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Sorting Out Your Mess


*Selected Scriptures
February 25, 2018
Sean Higgins

Marriage: A Mess Worth Making – Part 2
Session Four


Or, Resolving Conflict for the Sake of a Blessed Marriage


In a great book called Fighting for Your Marriage, the authors write, “The two of you didn’t marry each other with the goal of having a great conflict management partner” (226). Ha! That is presumably true, though possibly something that some of you should have considered a little more than you did before you said “I do.” For whatever Disney has done to pamper our romantic imaginations, marriage in this post-Genesis 3 world is full of conflict.

My session is about conflict resolution and I am perhaps the world’s leading expert about half of that. I am at least the leading expert out of all those who are teaching this session. I know conflict. I create conflict. I am conflict waiting for you as soon as you open the door. My middle name is conflict. There have been occasions when church ladies have talked with Mo and expressed their thoughts about how wonderful it must be for her to be married to me. They assume that we must have just the most delightful time together, sharing the deepest biblical conversations, enjoying wonderful if not idyllic matrimony. To someone just far enough away I often appear so easy going, so sympathetic, so ready to lead. They are so wrong. Mo has always done a supernatural job of respecting me and not letting on how much she’s had to put up with.

As I was saying, I know all about conflict, and, by God’s grace, I am excited about the vision of conflict resolution that He has allowed me to see. Sometimes I see relational and familial and spousal peace and harmony as through a telescope, very alluring and yet not within reach. Other times, also by God’s grace, He has humbled me and broken me and caused me to want something better than I could have imagined. Mo is a great gift to me, both when she challenges me and when she forgives me. I am thankful to the Lord for His gift to me of her.

So in our almost twenty years of marriage, and twenty-one years of knowing each other, we have made (and still do make) quite a number of messes, and yet we are making less big messes and cleaning up the messes we do make better and more quickly than ever.

Sorting out marital messes is something that a lot of husbands and wives stink at. This is something that a lot of Christian married couples sin at. I’m not driven by statistics, but divorce is as prevalent and, what’s worse, more acceptable, as it’s ever been in history. The unwillingness of spouses to sort out their conflict has made some of the most miserable people and contributed to our immoral society. The failure to resolve conflict in a godly way has no doubt been the strongest ingredient in the collapse of the family. Our kids see us and they think, Why would I want that?

Dating is not just driven by out of control hormones but by needing to test drive different relationships to see how much garbage this person really gives. Adultolescence is not just a result of parents who are unwilling to train their kids in fruitful responsibility-taking, it is a result of young people watching us (appear to) hate our responsibilities so obviously that they “wisely” avoid responsibilities. The logic is sound even though the premise is faulty. Spouses who don’t know how to get along become parents who don’t know how to get along who raise raise children who don’t know how to get along.

Our marriages are a mess. Our families are a mess. Our churches are a mess. Our society is a mess. All for want of husbands taking responsibility to resolve conflict for Christ’s sake.

This is not solvable by bullet points or pithy quotes or marriage “hacks” or tips. Sheesh do I despise the idea of tips. A tip is a “word to the wise,” not something that makes you wise. A tip is a recommendation for those who are already trying and working, not to make it so you don’t have to work. If we have to talk about tips, let’s talk about tips of icebergs, as in, realizing that we are dealing with a massive amount of heart issues under the surface.

That said, some of us are relationally retarded. We all sin, but some of us sin in aggravating ways and then act okay with the distance and isolation we’ve fostered. I know of precious few couples who can say that they had great examples to watch in their own houses growing up. Add to that, we have established patterns in our speech and behavior, and tolerated sin in such a way that we need help. The tandem bicycle of our relationship is only upright because the wheels are buried in the mud, and we’re yelling at each other about why we’re not going anywhere. We might need some big shovels to dig out.

So even though we know a lot, including a lot about what God’s Word says about how we’re supposed to treat one another, and even though we should just obey, some teaching can provide 1) shared language so that both persons know what is being discussed. That is, for example, the best benefit of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University as far as I’m concerned; it gives spouses common vocabulary. Teaching can also provide 2) an imaginative diagnosis with imaginative treatment. By imaginative I don’t mean fictional, I mean out of the rut, outside the cycle you may be stuck in. And teaching can provide 3) renewed hope that conflict can be resolved, that the mess can be sorted out, that because of Christ’s work and the Spirit’s work a married couple can image the joyful fellowship of the Triune God.

Desire and Decision

I will come back to this later the talk, but as I’ve brainstormed for this session for a couple months, I believe that the greatest source of conflict is what we want, and the only way we’re going to clean up conflict is to want something better. For real, what do you want in your marriage? What do you want it to look like? What do you want your kids to see? You always do what you most want to do. What does that say about your marriage?

As Rosie O’Donnell’s character told Meg Ryan’s character in “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” Or, wives, you want to be treated like a princess in a Disney musical. Or, husbands, you want to be pampered but left alone when you want to be. Or you want to be seduced by a two-dimensional woman on a screen who only takes your time (and maybe money) but doesn’t ask for anything else.

These are extremes, but do you want to be served or do you want to serve? Do you want to be connected or did you just want to get married because it was the only place your parents told you that you could have sex, and now you realize even that was more work than you bargained for?

What we ought to want is intimacy, joy, peace, love. What we ought to want more than anything else is God’s blessing.

Conflict Tips

Conflict is, according to Merriam-Webster, “competitive or opposing action of incompatibles: antagonistic state or action (as of ideas, interests, or persons.” Conflict is, according the apostles James, passion at war within, selfish desires that get taken out on those around us (James 4:1-2).

Conflict Above the Surface

Marriage books, and divorce courts, report the data for the kinds of things that couples say cause conflict. The lists always include things such as: money, children/parenting, sex, in-laws, free time, housework/chores/responsibilities, and careers.

Those are merely representative, even if they are some of the biggies. We know the list could also include disagreements over where the dish towels should be hung, how socks should be folded, and which direction the toilet paper should come off the roll (from over the top, of course). Conflict can come from not understanding, and maximizing, internal and external processing.

In the church, symptoms could also include unclear or immature leadership, as well as weak or inconsistent submission. Christians wives have special, spiritual-sounding complaints against their husbands because of the Bible. Christian husbands have special, spiritual-sounding complaints against their wives because of the Bible. We have verses for why we’re fighting, albeit ignoring the other verses that say not to fight.

But receiving a $10,000 dollar check cannot make you sin, nor can a $10,000 unexpected bill. Your in-laws gave you your spouse, isn’t there always a basis for gratitude? Jesus said there is nothing outside a man that can defile him, but sin comes from within (Mark 7:14-23). All of these are surface issues like stain on a board, they highlight the grain that’s already there.

Conflict Below the Surface

What lurks under the surface that causes conflict?

Guilty conscience. If you have some other sin, whether it is a secret sin you’re desperate to hide or an obvious sin that you refuse to confess as sin, you might cover your sin by attacking. It’s misdirection. Do whatever to make the other person the bad guy. If you’re watching porn, if you’re hiding financial problems, if you’re sneaking around, you are already not unified. Sins are systemic; they can’t be compartmentalized and they will do damage whether they are plain to see or not.

Out of control emotions. If you lack peace, if you feel insecure, you may try to sabotage and/or tear down the strong one. If you can’t feel okay, no one should feel okay. Or, if you don’t feel okay, why doesn’t your spouse empathize and join you in your pain? Maybe your spouse is a clown, but even clowns have the sense to run away from a raging bull.

Un-communicated and/or unfulfilled expectations. It doesn’t really matter where your expectations came from, it could be how you grew up, what you’ve watched, or a previous relationship. You may not even be aware of your own expectations, or you haven’t communicated your expectations, or your expectations aren’t reasonable. But these expectations are running like a background program in your brain whether or not the app is on the screen. You have expectations about sexual frequency and taboos, about romance, about children and how many and discipline and education and sports and rides and future, about work and who works and how much work, about degree of emotional dependency, about household cleaning and cooking and shopping and laundry, about time together and time with other people, about how to deal with problems, about what forgiveness looks like and how quickly it is granted, about the toilet seat position, about who writes thank you notes, et cetera and ad nauseam. When was the last time you talked with your spouse about these proactively, before the pressure was on?

Doctrine idolatry/Pharisaism. If the only spoke in your worldview wheel is Catechesis, then you will, without doubt, need to be Right, and fight to be right, more than anything else. If God is the big Theology/Bible Test Proctor in the Sky, then Answers must be Correct, and there is only one correct answer. If, on the other hand, things such as Lifestyle and Narrative are important, then you will need to do more than be right.

Bitterly unloved, or angrily disrespected perceptions. These could be connected with expectations, but women want to be cherished and guys want to be respected. If you think your spouse isn’t seeing you, and as Christians, if you think your spouse isn’t obeying Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, then that will filter how you hear almost everything they say. You will interpret their comments and conduct negatively. You do not believe the best, which means you are not loving them (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Engaged in no other conflict. This is directed at the men, especially, since they are made to fight. If we will not fight the world and unbelief, we will find enemies at home. “I must conquer.” This could also be laziness. It could be cowardice; she’s the only enemy you think you have a chance to beat.

These are tips of the iceberg of conflict, and they are humbling things to acknowledge. But if you don’t want to acknowledge your problems and be humbled, no wonder there is conflict.

Resolution Tips

There will be opportunities for conflict, and there is likely to be sin in your heart looking for an opportunity to leak out, or explode. What can you do? What must you do?

You can try a variety of things. As a relationally debilitated man, I really was provoked, in a good way, by reading Fighting for Your Marriage. Your mileage may vary. Also, if you’re having issues that you can’t seem to get past, then what you have been doing isn’t working. Why not try something else?

You could agree to give one person “the floor” at a time. It could actually be a piece of carpet or hardwood or linoleum; the authors of Fighting for Your Marriage even reference a “floor” magnet kept on the kitchen fridge. The person who has the floor gets to speak, share his/her concerns or hurts, and the one without the floor can only speak to ask clarifying questions and/or repeat back what the other person said until they agree on what was said. Then the floor goes to the other person and the process is repeated. Maybe the first time you do it for 10 minutes total. Try it. Choose a topic that is on the surface but that is bugging you both. Don’t start with the deepest, longest standing disagreements.

You can schedule a time and place to talk. Make a date, but probably not while you’re on a date. Don’t do it late at night when both of you are exhausted. Don’t do it with the TV on. Don’t do it at the dinner table with 10 minutes to eat before you need to rush out the door for the next event. If you get good at resolution, sure, knock things off whenever you want. But if your car needs a transmission replacement, that’s going to require a day or more in the shop. Go on a walk together. Bring home pizza or take-out so that she doesn’t have to cook that night. Don’t do it when you’re both naked in bed before sex. Don’t demand sex because you just read 1 Corinthians 7 even though you’re livid at your spouse.

You can read a book together, or listen to a sermon together, and stop and talk about things. You probably don’t want to read a (big) book about dealing with conflict, either because who wants to read when you’re mad, or because you’re not mad so why read about it? But there are some serious helps available.

You can get outside help, and you should get outside help if there is no progress, or escalation and threats, or debilitating withdrawal, or more. You can schedule regular check-ups. You can look for positive things to praise your spouse for. You can serve them in little ways. That’s preventative, perhaps, but depending on the rut you’re in, it may be like filling in some of the dirt for the next time the wheel crosses over the same spot of conflict in the road.

Those kinds of things are the tip of the iceberg for what you can do.

There are some other things that you must do, the Bible tells you to. I’m going to tell you two tips, and try to show a little of the iceberg under the surface as well.

Stop being angry.

Conflict between two people happens because one or both are angry. Anger has different faces and volume levels. Anger has mothers such as bitterness and impatience and selfishness, and anger’s father is always pride. But you must decide that anger is not allowed in you no matter what your spouse does.

Conflict resolution tip: Tolerate anger as much as God does. Which is to say, don’t. The Father killed His Son to pay for your anger. He doesn’t have tolerance for selfish anger. “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate” (Babin, Extreme Ownership, 54). Just don’t do it.

You are going to have problems to deal with. You are going to have difficult decisions to make. Some of your preferences will be ignored. You will have annoyances to absorb. Why not laugh? Why not hug? Instead of fighting one another, why not fight together?

You must decide that anger is not acceptable. Paul says to kill sin, “put to death what is earthly in you,” and keep putting sin off.

But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)

If you start to put on the dirty shirt, put it down. Keep putting it down. It doesn’t matter if it was your favorite shirt; it’s soiled with sinful crap. If you get mad, confess it, turn away from it, don’t justify it.

Then put on kindness and gentleness. Put on Christ. Bear with and forgive one another. Put on love which binds everything in harmony.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12–15)

This is for Christians in the church body, yes. Are you a Christian? Then this is not optional. And remember what paragraph follows this paragraph in Colossians 3, the one about household responsibilities, starting with wives and husbands (Colossians 3:18-19).

Be self-controlled. Fools vent their emotions, including anger. Fools vent every little irritation.

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding,
but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.
(Proverbs 14:29)

Stop acting like a fool. Stop fighting. Stop being angry. Stop acting like you have to.

Whoever is slow to anger is better
than the mighty,
and he who rules his spirit
than he who takes a city.
(Proverbs 16:32)

Listen to “Themes in Proverbs #15 – Self Control” (audio/video and sermon notes) by Douglas Wilson, for real.

Self-control carries over everywhere. If you don’t have self-control with what you put into your mouth (eating), why do you think you’ll have self-control with what you let come out of your mouth? If you won’t take steps to exercise, why would you take steps to intimacy?

Some of us default to anger, and we’ve established patterns. We’ve taught the other person how to be nervous around us. We’ve taught them to expect a fight and to come with defensive counter-measures activated. We’ve taught them to try to guess when and how hot we’ll be. We’ve shown our spouse how to handle it when something we don’t like happens.

If you get mad at your wife because she’s mad at you, she should get to say, “Well if it’s so easy not to get mad, show me how it’s done.” You’re standing in the rain yelling at her for holding her umbrella wrong while you’re under a broken gutter.

Walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). The works of the flesh include enmity, strife, and fits of anger. Hate anger, and hate what anger leaves in its wake. Kill anger in every possible place it could grow: driving/traffic, trials, parenting. Trying to resolve conflict when you’re angry is like trying to sculpt an ice cube with a bulldozer.

Here’s another helpful image to consider: should I ever be angry at my spouse? NO.

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m not angry.” Okay, so on the scale there is apathy, avoidance, annoyance, anger, and aggression/abuse. None of them are godly.

It does not matter what you say, how you treat the other person demonstrates what you really want.

Desire God’s blessing on your marriage.

As I said at the beginning, we want more than just fighting less, or resolving conflict more quickly. Those are good, and good steps, and they are still not the ultimate goal. We’re not making anyone jealous because we can pass a piece of carpet back and forth when talking about a hot button issue.

The chief end of marriage is to glorify God by reflecting Him in enjoying the glad intimacy of your relationship.

Want blessing.

This desire reminds us that what we want is outside of our final control; we are dependent on God. But this is a desire that He desires and a dependency He requires. It also reminds us that wanting God’s blessing means that only Christ covers sin for blessing, we can’t ignore sin and get His blessing.

You always do what you most want to do. If your wants are weak, pray that God would give you desires that match His desires. He created marriage to illustrate the blessed union between the Church and His Son. God’s been working to make marriages great for 6,000 years.

When you think about this desire, remember that He blesses obedience. He blesses those who confess their sins, who are poor in spirit, who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He blesses those who lay down their pride, who are humble and sacrificial. He blesses those who don’t try to bypass His law for blessing. In other words, you can’t sin, in any way, especially in anger, and expect that He is going to make your marriage joyful.

God blesses short accounts. If you are not confessing your sin against your spouse to your spouse, that is, saying the same thing about your behavior as God does, naming how you disobeyed His Word and owning that you meant to disobey, and asking your spouse to forgive you based on Christ’s completed work on the cross, then you will not ever resolve your conflict. You may forget about an incident, and time will move on, like layers of sediment hardening and blocking up the flow of fellowship.

Want blessing. Desire it. Meditate on it. Pray for it, personally and together. Pursue it. Worship God every week.

When you see signs of blessing, give thanks.

He can, by grace, fix your hearts and your relationship. He can sort out years of mess and sinful patterns and hurtful consequences. It will not be easy. It will not be changed overnight. This is not about immediate comfort. This is about maturity, it is about love that dies for the other. It will be blessed.

Conclusion

It’s not complicated. “Authority flows to those who take responsibility” (Douglas Wilson, For a Glory and a Covering, 43)). “There is no one else to blame,” “The leader must own everything in his or her world” (Jocko Willink, Extreme Ownership). You must take “maximum responsibility for [your own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context” (Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 183). The whole point of my talk at last year’s seminar is that there are no conditions limiting your obedience to God’s commands. There are no exceptions. No “if only”s.

Your spouse is not your enemy. Husbands, she is not your adversary. There’s not a good time to yell at her, “You daughter of Eve!” You are not just a team, you are one.

God thinks marriage is glorious. It is not better to be alone and believe you’re right.

Deal with your conflict in a way that makes Jews, and the world, jealous. This is part of a blessed life. Then your marriage will be and bring a blessing, to your kids, to your neighbors.


Bonus “tips.” Ha. I didn’t use these during my talk, but who doesn’t need another list?

  1. Confess your sin, immediately and thoroughly.
  2. Be self-controlled, heart first. This is a life skill, a Spirit-produced part of fruit, and required for all Christians.
  3. Practice disciplined communication. Stop the bad cycle. Don’t argue over the definition of “nice.” Don’t threaten. Don’t reuse material. Don’t exaggerate or be inflammatory. “You should not have to be careful because you are handling a high explosive that might go off at any time. Rather, you should be careful because you are a jeweler of words—you are setting fourteen-carat words in their appropriate place, and when you are done, it will be worth ten thousand dollars” (Wilson, Glory, 122)
  4. Give thanks in all things for this is God’s will (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
  5. Believe all things, believe the best, in love (1 Corinthians 13). In other words, don’t allow yourself “maladaptive attributions” (FfYM, 202)
  6. Serve with costly (to you) generosity, remembering that love bestows loveliness and respect bestows respectability.
  7. Fulfill your wedding vows: “to be your loving and faithful [spouse], in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow,” in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”
  8. Acknowledge and handle your expectations, as well as your spouses expectations. Be aware, reasonable, clear, and motivated to meet your spouse’s. (FfYM, 326, 333)
  9. Forgive and receive forgiveness, just as Christ has forgiven you (Colossians 3:13).
  10. Love God first and love your lover even better than you should your neighbor.