In the Tough Moments of Marriage, Who Are You Becoming?
Staying the course in a difficult marriage can be especially hard for spouses who are working hard while the other spouse remains disengaged or even hostile to their efforts. When your best efforts seem to make no difference, how do you keep from giving up hope and giving in to despair and bitterness?
Of course, this challenge isn’t unique to marriage. The Apostle Paul seems to have the same question mind in chapter 6 of his letter to the Galatians. Immediately after teaching us what it means to live by the Spirit in chapter 5 he takes up the issue of how we should respond to others’ sins. Of course, being “spiritual” means that we seek to restore others who are “caught in sin” (Gal.6:1), but Paul warns us that this is risky business. We have to be careful of the temptations we will face. It’s all too tempting in the very act of ministry for one to “deceive himself”, to be puffed up with pride, to think one “is something when he is nothing”. I think this is the very temptation that we face at times in marriage. No matter how genuine our efforts are, it’s easy for the flesh to take advantage of the moment, appeal to our pride, invite us to judge our spouses, and ultimately to plunge us into despair because our efforts seem fruitless.
So how do we persevere and avoid the pitfalls? Paul speaks directly to the danger and points us to hope:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Gal.6:7-9).
This is a rich passage but I’ll just share a couple of thoughts.
First, whenever you’re tempted to believe that there’s no use trying anymore, remember that your actions always make a difference. As inevitably as seeds produce fruit, so our actions always have a result. The only real question is: what kind of seed are you sowing? What result can you expect based on your attitudes and actions? This is a warning for us when we are tempted to slip back into old patterns of relating – playing tit for tat with our spouses, returning evil for evil rather than overcoming evil with good. Don’t believe the lie that when we “give’m a dose of their own medicine” (a phrase you won’t find in the Bible) that somehow we are on the side of right, that somehow we are part of the solution and not the problem. No, God will not be mocked in that way. His Spirit enables us to express our faith in love and He will not endorse our flesh-centered efforts. Paul warns us that our sinful actions will not produce life-giving results, only destruction.
Second, pay careful attention to the promise. We are told that if we sow aiming to please the Spirit then we will “reap eternal life”. God makes no promise here that our best efforts will change our spouses. Rather, God promises that He will faithfully bless our efforts so that we receive eternal life. How does that strike you? Let’s be honest. Wouldn’t we much prefer a promise that guarantees that our spouses will notice, appreciate, and change when we’re working hard to love them well? But you see, that’s precisely the danger of trying to rescue another from sin; it’s so easy to become focused on the other and lose sight of our own need to depend on the power and love of the Spirit. When we lose sight of our own need for God’s grace, we become prideful judges as ensnared by sin as anyone we would try to help. Of course, we should act in the hope of helping our spouses change and grow, but we must do that keeping a careful watch on who we are (or aren’t) becoming in the process. Our primary focus must always be to please the Spirit. It’s as we live to please the Spirit, Christ’s Spirit, that we grow to become more like Him and receive daily doses of the hope and joy that we will receive in full when He returns. Loving our spouses wisely isn’t simply a strategy to have the kind of marriages that we’ve always wanted. We must love our spouses as a response to the work that the Spirit has done and is doing in us so that Christ Himself in magnified in our lives.
When we pause to reflect on our own need for God’s grace and love and how He’s been at work in us, then we are rooting ourselves in a hope that isn’t dependent on the behavior of our spouses or anyone else. When I learn to find hope in His promises to change me, then I find the reasons for persevering in the difficult moments of marriage.