“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” -Matthew 7:3
As a counselor, I rarely give homework. It’s not that I am opposed to it; I used to hand it out as a middle school teacher. Once, though, I did give a couple a homework assignment. It was brilliant.
The couple had seen me for a number of sessions. Our time together looked the same each week. Patrick (not his real name) would list his problems with Jamie (not her real name). Her face inflamed, she waited for the second he stopped to take a breath. Then Jamie jumped into the fight with her own accusations. For minutes at a time, she unleashed years of harbored resentment and pain in a verbal assault against Patrick. At some point in our hour together, they would both look my way, each begging for defense and validation.
Finally I told them the truth:
The twig you complain about in each other’s eyes does not compare to the log in your own.Tweet this!
They both stared blankly at me.
I tried again: Your problem is not that one of you is right and the other is wrong. You are both acting out of years of withheld resentment. As you each fire off volleys, you are both validated in your pain and wrong in your indignation.
Still they looked for me to rebuke and correct the other.
Try number three went like this: You are both selfish, deeply committed to protecting your own agenda without regard for how your unprocessed hurt harms and destroys your spouse.
I thought I saw a flicker of understanding, so I went a step further. This week, each of you has homework. Patrick, make a list of how you have failed to love Jamie in your twelve years of marriage. Jamie, you also need to create a list of how you have failed to love your husband.
Brilliant, right? I never heard from them again.
Admitting our failings is hard. Are you up for such an assignment? How have you failed to love your spouse? Start a list. Pay attention to how quickly your instincts switch things around. To expose your selfishness a bit more, consider making two lists. On one side of the paper write “Ways I have failed to love my spouse” and on the other side write, “Ways my spouse has failed to love me.” I guarantee the latter list will not create writer’s block.
Galatians 5:16-17 says,
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another…”
Our flesh is at war with the Holy Spirit within us. As a member of the Trinity, the party of love to which we are all invited, the Spirit is always moving us toward love of ourselves, others, and God. When I say “love of ourselves”, this is not a self-centered obsession, but rather a humble recognition of our dignity as image bearers of God. The flesh, then, is directly opposed to the Spirit’s movement. It will work around the clock to transform our desires for our marriage into demands from our spouse (i.e. “You exist for my benefit.”).
Isn’t our flesh embarrassing? If you want a successful marriage, your goal must always be Love, not your own happiness. To love well, then, we must be on watch against our flesh’s ambush.
Here are a couple of practical steps for you to consider as you love your spouse well:
- Get to know your flesh. Treat your heart like a fortress, and watch over it (Proverbs 4:23) with the knowledge that your flesh does not sleep. It lurks in the shadows of every second of the day. Consider asking those closest to you for feedback on ways your selfishness shows up. You do not know yourself well until you know how committed you are to getting your own way.
- Know your story. Our lives are full of trauma. List some of the defining moments of shame and pain in your story, perhaps moments when you felt God was absent. In such tender and vulnerable moments, evil is more than glad to offer an interpretation about God and the nature of relationships. Our vows out of personal tragedies create a petri dish for our flesh to grow.
- Kill your flesh. You have heard the phrase, “Make love, not war.” In the case of marriage, we make love by making war on our flesh. Paul says in Galatians 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Did you catch that? We treat any bit of selfishness within ourselves with violence. Hunt your flesh. Trap it. Kill it. Skin it. Dispose of it. Repeat.
Patrick and Jamie were committed to their own needs. In their warranted woundedness, neither wanted to know their flesh or understand how they had failed to love. Instead the marriage was lost in the “he said, she said.” We will never love well until we humbly accept that our commitment to make life work for us at the expense of our spouse is a huge problem.
Do your marriage a favor.
Grab a sheet of paper.
Find a pen.
In your own handwriting, write the title: How have I failed to love my spouse?