Every spouse has annoying habits and tendencies, little ways that our brokenness regularly shows up in our marriage relationship. When we see these behaviors in our spouse, it’s easy to get impatient or irritated. Having empathy can sometimes be hard, especially if you immediately moralize every broken bit of behavior you see in your wife or husband and interpret it as sin. Sin is bad, in fact, so destructive that God himself came to earth to shed his blood and redeem us from it. But let’s face it: brokenness is broader than sin.
Sometimes we can overlook our spouse’s story if we don’t have a broader understanding of brokenness. I’d go so far to say that if we only look to simple solutions, we’ll miss some opportunities to truly care for our spouse holistically. The truth is that when describing what sorts of things influence behavior, the Bible’s categories aren’t so narrow. When it says that sin is our biggest problem, it doesn’t mean than sin is our only problem.
I wrote about this truth—that brokenness is bigger than sin—in chapters 2–4 of my book, I Still Do: Growing Closer and Stronger through Life’s Defining Moments. Here are five ways that human brokenness impacts behavior. I hope they’ll help you broaden your perspective and cultivate more empathy for your spouse.
- Our bodies have a direct effect on our souls. In a broken world, our minds and bodies fail. The imperfect chemistry and physiology of fallen bodies can impact our ability to control our desires and respond to our circumstances. Before you respond to your spouse with irritation or blame, ask yourself, “Is there something going on physically that’s causing him or her to respond this way?”
- Our stories also impact the way we respond to temptation. Our past experiences have present influence in our lives. Our family history in particular remains a present force on our behavior. Ask yourself, “Is there something in my spouse’s history that draws him to instinctively process our current circumstances in this way? Is there anything I need to understand that tempts her to respond in predictable patterns?” Our past doesn’t determine our behavior, but it sure does influence it.
- There are spiritual forces at work in our marriage that go way beyond nature and nurture. Even if you’re convinced that your spouse is believing the devil’s lies, it’s rarely—okay, never—a good idea to look at them and say, “Get behind me, Satan.” Every spouse does well to remember that when we aim for a lifelong marriage, Satan mobilizes the forces of hell to divide us from one another and rob us of the beauty God has entrusted to us in marriage. Some issues in life “only come out by prayer” (Matt. 17:21); it never hurts to get on your knees with your spouse, admit your own brokenness, and plead for the Lord’s help. The road of humility is open to every husband and wife who are willing to see and admit their need for grace.
- God allows difficult circumstances to reveal our heart and His hand. God is not the author of evil, but he does work through secondary causes to execute his perfect will. Often God allows his people to encounter difficult circumstances in order to strengthen and sanctify us. I remember John Bettler once saying, “Your spouse hooks your idols”. In other words, God has ordained your spouse, with all of their delightful proclivities, to surface what you really love in lift. But the point is not enlightenment, or meaningless suffering. Our difficult circumstance—the places in our marriage where we have to work hard to overcome– become the crucible of faith. God is at work, exposing hearts so the we might glory in the work of his hand. When you are consistently irritated with your spouse, ask yourself, “What might be impatience say about what I truly love more than God?” God is jealous and will brook no outside allegiances for our heart. So he works providentially in marriage for our good and his glory.
- Ultimately, the heart lies at the center of all human motivation. Proverbs 4:23 (NIV) says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Over and over again, the Bible makes clear that we are morally responsible for our own sin. But even though this is true, it’s tempting to fall into a way of thinking or living that fundamentally undermines responsibility for our choices. We have a natural bent toward avoiding blame. Barring a growing affection for God, our willingness to accept responsibility weakens as we grow older. If we’re honest, it’s easy to admit that a sinful heart impacts our spouse’s behavior. But in the moment of our own irritability, have we asked, “Is there something I’ve done that has tempted her to respond this way? When looking for motivations for his behavior, have I fallen into the blame-shifting trap? Maybe a better way to say it, “Am I willing to start with my own heart?”
Recognizing the legitimacy of all five of these fallenness factors will give you guidance to relate to your spouse with humility, understanding and empathy. Rather than retaliating or responding with cynicism when you encounter your spouse’s brokenness, you can enter in and ask questions that display care and genuine sympathy. In doing so, you’ll be responding the way that Christ responds to us. Christ enters our brokenness and he loves us in spite of it. When it comes to strong reactions to feeling put upon or sinned against in marriage, always remember: While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). If this is how Jesus treated his enemies, then the gospel raises the bar and transforms how we treat our spouse.