Many of you have been married for quite a number of years now. This can be wonderful, like aging wine, but before anyone says awwww, it can also grow seriously un-wonderful, as bad spiritual habits compound with interest. Marriages can get badly cluttered, like a neglected garage, attic, or basement. And when things get cluttered, they also get people into a position where they really don’t know what to do. Where should they even start?
“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).
Summary of the Text:
We are going to begin with this text because it lays down some important principles for the process of decluttering any relationship, but particularly your relationship with your spouse.
Say that someone else is overtaken in a fault, whatever it is. You see a problem over there. Who should correct it? Paul first states what the qualifications are for the one undertaking the job of correcting another. He says that the task is limited to those “which are spiritual.” If you are annoyed, bothered, frustrated, exasperated, you are the one person on the planet who may not correct the problem. And the problem is that when you are qualified, you are not motivated. And when you are motivated, you are not qualified.
But say that someone is overtaken in a trespass, and suppose further that you are qualified to say something. Paul has additional cautions. The first is that you are there to administer a restoration, not a beat down. The second is that you must conduct yourself in a spirit of meekness, gentleness, and humility. The third is that you must keep one eye on yourself, remembering that you too are susceptible to temptation.
So the presenting problem is that somebody else sinned, and you might be a person who could help. If you already succumbed to temptation, you need to stay out of it. If you cannot come with restoration in your heart, stay out of it. If you are not functioning in spirit of meekness, then stay out of it. And if you are not mindful of your own frailty in these things, then stay out of it.
As we assume the context of marriage, I want to begin by helping you to “consider yourself.” This is coming from four decades of marriage counseling—and I want to assure you that I have pretty much seen it all. What creates intractable marriage problems? The answer to that question is not sins, but rather one sin—the sin of pride—the opposite of the spirit of meekness. Particular sins would be things like alcohol, porn, financial irresponsibility, and so on. One of you does something wrong or foolish, you recognize it as a sin, and then work with your spouse on reconciliation and forgiveness. Things can be messy but are pretty straightforward.
But what gets your marriage stuck right up to the axles? What creates marriages that are just impossible? This feat is accomplished by means of pride. “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” (Eccl. 7:16). In other words, you destroy your marriage with what you think are your virtues. You don’t repent of virtues, do you?
Many Christians are marital Pharisees, flatly convinced of their own righteousness—and of the ungrateful unrighteousness of everybody else under the same roof, not to mention the obtuseness of the counselor who fails to recognize the evil they must contend with daily. This is a common problem in the church, and it is why Jesus used to think it was important to say crazy stuff. “Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31).
You call it righteous indignation, but God calls it the wrath of man. You call maternal concern, but God calls it manipulative worry. You call it prudent input, but God calls it a critical spirit. You call it decisive leadership, but God calls it financial irresponsibility. You call it theological precision, but God calls it neglecting the weightier matters of the law. But whoever repents of righteous indignation, maternal concern, prudent input, decisive leadership, or theological precision? Nobody repents of those things, which is why many pastors wish there were a counseling equivalent of SWAT teams.
How to Approach a Pile of Clutter:
Now if you are at an impasse in your relationship, then you need to recognize that your pile of clutter is almost certainly the result of two piles of clutter that merged. And if you come to the realization that you have a significant amount of unconfessed sin in your life, then—returning to our text—do not start with the other person’s pile of clutter. If they need to be motivated, if they need to see how easy it is to do, then here’s an idea. Show them how. You’ve got your own pile. Confess your own sins. Astonish the world.
“He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: But whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13).
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
A Third Party
We need to realize that moralism doesn’t work in marriage any better than it works anywhere else. Moralism is a bust. High standards and traditional values are the ropes that sinners use to throttle one another. A spiritual home is a home full and overflowing with grace. And it is not possible for a marriage to be overflowing with grace unless it is overflowing with Christ.
And so Christ must be present in order for a marriage to be blessed. He need not be present for entropy to govern everything. He need not be present for your attic to fill up with useless clutter. He need not be present for pride to take over the atmosphere at the dinner table. He need not be present for conversations to grow snark and criticism the way gardens grow thistles. But He must be present for us to see all these things rightly. In order for grace to be there, He must be there.