If my wife and I have learned one thing in our marriage by now, it is how to sin against each other. We know how to inflect our tone of voice, how to look at each other in a way that hurts, and what words to use for maximum impact. Our marriage has revealed more about us, in our sin, than even we ourselves knew.
Now, we also know how to give one another joy. We know how to make life easier and how best to serve each other. And we are still learning. To still be loved by someone who knows me for who I am is an act of sheer grace. Being one flesh is a wonderful challenge. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure we would still be married.
In one of our downturns, my wife and I enlisted a friend to help us diagnose our problem. It took one dinner discussing three questions to begin to dislodge the unexplainable sticking points in our relationship. Perhaps sharing the three questions will provide others with practical tools to help strengthen their marriages as it did ours.
All of us have personality traits or preferences that are not sin, but can make us challenging to like. These are compounded when we have to live with someone who cannot escape our idiosyncrasies.
When answering this question, the first item I listed was “I lose things and can never find my stuff.” Two hours after saying this, my wife and I returned to the rental car, and when I reached for the keys in my pocket — nothing. For my super-organized wife, this is more than an annoyance. We walked two miles back to the hotel in the dark. She was gracious.
Those who know me best know some of these weaknesses; my wife knows them all. Living with someone leads to the unavoidable exposure of one’s shortcomings. Pride tells us we are good at everything, that we are not the issue, that it’s really our spouse who has all the weaknesses. Be careful: God stands against people like this (Proverbs 16:5; James 4:6). Love is not proud (1 Corinthians 13:4).
Humility allows us to be aware of the ways we make things hard on our spouse. It also enables us to serve her better, undermines more opportunities for misunderstanding, and makes her feel listened to and cared for. Confessing non-sinful weaknesses allows for healthy expectations as the spouse knows that you know yourself and desire to grow. It also helps me as a husband love my wife as myself (Ephesians 5:33) — I now know the things that make it hard on her.
Now we get to the heart of the matter — your acknowledgment of the way sin is ruling in your heart. Jesus instructed us, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18–19). Your spouse doesn’t make you sin. You sin without his or her help. As James argues, your unmet desires drive you, and when they are not met, you quarrel and fight (James 4:2).
So we must drag our sin into the light. My wife once told me that I was good at saying I was a sinner and terrible at naming the specific sin. She was right. To actually name the sin, and not just say that you are a sinner by nature, is to shine light on your sin (1 John 1:7).
Consider the fool of Proverbs as you consider your life. The fool:
- Is convinced that he is right (Proverbs 12:15)
- Quickly shows his annoyance (Proverbs 12:16)
- Is hotheaded and reckless (Proverbs 14:16)
- Spurns discipline and correction (Proverbs 15:5)
- Wastes money (Proverbs 17:16)
- Delights in airing his own opinions (Proverbs 18:2)
- Is quick to quarrel (Proverbs 20:3)
- Scorns wisdom (Proverbs 23:9)
- Is wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 26:5)
- Trusts in himself (Proverbs 28:26)
- Rages and scoffs, and there is no peace around him (Proverbs 29:9)
- Gives full vent to his anger (Proverbs 29:11)
You can quote Paul — “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). You can say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). But can you name your sin?
After nearly every meeting I lead, I like to give action items based on what was discussed. We all agree to them, hence agreeing to what was discussed and how to move forward.
As a husband, it’s one thing to generically say I will love my wife as Christ loved the church, but how can I practically do this? It’s one thing to say we will glorify God in our marriage, that our marriage has been created by Christ for his glory (Colossians 1:16), that we do not want to conform to the pattern of the world (Romans 12:1–2), or that we do not want to indulge the sinful nature (Galatians 5:13). These are all good things to say. But it’s quite another for both spouses to be clear on what exactly that looks like.
Maybe it will be a concerted effort not to misplace everything, or a commitment to overlook weaknesses. Maybe it is a commitment to confess sin regularly to each other, even in front of your children. Maybe you pledge to ask questions, or to affirm your spouse more than you criticize. Maybe it’s asking a close friend to help audit your marriage.
You do not need to answer these questions exhaustively to begin making real progress with your spouse. Three answers to each question is a manageable starting place. When you do answer these questions and bring them to your spouse, take time to discuss whether you are in agreement. Does your list of things that make you hard to live with align with the things your spouse would say about you? If you say, “I lose things,” and your spouse replies, “That doesn’t bother me at all,” then you may not understand your spouse.
The end game of all of this is that your marriage would glorify God: that husbands would reflect more clearly the love that Christ has for his people (Ephesians 5:25), and that wives would joyfully submit to and respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:24, 33). Gospel-centered marriages are not perfect marriages. They include dependence on God while acknowledging weaknesses, confessing sin, and offering forgiveness to each other. As you discuss these questions, then, remind yourselves of God’s commitment to you, to your spouse, and to your marriage.
Darren Carlson is the Founder and President of Training Leaders International. He has written on issues relating to short-term missions, missionary care, trends in global theology, missiological discussions, and the effective use of financial resources to relieve poverty.