Do You Think It’s Just a Communication Problem?

Do You Think It's Just a Communication Problem

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Most couples will cite “communication” as the problem when experiencing marital conflict, but this fails to grasp the contention’s complexity or spiritual aspect. To help Christian couples struggling with marital strife, they must have an accurate understanding of God, recognize how sin has radically changed the context of life, and how they now possess the power to respond differently. Let me explain with my friends Ken and Sue.

In This Mark Grant Series:

The Nag and Hothead

Ken and Sue are struggling in their marriage. Their relationship, once the strength of the family, has now become a liability. They find themselves avoiding each other to keep the peace. When they are together, their conversations are like two individuals walking across a minefield; one misstep can blow up the conversation. He describes her as a nag; she describes him as a hothead. They are both Christians and frustrated with themselves and each other. They are unhappy with their “heat-of-the-moment” behaviors, but little change comes. When it comes to communication, Paul writes,

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:25-32).

Ken and Sue see the beauty of these instructions, but why do they find them so difficult to follow, especially in the heat of the moment? Why do they struggle to communicate in this way? Why does their Christian faith seem to have such little impact? To change how they respond, they must first understand two foundational influences of the fall that set the context of their interactions.

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Context and Community

Sin has universally altered life in many ways, but two areas are worth our contemplation. First is how the context of life has transitioned from that of community to that of individualism. In the Garden, the context of life was communal, but now we experience life individually. Secondly, we have lost God’s covering, a covering that allowed Adam and Eve to experience life with no shame (Genesis 2:25). This loss leaves us with deep-rooted longings in life so great that without them, life almost feels not worth living.

Scripture informs us that God is three-in-one, otherwise known as the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity, as defined by Wayne Grudem, is “God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.” Usually, our finite minds race off, attempting to make sense of this seemingly contradictive truth. However, we would do well to reflect on some practical implications of our triune God.

The Trinity reveals that God has eternally existed as a Holy community (Genesis 1:26, Matthew 28:19), and His actions flow from a fountainhead of a perfect other-focused love for the benefit of others (John 17:4-5). Thus, God’s core attribute is one of love. If God consisted of just one person, a community is not possible until creation takes place, and thus love cannot be a core attribute. A singular god’s core attribute is power and conflict, as reflected in the Greek and Roman mythological gods.

At creation, Adam and Eve interacted within an environment of community, with God and each other. As created image bearers, their purpose was to worship and reflect God’s core characteristics of community and love. As such, Adam and Eve’s internal posture was others-focused at first, and I suspect their internal dialogs reflected thoughts of plurality, not of individualism. To a small degree, I experienced this growing up as an identical twin. I would refer to my parents as our parents. When my mom would hand out a snack, I would ask for another for my brother. The thought of taking them both for myself never entered my mind; (disclaimer: this didn’t last too long). We even had our twin talk. However, with temptation from the enemy, unbelief entered and introduced “I want” (Genesis 3:6) into the internal dialogue.

Worship Shift

Unbelief led to individualistic thinking and a shift in our worship. Fallen humanity’s inner posture no longer seeks to love and protect the community but to defend oneself, as immediately displayed when Adam blames Eve for the “apple incident.” Also, with unbelief, we reject accepting God’s instruction and turn to our individualistic wisdom. Learn more about unbelief here. God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden into exile. As Christians, we know our exile will end when we get to Heaven, but as we live out our days in the context of fallen life, we must recognize we now find life’s context as individualistic and not community-based.

One could argue that thriving communities exist today, but upon close examination, the foundation is based more on consumerism than love. At heart, each individual is looking out for themselves. Individualism is our natural, auto-pilot setting where most marriage interactions occur: self-focused, self-protecting, and thoughts void of God. Marriages take on a consumerism characteristic, “I’ll be this type of spouse if you are that type of spouse.” It is also sensible to recognize that if other-focused love is in our original, God-designed DNA, it is reasonable to assume that community will bring us the most joy. If so, Ken and Sue will obtain more pleasure from serving one another than looking out for themselves.

This truth is hard to see with our natural, auto-pilot, individualistic thinking, but if we look closely at their conflict, they both desire a loving relationship. They want the higher goal of a community but now find themselves judging the actions of each other to protect their individualistic desires. Are our individualistic-driven desires too small? What great joy awaits us if we grow in our ability to live with a community-based character? As redeemed image bearers, we now have the potential to restore community. To care and love in an others-focused way, seeking to pour our lives into others. Is this not the call to all Christians? Is not sanctification the process of turning us from individual, self-serving sinners into other-focused, self-sacrificing individuals that care for and love one another? (1 Corinthians 12:13-27; Ephesians 4:25b; Acts 3:44-45)

With most couples, this realization disappears in the heat-of-the-moment interactions. Both spouses will take an individualistic, defensive posture and thus respond accordingly. The gospel allows us to change the priorities of our lives. If rightly grasped, the gospel frees us to respond in a humble, other-focused, self-sacrificing way that restores and builds community. This restoration is the gospel’s great hope for Ken and Sue, leading to a second implication of the fall—a dramatic shift in our relationship with God’s glory. This subject requires an entire article on its own, but we must briefly consider the implications of this transition. Before the fall, Adam and Eve, in some way, experienced and enjoyed God’s glory.

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Echos of Glory

God’s glory was their covering (Genesis 2:25), and its loss ushered in shame, fear, and guilt (Genesis 3:7-8). Since glory is beyond our experience base, we have difficulty comprehending what was lost, but we can gain a bit of a foothold if we think about beauty. Beauty is a component of God’s glory. God reveals Himself through the beauty of the created world (Romans 1:20), and David wanted nothing more than to gaze at God’s beauty (Psalm 27:4). Today, we live between these worlds, but we do get small glimpses of beauty. Beauty takes on many forms in art, music, or relationships, but the common thread of beauty is its ability to create awe, inspire, and bring peace to the soul.

Beauty transcends this broken world and reminds us that something more wondrous and right exists, even if it feels beyond our grasp. The experience reminds us that we live outside of the Garden and are not yet a part of this world. For example, the grandeur of a beautiful sunset along the rocky coastline overwhelms all of one’s senses. We lose ourselves, and the world seems like it should. In these moments, we come close to beauty. We want to hold on to it and share it with loved ones. Then, the sun disappears over the horizon, and life returns to normal.

For a few minutes, we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled but not to welcome us; her face has turned in our direction but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. – C.S. Lewis, Weight of Glory

Counterfeit Beauty

Cast out of the Garden, we now live outside that beauty, leaving us with a deep, unspeakable, yet all-consuming desire for acceptance. We want to return to being part of God’s beauty. We want what Adam and Eve originally had, acceptance and approval from God, to experience a perfect community. This void manifests in unrelenting striving to be accepted in this world; thus, we find ourselves chasing after idols that we think will prove ourselves worthy (Romans 1:22-23). However, these created things are not the source of beauty but only the vehicles God uses to reveal His beauty and character. They always prove counterfeit.

In a way, life is like a grand adventure with us all choosing self-reliant paths we think will return us to that land of beauty. The trails head off in different directions toward wealth, power, or status, but in the end, they all take us away from God. Only following Christ can bring us to that far-off land, where we shall be acknowledged and appreciated by our Creator. “To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son.” Like all of us, Ken and Sue have chosen their paths to this distant land. Their wayward journeys, influences by false counsel (Ephesians 2:2-3), and life’s shaping influences have led them astray.

Although unaware of these forces, they will quickly defend them if threatened, resulting in ugly interactions in the heat of the moment. The gospel informs us that believing and following Christ is the only path that will place us in the position to successfully stand before our Creator and hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). Again, as gospel truths shine brighter in Ken and Sue’s heart, the grip of these self-reliant paths will soften and allow them to respond in humble, other-focused, self-sacrificing ways that restore and builds community. The path of following Christ will become more appealing.

Summary

The roots of marital discord lie deeper than communication difficulties. I am sure Ken and Sue could improve the clarity and accuracy of their concerns to one another, but if done in a context of individualism, no improvement to the marriage will occur. By understanding the consequences of the fall, we gain a better context for Ken and Sue’s interactions. They are both approaching each other as individuals and are consumed with the individual pursuit of acceptance to reach the far-off land. Their paths may have been the same when they first married, but now they are headed in different directions.

Now Ken and Sue have better defined the problem, and now they can find their gospel gaps, close pockets of unbelief, and work to change. Want a Great Marriage? Start with Your Heart expands the fictional Ken and Sue case study to break down their behaviors to find the working motives of their hearts and help us better understand our auto-pilot responses to life. The forthcoming final article will help address what steps we can take to transform our characters and hence, get our marriages and relationships to a better place.

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