By Brandi Harris
John and Macy had been married for 23 years. They both had come from Christian families; John’s dad had been a pastor. They had 3 mostly-grown kids together. They liked each other at first, but around year five when they started to have kids, life got more complicated. John had a high stress job, and sometimes he had no job. Macy liked caring for the needs of the kids, but she hated that the burden of housework was on her all the time. They talked about not getting enough from each other. Not enough dates. Not enough money. Not enough time. Not enough sex. Then they yelled about it for a few years. Then they got silent and bitter.
Reconciliation means the “coming back together” of two things that have been separated. In fact, God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5:18-19 states, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
The ministry of reconciliation is less about the coming back together of two humans and more about the coming back together of humans with their Creator. However, learning how to come back together as humans happens both as a RESULT of our reconciliation with God and also sometimes as the CAUSE of our reconciliation with God.
As much as we’d like to be in love forever with someone, where they know our thoughts and anticipate our needs, fluctuating closeness is the norm for all relationships. We’re not living in the same skin, so even if “the two have become one flesh,” physical distance, practically playing different roles and perceiving things uniquely as individuals naturally separate us.
Therefore every day, there is need for reconciliation, even on the days we’re getting along. But on the days we’re not getting along, we need to reconcile even more. Good conflict (see earlier blog) is often the beginning of reconciliation, but without resolve, there remains a painful gap. As a marriage therapist, I often see couples who have been in unresolved conflict and emotionally distant from one another for many years.
They may at first have tried gently speaking truth by saying, “No, actually, I don’t really like that,” when their spouse is wandering off the path, or “Ouch! That sorta hurt my feelings.” Honest speaking is kind because we care about the safety and well-being of others. Honest speaking fights for love in the space between us, rather than allowing hurt and lies to build up in that space. It’s one dumb sheep cooperating life with another.
But what do you do when the other sheep says, “So what?” and keeps wandering? What’s your next step? Some ramp up the emotion with screaming and hollering. Some pout, which is also an expression of emotion. While I rarely recommend screaming or pouting, sharing more of your vulnerable emotion isn’t a bad idea. When you’re able to let people honestly see how you’re affected by their behavior, those who are interested in health and life often respond with compassion.
But accurate sharing of pain is gentle and vulnerable and raw, rather than hateful, offensive, or judgmental. Accurate sharing sounds like this: “When __(unarguable facts, rather than accusations)_____ happens, I am affected in the following way _____(sharing your personal experience, not assumptions about them)____. And what I really want is _____(a specific request)_____.”
If the sheep STILL doesn’t respond, we’re in a new kind of situation. Proverbs speaks about this kind of sheep as a fool. Fools are defined, not as a person who makes mistakes, but as a person who doesn’t respond to healthy feedback; a person who PERSISTS in sin, when given the opportunity to try again.
Proverbs 15:31-33 states,
“Whoever heeds life-giving correction
will be at home among the wise.
Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,
but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.
Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord,
and humility comes before honor.”
This kind of behavior is especially troubling if you’re married to the foolish sheep. I’ve seen spouses spend years and years repeating the above efforts unsuccessfully. Husbands who clam up and stop talking about the pain they’re in. Wives who yell, but stand by as if they are powerless, wishing things were different. Hearts that died slowly over decades of foolishness.
I’ve heard people tell me there’s just nothing they can do because they’re married and therefore chained to the foolish sheep. They keep the conflict completely private because they think to share the foolishness outside of their home would be dishonoring to their spouse. They absorb the pain thinking they can bear it without breaking. Their commitments to their legal unions are impressive albeit short-sighted.
Staying in a legal marriage is not the same thing as loving your spouse well. Loving your spouse well actually takes more courage and greater sacrifice. To go beyond this destructive cycle of pain a spouse has to be willing to do something even harder: humbly turn back to their heavenly Father to get their needs met.
Matthew 7:11 states, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
This means getting care for your broken heart somewhere besides your marriage. And not just anywhere because God knows we’re tempted to fill those gaps with unhealthy things. Rather, our care needs to come from God himself, and our brothers and sisters in Christ, as the word of God says:
Matt 18:15-17 states, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
What this means is that your marriage has become a mission. It’s no longer the place to be fed and to find your comfort and deepest connections. It’s the place you show up to do the ministry of reconciliation. You no longer idly watch or pay for the self-destruction. You no longer participate in any unhealthy engagements. You walk away momentarily when things become destructive for you OR your spouse. (Sometimes having an audience encourages bad behavior). You seek wise counsel from church leaders and paid professionals for the support you’ll need to manage yourself in the hostile situation. You don’t quit, but you change strategies for reconciliation.
It can help to set clear, reasonable expectations and limits on what you will be a part of… What exactly is it you need to see in order to remain a part of the equation (momentarily OR long term)? How long do they need to consistently behave differently for you to be able to wisely trust them? If they don’t make a move, when will you make a move?
Communicating all those things sets up not only a clear role for you to play, but also gives them clear expectations regarding which they can make their own plan for healing. Gracefully remember that they really might not know what health or healing looks like. Often fear and lack of experience leaves people in confusion about moving forward. They need some kind of road map and accountability along the way in order to continue making progress.
This could sound something like this, “If you’re not interested in changing this behavior that is hurtful to me and destructive to our marriage, I plan to ________ in order to take care of my heart. If you’d like our engagements to be different, I’d like to see ___(reminder about the specific request you made earlier)____.”
Prov. 4:23 states, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
Is this an ultimatum? Yes. People don’t like ultimatums, so I call them boundaries. The goal, however, is not to manipulate others, but to do everything within your power to fight for love in your own heart. If everything we do flows out of your heart, then a dead heart is doing no good for anyone.
2 Corinthians 9:7 states, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Is your heart cheerfully giving to your spouse? If it’s not, it’s time to do the hard work of turning back to your heavenly Father for some much needed respite and refreshing, so that you can fight for love.
Check out our most recent series: The “S” Word
The “S” Word- Week 2- Charlie Loften
Scripture Reference: Ephesians 5:21
Submission in relationships: giving up what you want for what someone else needs
What I want: to have fun
What they need: someone who is always there
Scripture Reference: Proverbs 17:17
What I want: people to like me
What they need: someone to help them
Scripture Reference: Proverbs 27:6
Questions to Ponder
When are some times when friends have gone above and beyond for you?
When have you done the same?
When do you find it hard to be a true friend?