Have you ever noticed the uncanny ability your spouse has to spot all the unholy aspects of who you are?
Before I was married, God said, "Mike, you have some rough edges. To help you become more Christ-like, I'm giving you Karen. That should do the trick."
So he brought Karen, whom I love dearly, into my life to identify all my shortcomings. My first response when she points out my flaws? Not gratitude!
I don't want to acknowledge that there may possibly be ugly things within me, so instead I strike back: "How dare you point out those things? What's your problem?"
Then I have the choice of either denying my failings or owning them and maturing. And Karen can either harbor anger and resentment or offer grace and forgiveness.
Imagine a marriage filled with grace. A spouse who extends joy, pleasure, sweetness, kind speech, unmerited favor.
My wife does that. I'm still working on it. Most of the time I don't deserve mercy. And yet, Karen can look at me with love and extend unmerited favor. I don't deserve grace for the times I mess up again, or leave a cup in the sink one more time.
But she chooses to clean up the sink and put the cup in the dishwasher and never say a word. That's grace.
Why do we extend grace—especially over and over—to our spouse?
First, because God is a God of grace; he freely extends it to us, and "it is by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:8).
Second, because it's a healing and restorative force. As God extends his grace to us and as we in turn extend grace to our spouses, we become better friends and lovers and can even experience deep and renewed levels of trust.
Third, we extend grace because it's the only way to have a great marriage that lasts. Our spouses aren't perfect. And neither are we. Grace allows us to have a great marriage anyway. And learning to extend that grace (which is neither ignoring faults nor demanding change) will make you a better, more Christlike person.
If you need to practice expressing grace to your spouse, here are four ways to start.
1. Focus on the positive.
In Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the weeds: "A man … sowed good seed in his field. But … his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. … The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' 'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn'" (Matthew 13:24-30). In other words, "Don't mess with those weeds. You'll do too much damage if you try. Leave them alone and let God sort it out in the end."
We often don't do that in marriage. We go, "I really like who you are, but this one little thing, I'm going to pull that weed out of you." And we begin to focus more on the negative—trying to pull up those weeds in our spouse's life—and lose sight of the positive.
One of the things I love about my wife is that she's persistent. If she gets something in mind, she makes it happen. One of the things that irritates me about her is her stubbornness. What's the difference between persistence and stubbornness? When she pushes her persistence too far. Or from my perspective, whether I agree or disagree with what she's doing!
I can't love stubborn people. If Karen's vacuuming the floor, and I step in front of her to get a hug, if I'm not careful, I'll get sucked up in the vacuum. She's completely on task.
If I see that as stubbornness—the negative characteristic—it becomes difficult for me to love her. If I can focus on the persistence—the positive side—and remember that this is part of what I love in her, not only do I nurture and grow what's positive in her, but I nurture and grow my character too.
How do we best do that? The apostle Paul tells us: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Philippians 4:8-9). We need to concentrate on things that are the best, not the worst.
For example, if your spouse is disorganized, how could you see the strength in that? Could it be spontaneity? Creativity? Flexibility?
List some things that irritate you about your spouse, and then go through each and try to find the strengths.
For the disorganized spouse, what if instead of saying, "You always forget your keys!" you step back and think, Okay, that's irritating, but I love that you care about bigger things in life than keys. Now you're no longer focusing on the behavior; you're focusing on something you like and on who she is.
2. See the person God created.
Too often we see things that irritate us and we vilify our spouses.
For instance, a spouse may believe that his wife doesn't want to have sex with him not because she's tired or because her desire's different from his, but because she's a mean, withholding person.
Another example is the husband who told me, "My wife doesn't clean the house well, and it drives me nuts."
"Why doesn't she?" I asked.
"She just won't do it, because she knows I want it to be done a certain way."
When we write off our spouse's character as bad, we go beyond believing that she hasn't learned how to do something to considering her incapable of learning how. We say, "This isn't possible for you to do, and I cannot tolerate that in our relationship."
Scripture is filled with examples of how Christ believed the best of people. In the story of the woman caught in adultery who'd been brought to Jesus to be stoned (John 8:3-11), many people assumed that she was a bad person. They refused to see any beauty in who she was.
How did Christ approach this, though? He said, "I don't condemn you. Go and stop doing what you're doing."
Did he say that what was unhealthy in her was tolerable? No. Sometimes what's going on in your spouse isn't tolerable, and extending grace doesn't excuse sin. But our job isn't to weed out what's not healthy in our spouses. God looks at me and says, "Love her." Sometimes that's difficult; the way I can love her is by seeing the best of who she is.
Not that it excuses what's not healthy. Jesus didn't say, "Your sin wasn't a big deal. It's not worth stoning you over. Go on your way." He said, "I'm not going to condemn you. Stop sinning." What do you think he saw looking into the eyes of this woman? I think he saw somebody wounded and hurt by sin and he saw the vision of who God had created her to be, of who she could become.
What would my marriage be like if I always looked at my wife with that same vision? Not stuck on who she isn't yet, or on her brokenness and humanness, but believing the best in who she is. Seeing the vision of who she could be that maybe she hasn't even caught yet. And believing in her capability.
Kathy's husband, Rick, is a highly focused individual. He's slightly ADHD, passionate in his work, and he rarely gets home on time for dinner.
"He knows dinnertime is important to me," she told me bitterly. "If he truly loved me, he'd make it happen."
I said, "So you see him as a mean, withholding, angry individual?"
She sat for a minute, stunned, because that's who she'd just described.
"Is that who you're married to?" I asked. "Is that his character, really?"
You could see the wheels spinning as she tried to process my question.
"Are you the kind of person who would marry a mean-spirited, punishing individual?"
"No," she finally admitted.
"Then how can we focus on the goodness of his heart?" I challenged her. "How can we see him for who he is and not use the behaviors that irritate you to label him as bad? Do you really believe you'd marry somebody who'd intentionally do the damage you're attributing to him? Or is this an expression of his personality that, granted, may really need to be reined in?"
When I presented Rick in this light, Kathy was able to understand his behaviors weren't really about her, and she was able to distinguish between the irritating behavior and the good person God created.
3. Celebrate who your spouse is.
Too many people spend their entire marriages trying to conform their spouses into their image rather than allowing God to conform their spouses into his image.
We focus on, This is the way I see it; you need to see it this way as well. For instance, the house needs to be cleaned to my standard, not cleaned to your standard, because my standard is the right one. In essence we say, "If you don't see this issue my way, then you are wrong. And I need to help you to be right, which is the way I see it."
And what if you're not right? Or what if you are, but there's a different way—your spouse's way—to get there? Can you step back and celebrate him being him?
How much better for our marriages if we'd say, "Okay, that thing irritates me. Wonder what God's trying to do there? What character issues is God helping to define in you?" And then we allowed God to work without getting in his way.
If I choose to express love, acceptance, and forgiveness, then the spirit of God can come in with conviction and condemnation. He can prick her heart in ways that I can't begin to. He can point out far deeper issues than I can. If I believe the best in her, focus on her strengths, care for her, and allow her to be who God is creating her to be, then God shows up with his power and conviction and can really grow her up. If I step back and allow him to.
Bill and his wife, Annie, came to see me for counseling. When Annie looked at Bill, she clearly adored him. She was an attractive woman in a plain kind of a way.
Bill told me, "I was the captain of the football team." That was important to him. I heard it several times. "I could date anybody in school I wanted. And I always dated the glamorous girls. The person I'm married to is not that. I know she loves me. She's a great mom and partner, but I'm having a hard time loving her. I've gotten her makeovers, and she looks stunning. But she hates it. I've gotten her beautiful outfits, and she doesn't like them. I'm learning that I need a princess and my wife is not."
I was so sad because his wife had a lot of beauty. It wasn't about her not taking care of herself; it was the style and the way she did it.
In his book The Heart of Commitment, Scott Stanley writes that there comes a point where we have to grieve the loss of who our spouse is not. That part of celebrating them being them is grieving who they are not.
I spent time with Bill, helping him grieve the loss of a princess in his life. He would never be married to somebody who loved being gussied up. That part of his life had to die for him to move into celebrating who Annie really was. To appreciate the beauty he couldn't even see.
4. Express ongoing forgiveness.
When I don't believe the best in my spouse, when I don't accept and celebrate her for who she is, I develop an ongoing irritation that becomes infectious. And I begin to associate her with everything that's painful and unhealthy.
Instead I need to nurture ongoing forgiveness that allows me to continually love and accept her, while letting go of her humanness and what isn't developed or matured yet.
I know my wife will do things, because of who she is, that irritate me. She's not trying to annoy me. I'm just sensitive in those areas.
It's not about her. It's about me. So I need to acknowledge I'm intolerant of those things and forgive her.
Most issues couples struggle with are not sin-based. They're differences in personality, in behavior, in style.
I know you're going to tell me to turn left when I've turned left here a million times. And that's okay because that's who you are. You're not doing it because you think I'm a horrible driver or I'm incompetent. So I forgive you before you even do it.
That allows me to smile and say, "Okay dear," then turn. That's the spirit of preemptive forgiveness, and it's an ongoing extension of grace.
Many years ago I watched journalist John Stossel do a tv segment called "Love, Lust, and Marriage." He interviewed a couple who'd been married more than 50 years and asked them about their relationship and what it takes to have a long-lasting marriage.
The wife said, "Well, you know, I learned that I need everything to be spotless."
The husband said, "And I'm a spotter."
They both just had to get used to it.
I thought, That's it. That's the core of grace in marriage.
What did each of them have to go through to understand that? First, they both had to accept who they are. She had to accept that she required things to be spotless. He had to accept that he makes messes.
She had to learn, "He's not coming behind me making messes everywhere because he doesn't love or respect me." She couldn't vilify him. He's a spotter. That's what he does.
He had to learn, "She's not coming behind me cleaning up all the time because she hates me. She comes behind me cleaning up all the time because she requires life to be spotless. That's just who she is."
And how wonderful when they could get to the point of her saying, "You're spotting again." And his reply: "Yeah. You're gonna need to clean them up again, aren't you?"
In my marriage I've worked for 23 years on my issues, and they're not any better. And my wife keeps extending grace, and God keeps extending grace and convicting. And I keep working. But I couldn't—or wouldn't—work on them as intentionally if my wife didn't treat me as though she believed that I could succeed and grow.
Spend time asking God if you exhibit this grace and forgiveness toward your spouse. Ask him to help you exhibit those qualities in your life and marriage, remembering that God loved us so much, that even before we were born, and while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God carried a strong preemptive grace and forgiveness toward us. Should we not offer the same to our spouses?
Michael Sytsma, Ph.D., MP's Real Sex columnist, is a minister, certified Christian sex therapist, co-founder of Sexual Wholeness, Inc. (www.sexualwholeness.com), and founder of Building Intimate Marriages (www.intimatemarriage.org).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.