Our first year of marriage was better than it was supposed to be. Everyone told us it would be difficult.  So starting with premarital counseling, we began to take what we believed to be the best steps possible to head that off as much as we could. After all, who knowingly wants to have a hard year?

Our labor paid off. Our first year of marriage was fantastic.  It’s not that we were perfect. Like any couple, we had disagreements and disappointments. But we seemed to coast through that season.

We checked off a lot of the boxes one might expect of a newlywed couple doing their best to get it right—regular date nights, regular sex, and good conversation. We even gained ground in some of the intangibles—a unified vision for home and family, a common direction in life and ministry. Most importantly, we grew closer to each other and closer to Christ.

We did a lot of the right things and worked hard to be good spouses to each other. But every marriage will be battle tested. For ours to last for decades, it needs to be based on something firmer than a checklist of habits. That way, when the difficult times arrive, we have a sure foundation to fall back on.

After 15 years of marriage, I’m still growing in my understanding that in order to become a better husband my heart has to undergo drastic, daily transformation. As I reflect on my heart and life, these four areas are invaluable to me continually becoming a better husband.

1. Love Christ

When I think of Christian marriage, Ephesians 5:22-33 is the most familiar text that comes to mind. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, read commentaries about it, or heard sermons based off of it. But in that familiarity, it’s easy for me to fall back into shallow reflection and stay at the level of “husbands love your wives.”

Done. On my better days, I take that a step further and think about how I’m supposed to love my wife – “as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

Appropriately, the weight of that overwhelms me. After all, Christ sacrificed his entire life and died for his Bride. Harder to do, but I’m up for it.

That sentiment reveals how easily loving my wife can become a list of do’s and don’ts for me—sacrifice for her, lead her, serve her, pursue her. Check, check, check, check.

If checking boxes isn’t the reason or motivation, why do I make the effort? So I can get something in return? How can I possibly love her with a pure heart?

Earlier in Ephesians, Paul established the basis for all of our relationships. Though we were dead in our sin, God, in His mercy, gave new life to those who trust in Him by faith (Ephesians 2:1-9). In that new life, He forms a new people who are full of good works, at peace with God, at peace with each other, and unified in diversity (Ephesians 2:10-22).

Christ, then, is at the very center of all my relationships, especially my marriage. On my best days, I remember the motivation behind my love for my wife—Christ first loved me. If I’m to sacrifice for her, lead her, serve her, and pursue her it is by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. I love her because He loves me.

2. Live Humbly

The Bible is unmistakably clear that “God opposes the proud.” James 4:1-6 sets this in the context of out-of-control desires that lead to murder, fighting, and quarreling. First Peter 5:5 applies it to elders who lead the church with selfish, ungodly motives. Both situations depict people whose pride puts them in direct opposition to God. That thought should cause us to tremble in fear.

The great love of Christ naturally destroys that pride and draws my eyes and my affections away from myself and toward Him and others. This unnatural and humbling shift in perspective is a work of the Holy Spirit that impacts me personally and communally. I’m able to think less of myself and my desires and more about loving others.

I can honestly ask, “What are the needs around me—in my family, in my church, in my community?” I also see myself differently and acknowledge that I’m not as important as I’d like to believe. This perspective opens my life up to criticism and allows me to embrace weakness, confess sin, and acknowledge failure.

It’s in my weakness that I experience the sufficiency of Christ’s grace. And by that weakness, His power is made perfect in me. “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

365 devotions for your marriage on the days you feel like it (and ones you don’t).

3. Learn your Wife

“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). Truly understanding another person requires committed work. It doesn’t happen accidentally, and it doesn’t happen passively.

It also doesn’t happen if I’m focusing on my needs, my wants, my desires. And those come much more naturally to me than taking the time to invest in someone else. Even though I want to love and understand my wife more, my selfishness runs deep.

But when Christ’s transformative work redirects my affections and my eyes away from myself, I have hope of changing. It opens my eyes to the world around me, and I see others more, especially my wife. I learn to listen to her, to observe her, and to ask meaningful questions.

What are her passions? What are her fears? Where does she need help? How can she help me?

More importantly, I learn to not just ask but also to act. As my most significant human relationship, I need to study her, appreciate her, devote myself to her.

4. Leave a Legacy

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Those are sobering words. Like a city set on a hill, like a lamp that is lit, our lives are meant to be lights pointing others to the glory of the Father in heaven.

Whether I like it or not, people are watching my life. My marriage is a ray in the light that disseminates from my life.

They hear how I talk to my wife. They hear how I talk about my wife. Do I honor her or diminish her? They watch how I treat her publicly and can see the effects of how I treat her privately. What does my body language communicate? Am I gentle, handling her with care?

Those of us with children have a naturally built-in, captive audience seeing behind the closed doors. Based on what they see in me, what will they carry forward in their own future relationships and marriages? Will I be proud of that? We may not all have children, but we’re all being observed.

What kind of legacy am I leaving for the generations coming after me? That kind of thinking requires a long view of life and marriage.

We’re not doing it alone

While I was engaged, other men told me marriage would reveal my selfishness in new and surprising ways. At the time, I couldn’t have predicted the varied ways in which that would come to pass. Though those words have proven true, there has been grace upon grace for all my faults and failures, for every hurtful word or deed.

That’s the beauty of the gospel and why marriage is meant to display it. My commitment to my wife reflects the commitment Christ made to me with his never-ending, never-failing love. It’s a love that’s only possible because of Christ. A love that considers another’s desires before my own. It’s a love that seeks understanding. A love that looks forward.

Copyright © 2019 Ben McGuire. All rights reserved.

Ben McGuire serves with Cru as an International Sending Coordinator and a Theological Development Coordinator. He received his M.Div. from Southern Seminary. Ben and his wife Jill live outside of Raleigh, North Carolina with their three children Reece, Wyatt, and Claire. Find Ben on Instagram: @benmcg76. He also blogs at Breadcrumbs.