We are in our 4th week in a series called First Love. We are studying the New Testaments’ classic passage on relationships, Ephesians 5:21-32. Eph 5:21-32 is specifically about marriage and singleness, but Paul says these things are really just windows into our hearts, so we’re learning principles that apply to us whatever marital status we are in.
I hope some of you married people had fun doing what I asked you last week-telling your spouse one thing that happened that day and how you felt about it. One wife complained that every time she asked her husband how he felt all he said was, ”Hungry” and ”how can you serve me?” So she’s not sure he’s actually been ”getting” the point of the messages. And I heard that Marty, the guy whose wife had emasculated the sheep, had not given his wife a heads up that he had given me permission to share that story and so she was surprised, with everyone else, to hear about her mishap in church, and so, he said, they had quite a discussion when they got home from church… which brings me to this week’s subject, conflict resolution and forgiveness.
Conflict happens in all relationships, but especially marriage. One of my pet peeves is how sentimental and sappy marriage is often presented in church. This seems especially true in wedding sermons. Sermons at weddings usually have about as much depth and reality as a Hallmark card. You want to say, ‘Awww.”
Actual marriage is anything but sweet and sentimental. On the one hand, it is this glorious, burning joy; on the other it’s hard, harder than you ever realized-blood, sweat, and tears. It’s almost everything except ”sweet.” ”Many married people, on many a--night, go to bed-after a hard day of marriage-and about the only part of this Eph 5 passage they can remember is the verse, ‘This is all a profound mystery.”’1 So we’re going to talk today about conflict in marriage. Let me DISPEL A MYTH right from the beginning: good couples are not couples who never fight; good couples are couples who have learned to fight fairly; to fight Christianly. If you’re one of those starry -eyed engaged couples who feel like, ”We never fight…” Veronica and I were like that, too. How blissful it is to be young and stupid! You just can’t get close to another sinner without there being conflict.
Listen: The problems that split up marriages are not usually some special class of problems; they are usually generic problems (present in every marriage), but what happens is that one or the other partners don’t know how to handle conflict; don’t know how to keep minor problems from becoming major ones. Not a problem in their marriage, per se, but a problem in them. That’s why I told you the first week there are no married people issues; there are only individual people issues that get brought out in marriage.
Don’t want to admit?
We’re going to look at two passages in Ephesians about conflict. The first one relates to conflict in marriage; the second to conflict in the church, because in either case the source of the conflicts the and solutions are the same.
5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Paul shows us God’s goal for our marriage and his pattern for achieving that goal.
The goal is our sanctification (means, making something holy).
The pattern for achieving that goal, for both of you, is the cross. The cross was about our conflict with God. We had irreconcilable differences with God and the cross is what God did about those.
That’s how we must learn to respond in our marriages. If you want to understand why conflict is there in your relationships, what God’s purpose is in it, and what you should do during it, you have to understand this principle: one of God’s primary goals in marriage is making you holy; his means of doing that is by teaching you to wash the feet of and carry the cross for another sinner. The fact that you have conflict doesn’t mean you married the wrong person! Quite the contrary! The wrong person was the right person because God’s purpose was not just to make you happy by giving you a suitable marriage partner, but to make you holy by teaching you to wash the feet of another sinner who has disappointed you and sinned against you so that you could learn to love like he loves.
Now, let’s go backwards in Ephesians, one chapter, because Paul is going to go into more detail there unpacking where conflict comes from and what to do about it, and you’re going to see this same principle at work.
I’m going to highlight 3 commands Paul gives you for ”how to fight” and then end by giving you practical steps.
Ephesians 4:25-32 (Such a great and practical passage! Christian counselor David Powlison says: ”In a pinch, all counseling can be done out of the boo of Ephesians.”)
4:25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. There’s the body metaphor again, but again he’s not talking about marriage here, he’s talking about the church.
26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 29 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.
31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. COMMAND 1. ”Be angry and do not sin… Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander and malice.”
Paul didn’t say you never get angry, but when you do so, do so without sin, which he defines as anger without ”bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander.” (That’s what that means).
So what are those things? That’s when your anger has taken on a deep, burning quality-resentment; bitterness; hatred.
Where do they come from? I want to explore for just a minute where they come from, because it’s one thing just to tell you to stop doing them. But if you don’t know where they are coming from, that’s like trimming off a weed at the top.
We’ve got to get down to the roots of those things and pull them up. Paul is not telling you simply to manager your anger and rage; he’s telling you to put it away. So we have to find out where these things come from.
So: Where do bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander and malice come from?
A couple of other places in the Bible tell us this (so important!)
James 4:1-3, ”What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?
According to passage, ”where does your conflict come from?” If I asked you to turn to your spouse right now and identify the source of your conflict-that would be dangerous. Most of you would have one answer: you! Most of the unhappiness and strife and conflict in my life is there because of YOU. James says, ”Think deeper.”Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.”
I’ve got a set of things I want, and you are keeping me from them… and so your anger burns at them, and you resent them and even, James says, want to murder them. (Some of you are like, ‘Alright… now you are describing my marriage.’) (BTW, James is writing to church people, not a prison, so murder is not just literal here but also metaphorical. You are keeping me from what I want so I despise you. This is what Paul calls ‘malice, bitterness, wrath, anger and clamor’)
The problem, James says, is found in how controlling your desires are on you. Your desires have become so important to you, and so you hate anyone who keeps them from you.
An idol is anything you have to have to have happiness or peace, and you hate anything or anyone that keeps you from it. Example: One of my many idols… Me fuming at the table. Rage. What I want is control, at least in that area. My wife’s lateness has kept me from going what I wanted. Now, it is right to be unhappy with her, and express that, but the rage points back to an idol. This could be true of not getting the respect, or affection, or support, or tenderness, or sex you deserve.
Nothing in you is supposed to be so important to you that it produces malice, wrath, or hatred, and when you miss out on it, and when those things are there, they point to the fact that something has become an idol. They are, as I have pointed out before, like smoke from a fire…. They should function in your life like overreaction alarms. Ask: What is it that I want bad enough I am willing to yell at, tune out, abuse or neglect to get? Where are you bitter at your spouse? They may be at fault, but the rage and bitterness point more toward a deeper problem in you.
What you should do with these passions, James says, is pray about them. ”You have not because you ask not.” Trust God with these things and leave it with him.
I love Isa 26:3, ”I will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is fixed upon you.” The state of the peace in my heart reveals whether or not my mind is fixed on God.
So where do bitterness, anger, and malice come from? A. Desires that have become idolatrous.
B. Taking upon myself the responsibility for vengeance When you are wronged, there is something inside of you that craves justice. A sense of justice is like a divine turning fork God put in you, and when something is unjust, especially if it involves you, you need to see it resolved.
So when you feel wronged, you want to see vengeance poured out on the other, and you feel nigh unto deity when you are repaying the wrath. That’s what makes this next verse so important: Paul says, ”Look, justice will be served.” Think about this: Every sin against me will be avenged in one of two places: in hell or on the cross. So I can leave it to God. Miroslav Volf. You have to believe in future judgment to forgive.
I hear people say, ”Forgive and forget.” On one level I understand that. But on another that is impossible! How do you forget what someone did to you? On one level, God doesn’t forgive and forget. Hear me out. God is omniscient At no point does he ”forget” about anything in the sense that he can’t remember it. He chooses not to remember it because he poured out his anger on the cross. You’ve got to choose like that too Forgiveness is a choice you make not to remember the wrong because God will take care of it on the cross or in hell.
Vengeance is his. So I can put away all that wrath.
See what Paul says: ”Do not let the sun go down on your wrath… and give no opportunity to the devil.” (4:26-27) When you hold a desire for vengeance, you are giving an opportunity for the devil’s power to come into you, because you are trying to play the role of God, which is how Satan became Satan.
Listen: Harboring bitterness is like trying to hurt the other person by drinking a cup of poison yourself. Some of you have that in you! Somebody who hurt you. Left you. Broke promises. Broke your heart. Disappointed you. Now what you are left with is bitterness and malice. You need to bury that with Jesus. Vengeance is his.
So, command one is to put away all bitterness and wrath… to get angry, but not sin when you do, and you do that by pulling up the roots of malice and bitterness and hatred which are your idolatrous passions and your need to play God in exacting vengeance.
Which leads me command 2:
COMMAND 2: 32 ”Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Underline: ”As Christ forgave you.” Christianity is being overwhelmed at the gospel: the profound knowledge that you are first sinner, and second sinned against. That forgiveness is supposed to be so overwhelming that you gladly and easily forgive others. It’s also supposed to be such an incredible treasure that every other infraction in your life seems trivial compared to it… John Wesley said discovering the gospel was like learning about a rich uncle you didn’t know about who had left you an inestimable fortune: say 10 billion dollars, and as you are riding to the bank to collect it, when you get about a mile from it, one of your carriage wheels break off… do you swear and curse God? You hardly notice, skipping and running the rest of the way to the bank to collect your treasure! How much people’s grievances against you really bother you show you little you are enraptured by the gospel. For many of you, the one thing you most need is for the cross to become bigger. The reason you can’t forgive is the cross is so small in your life. It seems trivial. You act like their wrong against you has ruined your world. Really? You have been reconciled to God and been given an eternity of glorious promises. And when you refuse to forgive your spouse or his or her sins, you are in effect saying that their sin against you is worse than my sin against God.2 Really?
COMMAND 3: 29 ”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.”
2 kinds of speech. That which builds up, and that which pulls down. Best way to present this? Walk you through stages…
Stages in Grace--Saturated, Gospel--Centered Fighting: (in whatever relationship you are in)
1. Examine YOUR heart Even if you’ve been wronged, what does your anger say about your heart? Has malice, wrath, anger and bitterness snuck in? Mind the SMOKE DETECTORS! Rage, malice, wrath, and bitterness always indicate idolatry, which is a bigger problem in your heart than whatever your spouse is doing to you. And this is why you need outside counsel in your life. Veronica and I both have poured out frustration we have with each other to a friend and a friend has said, ”That’s ridiculous. You’re an idiot.” That’s God’s design.
2. Overlook whatever you can. See that phrase, ”as fits the occasion”? Part of grace saturated speaking is knowing when something is important to comment on. You don’t have to comment on every little infraction. Choose your battles. o I always think of this in terms of tennis. You don’t have to respond. Overlook what you can. This would not apply to things that do lasting damage to your relationship with each other or them. Or any kind of abuse. Sometimes, we don’t want to bring up their sin against us because we don’t want to disturb the peace. Guys are especially bad at this. You just want to maintain the peace. A few times in our relationship (I’m being really transparent…) I’ve had to speak up. There are times you need to speak up and confront; and there are times just to let it go, and there’s a real art to knowing the difference. In the words of that immortal theologian, Kenny Rogers, ”The secret to surviving, son, is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep. You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em; know when to walk away; know when to run…” And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.
3. Be practical in how you fight ”As fits the occasion” Proverbs 12:18: ”There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” ”Rash words.” Words not thought out, spoken in anger, or not given at a good time. Veronica and I have found it helpful to boundarize conflict within times, zones, and moods: For example, allowing an argument to begin if we are both physically tired. We have set certain rooms, certain times, off limits. We will invoke what I call the ”24 hour rule.” ”I It can’t mean literally before the sun goes down because that would mean some people in Sweden could nurse their grievances for 3 months in the summer but in the winter they’d only have about 2 hours… The main point of that verse is that we need to need to deal with our wrath and vengeance and get it out of our hearts. Sometimes 24 hrs helps us to separate unrighteous, selfish irritation from righteous, loving, others--centered anger.
4. Be quick to listen and slow to speak ”As fits the occasion” Proverbs 18:13: ”He who gives an answer before he hears, it is a folly and a shame.” This is exactly what some of you do, especially you men. Remember the quote I gave you earlier from Brad Hambrick, our pastoral counselor? ”The vast majority of communication problems are not expression problems, but listening problems.” Let me offer you some remedial help on listening (and need these two, because I am so bad at these things): First of all, Be a servant listener: Seek first to understand, and only secondly to be understood! Think of their thoughts through the lens of Philippians 2: Consider their thoughts and needs ”more important” than your own. Isn’t that the opposite of the way we come into most discussions? OK, next, if you believe that… Don’t interrupt. Interrupting says ‘my thoughts are more important than your thoughts.’ Now, men, you have to keep your word, otherwise you lose credibility. You say, ”What about, ‘Don’t let sun go down on your wrath?’ Doesn’t that mean we have to deal with our anger before we go to bed? Sometimes that is just what they want, and a lot of time, it takes care of 90% of the issue! I didn’t learn this in my marriage; I learned it from a guy at DELTA. (D.E.L.T.A.; I look in there: ”my man”)
Part of this: Don’t give premature advice. Because, one, you will probably misread the situation. Secondly (men especially): she is not a problem to be solved; she’s a person to be heard. A lot of times she’s looking for a companion in her pain, not a solution to her problem. So don’t interrupt her and explain away her pain with Aristotilean logic: A=b, b=c, ergo a=c… ergo it’s really illogical that you feel hurt. When you do that, I can promise you she won’t go, ”Huh. Thank you. I’m so stupid sometimes. I could have sworn I was offended, but now I see, by clear force of your logic, that I am not really hurt after all! I’m so glad you’re my husband.” The majority of communication problems are not expression problems, but listening problems. ”Listening is a skill that is most necessary when it is most difficult.” Much more to say on that, but if you want more, go to one of Brad’s marriage seminars or access a lot of his stuff off of our First Love page: summitrdu.com/FirstLove
5. Seek their sanctification, not your vindication Sometimes you are going to have to say, ”I’m right in this and I could win it, but that doesn’t progress us toward the goal. I’m going to keep my eyes on the bigger prize and just lose this one. My goal is their sanctification, not my vindication. Once you let go the idea that you have to win and be vindicated, you can focus on what helps them and the relationship. That’s how Jesus was
6. Believe in God’s overriding purposes in your marriage This is so important. This got V and I through some tough times. We knew that God had obviously appointed us to be together even though we felt like we married the wrong person sometimes, and that God had a plan for our difficulties and was making something beautiful out of them! What some of you most need is the power of hope in your life. Illus. The power of hope. There is a legendary experiment in which a researcher wa trying to determine how long it would take a rat to drown. If you just threw them in the water, they would drown between 10 minutes. But if he took them out 2-3 times and put them back in, the rats developed a sense of hope, and some of them could swim for more than 60 hours. Changing no factor except the introduction of hope gave the rats the ability to swim more than 100x longer!3 There is one factor that, if we could introduce it into your marriage, would do more to strengthen it than anything else, and that is hope. And that hope comes from knowing that God has a plan for your marriage, even the difficult parts of it. He knew whom you were marrying, he knew the consternation they would cause you, and he’s got a plan to make something beautiful out of you and maybe your marriage in it. Same thing is true for single people. God has a purpose for all things, even the difficult relationship.
7. Speak grace--saturated words If you are speaking words that build up, not tear down, you will, for every one statement about what is wrong, there will be five describing what is right and that paint a vision of the beautiful person God is making them. You’ll never demean with ”you” statements.Calling names: Names make you feel good, quickest way to alienate an enemy… Say, ”You did this,” not ”You are this” You’ll avoid saying ‘never’ and ‘always.’ You’re always this way or that way. Don’t escalate it beyond the problem. ”Never” and ”always” basically tell the person that ”you are this” and ”you stink” rather than ”you have done this” and ”I expect more from you.” Avoid being sarcastic (Sarcasm usually functions like a knife. And it’s the quickest way to turn somebody off: Remember: smarty had a party and no one came) Avoid being condescending (to condescend means to talk down to) (Women, avoid confronting your husband publicly: There’s nothing that shuts a man down like having his wife tear him down to someone else.)
8. Don’t give up until there is no longer a chance of reconciliation4 Not a sermon on divorce, but God hates it. So do some of you. In most cases, he sees it as adultery. There are exceptions: adultery; 1 Cor 7 Paul says if you have an unbelieving spouse who leaves you… if you wonder if you fit into that category, see us My whole point is that you should give grace a chance. Irreconcilable differences? The cross was about our irreconcilable differences. Before you give up on your marriage, give the power of grace a chance.
9. Truly forgive Remember: Forgiveness is a choice not to remember or bring up the offense any longer! Ken Sande: True forgiveness says5: I will not think about this incident. I will not bring it up again or use it against you. I will not talk to others about it. I will not allow it to stand between us or hinder our relationship
You have to think of past flaws like they are ammunition already spent. Never get ”historical” in an argument. ”My wife gets mad and goes historical.”
Forgiveness should never be conditional upon their repentance. ”Well, I’d forgive them if they’d ask for it.” Don’t confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Reconciliation takes two people: the person who sinned has to repent and you have to forgive. But forgiveness only takes one person. You can forgive withou reconciling. Don’t wait on the person to repent before you forgive. The only alternative to forgiveness is bitterness, which is like trying to punish the other person by drinking poison yourself.6
10. Do all things out of reverence for Christ The only way to do all of this is for the cross to grow LARGE in your life. That’s why some of you lack the ability to do this. Th cross is so small. If you do things as an act of service for your spouse, you will lose motivation. You have to do it for Jesus. Your spouse may not be worth it. Jesus always is. Maybe you say, ”Oh, Pastor J.D., I really wish my spouse were here to hear this but it’s just me…” What can I do? They won’t respond to any of this! Do it for Jesus. Maybe this is how you will demonstrate the glory of Christ to your neighbors: by serving Christ even when there is no pay--off in your marriage, simply because he’s worthy of it!
Can’t say this enough: Keep your eyes on the cross. You’ve got to believe in the gospel secret. God changed me by grace. And my wife’s forgiveness of me has only pointed me more to the forgiveness of Jesus, which has made me more gracious. Experiencing grace makes you gracious.
The cross will do more for your marriage than any amount of sermons, seminars, or Bible studies. I’ll close with the words of Gary Thomas: ”Couples don’t fall out of love so much as they fall out of repentance.”
More help with this? Go to www.summitrdu.com/firstlove