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Nancy and I have good friends whose marriage is probably typical of many. Occasionally the husband gets irritated and begins to carp on his wife’s faults and limitations. “Why isn’t the house clean?” “Why haven’t the kids done their chores?” “When will dinner be ready?” 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 of 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 fix ourselves by repenting, and to love others. It is not surprising that we have difficulties in marriage. We so often 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: We now hear that it is noble and worthy to focus on our own needs. 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.”[i]
The modern dilemma is ironic. We are devoted to finding happiness—and we are seeking happiness in ways that guarantee emptiness. To the modern mind, 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” (Matt. 10:39). Without that foundational faith, it’s tempting to do what seems to 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 naive 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.”[ii]
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 we do. This way of thinking is a pernicious enemy. It keeps each of us from connecting with others and from being taught by God. Satan laughs.
Satan will goad 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 to truth from heaven. Humility requires not only that we believe in God, that He is all-wise and all-powerful, but also 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.”[iii] 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.[iv] Their insights are penetrating. They remind us just how human we are—with all that entails. I have summarized 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 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 presume to 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 their 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’ offenses.
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. (More about this in future articles)
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 what they wanted. After ten years of marriage the husband launched an affair and left his covenants. He told his wife that there was no way to fix their marriage, so he was moving on.
He was right. There was no way 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.”[v]
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,[vi] 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 Ezra Taft 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.[vii]
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.”[viii]
(More about applying humility to our lives and marriages in the next installment.)
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[i] Roy Baumeister, Meanings of Life, New York: Guilford Press , 113-14.
[ii] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, New York: Basic Books , 71.
[iii] Douglas E. Brinley and D. K. Judd (Eds.), Living in a Covenant Marriage, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book , 121.
[iv] See Andrew Christensen and Neil S. Jacobson, Reconcilable Differences, New York: Guilford Press .
[v] The Meaning of Faith, New York: Association Press , 213.
[vi] See Ezra Taft Benson, “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 4.
[vii] Ensign, May 1989, 4.
[viii] Covenant Marriage, 94-95.