Building on what I wrote yesterday about acceptance and godliness, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between acceptance and godliness in relationships. Just as Christians often mix acceptance (justification) and behaviour (sanctification) in relating to God so the two can become mixed in our minds in marriage. The result of mixing acceptance with behaviour is marital stress or failure.
1. The failed marriage or relationship: conditional acceptance and ungodly living
Most couples confuse acceptance with tolerance, “I put up with him doing that because he loves me.” When the behaviour of a partner becomes intolerable, however, acceptance turns to rejection and the marriage or relationship fails.
2. The stressed marriage or relationship: conditional acceptance with godly living.
This is the basis of the relationship for most co-habiting couples and some marriages, “We’ll see how it goes, so far we’ve been happy together because we get on well, we don’t do anything to upset each other.” Stress is found in the relationship because neither party is ever sure that the relationship will last because we are only as good as our last game. When the relationship comes under strain, often through circumstances outside the home such as bereavement or redundancy, the demands of having to perform to be accepted become self-defeating. As one or both partners demand that the other ups their game, the emphasis on performance leads to an even greater emphasis on failures, past and present. Resentment builds and the relationship is destroyed as one or both partners tread on eggshells for fear of behaving unacceptably.
3. The stressed marriage: unconditional acceptance with ungodly living.
The stress in this marriage is caused by presumption. “She said she would stick by me through thick and thin, so I can do what I like, I don’t need to change.” Through a loyalty to promises, a fear of failure, a determination to make things work or belief that marriage is for life, this couple will press on in a loveless, independent relationship, as one or both lives to please themselves.
4. The good marriage: unconditional acceptance with godly living.
This is not a perfect marriage, there is no such thing, sin ensures all marriages have some degree of stress. But this is the best marriage can be. Acceptance and behaviour are not mixed. Acceptance is unconditional. It is offered and assumed by both parties. Within the security of unconditional acceptance, for better or for worse, neither partner needs to worry that their performance might not be good enough. Yet, because of the grace, love and mercy of unconditional acceptance, this couple lacks presumption. They want to do what’s best for each other, they know their sin and their need to grow and mature. To grow in godliness, we need feedback, “How am I doing? Am I spending enough time with you? Am I doing my bit?” These questions are not shaped out of a need to save the relationship but to make it better. It is the man’s responsibility to take the lead in doing this (Ephesians 5).
This marriage reflects Christ’s relationship with his church, as anyone who acknowledges their sin and trusts in the death of Christ is accepted by God (Ephesians 2:4-9). God’s acceptance is not conditional upon our behaviour but on remaining loyal to the promises God made in Christ. The behaviour of a true believer never threatens his acceptance before God. And so, through being justified by faith alone, grace alone and Christ alone, sinners are free to grow in Christ-likeness without the anxiety of losing their salvation, motivated instead by the love, mercy and grace of God.