To Neglect Is Divine

At times the best thing to say is nothing at all.

A healthy marriage demands a fair amount of neglect. It took me a long time to understand this, and even longer to have the grace to put it into practice. When my wife, Barbara, and I first married, a lot of almost-right marital advice was in the air. One admonition was based on Ephesians 4:26: "Do not let the sun go down on your anger" (NASB). This meant, we were led to believe, that we should resolve issues before we went to sleep at night, so that resentments would not fester. And resolving meant talking to your spouse about what was bugging you about him or her.

This appealed to my natural desire for closure—to get problems solved ASAP. It also gave me permission to lovingly challenge my wife in one area—her seeming desire to avoid conflict, a character flaw I believed I was put in her life to mend.

So just as the sandman was pelting her for the last time, as she fluffed her pillow and reached for the light, I'd blurt out, "We have to talk."

Being a gracious person, she would slowly withdraw her hand from the light switch and reply, "Okay," as if she really didn't mind. And we would talk. And talk. And talk. Until two or three in the morning sometimes, until I got her to see exactly what was irritating me, and she got me to see why she had said what she had said, and so on and so forth until we both felt (after a series of "You okay, then?" "Yes. And you?") we had attained a satisfactory reconciliation.

It should not have surprised us the next day that two sleep-deprived people said or did things that irritated the other, requiring yet another don't-let-the-sun-go-down-on-your-anger marathon.

Despite the long hours, I was proud that we dealt with issues as they arose, got things out in the open, were honest with each other. We were, in a word, communicating—the great mantra of successful relationships. And I gave myself a little extra pat on the back, for I was the one who took the initiative in these matters. My wife, bless her personality, seemed to want to put off such discussion until the Second Coming of Christ—or at least until tomorrow. But what would our marriage be like if I didn't force us to deal with issues?

I've since realized our marriage would have been a lot better.

40 days of dishes

Only slowly did I figure out that the apostle Paul's admonition about resolving anger on a daily basis does not mean I have to talk about my anger to resolve it. One breakthrough insight came when I walked into our little kitchen after returning from a morning seminary class. The kitchen was a catastrophe. Dishes from 40 days and 40 nights spilt over the edge of the sink onto the counter and kitchen table. Better yet: it wasn't my fault! Barb had promised she was going to do them before she left for work.

I was furious. This was certainly something we were going to talk about that night! I plunged in and started doing the dishes so I'd have that much more righteous ammunition later. But as I rehearsed with perverse delight what I was going to say and how I was going to say it, a ridiculous little thought popped into my head: You could just forgive her.

The Christian logic of this little thought slammed my pride against the wall, and I was soon a puddle of contriteness. How many times had she done the same for me and more? Why was I making such a big deal out of this? Who do I think I am? And by God's grace, I simply let my anger go. This was not normal behavior for me. If you knew me at the time, you would have chalked this up as a certifiable miracle, if not proof of the existence of God. But amazingly, slowly through the years, this has become more of a habit, this learning to ignore my wife's supposed offenses.

As I came to know my wife better, I realized she wasn't so much conflict-avoiding as patient and longsuffering. She didn't bring up issues that troubled her about me because in most instances she was able to ignore many of my daily failures without going through the tedium of a long, drawn-out discussion. She was able to practice in our marriage a type of godly neglect; she incarnated Paul's wisdom from 1 Corinthians 13: "Love bears all things … endures all things" (NASB).

Overlooking the faults

Barbara insists I clarify that she isn't a saint, that she does sometimes avoid conflict unnecessarily, and that she appreciates me for pressing us to deal with stuff. Yada, yada, yada. Since this is my article, I'll say what I will: My wife has generally understood better than me how important it is to ignore the other. At least to consciously overlook the faults that we should just forgive.

There are plenty of occasions to practice this spiritual discipline. Sometimes my wife is too lax with the kids; sometimes I'm too stern. But we don't have to transform our spouse into the perfect parent tonight, or even by tomorrow night.

My wife entertains some rather odd political views (read: views different than mine). I don't have to talk her out of them every time they come up.

I don't always have the best table manners, and I'll admit that picking at the leftover salad with my fingers, and then licking them, can ruin an otherwise pleasant meal. But she doesn't have to correct me at every meal. (And she doesn't, because I think she knows this sort of disease is cured only after prayer and fasting).

Love bears these sorts of things, day in and day out.

And when the advice is forthcoming—unwanted but still forthcoming and forthcoming, on how to drive, on how to clean house, and how to argue, even—even this, love can bear.

One of the most trying occasions occurs when one spouse wants to be alone, wants time to think or pray or just sleep, and the other spouse wants to talk. Or wants to hear about the day. Or wants sex. At such moments, holy neglect works two ways: We are called to neglect our own needs for the sake of the other. And as an act of love, we are to ignore and neglect our spouse. (Or to be more precise, neglect to impose my agenda on my spouse.)

No more "I told you so"

This biblical wisdom also applies when, because of benign neglect, the spouse does something really stupid—not buying enough food and drinks for a party, taking a wrong turn that wasted an hour—and you, the innocent party (!), are left to help pick up the pieces or also suffer the consequences. "Carry each other's burdens," Paul says, "and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). And he might have added, "and without saying, 'I told you so.'"

This business of silently bearing with the foibles and sins of the spouse is at the center of our identity as Christians. We are to love our spouse as God loves the church. Though we celebrate the moment in history when God in Christ came to us and confronted us, there were centuries in which God practiced divine neglect. He watched us wander aimlessly and stupidly and said nothing. Yes, the prophets spoke God's strong word to his people from time to time, but there were centuries in which God was so "neglectful" that many wondered why God had been silent for so long.

God was silent not because he didn't care, but precisely because he did care. Love bears all things, endures all things, not wishing any to perish. And then, in the fullness of time, and only then, did God speak his Word.

So yes, there is a time to speak up. There is a time to correct, a time to chastise. Once in a while there may even be a time to say, "I told you so." But there are many times to ignore and neglect. To the one so eager to speak, these times will seem as long as centuries. But love can even endure that, I think.

Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today and author of Francis of Assisi and His World (IVP), lives with his wife and family in Illinois.


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Communication; Confrontation; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 2003
Posted September 30, 2008

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