by Robert Brow (www.brow.onca)  Kingston, Ontario, February 2006


We face a horrendous plague of divorce in our families and among our friends. And the stats are hardly better for churchgoers. We know the financial costs and the hurts that scar the partners and their children. But the good advice of family members and professional counselors seems powerless to save what began as a beautiful marriage. Are we missing the antidote offered in the New Testament?

SOMETHING TO UNDERSTAND The Apostle Paul used the word flesh (Greek sarx) as a shorthand for what we now call our bundle of animal instincts (Romans 7:14-8:9). Like monkeys and cats and ducks we receive the instincts needed for survival via the genes of our parents. This means there is nothing wrong with our God-given drives for self-protection, food and water, territory, sex, curiosity, comfort, gregariousness, pecking order, independence, playfulness, curiosity, nesting and nurturing our young. Among animals the more urgent instinct of self-protection may limit their desire for territory, playfulness, and curiosity.

Among humans there are attempts to discipline our instincts by rules and penalties. Jews used the ten commandments and the laws of Moses based on these. Others derive their rules from the generally accepted standards of western civilization. Some couples make rules for one another based on their own preferences. But, as Paul experienced, even when he tried to do what was right, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very things I hate . . . for I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh: I can will what is right, but I cannot do it" (Romans 7:15-18).

The problem is that none of our instincts motivate us in the direction of our destiny to be in the image of God. "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . So God  created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:26-27). Our inability to live out this divine image is called sin.

SOMETHING TO EXPERIENCE When a marriage is not working out happily, it is important to sense the powerful drives that motivate us and our partner. However much they are in love, a couple is very unlikely to have the same mix of instincts. Some drives are twisted by early childhood traumas. Self-protection may overrule reason. For some women nesting and parenting seem to dominate their lives. Sex and pecking order and aggressive instincts are often dominating drives in men. Some are unbearably playful. Men and women are gregarious in quite different ways.

Usually we prefer to begin with criticism. Why can’t he or she be reasonable and self-controlled like me? At this point Paul recommended compassion, which means feeling with the heart longings of the other. Jesus had said "Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate" (NEB Luke 6:36). And he is described as a high priest who is able to "sympathize with our weaknesses" (Hebrews 4:15). For Paul this included "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). Another apostle wrote "have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind" (1 Peter 3:15). But how do we feel with the other if we find his or her feelings are repugnant and clash with the direction we have in mind?

SOMETHING TO DO  At first sight there is no way out except for divorce, or at least putting up with a miserable marriage. And it is at this point that Paul recommends admitting that we are totally unable to overpower our instincts and feelings. We must reject guilt and deliberately look to the Holy Spirit to work the miracle in us, and hopefully in due course in our partner. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in the Messiah Jesus. For the law (power) of the Spirit of life in the Messiah Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death . . . so that the just requirement of the law (living in the image of God) might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh (natural instincts) set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit" (Romans 8:1-5).

What Paul is recommending is a total change of mind-set. As long as we look at our instinctive feelings and try to control them, God lets us struggle to solve the problem by our own efforts and the advice of others. The alternative is to say "Holy Spirit I can’t do it, and I won’t even try. I expect your mighty power to work the miracle of love in me, and I will praise you when it happens." Paul then added that when Jesus' blood had drained out on the cross, this was the power that he expected to give him his resurrection body. "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Romans 8:11). That is certainly an awesome power.

His solution may seem simplistic, and we can recognize that some marriages are not open to that kind of miraculous intervention. There is no need to condemn those who quit the battle.   But when all our human efforts have failed, and disaster it at hand, surely Paul’s antidote is worth a try. And it costs nothing.


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