The situation described in the following letter is entirely fictitious, including persons, names, crimes, sins, relationships, circumstances and all particulars. The kind of situation that is described, however, is all too common and my hope is that biblical principles applied to this fictitious scenario may be of some help to individuals tangled up in a real one.
Thank you for your letter, and thank you also for your request for our perspective on your marriage. Since you got married five years ago, we have only seen you intermittently, at family reunions and such. After a year or so, Nancy and I guessed that something was off in your relationship with Jon, but didn’t have enough to go on that would justify asking a direct question. But we did have enough to start praying about it, and enough to regard your letter as a direct answer to that prayer. So thank you for writing.
You mentioned in the letter than Jon knew you were writing, and that he was grateful for it. Your letter contained a pretty thorough expression of your unhappiness in your marriage, and since Jon was in town for his conference last week, I took the opportunity to have lunch with him and get his take on everything. You asked us to tell you what we see, and I am glad we can answer that having heard from both of you. But given the nature of what I am going to say here, I am just sending this letter to you and not to Jon. If you would like to, you may share it with him. I would encourage that, but wanted to write to you privately first.
If I could, I would like to start by summarizing your complaint, which falls under two general heads. The first is that Jon seems incapable of meeting your needs, and the second is that you feel like you are trapped in a severe identity crisis. Who are you? What are you for? Why do all your desires to express yourself creatively seem thwarted at every turn? You believed early on that having children would answer the questions, or resolve the problems, but in your experience the two kids have only accentuated your sense of alienation. And that is the one word I would use to describe what you are experiencing—alienation. When Jon tries to speak to you, or fellowship with you, it seems to you like he is shouting across a chasm. It would be the same thing for you if you tried to commune with him, but you are tired and exhausted, and don’t feel like shouting across that chasm. Is this a faithful summary?
Now before getting into what we see, I wanted qualify something first. I want you to know and understand that nothing said here would apply to a woman who was married to a genuine tyrant. I have often wished that more women would be willing to be Abigails in dealing with their Nabals, and those situations are scarcely rare. I know that there are marriages where the husbands are thugs and bullies, and that their wives need to learn how to bring things to a head. I know of such situations at first hand. When that happens, and it happens too often, I am firmly in the corner of the wife who is the victim. Many women need to learn to be an Abigail.
But in this situation, I think you need to learn how to be more like Abigail in a different relationship, when she was dealing with her future husband David. “When Abigail saw David, she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground.” (1 Samuel 25:23, ESV). This obviously requires further explanation, which I will get to shortly.
In the meantime, as you know, and as you said in a number of different ways in your letter, Jon is the exact opposite of a tyrant. He is faithful to you. He comes home every night. He holds down two jobs, doing both of them very well, and has provided for you amply. He takes you and the kids to church, and reads to the kids pretty much every evening. He doesn’t have a temper, and has sought out numerous marriage counselors for the two of you—and all to no avail. Now I want to tell you (as I already told Jon) that he does have a significant failing as a husband—but that failing is not one of being an overbearing tyrant. Those men exist but—I trust you will agree—not at your house.
So what is his problem? It is, in short, the fact that he is afraid to stand up to you in your emotional fluctuations. In brief, he is being a great husband to you in every area except the one place where you most desperately need a husband. And this is why you are in a constant state of frustration. Can you name one time when Jon helped you to confront and conquer a blue funk? I know he has thought about attempting it a number of times, but the slightest motion in that direction causes him to become the object of your unhappiness—which usually happens later on anyway. Trying to lead you in that moment seems to him to be a sure fire way to make things worse.
When the mood is upon you—and you say they are increasingly frequent since last winter—you feel exasperated, pulled thin, alienated, useless, and unloved. The hidden assumption in this (for both you and Jon) is that you take these emotional states as reliable and authoritative, instead of rejecting them as being the most manifest and bald-faced liars. You say that you know Jon loves you, but then you say in the next breath that you feel unloved. And in every battle between your knowledge and your feelings, which one wins? You take the word of your lying feelings over the word of your accurate assessment, over against your knowledge. Your feelings are your authority, even when you know they are being deceitful. Worse yet, Jon takes them as authoritative as well.
He does not help you face down your feelings as liars because he is afraid that it would be gasoline on the fire. The feelings that are currently raging beyond his control would suddenly be ten times bigger (and for a brief time they probably would be), and then he really would have terrible trouble. Jon loves you, and is very afraid of losing you. And when I spoke to him about whether he saw what I am talking about here, he said that he did. And he also acknowledged that he doesn’t attempt to do anything about it because he is afraid.
Before allowing contempt to creep in here (because it is hard for a woman not look down on a man who is afraid in this way), let me say one thing that should ameliorate any contempt. He still needs to do what must be done, and his fear has been destructive, but it is at least understandable. Jon needs to stand up to you when you are at your most volatile. But not only is he up against you—and you are, remember, kind of a force of nature—he is also up against the entire secular world and most of the Christian world. He is up against all your marriage counselors to date. He is up against the medical profession, including your doctor who prescribed your anti-depressants. In short, he is pretty close to being the soldier trying to explain to his drill sergeant how it is actually the rest of the army that is out of step. He is in a difficult place.
I am encouraged you wrote to ask us what we thought (because you had to have some kind of inkling what kind of counsel we would give). That means that it is quite possible that you will come to a frame of mind that will be a big help to Jon as he does what he needs to do. But even if this letter makes you angry, and you reject it entirely, Jon still needs to establish a rule for your household that you will do nothing on the basis of manifest falsehoods. Lies are not authoritative, and this is particularly so for emotional lies.
You said that Jon isn’t meeting your needs, and that you don’t feel nourished and cherished. You said that he isn’t “feeding” you. But Jon is not failing to feed you in the midst of a famine. He is trying to figure out what to do about the fact that you have gone on a hunger strike. When Jon reads Scripture to the kids, what do you do? Are you off in the kitchen doing the dishes? Perhaps making a little extra noise?
Now here is what you can do, and I am afraid it is an unpleasant prescription. You can submit to your husband, entirely and with a whole heart. You can determine that you are going to follow and obey him. He is good man. He is not going to take advantage of you. He is no jerk. His one great failing is not one that places him anywhere in the neighborhood of being an abuser. On top of this, your deliberate withholding of a submissive spirit is why things can never be smooth between you. “You do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love through lack of obedience . . . No one has ever told you that obedience—humility—is an erotic necessity” (That Hideous Strength, p. 148).
I qualified this earlier—but I do want to qualify it again. This is a fallen world, and so it is that no human authority can ever be considered an absolute. This plainly includes the authority of husbands. Authority can be wielded in unwise and foolish ways, and also in criminal ways. This really is a fallen world. But when authority goes bad it can go bad in two directions—it can become overweening and arrogant, or it can also become retiring and abdicating. This latter route is what Jon has done—but under pressure from you to do so. Your problem is not excessive authority, but a deficiency in submission.
You challenge him, hoping deep down that he will (this time) stand up to you. But if he does, you know (as does he also, quite well) that he will be in a fire fight. You challenge him, hoping at a basic emotional level to lose, and despising him when you don’t lose. At the same time, all the bad teaching you have received on role relationships is haunting your head (not to mention his). You have been encouraged (by sweet, well-meaning Christians) to explore your own creativity, to validate your own feelings, to affirm the value of self-authentication, and all the rest of that foolishness. He has been encouraged to create space for your emotions, to encourage you as you try to articulate how you are feeling, to build your studio out in the back, and so on. But the more he does that (and he has done it quite a bit) the worse everything gets.
What does the Bible teach about the value of self-expression? “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov. 29:11, ESV). And what does the Scripture teach about the wisdom of following your own heart? “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool: But whoso walketh wisely, he shall be delivered” (Prov. 28:26).
And so what I am building up to is the fact that you need to stop listening to your own heart, and start listening to your husband. Whatever doubts you have about him as a husband, he will treat you ten times better than your emotions treat you. You need to break up with your emotions. Talk about an abusive relationship.
You need to go to Jon and seek his forgiveness for being so disrespectful of his efforts, apologize heartily, and tell him that you have resolved before God to obey him in everything. Ask him to help you to do that. I am quite aware that giving this kind of counsel is probably illegal in all fifty states, so I would be obliged if you didn’t post this on the Internet. I have enough troubles.
But think about it. The passages that require wifely submission do not apply (as I happily grant) to a woman married to a serial killer. But these passages do apply to someone. Someone should read these passages of Scripture and see in them their need to obey. And I am convinced that missing this need for application is the single greatest obstacle to contentment in your marriage.
Here it is, from four different translations:
“Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” (Eph. 5:24, KJV).
“Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (Eph. 5:24, NKJV).
“Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:24, ESV).
“But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything” (Eph. 5:24, NASB).
Not only is this the case, but it says the same thing in the Greek.
You said in your letter than you would have left Jon by now if Scripture allowed it, and Jon confirmed that you had said the same thing to him a number of times. But this is simply a formula for continued misery. In other words, you don’t want to be in the terrible position of submitting to half of what the Scriptures require. The Bible does just require you to not leave Jon (since you certainly don’t have grounds), but it also requires you to submit to Jon in everything.
One of the reasons you are so miserable is that you are falling between two stools. “And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word” (1 Kings 18:21). You are getting just enough biblical Christianity to keep you stuck in an unhappy marriage, but not enough biblical Christianity to give you peace there.
If secular feminism is right, then ditch it all and follow your dreams. Now my prediction would be that, if you were to do this, you would not find contentment there either. Your dreams are lying to you, and Scripture is telling you the truth. But if Scripture is telling you the truth, you need to follow the Lord, and be all in.
Men and women are God’s invention. He designed us, and He designed us to function in a particular way. When we abandon that way, we lose our way, we lose our grip. Deserting our assigned sex roles is like painters abandoning paint, brushes, canvas, and going in big for conceptual art. The results just get increasingly silly and incoherent. The greatest accomplishment of feminism as such conceptual art is to make women miserable. Many of them have figured out that the promise “you can have it all” is a lie, and have blamed feminism for lying to them, and have turned away from feminism. Other women, including many Christians, and I would place you in this category, have blamed their husbands for feminism’s failures.
I mentioned earlier your identity crisis. Who are you? Moreover, how can you come to know who you are? Jesus teaches us the answer to this crucial question, and there is a glorious gospel logic in it. If you want to find yourself, you have to lose yourself first. Self-identity comes through surrender. “And whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25). This foundational truth for every Christian, men and women both. We all must surrender to the authority of the Lord Jesus, and to the sure words of Scripture. But when we die, we encounter our resurrected selves. When we lose “self,” we find that God returns it to us, but no longer diseased.
One last thing. I know that your emotions will be clamoring at you, telling you that this is all a trick, that you are about to join a cult, that you are being invited to drink the Kool-Aid, and so on. But you know the women in our family, just as I do. They exhibit two things that you don’t have. They all have a submissive spirit, down to the foundation. That is one thing. But also all have strong personalities, a sense of identity and belonging, lives of purpose and fulfillment, happiness in their people, and so on. In short, they are not alienated from their own being. But neither are they downtrodden. You cannot tell yourself that if you do what I am suggesting, you will be miserable. First, you are miserable now. And second, the way of contentment that is being offered to you really is plausible. You can see the fruit yourself.
Again, thanks for writing. If this letter is something you can even halfway receive, Nancy and I would be willing to drive halfway and meet you and Jon for lunch in Spokane. Let us know, and we love you all.