The Demise of a Marriage: Part II

Last Friday, I posted a blog about how little incidents can, over time, create big problems in the context of a marriage. Small problems that are not dealt with can accumulate in such a way that they ultimately threaten the life of the relationship. I pointed to one specific issue in last week’s post, the failure to consistently value your covenant relationship with your spouse over the other various relationships in your life.

There are certainly other issues, and I don’t have nearly the wisdom or the experience to catalog all of them. But as I thought about how and why marriages disintegrate, when they begin with such hope and great expectations for a future, another such issue that comes to mind is unforgiveness. In a relationship as intimate and closely twined as marriage, a consistent and accumulating lack of forgiveness for the inevitable sins we commit against one another will undoubtedly create a divide that, left unchecked, can be very difficult to bridge.

Now, I’m not talking about forgiveness for betrayals like sexual infidelity, a hidden addiction to pornography and/or illegal drugs, or other such deeply-painful violations. These kinds of betrayals, once discovered, create an immediate, deep breech that requires an obvious work of God in the lives of both spouses to recover and repair the relationship, and goes beyond the scope of what I’m talking about. Just as friendship with an ex-girlfriend is an obvious danger to a marriage, so also forgiveness for sexual betrayal is an obvious need in order for a marriage to survive.

No, the unforgiveness that I believe can also be dangerous is typically unseen at first. It’s the failure to extend gracious forgiveness to each other as we live out life in the day-to-day. It belongs to the slights that we all commit against each other in the course of living together under the same roof. You know, the kinds of little, often unintentional sins that, committed over and over again, tend to erode that sense of togetherness, of being on the same team, and begin to turn one spouse against the other. Sins like leaving the toilet lid up after repeated pleas to put it down.

Okay, so the toilet lid example doesn’t sound like a sin? It’s not. But have you ever seen a woman get incredibly irritated when she’s once again found the lid in the upward position? What’s going on in her heart right then is not related to the toilet, but to the underlying issue. It is likely that this quirk and a number of others have combined to convince the woman that her husband doesn’t respect her and doesn’t listen to her. She’s not refusing to forgive him for leaving the lid up; she’s refusing to forgive him for not loving her well enough. (For the record, while my husband has his own idiosyncrasies that can be fun to live with, he does indeed consistently put the toilet lid down, and for that I am grateful.)

While you may find this example silly, it’s just those kinds of day-to-day, real-life irritations that, if not seen in the light of living out grace toward our spouses every day, can instead create an opposite heart condition toward him or her – that of unforgiveness. Those little moments where we choose to believe the worst of our spouse and not extend grace – forgiveness – can build up over time until they become destructive.

Recently, I’ve been listening to an excellent sermon series by John MacArthur on forgiveness. In this series, MacArthur asserts that where there is a lack of forgiveness, there is bitterness, hatred and vengeance. Again, you may think that irritation held onto over minor disagreements can hardly turn your heart to hatred against your spouse. That seems awfully extreme, I agree. But let me ask you a few questions, then:

  • In the small conflicts that are inevitable within any marriage, do you find yourself remembering all those times in the past when your spouse has behaved in the same ways over which you are now having an argument, and suddenly your anger and response to this specific conflict is disproportionate to what is actually happening right now?

  • When arguing with your spouse, do you tend to reach back into history and breathe life back into other examples of failure on your spouse’s part, using them as rationale for your level of anger or your lack of trust?

  • Do you remember your spouse’s failures much more readily than his/her successes?

  • Do you often catch yourself reading dark, hidden motives into your husband or wife’s reasoning for doing things?

  • Do you find yourself frequently responding with irritation – or worse – to things that your spouse says or does, no matter what they are, really?

Now, as you think honestly about your answers to those questions, look at a few statements MacArthur makes about the presence of unforgiveness in the heart of an individual:

  • Unforgiveness becomes an infection, creating a distorted view of life.

  • An unforgiving heart imprisons people to events in their past. As long as people refuse to put their past in the past, they are shackled to that event, and it only gets bigger and bigger.

  • Unforgiveness engenders hatred, where forgiveness engenders love.

I am certainly no expert on marriage, but it seems to me that where there is a consistent level of agitation, irritation or acrimony between husband and wife, one spouse (maybe both) is holding on to unforgiveness. Whatever the details, one spouse has grown tired of forgiving the other, and their heart has hardened against their spouse. It’s hard to be around someone and not be irritated all the time when your heart is hardened against them.

Once again, I think the root problem here that can drive husbands and wives apart by bits and degrees is that we’re forgetful of who we are and the kind of life God is calling us to. When we stop forgiving, we begin to live out the belief (whether we articulate it or not) that our spouse doesn’t deserve that level of grace over and over again. We forget that when God forgave us, we didn’t deserve it, either (Romans 5:6-11).

The Apostle Paul reminds us what God is calling us to, though, as believers in His Son. In his letter to the Ephesians he writes, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). He further exhorts the believers to be imitators of God (5:1-2). He reaffirms this same call to Christ-like forgiveness in other letters as well (Colossians 3:12-14).

When Pastor Dave Cover married Warren and me six years ago, he made it clear to us, from that day forward, that our relationship to each other was indelibly linked to our relationship with Christ. He told us – forcefully and repeatedly – that we could not grow deeper in our bond with Christ without growing deeper in our bond with each other. I think Dave was driving home the point that Paul was making: as believers in Christ, we are called to imitate Him. And we can’t simultaneously imitate Christ and not love our spouses. It can’t be done. If we fail at one, we will fail at the other.

Forgiveness is always undeserved. It’s undeserved when you extend it to others, when others extend it to you, and when – especially when – God extends it to us (Psalm 103:10-13). We are not to extend forgiveness because someone deserves it, or even asked for it. We are to extend forgiveness because Christ calls us to imitate Him (John 15:12).

If we want to be more Christ-like – and if we claim Christ, we should – why don’t we start in our marriages? Why don’t we try loving the person we chose to marry in sacrificial ways, as Jesus loved us? Why don’t we offer forgiveness to our spouses not because they deserve it, but because in Christ we’ve received so much more?

Psalm 130
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.

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