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Mercy & Justice: A Healthy Marriage Balances Both. Here’s How to Do That.

What’s the best way to grow towards intimacy with your husband?

Hint: that’s a trick question.

There’s actually not a correct answer to that question, because there’s not a universal BEST way. There is only what God would have you do, in this particular moment. And that may vary for different marriages, and even over the years for your own marriage.

I’m not saying that truth is relative, by the way, or that sin is ever okay. I’m only saying that the right thing to do is highly contingent on what’s going on in your marriage at the time, and in what God is doing behind the scenes. And that’s not always straightforward.

Let me explain with a story, and then with a verse.

This month on the blog we’re looking at how small changes can make big differences in a marriage. I started out last week looking at how it’s important to speak up when something is bothering us, and to do something about it if our spouse is underfunctioning. I gave an example from the book Mended that I had read, where the husband would go to a potluck at church and do the rounds, talking to everyone, and routinely leave the wife responsible for corralling all four kids on her own.

Then I suggested that what she could do is leave the kids with him at the next potluck, so that he would experience what that felt like. That suggestion made sense to me, because I had read the book and knew everything that led up to this (his workaholism; his being warned by friends and pastors that he was neglecting his family; his wife trying to bring up issues to no avail). But doing that out of left field would be major escalation, and likely not a good idea. There are several steps that would be better to do first, like talking it through, trying to manage the kids together, etc.

At the same time, when a husband has never looked after all of the kids, and routinely ignores the kids when in public with his wife, and this has been a chronic problem which he refuses to address, I do think that her taking some drastic steps to show him what it is like, and to refuse to go out to public events anymore may be warranted, for her own sanity.

So how do you tell when you should do something mild, and how do you tell when you need firmer boundaries?

That’s where Micah 6:8 comes in! The verse says:

Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Okay, so we’re to act justly–to do what is right and good and which brings about God’s kingdom on earth–but we’re also to love mercy, which means foregoing justice at times and forgiving offences.

Notice how these two things are in opposition to one another?

Act justly says that we are to pursue God’s justice. Love mercy means that we are to forgive and excel in kindness and generosity.

That’s why the last bit of the verse is actually the most important: You’re to walk humbly with your God.

To walk with God means that God is ever-present in your daily life. Throughout the day, your mind and heart are focused on Him. You think about the things of God. You read Scripture and pray. You try to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.

But you do this with a certain attitude: humility. You don’t walk with God assuming that you know all the answers. You don’t regard God as a Santa Claus, that you can just appease and then He’ll give you what you want. No, you’re humble, realizing that He is God and you are not, and His thoughts are not as your thoughts. He is above you. Thus, you need to listen to God, not dictate to God.

The only way that you can find the balance between justice and mercy in your marriage is to walk humbly with God, because He may want you to do things that He is not asking a friend of yours to do. He may want you to bear up with some problems for years as God works on your husband’s heart. Or He may want you to take action sooner, to allow your husband to feel the consequences of his actions, because only then will your husband be motivated to change.

We often get the balance between justice and mercy backwards in our marriages.

Many people, in the little things in marriage, and in the early years of marriage, lean too heavily on the justice side. They become angry at their spouses very easily. They assume that their spouses are deliberately hurting them, rather than simply being clueless about how you see the world. They become disdainful when the spouse doesn’t meet their expectations, which are usually unrealistic anyway. And this builds a distance between them that could have been forged if people just learned how to be kind to one another, believe the best, and bring things up in a way that doesn’t heap blame and guilt but instead just shares our heart.

On the other hand, when crises hit a marriage, and when a spouse is truly behaving badly, many people lean too much on the mercy side of the equation. We’re so scared the marriage is going to fall apart that we’re willing to overlook just about anything if it can just keep the marriage together. We’ll turn ourselves inside out, seeing how we can change ourselves and be nicer, rather than taking a step back and letting the spouse reap what he or she sows. In a way, we are treating marriage as an idol, afraid of losing it, instead of allowing God’s purposes to reign.

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We are steadfast and immovable when we should be merciful, and merciful when we should be steadfast and immovable.

We need to get the balance right, and the only way to do that is to walk with God, see what God’s purposes are, and align ourselves with them.

God’s general purposes for marriage are that we love each other, support each other, and grow intimacy as we demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit.

God’s specific purposes for your marriage may be very different. He may be writing a big story of redemption and reconciliation, and He may want you to endure a lot, for a season. Or He may be wanting to free both of you from something that is holding you in bondage, and that freedom will only come with drastic action. That’s why, while I may give some general thoughts on principles on how we should approach certain issues, in each marriage it honestly may be different, because God is writing a different story. You need to have mentor couples or counselors from a good, healthy Christian community alongside you who can guide you through difficult times.

One more thought: The Christian culture often gives us too few tools to help our marriages.

I’ll go on Pinterest and I’ll see a post saying, “what to do when your husband uses porn”, and I’ll read through it, and ultimately the only action it gives is “pray”. I’ll read a headline about what to do if you’re distant in your marriage, and the only answer given is “submit”. This goes for men as well–all they often hear is “love her sacrificially.”

Think about how many resources you can name where the main message is to pray for your spouse. Now, I firmly believe in prayer. I pray for my family daily, and I have wrestled in prayer for all of them repeatedly. But we forget something important about prayer. Prayer is not ONLY the battle; it is also fortification for the battle ahead that we may be asked to fight, as I shared in this post about The War Room movie:

I see [getting our marriage on track] as a three part battle:

  1. We do battle to get our hearts right.
  2. We bang on the gates of heaven on behalf of our husband’s heart and soul
  3. We ask God for direction on what steps we should take to bring His will and His kingdom into our marriage.

There’s not a lot of good teaching on #3. There’s a lot on #2, and a little bit on #1. But #3 is almost completely lacking.

Nevertheless, in Scripture we’re told to do more than pray. We’re to rescue the wandering believer (James 5:19-20). We’re to confront someone in sin (Matthew 18:15-20). We’re to make peace (Romans 12:18). If all we’re to do is to pray, then James would have written: if  you see a believer wandering, pray for him–and left it at that. But he didn’t!

Here’s something even more startling: there are times when we AREN’T supposed to pray until things are right in the physical world.If you go to offer your gift at the altar, or if you go to take communion, and you remember that you have caused offense to someone, you go and make that right first. Sometimes not acting in the physical realm prevents our prayers from being answered.

So let’s make sure that we understand all THREE battlegrounds: our hearts; the spiritual realm; and the physical realm where we interact.

In most marriages, for most marriage problems, we need to focus a whole lot more on the mercy and kindness side of the equation.

That’s what I’ll be talking about in the next two weeks as we look further at how to grow towards intimacy and feel close. We’ll be looking at how to share your heart in a way that doesn’t blame or heap guilt, but just builds oneness.

But we also need tools for acting justly, when that is what God is calling you to do.

My book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage has several thoughts teaching us how to explore the mercy side of the equation, but then spends 3 thoughts on the justice side. In fact, I use Micah 6:8 as the anchor verse for the book! If you’re struggling with what this would actually look like in a marriage, I encourage you to pick that up.

Do you have a hard time asking for what you want?

You can change the dynamic in your marriage and make talking about your own needs easier!

So today, ask God: How can I love mercy more? How can I act justly in my marriage? And then take time to listen, and see what He says.