I met Kayla at a women's Bible study when we both had toddlers. A newcomer to town, I was ecstatic at the opportunity to meet some friends. Kayla's motivations, on the other hand, were quite different.
As we delved into a study on prayer, Kayla opened up: "When I was pregnant my husband had an affair with a high school girlfriend. He still talks to her on the phone. I'm here to learn how to wrestle in prayer for my husband's heart, because I know that God wants me to take this burden and leave it with Him."
"Just pray about it."
"Let go, and let God."
This advice is everywhere in the Christian church--it's stitched on pillows, it's written on bracelets, it's embroidered on bookmarks.
And you can probably think of other such answers, too: "If you just submit, he'll start to lead." "If you learn his love language, he'll start acting more loving to you." "If you stop criticizing, he'll step up to the plate." Or, even more heartbreaking, "If you have sex more, he'll stop watching porn."
I call this advice "pat answers". What makes pat answers so dangerous is that they sometimes work. And because they sometimes work, people start teaching them as if they always work--as if there is a formula that God wants us to follow that will always get our desired result.
But what if there isn't such a formula? What if, when you're facing a difficult time in your marriage, there isn't a simple 3-step plan that can help you find marital bliss?
Pat Answers Encourage Passive Aggressive Christianity
Most pat answers have something in common: they avoid dealing with a problem head-on.
Take the advice, "Let go and let God." Now 1 Peter 5:7 tells us "cast all your anxiety onto Him because He cares for you." Laying down our burdens is part of walking the Christian life.
But if we are laying them down in order to convince God to pick them up and do something about them, then we're not really laying them down. We're saying, "Okay, God! I did my part; now it's time for you to do yours!" Casting our cares on God becomes less about trusting God and more about treating God like our own personal genie; we do this, so that He will do that.
There's a similar dynamic with the advice to "love him more" or "submit more." If we love our husbands so that they will love us, is that real love? Or is it manipulation?
Pat Answers Ignore the Fact that There is a Time for Everything
1 Peter 3:1 tells women that they are to win their husbands "without words." In context, this verse refers to women who are married to unbelieving husbands winning them for Christ. But I have heard this advice given to women in almost all situations: "If he's doing something you disagree with, just win him without words."
Ecclesiastes 3 clearly tells us that there is a time for everything: a time to be silent and a time to speak (verse 7). Jesus was led like a lamb to the slaughter, but He also made a whip out of cords and drove out the money changers. Different situations require different approaches. Pat answers ignore that.
Pat Answers Leave Women, Especially, with Few Options
One of the saddest aspects of marriage pat answers, though, is that so many of the ones directed at women imply that our role is to sit back and do nothing. We're told to submit, or to "win him without words", ignoring the fact that Peter believed that we should "obey God rather than men," (Acts 5:29), and that Paul, who also spoke of submission to authorities, routinely subverted that authority if it went against God.
Submission to a husband's will when that husband is going against God is not asked of wives. It would turn husbands into idols, and give them a place above Jesus.
Yet by interpreting this Scripture to mean wives should obey husbands, instead of interpreting it to mean that wives should devote themselves to their husband's welfare, then women in difficult and even abusive situations feel trapped. We use the Scripture to give cover to the abuser rather than to give freedom to the abused. God's heart is always that people look more and more like Jesus (Romans 8:29), not that people get free rein to act selfishly.
Pat Answers Discourage the Hard Work of Resolving Conflict
God does not want marriages stuck. He doesn't want people feeling distant; His desire is that we be one (1 Corinthians 1:10). Achieving oneness, though, isn't easy.
Pat answers sound attractive because they latch onto the easy solution, and most of us are desperately looking for an easy way out. That's why fad diets are so popular! One guy may have lost weight eating nothing but McDonald's, and to those who have been trying to lose weight for years and are sick of eating lettuce, that option sounds awfully enticing. Eating McDonald's is way easier than counting calories, exercising, and learning how to eat healthy.
The right thing and the hard thing are quite often the same thing. Jesus told us that following Him would not be easy; that's why it's the narrow road, after all. And resolving conflict is very rarely easy.
Most of life is messy, because life is about messy people. It's messy to speak up. It's messy to confront someone. It's messy to look at your own heart and realize where you have contributed to the problem. It's messy to ask others for their help to confront a spouse who is in sin. It's messy to admit that you don't have it all together.
But maybe our mess is one of the things that helps us run to God--and not run to a pat answer. If all we needed was a 3-step plan, there would be no need for the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps that's the crux of the problem. In looking for a pat answer, we're looking for a way for God to fix our problems. Perhaps we need a mind shift. Instead of searching for a way to fix our problems, we should search for a way to glorify God in the midst of our problems. Sometimes that will mean speaking up and sometimes it will mean staying silent. Sometimes it will mean letting things go, and sometimes it will mean confronting an issue head on. But it will always mean seeking out Jesus, because ultimately He's the only one who has the answer to our heartaches.
Sheila Wray Gregoire is the author of 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage. This article is based on Thought #5, where Sheila talks about the frequent misunderstanding about the word submission. You can find Sheila blogging everyday at To Love, Honor and Vacuum.