I DONT HAVE A PROBLEM
by Mike Sorenson [download printable PDF version]
In my previous article, I discussed the destructive effect of selfishness on a marriage. When we hold out for what we expect from our partner, a conflict ends either with a stalemate or with one partner caving in to the other’s desires. Neither result brings about the connection and intimacy we so desire to permeate our marriage relationship. Often the one thing that is needed to resolve a conflict is the last thing we want to do. We have to focus on our partner’s needs first, and then everything else seems to fall in line. While many marital conflicts can be traced back to selfishness on the part of at least one spouse, it is not the only heart issue that can wreak havoc on a marriage. Even with two very unselfish people, healing in a marriage is not going to take place unless both take seriously their own part in creating the problems they are facing. It is at this point that we run into one of the most common heart issues afflicting married couples: the poisonous root of self-righteousness.
When a couple reaches the point of facing their relational problems, the easiest thing to do is blame each other. After all, it is easy for me to see how my spouse is making things difficult for me in our marriage. My faults seem minimal or at least justifiable in response to the difficulties I am facing in the relationship. While it is normal and understandable for a couple to start in such a state, it is extremely dangerous for them to stay there. In fact, someone telling me they do not have a problem is usually one of my first clues that they are the problem. People with this state of mind are the ones I find have the lowest probability of success in changing the dynamics of their relationship. Take John and Jamie for example. They are churchgoing people with a strong commitment to their marriage vows and no major moral failures. While John is very devoted to his faith, he can be somewhat legalistic and controlling at home with his family. Jamie has a history of confusing Biblical submission with passivity and when John’s transgressions begin to pile up, she tends to explode in anger. Upon entering counseling, both were capable of running through the laundry list of problems they had with each other. With some work, Jamie began to learn how to be more assertive while still showing her husband respect. John, on the other hand, never changed. While acknowledging his faults, he was unable to see how his problems were contributing to their marriage difficulties. If she would just submit to him, he would say, and stop getting so angry, they wouldn’t have any more problems. The resentment and disdain for his wife was plain for anyone to see. His own lack of insight into his own problems meant that he looked down on his wife for her struggles. As Jamie began to grow and gain a voice, she became increasingly frustrated with his veiled insults and controlling behavior. She ended up leaving John, despite her beliefs. Her decision was a complicated one and evaluating it is not the purpose of this discussion. I tell this story to show how destructive this particular attitude can be to the heart of a marriage. I firmly believe that their marriage could have changed drastically, but only one of them was willing to humbly face their problems and change their part in them.
The most frustrating part of working on this particular heart issue is that people rarely recognize that they have a problem with it. How can a person see what they are not seeing? Self-righteousness is simply a feeling of moral superiority that keeps a person from recognizing or addressing their own failings. The truth is there are some definite signs that a person has a problem with self-righteousness and there are some simple questions a person can ask himself to see if he might need to take a deeper look at his own heart. A perfect example of a person with a self-righteous attitude is given in the Gospel of Luke when he recounts Jesus’ parable of two prayers:
“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
- Luke 18:9-14 (NASB)
Most of us have no trouble seeing the problem with the Pharisee’s attitude. He looked down on the tax collector because he felt he was better than him. Notice, though, that this was not just a simple sense of pride because of his status in the culture. The root of his disdain for his fellow man was his belief that he had done a better job of obeying God than other people. He accurately described the faults that other people struggled with, but was unable to identify any of his own. Most people will not give voice to such an attitude, but how often do we truly believe our problems in marriage are the result of our partner’s flaws? If you have trouble even identifying what you are contributing to the repetitive cycles in your marriage, you do not yet have the attitude God wants you to have in order to change. Even if you can identify them, if you see your own struggles as understandable and justifiable in comparison to your spouse, you may not have yet taken responsibility for your part. Finally, we can take a lesson from how easy it is to see this problem in others. While we may not be able to detect our own lack of humility, it is not hard for the people around us to see. Ask your spouse or other key people in your life if they see this kind of an attitude in you. Just make sure you are ready for what you are going to hear and prepared to act on it.
The example of the Pharisee may seem to be an extreme one for many of us. However, the root of such an attitude can be found in us all at some time or another. The next time you face one of those debilitating arguments with your spouse, take a breather and follow a couple of steps before reengaging. First, stand in the presence of God. You may feel justified in your anger at your spouse and feel your desire for him or her to change is fully legitimate, but when you experience the presence of an Almighty, infinite, morally perfect God, your view of what is justified is sure to change. Before you criticize your spouse, you must remind yourself of what has been forgiven on your account. You have no standing to even be in the presence of God without the sacrifice of Christ on your account. When you have truly embraced that truth, your spouse’s offenses will often seem insignificant in comparison. Second, do a thorough search of yourself to understand what you have contributed to the problem. Do not be afraid to consult a friend or a counselor if necessary. If you are unwilling to take a hard look at yourself, you are not ready to bring an accusation against your husband or wife. Once you have done these two things, you should find your attitude has changed and your perspective shifted. Now you are ready to really work on the issues in your marriage and your spouse is much more likely to want to work with you. Don’t shortcut your own growth by remaining stuck in an attitude of moral superiority. Do everything in your power to get rid of any remnants of self-righteousness, so that you can get started with the real work and growth in your marriage!