Director of Family Ministries
General Conference of SDA
Summary: We learn that our differences as husbands and wives serve a special purpose in our Christian growth. God uses these differences as resources to bring benefit to us, to cultivate “mutual consideration,” “forbearance,” to soften prejudices, and to smooth “rough points of character.” Perhaps the greatest insight of all is that He designed for persons with differences to dwell together.
May we open ourselves to the moving of God’s Spirit in our families to make us stewards of the resources of temperament, personality, gifts and skills with which He has entrusted us.
The challenge of differences
Noted family therapist Dr. Carl Whitaker has said, “A healthy marriage really is a blending of two foreign cultures.” Cultures other than our own seem foreign to us because of their differing understandings and ways of doing things. It is a given that all married people will confront differences or “differentness.” Marital differences can pose a divide not unlike that found between people groups living a world apart.
Differences complicate the simplistic view of love and married life that most couples have in the beginning. It’s typical to try to avoid our differences by denying them. Newlyweds, flushed with the romantic feelings of what one author calls the “dream” phase of marriage, avoid confronting differences. This is the stage in the marriage lifecycle when we work tirelessly at trying to change our partner to be more like ourselves. Efforts to change one another usually prove to be ill-advised, however. While partners may endeavor to accommodate each other, sweeping changes in either one are unlikely to occur. Furthermore, the only individual one ultimately has any ability to change is oneself.
Sooner or later, the “dream” phase of marriage tends to dissipate in most couples, giving rise to what Augsburger calls “disillusionment.” Differences now kindle disagreements and disagreements often grow into anger and conflict. If unresolved, such anger and conflict can lead to resentment, bitterness and alienation. There may be endless controversy and argument in the marriage. Or the conflict can become so painful that, sadly, one partner capitulates to the other and surrenders his or her personality and will. Many simply withdraw emotionally from each other’s lives, resigned to live lives out of reach of each other, like “ships that pass in the night” in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Still others seek to escape the relationship through separation or divorce.
Ultimately, the way we deal with our differences determines the quality of our marriages, our families, and our friendships. The quality of our church family relationships is also dependent upon the way we handle our differences as believers.
A Christian approach to differences
Ellen White talked about the need for believers to acknowledge and accept that the body of Christ would be made up of widely differing peoples, with a spectrum of attitudes and experience:
We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experience is alike in every particular. The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing (Gospel Workers, p. 473).
Mrs. White understood too, that there would be differences and diversity within Christian homes and families. What is true of the church at large is also true, of course, of the smallest church—the Christian household. In addition to acknowledging and accepting the fact of this diversity within the home, family members are called to respect one another—to “sacredly regard the feelings and respect the right of the others.” Notice her comments:
Marked diversities of disposition and character frequently exist in the same family, for it is in the order of God that persons of varied temperament should associate together. When this is the case, each member of the household should sacredly regard the feelings and respect the right of the others. By this means mutual consideration and forbearance will be cultivated, prejudices will be softened, and rough points of character smoothed. Harmony may be secured, and the blending of the varied temperaments may be a benefit to each (Adventist Home, p. 427).
We should note here that the notions of accepting differences and respecting people different from us are intended to help facilitate the process of Christian growth in couples and families who are led by the Spirit, where there is goodwill toward one another, and where people are endeavoring to live lives worthy of the calling they have received, “completely humble and gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1, 2). While God’s love extends to embrace sinners entangled in the darkest sin, accepting and respecting are not expected on the part of a spouse in circumstances in which a partner is abusive or demonstrates pathological behavior. These behaviors destroy others, and no amount of accepting and respecting are likely to induce change or produce the intimacy that the caring partner seeks.
Differences as a resource
Acknowledge, accept, respect. For couples to make that much progress on the continuum as they revisit their differences is truly a profound accomplishment. But what of enjoying and treasuring? Is it possible to go that far—to actually take delight in and celebrate our differences?
One of the insights that broke over us as we pondered the good news that each of us is loved by God and given gifts by His Spirit is that God intends for these gifts to be useful in our experience in marriage and family—the smallest church—just as they are to be used in the context of the wider body of Christ. We once responded to our local church pastor’s request to present a marriage sermon. “Let’s prepare the new sermon we’ve been thinking about,” we said to each other. Ron shouldered the responsibility of writing the first draft. He worked at it off and on for several weeks, but as the appointed Sabbath drew near, the preparation stalled. Friday night came. Only a rough outline with some ideas had been completed. Ron worked a few more hours and then, despairing and fatigued, lay down to sleep for awhile. Karen took up his place at the computer, opened up the rough outline he’d cobbled together and began to write . . . .
Arising well before dawn, Ron found Karen asleep, but with a sermon waiting for him at his desk. Ah, what a sermon! He picked up the fresh manuscript and read it. It was everything he could have hoped for! It put flesh and blood on the bones of the outline he’d left. There was nothing to do but to thank God for her and the sermon and to concentrate on learning his part. His eyes misted over as he thought about how their differences had often left them frustrated. Yet those same differences also provided great strengths, now visible in this truly joint effort. Many commented later that Sabbath after the sermon had been given on the blessing it was to hear us preach on “Becoming Us.” The consciousness of being used together in this way has brought us no end of wonder and satisfaction.
Our differences represent a priceless beneficial resource in our marriages. Whitaker makes an interesting point when he says:
Our differences are what allow us to expand. The capacity to really engage in a bilateral process of mutual contamination is central to a dynamic, rather than static relationship. As we rub off on each other, we are enriched. This idea of “rubbing off on each other” sounds very much like Ellen White when she wrote:
By this means [persons of varied temperament dwelling together in a family] mutual consideration and forbearance will be cultivated, prejudices will be softened, and rough points of character smoothed. Harmony may be secured, and the blending of the varied temperaments may be a benefit to each (Adventist Home, p. 427).
The order of God
From this perspective, we see that our differences as husbands and wives serve a special purpose in our Christian growth. God uses these differences as resources to bring benefit to us, to cultivate “mutual consideration,” “forbearance,” to soften prejudices, and to smooth “rough points of character.” Perhaps the greatest insight of all is that He designed for persons with differences to dwell together. “[I]t is in the order of God that persons of varied temperament should associate together” (Adventist Home, p. 427). Sometimes along the journey of marriage it is not easy to see the purpose of God or His design in our being together, but in hindsight it can be seen how He has worked good out of our differentness. That is cause for celebration!
An ancient proverb of Solomon tells us:
If two lie side by side, they keep each other warm; but how can one keep warm by himself? If a man is alone, an assailant may overpower him, but two can resist; and a cord of three strands is not quickly snapped (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NEB).
Christian couples know it is the presence of a divine Third Person entwined with the two of them that makes a strong cord that resists breakage. May God open our eyes to view one another as partners with eyes to see that we really need each other, that the qualities each individual brings can be a blessing to us personally and to our home. May we open ourselves to the moving of God’s Spirit in our marriage to make us stewards of the resources of temperament, personality, gifts, and skills with which He has entrusted us.