Series: Marriage East of Eden
“It’s all your fault! You drove me to it! I’m sorry you’re upset by what I said, but I just had to get it off my chest!”
Last week we saw how each human sinner is born with a natural tendency to cloak our sin and play the victim. It’s a universal idol that first raised its head in Genesis 3:10-13 and it’s been the predicable pattern of this world ever since. When life is tough, we become experts at creating scapegoats out of anything and anybody in our line of sight: My colleague…my boss…my children…my past…the system… they’re all to blame, except me! Sadly for marriage, the first person in sight is often our spouse and closest neighbour! It is the “flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones” who bears the brunt of all our struggles. Isn’t blaming a lot easier than being accountable?
The ultimate Scapegoat
But there is good news for husbands and wives who have repented, taken up our cross and followed Jesus! The only blameless man who ever lived shifted all our blame and all our spouse’s blame onto Himself. On the cross, Jesus Christ became the ultimate Scapegoat, who took the blame our many sins deserve. The same Lord who commands us to love our spouse has shown us what genuine love looks like, and his Holy Spirit empowers us to love in this way. He is, after all, the source of love.
The good news of the Gospel is that we no longer have to follow the default pattern of this world (Rom 12:2), which ends in hostility and divorce. We can build the one-flesh intimacy God intended for our marriages. But first we must resolve to stop hiding and blaming. We must demolish the idol of blame as though our one-flesh union depends upon it. Because it does.
Demolishing the idol God’s way.
In the Bible, God gives Christians a blueprint for dealing with conflict and disagreement in relationships, so that we don’t resort to blaming and shaming. These four general principles are as relevant in marriage as they are in every other relationship:
1. The real War.
The battle starts with you! You’re in spiritual warfare and home is where the ultimate enemy (Satan) finds ample opportunities to strike (Eph 6:14-17). God can use everyday conflict with your spouse to help you root out the sin of your own heart and to serve His good purposes. So, let’s remember that the conflict itself is not the root problem, and your spouse is not the enemy! Make sure you fight the real battle with the armour that Christ has provided.
2. The danger of offence.
“An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city” (Prov 18:19). Solomon warns that a stalemate results if one spouse digs in her heels and stubbornly refuses to let go of her offence. Offence becomes a stronghold from which there’s no escape. That’s why, in Matthew 18:15-16, Jesus tells his followers to meet face-to-face with a brother or sister who has sinned against him and to communicate his grievances clearly and honestly.
So, in marriage, we talk directly with our spouse, rather than resorting to emotional outbursts, slander or withdrawal. We don’t run off and gossip to our best friend or mother if our husband has offended us! We don’t generalise or caricature our spouse, but we give examples of actual conduct, so that our spouse can understand how they have offended us and make changes. We centre our discussion around the truth and resist the urge to judge our spouse’s motives. And if we reach a stalemate, we’re to call in an independent arbiter from the church to judge between us and help us to restore the relationship. Offence must be stopped in its tracks if we’re to guard our one-flesh bond.
3. Mind your own logs!
“You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5).
It’s not just your spouse that needs to change! When you take the plank out your own eye, you need to describe yourself accurately, so that you can change. You needn’t be afraid to look at yourself, as you won’t find anything there that will surprise God or that He cannot cleanse and transform. I love the pattern David lays down for us in Psalm 51:3-4. Remorse and repentance are not the same thing! Repentance is about being restored to God and changing direction, not just saying you’re sorry to get something off your chest.
When we first confess our sins and selfishness to God, our confession creates a soft, gracious heart from which to apologise and make amends. You cannot discuss our spouse’s faults unless your own heart has been humbled before the Lord. Take time to listen to how your sin affected your spouse before you launch in with your complaints. And be ready with practical ideas of how you’d like to work together to change these patterns in the future. Marriage is not a contest, it’s a collaborative effort.
4. Choose the wisest approach that fits your knowledge of yourself, your spouse and the need of the moment:
a) WAIT: “It is to a man’s honour to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Prov 20:3). Rather than calling out every instance of failing, we need to be patient with our spouse, as God is with us. “Bear with each other” is a good formula for a great marriage! The world’s pattern of venting every thought and emotion is not a godly pattern, and it bears terrible fruit.
b) CONFRONT: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord”. (Lev 19:17-18)
These two beautifully balanced verses point out two common pitfalls in mishandling conflict: Some of us hate our brother in our heart by nursing grievances and incubating a silent grudge. But some of us hate our brother in our heart by playing tit for tat. Moses says that it’s actually unloving and sinful not to speak up and reason frankly with your neighbour (Lev 19:17). But it’s equally wrong to take vengeance and repay evil with evil.
In truthful confrontation, let’s remember that God is the ultimate judge of you and your spouse, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom 14:10; 12; Lev 19:8). He is the silent witness to each of our relational encounters. Our responsibility is to speak up and reason frankly with one another. But at the same time, it is our responsibility to do everything to safeguard the dignity of our spouse as we speak the truth. That’s how we will love our nearest neighbour as we love ourself.
c) YIELD: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul points out that in conflict, being right and doing right aren’t always the same thing. It’s not about winning the argument, but about how you can best love and minister to your spouse. If something isn’t helpful for your spouse, don’t get stuck on who’s right and who’s wrong. Don’t pursue your rights at the expense of your relationship. Always seek the good of your spouse, even if it curtails your freedom (1 Cor 10:23-24; 1 Cor 8:9-13).
The Sweet Fruit of a Peacemaker.
Whether you choose a), b) or c) in resolving conflict, is a matter of wisdom. Seek the Lord in prayer and ask Him for the wisdom you need to make everyday choices which yield the sweet fruit of peace and order in your home (James 1:5). James contrasts the fruit of godly and worldly wisdom in relationships: “A good life, deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom…but where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness (James 3:13-18).
Are you seeing evidence of this sweet fruit in your own marriage? Or are you tasting the bitter fruit of envy, selfish ambition and disorder? Perhaps it’s time to go back to biblical principles and submit to the wisdom from heaven.
Don’t buy the lie!
It is Satan himself who whispers slander about your spouse in your ear. Every time your husband fails you, every time he offends you, every time you feel hurt or disappointed, the Accuser is whispering slander in your ear about your spouse. He is interpreting your wife’s motives to convince you that she means harm towards you. He is tempting you to think that you’re your own moral compass, so it’s always her fault, never yours! Don’t buy the lie! Use conflict as an opportunity to grow up and deepen your relationship: Don’t take offence easily. Mind your own logs. And choose the wisest godly path to resolve disagreements. That’s how you’ll be a channel of Christ’slove to your spouse.
Oh Lord, we long to be wise in our marriages! Free us from the idol of self which makes us think we are always right, and that our rights are all that matter. Help us to hear your voice clearly in your Word, so that we will not listen to the voice of slander and blame in our own hearts. Give us the apt words to speak graciously and frankly to each other. Help us to see our marriage as a one-flesh union, so that we will regard our spouse’s pain and progress as our own. Empower us to be more like you, and to seek out little and big ways to minister to our spouse for their good and their godliness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.