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“Why do I get mad at my husband, but I do not get angry at my friends? Why do I extend grace to others, but if my husband does the slightest thing wrong, I respond in anger?” These were two of the questions Mable asked me during counseling.
She was noticeably angry at herself. She was admittedly upset at her husband, Biff. During our counseling session, she asked why she could receive correction from her friend Madge but was unwilling to accept correction from her husband. She said this tension amazed and baffled her, and then she added,
Madge can tell me anything negative about my life, and it rarely bothers me. She has spoken some challenging things to me, and I typically listen, thank her, and even try to respond by changing. But when Biff says anything that I perceive as negative, condescending, or corrective, I fly off the handle. At times I won’t talk to him for a couple of days. Why is this?
The most glaring problem and implication of her questions are that they are not friends. Sadly, a couple can be married for 20+ years and come to the place of not being friends. This situation was true for Mable and Biff.
To get further underneath her questions, you have to ask why they are not friends. Here is the short answer: the reason Mable can receive correction from Madge and not from her husband is that there are no outstanding, unresolved conflicts between her and Madge.
If Mable and Madge have ever been on the outs, they have been able to work through it. Unfortunately for Mable and Biff, there have been so many hurts that the accumulative effect of the disappointments has left her bitter and angry. Mable noted when they would go out to eat that they usually sat in silence, but when someone from the church showed up, they became “talking heads.”
The reason they could talk freely with others was that there were no unresolved past hostilities between them or their church buddies. As soon as their friends would leave, they would revert to sitting in silence again. It was like a default switch. Isn’t that the way of bitterness, anger, and unforgiveness?
Rather than pressing into their problems and each other, they used distractions as a pseudo resolution. Mable said the silence of the meal could be deafening. Sometimes they would go shopping or to the movies. Other times they would travel “together” or invite friends over to their home.
Biff found his work to be a tolerable and disguised escape, while Mable had her friends, who brought a respite into their broken marriage through the fun “girl things” they would do. Through it all, Mable and Biff could coexist in “harmony” most of the time, at least until they had to work through something.
Illustration – Their home is like the “dirty carpet illustration.” It had gradually changed colors for years, though mostly unnoticed. Then someone moved the couch. They were shocked at how dirty their carpet had become. Rather than dealing with each piece of dirt as it happened, they rarely dealt with anything. Now, after many years of not responding biblically to their problems, their marriage was seemingly soiled beyond hope.
Their problem is what makes dating so lovely. At the end of the evening, you can “get rid of your girlfriend.” You drop her off at her home, and you go to yours. It’s a beautiful life. But be warned: after marriage, you cannot “get rid of her.” At all. There is a virtual tying of the knot to the hip, all of the time.
I remember how easy and fun it was to date Lucia. We had a blast during that season of our lives, but when we two sinners began living with each other, some previously hidden or easily dismissed things surfaced that we did not know how to deal with biblically. There was no plan to accommodate our sinfulness.
Because of the grace of God, we did work hard through our conflicts, and we didn’t stop until we had a fight plan in place, a process we developed that allowed us to work through and resolve problems. The one thing we did not want was the “dirty carpet syndrome.”
Biff and Mable had many avoidance tactics, and they used them. While they presented a facade of togetherness, they were anything but that. Sadly, they did not know how to begin to repair their broken marriage.
Biff and Mable’s plan was to ignore—as much as they could—the sinful things they were doing to each other. The result of their strategy was not only ineffective, but it was causing them to drift from each other. Even though they have been married for 23 years, they have decided not to get along. It is a choice. Neither one of them is a victim. They refuse to humble themselves before God and work together in the fight against sin. Biff and Mable have a toxic marriage.
How would you counsel them? Where would you direct them to start the long road to redeeming the marriage? Here are a few thoughts that may stimulate you as you ponder this couple.
Gospel – Mable has Biff in her view, not the gospel. She is “Biff-centered,” not gospel-centered. Mable is more aware of what Biff has done wrong than what Christ has done right. If she altered her view, it would be life-changing. This point has to be her first order of business: she has lost sight of Calvary.
According to Mable, Biff is the biggest sinner in their marriage. This worldview is her most glaring mistake. According to the gospel, she is the biggest sinner in their union 1 Timothy 1:15-16. As long as she continues to see herself as more righteous than Biff, she will never be able to help redeem the marriage. See Matthew 7:3-5.
Mable does not understand an obvious implication of the gospel: no person is worse or better than anyone else. Christ died on the cross because of Biff and Christ died on the cross because of Mable. There is only one grade: we all have collectively failed (Romans 3:23).
Though Mable knows this information intellectually, her craving for a better marriage overpowers this very fundamental gospel truth. Her good, though elevated, desire for a better relationship sits at the center of her life, and she has pushed the cross to the perimeter. Biff has done the same thing. He has displaced the cross with his pet preferences.
This “greater than, I’m better than you attitude” (self-righteousness) is not only the death to any marriage, but it puts you outside of the grace of God. Christ did not come for the righteous. He engages the sick, the broken, and the unrighteous (Mark 2:17).
If there is one smidgen of self-righteousness in any heart, the Lord will disqualify that person from His transforming grace. Outside of Christ, you and I are not better than any other human, regardless of who they are or what they have done.
Confession – Once Mable and Biff begin living “in line with the gospel,” they will be able and motivated to confess their sins against each other. One of the reasons they have ongoing hostilities is because neither one of them has been humble enough to admit their wrongdoing to God and each other.
A gospel-shaped marriage is a sin-confessing one. Once Biff and Mable get the gospel fixed in their minds and purpose to live it out in their lives, they will be able to begin the sin removal process. Here is the order: you must start with the gospel. Then you move toward sin confession.
Forgiveness – For two decades, Mable said she could count on one hand how many times either one of them has come to the other and sought forgiveness for sins committed.
She said the few times they have confessed sin to each other was usually after a church meeting. One time, it was after watching the movie Fireproof. Sadly, forgiveness has been nothing more than a quick apology without specifics. True reconciliation can happen when the gospel is in view.
Expectation – Surprisingly, when Biff sins, it typically catches Mable off guard. This problem is another misunderstanding and misapplication of the gospel. People are sinners. No person is righteous (Romans 3:10).
When Biff sins or does not meet Mable’s expectations, she immediately “flies off the handle.” (Her words, not mine.) Every time she does this, the conflict moves from what Biff did to Mable’s response to what Biff did.
It is never right to sin in response to sin. If you do sin in response to sin, you will create such a distraction, that you may not be able to get back to the original issue. This dynamic has happened too many times to count in their marriage.
Accountability – Though Mable has talked to Madge about some of these things, Madge has been deficient in her counsel. In short, neither Biff nor Mable have competent biblical accountability. After a little probing, it became apparent that they did not want anyone involved in their lives, not at that level. They said this kind of counseling was too hard.
Because of Biff and Mable’s “good” reputation in their church, they have resisted humbling themselves to seek help from within their community. Sadly, their marriage has unraveled to such a place that what they have tried to keep secret has become more and more evident.
Thankfully, the more exposed I see that I am by the Cross, the more I find myself opening up to others about ongoing issues of sin in my life. Why would anyone be shocked to hear of my struggles with past and present sin when the Cross already told them I am a desperately sinful person? – Milton Vincent
Serving – Another implication of the gospel is blessing others. Jesus came to serve rather than to be served (Mark 10:45). Conversely, Biff and Mable have this gospel idea reversed. While they should be aggressively seeking how to bless each other, Mable is not seeking Biff’s interests but consistently lobbying for her own.
Biff is doing likewise. They are not as much a “one-flesh union” as they are competitors. They are competing, bartering, and angling for their love cups to be adequately filled by the other person.
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility, count others more significant than yourselves (Philippians 2:3).
Freedom – When Biff and Mable respond to the gospel correctly, they will see each other as comparable sinners in need of God’s grace rather than self-righteously looking down on each other. They will also find immeasurable grace as they humbly confess their sin to each other and, thus, keep short to non-existing accounts between each other (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Repentance and forgiveness will be a constant attitude in their hearts, minds, lives, and home as they seek the other’s good for the glory of God. Eventually, the past unresolved hostilities that have characterized their marriage will be swallowed up by the consistent application of these gospel truths to their marriage.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).