Like most fortysomething, red-blooded, Christian husbands, Ron figured out that having a child or two dramatically changes a marriage. His wife didn’t regain her youthful figure or match his desire for sexual intimacy. Routines developed. So Ron recalibrated his expectations in order to enjoy a predictable, comfortable, suburban life.

Then Ron’s wife developed an unidentified illness that caused great fatigue, loss of strength, and a more severely reduced libido. Suddenly, Ron’s predictable—albeit lowered—expectations of life took a further turn south.

But Ron was determined to love his wife. After all, that’s what Christian husbands do. Just as Christ had died for the church, Ron knew that he ought to die to himself. So he tried.

After a year of loving out of obligation, Ron’s passion for God and for his marriage began to diminish. He felt more energized away from home. His relationship with his wife teetered between the slim hope of change and the bitterness of busted expectations.

What gives Ron the motivation to love his bride when there’s virtually no hope of his “needs” being met in the foreseeable future? He listens to the pastor at the men’s event cry out, “Man up! Stop your whining! Love like Christ!” But he feels more guilt than hope. She may never be the companion she once was. She may never fire up her passion in the bedroom again. She may never match his zest for life.

So Ron digs deep. He hunts for help. Maybe he downloads a book on marriage. Perhaps he decides to go to a conference. If he’s lucky, he won’t run into a speaker like me.

A swift kick right where it hurts

Guilt drives many guys to marriage counseling or conferences. I see countless Rons in the audience whenever I speak at a marriage conference. From the podium, I see wives sitting with elbows cocked, ready to fire a volley into their husband’s gut if he needs to write down a tip. Some of the men have come willingly; others with a gun to their backs. Some have come looking for a spark to rekindle the flame or for shortcuts to restore intimacy. Others have come knowing it’s a last resort.

Almost all leave with a wheelbarrow full of “to-dos”—listen more, communicate more, initiate date nights, write surprise e-mails, become bilingual in their wife’s love language, do more, be more, feel more, pray more, cuddle more. Most men sit in these sessions slumped under the burden of past guilt and future obligation.

As a conference speaker and counselor, I’m a firm believer in getting help for marriages in trouble. But I changed my focus after a guy like Ron approached me at a conference following a split session in which I talked with the husbands while my wife, Jen, talked with the wives. He smiled as he shook my hand and gave me a cartoon. On one panel, it showed the women coming out of their session smiling, laughing, and loving the opportunity for girl talk. The second panel showed the men walking out of their session in pain, bent over, covering their groin area.

I realized that, for the past hour, I had heaped on even more guilt. Though I had used Paul’s playbook from Ephesians 5, with every point clearly drawn from Scripture, the effect on my audience had been like a knee to the groin. I realized I was telling men to sacrifice themselves for their wives like Jesus died for the church, without telling them why Jesus sacrificed Himself.

As husbands, we need to see our role in marriage as a high calling. We need something to carry us past our obligation, past our responsibility, to a vision of glory that takes our eyes off of our fears and selfish desires. Just as soldiers don’t dive on grenades because they ought to, and athletes don’t come off the bench in excruciating pain because it’s the right thing to do, husbands can’t be expected to sacrifice themselves out of a sense of duty. We need a higher purpose.

Higher purpose: To beautify the bride

I remember talking with an older couple about the secret to maintaining intimacy after 40 years of marriage and four kids. The wife, Sally, who was in her mid-60s at the time, piped up immediately: “Don still thinks I’m beautiful, even though I know what I look like in the mirror.” Her husband had learned the secret of reflecting his wife’s beauty back to her so she could see it—and, more importantly, so she could feel it.

Men love shiny gadgets. We crave the latest and greatest. So when the shine wears off a man’s bride, it’s no wonder he silently pines for an upgrade. If he doesn’t actively pursue the latest model, he secretly hopes his wife will change. He may even offer some not-so-subtle hints:

“Did you work out today?”

“Are you really going to eat that entire hot fudge sundae?”

“Remember when you wore a bikini?”

A man loves a beautiful bride. Jesus loves to beautify His bride. Catch the difference? Most husbands simply love what is—what they can see. Jesus loves what could be, and He draws forth His bride’s inner beauty.

Whenever you see the word sanctify in Scripture, it means to “set apart” or “make holy.” In theological terms, when God “sanctifies” believers, He makes us blameless and holy. It’s a lifelong transformation based on God’s vow to His people, not based on His people’s performance (see Exodus 31:13; Philippians 1:6). Jesus pledges a transforming love that sets His bride apart and makes her beautiful.

When a man loves based on performance, he will expect his wife to stay or become beautiful. When a man loves like Jesus, he will beautify his wife as time passes, regardless of her physical body’s natural decline.

In Scripture, God’s bride blossoms after the wedding day and becomes more beautiful and splendid over time, not because she “worked out” or “aged gracefully,” but because God loved her into radiance. If a man views the wedding day as the height of his bride’s beauty, then he will never love like Jesus. He’ll constantly be comparing what was rather than anticipating his role in what it could be. For Jesus, the wedding day was simply the start of a lifelong extreme makeover designed to advance His bride to royalty.

Learn more about building a biblical marriage by attending one of our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. It’s one of the best investments you could make in your relationship.

Adapted from Playing Hurt by Brian Goins, Copyright © 2011. Published by Kregel Publications. Used with permission.