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Heart & Soul: Truth and Consequences

My wife's honesty was the slap in the face I didn't want—but needed

Jana was forking the last bite of an order of banana pancakes into her mouth when our conversation screeched to a halt. I was frustrated because my father had turned down our request for a loan to use as a down payment on a house. I launched into a tirade. My face reddened, I pounded the table, I vented. "This is the way it has always been. My brother gets what he wants, but not me."

Jana might as well have twisted her fork into my stomach, for her next words were: "We've been having this same discussion for the past two years. Every time you talk about your family, your face gets red and you pound the table. I don't know what to say anymore. I think you need to see a counselor."

I felt the blood drain from my face as I mumbled something about needing someone who really listened to me. I felt hurt, even betrayed, by Jana's forthright comments. But I couldn't shake her words. A few weeks later I found a counselor who, in the course of several months, helped me locate the source of much of my unresolved anger. I was forced to look into the fiery furnace.

The words of Proverbs 15:4 are true: "The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life … " Jana's truthtelling launched me on a journey that invited the presence of Christ into a back corner of my soul. She had exercised an unpleasant kindness; she had served me by telling the truth.

Truth's Painful Task

In the book Resident Aliens, Duke University professors Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon state, "Ultimately, there is for us only one good reason to get married or to stay single, namely, that this has something to do with our discipleship." For Jana and me, as followers of Christ, discipleship means we are called to serve one another with the truth. "Even in marriage between Christians," write Willimon and Hauerwas, "we meet as strangers unable to tell one another the truth. Yet Christians believe that nothing is more important in marriage than truthfulness."

I don't mean to imply that Jana and I confront each other regularly. We don't. Doing so too often would break down trust and create a climate of legalism. The times we do, however, we try to break the news with gentleness and grace, employing "I feel" statements rather than "you always" indictments.

There isn't always a pain-free way to tell the truth, but the alternative is a marriage built around a series of covert compromises. "People often lie most readily in marriage," write Willimon and Hauerwas, "exactly because they fear losing the intimacy they have achieved to that point. They know that nothing can kill the fires of passion quicker than truth."

Truth may initially douse the fires of passion, but over time it creates new possibilities for genuine intimacy—the intimacy that comes with being fully known by another. The gust of God's grace now blowing through our marriage is experienced in a little more transparency, a little more honesty, and, consequently, a little more intimacy.

Self-Serving or Spouse-Serving?

When Jana served me by speaking the truth in love, it cost her something. She had to endure my angry response, and then my sullenness. There have been other times when I had to endure some personal sacrifice in the process of serving my wife.

A few months after we moved from Colorado to Illinois, Jana and I drove in a cold spring rain to Door County, Wisconsin, a beautiful, timbered resort area. We hoped the weekend would warm up, but things turned a lot colder on Sunday when I made a flippant remark about the church Jana grew up in. Our recent move to Illinois put us in Jana's hometown, and we were in the process of deciding whether to attend her home church. The covert pressure I felt from Jana and her family irked me.

We finally settled on Jana's home church, and we've been attending there for several years. But for much of that time, I've carped and criticized: "The church is poorly organized"; "It's friendly only to the insiders"; "It's too bound by tradition." It wasn't that I didn't like the people in the church; it's just that, well, I didn't get my way.

Looking back, I know our decision was right, and my attitude was all wrong. Yes, I was making a sacrifice for Jana's sake—but I did my best to make sure she knew it. This kind of honesty was destructive: It was self-serving rather than spouse-serving. Recently I declared a truce by confessing my fault to Jana and promising to change my attitude.

As I've reflected on my sniveling, I've been dismayed to realize I'm not the person I imagined myself to be. I want to reflect the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." I like to remember the times when I live out those traits. But I also have to admit that the fruits I sometimes display come from another tree, also found in Galatians 5: "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious … discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy … "

Serving my wife is much easier to trumpet than to live out. But the gust of God's grace is at work. I am now a little more aware of my tendency not to think of someone other than myself. And I'm grappling with the importance of the gift of sacrifice in our marriage.

Displeasing Service

A red rose after a wintry contest of wills. A cup of hazelnut coffee with cream and sugar while Jana blowdries her hair before work. A Hallmark card slipped under her pillow that she finds only after I've left for a business trip.

I've gladly given each of these to my wife. I enjoy pleasing her and hearing her say, "Honey, that was so special." Yet I've discovered that I'd much rather please my wife than truly serve her. Pleasing her often triggers a gratifying response, while serving her may, at first, not please either one of us.

The red rose and the Hallmark card are nice expressions of love. But Jana's insistence that I had a real problem with my anger was a beautiful expression of her love for me, no matter how difficult it was for me to accept. And my choice to attend the church she preferred was also an expression of love. Gifts of truth and sacrifice have a value that lasts long beyond the moment.

Ten years ago, my family buried our Russian-German grandfather in a patch of South Dakota prairie with a headstone that reads: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5). The verse preceding that one reads, "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4). And one of the verses following it reads, "But [Christ] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant … " (Phil. 2:7).

The very nature of a servant. That was the mindset of Christ. And that is the mindset I want to live out in my marriage.

Dave Goetz is senior associate editor of Leadership journal. He and Jana live in the Chicago area with their son.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Marriage; Selfishness; Truth
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 1996
Posted September 12, 2008

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