Over the past week, I’ve been reflecting on the elements you need to have a strong, godly marriage. Today, as I think of Good Friday and the ultimate sacrifice that God made, I have decided that one element is more crucial than the rest.
I’ve read through definitions of grace and I’m always bowled over by this one: “the free and unmerited favor of God.” He loves us even when we are undeserving. Daniel 9:9 (NIV) reminds us that “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.” It always amazes me how we readily accept that grace from God, yet quickly forget to extend that same grace towards our spouse in a conflict.
One of the most effective ways to successfully function in marriage is to be gracious to our partners. God calls us to offer unmerited favor to them when we are angry. Grace means we should be kind on days where they aren’t, to love them when they are tense, to forgive them when they do something that hurts our feelings. To approach our marriages knowing that just as we are forgiven, we need to forgive our partners. Jesus was very clear about the importance of forgiveness and grace. He taught that “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV).
When I am working with couples who are hurting, we often talk about letting go of past hurts and anger. We know that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corin. 13:5), but we don’t know how to actually throw away the ledger. We think that we’ve moved past something, only to find it come up again and again. We act like everything is okay, like we’ve moved forward, like the issue is done and over with, but we secretly seethe about it inside. We stop bringing the issue up, but continue to think I can’t believe we’re dealing with this again, he never listens to me or she just doesn’t get it, she’ll never figure it out.
So how do we move past it? How do we let go of bitterness, anger, and resentment towards our spouses? How do we navigate the tense situations, hurt feelings and less-than-happy moments?
Showing grace isn't pretending to forgive someone with pride in our hearts ("He/she sure is lucky to have a spouse that forgives them every time they mess up"). It is a humble act where we remember that if we make so many mistakes that God had to send his son to die for us, we can swallow our pride and forgive our spouses for being tense before work. For forgetting to put the laundry in the washer. For not remembering that dinner you planned. Grace isn’t about showing favor and blessings because you are better than your spouse. It is about showing unmerited favor and blessings every day because God did the same for you.
Often, we intellectually know this, but the moment we’ve had an argument, that sense of grace flies out the window. We read Psalm 103:12, “God has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” (NLT) and breathe a sigh of relief, but then angrily confront/text/call our spouse about forgetting to sign our child’s homework folder. We ignore the fact that God's grace meant that Jesus died on the cross to forgive all our sins (let’s be honest, we all have a lengthy list), and instead use justification and self-righteousness to stew endlessly over the small things our partners do that drive us crazy ("I'm the only one who cares about this in our marriage," "At least I care about our children").
Please understand that if there is a significant issue (addiction, infidelity, financial or parenting issues), I am not advocating simply glossing over the issue. Those issues need to be addressed. I’ve seen too many couples ignoring problems to avoid conflict, and they almost always come up later. A simple argument over an unexpected expenditure becomes an all-out war about who is more financially irresponsible. A small fight about parenting becomes a battle over who is the more irresponsible parent. A disagreement over a visit to a website becomes a fight about who is being sexually irresponsible.
We can’t avoid discussing issues or resolving conflict, but if we come with a spirit of humility and grace (“You're right, I haven’t been understanding about this issue, let’s work on it together”), you’ll find it gets resolved far more effectively than marching into battle with a spirit of arrogance and entitlement (“I work hard for this family and you just spend all of our money,” “I spend the whole day parenting our children and you come in and screw it up”).
Truly letting things go takes grace. It takes the ability to say, “I’m a sinner just like my partner, I make mistakes, I have times where I’m defensive/curt/unsupportive, and God forgives me, so why am I still holding onto this?” If God felt so strongly about grace that he sent Jesus to die on a cross for the world, what gives me the right to act like my spouse’s mistakes are too big to forgive?
As we think of Jesus’ crucifixion today, know that he didn’t go to the cross saying, “I’m going to die for some people, but other people were just too awful for forgiveness.” No, John 3:16 reminds us that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to die for us (including you and your spouse!).
If you are struggling today with letting things go, be reminded that the ultimate act of love was one of forgiveness of our sins/mistakes/flaws. Ephesians 5:25 tell us to love our spouses just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Not “love your spouses when they don’t make mistakes.” Not “love your spouses until you meet someone better.” We are called to wholeheartedly, unabashedly, graciously love our spouses. To sacrifice our own self-righteousness and justifications and desire to be right at all costs. To focus on loving our spouses every single day, unmerited or not.
If you are struggling today with resentment over little things, be humbled by Jesus’ march to the cross 2,000 years ago and strive to forgive your spouse. If there are bigger issues in your marriage, be humble enough to seek marriage counseling or meet with your pastor. Life is too short to waste your time bickering and fighting with the most important person in your life.
It is never lost on me that God uses the metaphor of a marriage to explain how much he loves us. If marriage is that important to God, let us treasure it. Let us embrace it humbly. Let us work to be gracious, just as God is gracious towards us.