Living In A Difficult Marriage


Living With A Man Who Doesn't Love You
Living With A Difficult Husband
Note to the Reader

Managing Editor: David Sper
Cover Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Cover Art: Antoine Coypel (1661-1722), Eliezer & Rebecca
©1997 RBC Ministries--Grand Rapids, MI 49555 Printed in USA

Living In A Difficult Marriage

It's not easy to be a Christian woman--especially today. We have wider possibilities than our mothers had. We are offered freedoms our mothers never knew. And we can make choices that were not options for women in other times.

Life is full of choices. We have to make them, but how do we make them well? We must turn to the Word of God for help in wise decision-making. There we can learn by precept and by example. In the pages that follow, we will look at two biblical women who had to wrestle with problems that are sometimes different from our own, yet sometimes surprisingly similar to what we face. And as we watch these real women and the choices they made, we will find principles to help clarify the answers we seek.

This booklet is based on a portion of A Woman God Can Use by Alice Mathews, published by Discovery House Publishers.

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When we talk about marriage, it's good to go back to the very beginning where it all started: "The LORD God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him'" (Gen. 2:18). Once that was done, the writer of Genesis tells us, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (v.24).

You remember the story. Adam was alone, and God said, "It is not good." To make Adam fully conscious of his aloneness, God brought a complete animal parade to pass in front of the only human being on earth to remind him that he had no counterpart in the universe. Adam needed someone to share life with him. He was created to be in a relationship. Alone, Adam was only half the story. So God created Eve and brought her to him. Then all the pieces were in place for a magnificent marriage.

The man and the woman had an ideal situation. They were created in the image of God and were placed in a garden where they had challenging work without fatigue and stress. But you know what happened next. It had to do with a command from God, a piece of fruit, and a choice. Out of that choice flowed alienation--alienation from God their Creator; alienation from nature, which would now master them, exhaust them, and eventually absorb them back into itself; alienation from one another as blame replaced trust and hierarchy replaced equality; and finally an internal alienation as each one became a walking civil war. They were torn between their hopes and fears, vacillating between their fundamental need for relationships and their resentment at having to pay the cost of those relationships. They were now flawed people living in a fallen world.

Within only six generations from Adam and Eve, the perfect relationship between one man and one woman had given way to polygamy. Genesis 4:19 tells us that Lamech had married two women, Adah and Zillah. The one-flesh relationship--a oneness that is not only physical but mental, emotional, and spiritual--is no longer possible for a man who acquires wives the way he acquires cattle, sheep, or gold.

In Genesis 29, we meet two women--Leah and her sister Rachel--who are rival co-wives locked in a polygamous relationship. Rachel, the younger one, is the apple of her husband's eye. Leah is not loved. How does a woman live with a man who doesn't love her? Examining Leah's life can help answer that question.

We first meet Leah as a pawn in someone else's deception. Jacob had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and had fled from Canaan back to the land of his ancestors. He came to the household of his Uncle Laban, his mother's brother. Laban invited him to stay with him and work for him. Let's look at the story as it develops in Genesis 29:

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, "I'll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel."

Laban said, "It's better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me." So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her."

So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant.

When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn't I? Why have you deceived me?"

Laban replied, "It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter's bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work."

And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. Laban gave his servant girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maidservant. Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years (29:16-30).

Your first sympathy probably goes to Jacob. After all, a bargain is a bargain. He bargained for Rachel, not Leah. His crafty uncle pulled a fast one and stuck him with Leah.

But Jacob had been pretty crafty himself. He had deceived his blind father Isaac and cheated his brother Esau. So he wasn't exactly without blame. But we still feel sorry for Jacob. After 7 years of labor, he went through all of the traditional feasting to celebrate his wedding to Rachel. He waited in the darkened tent for his bride to be delivered to him, saw only dimly the heavily veiled woman enter, and assumed she was Rachel. What a shock the next morning to discover that plain Leah had been substituted for gorgeous Rachel!

It's easy to get so caught up in feeling sorry for Jacob that we forget what it must have been like to be Leah the next morning. Some commentators speculate that Leah had also been in love with Jacob during those 7 years and that she was a willing accomplice to her father's scheme. Nothing in the text confirms that. Whether she went to Jacob's tent that night as a willing accomplice or as a dutiful daughter merely obeying her father, she could not have been thrilled the next morning when Jacob made a scene with his father-in-law Laban.

If Leah had ever hoped for Jacob's love, if she had ever dared think that she could compete with her beautiful younger sister, all illusions were dashed when Jacob hit the tent roof about the deception. She was unloved, undesired, and unsought. And one week later she was the displaced wife as Jacob took Rachel to himself.

I doubt that there are many, if any, women in America today who were married under the same circumstances as Leah. But deception of one sort or another has been part of many courtships. If you are married and you think back to your own wedding, did you get what you bargained for? Or did you feel cheated by your partner in some way? Life can seem bleak indeed when the most important relationship in our experience turns out to be marred at the outset by deception or disappointment. We live in a sinful world and build relationships with sinful people. We bring our own sinfulness to those relationships. No wonder deception and disappointment creep in.

In verse 31, this sad story of unloved Leah turns a corner: "When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son." God was not blind to Leah's plight. He saw the ache in her heart and did something about her situation. He enabled her to give Jacob a son. The sovereign God saw Leah's need and moved to meet it. And in the process, He was working out His plan for Jacob and Jacob's descendants, even in the way He would send Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Redeemer, into the world.

Part of Leah's handicap was that she was no candidate for Miss Mesopotamia and she had a sister who was. Rachel was beautiful. And when she first appears in Genesis 29:6-12, she dances off the page, full of vitality and energy. She simply had it all. It is no surprise that Jacob flipped when he saw her. No wonder the Bible tells us that working for her for 7 years "seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her" (v.20).

Then there's Leah. The only thing we know about her is that she had "weak eyes" (v.17). Commentators and translators have had a field day with the Hebrew word here translated "weak." We don't really know what Leah's eyes were like. Some say she was going blind and Laban wanted to get rid of her quickly before that happened. One Bible version translates the word "tender." The Living Bible paraphrase tells us that she had "lovely eyes." All of these are possibilities. Perhaps Leah had only one good feature--her beautiful eyes. Or perhaps her eyes were so disfiguring that everything else faded into insignificance. The important thing is that whatever she looked like, she grew up in the shadow of a beautiful sister.

Could God have created Leah as beautiful as Rachel? Certainly. So why didn't He? It would have saved her great grief. Why did God wait until Leah was the unloved wife of Jacob to do something nice for her? Isaiah the prophet reminds us that "as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God's] ways higher than your ways and [His] thoughts than your thoughts" (55:9). When we look more closely at Leah, we see that if God had made her equally as beautiful as her sister Rachel, the chances are good that she would not have been pawned off on Jacob. If that had been the case, Jacob would never have had the particular sons through whom God worked for Israel and for a fallen world. God often works in our lives not by giving us a perfect situation but by showing His power and love in our very imperfect situations. He works for our ultimate good by allowing us to struggle in less than perfect relationships.

Leah was unloved. But God saw that and opened her womb. Not once, but at least seven times. Each time that Leah held a tiny new life in her arms and named the child, we get a glimpse into her mind, into her heart, into her needs.

In Genesis 29:32, cradling her firstborn son, Leah "named him Reuben, for she said, 'It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.'" Soon after, "She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, 'Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, He gave me this one too.' So she named him Simeon" (v.33).

As if two sons were not enough, "Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, 'Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.' So he was named Levi" (v.34).

Three sons. Is that enough? Apparently not, for verse 35 tells us, "She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, 'This time I will praise the LORD.' So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children."

Four little boys all in a row. Can you see Leah outside her tent on a hot Mesopotamian summer day calling "Reuben! Simeon! Levi! Judah!"? Listen to the progression in Leah's understanding and her faith as you hear those names.

Reuben--"Behold, a son!" Leah recognized that God had seen her misery, opened her womb, and given her a son. She interpreted that fact as God's way of enabling her to gain her husband's love. But did it work out that way? Apparently not. Probably less than a year later, Simeon was born.

Simeon--"hearing." Leah was still unloved. Reuben's birth had not caused Jacob to love her. He still had eyes only for Rachel. Now God had heard Leah's sighs. He had seen her tears. He had understood her deep desire for the love of Jacob and had given her a second son. Surely this time Jacob would love her. But did he?

Again Leah gave birth to a son and called him Levi--"attached, joined." She explained, "Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons."

Hope springs eternal in the human breast. Leah hoped that each new little son would make a difference in the marriage, that somehow Jacob would begin to love her as he loved Rachel. She still hoped for equal if not first place in his heart. With the passage of time after the birth of each little boy, hope was deferred and then dashed to the ground. All of her efforts to win Jacob's love--with God's help--were fruitless. He still had eyes only for the beautiful but barren Rachel.

Many wives go to extraordinary lengths to win or to keep the love of husbands who do not respond to them in love. Just as often, as with Leah, that hope springing eternal becomes hope deferred or hope dashed to the ground.

It is tough to live in a relationship without deep, mutual, committed love. Everything in us cries out for it. After all, that was God's original intent for marriage when He created the man and woman and brought them together in Eden.

Marriage in Eden was more than sex. It was a marriage of minds, goals, interests, and spirits. And it was a marriage of two bodies becoming one to symbolize all the oneness a man and a woman could experience in every other dimension of their lives together. It was a total unity that was possible only in Eden. In their perfection, Adam and Eve could have that relationship.

As a flawed woman married to a flawed man, I cannot have that total and unblemished union with my husband. My needs get in the way of his needs. His wishes collide with mine. It is easy to become disillusioned about a relationship that cannot be perfect. So we try and we long and we wish for something better. In today's world, if we despair of achieving it with Mr. Wonderful #1, we may decide to try it with Mr. Wonderful #2 or Mr. Wonderful #3.

In a day when we are surrounded with media telling us that romantic love is the basis of strong marriages, it's hard to hang on to the fact that a magnificent marriage can be built on something other than love. In the disappointment of feeling less loved than you'd like, is it possible to find resources for happiness in a less-than-perfect marriage?

Look at Leah's attitude when her fourth son was born. She named him Judah, which means "praising." She explained that name by saying, "This time I will praise the Lord." For the first time in naming her sons, Leah turned from expressing her yearning for Jacob's love to accepting and basking in God's love.

Leah's focus had shifted from what she lacked to what she had. True, nothing had changed with Jacob. He was still starry-eyed over Rachel. Leah could not change him. But she could change herself. She could change her focus. She could recognize the hand of God in her life, giving her significance.

The most important step toward joy in a loveless marriage is to change our focus from what we do not have to what we do have. Leah had four sons in a day when sons were everything. She woke up to the richness of her situation and said, "This time I will praise the LORD."

Genesis 30 opens with the spotlight on Rachel:

When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, "Give me children, or I'll die!" Jacob became angry with her and said, "Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?" Then she said, "Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family" (vv.1-3).

Bilhah had a son by Jacob who legally became Rachel's child. We know this because it was Rachel who named the little boy. She called him Dan, saying, "God has vindicated me; He has listened to my plea and given me a son" (v.6).

If it worked once, maybe it would work twice. So Rachel sent Bilhah to Jacob again. The maidservant bore another son and Rachel named the baby Naphtali, which means "wrestlings." Rachel explained her choice of names by saying, "I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won" (v.8).

Had she? The score was actually four to two in Leah's favor. But nervous because her sister could close in on her, Leah jumped into the same game and gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob also. When Zilpah gave birth to a son, Leah called him Gad, meaning "fortune." Yes, her riches were increasing. The score was now five to two, still in Leah's favor.

It had worked twice for Rachel. Perhaps it would work twice for Leah. So once again she sent Zilpah to sleep with Jacob. Zilpah became pregnant and bore a son. Leah named him Asher, which means "happy." She exclaimed, "How happy I am! The women will call me happy" (v.13).

What a switch! The loved and favored Rachel was desolate. The miserable, unloved Leah exclaimed, "How happy I am!" The tables were turned. The woman who had it all at the beginning was eaten up with jealousy and frustration. The substitute wife, who wanted so desperately to know her husband's love, now had learned to focus on what she had, not on what she lacked. She could say, "How happy I am!"

I would be happy if the story ended with Genesis 30:13. Leah sounded victorious over her loveless marriage. She praised God for what she had and didn't focus on what she lacked. It would be nice to think that she stayed that way for the rest of her life. But our battles seldom stay won. In the day-to-day rivalry of Rachel and Leah, a rivalry that lasted a lifetime, Leah's battle to live above her loveless marriage had to be fought again and again.

We gain insights into the relationship between the two sisters in the story that follows:

During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, "Please give me some of your son's mandrakes." But she said to her, "Wasn't it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son's mandrakes too?" "Very well," Rachel said, "[Jacob] can sleep with you tonight in return for your son's mandrakes." So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. "You must sleep with me tonight," she said. "I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." So he slept with her that night. God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son (30:14-17).


It had worked twice for Rachel. Perhaps it would work twice for Leah. So once again she sent Zilpah to sleep with Jacob. Zilpah became pregnant and bore a son. Leah named him Asher, which means "happy." She exclaimed, "How happy I am! The women will call me happy" (v.13).

What a switch! The loved and favored Rachel was desolate. The miserable, unloved Leah exclaimed, "How happy I am!" The tables were turned. The woman who had it all at the beginning was eaten up with jealousy and frustration. The substitute wife, who wanted so desperately to know her husband's love, now had learned to focus on what she had, not on what she lacked. She could say, "How happy I am!"

I would be happy if the story ended with Genesis 30:13. Leah sounded victorious over her loveless marriage. She praised God for what she had and didn't focus on what she lacked. It would be nice to think that she stayed that way for the rest of her life. But our battles seldom stay won. In the day-to-day rivalry of Rachel and Leah, a rivalry that lasted a lifetime, Leah's battle to live above her loveless marriage had to be fought again and again.

We gain insights into the relationship between the two sisters in the story that follows:

During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, "Please give me some of your son's mandrakes." But she said to her, "Wasn't it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son's mandrakes too?" "Very well," Rachel said, "[Jacob] can sleep with you tonight in return for your son's mandrakes." So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. "You must sleep with me tonight," she said. "I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." So he slept with her that night. God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son (30:14-17).

This "This time my husband will treat me with honor." She was becoming more realistic about what would or would not happen in her marriage.

Contentment in a loveless marriage will never come as long as we cling to the ideal of romantic love and lose sight of the good gifts of God we have already received. Leah focused on Zebulun as "a precious gift" from God.

Many years had passed since that morning when Jacob awakened and discovered that the bride in his tent was Leah and not Rachel. During all those years Rachel wanted a child more than anything else in the world. After long years of waiting--with the score standing at nine (including daughter Dinah) for Leah and only two for Rachel by her maidservant--Rachel's cry for a child was heard by God and she became pregnant. Son Joseph was born, and Rachel's first request was, "May the LORD add to me another son" (v.24).

God heard her prayer, but with consequences she couldn't have anticipated. By this time Jacob had worked for Laban for 20 years. One scoundrel was being fleeced by another scoundrel. So Jacob made the decision to return to Canaan with his large family of two wives, two concubines, ten sons and one daughter.

As the family journeyed west, the unthinkable happened. Rachel, nearing the end of the journey and pregnant with her second son, died in childbirth. What she wanted more than anything else in the world became the cause of her final separation from the man who loved her. The woman with every reason to be happy died giving birth to a son she named Ben-Oni, "son of my sorrow" (35:18).

It's easy to look at a woman with breathtaking beauty and the undying love of her man and think that she must be the happiest of all women. But hear Rachel's sorrow. Hear her complaint. Things are often not what they appear to be.

And what of Leah? God had sovereignly removed her rival from the family circle. Rachel was gone. Leah was now the number one wife. We do not know whether Jacob learned to love her any more than he had at the time of that first deception. We do not know how many more years they lived together. We know only that when Leah died, Jacob buried her in the ancestral burial ground, the cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah were buried. He honored her in her death.

At the end of the book of Ruth, after Boaz had bested the nearer kinsman and had won Ruth as his bride, the elders of the city of Bethlehem prayed, "May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel" (4:11).

Leah the unloved was Leah the foremother who helped build up the house of Israel. Of the twelve sons of Jacob who became the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, six were born to Leah. Out of Leah's personal sadness came rich blessing for Israel. It was Leah who gave birth to Judah, from whom came Israel's greatest king, David, and from whom came the Lion of the tribe of Judah, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Leah, the plain older sister of beautiful Rachel, lived in a very difficult situation and survived. Like her, we too are fallen people in a fallen world. We are people scarred by alienation from each other and from ourselves. Life seldom, if ever, comes to us in a way that is fully satisfying. Most of the time it comes with an edge of dissatisfaction--not quite enough love, not quite enough care, not quite enough honor, not quite enough esteem. Almost, perhaps, but never as much as we'd like.

Like Leah, we can focus on what we lack and be miserable. Or also like Leah, we can decide to focus on what we have and make up our minds that "this time we will praise the Lord."

How do you live with a husband who doesn't love you? You change your focus. In the process, you will not only end up exclaiming with Leah, "How happy I am!" but you will someday find that God has worked His miracle through your sadness, touching the world with blessing through you.

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Have you ever walked down your street and looked at each house and wondered about the way the people living in that house get along with each other? Or have you looked at a woman sitting ahead of you in church and thought, "Wow! No question about it, she's got it all! Her handsome Christian husband is a leader in the church. And he treats her like a queen. Their obedient kids never seem to give them any trouble. They have enough money to do whatever they want to do and go where they want to go. I wonder what it would be like to be in such a perfect Christian family."

Sometimes we look at others around us and allow ourselves to have a pity party, thinking how much better other people's lives are than our own. That's the problem of judging from the outside. What goes on behind the closed doors of a Christian home may be quite different from what should go on in a family. The "too perfect" family in the next pew may be anything but perfect.

A few years ago I spoke at a women's retreat. The women were from a strict church where everyone knew exactly how to cross each "t" and dot each "i." They filled their notebooks, appearing to write down virtually everything I said. But I wondered if any of them were real.

On Saturday evening, after my third talk, the answer came. Three women approached me after the service. Each one had essentially the same story to tell. Let me tell you about just one of them:

As she walked toward me, it was clear that she was terribly frightened. I could see the fear in her eyes and the nervousness in her twisting fingers. She appeared to be held together with little more than rubber bands. As I tried to put her at ease and probe for the cause of her distress, little by little she told me her story.

She had been married for 13 years to a man who was a seminary graduate and who had pastored three churches during their marriage. He had recently left the ministry and was trying his hand at selling real estate. The couple had three school-age children. She worked fulltime as a psychiatric nurse and was bringing in the only regular paycheck at that time. I'll call this couple Jack and Jane.

Jack is an abuser. Yes, he has been a pastor. He is a Christian. He is a seminary graduate. But he is also an abuser. He beats his wife. Jane is a battered woman. She is intelligent and works in psychiatric nursing. But she is still a battered wife.

Jack has been beating Jane since the first year of their marriage. The beatings take many forms. They start when his rages burst out and he throws everything he can lay hands on at her. Then he pounces on her, pummeling her and pulling out her hair.

After this kind of beating, she knows he will return in the night and start in again. So she lies awake all night, "feeling the lion prowling around the house," not knowing how or when he will attack her again. The second attack may be another beating, or it may be a bucket of cold water dumped on her in the dark.

If Jack goes into a rage while they are driving in the car, she fears for the lives of the entire family. Once when she was pregnant, he reached across her, opened her car door and pushed her out into the street from the moving vehicle.

After these attacks Jack becomes very contrite. In public, especially in the church where he is looked up to as a strong leader, he hugs Jane and tells people to look at his beautiful wife. Outside the home he carefully cultivates the impression of being a loving, doting husband.

Jack's rages seem to be precipitated by a number of things. If he catches Jane reading a book, he snatches it away, telling her that if she wants to learn anything, she must ask him and he will teach her. He rigidly holds his family to a daily schedule of memorizing Scripture. In fact, he devised a system that many families in their church use. In it he has a key verse for every chapter in the Bible and a complex memory system for learning these verses. Members of his family also must spend a certain amount of time each day listening to Christian tapes. Anytime a member of the family has not learned the verse perfectly or cannot answer all his questions about the tape, Jack gets very upset.

Several years ago Jane persuaded Jack to see a counselor with her. But the Christian counselor merely lectured her on her duty to be submissive.

As Jane talked to me, it was clear that she had been the brunt of Jack's rages for years. But she found the courage to speak to me only because she now feared for the safety of their three children. She had been taught so well by the church to be submissive that she thought she had no alternative but to stay in the home, take the abuse, and risk being killed as Jack's rages escalated. In fact, as is often true of battered women, Jane actually took the blame for Jack's abuse. He insisted that if she were different, he would not beat her. He did not see himself as an abuser.

Battered women are a fact of life in American society today--and a fact of life within our evangelical churches. One out of every eight women in our country is physically abused. One out of every four is sexually abused. In the United States a woman is beaten every 18 seconds. One-fourth of these are pregnant. In fact, the battering pattern often begins with a woman's first pregnancy.

Furthermore, nine out of every ten battering incidents are not reported to the police. Legal experts call wife-abuse the "silent crime," one of the most unreported or under-reported crimes in our country.

Many women are not physically battered but are still abused. A major source of depression, for instance, is low self-esteem that comes from being constantly put down by the people closest to us--those who should build us up.

I have a close friend whose husband hardly ever sits down at the dinner table without telling her what food she should have cooked and how the food she did cook should have been cooked. For more than 25 years my friend has endured this torrent of criticism at virtually every meal. No wonder her self-confidence is zero. There's nothing she can do to please him. He picks away at her day and night. He is an abuser and she is abused.

Abuse can be physical, verbal, or nonverbal. In whatever form it comes, many Christian women accept this abuse in the name of submission. They are convinced that as Christian women they have no alternative but to take the abuse as God's will for their lives.

A case study in handling an abusive man is found in 1 Samuel 25. There we meet a man named Nabal and his wife Abigail. Verse 3 describes Abigail as "an intelligent and beautiful woman" but Nabal as "surly and mean in his dealings."

Nabal was a hard man to live with. The force of the Hebrew words translated "surly and mean" is that he was harsh and overbearing, a heavy-handed evildoer.

The servants in Nabal's household would certainly agree with God's description of this man. In verse 17 we overhear a servant talking to Abigail about his master and her husband: "He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him."

Again, the Hebrew text is very strong. Nabal is "an evil man, a son of Belial," the worst possible statement of contempt that the servant could use. Nabal was a hard man, a difficult man, a severe man. He was impossible to reason with.

The servant was not alone in that opinion. Abigail describes her husband to David in verse 25: "May my lord pay no attention to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name--his name is Fool, and folly goes with him."

So Nabal was a wicked, difficult man. God said so. The servant said so. Abigail agreed.

Abigail probably got into that unpleasant marriage through no choice of her own. In Abigail's day marriages were arranged by the parents. Nabal was one of the wealthiest men in the region. Verse 2 tells us that he had 1,000 goats and 3,000 sheep. He was a man of importance and influence. To arrange a marriage with such a man was considered a good catch. The fact that Abigail might not be happy in such a marriage was irrelevant.

Unfortunately, many women today get into marriages every bit as miserable as Abigail's. The handsome prince turns out to be a toad. The fine Christian leader turns out to be an abuser.

How did Abigail handle her situation, locked in a marriage to a wicked and evil man, one whom no one could talk to or reason with? Can we learn anything from her that can help us or help women we know who are trapped in such a situation?

At the very least we need to make the best of a bad situation. Better, we need to find a way to turn a bad situation into something good. When we first meet Abigail, we see a woman doing everything possible to limit the damage her husband has done. And Nabal had done real damage, so much so that the entire household was in danger of extermination. Let's review the story.

It opens during the time of year when Nabal's 3,000 sheep were being shorn. That's a lot of sheep, a lot of shearers, and a lot of work for everyone concerned.

Sheepshearing season in Nabal's day was also a festive time. It was customary for the sheep owner to provide a feast when the job was done. At that feast he would give gifts to everyone who had helped in any way during the year. This was a token of thanks to God and a gesture of goodwill to his neighbors. When David sent his young men to collect what was due to them for the protection they had provided Nabal's shepherds during the year, they had every reason to expect Nabal to be generous.

But instead, in verses 10 and 11, we see Nabal insulting David's men in two ways. First, he should have responded generously to them for the help they had given his shepherds. Second, oriental custom required him to be polite to them even if David had been a deadly enemy. Not only did wicked, surly, mean Nabal refuse to give anything when he should have given freely, but he also scorned David's character in front of his men.

David understood the insult well. His answer was essentially, "Okay, men, put on your swords. We're going to clean up on this guy and on every man and boy in his household." With 400 armed men, David set out to destroy Nabal's household.

At the same time a wise servant ran to Abigail to report what had happened. Here's his summary:

David sent messengers from the desert to give our master his greetings, but he hurled insults at them. Yet these men were very good to us. They did not mistreat us, and the whole time we were out in the fields near them nothing was missing. Night and day they were a wall around us all the time we were herding our sheep near them. Now think it over and see what you can do, because disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household. He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him (vv.14-17).

Abigail had a bad situation on her hands. Four hundred men were on their way to kill not only Nabal but most of the household. She had to act quickly to limit the damage her husband had done.

Knowing yourself, what would you have done in Abigail's place? Would you have run off to save yourself? Would you have organized the servants to fight David's men? Would you have tried to reason with Nabal? Would you have resigned yourself to being killed? Would you have panicked? Abigail took decisive, independent action:

Abigail lost no time. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins, and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. Then she told her servants, "Go on ahead; I'll follow you." But she did not tell her husband Nabal. As she came riding her donkey into a mountain ravine, there were David and his men descending toward her, and she met them. David had just said, "It's been useless--all my watching over this fellow's property in the desert so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed down before David with her face to the ground (vv.18-23).

Quick-thinking Abigail hurried to head off trouble at the pass. But what do you think of what Abigail did? Do you think she was correct in her actions? What was really happening as she scurried around to get all the bread baked, the raisins and figs packed, and the wineskins loaded on the donkeys?

First, she did exactly the opposite of what Nabal wanted done. He had turned David's men away, but she prepared large quantities of food for them. Second, she did this behind his back. The text points out that she did not tell her husband what she was doing.

Do her actions seem right to you? Look at David's evaluation of what Abigail did:

David said to Abigail, "Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands" (vv.32-33).

David saw Abigail's independent action, contrary to Nabal's wishes, as being from God. Abigail stands before us as a model of a wise woman in a difficult situation. She acted in the best interests of her household and of her husband. The first person to feel the edge of David's sword would have been Nabal. In going against Nabal's wishes, Abigail was saving his life. She had his best interests in mind.

Not every situation women face in bad marriages is a matter of life and death. In Abigail's case it was. In Jane's case it was getting there. A Christian woman's obligation to be a submissive wife ends where lives are at risk. A woman is wise who does what she can to limit the damage caused by a difficult man in the home.

Such a woman may have to take immediate steps to ensure safety for herself and her children. If the situation is physically dangerous, she must first get herself and her children out while she can. She must act in the best interests of everyone concerned. This includes her husband's best interest, but it also includes her own and that of any children involved.

It is important to know that a woman is not a failure as a wife and she is not disobedient to God if she takes active steps to preserve life in an abusive situation.

The second step that women must take is to work to turn bad situations into good ones. A person with cancer may undergo radiation treatment or chemotherapy to keep the cancer from spreading. That is a way of limiting the damage. But if the cancer is operable, the surgeon will also elect to remove it so that the patient can return to full health. The goal is to do more than just limit the damage. We want to turn a bad situation into a good one.

Abigail successfully headed off David's army from slaughtering Nabal's household. But to keep from having to repeat the rescue operation in another situation, she had to do more than that.

When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing until daybreak. Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone (vv.36-37).

It wasn't enough to avert one danger. Nabal had to be confronted with his way of handling life. He had to understand the consequences of his churlish behavior. One of the things we see in verse 36 is that Abigail chose the right time to talk to Nabal. Often when we confront a difficult person, we choose the wrong time and the wrong place. Abigail wisely waited until the banquet was over, the drunken stupor had passed, and Nabal was sober.

Even though Abigail chose her moment wisely, she took great risks in confronting Nabal. Recall that he was described as surly and mean (v.3). And the servant had said he was so wicked that no one could reason with him (v.17). Abigail had no assurance that Nabal would listen to her. She had no way of knowing whether he would become furious and harm her. But she knew that she had to confront Nabal even though it might not turn out well.

For Nabal, at least, it did not turn out well. The shock of his close brush with David's wrath put him into cardiac arrest. We don't know from the passage whether Nabal's attack was brought on by anger over Abigail's meddling in his affairs or if he was enraged that David had gotten the better of him. Perhaps it was sheer terror that struck him when he realized how close he had come to death. Whatever caused the stroke or heart attack, in 10 days' time it proved to be fatal (v.38). Nabal died.

We also do not know from the biblical text how Abigail talked to Nabal on that fateful morning. We know only that she "told him all" that had happened. She took the next necessary step to turn a bad situation into a better one. She confronted him with the consequences of his actions.

In a difficult relationship, don't simply try to limit the damage. Work to make a bad situation good by helping the difficult person see what he is doing to himself and to the important people in his life. Love sometimes has to be tough because it seeks what is best for everyone involved. A man who abuses his wife or is difficult to live with has his own set of problems. They keep him from being the joyful, fully-functioning person God designed him to be. We must care enough to confront--confront to redeem, not to destroy.

Many women locked in abusive marriages find confronting almost impossible to do. The reasons are many. Often such women have come to believe the husband's reiterated statement that if they were different women, they would be treated differently. Or they have an unbiblical understanding of submission. Or their self-esteem has been destroyed and they have no inner strength to resist the abuse.

To take that next necessary step of confronting for change, an abused woman must be sure of her own value before God so that the difficult person does not beat her self-esteem down to nothing. Life with Nabal could not have been happy. Yet Abigail did not allow Nabal's nastiness to make her bitter. This beautiful, intelligent woman was strong enough inside to withstand Nabal's unreasonableness.

How does our story of Abigail end? David wasted no time once he heard the news of Nabal's death. He proposed marriage to Abigail, and she became his wife. She was a fitting companion for Israel's great and future king.

Abigail's story ended "happily ever after." But that is not the way Jane's story has ended. Nor is it the way the story ends for many other Christian women locked in a difficult marriage. Often we are not released from misery but must learn new ways to cope with misery and turn it into something good.

One day I received another letter from Jane. Up to that time we had exchanged letters through her work address at the hospital. But this was the first letter giving me her home address. I had sent Jane some literature about abusers and battering, including a "violence index." Here's what she wrote:

In reviewing all the materials, I believe the most frightening part was taking the violence test and realizing our violence index was into the dangerous level. I had never seen it in black and white before, or had thought about the specific questions that were asked. It sobered me further . . .

In June and July, Jack's behavior or attitude became more hateful and oppressive. More frequently he involved the children, sometimes blaming them for his outburst. He threw a glass at the kitchen sink with such force that the glass shattered all over the kitchen, the counters, the floor. Then Jack wanted Mickey, our 12-year-old, to pick it up. I refused to let Mickey clean up Jack's mess, so it stayed that way for 2 days. Sherry (age 11) had been away. She walked in and asked, "Was this an accident, or did Dad get mad?" She was told the truth. Stanley (age 9) began getting hysterical every time Jack raised his voice, and that would make Jack more mad.

In the middle of July, I involved another party, Chuck and Margaret. Without Jack knowing about it, I took an afternoon off and talked with them. Margaret and I had already been talking some. Chuck is an attorney in town and he is well respected by Jack in every way. They have been friends in our church for years. As you would expect, Jack hit the roof when I told him, the same day, that I had gone. He started with the same accusations of betrayal all over again. I thank God for the courage to have spoken again.

Chuck, Margaret, Jack, and I meet about once a week for 2 to 3 hours. The first session was the worst, but Alice, the last 6 weeks have been wonderful. Chuck confronts issues and Jack has not resisted the accountability. Through tears and pain and sorrow he has committed himself to me different from ever before. He has faced the issue as sin and as totally unacceptable. He is genuinely striving for a holy walk. The sessions are difficult because of the painful things we go over, but so productive. Once more I have hope.

The children know we are going and are glad too. Even Sherry's defensive spirit has improved in the last month. There is so much work to be done. Daily I still see reflections of the "down with women" attitude, but I have a freedom to discuss it with him later or save it for our time with Chuck and Margaret. Jack has admitted to not giving me any freedom, being jealous of even phone conversations with other women. He doesn't understand why, but he now sees it as abnormal.

Alice, I think there is hope. Please continue to pray with me. I know the road ahead will not be without bumps, perhaps major ones. But my support has widened. Therefore, my base is stronger and so is Jack's.

Please continue to share with other women the need for openness and for friends, that life does not have to be endured but can be lived and even enjoyed. I look forward to see what God has tomorrow for me. Please feel free to share my life with others if it would help. And keep in touch. Love, Jane

Each time I read Jane's letter, I remember the terrified woman who for 13 years had not said a word to anyone about all she endured with a difficult man. I thank God that she found the courage to talk to me. I'm glad she found even greater courage to seek out a support system in her hometown. She now has hope. She had none a year ago. I thank God that Jane did what Abigail did. She first took steps to lessen the damage to herself and to her children. She opened up to a trusted friend, who became the beginning of a local support group for her. She gained the courage to refute Jack's unreasonable accusations and to counter his selfish demands. Little by little, she has forced him to take responsibility for his actions. Now in these weekly sessions with Jack, Chuck, and Margaret, she continues the confrontation that is healing her marriage.

Do you live with a difficult man? Do you have a friend caught in a punishing marriage? Take Abigail as a good role model. Work to make the best of a bad situation. Better, work to turn the bad into good. Let God work in you and through you by His power to redeem a bad relationship.

Table of Contents


This booklet is based on a portion of the book A Woman God Can Use, written by Alice Mathews. Alice is dean of the Philadelphia Center, Seminary of the East. She is a regular participant on the RBC Daily radio program with Haddon Robinson and Mart De Haan. Alice has also written a study of New Testament women, A Woman Jesus Can Teach, published by Discovery House Publishers.

Discovery House Publishers is a nonprofit affiliate of RBC Ministries. We are pleased to be able to incorporate an excerpt of a full-length Discovery House book into our Discovery Series once or twice each year. We feel that this is a good way to introduce our members to other sources of solid biblical teaching.

Discovery House Publishers was established to provide resource materials that RBC Ministries cannot offer on the usual no-charge basis. For more information about Discovery House or for a list of their biblical resources, call 1-800-653-8333 or write to:

Discovery House Publishers
P. O. Box 3566
Grand Rapids, MI 49501-3566

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