Heath: Our guests this week are Jim and Caroline Newheiser. They are counselors certified with ACBC. Jim is actually a fellow with ACBC and is a board member and he is also the executive director of IBCD, the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship in southern California. We are happy they are here with us today. They are a delightful couple to know. We are talking this week about conflict but not conflict in the way we ordinarily think of it. Often when we think about conflict we are talking about resolving conflict that has already happened. I wanted the Newheisers to join us this week to talk about staying ahead of conflict. We want to help you develop practices in your marriage that work to undercut conflict before it happens. Jim and Caroline, we are happy that you are here. Could you talk to us about nurturing attitudes in your marriage for one another that work to undermine conflict before it happens.
Caroline: I think it is excellent that you are starting with this because biblical counseling wants to prevent problems. We want to have one another care happening in the church where people are learning how to handle conflict before it even happens in order to prevent conflict.
Jim: I think the key to having the right attitude towards the other person is having the right attitude towards Christ. If you see yourself as chief of sinners and you are daily marveling that God shows you mercy then when someone sins against you, grace is going to come out rather then law and wrath. The key is your attitude towards the Lord and having a gracious disposition based on the gospel because as two sinners living together, there will be tension, there will be this build-up you are describing and you are going to get squeezed. We have been married for 36 years and every day there is squeezing going on, but it is what is inside of you that is going to come out when you are squeezed. Since you do not know when the squeezing is going to happen you want to be very careful in your own walk with the Lord.
Caroline: That’s right. And to recognize that God is in control of all things and its not up to us to take action and make change happen in our spouse. That’s a place of rest and peace.
Heath: That’s really helpful. So when you talk about these kinds of attitudes you’re talking about focusing on yourself as a sinner and then trusting in the Lord with your spouse. Well, if we move from attitudes to actions what are some things that we can do in marriage to serve, to so love and care for our spouse, that it works to undercut conflict before it happens?
Jim: I think one aspect, kind of getting back to the attitudes, Heath, is that having recognized that I am a sinner who has received much mercy, I must remember that I married someone who’s not perfect and she is going to sin. It is inevitable in the course of a week or a day. So I should not be shocked by that or be judgmental of that but remember that God has made my role to be a helper and healer not a judge and a punisher. I must realize that my job in being an instrument of her sanctification is to gently restore her. The alternative is the temptation when one party sins to think “Now I’ve got you.” And taking a shot in judgment instead of saying, “Okay, you’re wounded. How can I participate in the healing?”
Caroline: Also the wife can understand God’s role for her from 1 Peter 3:6. She’s obeying in God and she’s hoping in God. Hoping that God would work in her husband. The wife is resting in the Lord and she is not fearful. She is not fearing anything that is frightening.
Heath: What about this? We’re not talking about the large context of your marriage when we’re generally trying to love one another well. Instead we’re talking about the tense moments in marriage. Maybe its everybody is scrambling to get out the door to go to church or to make it to work or some event. There is stress in the home. A bill just came due. Everybody has had those moments in marriage where you feel the pressure, there’s the tension in the air, and you’ve got a moment where you could say words that are going to ignite a conflict or throw a wet towel on conflict. What are words and things that we can do to help in that moment when we feel the stress and the frustration?
Jim: Ephesians 4 says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity” (Ephesians 4:26-27). I don’t think it means sunset. It can be ten minutes before you walk out the door for church. If you allow your frustration to build instead of dealing with it in a godly, humble, biblical way you can begin what could be days of tension in your home that are unresolved. Instead you need to love peace and to recognize that very quickly the issue becomes not the fact that your spouse is late, or your shirt wasn’t ironed, or these hassles that are going on but now your big issues are relationship. You must be willing to make every effort to pursue the peace that’s so important for your relationship for the home, for your ability to care for others.
Caroline: I’d like to communicate to my husband and I advise women to communicate that they are a team that I am on your side. I want to help you. I want to make things easier. And again, lack of speech in those tense situations just even to say I’ll pray about that. Like if there’s a discussion of what should we do, “I will pray about that,” or, “I’ll pray for you to have wisdom in that decision.”
Heath: What about a woman that’s listening to this right now. She’s on her way home from some place and she’s going to open up the mailbox and she’s going to get a late notice about a bill that her husband told her he was going to pay. She’s going to open that with him standing right there and she’s going to feel the pressure to say, “I thought you paid this!” or “You always do this!” She says it in that elevated tone that communicates what she’s thinking about that. When she’s holding the bill in her hand, what might she do in that moment to jerk the wheel away from conflict?
Caroline: It’s always good to consider our words before we say them. So just a deep breath. As we know, a gentle answer turns away wrath. “Lord, work in my heart.” Those are quick prayers we can say. We need to pick our moments and sometimes when things are already tense we need to wait until things have calmed down and bring it up in a calm moment.
Jim: I think that’s a great and typical scenario that really illustrates what we’ve been talking about in her flesh, if you’re thinking about the deeds of the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit and the deeds of the flesh, her flesh wants to engage in an outburst of anger, she wants to indulge in judgment. Somehow in her flesh she feels like there is going to be some pleasure or relief in venting that anger upon her husband. But none of that is going to make the situation better and none of that is going to honor Christ. If she’s supposed to be his helper how can she help him to be a more godly man? How can she, as Galatians 6 says, gently restore him looking to herself so that she will not be tempted. She has to be in the Spirit and approach him before she speaks thinking, “Am I speaking with love, joy, peace, patience, all of these?” If my heart is not there, I’m just going to come like he’s got a speck in his eye and come at him with rusty garden shears, “I’m going to take that speck out of you,” and its just going to infect the eye. It’s not going to heal him. Her job is to be a healer with her fellow sinner. And it’s not that he hasn’t done something wrong, but to come as a judge and a destroyer, it’s just going to make the situation worse. And it’s going to dishonor the Lord and it’s not going to reflect the grace of the Gospel as pictured by the unmerciful servant. She as she realizes how much God has forgiven her is not going to be wrapping her hands around his throat and saying, “Pay what you owe!”
Caroline: And if she’s a woman who does not fear anything that is frightening (1 Peter 3:1-6), she puts her hope in God, then her heart will be at peace and that will help her with her speech.
Jim Newheiser is the executive director of IBCD. Dr. Newheiser has been appointed as the new head of the counseling program at Reformed Theological Seminary in their Charlotte campus.
For more information to help couples avoid conflict, check out our Denver Fundamentals Track.
This is an edited transcript from the ACBC podcast, Truth in Love.