We have an announcement to make — today, our families and marriages are under siege.
Good communication and conflict resolution are important in a healthy and edifying marriage and home life, but are they missing in ours?
Marital disagreements may occur for various reasons. There can be unrealistic expectations of our spouse, or the discovery that he or she does not possess the qualities we expected of them before marriage. Since we want to see desirable traits acquired and distasteful ones eliminated, we proceed with the monumental task of ‘remaking our spouses into ideal mates’, and the conflict begins.
It has been claimed that the wife’s favourite method of conflict resolution is incessant nagging, assisted by occasional ridicule and periodic outburst of tears; while the husband’s favourite approach is loud shouting and caustic comments or sarcastic remarks. He may also use an occasional angry lecture, interspersed with long periods of withdrawal and silence and hostile body language.
Two sinful self-wills, each torn between love of self and love of spouse, are now seeking supremacy. The inevitable result is conflict.
At the heart of every conflict is the sinful self. Most people blame their conflicts on circumstances: the unacceptable job, small house, rebellious children, lack of money, interfering relatives. These may, of course, be contributory factors, but the real problem is the sinful heart that wants to do as it pleases, expecting at the same time unqualified approval from its spouse. The result is disastrous quarrelling.
There could be other fundamental reasons behind conflicts. For example, two young people have been in a hurry to get married in order to escape unpleasant situations at home, or the loneliness of singlehood. But even then, the real problem is the sinful self each invariably brings along with them when they get married!
God wants us to learn how to mortify our old sinful natures by the Holy Spirit — a fundamental requirement for interacting happily with a spouse in covenant Christian marriage. ‘But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him’ (Colossians 3:8-10).
Meaningful communications in a marriage have failed when arguments have erupted over the most trivial things, causing couples to feel they are incompatible. But incompatibility in a Christian marriage, from God’s perspective, is all about two wills that need to be conquered by Jesus Christ.
When Christ becomes the centre of the marriage, with each partner living for his glory, marital harmony, comfort, peace and happiness will reign again (Psalm 127:1). The couple must be willing to make the adjustments and efforts to relate to each other effectively.
How then do we resolve dissension in our marriage? We need to realise, first of all, that disagreement, when controlled, need not be destructive to a relationship. It could be a constructive avenue to open channels of communication and expose the festering sores of the soul.
There may be changes needing to be made, and nagging and negative comments will only serve to drive apart, while a good, lively discussion will get at the heart of the matter and resolve things in the open, if conducted in the right spirit and with appropriate words.
But we must set some ground rules before we begin. Here are some suggested guidelines for such an exchange. First, we need to pray and establish that our goal is a deeper understanding of and respect for God and each other.
The headship of the man in the family and the need for the man to love his wife must both be acknowledged (Ephesians 5:22-25). If we can start with this, we will ultimately thank God for lesser disagreements.
The goal of the argument is not to decide who is winner and loser, it is to gain fresh insight into God’s will for our lives. It is to find out how our spouse thinks about the issues that affect us. It is a good policy for each partner to restate clearly and gently the other one’s point of view; then let the husband lead in prayer together, submitting with love and respect for each other.
Second, we must humbly ask God to help us control our emotions. We often say things under emotional and mental stress that we did not mean, words that hurt others. These words are not soon forgotten. Remember that the fruit of the Spirit includes self-control (Galatians 5:23), and we need to let the Spirit manifest his calmness and control, even in the face of unjust accusations or serious provocations.
This is not to say that emotions should be excluded. But, though it is legitimate for our emotions to be present during discussion, they must be closely guarded by the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). One wife told me that, when their discussions begin to heat up, her husband would say, ‘Let’s pray about this’. This had an edifying effect on their marriage.
Third, we must examine ourselves and deal with the problem itself and not attack the person. It’s easy to become overly critical and make inaccurate character judgments about the other, falsely accusing them of unkind or wrong motives.
When a wife fails to clean the house or a husband postpones some chores, the impatient partner may come out with, ‘You’re just plain lazy’, or ‘You’re doing this on purpose’, or ‘You did that just to get back at me’. Words can either hurt or heal. We also have a tendency to unjustly project our own motives on to others. Our angry accusations may reveal more about our own hearts than theirs (Romans 2:1; Matthew 7:1-2).
Fourth, we must remember to be patient and forgiving, since angry attacks against us may sometimes be provoked by exasperating incidents totally unrelated to us. Often when husbands or wives are irritable, their spouses just happen to be the most convenient target for the outbursts.
For instance, the pressures of household chores and rebellious children may have been building up for a wife all day long. She is tense when her husband comes in the door and he forgets to close it, and she raises her voice.
A husband filled with God’s love and understanding realises there is more behind this than a door that is ajar, and responds tenderly and gently. In the same vein, a Spirit-filled wife understands that a frustrated husband’s actions are probably the result of pressure at work and not hostility towards his family.
If we would listen to our family calmly and patiently instead of reacting indignantly at the first provocation, solutions would soon emerge and we would offer sympathetic understanding, averting an unnecessary and heated argument.
Finally, we need to learn to be loving and amicable and not always out to win the argument. Love is the language the deaf can hear and the blind can see. Some arguments never end; they go on for years without either side burying the hatchet. Others seem to die without a conclusion, but actually only deepen underlying resentment.
So, if we are wrong, we should admit it and say sorry. If we need time to think about it, we should say, ‘I’m beginning to see your point, but I need some time to think it over’. Then do just that: think it over before the Lord and come back when ready and find proper closure.
After resolving a quarrel, how do we move on to prevent future unedifying conflicts? There are several biblical principles that can help us.
The first principle is that we should ask God to build us up in the fear of the Lord, so we can be edifying to the other party. ‘Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others’ (Philippians 2:4). The temptation is to sulk over wrongs committed against us through the years, rehearsing in our minds all the offences and injustices we have suffered, and then begin building our case for the next confrontation.
Often our own self-will, self-righteousness and pride have been responsible for at least part of the conflict. It may have been some ‘little’ demands we made of our spouse for our own convenience. It may have been indifference we showed toward their needs. It may have been the way we expressed our hurt feelings, that only served to intensify the conflict. Often, when there is conflict, pride and self-interest are among the causes (Proverbs 13:10).
It is so easy to let our minds focus on our spouse’s part in the overall blame. We focus on their guilt and fail to think the best of them (as we would want them to think of us). But this is a diabolical ploy of Satan, to deceive us into self-righteousness (Matthew 7:5). Let us ask God to help us acknowledge our own part of the blame responsibly and communicate love and affection to our spouse.
We must discipline ourselves first. It is so easy to be severe with others and lenient with ourselves. Yet true humility is tolerant of others and exacting with oneself. Once we acknowledge our sin, God can bestow both forgiveness and renewed marital harmony. ‘And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:32).
Let us stop the blame game, by humbly acknowledging our part of the blame and receiving God’s gracious forgiveness. We can ask him to give us victory over our sinful, selfish wills, so that we relinquish our craving to have everything our own way.
When we are in the middle of a marital crisis, we usually feel that our problems would be solved if only our spouse would change their ways. It seldom occurs to us that we are the ones that need changing!
Moreover, we seldom change others for the better by murmuring, criticising, and complaining against them. That only deepens the wedge that lies between us. We must give attention to the one thing that we can change, by God’s grace and saving power: ourselves!
God does not expect us to improve our spouses. He expects us to love them and to provide for their needs. When we examine ourselves and are willing to first let God transform us, our marriages will begin to improve. When husbands or wives realise that we have stopped badgering them and instead made significant positive changes in our own lives, they will begin to respond constructively.
The second biblical principle is to prayerfully encourage, comfort and even forgive our spouses and children in spite of their faults, without bitterness or pre-conditions.
Someone may ask, ‘What if they do not apologise?’ There is no indication that the person who wronged Peter ever apologised for it, yet Christ told him to forgive as many as 490 times (Matthew 18:21-22; Ephesians 5:32). Jesus was teaching here that there is actually no pre-condition for biblical forgiveness, although it is essential and can be difficult.
Someone once said, ‘But the hurt is too deep. I can’t forgive him or her’. Listen to Christ again: ‘For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matthew 6:14-15).
Our own forgiveness is affected by our forgiveness of others and is based on God’s sovereign grace in Christ. It would contradict Christ’s teachings if we refused to forgive the person who has wronged us. When a person has admitted the vileness of his own sin and experienced the blessing of God’s forgiveness, he will respond with forgiveness toward others. It is inconsistent to receive God’s forgiveness, but refuse to forgive another (Matthew 6:9-13).
When we grant forgiveness to others, resentment and bitterness will disappear and our harsh and intolerant attitudes be replaced with genuine love and concern for our spouses and children (Colossians 3:12-15).
Finally, if we have done wrong, we must openly and frankly apologise for our part of the blame. We should apologise after we have acknowledged our own guilt before God. Do not say: ‘I was wrong, but you were too!’, or ‘I’m sorry I did that, but it wasn’t all my fault’, or ‘I’m sorry I said that, but what could I do after what you did?’, or ‘I’m sorry if I did anything to offend you’. None of these statements admits to anything. They are not true apologies and will not placate anybody or solve the problems.
Why is it so hard for some people to apologise? Perhaps some men think admitting guilt is a sign of weakness. Actually, it is a sign of spiritual and emotional strength, a mark of a healthy, well-balanced and humble disposition. Perhaps some people are afraid they will ‘lose face’ with the ones they love if they admit their faults. But the very opposite is true: by being honest about themselves, we gain more respect.
Some insist it would be hypocritical to apologise, since they will probably do the same thing again. But we are to confess our faults to God and to each other, and sincerely seek to stop doing it by his strength (James 5:16-18; Proverbs 28:13). Refusal to do this is disobedience to him.
When someone apologises to you, be gracious to accept it and move on without hatred or retaliation. Your attitude, not just your aptitude, determines your altitude in life. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said: ‘An unforgiving Christian is a contradiction’.
Jesus taught that we must be reconciled with others before we can truly worship God: ‘Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift’ (Matthew 5:23-24).
Vengeance is not the way for the Christian (Romans 12:19). It is our responsibility to go to the offended person, admit our fault and be reconciled. Our worship of God will be affected adversely until we are right with our brethren and loved ones. ‘Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered’ (1 Peter 3:7).
We must do what God wants us to do, leaving the result in the hands of God. The questions ‘Who started it?’ or ‘Who ought to make the first move?’ are irrelevant. It makes no difference who started it; winning an argument can even mean losing a spouse. We ought to take the initiative in sincere reconciliation, regardless of the situation.
Even if we have been deeply hurt, to admit your part of the blame in unselfish and forgiving love will make it easier for the other to admit theirs. No matter how minor our fault is, we ought to acknowledge it first and sincerely apologise for it.
Conflicts and arguments need not always end up with disastrous relationships in a Christian marriage and home, if the will and Word of God are heeded.
It is possible to have a God-honouring and strong marital bond, to have an edifying domestic life with spouse and children, and to enjoy effective communication and sound conflict resolution within the home, based on the Word of God in worship and prayer together. But we need to do it God’s way, prayerfully and humbly (not ours). It is the only way that works well for us, finally.
Rev. Dr Jack Sin is pastor of Sovereign Hope Bible-Presbyterian Ministry and an adjunct lecturer at Biblical Reformed Seminary Yangon, Myanmar, and Indian Reformed Biblical Seminary, Bangalore.