Although spoken in a different context, the words of the Lord Jesus are equally applicable to marriage: “It must needs be that offences [stumblings] come” (Mat 18:7 KJV). Two human beings in the closest and most invested of human relationships are destined to experience conflict sometime in their relationship. And this is not a failure or an indication that your marriage is not of the Lord. Quite the opposite. As mentioned in a previous article, God employs marriage to confront us with the need for change within ourselves. This is all part of the curriculum in God’s education and finishing school.
Sadly, we are conditioned from childhood (or maybe from Adam) to view each conflict as a situation in which one must win and the other has to lose. When this occurs in a marriage, the reality is that no one wins, and ultimately the marriage and both spouses lose. While one spouse may appear to have won and obtained the desired end, he or she has really lost in the eyes of the marriage partner. A small wedge has been inserted in the “oneness” of the marriage that has the potential to progress deeper and to widen the gap. What I am positing is that when conflict arises in a marriage, a couple should search for a win-win situation. This does not automatically mean compromise, although it might entail it. This article is not so much a primer on conflict resolution as a confession from a man who grew up on inner-city playgrounds and developed a fierce competitive desire to win at all costs. I ultimately discovered that, in human relationships, it was the perfect formula for losing.
Do we have any scriptural guidance for this critical part of our married lives? “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Php 2:12,13 KJV). Paul addressed here an issue of contention between two sisters in the assembly, as well as other possible problems. That is the context. Yet the principle leaps over the boundaries of context and is valuable as an insight to the resolution of all relationship difficulties. I appreciate that many view this as an individual working out what God has worked within – our salvation. But you will indulge my view for this moment. (“Salvation” is used by Paul in many different contexts, as in Php 1:19.)
Every relationship difficulty must be approached with the mindset of the perfect example, our Lord Jesus, as given to us in verses 5-8. With that as a starting point, notice that the Spirit of God urges each to take personal responsibility. We are called upon to work out the problem. As a couple faces the reality of an issue that could divide them, they should recommit to a “we” mentality which views the problem as attacking their marriage; never view the spouse as the problem. “We” have a problem which is affecting our marriage and “we” need to find an answer to it! Take responsibility for finding an answer.
The needed mindset is defined for us by the expression “fear and trembling.” Paul employs this term on four occasions, once in regard to his entrance to Corinth (1Co 2:3). Could I suggest that “fear” relates to a desire to please God by our solution, and “trembling” relates to a consciousness of how my flesh could sabotage the effort? If the goal of my heart is how I can please God amidst/in this issue and not how I can win, I have made a quantum leap forward in both my character and my capability to resolve the issue. When that is coupled with a distrust of my own flesh and natural wisdom, I have effectively arrived at where God wants me to be.
Now add to that an awareness that God is working in me. This suggests that in dependence on God, we can find an answer to this problem which will further His will for our lives. Somewhere, I hear someone objecting that, in their marriage, the first argument was over whose parents would be visited for the holidays. Can something that “mundane” actually require this level of spiritual commitment?
Problems between human beings are rarely what they seem on the surface. Most often there is something far deeper at work that is fueling the surface issue. Many of us have control issues; others tend to be passive-aggressive in relationships. Feelings of insecurity and inferiority trigger responses. Some have deep-seated feelings of rebellion against any hint of being controlled. You can readily add to the list of character flaws. In summary, it is our carnality which causes conflicts. “Strife” is a work of the flesh (Gal 5:20). Though men attacked the Lord Jesus, He never experienced strife with anyone.
If it appears that I am arguing for spirituality and likeness to Christ as the antidote to every relationship problem, you get high marks for being perceptive. That is the ultimate answer.
The implementation of this Spirit-offered system of resolving problems will demand sincerity and honesty. No hidden agendas can be allowed to take priority over pleasing God and drawing you closer together in your oneness. Scripture reading is helpful, but most issues are not black and white, sinful or good. Most often it is between two courses of action, each of which is good in itself, but each spouse has an opposite preference. Prayer is very helpful here, as it is difficult to ask for divine help when we already have our minds set in concrete. In prayer we should be marked by the spiritual virtues outlined in the Sermon on the Mount (yes, it does have application to us!). Am I poor in spirit and devoid of a sense of dependence on God? I should mourn over the possibility of missing what God wants to develop in me through this. Meekness to accept His will, hungering and thirsting after the right path – these and others should mark me while on my knees before God.
Having committed our need for guidance to the Lord, if both courses of action are in line with Scripture, it is time to discuss how we can arrive at a decision which benefits our marriage and in which no one feels that they have lost. It may take time to arrive at the destination. But a sincere commitment to work out the problem and to see the “salvation” of your marriage is the God-honoring path of conflict resolution.