Focus on the Family

Taking the 'I' Out of Marriage

Selflessness is not a marriage strategy but a heart transformation in Christ.

by Clem Boyd

It was late Sunday night. Julia had slipped into something more comfortable. I could hear water running and smell scented soap. I knew what she was up to, and I loved her for it — she was cleaning the kitchen.

This is usually one of my household duties. After a weekend of nonstop activity, it would be understandable if Julia just plopped down and rested. Instead, she chose to clean the dirtiest room in the house — for the sake of the family.

Acts of sacrifice, sprinkled freely throughout a marriage, make love richer and deeper. We know that, so what's the problem with doing it? Self.

Self constantly asks for more: What about my needs? What about my hurts? What about my time? Sacrificial love challenges us to give to our spouse in uncomfortable or unreasonable ways — ways that cost us emotion, time and pride.

If we pray to become more selfless, God will act. But self-giving love as a regular virtue in marriage means that we deal with some tough questions:

How can I love this way when I'm feeling unloved?
For newlyweds, giving comes easier. After a few months, though, we need renewable motivation to maintain selflessness for our husband or wife, in spite of the cost to ourselves. Selflessness has to start with turning to Jesus.

Through Christ, we are promised God's love forever. To be selfless requires thinking about how God's love for us cost Him His Son. How can we apply this type of selflessness to loving our spouse?

Why put myself out when my spouse is acting like a jerk?
What better time is there? Jesus didn't wait till we became more kind or thoughtful before He died for us. He did it while we were still selfish and uncaring. This same extraordinary kind of love, shown in small acts of generous behavior, will improve your marriage.

One of the most selfless things about Julia is the way she listens when I'm a jerk. Recently, I was pretty negative about a youth ministry we're involved in. It was hard for her to hear that I questioned why I was doing this outreach, that it felt burdensome, that I thought it was really more her thing than my thing.

Julia didn't respond in anger. She listened, expressed her feelings and prayed quietly. She offered a gentle answer that settled my wrath, allowing me to think through the real problem. (As much as I love working with kids, it drains me.)

What's the difference between selflessness and passively letting my spouse get his or her way?
My friend Martha Manikas-Foster puts it this way: "Selflessness costs something dear, and conflict avoidance protects something dear. When my husband David became more willing to work out conflicts, putting aside his natural tendencies to avoid them, then I saw he was being selfless."

Often I'll find ways to care for Julia, but if it means discussing a problem and enduring the intense discussion that might ensue, I avoid it. The most loving thing I should do is pray about it, talk about it and stop pretending it's not there.

How can I love my spouse more when I feel as though I'm giving so much already?
You may feel overwhelmed with work, kids and church. How can you do something extra for your spouse?

When I'm out of energy, I admit it to God, then my weakness becomes a conduit for divine strength. Maybe I'm extra tired, and Julia asks me to rub her back. So I pray, God, give me energy.

Other times we may want to be the giver but won't admitour own needs. Occasionally, the most selfless thing we can do is to acknowledge feeling overwhelmed and articulate our inadequacies.

• • •

Selflessness is not a marriage strategy but a heart transformation in Christ. "Jesus defines selflessness from the Incarnation to Calvary, so to be selfless is to identify with Him," says Martha's husband, David. "The point is to value your spouse so much that her best really is your goal."