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Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; man’s anger does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).
James had a lot to say about the tongue. The third chapter of his letter is devoted to it, but before he went into a fuller treatment about this little member, he gave us some insight at the beginning of his letter. He said that a person’s anger does not produce a righteous lifestyle. The implication is clear: If you want someone to mature in Christ, sinful anger is not how to get them there—no matter what they did to you. For example, Mable wants Biff to be a more considerate husband—a good desire that any loving wife should have for her husband.
Of course, her biblical desire does not negate her biblical duty. Mable must recognize her responsibility in Biff’s ongoing discipleship. She has a coequal obligation in their one-flesh conjugal adventure. His failures do not relieve Mable of the admonition to lead well by displaying Christ in their home. We all know that no one is permitted to sin in response to someone’s sin. However, we see this regularly in today’s culture. Someone legitimately sins against another person, and the offended party does something reprehensible in retaliation to the person who offended them.
We deplore and decry these things, but too often, we do similar things in our marriages. Maybe we don’t perceive our offenses in such light because marriage mishaps are not as consequentially devastating as our culture’s violent retaliations. In God’s eyes, it’s a different matter. Though consequences vary, any sin—big or small—puts Christ on the cross. The Father punished His Son for all our lesser marital transgressions, too. Ignoring little offenses, especially those that roll off our tongues, would be a substantial marital mistake. But how easy is it to sin against our spouses with our words? When they disappoint us, our Adamic instincts override biblical common sense, and we are no longer quick to hear and slow to speak.
Mable will have some serious and challenging heart work before she can position herself to help her husband. Biff is sinning against her. It’s objective and offensive. She cannot disregard what he’s doing or her responsibility to assist because her body is rejecting her body—they are one flesh. It’s a spiritual-marital disease when a part of our body attacks another part. Paul gave us insight on how to cooperate with the Lord in the process of helping an offending person change (1 Corinthians 3:6). Mable will have to employ Paul’s wisdom. In Romans 2:4, Paul calls her to use the encouragement method to motivate him to change, and in Ephesians 4:29, he appeals to her to use her tongue redemptively to build up her husband.
Being an encourager or uplifter of a careless person is especially hard if the negligent person has been neglecting you for years. And that is how it usually goes. Most of my marriage counseling on this level happens after the marriage has been deteriorating for a decade or more. It is rare for a couple to ask for counseling after their first year or two to tweak a few things they see going south. Most marriages muddle along until someone can’t take it any longer, but by then, they are at the grenade launching stage, not the soft answer stage.
Mable has a tough job. The marriage has gone wrong for too long, and she needs to say something. The question is not whether Mable should critique and correct her husband but how she should do it. Her opportunity is where she will have to examine her criticisms and corrections. What is motivating her to speak to Biff? Jesus said our words are the secondary focus while the motivation for our words is the primary thing (Luke 6:45). Mable needs to examine her heart for Biff before she speaks to him. She must heed James’ warning: a person’s anger does not produce the righteousness of God. If anger is in her heart, it will assuredly come out of her mouth.
In another place, James gave insight on identifying anger when he said that you find anger’s source in passions, desires, and coveting (James 4:1-2). This happens when a person like Mable blinds herself to her approach to her husband. She can want him to change so badly that she forgets how to approach him, especially when her ticking heart is ticked off. There is corruption in her excellent desire for a better marriage. Our most destructive conversations can happen when we know we’re right. Mable is right. She knows she’s right: Biff needs to change. We see this in our culture, too. So many things need to change, which can blind us to the wrongness of the methods we employ to bring change.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6).
It is rare for adversaries to stop being adversaries. The most effective change occurs among friends. Right now, Mable is not Biff’s authentic friend. She is angry with him. She might say something trite like, “I love him, but I don’t like him.” That is deceptive semantics that soothes the conscience but is devastating for the marriage. If Mable does not perceive and change her attitude toward her husband, her words will not produce righteousness in him. She must plant the gospel firmly in her mind. It would be easy for her to enter the “why me” mode. “Why should I be the one to change first when he has been such a jerk for so long?” It’s a valid complaint, but there is only one correct answer: God calls you to carry your cross as you follow the example of Jesus.
And don’t forget that your sin put Him on the tree. He had to make the first move because you could not move (Ephesians 2:1). Christ, the offended, reached out to us, the offenders. Amazing grace! Someone in this marriage will have to set aside their preferences for the greater good of the marriage (Philippians 2:5-6). To ask Biff to be mature when he has not shown any signs of maturity for a decade or more is unrealistic. It would be great if he suddenly got a clue, but that rarely happens. It didn’t occur to me when I needed Christ to act upon me. It didn’t happen to you. It probably won’t happen with Biff. It will be on Mable to cooperate with God to make the first mature move in their marriage. She will have to be the Christlike leader. She will have to die first.
Mable must take her heart to task regarding her affection for Biff. She must plead with God to give her affection for her annoying husband. She must let the gospel be her guide: Jesus loved annoying Mable so much that He died for her (Romans 5:8). As she is begging God to change her hurt heart, she must find a better place to begin helping Biff. She will likely not be able to start with her most grave disappointment. Too often, a spouse will bring up her biggest annoyance about the marriage. Usually, that is too much truth for the historically proven unchanging person to respond to so he can change.
It’s similar to debt reduction. It’s typically more effective to start with smaller debts before you tackle the larger ones. If Biff is immature and has a proven record of not changing, bringing up his most challenging sin is probably a bad idea. I’m not talking about sins like adultery or other devastating addictive behaviors. I’m talking about “over-look-able” things like passivity, poor communication habits, inability to prioritize Biff’s life, messiness, not considering Mable, lack of passion for Jesus, and fear-motivated inhibitions. Newly married couples often make this mistake: Now that they are married, they anticipate how the other spouse will be all they had dreamed of them being.
The boyfriend wooed her off her feet, and she floated down the aisle. That should be the beginning of the “happily ever after” storyline. Back to Earth: Most of these couples enter marriage without a sin plan, and as the little disappointments mount, they develop poor ways of dealing with them until they become Biff and Mable. Biff did not stop being a work-in-progress on his wedding day. Neither did Mable. After the marital dust settled, they should have seen their joint brokenness and need for ongoing mutual care. It’s like the marriage dust settled in their eyes, blinding them. Mable will have to set aside—as much as she possibly can—what’s wrong with Biff. She will have to help him grow.
These areas of growth must be reachable goals. Mable must be his caring and courageous cheerleader. With enough work, some of the more significant flaws in Biff’s life may change—in a few years. She will have to guard against mapping her personality, gifts, strengths, and expectations over Biff’s capacities and demand he works through those things the way she has (1 Thessalonians 5:14). One of the worst mistakes a spouse can make is comparing her life with his life (2 Corinthians 10:12). You cannot mandate the things you’ve overcome in a lifetime or the things you don’t struggle with on another person for emulation. We all battle differently.
We’re all shaped differently. We all grow and change individually—uniquely. Some people do change with courageous, compassionate, and competent care. Other folks never transform. Fallen people helping fallen people change can be a mess; it never goes how you hoped or planned. The key to helping a fallen person mature in Christ is addressing your fallenness first (Matthew 7:3-5, 18:35). If you neglect your weaknesses or sin patterns, you will become impatient with the other person who is not doing what you ask. This approach to soul care will disqualify you from cooperating with the Lord to produce righteousness in the person you long to see change.
I realize what I’m saying is challenging because I’m no different from you. I have people with whom I long to see change, which rarely happens as fast or to the degree I wish. The following questions have helped me calibrate my heart and guard my tongue as I think about cooperating with the Lord in their transformation. Perhaps you have an unchanging spouse or other loved one. Will you consider these questions? It would be great to share these things with a friend and work through the questions together.
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).