Excerpts from Chapter 3

The Fog of War and the Law of Sin

Preparing for the Inevitable


Fighting for Freedom in the Clash of Desires

The members of the young church in Galatia were confused. Judaizers—the men who stalked Paul and sought to preach their own false version of the gospel—had crept in after his departure to draw these new believers back to formal religious practices rooted in Old Testament law. Paul would have none of it. His letter to the Galatians is his eloquent and impassioned defense of justification through grace by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

In the letter we learn something wonderful. Those who are in Christ through faith in the gospel are truly free in Christ—free from the burden of trying to justify themselves by obeying Old Testament law (Galatians 5:1). I’m thankful that Paul, who understood so much about the sinfulness of his own heart, anticipated where the Galatians (and you and I) might go with that freedom. No longer bound by the burden of religious performance, we are apt to interpret our freedom as a license for ungodliness. Therefore Paul warned, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Paul does not want us to remain under the tyranny of the law. Nor does he want us to abuse our liberty in Christ by embracing sin. His solution to both errors is the same. We must fight for freedom—freedom in Christ and because of Christ. See how clear Paul is about the conflict sin produces in our hearts, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17).

There it is. The sides in this war are not male versus female, husband versus wife, or controller versus enabler. It is a clash of desires—desires of the flesh against desires of the Spirit. It is trench warfare for supremacy of the human heart.

In Scripture, “the flesh” is another way of talking about the ongoing principle of sin. In fact, there are quite a few phrases used by Christians that all mean pretty much the same thing: “indwelling sin,” “remaining sin,” “the sin nature,” “the flesh,” and “the old man,” to name a few. Some of these appear in Scripture and some don’t, but every good spouse-theologian should understand that they all refer to the sin we each carry in our hearts. Whatever you call it, the goal of “the flesh” is simple: “to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5: 17).

John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” eloquently described his experience of Galatians 5, “I [do not want] to be the sport and prey of wild, vain, foolish, and worse imaginations; but this evil is present within me: my heart is like a highway, like a city without walls or gates.”

Newton was expressing something that married people discover quickly, sometimes even before the honeymoon: there is an evil “present within me.” Although the penalty for my sin has been paid by Christ, sin still remains, and it can keep me from doing the things I want to do.

You realize, don’t you, that there are desires within you that organize to oppose the good things you want to do in marriage? When we’re not moving toward God, these desires don’t cause any trouble. But just try, for example, to plan a regular prayer time with your spouse. Or seek to make yourself accountable in an area in which he or she would like you to grow. How about when you start to confess a “small” sin, and suddenly you want to point out the really “big” sin your spouse dumped on you last week? Your warring, sinful desires come out swinging. Why? Because their purpose is to keep you from doing the things you want to do for God.

Despite the clarity of Paul’s statement, married people sometimes assume that the cause of some of their wrong behavior is their spouse. They may even try to justify sinful words and deeds on that basis.

This is how it works (trust me, I know). Here I sit, just a plain ole’ loveable bundle of neutrality and noble-heartedness, minding my own business, when my wife says or does something which, from my unassailable vantage point, clearly crosses a line. Acting swiftly and efficiently as a judge and jury of one, I evaluate her behavior as obviously sinful. Hers is a transgression that demands my just but resolute response. In order to deal swiftly with any violation of my emotional air space or risk a breach of my personal security, I must expose her sin plainly and condemn it openly. If this creates a negative impact on my wife—the clear aggressor in my mind—well, a “stern” response from me is unfortunate but necessary to maintain the peace. In fact, I’m simply engaged in an act of leadership; perhaps she’ll learn a lesson for the future.

Yes, it feels right, doesn’t it—it seems so clear. But it’s just my sinful flesh doing what it does best: making war against the Spirit and, in this case, against Kimm as well.

Kimm tells me that she can feel a similar soul skirmish when her desires collide with my legitimate leadership. Ladies, can you relate? Should your husband suggest drawing a warm bath with fragrant bubbles for you, marriage is suddenly bliss, just short of Eden. But what happens when that same leadership interferes with your plans? Do the words, “Dear, could you . . . ” become his fingernails on the chalkboard of your agenda for the day?

For a busy wife with a full life, the unexpected input or leadership of a husband can seem like an ambush on her priorities. Kimm often has a plan for the day, with a lot to do. That plan reflects her sincere desire to serve the best interests of our marriage and family. But if my request threatens to restructure her day or week, altering her carefully arranged schedule, that noble desire can quickly become a subtle craving to manage and control her life on her own terms. Suddenly my “Honey, would you . . .” becomes a suggestion grenade that sets off a battle within her. She doesn’t want a Spirit/flesh battle at that moment, but she gets it.

If blaming your spouse for actually causing your own sin sounds maybe just a little suspect, how much stranger is it to blame the marriage itself? Is it just me, or do we all do that sometimes?

“I’m fine when I’m at work,” a spouse might say. “It’s not until I get home that the battle begins.” How easy it is to use the phrase, “We’re having marriage problems,” as if the marriage created them.

“Hey, bro, can you pray for me? My marriage is having some problems (or stranger still, some “issues”). Oh, me? No, I’m fine. Just gotta deal with these marriage problems, you know what I mean?”

This whole idea of seeing God, yourself, and your marriage for what they truly are is all about clear, biblical thinking. Locating the source of your marriage problems in your marriage is like saying the Battle of Bull Run was caused by some really troubled farmland. The battle was fought on farmland, but its cause lay elsewhere.

Read an excerpt from Chapter 4

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