By Dennis Rainey
Maintaining harmony in marriage has been difficult since Adam and Eve. Two people trying to go their own selfish, separate ways can never hope to experience the oneness of marriage as God intended. The prophet Isaiah portrayed the problem accurately more than 2,500 years ago when he described basic human selfishness like this: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
Selfishness is possibly the most dangerous threat to oneness in marriage. It affects how we talk to each other, how we divide responsibilities in the home, how we resolve conflicts, and even how we spend our time.
What causes us to refuse to admit we’re wrong in a conflict? Selfishness.
Why do we ignore our spouse’s needs and spend too much time in outside interests or with friends? Selfishness.
What causes us to fight each other for control of our finances? Selfishness.
Why do we manipulate our spouse to do what we want? Selfishness.
Whether you are a husband or a wife, satisfying ourselves can be the default setting of how we go about our lives. After nearly 50 years of marriage, I believe it is impossible to be selfish and have the richness of marriage as God designed it.
Just how do we avoid reaping the bitter fruit of selfishness in a marriage and savor sweet fruit that comes from denying ourselves?
Surrender is the key
It’s time for my confession: In our first years of marriage I was more than a bit selfish. After being single for nearly 25 years, I was skilled at looking out for my own needs. But when I took Barbara as my wife, I assumed a new and lofty responsibility—loving Barbara as Christ loved the church. That kind of love demanded death to self, but my “self” didn’t want to “die.”
After we were married, it didn’t take Barbara long to learn about my tendency to be lazy, which was closely linked to my enjoyment of television. I thought Saturdays were mine to thoroughly enjoy as I pleased. Following the pattern I’d learned from my dad, I would get soft drinks and chips, crawl into my chair, and settle down to watch hours of baseball, football, tennis, golf—it didn’t matter what the sport. I just wanted to become a giant amoeba, a blob of molecules with flat brain waves mesmerized by hours of being transfixed with the “boob tube.”
What was wrong with this picture? Barbara needed my help in doing tasks and running errands. Then when children came into the picture, SIX IN TEN YEARS, I discovered another “law” of the universe: YOU CAN’T DO MARRIAGE AND RAISE SIX KIDS SUCCESSFULLY AND BE SELFISH SIMULTANEOUSLY!!
Marriage offers a tremendous opportunity to do something about selfishness. Someone may say, “There’s no hope for my husband … I can’t get him to change,” or “What’s the use? She’ll never be any different.”
Barbara and I know there is hope because we’ve learned to apply a plan that is bigger than human self-centeredness. It’s the same plan that Jesus called for when He called the 12 to be His disciples in Matthew 10:38-39. Jesus said, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” And again in Matthew 16:24-25 He taught them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
As we have followed Jesus and sought to deny ourselves, we’ve learned how to set aside our selfish interests for the good of each other as well as for the profit of our marriage.
Willing to be last
We have seen the Bible’s plan work in our lives, and we’re still seeing it work daily. Barbara hasn’t changed me nor have I changed her. God has changed both of us.
The answer for ending selfishness is found in Jesus and His teachings. He showed us that instead of wanting to be first, we must be willing to be last. Instead of wanting to be served, we must serve. Instead of trying to save our lives, we must lose them. We must love our neighbors (our spouses) as much as we love ourselves. In short, if we want to defeat selfishness in our marriage and family, we must give up, give in, and give all.
Philippians 2:1-4 is another foundational passage:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
If we live our lives for ourselves, thinking only of our selfish desires and interests, in the end God gives us exactly what we want: ourselves. Marriage provides the opportunity to live life for someone else and to avoid this terrible conclusion: “All I’ve got is me. I can’t depend on anyone else.” That isn’t a winning way to live because if you live your life for yourself, make a guess what you get in the end: YOURSELF!
The parable of the porcupines
What we need the most is to be in a relationship with another person who accepts us as we are and doesn’t reject us. But the closer I get to Barbara, the more she becomes aware of who I really am and the possibility of her rejecting me grows even greater.
A well-known story catches the pain of the human dilemma when it compares relating to each other to the predicament of two porcupines freezing in the winter cold. Shivering in the frigid air, the two porcupines move closer together to share body heat and warmth. But then their sharp spines and quills prick each other painfully and they move apart, victims once more of the bitter cold around them. Soon they feel they must come together again or freeze to death. But their quills cause too much pain and they have to part again.
Many marriages are just like that. We can’t stand the cold (isolation from each other) but we desperately need to learn how to live with the sharp barbs and quills that are part of coming together in oneness.
Giving up your will
The key to dealing with the barbs and quills that come from selfishness is learning you have to depend on someone else because your other choice is isolation. To experience oneness, you must give up your will for the will of another. But to do this, you must first give up your will and surrender to Christ, and then you will find it possible to give up your will for that of your spouse.
Unless you can give up your will and learn to depend on each other, selfishness will disable or destroy your marriage as you face the difficulties that occur in life. The choices is yours moment by moment of every day.
Adapted with permission from Starting Your Marriage Right, by Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Thomas Nelson Publishers, ©.
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