When men do pray, they often simply want their own lives to be pain free. Men will work at making money, keeping the yard neat, or helping the kids in sports, but many don’t work or think about things that last.
A husband will rarely ask God for his wife to become more like Jesus. Let’s say she is critical of him. When he tries to talk to her about it, she says, “I wouldn’t be so critical of you if you didn’t have so many problems.” By raising the issue, he just got more criticism, so his heart quietly shuts down. He just doesn’t care anymore. She is who she is. So he moves on with life and flips on the television.
Without realizing it, he has become cynical about the possibility of real change in his wife. A childlike spirit seems naïve, like a distant memory. He is wise as a serpent, but he’s not harmless as a dove. He is surrounded by idiots, and his only choice, like the Greek stoics, is to tough it out. Low-level evil has worn him down.
To engage God in prayer about his wife’s attitude feels like opening up an old wound. Just telling this to God is frustrating because it feels so hopeless, the spiritual version of banging your head against the wall. It is simply easier not even to think about it. Mixed in with his frustration is guilt. Some of what she says is true. He isn’t sure where her sin ends and his begins.
The husband also hesitates to pray because he’s been told that he shouldn’t try to control his wife. But the point of prayer is shifting control from you to God. Moreover, doesn’t the Father want all of us to become more like his Son?
Where should the husband begin? Like a little child, he should ask God for what he wants. It might help to write down in a prayer notebook or on a card what he wants changed in his wife and to find a scripture that describes Christ in her. Then he could start praying that scripture for her every day and also invite God to work in his own heart.
This prayer request will become a twenty-year adventure. The adventure begins with asking God, Do I have a critical spirit too? Do I respond to my wife’s critical spirit with my own critical spirit? Usually, what bugs us the most about other people is true of us as well. By first taking the beam out of his own eye (see Matthew 7:1-5), the husband releases in his wife’s life the unseen energy of the Spirit. The kingdom is beginning to come.
The husband can let God use his wife’s criticism to make him more like Jesus. Instead of fighting what she says, if at all possible he can do it. We can’t do battle with evil without letting God destroy the evil in us as well. The world is far too intertwined.
Deep down, we instinctively know that God works this way, and we pull back from prayer. Like Jonah outside the city of Nineveh complaining about God’s mercy, we say, “God, I knew you would do that. As soon as I started praying for her, you started working on me.”
By taking his wife’s criticism seriously, the husband might feel he is losing his identity, becoming a Christian codependent, mindlessly trying to be good. He is not. He is simply following his Master, who “rose from supper . . . laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5). Jesus’ love is so physical. Our love must be as physical as his.
The husband is not “under his wife’s thumb”; he is entering into Jesus’ life. The husband can’t believe the gospel unless he is also becoming the gospel. In other words, once you’ve learned that God loves you, you need to extend his love to others. Otherwise, the love of God sours. By extending grace to his wife, the husband is being drawn into the life of the Son. He will become Christlike.
The husband can’t leave a vacuum in his heart either. He must replace his critical spirit with a thankful spirit. One of the best ways of doing that is writing out on a card or in a prayer notebook short phrases of how he is thankful for her. By thanking God daily for specific things about his wife, he will begin to see her for who she is—a gift.
At first glance this feels like the husband is whitewashing reality. Life feels uneven, unfair. After all, the wife is the one with the critical spirit; not only is he putting energy into reflecting on his tendency to be critical (which isn’t half as bad as hers), but he’s also working at being thankful for her. The only thing he has going for him is his pitiful little prayer.
A thankful heart is constantly extending grace because it has received grace. Love and grace are uneven. God poured out on his own Son the criticism I deserve. Now he invites me to pour out undeserving grace on someone who has hurt me. Grace begets grace. This husband is taking a journey into the heart of God.
Welcome to the life of God! That’s what a life of grace feels like, especially in the beginning. That pitiful little prayer is tapping into the power center of the universe. If the husband hangs in there, he will be amazed at the creative energy of God. Grace will win the day.
Praying steadily for his wife will help him to become more aware of her as a person. Peter challenges husbands to treat their wives with “honor . . . since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). You can’t separate prayer from love.
Watch what happens over time. By getting his ego out of the way, the husband makes room for the Spirit to work in his wife’s life. God will start doing things far more effectively than the husband ever could. No one teaches like God.
Over time the husband might discover that his courage and wisdom are growing. He’ll find the best phrasing, the best timing to be gently honest with his wife. He’ll move from trying to win a battle to loving a friend. The kingdom is coming!