3 KEYS TO A THRIVING MARRIAGE
Written by Doug Ponder on December 7, 2014
An Equation for Every Marriage: 1 sinner + 1 sinner ≠ 0 conflict
If you are human you will have conflicts in your relationships from time to time. This is certainly true in marriage, since marriage is a lifelong commitment made by one selfish, self-centered person to another selfish, self-centered person. Hence, the marital math equation: one sinner plus one sinner does not equal zero conflict.
(Couples who claim they never fight are probably lying, or else they may be either (1) living a one-sided relationship in which one spouse constantly kowtows to the other, or (2) living such passionless lives that their apathy and emotional distance from each other means they don’t even care enough to fight.)
When it comes to dealing with conflict, strengthening a relationship, or saving a marriage, people gravitate to lists of tips and tricks, offering to help with things like “communication skills” and “habits” and so forth. The internet if full of such lists:
“10 Tips That Might Save Your Relationship”
“18 Signs You’re with the Man You Should Marry”
“10 Habits of Happy Couples. #5 Is the Most Valuable”
“17 Small Things You Can Do Today to Have a Stronger Relationship”
These lists masquerading as articles have been called “listicles.” And at least one person aptly said, “The existence of listicles suggests our depravity, but our enjoyment of listicles confirms it.” The person who said that was me, and I stand by it.
On a more serious note, the trouble with the listlicle approach to relationships is this: working on little lists of skills and habits and love languages doesn’t deal with the root of our problem; at best, it only deals with the fruit of our problem. Put another way, relational advice of this kind only affects the surface-level symptoms of a conflict. It doesn’t address what is truly causing the relational breakdown in the first place. Thus, seeking to mend a relationship through listicle-type tips and tricks is like treating bacterial meningitis with Advil and Tylenol PM. Those medicines can reduce your pain for a brief time, but they won’t even touch the infection that’s killing you.
God’s Remedy for Our Relationships
Thankfully, God has prescribed a remedy for what ails every marriage. The problem is sin—every time—and the remedy is repentance. And here are the instructions on the side of that medicine bottle:
TRUE REPENTANCE® 100MG
Take: One (1) capsule as needed.
Take this medicine with a full glass of faith in the forgiveness of sins.
Side effects from failure to take as directed include: pride, bitterness, and broken marriages.
Repentance, which involves turning from sin as we turn back to Jesus in faith-filled obedience, ought to be featured in every marriage book. For faith and repentance are not the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life. We never get past our need to repent of sin as we trust in Jesus. Never.
We repent of sin to become a Christian (Acts 2:38).
We repent of sin to grow as a Christian (Col. 3:1-14).
We repent of sin to reveal Christ to others (Eph. 5:1-20).
All of a Christian’s life is one of repentance.
That’s why the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses (a Reformation listicle!) said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
3 Keys to a Thriving Marriage
Repentance is God’s remedy for the sin that ails every marriage, and true repentance always involves the three “ingredients” of confession, contrition, and change. If you take any of them away, you may have temporary sorrow over sin, a momentary desire to change, a frustration at being caught, etc., but you don’t have true repentance. Repentance always involves confession, contrition, and change. They are three keys to every thriving marriage.
Confession means agreeing with God that you have sinned. He already knows that you’ve sinned, but in confession you acknowledge your sin as rebellion against him. Confession means admitting your sin and taking ownership of it without diminishing, excusing, or blame-shifting. Confession is often expressed with the simple statement, “I was wrong,” which is another way of saying, “It was my fault. That was sinful. I shouldn’t have done it. Please forgive me.”
God calls us to confess our sins to him, of course (1 John 1:9). But he also tells us to confess our sins to each other (James 5:16). Why would he do this? Because confession is a chance to believe the gospel more deeply. It is a chance to stare your sin down and apply the blood of Jesus to your life as the only hope for forgiveness. In this way, confession is a reminder not just that you are a sinner, but that you are a forgiven sinner—and so is your spouse. Every sin you will commit against them and every sin they will commit against you has been covered by the blood of Jesus. No additional sacrifice or atonement on their part is necessary to make things right between you. Jesus paid it all, even for the sins of spouses against each other.
Contrition is an old school word that means you feel the same way toward your sin that God does. So contrition means coming to hate the sin committed and being genuinely sorry for having committed it—not just feeling sorry for the consequences of getting caught. In other words, contrition means saying, “I’m sorry” and actually meaning it.
Where as confession comes from a change God works in the mind by opening our eyes to see our sin, contrition is a feeling of sorrow that God works in the heart. God brings contrition in our hearts when we consider the weight of our sin and the price that Jesus paid to free us from it. Though we are forgiven freely, at no cost to us, we know that our forgiveness came at the ultimate cost to Jesus. Contrition is therefore a Godly sorrow that understands the costliness of Jesus’ grace.
In this way, contrition is much more than feeling sorry that we were caught, or sorry that we hurt our spouse’s feelings. Contrition is the conviction we feel for spitting in the face of the God who died to save us by indulging in the very sins he died to save us from. As John Owen put it, contrition says, “What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Spirit for his grace? . . . Have I obtained a view of God’s fatherly countenance, that I might behold him and provoke him to his face? Was my soul washed, that room might be made for new defilements? Shall I endeavor to disappoint the end [purpose] of the death of Christ? Shall I daily grieve that Spirit whereby I am sealed to the day of redemption?” (John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, 105).
Repentance is more than changed behavior, but it’s not less than that. Changed behavior alone can be accomplished through hard-nosed habit changing, but it leaves you without grace in the heart. Such efforts have an appearance of wisdom, but there are actually of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2:23). That’s not true repentance, since true repentance comes from a change of mind (confession) that leads to a change of heart (contrition) that leads to a changed life. Without the changed mind or heart, all we are is more self-righteous sinners with slightly better habits and communication skills.
So repentance is more than changed behavior, but it’s not less than changed behavior. Someone who confesses sin and even feels a little sorry about, but who makes no effort to put this sin to death in the power of the Spirit, has not actually repented. If there is no change in someone’s life, repentance has not yet taken place.
This means that in repentance, the guilty spouse makes every effort to stop sinning in that way and to start obeying the Lord Jesus. In other words, this aspect of repentance means there ought to be a real, noticeable (even if gradual) effort to put the sin to death in the power of God’s Spirit, all of which leads to change of actions.
Why This Matters
A thousand “I love you’s” would mean nothing if you continue to sin against your spouse without any acknowledgement of guilt (confession), genuine remorse or your actions (contrition), or concerted effort to stop sinning in that way (change).
By contrast, thriving marriages consist of two people who are so full of confidence in the blood of Jesus to cover their sins that they can confess them and walk in the light of unbroken fellowship together; thriving marriages consist of two people who are so full of conviction over the cost of Jesus’ sacrifice for sins that their godly sorrow gives them a growing distaste for the sins that Jesus died for; and lastly, thriving marriages consist of two people who are so full of faith in the goodness of God and his eternal joy that they make every effort to put sin to death with all the power supplied by God’s Holy Spirit.
In other words, thriving marriages consist of two repentant people who love Christ, hate sin, and are committed to helping each other grow in that love and that love for the rest of their lives together.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.