This past week Kathy and I celebrated 32 years of marriage. The last few months have led me to reflect on what makes a flourishing marriage. I’ve coming to appreciate at least three things: quick to confess, a clear conscience, and clean hands.
Start with confession. Kathy and I observe how most folks apologize for bad behavior. Bad move for marriage. The word apology comes from the Greek to give a defense. When couples apologize, they’re defending, explaining, or justifying their actions. This is not the course of action God commands when we sin. And we sin everyday.
The Bible says there is a sorrow that “produces repentance” (II Cor. 7:10). Repentance includes confession. In I John 1:9, we read, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins.” John’s letter is written to believers – those already forgiven. The forgiveness he’s describing is fellowship forgiveness, confessing to restore our fellowship with God (I Jn. 1:3). When we sin, we’re not kicked out of the family of God. But our fellowship with God is killed. Confession restores fellowship, as in a marriage.
Confession comes from the Greek to say the same thing, or agree with. When God’s Spirit convicts of sin, it is our responsibility to agree with him. This doesn’t mean explaining why we sinned or defending our actions. In marriage, confession is saying to your spouse exactly what the Spirit said to you – nothing more and nothing less. It’s agreeing with God, regardless of whether your spouse was upset, offended, provoked, or even aware of your sin. It’s saying, “I was wrong… I sinned. Do you forgive me?”
After confessing, it’s important that the other spouse says I forgive you. When we come to Christ, God says I forgive you. He doesn’t say, “It’s okay… forget it.” Confession restores fellowship with others and heals friendships. “Confess your sins to one another and you will be healed” (James 5:16). Couples who apologize for sin never heal. They get scabs. Scabs leave marriages open to opening old wounds. Confession heals wounds, even though the healing might leave a few scars. Scars can be signatures of healing.
When Kathy and I got married, we made a covenant to never let the sun go down on our anger, to confess and forgive. That has meant some l-o-n-g nights of wrestling with each other. Flourishing couples practice confession, day in and day out. “I was wrong… I sinned. Do you forgive me?” “Yes, I forgive you.”
In a flourishing marriage, couples are also diligent to keep a clear conscience. Conscience is the lens through which we see the world as well as ourselves. Conscience makes us self-aware. However, as a lens, it can warp. Our conscience is either clear or warped in one of three directions. It can warp outward, inward, or – if too far in either direction – shatter. Warped lenses render us self-unaware and ruin a marriage. Wise couples are clear on the four types of conscience, striving for the only one that’s healthy.
If you need an example, look to the Apostle Paul. He claimed to have “lived with a clear conscience before God all my life” (Acts 23:1). He strove “always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16). This doesn’t mean Paul was perfect. At one time, he was a persecutor of the church. A clear conscience means we humbly recognize how we only “know in part.” We are quick to confess when we discover we’ve erred. That’s why, when Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul was quick to confess. He didn’t explain his actions or defend his sin. In a flourishing marriage, couples do the same. They continually confess their sin to one another.
The tension with conscience is that, as a lens, it can bend outward. This breeds arrogance. Those with an arrogant conscience begin to think too highly of themselves. They become self-unaware. This ruins a marriage. Couples begin to excuse their sin as Cain did after slaying his brother Abel. Accused of wrongdoing, he retorted: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). A spouse with an arrogant conscience sees their mate as inferior. They often begin to rule over the other spouse, treating her or him as a child.
The lens of conscience can also bend inward. This is the wounded conscience. The wounds are often the result of painful incidents from the past. Individuals with a wounded conscience often come from unhealthy families. Or there might have been incidents of drug or alcohol abuse, feeling abandoned, promiscuity, or a significant involvement in pornography. These incidents wound the conscience and should not be taken lightly. But a spouse with a wounded conscience has to avoid the temptation to take others “emotional hostage.” This happened in the Corinthian church, where those with defiled consciences played the role of victim and denied freedom to others.
Those with a wounded conscience think too little of themselves. They are insecure. This breeds an insecurity regarding God’s love and his good world. This is why Christians coming from unhealthy families are often uneasy about the liberty that other believers enjoy – say, in drinking alcohol or enjoying particular movies. This “hostage-taking” plays hell in a marriage. Those with a wounded conscience tend to overlook how, “to the pure all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15).
Last but not least, when the conscience bends too far in either direction, the lens shatters. It is seared (I Timothy 4:2). This is where we get our English word cauterized. With a cauterized conscience, the flow of blood stops and self-awareness dies. In marriage, these couples never confess and always accuse. They bully and belittle.
Quick to confess, a clear conscience – and clean hands. In the blog business, it’s critical to stop writing before readers stop reading. Next week, we’ll consider clean hands.