My wife and I fought a lot early in our marriage. We had a shouting match almost every day about something.
Typically I caught myself and turned my emotions off. I’d wait for my wife to say something that was slightly irrational in my opinion, and then pounce like a lion. She would usually just walk away in anger.
I would quickly try to reconcile, admitting to the one or two things I had done wrong. “I probably raised my voice a little.” Then I would proceed to list the seven or eight things she had done wrong. “I repent of my two sins. Now you repent of yours. Then we can forgive each other and move on.”
She would respond, “My emotions aren’t a light switch! I can’t just instantly forgive!”
I would answer, “I’m trying not to let the sun go down on anger. But you are still sinning.”
And so we rode the downward spiral.
Married to a Pharisee
After a year of fighting, we were both sick of our marriage. Both of us said, “I don’t believe in divorce, but if I did . . . ”
One night she said, “Before we were married, I was confident. I liked myself and thought most people liked me. After a year of marriage to you, I feel like I have lost all self-esteem.”
For the first time, I saw a glimpse of just how pharisaical I had been. I had not washed my bride with the water of God’s Word. Rather, I had viciously attacked her in her weakness, using his Word like a swift sword of justice. I also had downplayed my sin and excused my weaknesses.
Something finally clicked that night.
My New Vow
When Jesus teaches us how to love each other, he tells us to focus first on our own sin before moving too quick to help others with theirs. He says, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). Even if we think our spouse is 99 percent wrong and we are only 1 percent wrong, we first should turn our energy and effort on our sin—the sin closest to us, the sin for which we are responsible.
Even if we think our spouse is 99 percent wrong and we are only 1 percent wrong, we first should turn our energy and effort on our sin.
If my wife and I both had a speck of dust in our eyes, the speck in my eye would look larger because it is closer to me. Ignoring our own sin to focus on someone else’s is like having a 2×4 stuck under your eyelid. We compare our sin to others, thinking they are wicked, while we aren’t so bad.
I realized how ridiculous I was to poke at the speck in my wife’s eye with a plank sticking out of my face. I said to her, “All I’ve done is criticize you. So, for the next year, I promise not to bring up any of your sins or faults. If you ask me a question, I will answer it honestly. But I will only initiate talking about my sin. For now, any sin I see in you, I will just pray about.”
How God Humbles Husbands
I’ve made many promises in my life, and broken too many of them. But God helped me keep this one. My wife and I would get into an argument. As soon as I caught myself, I shut my mouth and listened. I didn’t attack her. I focused on receiving and embracing her correction.
It was hard. Often I was boiling inside. But when the conversation ended, I prayed. I would start out complaining, telling God how he needed to change her. But eventually I would confess my own sin to him. Over time, I started to soften, break, and be humbled by how much God was constantly forgiving me. The radical mercy of Christ, flowing from the cross to me, began to change me as a husband.
It became easier to listen to my wife, easier to be compassionate, easier to admit my faults. After weeks of this pattern, she rebuked me one day. I quickly admitted she was right. She stopped mid-sentence and said, “You know, this isn’t all your fault. I’ve sinned, too.”
Race to Repent
It took more than a year, with counseling, to work through our baggage. But the tenor of our marriage changed over those months. For the first year or so, we had been in a race to defend ourselves and attack each other. We wanted to score the most points by landing the best rebuke. We wanted to win the argument.
Now, for the last fifteen years or so, we typically race to see who can repent first. Rather than rushing to the other person’s specks, we try to focus on our planks first. In the process, we have become humbler, because we are more conscious of our own brokenness and need for grace. We have become more gracious, because we are so much more aware of how much Christ is constantly forgiving us. We have become gentler, because we realize how tender it can be to get sin out of our own eye.
God saved my marriage not by fixing my wife’s problems, but by helping me see my own and showing me mercy where I am wrong. After years of apologizing, extending grace, and learning, we now are far more likely to repent and forgive than to fight and scratch.
Olan Stubbs is director of Campus Outreach Birmingham, Alabama, at Briarwood Presbyterian Church. He is a husband and father of four. He writes more at his ministry blog, which can be found at https://cobirmingham.org.