Couples experiencing marriage difficulty often cite poor communication as the issue. Despite a desire for change, old patterns of interactions reveal themselves, especially in the heat of conflict. Hope for change only occurs when this pattern changes.
Sue and Ken are struggling; their marriage is tense and stressful. They have sought counsel from their church many times but found little lasting change. It was difficult for them to define the source of the problem, usually describing communication issues.
In This Series
- How Your Thoughts Reveal Your Functional Identity
- How to Change That Annoying Voice in Your Head
- How to Turn Your Arguments Into Redemptive Communication
- How To Bring the Gospel of Hope To a Bad Marriage
Recently, Sue was encouraged at Ken’s desire to attend a small group at church, hoping this community would help heal their marriage.
Unfortunately, it all unraveled after Ken belittled Sue’s cooking in front of the group. Ken was complimenting the food prepared by the hosts and shared, “Maybe you can give Sue some cooking lessons. She burned the dinner so bad last night that the dog didn’t even want it.”
Sue was hurt and defensive, “I was busy taking care of four kids, doing laundry, and trying to cook dinner. I lost track of time. If only I could get some help from my husband, maybe I would be a better cook!” The ugliness of their marriage was on full display.
On the way home, Ken said he was never going back. The hope the small group offered to their marriage was over. Sue was heartbroken and is seeking help.
- How should the Gospel impact a couple’s interactions in the heat of conflict?
- What does Sue need to know to help her navigate through this type of situation without feeling like a doormat?
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Examining Sue’s Response
Sue’s response was typical and expected. Her explanation was accurate when she said that Ken was not a servant leader. Additionally, his poor soul care left her defensive and fragile. She was hurt, and embarrassed.
But her response employed worldly wisdom and was not beneficial to their marriage. She resorted to rhetorical strategies, almost thinking they would persuade Ken to agree with her assessment of his poor husbandry.
Ken’s heart is hard, and progress will only come with repentance. Thus Sue must align herself with God’s ways (Romans 2:4) to help him. To help her get there, she needs to understand the role her identity plays in her response. When I speak of identity, I am referring to one’s purpose and position, i.e. how does she see herself?
Individuals typically do not consciously think about their identity. It is one of those areas where you can drift into an auto-pilot mode. For instance, men can find their identity in their careers and women in their relationships (wife/mother). At first glance, these identities seem harmless, but they put you on the wrong path.
Christians align themselves in two main categories; in Christ, or in something apart from Christ. As a Christian, Sue’s real identity is in Christ. God regenerated her and filled her heart with the Holy Spirit. She is an adopted child of God and is an heir with Christ (Romans 8:17). This new position brings a new purpose “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
Sue’s desires to be a godly wife that is loved by her husband became her functional identity that night. It morphed into an object of worship, which was the purpose of attending the small group.
When you put your identity in something apart from Christ, you position yourself to respond in self-reliant, and self-righteous ways to protect and defend your purpose and plans. With this functional identity, Sue was ready to give a natural response before Ken even spoke his cruel words.
The mind map shows how this plays out. Despite attempting to protect herself, the response resulted in a restless soul.
Going through the different nodes, you see the following:
Spiritual Pride: You can forget your total dependence on God for everything, and trust in your intuition to get through life. In this case, Sue wanted to be in control, and the desire for love from her husband (a good thing) elevated to a point where his actions controlled her (fear of man), setting her up to be a sinning victim.
When attacked, she responded by becoming hurt and angry. She was spiritually proud, and the Holy Spirit was not leading her. She was not modeling grace. She was operating out of the flesh (with all its associated desires), and as a result, it produced the fruits of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-17, 19-24).
Boast in Self: When you take the self-sufficient posture, you must continually deal with indwelling guilt and shame by puffing yourself up. You desperately want people to see that you are good. You want them to understand your motives, no matter how poorly your actions become.
Your eyes become fixed on your story. If things are not going according to your “script,” you become downcast and fearful. Consequently, because you have not humbled yourself under a sovereign God, you position yourself against God (James 4:6).
Serving the Self: When operating from a self-sufficient perspective, you protect yourself at all costs whereby you naturally take the defensive posture; you justify actions, you argue your case, and you seek to gain control of the direction of the conversation or situation. Manipulating techniques, such as anger, and come into play (James 4:1-3).
Horizontal Focus: A natural consequence of self-sufficiency is that God becomes distant, and your focus shifts to other people. Your prayer life becomes lifeless and anemic, and God seems distant.
Due to her functional identity, Sue took a took a self-protecting posture. She defended her actions and shared her insight on the actual problem.
For Sue to help Ken move towards a humble, others-centered position, she needs to change her methods; she must fight redemptively.
The Gospel Response – A Better Way
Redemptive thinking requires an in Christ identity and maintaining a singular focus on Christ. It requires a firm grasp of the theology of sin, knowledge, and appropriation of Gospel application, and the ability to trust in God’s sovereign hand. This different path, shown in the mind map below shows how Sue can respond with a faith-fueled response that is rooted in grace.
When sin presents itself, the tendency is to become angry (Ephesians 4:26), but instead of reacting in a way to defend herself, she must use this energy redemptively. Her “self” will be out of the way, allowing for the leading of the Holy Spirit.
She will appropriate a right view of her dependence on God and realize she can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15:5), which leads to a redemptive posture.
Poor in Spirit: Since she recognizes her spiritual bankruptcy, the Holy Spirit will illuminate her mind. Mourning over her sin will lead to meekness, a desire for relational restoration (Peacemaker), and a thirst for righteousness. She will see the goodness of God’s righteousness and desire to manifest His will “on earth” and in her life; precipitating in acts of mercy, as well as, a striving for personal holiness.
Boast in Christ: With her new purpose (bringing glory to God) and correct position (servant of the King), she will take a humble posture with her focus on God’s story. Her soul will find rest through receiving God’s grace.
The Killing of Self: With the flesh out of the way, she is positioned correctly for the pivotal point in this process; a willingness to “take on” his sin until it can be dealt with at the cross in God’s perfect timing; it is an act of sovereign and underserved grace.
With her identity firmly rooted in Christ, she is now free to respond from a position of self-sacrifice, love, and forgiveness, enabling her to react graciously, mercifully, and without taking offense. She could have simply said, “Yea, the meal was pretty bad,” and allowed the evening to continue, and small group, gospel relationships to form.
As she waits on the Lord’s leading, she can decide if this event needs discussion at a later date, or she will choose to let love cover his sin.
Unequivocally, this is the harder but higher road; it is the dying to yourself road. Taking a natural way, defending her position and expecting him to care about her feelings will only result in further relational deterioration, animosity, and dysfunctional communication.
Taking the humble road is the best way to travel, and is the path that most accurately reflects the life of Christ, and which demonstrates an unrelenting and unfaltering trust in the ability of the Holy Spirit to penetrate, soften and transform the hearts of those who sin against you.
Seeking contentment in your Heavenly Father as Christ did takes the stress, strain, and expectations off of imperfect, bound-to-fail, human relationships and redirects them to the only one who can fulfill them–Christ.
For too many Christians, this approach seems upside down, but that is the nature of the gospel. God’s anger is always redemptive, and with great sacrifice. The gospel gives you opportunities to help spread His kingdom on earth, but it requires you to do the same.
There are times when you must be quiet, commit it to God, and keep on serving the immature and self-centered sinners in your life. With the Spirit’s leading, you will love your spouse well, and as God gives growth, you will move towards enjoying the benefits of a having spouse with a well-cared for soul.
To restore their marriage, Ken and Sue must look to enjoy their marriage relationships in the context of a child-of-God first and foremost. Their worship structures are corrected and positions them to take redemptive postures when interacting with each other.
Disclaimer: I am not saying this is the appropriate approach for all marriage discord. If abuse is present, please take steps to prevent physical harm. The church elders and local law officials may need to intervene. The context for the redemptive posture discussed in this article is for couples who are struggling with their communication where abuse is not present.