Dear Grady and Janae,
Thanks for driving over last weekend. It was very good to see you after so many years, and we certainly enjoyed all the catching up. We are grateful that all your kids are settled and doing well, and that the grandkid “gig,” as you put it, is as rewarding as it promised to be. And even though it was tough, we are also grateful that you all opened up about how you all are doing in your marriage, even though we didn’t really have sufficient time to address it. As Nancy and I were thinking and praying about it afterward, we thought that I should write this letter to both of you, hazarding a few suggestions. If you find it helpful, then thank the Lord, and we would certainly be willing to follow up with any questions you might have.
What we saw were two Christians in what appeared to be a hopeless tangle. The tangle consisted of sin, misunderstanding, resentment and bitterness, and attributing motives. Marriage problems are often bigger than the sum of their parts—the marriage relationship frequently functions as an amplifier of sin, and so it is that you both feel quite overwhelmed and on the point of despair. It is good that your kids don’t know—although I suspect they suspect more than you might guess—but it is also good that somebody else now knows. Thank you for letting us know.
I first want to address the fact of ensnaring or entangling sin. There are sins that come at you straight up the middle, and there are sins that creep up from behind. Now of course, there is an element of self-deception in all sin, but it has to be acknowledged that some sins are particularly sneaky. And from what we heard from both of you—and I think Nancy and I heard each of you say things that I’ll warrant you all did not hear—this is a large part of what you are dealing with.
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).
“The sin which doth so easily beset us” could be rendered as the sin that entangles us, or the sin that ensnares us, or the sin that clings to us. Since the image is one of preparing to run a race, picture a man getting ready for the starting gun—but his coach has to remind him to take the heavy backpack off, and to get himself clear of the cords and ropes that are piled up around his feet.
If one of you were caught by a surprise question from a friend or co-worker, and without thinking you told a lie to evade the question, we know you both well enough to know that your conscience would not let you rest until you corrected the falsehood. Every time you thought about the question, the first thing that would pop into your mind would be the fact of your lie. There might be attempts at rationalization, but it would be pretty plain to you that you were the one who had to put things right.
But here is how sin can entangle. Suppose it were not your lie, but someone else lying, and the lie they were spreading all over town was about you. Whenever you thought of the “situation,” what is it that comes to mind? Right, it is still the lie, but in this instance it is the lie in someone else’s mouth. And what awareness of their sin does (and let us grant that they really did sin) is distract.
In other words, God has not created the world in such a way as to allow someone else’s sin disrupt the fellowship you have with Him. If that fellowship is disrupted, it is because of your sin in response, and not because of the sin they committed against you. In other words, you lose your joy because of your resentment over their lie, and not because of their lie. Someone else’s sin can certainly drive us closer to God. “No man cared for my soul. I cried unto thee, O Lord: I said, Thou art my refuge” (Ps. 142:4b-5). But if we are driven away from fellowship with God, this is never because of another person’s sin—it is always because of our own.
To speak bluntly about this, God has not allowed either of you to become robbers of the other one’s joy. No one on earth has that authority. But it was apparent to us in our conversation, that both of you are miserable. It is not the case that one of you has a difficult spouse, but that you are still trusting the Lord and walking in joy. Both of you are weighed down. Both of you are entangled. Both of you are unhappy—and the frequent prayer “Lord, change him,” or “Lord, change her” isn’t accomplishing anything.
Now we have to be careful here, because this is another place where sin makes sure there is misdirection. If anyone, or if your own conscience, or the words of sermon, start to convict you about whatever it is, you both (being a son and daughter of Adam) start to explain. And when we start to explain our temptations and situation, and sometimes (we at times acknowledge) sinful responses, the natural trajectory of the explanation slides over to the faults of the other.
Now this is not intended to say that the faults of the other are insignificant or imaginary. The only thing you need to know about the sins of the other person in a situation like this is that they are not yours. They are therefore not the reason God seems so distant. One of the glories of the gospel is that we can take our own sins in hand, and because of the death of Jesus on the cross, we can walk into the presence of God to have those sins forgiven. But we are never permitted to do that with the sins of others. Only the blood of Christ cleanses my sins—the sins of others never cleanse my own sins.
This pattern has been with us from the very beginning. When God came down to walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day, and discovered them hiding, He asked some questions. And Adam did exactly what I am describing here. Just as he hid in the bushes, so also he tried to hide his sin behind the sin of his wife. The woman you gave me . . . she gave me the fruit. And Eve blamed the serpent. When Aaron sinned by letting the people of Israel get out of control, and Moses confronted him about it, he ultimately blamed the forge. All I did was throw the gold in there and “out came this calf” (Ex. 32:24).
If others get involved, and they don’t accept this misdirection, then you are in a position to say to yourself that “they don’t really understand.”
Charles Spurgeon once said that faults are thick where love is thin. And love is thin wherever we neglect to “consider ourselves.”
“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
As we get to the point of application, I would plead with you to remember that I am saying this to both of you. This is not a matter of taking sides, or apportioning blame. It is simply clear that the estrangement you are experiencing in your marriage is the secondary estrangement. Both of you are estranged from God—and going back up to what I said earlier, this is never because the other one is estranged from God. You can confess the other person’s sins all night long, and your joy will not return.
You both know that you are married to a sinner. You know this theologically, and you also know it from experience. We may take that as an established fact, but then we need to set it aside. By setting it aside, I mean taking it out of the equation entirely. Yes, you know about it, but you (each of you) need to resolve to confess his or her own sin as though it were the only sin involved. The spirit of accusation is a diabolical spirit, and your marriage will never get past a diabolical spirit. And doing what I am describing is the only way to circumvent the devils who are trying to destroy you.
I am not talking about confessing your sins to one another. That comes second. Agree to set aside a day or so where each one of you will spend time with God, acknowledging all the things you can think of that you have done that have contributed to the mess. Do all this without rationalizing or excusing or explaining. Do not confess the sins of the other person. Do not drag in the sins of the other person. In other words, you should say, “God, I confess that I have been angry, and that Your Word says to put away all anger and wrath” (Eph. 4:31). Period. Stop. You do not say, “God, I confess that I have sometimes gotten angry when she . . .” If the whole operation takes five minutes or less, I can assure you that you are almost certainly kidding yourself. Set aside a couple of days for it, and do not heal the wound lightly (Jer. 6:14).
After a day or two, sit down to talk with each other. Grady, you go first. Acknowledge to Janae the things you have confessed to God, and ask for her forgiveness as well. Then, Janae, you do the same thing. And if my experience in marriage counseling is anything to go by, the resistance and reluctance each of you will feel to doing this will come from different directions. Men are generally reluctant to do this because of their pride, and women are generally reluctant to do this because of their fears. And the men feel they have to guard their pride because they feel so disrespected by their wives, and the wives feel like they must pay attention to their fears because they feel so unloved by their husbands. What I am suggesting here is using the double-edged sword of God’s Word to cut through the Gordian knot of your tangled up pride and fear (Heb. 4:12).
Just one more thing. Confessing sin is what makes growth possible, but is not the same thing as growth. If you knocked one of your house plants over, and the pot cracked, confession of sin is like repotting it. The plant won’t grow and flourish unless you do that. But confession of sin is not the same thing as growth. It simply makes growth possible.
Once you are back in fellowship with God, and with one another, you will still be kind of tender, still kind of beat up. You will want the plant to grow, and not just avoid getting knocked over again. What I would suggest at that point is that you read a book together. For a reminder of what I have said here, try my Decluttering Your Marriage. And given what I have seen here, the book I would suggest is Love & Respect by Emerson Eggerichs. Read it aloud together in the evening, chapter by chapter.
Blessings, and we will pray for you.
The characters and situation behind this letter are entirely fictional. The sins represented in the letter are, unfortunately, not fictional or uncommon at all.