Change is all about measuring yourself against a standard, being dissatisfied with where you are because you see that you have fallen short of the standard, and seeking the grace to close the gap from where you are to where you need to be. James likened the Word of God to a mirror (James 1:22-25) into which we can look and see ourselves as we actually are.
It is impossible to overstate how important this is. Accurate diagnosis always precedes effective cure. You only know that the board is too short because you can place it against a measuring instrument. You only know that the temperature in your house is too hot because you have a measuring instrument in your house (called a thermostat). You only know that your tires have enough air because you can use a gauge that measures their exact air pressure. The Bible is God's ultimate measuring instrument. It is meant to function in each of our lives as a spiritual tape measure. We can place ourselves and our marriages next to it and see if we measure up to God's standard. God's Word is one of his sweetest gifts of grace, and open eyes to see it clearly and an open heart to receive it willingly are sure signs of God's grace.
Understand the Concept of Indwelling Sin
One of the most tempting fallacies for us—and for every human being in this fallen world—is to believe that our greatest problems exist outside us rather than inside us. It's easy to fall into thinking this way, because we have a lot of material to work with. We live in a broken world where things don't operate as intended. Every day is filled with difficulties and obstacles of some kind. We live with flawed people, and our lives will be complicated by their brokenness. Despite this, the Bible calls us to humbly confess that the greatest, deepest, most abiding problem each of us faces is inside, not outside, of us. The Bible names that problem—sin. Because sin is self-focused and self-serving, it is antisocial and destructive to our relationships. Here's where this goes: it requires each of us to say that our greatest marital problem exists inside us, not outside us.
You know that you have been gifted with grace when you are able to say, "My greatest marital problem is me." It is so easy to point the finger. It is so easy to blame. It is a blessing to acknowledge that you carry around in yourself your own personal Judas who will betray you again and again (see Romans 7), and it is comforting to know that you are not alone in your struggle with sin.
Many marriages travel a one-way road in the wrong direction—the direction of a hardened heart. In courtship we are very concerned with winning the other person, so we work to be loving, kind, serving, respectful, giving, forgiving, and patient. We would never think of doing anything unkind or rude. We are always thinking of the other, what he or she feels, desires, and needs. We find delight in making the other happy. We look for ways of expressing our love. But after the ceremony, the marriage often begins to move in another direction. Maybe it's because we now have the other person and don't need to win him or her anymore. Maybe it's because we begin to take the relationship God has given us for granted. Whatever the reason, we begin to let down our guard. We quit being so solicitous. Selfishness begins to replace service. In small ways at first, we allow ourselves to do and say things that we would have never thought of doing and saying in courtship. We become progressively less giving, less patient, and less forgiving. We begin to look out for ourselves more than we do for the other. Maybe it's something as small as expecting the other to clean up our mess or (yes, I'm about to say it) passing gas in bed. But these are not little things; they are signs of something happening that is destructive and dangerous. At first, when we do these rude and selfish things our conscience bothers us, but it won't be long before our heart gets hard and our conscience doesn't bother us anymore.
It is a sign of God's grace when our consciences are sensitive and our hearts are grieved, not at what the other person is doing, but at what we have become. That sensitivity is the doorway to real and lasting change. Change always begins with being dissatisfied and personal dissatisfaction always begins with a conscience that is sensitive to wrong. Out of this comes a desire for change and a restlessness that causes us to reach out for the help, from God and others, that change requires.
Watch Out for Self-Righteousness
This is the other side of the coin. It is important to understand the dynamic that operates so subtly, yet so destructively, in our relationships. Because we all suffer from some degree of personal spiritual blindness—that is, we do not see ourselves with accuracy—and because we tend to see the weaknesses and failures of our spouse with greater accuracy, we begin to think of ourselves as more righteous than our husband or wife. When we do this, and in some way we all do, it makes it hard for us to think we are part of the problem in our marriage, and it makes it difficult to embrace the loving criticism and correction of the other person. This means that it is not only blindness that prevents us from change but assessments of personal righteousness as well. If we are convinced that we are righteous, we desire neither change nor the help that can make it happen.
First John 1:8 says, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." The deception of personal righteousness is a huge wall in the way of marital change. Here's how it works: the husband views himself as righteous and views his wife as a sinner in need of help, and the wife views herself as righteous and views her husband as a sinner in need of help. So neither feels the need for personal change while being quite upset that the other sees no need for personal change. Each becomes more dissatisfied, impatient, and bitter, while the condition of the marriage worsens. But there is hope! Grace decimates self-righteousness. Grace opens our eyes and softens our hearts. Grace deepens our sense of need. Grace faces us with our poverty and weakness. Grace causes us to run after help and welcomes us with open arms when we come. When a husband and wife quit arguing about who is the more righteous and begin to be grieved over their respective sin, you can know for sure that grace has visited their marriage.
We Must See Ourselves with Accuracy
To see ourselves with accuracy is the opposite of self-righteousness. I have been amazed to watch an angry husband angrily declare that he is not angry! I have been surprised to see a controlling husband and wife control a conversation in order to work to convince me that they are not controlling. I have watched a bitter spouse bitterly refuse the thought that she might be bitter. I have listened to self-righteous men and women self-righteously declare that they are not self-righteous. In each instance they would listen to what I had to say and then lay out for me the evidence that my assessment was wrong. It was not just that they were refusing to look at themselves (although that was also true). It was that, when they looked at themselves, they simply didn't see what I saw.
Here's what happens as a result. Because a husband is convinced that he is righteous and his wife is not righteous, he doesn't feel the need to look at or examine himself. That leaves him with only one conclusion, that the problems in the marriage are his wife's fault. So he watches her all the more hyper-vigilantly, and because she is less than a perfect person, he collects more and more "evidence" to support his view of the marriage struggles. Rather than being grieved at the weakness and selfishness of his own heart, he finds it harder and harder to deal with hers. He struggles to be patient with her and secretly wishes that she could be more like him. This posture is dangerous to any relationship but devastating to the health of a marriage.
Many married people are like the Pharisee in the temple who thanked God that he was not like the other sinners around him. They need the grace of an accurate self-assessment. Few things prevent change in a marriage more than a distorted sense of self. Few things are more needed than eyes to see ourselves with clarity and accuracy.
Listen and Consider Criticism and Rebuke
It is hard to see ourselves with clarity and hard to accept what we see when we do. It is so easy to be defensive. All of us carry inside ourselves an inner lawyer who is easily activated and quickly rises to our defense. We've all been in one of those moments when someone is pointing out some wrong in us, and although we are not speaking aloud, we have already begun a silent defense of ourselves against what they are saying. As they are pointing to evidence of a need for change, we are marshaling evidence that we are not, in fact, the person they contend we are. It takes grace to be ready to listen and willing to hear. It takes grace to quiet our mind, to focus our attention, and to settle our heart so that we can actually receive the help that God is offering us in that moment of unexpected confrontation.
Healthy relationships have two essential character qualities. First is the humility of approachability. When both people step out from behind protective walls and open up to the perspectives and help of others, each individual—and their relationship—will be given an opportunity to grow and change. The second quality is equally important. In fact, these two qualities cannot live without one another. The second is the courage of loving honesty. Not only do we defend ourselves from the opinion of others, but we avoid uncomfortable moments by failing to say what needs to be said. In the fear of disagreement, tension, and rejection, we choose to be silent about things that, if addressed in love, could be used to bring new insight to one another and a fresh start to the relationship.
Only when our confidence is in the Lord, that is, in his constant help and forgiveness, are we able to step out into the light, unafraid of what we may be asked to face. When we really do believe that his grace has already covered anything we may have to confess and given us power for every change to which we may need to commit, we will not be afraid of living in marriages that are open and honest.
Do Not Be Paralyzed by Regret
I am persuaded that fear of regret keeps us from facing things in ourselves that we need to face. Confession not only calls us to look at ourselves in the present, but it also calls us to access the past. If you are a husband who has been married for seven years and are now beginning to face the fact that you are an angry man, then you have to also be willing to look at the harvest that your anger has produced over those years. If you are a bitter wife who, in bitterness, has withdrawn into a protective shell, then you have to face not only your present state of withdrawal but how that bitterness has impacted the people around you during your withdrawal. It's hard enough to consider our present weakness and failure. It is even harder to consider the fruit that that weakness and failure has produced over the years. So, rather than giving in to the temptation to run and hide, we need to run to where help can be found.
Perhaps the brightest, most wonderful commitment of the Redeemer is captured in these words from Revelation 21:5: "Behold, I am making all things new." You are not stuck. You are not committed to the mistakes of the past. You are not cursed to pay forever for your errors. God sent his Son to earth in order to make real and lasting change possible. What was broken can be healed. God will not call us to face our harvest without giving us what we need to face it, and he will not call us to plant new seeds of a better way without giving us the wisdom and strength to do it.
We Can Face Wrongs Because Christ Carried Our Guilt and Shame
Dealing with our guilt and shame is what the whole Bible is about. It is about redemption, that is, the paying of a debt of guilt and shame that needed to be paid. That payment was made on the cross. Jesus took our shame, hanging in public, numbered with the criminals. He took our guilt by taking our sin on himself and paying the price for it—death. He did this even though he had no reason for either shame or guilt, because he was a perfect man. He did not do these things for himself. It was done for us. Why? So guilt and shame would not hold us; so that in the courage of celebratory faith we would quit hiding, quit excusing, quit blaming, and quit rising to our own defense. So that we could be unafraid of saying, "You are right, I was wrong, and I need your forgiveness." So that we could say to one another, "I need your help. I don't always see myself accurately. If you see something wrong in me, I welcome you to help me see it as well." So that we could look at our marriages and not declare that they are perfect but celebrate the fact that, over the years, we have taken many important steps closer to what God has called us to be and has designed our marriages to become.
You see, confession shouldn't be this scary thing we do our best to avoid; and sin, weakness, and failure should not be the constant elephant in the room that husbands and wives know is there but cannot talk about. Confession should be seen as a wonderful gift that every marriage needs. It should be liberating. It should be freeing. It should not be seen as a moment of personal loss but as an opportunity for personal and relational gain. Our confession should be propelled by deep appreciation and gratitude toward God, who has made it possible for us not to be afraid any longer of being exposed. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we do not have to hide or excuse our wrongs. We are freed from posing as if we are perfect, when in our heart of hearts we know we are not. We have been liberated from having to deny our difficulties. We can stare problems in the face with hope and courage, because Christ has made real, lasting, personal, and relational change possible. Fresh beginnings and new starts really do happen, and they can be ours! Is your marriage benefiting from the freedom of confession?
Excerpted from What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul David Tripp. Copyright 2010 by Paul David Tripp. Used with permission from Crossway. All rights reserved.