How God saved my marriage
Ministry can bring unique stress to a marriage. If you aren’t careful, you can lose your marriage in the midst of doing ministry.
The first two months of mine and my wife’s marriage felt like a honeymoon in virtually every way.
The next two months, however, we led an overseas missions trip that put us in many stressful situations.
When our flight landed my wife was overcome with motion sickness and got sick all over the nice, pinstripe suit of a businessman.
She looked at me pleadingly and said, “I just threw up.”
I was talking to a student at the moment—my priority—so I responded with great compassion: “What do you want me to do about it?” (Yes, I can see now what an absolute jerk I was then, if you are wondering.)
That first incident became a microcosm of the next two months.
My wife became increasingly emotional and hypersensitive. I became increasingly cold and insensitive. Not a good combination.
We had a shouting match almost every day about something, with students listening in.
Typically I could catch myself in our argument and turn my emotions off.
I would wait for my wife to say something that was, in my opinion, slightly irrational, and I would pounce like a lion going for the kill. She would usually leave in anger.
I would quickly realize that I had blown it once again and would try to repent and reconcile.
I would go find her and admit to the one or two things I had done wrong such as, “I probably raised my voice a little too much.” (Great confession, right?)
Then I would proceed to list the seven or eight things I felt she had done wrong such as, “You were selfish and angry, etc.”
Then I would say, “I repent of my two sins. Now you repent of your eight. Then we can forgive each other and all will be fine.”
Her typical response was an enraged, “My emotions aren’t a light switch! I can’t just instantly forgive you like that!”
My gracious response was, “I’m trying not to let the sun go down on our anger, but you are still sinning and not obeying Ephesians 4:26.”
Needless to say, we spiraled downward and away from each other.
After that two month trip we moved to a new city to help start a new campus ministry.
We were both gone so much during the week that we rarely saw each other long enough to fight.
Once we spent more time together on the weekend, a fight was bound to happen. The joke was that if we hadn’t had a yelling match by Sunday afternoon to watch out because Sunday night was going to be a throw down.
One night, near our first anniversary, my wife calmly told me,
“Before we were married I was confident. I liked myself and thought most people liked me. After a year of marriage to you, I feel I have lost all confidence and self-esteem.”
For the first time I got a glimpse of how pharisaical I had been in relating to her.
In my supposed attempts to be a godly minister, I had not washed her with the water of the Word. Rather, I had viciously attacked her in her weakness using the Word like a swift sword of justice.
In the meantime, I had often downplayed my sin and minimized it.
Unfortunately, though I saw it that night, nothing really changed. Old habits die hard.
Roughly four months later we were in some meetings in another city and had plans to go out with another staff couple.
We had a fight before and she said, “I’m not going.” I said, “Fine. I’ll go without you.” And I did.
We were both sick of our marriage. We had both said to each other, “I don’t believe in divorce, but if I did I’d be out of here.”
We were hopeless.
When I came back from dinner that night she told me the same thing she had said four months earlier. This time, it clicked.
I think God brought an idea to my mind on the spot because it really did change our marriage.
In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus instructs us to focus on the sin in our own lives before we try to help others deal with sin in their lives.
This is a life-changing principle for all of life and especially for marriage.
Even if you think you are in a conflict with your spouse where he or she is 99% wrong and you are only 1% wrong, you should always treat your sin as the bigger sin—the sin that is closer to you and that you have more responsibility for.
If my wife and I each literally had a speck of dust in our eyes, the speck in my eye would look larger because it’s closer to me.
Jesus said when we ignore our own sin to focus on the sin of others, it’s like having a huge plank of wood sticking out of your eye.
It seems that a lot of that plank of sin is the sin of self-righteousness. We love to compare our sin to others and tell ourselves that they are evil and we aren’t so bad.
It’s crazy to think that I can walk over to my wife with a plank sticking out of my face and gently get the speck out of her eye in any helpful way.
So that night I said to my wife,
“For most of the last year all I’ve done is criticize and rebuke you. So for the next year I promise to not bring up any of your sin or faults. If you ask me a question, I’ll answer it honestly. But I will only initiate talking about my sin. I will listen to all you have to say to me. Any sin I see in you, I will just pray about it.”
I’ve made a lot of vows in my life and have broken most of them, but by God’s grace I kept this one.
Over the next few months, when we would get in an argument, I would catch myself and shut my mouth and listen to all she had to say.
I didn’t attack her. I would agree about all I had done wrong.
It was hard. Internally I was often boiling. But when the largely one-sided fight was over, I would go pray.
I would start out by complaining and telling God all that was wrong with her and how He needed to change her.
But it’s hard to pray about your spouse’s sin and not mention yours. So I prayed more about my own sin.
I started to soften and become broken and humbled by how much God was constantly forgiving me for.
Spending more time focused on how radical the mercy of Christ that flowed from the cross was for me began to truly change me.
It became easier to listen to my wife, easier to be compassionate, and easier to admit my sin.
After maybe four months of this pattern, one day while she yelled at me about something I had done wrong, I was admitting she was right. She stopped mid-sentence and said, “You know, this isn’t all your fault. I’ve sinned too.”
I wish I could say it was happily ever after from then on. It wasn’t.
It probably took another year of working through our sin and getting counseling as well. But the tenor of our marriage changed.
For the first year or so we had been in a race to attack the other. We wanted to score the most points by landing the best rebuke on the other. We wanted to win the argument.
Now, for the last 15 years or so, by God’s grace, we typically race to see who can repent first.
Rather than focusing on the other person’s speck of sin, we usually try to focus on our own plank of sin first. This does many great things for our marriage and for our ministry.
First, we become more humble because we are more aware of our own sin.
We also become more gracious because we are so much more aware of how much Christ is constantly forgiving us for.
Last but not least, we are much more gentle.
Because we realize how tender it can be to get sin out of our own eye, we want to be much more careful and patient in trying to help get it out of someone else’s eye—spouse or student.
By God’s grace we rarely fight anymore. When things come up, we are usually quick to repent.
Christ, His Word, and His mercy truly saved our marriage and our ministry.