: “Well, I don’t recall us ever having a conversation saying we were celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday. How was I supposed to know that? Why do you always call all the shots without telling me?” I was clearly inflexible, inconsiderate of his needs, and controlling. (It took two hours in the counselor’s office for our bulldog therapist to hold him to reality and FINALLY get him to admit that he DID know we were eating Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, and that MAYBE it would be rude to expect others—including me and our children—to rearrange our plans at the last minute.)

These are just a smattering of examples of the 10%-of-the-time dynamic between us. Lemme tell ya: 10% of the time is more than enough to make you feel like you are losing your mind.

After 16 years of trying to accommodate and appease him in the name of “not sinning against him” as his subordinate, and of despising myself for failing so miserably as a wife, I had a Complete Breakdown of Self.

I simply couldn’t go on in such self-hatred and cognitive dissonance. The entire situation was killing me.

I could no longer endure the shame, and knew I needed to confess how terrible I was for regularly triggering him. I knew I needed help to repent properly and obey the Lord so as to please and support my husband.

I started to gain courage to share scenarios with a counselor and trusted friends. They were horrified, but not with me: they were horrified about his patterned mistreatment of me, about his sin against me. (It took me many years to believe them.)

A conservative Evangelical sister-friend of ten years had a different response: she accused me of being a sinful temptress who was “seducing” her husband and, after telling me she never wanted to see me again and refusing to give me any justification, sent a detailed email to my husband of how unfaithful, vicious, manipulative, and deceitful I had been to him and everyone who thought they knew me. The traumatic impact of her words and actions reverberated through me for years after, causing nightmares and cold sweats and crying breakdowns because, well, maybe she was right. We all have blind spots after all…

Over the past five years, I have regained myself.

I have, with significant, ongoing therapeutic support and a strong tribe of wise friends and sister-friends, broken free from the lies of “Christian” marriage teaching that is, well, not a whole lot different than what the Taliban teaches about male-female roles and relations.

And you know what happened to our marriage? I released the outcome. I didn’t have a choice: holding on and pulling with all my might to keep it together was simply costing me too much.

As I fought to trust God and to focus on detoxing and rebuilding myself and caring well for our children, my husband began going to counseling on his own.

I have invested my energies into believing my pain, into learning how to clearly assert my needs and feelings and to stand in the truth of them, and to set steady boundaries and high expectations for him as a man who professes Christ. I have held him accountable when he attempts to discharge his emotional pain onto me, or when he refuses to take ownership for his (very human) mistakes, or when he defaults to old manipulative strategies for avoiding responsibility. I disengage when he shows signs of adolescent emotionality, and I wait for signs that he is living into his renewed self.

He is rising to the new rhythm. He is doing his work with his counselor, taking ownership of his words and actions in the rare event he falls back into old ways, and repenting before me, our children, and our God.

Our marriage has much more growth to undergo, but I daresay I feel safe at last.

And he feels better about himself, his actions, and his relationships than he did when he was in perpetual emotional immaturity and sin. He is growing in empathy, flexibility, selflessness, compassion, honesty, trustworthiness, kindness, and self-control. Wise, fruitful words and choices make us feel confident about our masculinity and femininity, by God’s very design!

Blog Commenter

What a story! I love that. I know that this is a special case, and many abusers never change, but I love hearing this.

Do you think we can put suffering in its proper perspective? What would that look like? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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28 Comments

  1. Anon

    We live in a fallen world, so we are always going to live with suffering, but that doesn’t mean we have to seek it or try to make it worse. (If we are living a Christ-like life, suffering is probably going to come our way pretty often anyway, since the world isn’t going to like that!)

    I know a few people who are going through serious medical issues right now. They are experiencing a lot of physical suffering and growing in their faith as they turn to God to help them through it. But at the same time, they are accepting medical treatment and taking pain relief, all of which is designed to limit or cure their suffering. And I don’t think anyone would say tht their acceptance of medical treatment is making them ‘less holy’.

    When Christians don’t take a stand against bad relationships or challenge their spouse’s poor behaviour in a marriage, it’s a little like someone having a physical illness but rejecting any medical help because ‘suffering will make me more holy’.

    God can heal us physically in miraculous ways, by a direct touch from Himself. He can also heal us through other human beings using the gifts and abilities HE has given them to effect a cure. So it seems weird that some folk expect God to heal their marriage problems miraculously, but never actually think He might want to heal through human action instead.

    Reply
  2. Jo R

    The OP’s husband sounds like a real peach. He can’t be bothered to wear intact pants to a wedding so he doesn’t go at all, he’s willing to let his toddler suffer severe burns that he could easily prevent, and he can’t give a fig for his wife’s physical pain leading up to and after a root canal.

    I wonder where he could possibly have gotten those ideas from? 🙄🙄🙄

    Hard to make a case for “Christian” marriage in those terms, as grown men are given free license to do, or not do, anything that might require even the slightest sacrifice on their part and are instead infantilized back to preschool age by the “great thinkers and theologians” writing the popular “marriage” books.

    If I were single and reading “testimonials” like these, I’d be VERY glad to remain single. After all, I wouldn’t “need” sex and my husband couldn’t be expected to provide the emotional connection I do “need,” which I’d be directed to get from anyone else besides my husband. So what, again, would be the point of a marriage on those terms?

    Reply
    • Jo R

      And let’s not forget that such a “husband” is considered to represent Jesus in the relationship between Him and His church.

      Such a husband sounds a heckuva lot more like a Roman emperor than the suffering Servant, the Son of the Living God who gave Himself for us.

      Again, is THIS the kind of image these authors, pastors, and teachers want to put out there to the world? And what about impressionable teens, both boys and girls? Such a husband is the logical outcome of a wife’s unconditional deference toward her husband, where it winds up being the WIFE who does all the giving up that’s actually directed at HUSBANDS. And that section, strangely enough, always gets skipped over, or at least underemphasized, compared to the wife’s section in teachings on Ephesians 5. Hmmmmmm.🤔🤔🤔

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Yes, entitlement never produces good fruit, and yet so much of Christian teaching revolves around husbands being entitled. This is not what most men want (I don’t think, and not in my experience), nor is it true to Scripture.

        Reply
  3. A2bbethany

    After 20minutes or so, it finally loaded up for me and my husband!

    I had told my sister about it, asking if this was her. As her journey has been a similar situation, though involving a few differences. She asked me to send it to her and then I couldn’t get it to load! But I guess it was a minor issue that’s now fixed. I’m glad, as it’s too powerful of a testimony against bad teachings, for you to have removed it.(something I briefly considered when it wasn’t loading.)

    Reply
  4. Nathan

    Sheila, I think that you mentioned once that while God DOES use suffering to help us grow at times, this shouldn’t come at you from the home. Your home and your family should be a safe zone in the world. Also, there’s a difference between suffering and abuse.

    Reply
    • EOF

      And don’t forget that Christians are instructed/allowed to flee from persecution. Why would the same Bible demand women put up with abuse decade after decade?

      Reply
  5. Jane Eyre

    The “why” of suffering is the important part, and I do not mean theologically.

    If you are suffering in your marriage because your spouse is disabled, you are called on to remain firm to your commitment, but you’re also entitled to help from your community. However, if you are suffering because your spouse is cheating on you, emotionally abusing you, or simply refuses to be a team with you, your spouse needs to change. Your spouse needs to understand that this isn’t an acceptable way to behave. Your church community needs to have your back.

    Are you “suffering” because your wife put on 20 pounds after the kids and doesn’t provide enough sex, or your husband doesn’t earn enough money for the big fancy house you want? That’s not suffering.

    Put differently, we pledged to love for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or worse. If those things are causing your suffering, seek support for your marriage and whatever practical support is offered. But if your suffering is due to your spouse being unloving towards you, you have a problem with your marriage.

    Reply
  6. Faith

    It really gets me how her husband was going to let her toddler possibly get into boiling pot of water, because “she needed to learn?”
    So immature. She could have gotten severely burned to the point of it being life threatening, and the health providers would be looking at the parents asking how it happened.

    Reply
    • Jane Eyre

      That was awful. The little girl could have been burned for life and her toddler brain can’t comprehend that. Not sure what lesson she was supposed to learn, except that the world is a dangerous place and her parents don’t protect her.

      Reply
    • CMT

      Yeah that part jumped out at me too. Best case scenario I thought maybe the dad didn’t actually see the kid was in danger in time to do anything about it, felt guilty about that and then displaced those feelings into blaming the mom and trying to justify himself. Still hugely problematic but maybe not quite as callous as letting a small child get scalded to “teach them a lesson.” Obviously this couple seems to have worked through that, but personally I’m not sure I could forgive a person who genuinely did believe this was an OK way to parent a toddler.

      Reply
  7. Nathan

    Sheila says
    > > This is not what most men want (I don’t think, and
    > > not in my experience)

    I definitely don’t. I mentioned this once before, but it’s important enough to do again.

    I wasn’t raised in the male/husband entitlement mentality. My family was composed of several good and strong men and women. Same goes for Mrs. Nathan

    But let’s assume that Mrs. Nathan HAD grown up in the male patriarchy culture. And then told me that she firmly believed in God’s view that the husband is in complete charge, makes all decisions, all comfort and need revolve around him, and so on.

    At first, I’d probably like it, and why not? I’d be the king of the castle, and would be the big boss all the time. I’d get my way on everything all the time.

    Ultimately, though, it would leave me feeling empty and unfulfilled. I want an equal partner, not a maid, employee or, as JoR once said, an obedient emotionless nanny sexbot. It may sound great on the surface, but it would mighty old mighty fast.

    Reply
  8. Mara R

    Actually had someone compare my marriage to the time Corrie ten Boom spent in a Nazi concentration camp, stating that my marriage couldn’t be ‘that’ bad. And, if Corrie could endure the concentration camp, then surely I could endure my marriage.

    How sick is that?

    Reply
  9. Sarah

    I have seen this strand of thinking so much in Christian circles, and it bothers me. In my view, suffering can be redeemed by God; it is not, in and of itself, redemptive. That is; God can work for good in the situation, but suffering doesn’t automatically make us holier. Sometimes awful things just happen and they are awful and nothing good comes of them because we live in a broken world. Not all suffering can be made sense of. I feel like I’m the dark rain cloud in the corner at the Christian positivity party, thundering ‘Not everything happens for a reason!’ But I know I’m in good company, because Jesus said similar things. He rebuked his disciples for thinking the man born blind was directly correlated with his or his parents’ sin. When a natural disaster occurred (a tower falling on some people) he countered the prevailing belief that it was because they were worse sinners than everyone else. Scripture is full of similar examples. Read Judges 19 and then tell me that suffering is redemptive.

    This is difficult because it is tied up in one’s theology of the Cross. If Jesus suffered once for all on our behalf, surely suffering is redemptive? Little important distinction: he was enduring suffering in the course of pursuing an objective that would bring glory to the Father (i.e our salvation). Jesus’ suffering on the Cross had purpose. Not all suffering does. In Acts, the disciples counted themselves worthy of suffering *for the Name*, not for any other reason. If a disciple broke his arm falling out of bed, that wouldn’t be suffering for the Name, but suffering for speaking the Gospel would be.

    All this to say, as Christians we often do a 💩 job of just sitting with people who are suffering and not having to have all the answers. We do a 💩 job of distinguishing between suffering for the Name and just plain suffering. Being abused in marriage isn’t suffering for the Name; it’s just suffering.

    This attitude, I think, is the root cause of a lot of strange Christian attitudes to pain. I once had a friend who told me that if she were to give birth, she’d want to do so without pain relief, even if it really hurt; her rationale being that childbirth is more rewarding if you’ve suffered in order to meet your baby. On a lower level, I know plenty of Christians who won’t take painkillers for a headache or other medication when they need it because it’s holier/better for you to suffer through it. Truly bizarre IMO.

    One more thing, then I’m done. Christian author Jeff Lucas recounts going to a prayer meeting once where people were encouraged to share blessings from their week. A sheep farmer stood up and said, ‘This week a sheep kicked me in the head. Praise God!’ And if that doesn’t illustrate how twisted we get the issue of suffering, I don’t know what does.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So good, Sarah! Exactly. Just because God can use something in your life does not mean that He planned, wanted it, or purposed it. And it doesn’t mean it’s good or a blessing either. It just means that God can bring something good out of it. But those are not the same thing!

      Reply
  10. Cara

    That’s my marriage – or was – it’s been 11 years we’ve been married and the majority of it has been excruciatingly infuriating.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Cara. Can you find a licensed counselor to talk to? Or do you feel trapped?

      Reply
  11. Emmy

    There will be suffering, persecution and trouble, sure. It is, however, not God’s will in any way that we’d make each other suffer! Nope! Like Paul wrote to the Thessalonicans, we are not to harm our brothers and sisters in any way, for God will see it and not be happy with it.

    Reply
  12. CMT

    I have a lot of thoughts about the reader story. I’m wondering if others noticed what she said about “dying to self” right at the beginning. I never experienced anything like the degree of crazy-making and abusive behavior that this woman did, but my belief about what “dying to self” means was pretty similar to hers back when I first got married. Why do we think that this just means self-abnegation and emotional suppression? Why does it seem like women particularly get hit with this in context of relationships? And if it doesn’t mean “lie down and be a doormat, then say “Praise God!” when people step on you,” what does it mean?

    Reply
  13. Cynthia

    In the middle of the night, I suddenly thought about what the story of the Exodus has to say.

    We are told that the slaves were clearly experiencing affliction. They were deeply oppressed and it was an awful situation. Despite that, and even with Divine assistance, leaving was hard. It meant giving up the very little bit of comfort and security that they had – things as basic as properly baked bread. The freed slaves are preoccupied with basic concerns like food and water. They are fearful. At times, they seem willing to give up their new freedom just to have food and security.

    Staying and suffering without changing anything wasn’t the goal. Real change required a willingness to break those bonds of dependence, which could mean suffering even more in the short-term, to reach a long-term goal. That goal wouldn’t be just about them, but would benefit their children and all of their descendants.

    There’s some of that in the Book of Esther too. Esther is distressed by the approaching threat of genocide of her people, but she’s terrified to risk her life by approaching her husband, the king who has the power to kill her. She finally overcomes her fear, being willing to sacrifice her life to try to save her people.

    Leaving a bad, even abusive, family situation is hard. In addition to the outright bad stuff, there is the dependence that develops. People cling to the bits that seem good, they come to lack confidence that they could survive on their own, and they don’t want to face the risks to safety and losses that could come with leaving. The fact is that it IS a moment of increased danger, and there are hardships that often need to be faced before things get better. But it’s not just senseless suffering. It is a sacrifice for a purpose, for a better future especially for the children.

    Reply
    • CMT

      This is really good. Beautiful insight.

      Reply
  14. Prisni

    Wow! What a story that I am grateful to myself I took time to read. I love that she basically gave her husband to God and started focusing on herself and their child.

    Matthew 7:3-5 “ Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

    My husband works and I’m school. At first, I thought he was doing it for his family. Only to find out he was doing it for himself. He thinks because he worked he doesn’t have to do anything when he gets home. His own sister said he’s selfish and he acts just like there mother. Trust me when I say that is not a compliment. Their mother is not a decent person at all. We have two kids under two and one is showing clear signs of autism. It is work 24/7 to take care of these kids. My mother watched them once and even she said it was a struggle. So imaging doing to every day on top of trying to pump breastmilk every 2 hours. I was losing
    My mind trying to be the perfect mother and wife. I had a complete melt down and almost killed my self. Now, I’m getting therapy and realizing I need to let go of my husband and give him to God. I can’t change him, but I can change myself.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Prisni. That sounds like such a lot of work. I think your therapist is right. The only thing I’d say is that it’s okay to have expectations and communicate that to him, and it’s okay to set boundaries. No, you can’t change him, but you can be firm about what is and isn’t acceptable.

      Reply
  15. Nessie

    Re: the podcast…
    I feel like deep down, if they introspect enough, these men realize they are not living the life God has called them to (in various ways) and, instead of doing the hard work themselves of pursuing Christ and learning how to love/live like Him, they demand women coddle them and prop them up so that they can *feel* like they measure up to a Christ-like standard.

    Honestly, I would feel really disrespected if people were coddling me and not calling me to a more Christ-like existence because they thought I was incapable of achieving that.

    Re: suffering in marriage…
    I feel the suffering (which is certainly not to the level of many other women) I have gone through in my marriage for 2 decades has limited my ability to serve Christ. I have not become more Christ-like because of my marriage, but I *have* been hindered in becoming more like Him. And that’s really sad since marriage is a major analogy that Christ used to display His love for us, His bride. What a missed opportunity when people tell women to suffer in their marriages to become more like Him. How does that bring glory to God when non-Christians see our marriages full of suffering for many women? It is our light that can draw them to Christ, not our darkness.

    Reply
    • Nessie

      Oops, my comment covered two podcasts! Thalidomide, and marriage books claiming men fragile. Sorry for any confusion!

      Reply
    • Melanie

      One day my son hit the zenith of the “teenager who just discovered serving God” where he’s all on fire, and ready to save the world… he was telling me all he was learning, and then stopped and asked me: What have you been doing all these years?
      [Translation: Maybe you haven’t really been serious about this? Otherwise maybe you’d have more… to show for the past two decades of following Jesus?]

      I looked him dead in the eye and said: I’ve been trying to keep your family together.

      Finally. Out loud. We were separated (or maybe divorced) by then and it finally hit me. This was taking nearly everything I had in me and then some.

      My son hung his head and said: I am so sorry. (He is an AMAZING husband. Both my boys are.)

      And one of my dear (now with the Lord, too young, sadly) friends said to me the same thing: Marriage is supposed to glorify God. This doesn’t do that. And it’s not your fault that it doesn’t.

      Reply

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