Don’t Lead Your Wife; Serve Her
Scripture calls husbands to lead their wives. But what does this look like? How do we know if we’re leading our wives well? Listen as Alasdair Groves talks about what it looks like to focus on serving our wives rather than focusing on our role as leader.
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves. And I’m the host of Where Life and Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, where our mission is to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church.
So I’m sitting in counseling with a husband named Rick the other day. And of course, Rick is not his real name. I’m sitting with Rick. He talks about his business and some of the pressures there. And he loves to talk about business, and he is an interesting guy. He’s a responsible guy. He’s productive, likes getting stuff done, a deacon in his church. Anyway. He’s chatting with me because of some struggles in his marriage. He talks about how often he feels like what he does is not good enough. He feels pressured at home, like he should be doing more and doing it better. One particular area he shares about is, he knows that he wants to do a better job leading his family, in particular spiritually. He often mentions how he feels badly that he isn’t a better leader, sometimes comments that it’s hard to know what he should be doing to be a better leader. Other times though, he feels that his wife’s expectations for him to lead her, lead the family, are confusing or that they can be a moving target.
What he probably brings up most often, for example, is that he wants to be having family devotions, but they hardly ever happen. And when they do, they often don’t feel like they go terribly well. Or Rick feels bad that he rarely prays with his wife. They’ll pray one night before bed and again the next day, but the day after that they get distracted and forget, or a child is sick or having trouble with homework and they don’t end up praying that night, they get off track. Three weeks later, his wife will gently mention a, “Hey, it’s been a while since we prayed together.” And he feels guilty, so he tries to restart it. And it goes for a day or two or three, but it gets forgotten and the cycle repeats. He has this sense that he’s letting his wife down, and some of that is from him and some of that is from her. He faces pressures at work too, of course, but he has more of a sense there that he knows what he’s doing and he’s in control. But it’s when he comes home that he feels more unsure of himself and doesn’t quite know what he should be doing. It feels like he’s scrambling, feels like there’s more pressure here, there’s more expectation here than is really reasonable, and yet he also still feels guilty. Rick summed things up for me the other day by saying something like this. He said, “I don’t feel like I am leading my family. I feel like we’re just surviving.” And he said that to me in various forms over the times that we’ve had the chance to talk. But the idea that continues to be repeated is that Rick wants to lead his family. He wants to lead his wife. And he doesn’t feel like he’s leading well and he’s burdened by that.
In response to him, when he said that, I told him something that was provocative, and it was intentionally provocative. I said to him, I think you need to stop leading your family. I think you need to stop leading your wife. And I paused, and then I said, and you need to focus on serving your wife instead, serving your family instead. Now I will rush to clarify with you as I did with him in that moment that I’m not saying leadership is bad. I’m not saying don’t lead, it’s wrong or anything like that. I have nothing against leadership and husbands leading their wives and leading well. In fact, what I mean in saying what I said to him and what I’m musing about here with you today is that I’m actually targeting a better kind of leadership, a better kind of really proactively thinking. So let me flesh this out a touch by looking at two things. I want to think for a moment or two about the problem that I think a lot of husbands have when they think about leading their family, leading their wives, and then a few moments as well thinking about what is the response. What am I getting at when I say, “Don’t lead your wife, serve her.” Why would I phrase it that way? What would be the benefit? How would that lead towards better leadership?
So here’s the problem. There’s just a ton of pressure that a lot of men feel. I say a lot, I suppose there are men out there who don’t feel a lot of pressure in their marriages. I just don’t know any of them. I haven’t talked to any of them. I probably could say all men are operating under a ton of pressure in their marriages, all husbands, all men who are married. And it is very easy to get discouraged and stressed out by that pressure. And I find it tends to go one of two directions. Number one, it goes towards abdication. I feel the pressure and I just give up. I withdraw. I go passive. I pull back, “I’m going to let her do family devotions. She cares about it and she’s better than me.” Or, “No one’s going to do family devotions. I’m just going to try to avoid thinking about it or talking about it. When she says something to me about it, I’ll sort of brush off with, Oh yeah, yeah, maybe we should, or, oh, I’ll look into it. Or, Hey, maybe you should get us one of those devotional things or something.” And just that pushing away, “It’s too much. I can’t go there.” I find often in order to sort of protect their abdication, men like to build fences or walls or rules or set expectations. Some kind of like, “Well, I’ll do this, but you’ll do that.” Or, “I’ll set things in place as best I can to protect myself from the experience of there’s these demands out there I can’t meet. So I just try to pull away from things that feel like they are too much.”
The flip side, the other way that men can go is really the route of being more controlling. Right? I’m threatened by you giving me any input. If I’m supposed to lead, if I’m supposed to be the one in charge here, then that’s undercut if you have ideas or if I listen to you or hear from you or take your advice or seek out your perspective and your wisdom. Or if you’re better or more skilled in a given area than me, and then obviously it’s going to take extremely bad forms. But even in its more mild forms, there can be this sense of, “I need to make all the decisions. I can’t delegate anything. I’ve got to really be the only one making choices about what our family does and how we live our lives.”
Neither of these is good. Both of them are understandable. Pressure is one name for, in a sense, all of temptation that a broken world puts on us. It’s easy in a broken fallen world where we are sinners as men. And that doesn’t stop when you get married, as every wife can tell you. We so easily gravitate toward escaping from pressure by either trying to force the situation to be what we want or ejecting from the situation as much as we can.
So what’s better than that? How does the idea of serving rather than leading help us? Well, again, caveat, I’m not against leading, I’m not against making plans. I’m not against strategic thinking in the family, in the home. But when I say focus on serving your wife more than leading your wife, there’s really two core benefits that that brings. And one is that it makes you constantly outwardly focused. Right? So when you think about not what does it mean to be a leader of my wife, but rather how do I serve my wife, it puts the focus on her. Her good is the point. What will be beneficial to her? How do I know what she needs? How can I focus on what will be a blessing in her life in this season? And it takes the focus off of me where me having a plan, me being a good leader, me making good decisions is the focus. Now there’s nothing wrong with self-evaluation. There’s nothing wrong with thinking through, how am I doing as a leader? I have no problem with that question. We should all be asking ourselves good, honest questions about how we’re handling any of the roles and responsibilities we bear in this life. How am I doing in my walk with the Lord? How am I… Right? There’s nothing wrong with thinking about yourself in an appropriately self evaluative way before the Lord and in prayer.
My point is that I feel like what so often happens is the point, the goal actually becomes me being a good leader, as if me abstractly as a leader is the point. Rather than the point of leadership is to care for others, it’s to nurture others. It’s to shepherd and protect and provide for and encourage and so on and so forth. And that focus is what needs to be the focus. Good leadership isn’t so worried about how am I doing in my leadership, good leadership is worried about how are you doing in life, how are you with the Lord, how are you walking through this particular season and whatever challenges it brings. So serving that focus has this wonderful way of pulling you outward toward your wife.
Secondly, serve rather than lead makes you constantly intentional. What would be the greatest blessing to her? Here, I think about Philippians 1:9 where Paul prays that the love of the Philippians would abound more and more in knowledge and discernment or knowledge and depth of insight, depending on your translation. The point being that Paul is saying, when you love, you instinctively want to know more. I’m a big sports fan. I like sports. I follow Philadelphia sports teams. So if it’s football season, it’ll be the Eagles or the winter, it’ll be the Sixers and the Flyers and so on and so forth. I got the Phillies and you get the picture. You don’t have to tell me, “Oh, you know what? There’s going to be a game this weekend.” You don’t have to tell me the names of players on the team. I want to know more. I’ll read a blog after watching some of the game. If I can’t see the game, I’ll watch the highlights for 10 minutes the next day, because I want to see, I want to know more. I want to get a sense of how is the secondary doing and how much are we really leaning into the new wide receivers we’ve got, and so on and forth. Get the idea, right? When you love something, nobody has to force you to get to know things about what you love. And it should be the same in marriage. The more you love your wife, the more you’re just going to want to know her and understand her. And where is she struggling, particularly in this season? Where is she really growing in this season? What are her hopes and goals right now? What are the biggest things that weigh on her? What are the opportunities that she has? What are the opportunities she wishes she has? Where are her gifts? Where are her weaknesses? What would really be a blessing to her today? What does she most enjoy? What are her fears? Right? And on and on and on. Knowing your wife is a lifelong pursuit. And the more you love, the more you are going to be drawn to know. And so if you find yourself not really interested, not curious, not wanting, then the obvious thing to do is run to the Lord and say, “Lord, my love for my wife is flagging. Will you renew it? Will you restore it? Will you pour energy into me in this?”
What’s cool about Philippians 1:9 though, is that it actually describes a circle. Not just love leading to knowledge, but then actually knowledge leading back into the ability to love more effectively. Because the more your knowledge, the more your depth of insight, the more your discernment about who someone is and how they work, the better you’re going to be able to love them and to act toward them in ways that really do meet them where they are. So the intentionality, serve your wife, puts the focus on what can I do? What can I say? Where can I be silent and not say anything and give her space? Where can I press toward her in ways that are going to lead to her flourishing, that are not about me crafting an agenda so I feel good about myself as a leader, that aren’t going to be sort of like, “Okay. Well, lead, I guess I need to come up with ideas about what’s our strategy or how are we going to do this.” But rather, what is the need of my family in this season? What’s the need of my wife right now in this place where we are?
Now there’s obviously a balance. You have more callings than just loving your wife and family, you have callings outside of your home, vocational callings, callings in your church and so on and so forth. But one of your greatest goals as a man whom the Lord has called into marriage, is to actually maximize your wife’s opportunities to use her gifts within the context of your life and your community and your church and jobs that she may have, whatever. And that’s the place where I want us as men, as husbands, to really be able to run full steam ahead. How can I help her flourish in the context where she lives?
Now let me come all the way back to Rick. I talked to Rick about all of this, and we actually didn’t have a chance to talk for some time after that particular conversation. And he came back and he said, a little bit later said, “You know what? That shift, that change has been one of the most helpful things. It’s one of the greatest blessings to my marriage. Focusing on serving, letting go of the guilt and the embarrassment of not living up to all the things, it has been one of the most powerful things that God has given me.” And what we realized as we spoke is a couple of things.
First off, this is exactly how Jesus operates, isn’t it? Right? Look at Jesus’s ministry. He does lots of teaching. He’s upfront, he’s healing, he’s doing things. But so much of his work is actually about the freeing, the transforming, and the sending out of others into the work of the kingdom. Jesus pours an enormous amount of time. He would’ve been much more efficient just going around without disciples, teach, heal, stay the night in a place, going to the next village the next day, and don’t spend all this time conversing with these guys who are often kind of knuckleheads and slow on the uptake and basically exactly like the rest of us, right? Here’s Jesus. And then he departs, right? He doesn’t stay forever, an eternal earthly body walking around year after year starting churches. He sends and equips others to go out. He actually delights in being the one who sends others out into ministry. And that’s what you get in Ephesians 4, where Paul is picking up on this and saying, “The church is all about equipping all of the saints for the work of ministry. We want to be those who are constantly serving, loving and actually helping build others up that they might thrive and flourish and have their gifts expressed.”
So as husbands, we want to have this just radically wife-serving vision. How can I help her walk better with Jesus? How can I help her use her gifts with our kids, with our church? And if that means she’s the one running points on explaining things to the children in a family devotion setting, that’s fine. That’s lovely. That’s great. Your job is to think, “How can I serve her? How can I serve our family best in this particular season that we are in, knowing who we are, knowing what it would look like for me to be focused on blessing her rather than focused on how am I doing as a leader?” That is serving her, that is leading her.
In outward practical realities is it going to look all that different from what you were doing before when you were thinking about being a leader in your home and that was your focus? It might not be that different, but it will be a different mindset. It will be without you hyper analyzing and self-guilting. It’ll be you focused on your wife in a way that will be more tender and more natural. And it’ll be more freeing and enjoyable for you and more freeing and blessing to her.