The door closes. I hear his footsteps on the stairs before he enters the living room. I continue my conversation as I prepare dinner, barely glancing up to acknowledge his arrival home. There’s too much to do to pause.
This scenario, and many variations of it, have played out so many times over the years, that I couldn’t honestly tell you when I stopped really seeing my husband—when I relegated him to another task on my to-do-list, another plate to keep spinning.
Of late, the lines ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find out what it means to me,’ from Aretha Franklin’s anthem song RESPECT, have been reverberating in my head—except there’s been a bold red line through the ‘me,’ and it’s been replaced with ‘him.’
Find out what it means to ‘him’—to your husband—to be respected.
Find out what it means to ‘Him’—to God—for a wife to respect her husband.
After pondering my own thoughts on the matter, one night I just came out and asked my husband. It was one of those pillow-talk moments—you know, where they just want to go to sleep, and you’re ready for a deep and meaningful conversation? On this particular night, he humored me and answered my question: “What does it mean to you to be treated with respect by me?” His response was simple—to feel respected was to be loved. For him the two were synonymous.
But I couldn’t bring myself to agree. I know that there have been many times in our marriage where I have loved him—even been in love with him—but in my heart, I have not always respected him, and I know he has felt it. He’s felt it in my tone. He’s felt it in my distance and in my independence.
I think the apostle Paul might have agreed with me about love and respect not always being synonymous—why else did he command wives to respect instead of to love their husbands? I think he probably knew that love might come more readily, and that amidst the constant demands on our time and emotions, showing our husbands respect would be more of a struggle for us; that in a post-fall world, it would no longer come naturally to us to honor them in their God-given role as head of the home and we would instead find ourselves desiring to be the one in control.
The dictionary defines respect as a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements; due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others.
The Greek word ‘phobeō’ which Paul used in Ephesians 5:33, when he commanded wives to respect their husbands, takes this concept of respect even further. Throughout the New Testament, this word is frequently translated as ‘fear,’ and it had the dual meaning of being afraid of something or someone, or reverencing and venerating them. The same word that is used to entreat us to reverently, worshipfully fear the Lord is used here to instruct us on how we are to relate to our husbands. Like a two-sided coin, phobeō presents us with a choice: Will we be afraid of our husbands and the role God has given them to play, or will we reverence them, and in doing so, reap the benefits that God intended for us?
GOD’S ORIGINAL DESIGN
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now, as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22-24).
At its very core, marriage is a beautiful foreshadowing of God’s heart to be intimately and lovingly connected to His creation. When we, as the Church, order ourselves in right relationship to Christ, submitting to His Lordship, it brings forth life and growth. God’s intention is that in the same way, our submission to and respect for our husbands would become a source of blessing in our lives.
Submission is not a popular word. It can conjure up ideas of subjugation, control, and manipulation; of diminished importance and worth on the part of the one required to submit; of losing one’s self and becoming needless, voiceless. Biblical submission, however, is never meant to diminish us but to increase us. When we study the Scriptures, submission is always for the benefit of the one being asked to submit, and the one who holds the position of authority does so to serve and protect those for whom they are responsible. It’s one of the many paradoxes of the Kingdom of God—that in yielding to the authority of another and recognizing our need for them, we become more than what we were before, not less.
Christ demonstrates this truth for us in His role as the head of the Church. His is the position of supreme authority (Ephesians 1:22, Colossians 1:18), yet He does not wield this authority for His own pleasure or benefit. He uses it for ours—to bring about our salvation and to cause us to continually grow into the fullness of what He intended us to become (Ephesians 4:15, Colossians 2:19). His headship is not about subduing us, but about Him becoming our source. When we relate rightly to Christ—recognizing our need and allowing Him the rightful position of Lord—we reap the benefits of being connected to Him.
The same is true of our marriages. When we relate to our husbands with a reverent respect, honoring and celebrating them, we help to build and maintain our connection, which causes life to flow in our marriages.
This is the original design, God’s intention, but ever since Eve acted independently in the garden and Adam failed to protect her from the serpent’s schemes, disrespect has been driving a wedge between men and women—between husbands and wives—disconnecting us from one another and distorting God’s original design.
Yes, the curse of sin thrust men and women into a conflict of epic proportions, pitting us against one another. No longer enjoying the partnership God intended, the woman would “desire to control her husband, but he would rule over her” (Genesis 3:16, NLT)—each of us seeking to dominate the other.
HOW DISRESPECT CREPT INTO MY HEART
Respect is something that I expect—if not demand—to be treated with by my husband (and my children for that matter); yet, if I’m honest, the very things that I’ve expected from my husband—a courteous tone, focused attention, consultation, and so on—I’ve often justified withholding from him because of busyness. And if I’m really honest, because of his past failures.
We met when I was very young, sweet sixteen to be exact, and married three years later. He is nearly nine years older, but despite this age gap, in the early years of our marriage, I was the mature, dependable one. This opened the door to pride and a sense of spiritual superiority.
Coupled with this initial imbalance, in that first decade of marriage we weathered many challenges, including an extended period of unemployment on his part. I didn’t realize it fully at the time, but when he fell into depression over his inability to provide for our growing family, resentment entered my heart. I felt the pressure of needing to be the glue that kept everyone and everything together. Unable to rely on him, pride and fear intermingled and the fruit that they produced was disrespect.
It was so subtle that I didn’t recognize it for what it really was.
I would belittle him with my constant questioning of how he chose to do things—even little things, like the route he chose to drive.
I would redo tasks that I’d asked him to do—sending the message loud and clear that his efforts were not good enough.
I would make decisions on my own without consulting him—justifying it with the lie that he wouldn’t be able to help me anyway.
But beneath all these attempts to maintain a semblance of control lay the lies of fear. In fact, if I’m honest, I’m only just now realizing, after some eighteen years of marriage, that at the root of my disrespect is fear: fear of losing myself and being somehow diminished; fear of being disappointed again; fear of no longer being in control and having all the plates I’m frantically spinning come crashing down.
Even my pride has been rooted in fear. It has been a lie of needing to be self-reliant—of thinking I am capable of holding everything together—fueled by my fears. Paul tells us that pride is what causes us to become disconnected from Christ as our head (Colossians 2:18-19), and in the same way my pride has caused me to disconnect from my husband, robbing him of the opportunity to be the head of our home and robbing myself of the chance to lean into a source of life that God has provided for me.
In a perfect world, our husbands would love us as Christ loves the Church. They would lay down their very lives for us and it would be easy to submit, easy to honor and respect them. Well, at least that’s what we’d like to think. But the reality is that this issue is not so much a battle of men against women as it is of sin versus righteousness. So even if we landed the world’s most perfect mate, we’d still struggle. If you are waiting for your husband to change or better himself in order for your respect to flourish, you are missing the charge. We are each on a constant journey of growing and being shaped and conformed to the image of Christ, which is why we are not commanded to respect our husbands if they keep up their end of the deal. No, we’re commanded to respect them by virtue of their relationship to us, and out of obedience to Christ. Our ability to submit to and respect our husbands is ultimately connected to our submission to and reverence for the Lord, and every time we choose to submit our lives to God’s pattern and not the world’s, righteousness wins.
There are practical things that we can do to show our respect for our husbands: We can carve out time for them, welcome them when they arrive home, praise them, watch our tone, and bite our tongues. But the simple truth is, if we don’t deal with what lies at the heart of our disrespect, all the niceties in the world will not be able to keep it at bay. God is not looking for ‘Stepford wives,’ He’s looking for women who will authentically and vulnerably love and honor their husbands. And that requires us to take the focus off them and back on our own hearts and responses—to face our own sin, our own hurts and fears, and allow God to bring healing and wholeness.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NIV).
I’ve had to be willing to ask the question: What am I really afraid of? And to then allow God to love me and strengthen me to be obedient in that place.
Truthfully, this is a journey I am still very much walking out. When I’m tempted to act in a way that is disrespectful toward my husband, I’m learning to slow down and allow God to show me what is really happening in my heart, to silence the lies of fear with the truth of His love for me, and to turn that fear into an opportunity for reverent worship and trust.
The more I let Him love me and the louder I let His truth resound in my life, the more I am able to freely love and honor my husband, unhindered by fear. The more I submit to Christ’s leadership, the more His Spirit empowers me to live as God intended.
Respect for God’s Word and His design for my marriage, for my husband, and the role God has given Him to play, are reshaping not only our relationship, but also my own heart. I’ve discovered that rather than an outdated way of thinking, Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5 are an invitation for me to return to God’s design and purpose—and if I will accept that invitation, my marriage can become a vehicle through which I personally and very intimately experience Christ, His resurrection power, and His invitation to live an abundant life.
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