Friday, August 22, 2014

Our Relationships: Why they Fail and why they Succeed

What does it take to maintain a thriving relationship or marriage? Several websites contain quotations identifying many essential ingredients. Some quotes emphasized sacrificial effort:

  • “The difference between an ordinary marriage and an extraordinary marriage is in giving just a little ‘extra’ every day, as often as possible, for as long as we both shall live.”
  • “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”
  • “The greatest marriages are built on teamwork. A mutual respect, a healthy dose of admiration, and a never-ending portion of love and grace.”
  • “A great marriage isn’t something that just happens; it’s something that must be created.”
  • ‎”No one can go back and change how it started but a new future for any marriage can begin the moment one person begins to invest in it.”

Similarly, others emphasized commitment and acceptance:

  • “Once we figured out that we could not change each other, we became free to celebrate ourselves as we are.”
  • “A long-lasting marriage is built by two people who believe in -and live by- the solemn promise they made.”
  • “Marriage is a commitment- a decision to do, all through life, that which will express your love for one’s spouse.”
  • “A happy marriage doesn’t mean you have a perfect spouse or a perfect marriage. It simply means you’ve chosen to look beyond the imperfections in both.”
Other sayings emphasized the importance of forgiveness:

  • “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.”
  • “Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.”
  • “To keep your marriage brimming, with love in the wedding cup, whenever you’re wrong, admit it; whenever you’re right, shut up.”
  • “A successful marriage isn’t the union of two perfect people. It’s that of two imperfect people who have learned the value of forgiveness and grace.”

Forgiveness is so critical. When one partner refuses to forgive, bitterness and disappointment reign, and these undermine a relationship at its foundation. Curiously, though, I didn’t see any quotes stressing apologies - confession of wrongdoing. Without these, there cannot be any real healing or reconciliation. I can forgive my wife in my heart, but the pain, disappointment, and resentment might remain until there is a genuine humbling to admit the wrongdoing.

I think that real apologies have become a dying breed, and, along with them, real reconciliation. Why? I think that there are many reasons:

Admitting that we are at fault is difficult. Too often, our sense of self – our self-esteem – depends on being right. When we get into a fight, we are inclined to blame the other. This is easier to do than to take the blame upon ourselves.

We are taught to believe in ourselves. However, in order to believe in ourselves, we have to think good things about ourselves and to deny the negative – our wrongdoing.

However, I have found that the more highly I esteem myself, the less I will esteem others and my wife. The less I esteem myself, the more I esteem my wife and am grateful to have such a woman, despite her failings.

We believe that we should be easy on ourselves. This means that we shouldn’t hold ourselves to a high and scrupulous moral standard.

This too is problematic. For example, if my wife tells me, “You are speaking harshly to me,” but I respond, “Well, you’re just too demanding of me,” we will not be reconciled. Her hurt feelings and my guilt feelings remain. Besides, we will continue to obsess about how right we both are! Instead, reconciliation requires humble and sincere confession.

If, instead of apologizing, I take my wife out to dinner and buy her a new dress, this will fail to penetrate to the place of the hurt. In fact, all of the other things that go into making a good relationship – respect, commitment, and devotion – will also fail to address the source of the problem.

It is interesting to find that the problems we encounter in our relationships serve as a reflection of the problems with have with our Primary relationship. Serving God entails commitment, respect, and hard work, but even more fundamentally, it requires us to confess our sins. Repeatedly, God instructs us to take a careful moral inventory in regards to Him:

  • “Return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice.” (Jeremiah 3:12-13)

God doesn’t require that Israel first pay Him a great sum of money or make exhaustive sacrifices before He will forgive them. Instead, He asks for one thing – acknowledgment of their guilt.

In the end, when Yahweh pours out His Spirit upon Israel, the result will be a mourning over their sins:

  • “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him [Jesus] whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zechariah 12:10)

From contrition will come forgiveness and restoration. The great prayers of the Bible reflect an understanding of this principle – that confession must precede reconciliation (1 Kings 8; Dan. 9). Where there is a refusal to confess sins, there is also an absence of mercy.

In the end, God will unilaterally restore and transform Israel:

  • I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.  And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. (Ezekiel 36:24-29)

However, God’s unilateral action on behalf of His people must be associated with confession and mourning over their sins:

  • Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations.  It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. (Ezek. 36:31-32)
  • I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord God.” (Ezek. 16:62-63)

Shame is a necessary God-given emotion. It instructs us about ourselves and our relationships. It also directs us to take corrective action – confession of sins – in order to bring true reconciliation and joy.

Perhaps, even in heaven, we will need to recall how we had been in rebellion against God. I am growing in appreciation for my wife, but this only occurs as I take a good and deep look at myself.

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