Our behaviors reveal our hearts. If you get a discerning handle on a person’s actions, you will find clues to what may be going on in their heart. This kind of careful consideration of others will position you to be a “more effective Jesus” to them.
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This “theology of sanctification” also applies to how couples interrelate with each other. Behaviors like their laugh-ability, tender care, and one-flesh body language are clues to the state of their marriage.
Laugh-ability – There is a “contented joy” between two people who are reconciled, with no unresolved sin dividing them. They can laugh in conjugal joy because there is no masked tension in their relationship. They enjoy unguarded connectivity.
Tender care – The way they look at each other and touch each other reveals a “physical fondness” within the marriage covenant. There is a natural attraction to be physical in simple ways like hand-holding and touching. Willing vulnerability releases them to be free with each other.
One-flesh body language – They honor each other by “active eye contact” that reveals respect and affection for the other person. There is a physical comfortableness, as opposed to having to be tight, or withdrawn and tense when around each other.
These are just some of the things you can perceive from couples in love. There is an authentic “like” for the other person that they cannot disguise. It is a beautiful thing to see this type of symbiotic interaction between a husband and his wife.
When these kinds of relational benefits are not present, there will be a distance in their union. Relational laughter, tender affection, and a divided one-flesh will be discernible.
The mind map depicts one of the ways this can happen within a broken marriage. Though the story is fictional, the process is similar to many couples who have allowed the “divisiveness of sin” to interrupt what the Lord freely offers to two people who want it.
Separation in a marriage always begins with an unmet desire. It does not have to be a sinful desire; it is merely an unfulfilled desire. A spouse wants something. Typically it is a desire that runs along the lines of respect, honor, love, appreciation, time, proactivity, or acceptance.
None of these things are necessarily wrong. In a perfect world, you will find all of them in our “relational benefit package.” There is nothing from this list that will not be in heaven. The problem for us is that we are not in heaven.
This reality of our fallenness means we must hold these good desires loosely. It does not imply that we should let go of them, but we must give careful attention to how they can become contorted and controlling.
In a world where sin abounds, any good thing is a hair’s breadth from becoming a bad thing. The enemy is always on the prowl, seeking how to devour all the good the Lord intends (1 Peter 5:8; 2 Corinthians 11:14).
Our desires will become controlling if we don’t steward them correctly. Typically, we only steward our hopes in a one-sided fashion. Meaning, we give thought to the possibility of getting our desires met. We tend to resist the potential of the Lord withholding what we want.
Not fully factoring in the Lord interrupting our desires is a mistake. It is a myopic understanding of His plans for us. We are not going to get all we want. If we do not press this inevitableness into the possible equation for the betterment of our relationships, we can be set up for disappointment.
This problem is usually more in-depth and more sinister than a “surface problem” of unmet desires. Typically, we do not factor the Lord’s permission for adverse outcomes, because we want what we want more than what He may be writing into our stories (Romans 8:28). This kind of wrong thinking minimizes the Lord while elevating self-expected entitlements.
Without the careful stewardship of unmet desires, we are not far from being disappointed with the people we expected to give us what we hoped for in the relationship.
Let me reiterate that these things do not have to be bad things. They only become bad when our hearts turn angry as a response to not getting what we wanted. Too many people get lost at this point.
What they want becomes so controlling and expected that they cannot conceive of a scenario where not getting these things could be right. Without a sound gospel-orientation of the mind, they will never see the lifting of their relational fog.
There are scores of situations in the Bible where the Lord was actively causing bad things to happen because He could see the bigger picture. He was working His plan of redemption in the lives of many people, which is always the rub. The selfish person can only think of themselves.
For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. – Hebrews 11:32-34
When anger over not getting what you want enters into the relationship, there will be division. Sinful anger, regardless of how it manifests, will disrupt relational shalom.
The Anger Spectrum
The oddity about anger is how it can become a fixture in a person’s heart years before the other spouse is aware of the problem. When I ask a struggling couple about the beginning of their problems, they typically give two radically different starting times.
For example, the wife will talk about the onset of disappointment early in the marriage, if not before they were married. The husband will say he noticed things going “south” at about the ten-year mark of a twenty-year marriage.
The early stages of anger look more like disappointment, discouragement, frustration, impatience, negativity, and dismissiveness. These marriage killers can be missed or marginalized if the couple is not intentional about their sanctification.
Regardless of the type of anger (James 2:10), if they do not deal with it biblically, the couple will mishandle this pivotal point in their union. “Forgiveness and unforgiveness” is a watershed moment that will send their marriage in one of two radically different directions.
Because sin typically slithers into the union unbeknownst to one of the partners, the chance of reconciliation is slim. The hurt spouse will begin harboring resentment because of the unmet desire while accumulating many more grievances.
There is a self-defeating interplay here. One spouse is hurt, and the other spouse is oblivious. Maybe the hurt spouse tried to speak up, but it fell on deaf ears. There are several ineffective ways this can play out, but the result is always the same.
Unforgiveness is a cancer that will overcome any marriage. At that point nothing can be done until the accumulative effect of the ongoing hurt brings both spouses to the place of taking action.
If the sad storyline continues, it will turn to bitterness, which is unrepented, undealt with anger that has gone from bad to worse. The bad part is anger; the worse part is bitterness.
The spouse is now bitter, which is self-justified anger that is rooted deep in the heart. There is nothing the other spouse can do that will be met with acceptance. It is like a person sitting in the bush with a rifle, cocked and loaded, waiting for its prey.
She is angry, bitter, and cynical while holding the ultimate trump card, which is her self-righteous unforgiveness. This juncture is the point where the guy gets a clue. Of course, the way he typically responds is with the disrespect card.
To play the disrespect card in this scenario creates a standoff. Two selfish and angry people are “playing chicken” in the middle of the road, waiting for the other person to make the first move.
They both own the rights to an “entitled desire,” and they will not let go of their rightness. The thing is that they both are right. And both of them are wrong.
Guess where they both land on this “I am right and you are wrong tension?” When selfish people can find leverage in the marriage, they will take it and not let up on it no matter how much you talk about the other-centered call the Lord places on their lives.
Until the Lord and His fame matter more than their perceived entitlements, they will never relinquish the stranglehold they have on each other. They will die fighting for their rights before they will die to themselves.
At this point, there is discernible, objective distance in the union. They both know it and anyone who spends any amount of time with them knows it. Creating separation is the eighth step in the process of a marriage breaking down.
This juncture is when they come to counseling if they come at all. Many marriage partners muddle along, assuming the roles of roommates or business partners, staying together for any number of self-serving reasons.
Three-Step Action Plan
What they need is an action plan to work through the eight steps presented here while identifying and owning what is real in their marriage. Being open to talking about what is wrong will be crucial in the restoration process.
I would recommend the couple sitting down with a third-party and talking about the content of this article. The hope and process would be to work through the mind map reversely. Let me explain.
Step One – They have to own what is wrong with them and what is wrong with the marriage. This action is the “ownership line” in the mind map, and it means they will be actively confessing their sins to each other and God.
No reconciliation can happen until they neutralize all the sin. The only way they can counteract their sinfulness is to own what’s wrong, which includes confession and mutual forgiveness. If this happens, they can be reconciled and can move to step two.
Step Two – Reconciliation does not remove the sin in the sense of making it not matter anymore. To say, “I forgive you?” or ask, “Will you forgive me?” will not cause the bitterness to vaporize or the respect the individual desires to magically appear.
The owning of sin and the neutralizing of sin positions you to do what you could never do before, which is to talk about what was wrong. They could not talk about their problems because there was no authentic, genuine, Christ-exalting, grace-empowered, devil-robbing, confession and forgiveness.
If the forgiveness is real, they can get to work with what has gone wrong in their marriage, which means dealing with the bitterness and the other issues. Their sin, if handled correctly, is kind of like “road kill.” It is dead, never to be revived again.
You will quickly know if their sin is road kill or if it has been resurrected by how they interact with each other post-forgiveness. If there is still a residual effect of the issue, they need to pause and work through this question: why is the death of Christ not enough to take care of the sin in your relationship?
This process will probably take some time, but there is grace for this if they are willing to humble themselves before the Lord and each other. This critical time is where ongoing third-party care can serve them well.
Step Three – The Christian life is repentance and ongoing repenting. Sin and repentance are never one and done. There will always be more of the former, which necessitates the latter.
As they continue to walk out repentance with the Lord and with each other, they will be positioned to begin to take the sting out of their anger, disappointment, and expectations.
This process will help them to become better stewards of their desires. They will still desire what they desire, but their hopes will no longer control them. This place in their relationship with God and each other is freedom, which makes for a good marriage.
It Takes Two
In most marriage counseling situations, both partners do not get to the place of asking for help at the same time. Usually, one person is more in favor of making a God-centered change than the other person. If that is the case, here are four “pre-steps” before you can activate the previously mentioned steps.
- Judge yourself first. What you’ve done to Jesus is worse than what your spouse has done to you (Matthew 7:3-5). If you cannot practically apply this point, there is little hope for you. Self-righteousness will decimate your marriage.
- Pray for Your Spouse, asking the Lord to bring change. The more you pray for your spouse, the more the Lord will draw your heart to your spouse.
- Ask the Lord to give you pity for your spouse in a similar way the Father pities you (Psalm 103:14). He knows your frame: you are from the dust. The more you biblically understand your spouse and how you both are susceptible to sin, the more pity you can have for others.
- Pray for contexts so you can intervene in your spouse’s life. Look with expectation for the Lord to prepare opportunities for you to be redemptive to your spouse. Here are a few examples.
- Consider third-party intervention. Ask for help (Matthew 18:15-17).
- Motivate your spouse by grace. Become an encourager (Romans 2:4).
- Ask the Lord for spiritual discernment to speak into your spouse’s life (1 Corinthians 2:14).
- Model the person you want your spouse to become (1 Corinthians 11:1).
- Diffuse the arguments by not sinfully responding to your spouse (1 Peter 2:21-25).
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Also published on Medium.