When we think about the sins that destroy a marriage, our minds often turn to adultery or abuse. More often though, marriages decay from the inside rather than imploding in a moment. Years of thoughtlessness, unkindness, and unforgiveness chip away at the joy and trust between a man and his wife.
Many times we don’t treat our spouses with the basic courtesy that we would show to someone we had just met. The civility and kindness that we show in the neighborhood or with our friends disappears the moment we step inside our homes. Many times we treat our spouses with a contempt we would not dare think of demonstrating outside of our homes.
Most couples don’t need a marriage conference, a weekend getaway, or a miracle to rekindle the joy in their marriage. Instead they need to apply one of the most simple commands Jesus ever gave, “love your neighbor as yourself.” What if we started treating our spouses as our closest neighbor and applied the New Testament’s “one another passages to our marriages?
In premarital counseling with couples I spend one session on treating each other with basic courtesy and walk through Ephesians 4:29-5:2. In this passage we see five ways spouses can strengthen their marriages by treating each other as their closest neighbor.
Build Up Your Spouse
When I was growing up Paul’s command to let no corrupting talk come from our mouths was the goto verse for telling Christians not to curse. While this may be a third of fourth level application of this passage, forms of talks exist that do much more damage than dirty words. When spouses belittle, insult, and browbeat each other, they corrupt and corrode the bonds and trust between them. Insults, putdowns, and constant badgering have no place in any relationship, but especially in marriage.
Instead of tearing down, our words must build up and give grace to the person who hears it. This does not mean we only speak words of affirmation like Stuart Smalley. This command beckons us to seek to bring grace and spur our spouses on to spiritual growth even when we must correct them for something they have done wrong. You can point out poor or behavior without being insulting, and it has everything to do with the intent of your words. Words that build up correct with the aim of helping instead of simply venting over hurt feelings.
Be Calm With Your Spouse
Few things will wreck your marriage like a hot temper. Solomon addresses this with his son often in Proverbs because he knows the damage that can be left in the wake of angry outbursts. Paul echoes Solomon’s concerns when he tells the Ephesian believers to put anger, wrath, and malice away from them. Nothing constructive will happen in a discussion between spouses when one is furious.
The biggest issue with anger is that it blinds us to what we are saying at the time. When we lose our tempers, we speak harshly and thoughtlessly, causing horrific damage to the people around us. While this is happening we are completely blind to it, because all we can think about is whatever it is that set us off at the moment. This is why the Bible calls us to be slow to anger and to have a cool temper. We must learn self-control so we don’t destroy ourselves and our marriages.
Show Kindness to Your Spouse
We teach our small children to be kind to others, and then we somehow forget to follow this command ourselves. How often are our relationships marked by a lack of simple civility and thoughtfulness? Our words can be gruff and uncaring. The going out of our way to do good things for each other that characterized our dating relationships seem to fly out the window.
I’m convinced that kindness and thoughtfulness would transform our marriages. Think of the tangible difference it would make in your marital relationship to speak kindly to each other and to look for opportunities to help each other. What would your marriage look like if you both simply sought to put each other before yourself? Taking away harshness and replacing it with kindness would thoroughly change the atmosphere and feel of your marriage. As D.A. Carson said at a conference a few years ago, “The great aphrodisiac in marriage is kindness.”
Forgive Your Spouse
At it’s best, marriage is the union of two redeemed sinners. While Christian spouses will both be experiencing conformity to the image of Christ, there will still be remaining sin in each of their lives and they will sin against each other. What one spouse does when the other sins against them will be what defines the tenor of your marriage going forward. If you harbor grievances and anger toward your spouse for what they have done to you, do not be surprised when it begins to show in the way you interact with each other.
When one spouse hurts the other, the offender must apologize and ask for forgiveness. This is the simple act of taking responsibility for your sin and the damage it caused. Make no excuses, but instead offer an unconditional apology and ask your spouse to forgive you. Then, the offended spouse has a serious choice to make. To forgive is not to simply say, “It’s okay.” What happened was not “okay” and you don’t need to gloss over it with the wave of a hand. You need to forgive. This means you no longer hold this sin against them and will not bring it up again. When you forgive another person, you are saying you will not dwell on it, will not bring it back up to your spouse, and will not talk about it with other people. (This formulation is not original with me, and though I’m not sure of the exact page on which I read it, I believe it comes from Jay Adams’ A Theology of Christian Counseling.) To forgive is to let go of your need for mental or actual revenge and trust that this sin has been fully dealt with in the death of Jesus.
Walk in Love Toward One Another
Finally Paul teaches us to walk in love towards each other. The call here is simple, yet it demands a death to self that does not come easily for us. To walk in love is for a person to put his spouse before himself and to look out for her before he looks out for himself. It is a demand to sacrifice and to do good to him even if it costs her. Love is not a mere feeling, but a settled commitment to the good of your spouse from a heart that cares deeply for him or her.
We walk in love because Christ loved us, and he gave himself up for us. If you think about everything we have walked through, especially kindness, love,and forgiveness, it models the love that God has shown towards us in the Gospel. For the Christian spouse, you must simply look at how God has treated you in the Gospel and model that behavior towards your spouse. You don’t need to drum up forgiveness or love from within yourself; you already know what it means to be loved and forgiven in the deepest way possible. When we apply the Gospel and its implications to our marriages, the possibilities for growth are endless; and what it produces will be beautiful.
“The Marks of a Healthy Marriage“
For Further Reading:
Sacred Marriage by Gary Chapman
What Did You Expect? by Paul Tripp
The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy and Kathy Keller