The wife bore the nagging as long as she could. On one occasion she grew weary and reacted, “You know, you have faults too!” And the husband replied, “Yes. But they don’t bother me like yours do!”
This is precisely the wrong strategy for strengthening a relationship. It assumes that my needs are to be met – and my spouse must do whatever is necessary to assure that they are met. This is the opposite of humility and repentance. It is the enemy to love.
The Marker for Pride
God has graciously given each of us an early warning system. When we are feeling irked, annoyed, or irritated with our spouse, we have our backs toward heaven. We are guilty of pride. In a spiritual sense we are saying to our spouses, “You are not meeting my needs the way I would like them met. Don’t you realize that is your job? Your every act is to be dedicated to my happiness. Now hop to it!”
Pride is burdensome.
The Moral Inversion
The natural man is inclined to love himself and fix others. God has asked us to do the opposite. We are to repent ourselves and love others. It is not surprising that we have difficulties in marriage. We generally do the very things that will destroy our relationships.
In great literature – including scripture – the highest and noblest service entailed sacrifice and selflessness. In contrast, evil was always self-centered and self-serving.
Today’s culture teaches a very different lesson from traditional wisdom: It is noble and worthy to take care of ourselves. It is our first obligation. Roy Baumeister, a penetrating and contemporary social psychologist, has observed:
Morality has become allied with self-interest. It is not simply that people have the right to do what is best for themselves; rather, it has become an almost sacred obligation to do so. The modern message is that what is right and good and valuable to do in life is to focus on yourself, to learn what is inside you, to express and cultivate these inner resources, to do what is best for yourself, and so forth
Many Americans today can no longer accept the idea that love requires sacrificing oneself or making oneself unhappy or doing things that do not (at least eventually) serve one’s individual best interests. If a relationship does not bring pleasure, insight, satisfaction, and fulfillment to the self, then it is regarded as wrong, and the individual is justified – perhaps even obligated – to end the relationship and find a new, more fulfilling one. According to today’s values, “A kind of selfishness is essential to love.” (1991, pp.113-114)
This is all very ironic. It doesn’t make logical “sense” that if we sacrifice our own wants and needs, in favor of our spouse’s, that we will find true joy and happiness. It takes faith to believe that “he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it,” Without that foundational faith, it’s tempting to do what makes sense – and that is to look after ourselves and tend toward selfishness.
When we have tossed sacrifice, obligation, and unselfishness from our contributions to relationships, we have nothing left but an empty egocentrism. We do not have the humility to repent. And, without repentance, there is neither growth nor redemption.
The Mental Inversion
Our fundamental mortal wiring works against our progress and happiness – especially in the way we think. Psychologists tell us that we are all nave realists, which causes all of us to acknowledge that we all have limited facts and active biases. No human sees clearly. But I do.
Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is. If [others] don’t agree, it follows either that they have not yet been exposed to the relevant facts or else that they are blinded by their interests and ideologies… Everyone is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are. (Haidt, 2006, p. 71)
The natural mind is an enemy to truth. Each one of us sees our own versions of truth and imagines that no one in the world sees truth as clearly as I do. This way of thinking is a pernicious enemy. It keeps each of us from connecting with other people and from being taught by God. Satan laughs.
Satan will laugh us into conflict and misunderstanding – unless we yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit and put off the natural man (see Mosiah 3:19). No wonder God asks us to become as children – submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things. Unless we submit ourselves to God and His extraordinary way of thinking, we will always be isolated and discontented.
Humility is the friend of truth. Humility opens us up to the experience of others and Truth from heaven. Humility requires not only that we believe in God, that He is all wise and all powerful, but that “man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9). We must set aside our provincial view of the world (and of our spouses), and be open to our partner’s perspective. We must invite Truth, the heavenly perspective.
As Terrance Olson, faculty member at BYU, has observed, “The quality of emotions we experience is different when we are faithful and humble as compared to when we live without faith and with the kind of arrogance that makes us independent of God” (2004, p. 121). Turning to God in faith and repentance is the cure for pride and self-centeredness.
Andy Christensen and Neil Jacobson are therapists and researchers who have studied the process of marital misunderstanding (2000). Their insights are penetrating. They remind us just how human we are – with all that entails. I have tried to summarize their description of the pattern of marital misunderstanding – combined with my own spiritual commentary.
The scene is set for the battle because of our pride. Pride includes our own attunement to our own needs as the standard of judgment. Pride also includes the fact that we honestly believe that we understand our partners and what makes them tick. We understand their thoughts, motives and intent better than even they themselves do.
Preparation for battle then begins in earnest. In our minds we review our partners’ violations of good will. And we analyze their characters and study our histories for other violations.
Notice how the pride continues. We define the problem – whatever it is – in terms of our partner. And we tell the story to ourselves in ways that suggest we were earnestly and innocently going about life when our partners hurt us. We are innocent. They are guilty. Our narrow focus keeps us from noticing our own gaps in knowledge, our personal failings as well as the good qualities and good intentions of our partners.
So we enter battle prepared to whack off the offending behaviors and traits in our partners. But our partners respond to the attacks with counter-offensives. The story our partners tell is very different from ours – filled with our partners’ innocence and our errors. We respond with indignation and fury. The battle is on.
While Satan laughs at every step of this dismal process, he must take special delight when people who have promised to bless and encourage each other throw their best efforts into hurting and defeating each other.
We leave each battle dismayed that our partners did not see our wisdom and respond with needed changes. And, hunched over a lonely campfire, we continue to grieve over our injuries and rehearse our opponents’ offences.
Christensen and Jacobson suggest that one fundamental problem with this sad script is that it is based on the premise that our partner should change. They suggest that acceptance may be more important than change in strong marriages.
Learning from Those Who Did It Right
If we want to move from spiritual anemia to spiritual power, we should learn from those scriptural models who have done that very thing. My personal favorite is Alma. He went from being among the vilest of sinners (Mosiah 28:4) and racked with torment (Alma 36:12) to experiencing inexpressible joy (Alma 36:21) and the presence of God (Alma 36:22) within only a few hours! Wow! What was his magical process?
Alma was only a beginner in faith – he merely remembered his father prophesying about a Son of God who would come to atone for the sins of the world ( Alma 36:17). But in the depths of his struggle, he did something with as much sincerity and absolute trust as anyone in the history of this troubled world: He threw himself completely on the merits and mercy of Jesus.
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death (Alma 36:18).
He knew that his only hope was outside of himself. He knew that, if he was going to be saved, Jesus was going to have to do it.
And that is the repentance paradox. In order to be saved, we must stop trying to save ourselves by our own power. We must turn ourselves over to Christ completely. That is what Alma did particularly well.
In describing his change to his son Shiblon, Alma said:
And it came to pass that I was three days and three nights in the most bitter pain and anguish of soul; and never, until I did cry out unto the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy, did I receive a remission of my sins. But behold, I did cry unto him and I did find peace to my soul.
And now, my son, I have told you this that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn of me that there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ. Behold, he is the life and the light of the world. Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness ( Alma 38:8-9, emphasis added).
It is perfectly clear from Alma’s writings that this dependence on God does not excuse us from doing all that we are able. There is, however, a key difference between our usual way of trying to obey and Alma’s way: He turned his life over to God, holding nothing back. He had no illusions about his ability to save himself. Perhaps this is the central doctrine of the Book of Mormon. Nephi’s classic words are:
And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins (2 Nephi 25:26, emphasis added).
A Modern Example
Friends of ours struggled along in a flawed marriage. It wasn’t a bad marriage. It just wasn’t perfect. After 10 years of marriage the husband launched an affair and left his covenants. He told his wife that there was no way to fix his marriage. So he was moving on.
He was right. There was no way that he could fix the imperfections in his marriage with the tools he had been using. No way. This fact is enough to make a person desperate – which is exactly what is needed for us to be open to God. We must be desperate enough to throw ourselves on His mercy.
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah… (2 Nephi 2:8, emphasis added).
Rather than depend on our own limited abilities, we can have the humility to go to God for help. And He is mighty to save – both souls and marriages. This is what the Book of Mormon calls faith unto repentance. (See Alma 34:14-17.) When we trust God enough to turn our lives over to Him, He does miracles.
Faith Unto Repentance
Rather than turn his life over to God, our aforementioned friend continued to use his own bright mind to try to figure things out. But he always came up with the same dismal conclusions. He correctly judged that he just couldn’t change his imperfect marriage, yet he failed to understand the true redeeming power of Christ – power over sin, mortal failings, and feelings of hopelessness.
Faith unto repentance means that we trust Jesus enough to turn our lives over to Him. We give up governance of our lives and turn that over to God.
We may pray, as Fosdick did, “Fill us with Thyself, that we may no longer be a burden to ourselves” (1918, The Meaning of Faith, p.213).
Every serious relationship will get to the point of desperation. At some point we know our partner well enough to be irritated and to know that the sources of our irritation are not likely to disappear. That is the watershed moment. We can leave the relationship, smolder in sullen resentment, or repent. God recommends repentance.
Repentance “denotes a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world. Since we are born into conditions of mortality, repentance comes to mean a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined” (Bible Dictionary, p. 760).
Since the universal sin is pride (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, May 1989, p.4), the heart of repentance is giving up our self-sufficiency, our sense that we can set our lives right. We must turn ourselves over to God. He can make sense of our fractured and flawed lives. We cannot.
President Benson’s great sermon on pride has the keys to our repentance.
Pride is a sin that can readily be seen in others but is rarely admitted in ourselves…
Selfishness is one of the more common faces of pride. “How everything affects me” is the center of all that matters – self-conceit, self-pity, worldly self-fulfillment, self-gratification, and self-seeking.
The antidote for pride is humility – meekness, submissiveness. (See Alma 7:23.) It is the broken heart and contrite spirit.
God will have a humble people. Either we can choose to be humble or we can be compelled to be humble… Let us choose to be humble.
We can choose to humble ourselves by conquering enmity toward our brothers and sisters, esteeming them as ourselves, and lifting them as high or higher than we are.
The irony of pride is that those who are most talented are those who are most vulnerable to this leprosy of the soul. The world may esteem great talent as a blessing, but it is nothing to God in the absence of humility.
“Only when we change our hearts through personal repentance can the burdensome weight of sin really be lifted from our weary shoulders” (Brooks, pp. 94-5).
The Fix-It Mindset
When I follow the natural man’s method for marital change, I set out to tell my partner in fair, balanced ways what she is doing that irritates me. Then she can change herself based on my input and we will both be happy.
Elder Christensen taught us in General Conference about the problem with this approach:
As a newlywed, Sister Lola Walters read in a magazine that in order to strengthen a marriage a couple should have regular, candid sharing sessions in which they would list any mannerisms they found annoying. She wrote: “We were to name five things we found annoying, and I started off… I told him I didn’t like the way he ate grapefruit. He peeled it and ate it like an orange! Nobody else I knew ate grapefruit like that. Could a girl be expected to spend a lifetime, even eternity, watching her husband eat grapefruit like an orange! After I finished, it was his turn to tell the things he disliked about me… He said, Well, to tell the truth, I can’t think of anything I don’t like about you, Honey.’
Gasp. I quickly turned my back because I didn’t know how to explain the tears that had filled my eyes and were running down my face… Whenever I hear of married couples being incompatible, I always wonder if they are suffering from what I now call the Grapefruit Syndrome. (Joe J. Christensen, May 95, pp. 64-6)
As Brother Williams observes, “each [spouse] believes the other is the cause of the dispute and that convincing the spouse of his or her guilt will then solve the problem” (Williams, p. 84). The problem is that when we are accused, we dig in our heels.
So, when we approach our partners as spousal renewal projects, they are likely to respond in kind. We get caught up in an endless and hopeless tangle of accusation and recrimination.
In fact, any time we feel irritated with our spouses, that irritation is not an invitation to call our spouses to repentance but an invitation to call ourselves to repent. We are irritated because of our own lack of faith and humility.
In contrast, when we have the “mind of Christ,” we see our spouses in a new way. We, like Jesus, look upon the injured, erring, and downtrodden – the whole human race – with compassion. The Prophet Joseph Smith challenged us:
The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing [spouses]; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs… if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on [your spouses]. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.241)
We can see our spouses with compassion rather than with irritation.
Flat Tires In Our Relationship
Appreciating is more powerful than correcting. Appreciation inflates the tires on which we travel. Criticism is a slow leak in those tires.
The marital dialogue in the movie “Accidental Tourist” brilliantly illustrates the problem. None of us wants to be seen as a problem to be fixed.
Sarah: “You know, Macon, the trouble with you is…”
Macon : “Sarah, look, don’t even start. If that doesn’t sum up everything that’s wrong with being married: ‘ Macon, the trouble with you is…I know you better than you know yourself, Macon.
Sarah: “The trouble with you is you don’t believe in people opening up. You think everyone should stay in their own little sealed package.”
Macon : “Okay. Let’s say that that’s true. Let’s say for now that you do know what the trouble with me is, that nothing I might feel could suppress, and that the reason I don’t want to hear about this specific thing is that I can’t open up, if we agree on all that, can we drop it?!”
President Hinckley describes this miserable cycle of correction and paybacks in strong terms:
Is there anything more weak or beggarly than the disposition to wear out one’s life in an unending round of bitter thoughts and scheming gestures toward those who may have affronted us? (1991, p. 4)
This is a fitting place to recall that God commands us to repent ourselves and to love others – especially our spouses:
Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else. (D&C 42:22)
The Key to Repentance
When we study those in the scriptures who were most dramatically or powerfully changed by repentance, we find an interesting commonality in their mantra.
Alma the Younger
King Benjamin’s people
Brother of Jared
O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me
God be merciful to me, a sinner.
O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ
…thou hast been merciful unto us. O Lord, look upon me in pity
The scriptures are replete with those who called on God for mercy. In fact, the context for Amulek’s directive to pray in all times and places is “to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you; Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save” ( Alma 34:17-18). A whole-souled acknowledgement of our dependence on God is a very good working definition of humility. This is where the miracles begin. This is where despair is replaced with growth.
When we humbly turn our minds, our lives, and our purposes over to God, He will refine us. We begin to see with new eyes. We feel with new warmth and goodness. We gladly give our time and energy to bless those around us – especially those with whom we have made covenants.
Two processes were named above for dealing with our natural human narrow-mindedness: getting heaven’s perspective and being open to our partner’s point of view. This chapter deals with humility and repentance as keys that unlock heaven’s perspective. Humility and repentance also open us up to our partner’s perspective.
What Repentance Does and Doesn’t Look Like
We have a good friend who has a keen mind and was trained as a professional. In midlife he set up a business to practice his profession. But the business failed. He took part-time work as a custodian. The disappointment and humiliation were painful to him. He became increasingly irritable and gloomy. His health declined. And his marriage suffered.
We talked regularly. I thought I saw a trend over time. For a while he talked about a few challenges he and his wife faced as they tried to manage their large family and their small income. Over time these concerns and irritations grew into judgments. He began describing his wife as selfish. He provided an example of her selfishness. The wife complained about the damage his little dog did to the crowded house. He bristled that she didn’t care about his canine companion. (But he didn’t work with his wife to address her concerns.)
Over time his complaint grew more global. “I think she may be the most selfish person I know.” Yet that was not the end. Satan is not content until he has fully re-written our history removing every ember of warmth and goodness. “I don’t think I ever loved her,” he said.
My heart ached. He had thrown away decades of heavenly blessings because of his current unhappiness. He had re-written history with wifely disappointment as its theme. Satan had robbed him of past, present, and future. At the center of Satan’s mischief was pride – that enmity that makes us enemies to each other.
Brother Brooks condemns not only the way we use weapons of war against each other but that we also keep studying and magnifying each other’s offences. “To bury our weapons of war yet continue to rebroadcast a “wide-screen” version of old battles and old wounds, complete with “instant replay,” “slow-motion,” and our own exaggerated form of “special effects,” undermines the process of healing and the prospects for growth – for both spouses” (2004, p. 111).
Many of us grew up dreading humility and repentance. They felt like an unhappy encounter with humiliation. But, as we mature spiritually, we come to recognize humility and repentance as heavenly blessings. We cast off the tattered ways of the natural man and put on the robe of righteousness. It is sweet.
It is true, as Elder Maxwell has observed (1990, p. 33), that “the enlarging of the soul requires not only some remodeling, but some excavating. Hypocrisy, guile, and other imbedded traits do not go gladly or easily” (p.33). Yet that excavating is not painful when we see the glorious purposes behind it.
The whole script of the husband and his “selfish” wife could have been rewritten with a very different journey and outcome if God had been given the stylus. The husband could have humbly turned much of his pain over to God. The wife could have rallied support and compassion for her burdened husband. And both could have drawn on the tradition of growth, goodness, and faithfulness that filled their marital history.
Using Repentance to Change Our Marriages
How do we use repentance to make our marriages stronger? The first step is the humility to know that our perceptions are very limited. We rarely know our partner’s heart or God’s purposes.
Then we learn to call on God. Every day. Every hour. We cry out with all great repenters: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on my fallen and troubled soul.
Fill me with Thee. Soften my heart. Give me healing peace.” There is power in submission. As Paul astutely observed:
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for whenI am weak, then am I strong.
Very often our self-sufficiency gets in God’s way.
In the spirit of humility, we listen to our partner and we listen to God. We replace despair with an enlarged openness to Christ like goodness.
Examples of Repentance
Let me provide some simple examples. For reasons that I cannot explain, I like kitchen counters to be tidy and free of clutter. (Oddly, this strong preference does not seem to apply to my desk and my other work areas.) For years I wondered why Nancy occasionally sinned in this area. Why did such a decent person leave things on the kitchen counters?
After years of simmering irritation, it finally occurred to me that this was not Nancy’s problem. It was my problem. If something on the counter is bothering me, I can put it away. I can wipe away crumbs.
That is repentance, glorious repentance. It is very liberating.
There are other examples. Nancy is the kindest, gentlest, and most considerate human being I have ever known. I love being with her!
But there is a price to be paid for Nancy’s kindness. She is not especially decisive. Her gentleness is connected to an easy-going-ness that can be quite irritating – when I am in a hurry. I can work up a very good case of irritation when she vacillates while the restaurant server waits. I can get quite angry when she changes her mind about something we have discussed and jointly decided.
Or I can repent. And there are many dimensions to repentance – including the willingness to set my partner up for success. For example, I can help Nancy think through the restaurant options. “You have always liked chicken salad.” She and I can even discuss her food mood on the way to the restaurant.
We can also make allowances for our partners. I can allow Nancy a little more time for making decisions. I can expect some wavering. (As tightly wound as I am, this is a real sacrifice. And this is just as it should be. I cannot truly repent without sacrificing some of the natural man!)
I observed another interesting opportunity for repentance in a capable couple we knew in Alabama. The wife loved ice cream. Every once in a while she would have a scoop or two. For her it was a special treat. Her husband apparently had ambitions for her slimness. Any time she thought about ice cream, he tried to talk her out of it. Every time she ate ice cream, he grimaced like a man in pain.
I feel quite certain that if he gave up his effort to regulate his wife’s ice cream consumption, she would regulate it much better than his brow-beatings were regulating it. He could repent of his effort to micromanage his wife. He could appreciate her natural beauty. He could love her and let her be in charge of her ice cream decisions.
The media provide a very specific image of the perfect man and woman. Our culture would have us obsess about perfect proportions, firm muscles, and flawless skin. But plastic surgery and relentless exercise are not the answer. Charity is. We can repent of our narrow, trivial, superficial demands. We can recognize that a person is beautiful because we choose to love her or him – and not because the luck of genetics compels our love.
I love Irving Becker’s observation:
If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind (p. 19, Pocket Treasury of Great Quotations, 1975, Reader’s Digest, Pleasantville, N.Y.).
Love is not a happy accident; it is a choice.
The Blessing of Irritation
Irritation can be our friend. It alerts us to the risk of blisters when we sense a pebble in our shoes. In marriage, irritation serves the vital function of alerting us that something we are doing is creating a sore.
While the natural man is inclined to think that the problem is our partner, the man of Christ knows that the irritation is probably the result of some faulty thinking – some troublesome assumption and expectation nested in our unconscious. We can remove the judging even if we cannot track down the troublesome assumptions.
Some years ago God taught me an ironic truth. I d on’t have right to correct anyone I don’t love. You see the irony! I am inclined to correct my partner at those times I don’t feel loving. When I do feel loving, irritations roll off my soul like water on a duck’s back.
That is not to say that I should never make my wishes known to my wife. We certainly have the right to express preferences and to make requests. But I should not dwell on irritations and cultivate grievances. I should merely use irritation as an invitation to repent.
Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away (3 Nephi 11:30).
There is a popular quote attributed to J. Golden Kimball: “I’ll never go to hell. I repent too damn fast.” Whatever the merits of the expression, the sentiment is right. Any irritation can prompt us to immediate humility and immediate repentance. We do not have to let irritations accumulate and form ruthless gangs that will savage our love.
For those evil judgments that will not go easily, we can invoke the prayer of all repenters, “O Jesus, Thou Son of God, have mercy on me and my poor, narrow soul. Fill me with Thy graciousness.” This is the way to cast out evil spirits in our souls.
I think the statement posted in front of a country church in Arkansas is true: “A happy marriage is the union of two forgivers” ( Batesville, AR church, Aug. 25, 2003).
Final Chapter Note:
If, as you read this chapter, you found yourself thinking how much your partner needs it, I encourage you to re-read the chapter with yourself in mind.
Think of a time when you have turned irritation into a blessing by repenting of judgments and assumptions. How did you do it? How can you make that a more regular part of your relationship?
Will you institutionalize using the plea of repenters to draw more heavenly goodness into your life?
(1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.
Benson, E. T. (May 1989). Beware of pride. Ensign.
Brooks, K. R. (2004). Ministering in marriage. In D. E. Brinley & D. K. Judd (Eds.), Living in a covenant marriage. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
Christensen, A., &. Jacobson, N. S. (2000). Reconcilable differences. New York: Guilford Press.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Hinckley , G. B. (June 1991). Of you it is required to forgive. Ensign.
Maxwell, N. A. (May 1990). Endure it well. Ensign. pp.34-5
Olson, T. (2004) Being realistic in marriage relationships. In D. E. Brinley & D. K. Judd (Eds.), Living in a covenant marriage. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
Williams, M. S. (2004). Keeping marital love alive. In D. E. Brinley & D. K. Judd (Eds.), Living in a covenant marriage. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
Thanks to friends and family who provided helpful feedback on this chapter, especially Greg Clark, Kristen Allen, Geoff Steurer, Jim Brown, and Justin Coulson.
2006 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.