This past year has been one of the best years of my marriage. And that’s saying a lot. We’ve wrestled. A lot. There have been lots of ups but lots of downs.
Through some of the really hard times we adopted (and have come to adopt) a mantra that is, well, somewhat embarrassing to share but maybe somewhat humorous, too. Our mantra: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.”
It’s from the sixth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. Chapters 5-6 have talked about relationships in the “households” of the 1st-century world–husband and wife, father/parent and child, slave and master. Immediately following these exhortations about interaction with the people we see every day of our lives is an exhortation on “spiritual warfare.” Hmmm.
Ephesians has much to say about so-called spiritual forces, so I don’t want to overplay the connection. On the other hand, to compartmentalize and say, “Here are family relationships here, and over here we have spiritual warfare” would be foreign to Paul. Right in the middle of chapter, in an exhortation addressing deception and anger, we find the following: “Putting off falsehood, each one must speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are all members of one another….do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give an opportunity to the devil.”
So what lies underneath the intimate issues in our marriages and families? According to Ephesians, an entire unseen realm, a deeper cosmic battle.
If so, the battle lines have completely shifted and an unexpected and awkward alliance is possible, an alliance that holds real promise. With this shift in battle lines comes a critical question: as I have wallowed in disappointment and self-pity, on whose side have I been fighting? As I have prosecuted and accused, in whose service have I been? We discover, to our shame, that we are, both of us, casualties (and instigators) of friendly fire.
Paul’s discussion on spiritual warfare begins with a general exhortation to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Interestingly, the first specific command that follows is: “Stand firm, then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist.”
I’m not certain what exactly what Paul has in mind by “truth” but in my marriage one of the most powerful sources of life (or, perhaps more accurately, death that brings life) is speaking the truth about oneself–confession. In (nearly) 15 years of marriage in my guilt I have regularly groaned to myself and thought, “What possible good can come from confessing this (yet again)?” And in that time I am always, always amazed that he is able to use my confession to grow me, to grow my wife, and to bring life, intimacy, and a renewed sense of mission to our marriage.
Why is this? The Evil One is the Father of Lies. He cannot stand the truth. Jesus said, “All those on the side of the truth listen to me. When we confess our sin, the old order–the order governed by sin and death–is pushed back, subdued, exposed, and the new order, the order of the Spirit (the Spirit of Truth) enters in and encounter resurrection life; something in us that we did not know was dead has been resurrected: we feel truly human.
If Paul first calls us to put on the belt of truth, the final thing he mentions in his exhortation on spiritual warfare is to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayer and requests.”
Along with confession, nothing has impacted my marriage more than regular prayer together, prayer “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Stopping to acknowledge our Father has often exposed us (like kids caught with hands in the cookie jar), encouraged us, empowered us, united us. We are reoriented, reinvigorated, renewed. Some days our prayers are just a few lines shared on the way out the door in the morning or before dozing off. Most days, however, there are words of praise (some stale, some fresh); there are last-minute thankful recollections of specific, fresh evidences of our Father’s provision or answered prayer; broken words of confusion, even lament; sundry requests for the day; confession and requests for forgiveness for harsh words, lust, impatience, cynicism, self-importance, joylessness in parenting; the permanent petitions for triumph over besetting sins, for renewed affections (e.g., hatred for a beloved sin), for struggles in marriage, for “the kids,” for strained relationships; for struggling believers, for specific non-Christians, for our church, and the cities of Durham and Chapel Hill. It all ends with a plea for his kingdom to come, with a fresh abandonment of self and a renewed declaration of allegiance to our crucified, resurrected, reigning Lord: “Not our will, but your will be done.”
Confession. Prayer. Powerful weapons shared by an intimate allies in a struggle that is not against flesh and blood.