One of the best books I’ve read in the past five years is Middlemarch, by George Elliot. My favorite thing about this book is its two major portraits of early marriage. From these two portraits, you get two examples: there is one type of wife who is to be admired and emulated, and another who serves as a warning.
Dorothea is a heroine. She’s young, beautiful, and pious, and she marries the old, cold, insecure Reverend Casaubon. The marriage itself is a mistake, but as Dorothea begins to understand the nature of her husband’s character and the disappointment of her hopes, she responds with longsuffering and compassion. Instead of rejecting and shutting him out—as she begins to see that he is a fraud of a scholar and a shell of a man—she has compassion on him, and works her pity out in active service and intentional respect.
The second bride is the beautiful, ambitious, spoiled Rosamund Vincy. She marries a charming and hardworking doctor, Tertius Lydgate, who has plans to do great work in medical research. A period of frugality is necessary to their early married life, in order to get him where he wants to be professionally. As soon as any kind of self-sacrifice is asked of Rosamund, she responds by smiling sweetly and doing whatever she can to undercut her husband’s wishes. In every subsequent misfortune, Rosamund responds by pulling emotionally away from him, shutting him out when he breaks down and begs her for pity, and eventually forcing him to leave town with her, starting a new practice elsewhere and abandoning his dreams of accomplishing anything worthwhile in research.
I love this book for many reasons, but these two portraits of wifely response are my favorite thing about it. They ring true to me, in my own experience of marriage and my observation of other marriages. It’s something that I don’t remember being told about, and don’t remember reading in any of my premarital counseling books:
Sometimes, a wife’s greatest gift to her husband is her compassion.
A woman with a strong instinct for pity will be a better wife
I know that the word ‘pity’ may grate on some of those reading. The word evokes condescension for many people. But the definition of ‘pity’ is simply “to have a feeling of sorrow and compassion by the suffering and misfortunes of others.”
And feeling is at the center of what I’m talking about here. A woman must be able to feel for and feel with her husband. There are many times, when your husband is flying high, working hard, feeling victorious, when you easily and freely identify yourself with his feelings. Yeah! Awesome! You’re doing good; I’m doing good; we’re a power couple!
But a woman in any real marriage also finds herself at a harder point of decision, regularly, throughout the hours, days, and weeks of marriage. In small moments of annoyance or misunderstanding, in major crises of sin or failure, she must look at her husband and decide whether to turn her heart from him or to feel for and feel with him.
In order to do this, I believe, a strong instinct for pity is necessary. And even better than a strong instinct for pity is a cultivated, Godly posture of pity.
Imaging God in your pity
The pity that I’m talking about doesn’t look like the beauty parlor lady gossiping with the lady under the next hair dryer: “She’s about to just totally lose it. I pity her; I really do.”
Compassionate pity is what God feels for his people, and what he analogizes to the love of parents for their children:
“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him,” says the Psalmist (Ps 103:13). The particular gift of a women, the gift of compassion, is referenced in this description of God from Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
And I recently came across these lines in Hosea:
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender” (Hos. 11:8).
This sounds to me like the most desperate cry of a woman to her lover. The sentiment is not one of cold, calculating acceptance, based on felt obligation or the merit of the beloved. It is a position almost of giving up and giving in—‘I can’t help it. I would reject you, except that my love won’t allow it.’ Remember that another overarching picture used in Hosea is that of marriage: a faithful husband marries and continues repeatedly to retrieve a wayward, unfaithful wife. In these verses, God is using a lover’s dialect of emotion to describe his decision to have mercy on his people.
Now obviously, since we’re not God, our pity can never be exactly like his. The Christian marriage is made up of husbands and wives who are finite, sinful, redeemed people. Whenever we forgive or overlook any sin or weakness in another person, we are doing so as similarly sinful and weak people. When we have pity on our husbands, it is usually with the memory of many other instances when they have had pity on us. This is never true for God—whose pity is always one sided.
But I think that still, we can pull a lesson about love from these pictures of God’s impulse towards pity. We must imitate the love of God. And in God’s way of loving, pity forms a part of the package. We saw this also in Jesus, the God-man. Several times, we are told explicitly that Jesus healed and forgave people out of pity (Matt. 18:27, 20:34, Mark 1:41). He was doing so as a God who feels with and feels for. This is why I think that when Jesus calls his disciples to love one another, as he has loved them (John 15:12), pity must play a role.
Pity: a helpful ingredient in peacemaking and submission
This impulse towards pity is sometimes the main ingredient in peacemaking and even submission.
When it comes to peace, I have to admit—I have seldom in my marriage had to be the first one to come and seek reconciliation when my husband and I have had a disagreement. He is simply too fast, too softhearted. I’ve wondered, often, how the pity muscle would operate if I had to go through long seasons of having to lift the burden of peacemaking myself, instead of mainly following his lead and responding to his overtures of peace.
But I’ve been reminded that even if those times come, the compassion that I practice now—which is sometimes the primary motivator for me to soften and forgive, and repent myself—is the same compassion that will be required in those situations. Pity and compassion still operate, when your spouse has made him or herself vulnerable to the point of apologizing. Your instinct to lean towards them instead of away from them is critical in these times. And in the end, it is that same impulse working on both sides of reconciliation: ‘I can’t help it. I would reject you, but my love won’t allow it.’ How can you refuse to make peace with someone who you are feeling for and feeling with? You simply haven’t the heart; your “heart recoils” within you. Your compassion is warm and tender.
And when wives are called to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22), it’s hard to immediately picture the role that pity might play in such a way of loving. But that’s only until you are in the act of submission, and you discover how much it means to your husband. You realize that to love your spouse, to overlook his shortcomings and honor his strengths by submitting to his leadership—this is, at times, an act that arises out of compassion. Because to do otherwise, to disrespect and wound him, would be unbearable to you. Your compassion is sometimes the impulse that prevents disrespect.
Love for a husband means building his strengths up around him and lightening his load is far as it can be lightened. It often means—in dozens of minor moments of decision—veering towards compassion instead of judgement, choosing praise instead of criticism, and leaning towards instead of leaning away. It is bearing all things, hoping all things, believing all things, enduring all things (1 Cor. 13:7).
This is love. And it never fails.