I (Dr. Cloud) was leading a seminar, and I asked the audience of married couples to stop for a moment and think of their spouse. I told them to think of all of the wonderful things that they love about their spouse and to concentrate on how awesome that person is and how much they love him or her. “Think of the wonderful qualities that you admire and that attracted you to that person. Let those feelings fill you,” I told them.
Then, after they were feeling all giddy and in love again, I asked each person to turn to their spouse who was idealizing them at that moment and to repeat after me, “Honey, I am a sinner. I will fail you, and I will hurt you.”
You could feel the sense of discombobulation in the room. In one moment, they were shaken from the ideal to the real. Some began to laugh as they got it. Some felt even closer to each other. Some looked up confused as if they did not know what to do with my invitation.
But that is reality. The person you love the most and have committed your life to is an imperfect being. This person is guaranteed to hurt you and fail you in many ways, some serious and some not. You can expect the failures to come. As the Bible says in Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins." We can expect failure from even the best people in our lives.
So the question becomes, “What then?” What do you do when your spouse fails you in some way or is less than you wish for him to be? What happens when she has a weakness or a failure? How about an inability to do something? What about an unresolved childhood hurt that he brings to the relationship?
Other than denial, there are only a couple of options. You can beat him up for his imperfections, or you can love him out of them. The Bible says, “Love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Nothing in a relationship has to permanently destroy that relationship if forgiveness is in the picture. No failure is larger than grace. No hurt exists that love cannot heal. But, for all of these miracles to take place, there must be compassion and tenderheartedness.
What does that mean? I like how the Bible describes God’s compassion: “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior” (Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary). For God to have compassion on our brokenness or sin is certainly to stoop to an inferior. But we need the same attitude toward an equal spouse for two reasons:
First, you forgive what is inferior to the ideal standard. You humble yourself to identify with your loved one, who is experiencing life in a way that is less than you or even he would want. You give up all demands for your spouse to be something he isn’t at that moment.
Second, if your spouse is hurting or failing, you are not morally superior, but you are in the stronger position at that moment to be able to help. God never uses the stronger position to hurt, but always to help. As Paul puts it in Colossians 3:12-14, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."
What a picture that is! “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” What if you “wore” these qualities every time your spouse failed or was hurting? I think we would see a lot more healed marriages.
But that is not the human way. The human way is to harden our hearts when we are hurt or offended.
I was talking to a friend the other day who had offended his wife in a relatively minor way. But to her it was not minor at all. As a result, she did not speak to him for several days. Finally he asked her when she might forgive him. “Will it be before next month? Before Christmas? Just let me know so I can get ready.” She finally broke and started laughing, and things were fine again. She saw how unnecessary her “hardness of heart” was to the offense.
Hardness of heart, much more than failure, is the true relationship killer. Jesus said in Matthew 19:8 that failure is not the cause of divorce, but hardness of heart is. This is why the Bible places such a high value on tenderheartedness.