Finally, in marriage, God has you cornered and he can begin to deal with your selfishness in a way that he couldn’t before. Because you are now in a covenant until death do us apart. There is no more hiding in marriage. You can hide from others quite easily. People can put on a happy, joyful face when they come to church. If you are in a bad mood and your friend calls you because she wants to hang out, you can pretend to be busy. If you are stressed, you can stay in your room and watch movies all day and no one will bother you. Not when you are married. You have to deal with issues as they come up. You have to say sorry for your moodiness. You have to forgive others when they are stressed and they bite you with their words. It’s like God finally has you by the scruff of the neck and he puts you in front of a mirror and says, look at you! Now it’s time to deal with your selfishness.
The chief obstacle of your personal sanctification is you. Your self. Selfishness. In marriage, you will be amazed at the human heart’s ability to deceive itself. One of the main deceptions of sin is the fact that the vast majority of people out in the world, Christian or non-Christian, believes that the sin in others is greater than their own sin.
Genesis 3, which describes the Fall of Man, is so true to life. Let’s turn there. Gen 3:8-13. [READ]
As soon as the Fall occurs, what happens? The finger pointing starts. Everyone is shifting blame away from themselves and onto others.
Adam is blaming Eve and ultimately, he is blaming God. The woman YOU gave to be with me. God, I know you meant well, but you’re the reason I sinned. I’m innocent. I was fine until Eve came along. Eve also is good at blaming. It was the serpent. He deceived me. I’m innocent. If the serpent wasn’t there, I would have never eaten the fruit. Human selfishness and blame shifting is gender neutral. Men and women, we are equally good at diminishing and underestimating our sin and magnifying the sin in others.
Some of the most selfish people you’ll ever meet are those who have undergone legitimate suffering in their lives because of the sins of others. When I am counseling someone with a difficult past, whether it’s abuse, or mistreatment, the sins that are mentioned are truly wrong and they are hurtful. But these people become such victims. It’s like they have made themselves to be completely sinless and innocent and the entire world is against them. People with a victim complex fail to realize that sin in them was always there, yet it has been aggravated by some injustice. The injustice or abuse or mistreatment from the past is not the cause of their present unhappiness, it simply aggravated the sin that was already there. It is their personal sin which is at the root of their present unhappiness.
Don’t we blame everyone and everything as a way of absolving ourselves of any guilt? If it weren’t for that person or that incident, I wouldn’t have turned out like this. Modern psychology seeks to pin blame on something or someone from our past. We blame our parents. We blame the bully from the 5th grade who embarrassed us at recess. We blame bad church experiences for all of our present hangups.
What Adam and Eve were saying after the Fall were true statements. Eve did give Adam the fruit. The serpent did deceive Eve. These were sins committed against them. But that’s not the point. The point is that they both sinned individually and so they must take personal responsibility for their sin. The problem is, our sin runs so deep that we think the sins of others are worse than our own and so we deceive ourselves to think that if so and so didn’t wrong me, I’d be happy. No, you are unhappy right now because of the sin that comes out of your own heart.
How does this sinful pattern of blaming unfold in marriages? Two sinners who are so different by creation design are brought together in marriage so of course there will be conflicts. While you are dating, there were early warning signs, but you were in love so those differences didn’t matter. You could laugh them off because you were riding the tidal wave of romance. But what happens? A few months into the marriage, the tidal wave of emotion comes crashing down and now the differences that were cute before are not so cute anymore. You start getting annoyed at one another. The fights become more heated and they last longer. Then, a few years later, you are at each other’s throats and you got WWIII on your hands. Or, a Cold War ensues and you create a DMZ, a demilitarized zone between you and your spouse. You bargain, I won’t talk about the way you drive if you don’t criticize my forgetfulness. You bargain so that you avoid all the hot buttons.
In either case, hostility or estrangement, each party is thinking, yeah, I know I’m a sinner, but my spouse’s sin is greater. I was fine before I was married, but now I am miserable. There’s the proof. My spouse–he or she is the problem. I’m not happy because I married the wrong person. I was in love, but I have fallen out of love. I chose the wrong person, but fate is still out there. The assumption is, if I marry the right person, then things will work out beautifully. There is only one problem with this calculation. Even if you change spouses, you are still the same you. You bring your sinfulness into the relationship and the person you are marrying brings their sinfulness into the marriage.
The best analogy I have heard to describe our hearts in marriage is a bridge with structural defects. The bridge symbolizes our hearts. When ordinary cars drive over the bridge, the bridge looks fine, but when a 5 ton mack truck drives over the bridge, the hairline fractures appear. The structural defects were there all along, but it was the weight of the truck that brought them to the surface. Marriage is like a 5 ton mack truck barreling down the freeway and headed straight through the center of your heart. The structural flaws were there prior to the marriage, but the strain and the weight of the marriage made the flaws evident.
When marital conflicts arise, couples make the same mistake that those who suffer injustice make. They think the cause of the conflict is the other person. They assume they were fine before the marriage. There were no structural flaws. The fault lies entirely with the other person. They conclude that the other person’s sin is greater than their own. This is such a deception. Our sin is our personal responsibility. The sins of others can aggravate the sin in us for sure but the sin was already there to begin with. The other person’s sin may be objectively more serious than your own, but that can’t be your concern. You need to worry about your own sin before the Lord and let God deal with the other person.
Some people who are hurt by someone else’s sin, whether a parent or a sibling or a church member or a spouse, cannot move on for decades until the other party offers a full apology. And often times, the apology never comes so they end up being stuck spiritually because they are waiting for something that will never come to pass. You can’t think this way. We need to forgive as Christ forgave us. Our forgiveness is not contingent on our spouse or anyone else asking for forgiveness from us.
You can switch spouses, you can run and hide, but if you buckle down and work on your marriage and allow the marriage to reveal the structural defects in your own heart, then finally, there is a chance for God to deal with the real you so that you can be sanctified. In a marriage, if either spouse says, my sinfulness is the biggest problem that I bring to the table, then the marriage has a real chance of being effective in sanctifying not just one side but both parties. Because instead of shifting blame, one spouse takes full responsibility and is humble and says sorry first, then it has a softening effect on the other spouse. When neither side apologizes, then no progress is made because both sides have hardened their hearts. And of course, when that happens, sanctification stops. One side who is quick to apologize, over time, will soften the other side. For example, when Jackie apologizes first, which is often the case–bless her heart, it’s so much easier for me to apologize. Thus, sanctification can begin. If both sides say, the biggest problem in this marriage is my sinfulness, then the marriage becomes an extremely effective tool to sanctify both parties.
When neither side is willing to budge and there is a spiritual standoff, then I have one final suggestion. Men, it’s your spiritual duty to break first. We are back full circle. This kind of humble submission requires the Holy Spirit. It is humanly impossible to submit and serve and lay down your life without the Spirit. Especially when the other side has hardened their heart. It has to be Spirit-generated. Men, you must die first. Look to Jesus. Did he lay down his life because the church was so lovely and desirable and humble? No, he laid down his life while we were all enemies of God. He loved first in order to make the church lovely, not because we were already lovely. When our wives or anyone for that matter is unlovable, we think we are justified in withholding our love. Consider once again the pattern and example set by Jesus. He laid down his life first, then the church was birthed and made lovely as a result.
Let’s thank the Lord Jesus for taking the first step to forgive us while we were mocking him, and spitting in his face and nailing him to a cross. When husbands and wives and when Christian brothers and sisters die to their egos and humble themselves through the filling of the Spirit, then this is when sanctification begins when you and I as sinners are able to confess my own sin before another sinner and receive forgiveness so that in turn we can forgive others when they confess their sin to us. Marriage is a vehicle of our sanctification because in it, we have the privilege to re-enact the gospel.