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Contrast two friends. One gets offended when you don’t call, don’t say thank you, don’t answer a text, don’t invite them to an event, or don’t come to see them when they are sick. Then, when you don’t come through, they let you know they’re disappointed.

The other expects nothing from you and is appreciative of anything you do. They simply enjoy whatever time you spend with them. One relationship is dominated by pressure and duty, the other by grace and joy. I have both of these types of relationships in my life. Some friends condition relationships on their expectations being met. Other friendships are free of relational expectations and bring freedom and joy to my life. Let’s apply this idea to marriage and ask this question, “Can grace in marriage be abused?”

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. —Colossians 3:17

Can grace in marriage be abused? This is a question we often get at Grace Marriage. The answer is: Absolutely! A controlling, selfish spouse can try to use grace to get what he or she wants at the expense of the other. Remember: grace is to be given, never demanded. If you are telling your spouse, “Give me grace” or “I need grace…” and you’re continuing the same behaviors, the truth is: you need repentance. Offer your spouse love as a free gift of grace. Don’t take advantage of your spouse by being rude and demanding it. That said, there’s more to grace in marriage than meets the eye. 

Grace considers your spouse first and takes a posture of selflessness and sacrifice. Behavioral manipulation seeks its own interest by asking things from your spouse for your own personal benefit. Reminder: grace is never tolerating infidelity or abuse, whether emotional or physical. If you are in this situation, get professional counseling and prioritize personal safety.

Expectations Create Burden Instead of Joy

The “you didn’t do this or that” people of this world suck the joy out of relationships and the church. We all desire to be a joy to others, not a burden. So, release others of expectations and love them unconditionally. Setting up expectations and getting frustrated when they are not met is not Gospel love. We have been granted a “while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5:8) love and would be foolish to replace it with an “if you love me, then I’ll love you” theology. Even pagans are good to those who are good to them (Matt. 5:46-47).

What sets Christians apart is how we treat others when they are not good to us. In marriage, if we are only good to our spouse when they meet our expectations, are we setting ourselves apart from the pagan world? We display Christ when we love and extend grace in the face of not being loved well. It is time to bring our marriages alive by releasing them of expectations and characterizing them with the unconditional Gospel love and grace of Christ.

Expectations are the Enemy of Gratitude

Expectations are the enemy and absolute antithesis of gratitude. If we come to expect something, we quit being grateful for it. We aren’t grateful for electricity and running water because we expect them in our homes. If we didn’t have electricity and running water and then got it, we’d be very thankful – at least until we came to expect it.

Likewise, if we expect things in marriage, we quit being grateful for them. Release your spouse of expectations and be grateful for everything they do for you. When times are tough, the relationship will remain centered on gratitude, and when times are good you will richly enjoy one another. One is grateful for every good gift she has been given in her husband; the other is constantly needing more and more from him. Behavioral consistency cannot be the hope of marriage. Christ-fueled grace and love is the only source of consistent marital health.

Be Dependent on God Not on Each Other

Look to God as your source of fulfillment, and free the relationship to thrive. The only place of true relational safety is in God. We should be vulnerable and intimate with one another, but we are not called to be dependent on one another. Instead, we are called to be totally dependent on God so we can love other, undependable people of this world. Scripture makes it clear we are not to place our hope in others:

  • “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” Proverbs 29:25
  • “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Psalm 56:11
  • “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.” Psalm 118:8

Jesus performed miracles, taught, and served His disciples. When the pressure was applied, they fled and abandoned Him, and one of His closest disciples denied Him three times. Jesus’ response to these things was not to abandon the relationship but to die for the ones who had treated Him so cruelly. He saved them and did not hold their sin against them. We want our marriages to put the beautiful love of Christ on display for the world. They should stand out from the quid pro quo relationships of the world to bring God glory.

Grace Marriage Mission

Now, let’s focus on how we can stop conditioning love on behavior and extend it as a gift of grace to our spouse. List things you tend to expect from your spouse. Then, list the negative response you are tempted to exhibit when they fail to meet that expectation. Finally, list the Gospel response that would display the grace of Christ to your spouse and to the world. 

Here’s one example: “My spouse takes out the overflowing trash.” 

Tempted Response: Sigh, lay trash on the overflowing bin.

Gospel reply: Take out trash as an act of service to my spouse. Don’t mention it.