I was watching the video of a question and answer session with John Piper and John MacArthur from this year's Desiring God Conference. The session revolved primarily around pastoral ministry. I believe MacArthur was asked how he deals with praise and criticism when he brought up the difference between effort and outcome. I'll paraphrase his answer. John said he was responsible for his own effort, while only God was responsible for the outcome of his ministry. God creates the results. As a pastor, I was greatly encouraged by hearing this wisdom again. I agree with it whole-heartedly, and it gets me through times when I feel less than fruitful. It's up to me to nurture my ministry, but only God bears the fruit through me. I'm responsible for the nurture, not the fruit.
As a pastor, I can preach faithfully week after week after week, exerting all sorts of faithful effort. God may bless my preaching with radically changed lives and a growing congregation. If that happens, I'll likely credit the changed lives and growing congregation to my effort. I'm doing all the right things, and the ideal church is attained by my effort. That's not what happened at all. God decided in his wisdom to grace my church with what I perceive is a positive outcome. While God isn't likely to grace a congregation where little effort is put forth, it doesn't follow that God will always grace a congregation where effort is put forth. The outcome is entirely up to God for reasons known only to him. I'm not responsible for results - only effort.
As I pondered this freeing concept, I couldn't help but apply it to marriage. At my last Pursuit of Pleasure retreat, a lady asked me what to do if her husband didn't want to follow what the Bible says about marriage. I've received similar questions throughout my time in ministry. Most people will read books on marriage because they want God to give them a happier, more fulfilling, more peaceful marriage. In other words, there's an ideal that they're wishing to attain. They think the latest book on marriage will help them get there. This approach can be depressing. Here's why.
Attaining a certain ideal marriage is an outcome desire, not an effort one. If we give our all in marriage, and start jumping through hoops in hopes that things will get better, we will be very disappointed and disillusioned when they don't. We won't know what to do when the ideal isn't attained. We'll think books like The Pursuit of Pleasure in the Pleasure of Another don't work. In reality, no book can lead us to the ideal marriage. That's because the ideal marriage is an outcome that only God can grant.
In the same way a pastor can only be responsible for the effort he puts forth, a couple can only be responsible for the effort they put forth. If the couple doesn't want to put forth effort together, then it may be up to one spouse to put forth effort. But in putting forth the effort, that spouse cannot then demand to determine the outcome. That's setting himself up for failure.
Don't be a biblical, godly husband so that your wife will treat you a certain way. Don't expect that because you're the perfect man, your wife will never give you grief. Don't base your loving headship on your wife's response. Just continue exerting effort, leaving the outcome to God. C. J. Mahaney wrote a little book on romance entitled, Sex, Romance and the Glory of God in which he said something like, "Before you touch her body, touch her heart and mind." I firmly agree with that. I said, "Yeah! Yeah! That's the secret to a never-ending sex supply." So I try to cultivate that kind of friendship all day long. Imagine my surprise when, after a day of "touching her heart and mind" with all sorts of loving gestures and words and service, it doesn't always end up with her desiring me to touch her body. The point is, I should be intimately loving her, developing our friendship, serving her, sacrificing for her out of faithfulness to God, not to manipulate her to do what I want. I can't control the outcome, only my effort. So don't exert effort to be a godly husband so that God will reward you with a match made in Heaven. I hate those stupid e-harmony advertisements. Rather, exert effort so that God will reward you with a great reward in Heaven.
Don't be a biblical, godly wife so that your husband will mysteriously turn into the man of your dreams. The man of your dreams is just that - a dream. While you're waiting for the man of your dreams to take shape, the man you're married to may be growing more and more frustrated. Don't neglect reality to nurture wishful images. Just exert the effort to be a godly wife - not waiting for the day God will bless your effort with an ideal marriage. Exert effort to be a godly wife while waiting for God to bless your effort with a huge reward in Heaven.