The glass sun face hanging in our bathroom tells a story. It’s from our honeymoon nineteen years ago. On our last night in Ixtapa, Mexico, my husband and I had just enough money after dinner for either a taxi ride back to our hotel or to purchase this souvenir, but not both.
Convinced my brand-new husband really liked the sun face, I encouraged him to buy it. And, as we walked the hilly two miles back, he carried the package and congratulated himself on securing a treasure his wife clearly wanted.
Not long after getting back to our hotel room, I said, “I’m so glad we got that sun face for you.”
Incredulous, my husband said, “What? We didn’t get that for me. We got that for you.”
We love that story. We still repeat it to one another and laugh about it. The story the sun face tells is that on our honeymoon we were eager to walk miles in the heat to make the other happy.
All these years later, I can tell you the preferential treatment of our honeymoon hasn’t remained our default behavior. Rather, like all couples, as the days and years progressed we began to live transactionally.
Transactional living looks like this: I’ll do this for you, if you do that for me. But if you don’t keep up your end of the deal, I’m not keeping mine either.
If you work all day, I’ll cook dinner. If I do the taxes, you have to schedule the babysitters. I’m willing to mow the lawn if you do the laundry.
Or if you’re selfish, don’t expect me to be generous. If you’re critical, I will be too. And if I feel like you’re not listening to me, I’m not going to listen to you either.
In a transactional marriage, we keep a secret scoreboard in our heads, tallying our own good deeds alongside the misdeeds of the other. Not surprisingly, we always are in the lead, sure we are outperforming our spouses.
Aware of this human condition, Paul tells us “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3).
Our internal scorekeeping is not only rigged and inaccurate, but it steals our joy. The practice of picking apart our spouse’s shortcomings only begets more picking. It’s a vicious cycle. Our flesh is insatiable.
If we want any hope of a joy-filled marriage, we must heed Paul’s words, given in the same breath as his instruction above, to view ourselves with sober judgment. He says, “by the mercies of God … present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:1-2).
Rather than following the worldly model of transactional living, we are called to renew our minds. Here are four methods of renewing our minds in the midst of marriage.
1. LOOK TO JESUS AS OUR MODEL
Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
Our Savior, himself the God of all creation, left his throne in heaven, put on flesh, and came to Earth to rescue us. He, who knew no sin, took our sin upon himself, giving us his righteousness instead (2 Cor. 5:21). There has never been, nor will there ever be, a greater injustice.
In the midst of marital strife, in a season when I am prone to keep score, I try to remember Jesus’s example. If he—though perfect—was willing to die for me, how much more willing should I—being far from perfect—be willing to serve my spouse? The cross brings perspective.
2. REMEMBER PAUL’S INSTRUCTIONS
Throughout the New Testament we see a variety of instructions from Paul to wives and husbands as to how we should treat one another. What is key, though, is that the instructions are given in the context of worship. Paul tells us to love our spouses in the name of Jesus.
Right before imparting specific marital instructions in his letter to the Colossians, Paul said, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). Our treatment of our spouses is meant to flow from our love for Jesus and our gratitude to the Father.
Paul does not tell us to treat our spouses well because it’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t say to serve them because they deserve it. Through Paul, God commands us to sacrificially love our spouses because God himself deserves it. Our kindness in marriage is “to the Lord” (Eph. 4:22).
When our spouses sin against us, and when we are tempted to withhold goodness because they have wronged us, we can remember Paul’s exhortation. We serve Jesus above all. Our tenderness in marriage is in Jesus’ name.
3. ACKNOWLEDGE THAT GOD PROVIDES STRENGTH
Any married person past their honeymoon knows serving your spouse is not automatic. Our flesh is quick to serve itself and we want to be served by others. Just as our salvation was not secured by our own strength, neither are our good works. Like Paul said, it is “not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
In order to avoid transactional living, in order to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [ourselves]” (Phil. 2:3), we must remember that “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
If we are to have any hope in marriage, any expectation of longevity and happiness and unity, we must call on Christ to work through us.
4. BELIEVE THIS FOR YOUR JOY
The counter-intuitive truth of the Christian life is that joy is granted when we deny ourselves. Our Savior endured the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2). In the same way, when we seek the good of our spouse, when we forsake ourselves, we find joy.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
We find our lives when we follow our Lord and pour ourselves out. When we treat our spouses preferentially, it is for their good, for our joy, and for the glory of God.
This laying-down lifestyle is the opposite of a transactional lifestyle. This way asks, How can I bless you? What do you need? In this kind of marriage, spouses keep no record of wrongs—or rights.
Rather, they give a blessing for a cursing. They honor one another above themselves. They emulate their Savior. And they find not only a lasting marriage, but lasting joy.
Jen Oshman is a wife and mom to four daughters and has served as a missionary for 17 years on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women to a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes at www.jenoshman.com.