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How marriage uncovers the sin in our lives—and why that's a good thing.

I've always thought of myself as reasonably patient and charitable—that is, until I got married and discovered how passionately annoyed I can become at pulling out empty ice cube trays.

When I grew up, my family had a simple rule: If you take out an ice cube, you refill the tray before you put it back in the freezer. Now I'll pull out a tray and find nothing more than half an ice cube.

It was amazing how much that small detail irritated me. I asked my wife, Lisa, "How much do you love me?"

"More than all the world," she professed.

"I don't need you to love me that much," I said. "I just want you to love me for seven seconds."

"What on earth are you talking about?"

"Well, I timed how long it takes to fill an ice cube tray and discovered it's just seven sec—"

"Oh Gary, are we back to that again?"

It finally dawned on me that if it takes Lisa just seven seconds to fill an ice cube tray, that's all it takes me as well. Was I really so selfish that I was willing to let seven seconds' worth of inconvenience become a serious issue in my marriage? Was my capacity to show charity really that limited?

Indeed it was.

That's the day I discovered the truth about marriage: Marriage holds up a mirror to my sin. It forces me to face myself honestly and consider my character flaws, selfishness, and anti-Christian attitudes—even with something as trivial as ice cube trays.

Being so close to someone—which marriage necessitates—may be the greatest spiritual challenge in the world. There's no "resting," because I'm under virtual 24-hour surveillance. Not that Lisa makes it seem like that—it's just that I'm aware of it. Every movie I rent is rented with the understanding that I'll watch it with Lisa next to me. Every hour I take off for recreation is an hour that Lisa will know about. My appetites, lusts, and desires are in Lisa's full view.

This presupposes, of course, that I'm willing to be confronted with my sin—that I'm willing to ask Lisa, "Where do you see unholiness in my life? I want to know about it. I want to change it."

This takes tremendous courage—courage I'm the first to admit I often lack. It means I'm willing to hear what displeases Lisa about me, as well as to overcome the paralyzing fear that she'll love me less or leave me because my sin is exposed.

I don't naturally gravitate toward the honesty and openness that leads to change. My natural inclination is to hide behind a glittering façade.

The first marriage was the setting for the first sin. And the first obvious result of the Fall was a breakdown in marital intimacy. Neither Adam nor Eve welcomed the fact that their weaknesses were now as obvious as a little girl's first attempt at makeup. All of a sudden they felt kind of funny about being naked. And they started to blame each other.

An alternative to running

All of us enter marriage with sinful attitudes. When these attitudes surface, the temptation is to hide from them or even run to another relationship where the attitudes won't be so well known. But Christian marriage presumes a certain degree of self-disclosure. When I married, I committed to allow myself to be known by Lisa. And that means she'll see me as I am—with my faults, prejudices, fears, and weaknesses.

This reality can be terrifying to contemplate. Dating is a dance in which we try to put the best face forward—hardly good preparation for the inevitable self-disclosure that results from marriage. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if many marriages end in divorce because one or both partners are running from their own exposed weaknesses more than something they can't tolerate in their spouse.

But there's an alternative to running. We can use the revelation of our sin as a means to grow in humility, leading us to confessions and renouncement. Then we go the next step and adopt the positive virtue that corresponds to the sin we renounce. If we've used women in the past, we practice serving our wife. If we've been quick to ridicule our husband, we practice encouragement and praise.

We can view marriage as an entryway into sanctification—as a relationship that reveals our sinful behaviors and attitudes and give us the opportunity to address them before God.

But here's the challenge: We can't give in to the temptation to resent our partner as our own weaknesses are revealed. Correspondingly, we give them the freedom and acceptance they need in order to face their own weaknesses. In this way, we can use marriage as a leg up, a piercing spiritual mirror, designed for our sanctification and growth in holiness.

If we approach this in the right manner and are willing to look honestly at ourselves, marriage can be like a photograph. Looking at pictures isn't always pleasant. I remember once when we looked at some new photos, and I realized for the first time how much weight I'd put on. "Whoa—where did that chin come from?" The natural inclination is to blame the camera angle, but the truth is, those 15 pounds were showing from every angle!

The same thing happens with our sin in marriage. We resent the revealed truth, and we're tempted to take it out on our spouse—the camera, so to speak.

Time for a change?

Much of our marital dissatisfaction stems in actuality from self-hatred. We don't like what we've done or become; we've let selfish and sinful attitudes poison our thoughts and lead us into shameful behaviors, and suddenly all we want is out.

The mature response, however, isn't to leave; it's to change—ourselves.

Whenever marital dissatisfaction rears its head in my marriage—as it does in virtually every marriage—I simply recheck my focus. The times I'm happiest and most fulfilled in my marriage are the times when I'm intent on becoming a better husband rather than demanding a "better" wife.

As Christians, biblically speaking, we can't swap our spouse for someone else. But we can change ourselves. And that change can bring the fulfillment we mistakenly believe is found only by changing partners. In one sense, it's comical: yes, we need a changed partner, but the partner who needs to change is not our spouse, it's us!

I don't know why this works. I don't know how you can be unsatisfied maritally, then ask God to bring about change in your life, and suddenly find yourself more than satisfied with the same spouse. I don't know why this works, only that it does work. It takes time—maybe years. But if your heart is driven by the desire to draw near to Jesus, you find joy by becoming like him. You'll never find that joy by doing something that offends Jesus—such as withdrawing from your spouse or instigating a divorce or an emotional or physical affair.

Sin will lead to self-destruction if we allow it. The same sin that confronts two different people can lead one to a greater understanding, and therefore greater maturity and growth, at the same time that it leads another into a cycle of denial, deception, and spiritual destruction.

The choice is ours. Sin is a reality in this fallen world. It's how we respond to it that will determine whether our marriages become a casualty statistic or a crown of success.

Adapted from Sacred Marriage. © 2000 by Gary Thomas. Used by permission of Zondervan.

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

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