In This Mark Grant Series:
Previously, I talked about how the roots of marital discord lie deeper than communication difficulties. Consequences of the fall leave couples approaching each other as individuals defending their pursuit of acceptance, which destroys any chance to restore community. These two consequences influence our fallen hearts, which sets the conditions for most marriage interactions. Without spiritual awakening, the best outcome is a relationship based on co-idolatry. At worst, the relationship spirals down to hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, dissensions, and factions (Galatians 5:20).
How can couples like Ken and Sue revolutionize their relationship from two individuals into a one-flesh union and love each other in a way that edifies and strengthens each other? How can they transform this knowledge into wisdom for everyday life, allowing them to find every good path (Proverbs 2:9-10)? The answer lies in heart transformation through gospel application, which requires a better understanding of ourselves and our natural inclinations. We must recognize our natural thinking patterns and habits, which will help us better understand and repent of the working motives of our hearts.
What emerges during the “heat of the moment” expresses what has captured one’s heart. As Christians, we know that without the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, the heart is deceitful and sick (Jeremiah 17:9). The natural direction of our hearts leads to destruction (Romans 1:24-25), and heart transformation determines our growth as Christians (Ezekiel 36:26-27). To help us better understand, we can examine the natural manifestations of our hearts living in a fallen world. These manifestations act as feedback mechanisms that strengthen our resolve and justify our desires. Of the many manifestations, I want to focus on three; pride, self-reliance, and sinful anger. To help connect the dots, the figure below shows the relationships between the various topics.
Living as individuals, we go throughout the day giving our full attention to the monologue of our hearts. There is no challenge to our heart’s complaints or desires. This auto-pilot setting places us in a position of pride. I am not talking about the “pride” one feels in their accomplishments, or their children’s accomplishments, as in “I was so proud of you.” I am referring to spiritual pride. It is the natural bent and perversion of our spiritual nature due to sin. It is the fallen bent of our hearts to place ourselves, our desires, and our will above all else, a never-ending fixation on ourselves and our circumstances.
It is a me-first, anti-God state of mind as we insert ourselves as the central figure of our story. Spiritual pride elevates desires to unrelenting needs, so our worship shifts from God to ourselves. We no longer live as a “people before God” but now as “people who long for needs to be met.” Many will defend their worship of God, but we must soberly accept deceitful hearts are still in play and examine our motives. An examination may discover the tone of the worship shifted from who He is to what He has done for us; when His blessings are considered the treasure and not Himself. Since Webster describes pride as “too high an opinion of one’s ability or worth,” most Christians do not grasp the work of pride in their hearts.
Webster’s definition only captures superiority pride when one is living in their comfort zone, when life is going according to plan and experiencing success from a worldly point of view. It is when folks feel good about their status and are confident their works prove and justify their worth. It rejects God’s grace, and Nebuchadnezzar is an excellent biblical example. The other type of spiritual pride is the inferiority type, when one lives outside their comfort box and life is not going according to plan. It is still spiritual pride because they are preoccupied with themselves but have chosen a victim mindset. There is a feeling of unworthiness to accept and rest in God’s grace. Your spiritual maturity, current situation, or season of life can significantly influence the type of pride displayed.
A successful businessman may show superiority pride at work but then transition to an inferiority pride posture when he comes home to a troubled family life. Life is too messy, and the human heart is too complex to reduce ourselves into single categories. Although superiority and inferiority pride are at opposite ends of the spectrum, we must remember they have a common root; the desire to stand on our own and display our glory. In both types of pride, people want the same thing; it’s just that the folks showing superiority pride are successful in their worldly plans. The manifestation of spiritual pride promotes individualism and erodes one-ness. Thus, couples like Ken and Sue need to examine their internal dialogue, identify the workings of spiritual pride, and deconstruct these self-centered thinking patterns with gospel truths. As discussed in the forthcoming article, they need to realign their worship of God from gospel meditation.
Life is not lived in a vacuum, and as a result, we experience evil from without and within. These experiences shape our thought patterns and, thus, our character. The primary driver in who we will become is how we interpret our shaping influences. While shaping influences can tremendously impact our lives, we should not take a fatalistic view when considering our history. With our couple, Sue experienced a turbulent upbringing from a distant father and a legalistic mother. Her mother’s affections were based purely on her performance. As a result, her soul was never restful. She longed for the stability of her father’s love and was always fearful her performance would fall short and experience the silent treatment from her mom.
As an adult, this performance-driven thinking now shapes her role as a wife and mother. Her interpretation of childhood shaping influences, driven by self-focused, individualistic thinking, led her to conclude that her value or loveability is based on her performance. She was only satisfied with her performance if her kids behaved and her husband met expectations. However, a child’s struggle in school or a distracted husband triggers shame resulting in a noisy soul. Ken grew up without a father, making life hard for him and his mom. Money was always tight, and other schoolboys picked on him for wearing hand-me-down clothes. Things got worse when the other kids learned he qualified for free lunches at school.
His interpretation of these shaping influences led him to conclude his value is based on wealth and what others think of him. His life’s goal is to prove his worth by becoming rich, a great father, and a loving husband. He is driven to be the total opposite of his father. Now, he overworks himself to provide for his family and extends himself to be the all-American dad. When things don’t go his way, he finds comfort in food and cigars and lashes out at whoever questions his dedication and love for his family. Ken and Sue have identified self-reliant ways to prove themselves and live their desired lives by placing their hope in a chosen lifestyle or reputation instead of trusting God. The gospel exposes this faulty thinking and leads us to become more God-dependent. “True success begins with a broken and humble posture before the Lord,” and they must repent of their self-reliant ways.
The third manifestation is anger. Ken and Sue described each other as a nag and hothead. While the two behaviors are different, the root is the same; they are both angry. Mismanaged anger is the source of ugly, heat-of-the-moment behaviors. Anger is not a sin (Ephesians 4:26) but quickly morphs into sinful (selfish) anger. This transition usually goes undetected since the actions committed by the other are sinful, at least in the eyes of the offended. Our natural, individualistic, prideful posture turns anger into sinful anger by using God’s laws in a self-serving way, seeking justice through punishing the offender.
At the moment, it feels right, but it results in increased isolation between the spouses, with each hardening their positions and views. We can easily forget that, as Christians, we are now called to live in a community-focused, grace-centered world. Additionally, as a cautionary note, we must recognize how sinful anger, in some way, allows the devil (or demons) to exert some negative influence in our lives (Ephesians 4:26). Anger seems to give some power boost to our sinful nature and actions. Thus, we must identify anger within our hearts and process it differently than our natural, auto-pilot settings desire. An excellent way to better understand if one’s anger is sinful or not is to ask the following two questions;
Sue thinks Ken needs to change his unhealthy lifestyle. He eats like a teenager, smokes cigars, and neglects regular doctor check-ups, even with a family history of heart disease. Ken has promised to change, but the urgency of the latest work crisis or attending the kids’ sporting events always delays action. In Sue’s case, she is defending her concerns (control) for the family by attacking Ken for his perceived lack of effort. Her concerns are valid, but she is discharging the energy by attacking her husband. Pride, self-sufficiency, and anger align within Sue’s heart to punish Ken. For Ken, he is defending his reputation as a husband and father and attacking Sue’s unwillingness to understand his situation and lack of respect. He is operating out of an individualistic mode as well. Pride, self-sufficiency, and anger are used to defend himself and tear down Sue.
When used redemptively, anger is a way to generate energy to destroy a threat. In this case, neither is using the “energy of anger” to attack the problem; they are attacking the other person. Instead of working together to solve the problem, they are attacking each other to protect their individualistic-driven concerns. They both have good desires and valid concerns. Sue wants to do better than her mom and protect her kids from the uncertainty and dangers of life. Ken doesn’t want to be compared to his dad and wants to protect his kids from the bullying he received growing up. However, the “individualistic” context of fallen life shifts their motivations.
These heat-of-the-moment situations expose heart motives, and the best way to heal a struggling relationship is to change the posture of our hearts before the conflict. To move from pride to humility, from self-reliance to God’s dependence, and to use the energy of anger to address the problem in a loving, gentle, and graceful way. A gospel-transformed heart can respond lovingly in the heat of the moment. The next article, How Conflict Addresses Motives, Leading to Redemptive Solutions, discusses the practical application of gospel truths to help folks like Ken and Sue change the posture of their hearts. This will help them avoid the natural, defensive responses and put on gospel-based, community-loving (other-focused) responses.
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).