Decluttering Your Marriage I


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?

The Text:

“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.

Considering Yourself:

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.

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ME"A" dadDavid MullinGabe Bradenlloyd Recent comment authors

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Astonish the world?! Heck, I’d trip myself out!

Doug, your columns often bulge with insightful criticisms of current culture, but these positive edifying missives are the ballast, the counterweight revealing where all that insight gets mined from. Sorry for too many mixed metaphors.


“But whoever repents of righteous indignation, maternal concern, prudent input, decisive leadership, or theological precision?”

Ha! Indeed, repenting of those things is practically my morning routine and as a result marriage is actually very good, a great blessing. Before I learned that, it was confusing, cluttered, frustrating. Those are all very deceptive things, because they are often cloaked in virtue, allegedly for someone else’s own good.


Love this. Why does it always feel like you are talking directly to me? How in the world to you know me so well, lol?!

Nathan Smith

“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.”

I just want to add a hearty amen to this. Let there be more Christ in my life and my home.

Gabe Braden
Gabe Braden

Thank you. This was medicine for the sick and cluttered. Bless your work, Douglas.

David Mullin
David Mullin

Good lesson. Pride is marriage enemy number #1. Covetousness close behind. Repentance and forgiveness of Christ and one another changes everything. We must bear fruit in keeping with repentance.


Doug, in the context of this post, what does “good” pride and certainty look like?
I speak of the healthy certainty where it is understood that there is little we can be certain of, or in control of , but that God is with us, even at the moment we die.

How does one test their own “virtues”, when your spouse and local elders can’t?


That’s a really good question, A-dad. Not sure what Pastor Wilson would say, but I’ve had to relinguish all pride, forgive offenses, approach it all with meekness, and then presto, there is that certainty, that “good kind of pride.” When I am weak, He is strong. Often the world, elders, spouses, will wear you down, leave you feeling depleted and drained. Pride is like a self defense mechanism, it walls you off when you feel attacked and threatened. When we speak of “testing our own virtue,” what we often mean is needing to be affirmed and validated. So seeking the… Read more »