All marriages are made up of two sinners. Therefore, even the best marriages have conflict. It gets complicated when Christians try to navigate dealing with the sin in their own lives as it runs into the sin in their spouses’ lives.
My wife and I have been married over 20 years, and we are still figuring it out. One of the problems we all have is that we tend to have blind spots towards our own sin. Furthermore, we tend to make peace treaties with our own sin because to some degree we think we are finding some benefit in our sin.
The problem is our sin usually hurts our spouse. Our spouse’s sin hurts us. Thus, we often become more passionate about attacking the sin in our spouse more than we are about attacking our own sin.
Pointing Out Our Spouse’s Sins First
Early in marriage when my wife and I would fight it seemed we were both trying to land a verbal jab first. I wanted to say something that convicted her of her sin before she could say something to convict me of my sin. On the other hand, she wanted to point out my flaws before she wanted to admit her own flaws.
This is a deadly cycle that can lead to walls going up emotionally. We feel we must protect ourselves from the person we are supposed to be naked and unashamed within every area of life. Handling conflict this way destroys intimacy at every level.
Good Judgment Vs. Bad Judgment
Many interpret Matthew 7 to avoid confrontation in marriage at all costs. “Only God can judge.” This is a grave misreading.
If we study the Bible’s teaching on judgment, it is clear. There is good judgment and bad judgment (John 7:24). Good judgment is constructive criticism. The goal is to help and bless the person. Love drives this judgment. Your spouse needs this judgment from you.
Evil judgment is condescending condemnation. The goal is to hurt and burden. Often the goal is simply to win an argument or to protect the self. Vengeance is the motive. No one needs this judgment from you, certainly not your spouse.
Christ exhorts us to judge righteously. But how can we? When we desire to lovingly confront, self-righteous condescension lies close at hand. Constructive criticism builds marriages. Condescending condemnation destroys.
When I am in a heated argument with my wife, my indwelling sin wants to speak first and listen later. In the flesh, I tend to focus on her wrongs, before I will admit mine. If we both do this, there is no hope. Christ teaches us a better way.
Always be gracious. Literally, be filled with grace. We will be judged by God. All of us want grace at final judgment. Show such grace to others, especially your spouse.
Why are you going to rebuke your spouse? Do you genuinely hope they will repent? Or do you want to get something off your chest?
Check your motives. Are you going filled with mercy ready to forgive? Or are you excited to expose their failures? Don’t be eager to catch him or her in sin. We often are that way when we’ve been hurt or if we think they sinned against us.
If there has been a pattern of lobbing verbal bombs at one another in your marriage you will not be able to change the atmosphere of your marriage overnight. Be patient. Be prayerful. Beg God’s mercy to soften both of your hearts towards one another.
1 Corinthians 13:7 says love believes all things and hopes all things. At minimum, that means giving others the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume the worst. If you do not know, assume their motives are well intended. Don’t judge the secret things of their heart that you can’t see. This can lead to sin.
If my wife’s actions seem to point to evil motives, I try to ask and not assume, “Why did you do that?” Most are very quick to read into body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. Sometimes our assumptions are right, but not always. Give the common courtesy you would want extended to you. So much of rebuking well means loving them the way you want to be loved.
Even when you do clearly see sin your spouse’s life still be gracious. If I catch her in a lie, my hearts tends to jump to conclusions. “She is a liar!” Tim Keller says we make caricatures of others in these moments, focusing on their worst parts. Technically, I am right. Anyone who lies is a liar. But haven’t I told at least a lie or two in my life, (actually many more)?
We have an amazing capacity to define others by their sin while we conveniently define sin out of our lives as much as possible. “Yes, I have told an occasional, white lie. But she lies constantly!” Judge others as you judge yourself.
Be gentle. Be humble in hard feedback. Jesus was a carpenter and probably dealt with sawdust getting in His eyes. If you have a speck of dust in your eyes, think about how cautious and tender you are, how slow and deliberate, to softly lift the piece of dirt out of our most sensitive organ. You don’t rush in, knife in hand.
How can I be appropriately humble when speaking to your spouse about their sin? Be thorough in dealing with my own. Do you deal with your sin as aggressively as you desire to deal with your spouse’s? Few do.
Imagine you and spouse are in a car when a tree falls through the windshield. You actually have a small branch lodged in your left eye. Somehow you still have the wherewithal to notice your husband has a small shard of glass in his eye. You may say as genuinely as possible, “Let me help you with that.”
Your husband will instinctively bat your hand away saying something like, “What’s wrong with you. You’ve got timber sticking out of your face. How can you help me with something so small with something so massive blocking your vision?!”
Before you protest, Jesus’s isn’t trying to say your sin is always the bigger sin. Even if both people’s sin in a conflict is exactly 50%, the speck in my eye ought to look much bigger because it is so much closer to me. I have more direct responsibility for and influence over my sin. Therefore, that should, in general, be my first move, towards my own sin.
Remember Your Own Weaknesses
I had a friend who was addicted to pornography to the point that his wife had asked him to move out for a while. He was stubborn and hard-hearted in his sin, refusing to get help. I was going to confront him.
I spent many hours thinking and praying before I went. When I did go, I was able to go in strength and love simultaneously. I was bold and aggressive but also humble and gentle. How?
Years before that I had dealt with pornography personally. I felt the reality of “Save the grace of God, there go I.” I said “I get it. I totally understand where you are and how hard this is. But I’m coming after you in love like I would want you to do for me if the roles were reversed.”
I was gentle in trying to get the sin out of his life was because I knew from experience of dealing with my sin how awkward and painful it is. Go into a rebuke as though you are going into surgery. Be gentle, but also aggressive.
My marriage really started to grow and change when my wife and I really started to try and confess our sin before we attacked the other. Before we would race to accuse each other first. Now by grace, the pattern became more of a race to the cross, a race to repent first. It takes time and lots of internal work with Christ for this pattern to change.The best preparation for rebuking others is to have a life pattern of aggressively dealing with your own sin whenever you see it.Click To Tweet
The best preparation for rebuking others is to have a life pattern of aggressively dealing with your own sin whenever you see it. This will naturally make us gracious, generous and gentle. Be a chastened critic. Be as aggressive as you can be in dealing with your own log, partially in preparation for when Christ calls you to deal with others. When my wife and I have both done this well and consistently, it has vastly changed the tenor of our whole marriage and certainly our conflicts and communication.
The greatest chastened critic of all is Christ. He had no sin to be humiliated for, but He was shamed for ours, His sinful bride. He is the great husband of our souls who’s passionate about our holiness but sympathetic about our sin. He speaks the hardest truths to us, but always in the softest ways. Speak the truth to your spouse in love as He continually does to us in His Word.
Copyright (c) 2019 Olan Stubbs, used with permission.