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How to Reconcile Irreconcilable Differences

grey bucket on brown wooden surface

In my pastoral experience, I have found that many engaged couples expect marriage to fix the problems that exist in their dating relationship.

Conflict will evaporate in the atmosphere of marital bliss, right? Wrong. Big-time wrong.

Marriage is not going to fix your problems. It will only make them worse.

This is the point of Dave Harvey's helpful book on marriage When Sinners Say I Do.

Marriage is like putting two betas in the same tank. While we're not fish, we do have sinful natures (i.e., the flesh) that tend to provoke other sinners. Even in marriage. Maybe, especially marriage.

But you already know that. 🙂

There will be problems in any and every relationship. No way around it. But we can possess tools that can help us deal with it. Simply getting married is not one of those tools.

Like an automobile, a marriage needs maintenance to run effectively for years down the road. But if we don’t have the tools to deal with problems as they arise, then the marriage (like a car) will continue to experience more problems until it just breaks down and stalls out.

We need tools that will help us face the inevitable marital conflict.

Conflict over money. Conflict over the in-laws. Conflict over raising kids. Conflict over which way the toilet paper should face on the roll!

Anything can be fodder for an argument.

So, let me briefly explain why this is and then give you practical solutions for resolving conflict in a way that can enable your marriage to be even stronger after the conflict than before.

Yes, irreconcilable differences can be reconciled.

Why We Fight

The Bible addresses the human condition with stark honesty. It does not sugarcoat the reality of the universal problem that a “sin nature” is hardwired into every man and woman on the planet.

This “sin nature” is the operating system from birth. Meaning, unless someone receives the gift of God’s indwelling Spirit to give new direction to one’s life (a new operating system that has the ability to override the old one), the “sin nature” will be the primary influence driving a person’s desires, emotions, thoughts, and actions.

Even if we can’t physically dissect this part of the human person, we can see the symptoms of its presence.

One way this “sin nature” is revealed is the way it always wants to be right. It must be right and will defend itself to the death when accused of being wrong. This is why so much marital conflict is over who is right and who is wrong. If both of us demand to be right and refuse to give up any ground, a verbal war may ensue.

Our Options

What are the ways to end a war? There essentially are two options.

Option 1: Conquer

On one hand, one side wins by conquering the other. However, the cost in lives and infrastructure is often considerable. Yes, there is a winner, but there is also a great deal of destruction left in the wake of victory.

The same thing can happen in marital conflict. When both sides are determined to win, the combatants, like in war, will hurl artillery at the enemy. One side attacks on the offensive while the other fires back in self-defense. On and on goes the war, until the verbal damage is practically irreparable.

Sometimes, the furniture is irreparable, too.

So, the first option is to conquer. To win. To be right.

Option 2: Ceasefire

On the other hand, another way the war can come to an end is through a cease-fire, when one of the two combatants is willing to lay down his or her weapons and stop defending and attacking.

This plan of action sounds awfully risky. Even naive. If I put my weapons down, won’t I get crushed?


But just like it takes two to tango, it takes two to fight. If one side decides not to fight, the war slowly but surely will come to an end.

The critical question to ask is how someone is able to stop lobbing grenades. How can I be willing to not have to be right?

Here is the key.

We need to find out “right-ness” outside of ourselves.

Interestingly, this is the core message of the Bible, which acknowledges that we are sinners who demand to be right… but are not right. At least when we stand before the revealed standard of God, we are not in the right. We are in the wrong.

The message of the Bible is that the only one who has ever lived a “right” life was Jesus. Yet he is willing to take all of my wrong upon himself. This is what the cross is about, where he serves the ultimate sentence for my offenses so that I can receive the record of his perfect right-ness as my own record.

Living with this gift-right-ness (which theologically we call justification) is the power to opt for the ceasefire and work toward reconciliation.

The Grade Exchange and the Green Jacket

Think of this as a grade exchange. I make an F. Jesus makes an A. On the cross, he invites me to trade my F for his A.

Repentance is simply admitting my failure. Faith is receiving his perfect record as my own. In the eyes of heaven, I am now completely “in the right.” But this rightness is not because of my actual rightness, but because of Jesus’s actual rightness that he has given to me as a new grade.

Each April, the winner of the Master’s Golf Championship in Augusta, Georgia receives a special green jacket worn only by the elite few who win the tournament. The “grade exchange” is like the winner of the Master’s Golf Championship giving me his green jacket to wear… as if I’d won it!

Did I win it? No. Did I earn it? No. Do I deserve it? Again, no.

But that’s how the gospel works.

Jesus earns the green jacket of perfect obedience, just like the A+. Faith is believing that he gifts me that jacket to wear.

Wearing the gift-rightness of Jesus (like a prized Masters jacket) enables me to find my identity, not in my rightness but in his. When I put on his rightness (i.e., righteousness) as my record, I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to defend.

I can be wrong.

Which means I no longer have to fight.

A Practical Example: Unclogging the Drain

Years ago, in a house far, far away, our sink disposal was unable to process either broccoli stalks or eggshells. I discussed this with Kristy, reminding her not to put eggshells down the disposal, because when the disposal gets clogged, unclogging the drain is a messy business.

You have to crawl under the sink, pull everything out, unscrew the pipes, and let the clog drain out into a bucket.

But it always spews.

One afternoon I came home from work and noticed water standing in the sink.

It was clogged again. I had told Kristy not to put eggshells down the drain. My frustration grew.

I went through the process of pulling everything out from under the sink, unscrewing the pipes, and getting muck in my face as the clog spewed into the bucket.

To my dismay, as I looked in the bucket, I not only detected eggshells but broccoli stalks. My broccoli stalks from dinner the night before.

As I looked into the blue plastic bucket, I was struck by the fact that my wife and I both had contributed to the clog.

That’s the way it usually is with marriage clogs. Which provides a hugely helpful model for how to deal with conflict clogs.

Rather than assume the clog is the other’s fault, I need to look in the bucket for what I contributed to the clog.

It all stinks.

But when I can identify my junk, my spouse has the opportunity to forgive me.

And when my spouse identifies her junk, I’m able to forgive her.

This is the secret to resolving conflict. Repentance and forgiveness. Over and over again.

This is how irreconcilable differences become reconcilable.

Or to change metaphors, it’s like changing the oil in an automobile. It’s messy but necessary because fresh oil helps keep the car running smoothly.

Just like fresh grace.

The kind of grace that flows from the cross.

Discussion Starters

  1. Why is it so unnatural to suspect yourself of contributing to a marriage clog?
  2. How can looking in the bucket to identify and own your own junk be a helpful step in the right direction? How does the gospel empower us to do that?
  3. Why do we tend to point out our spouse’s junk rather than our own?
  4. How is defensiveness a red flag of gospel resistance?
  5. What might it look like to wear the green jacket of Jesus’ gift-righteousness? How could that affect your marriage?

If you’re interested in more content like this, you may like The 7-Day Marriage Reboot.