When we forget that evil exists within our own hearts; indeed, when we stop ordering our thinking and feeling around God and begin to live to please ourselves, we open the door to all kinds of evil in our marriage, especially the evil we are most likely to be unaware of or excuse: the evil of self-obsession.
We don’t like to talk about this evil as it pertains to us (though we’ll talk plenty about our spouse’s failures in this regard), but silence and ignorance is where evil grows. If we don’t recognize the existence of evil and guard against it we’ll never find a cure for it.
Instead, we’ll just explain it away or blame others for it.
Dallas Willard talks about how “We are like farmers who diligently plant crops but cannot admit the existence of weeds and insects and can only think to pour on more fertilizer. Similarly, the only solution we know to human problems today is ‘education.’”
Educating an evil person without regard to evil doesn’t remove the evil; it simply makes him or her cleverer in spreading their evil.
If I get all kinds of marital education and knowledge but never confront the evil self-obsession that lies within my heart, I’ll use that knowledge (my spouse’s love language, for instance) as a weapon rather than a blessing. I’ll employ her love language to get my way rather than to bless her.
The most popular path among Christians to deal with our evil self-obsession is to deny that it exists, or at least that it is motivating us. In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard warns that “denial—usually in some form of rationalization—is the primary device that humans use to deal with their own wrongness.”
This is universal. Every married person reading this is in some way a bit in denial about the evil lingering in their heart that is negatively affecting their marriage.
Personal evil is so painful and difficult to admit that we are tempted to transfer the evil to others. We don’t think of ourselves as angry spouses; we think our spouse is wrong in lighting the spark that makes us angry.
A man doesn’t think of himself as lustful and unfaithful. He thinks of his wife as cold or preoccupied or neglectful.
A woman doesn’t think of herself as critical. She just thinks of her husband as a doofus.
Evil is best confronted by ordering our minds and hearts around the presence and will of God. Evil is coddled when we forget God is God and try to set ourselves up as God.
This is where self-obsession assumes its throne. It is nothing less than evil for me to try to turn my wife into a “love Gary as he likes to be loved” machine. That’s narcissism. God calls her to seek His kingdom first (Matthew 6:33). Here’s the question to ask if you want to know how much you are directed by God and how much you are motivated by hidden selfish evil in your marriage: do you spend more time praying for your spouse’s relationship and service to God or more time praying about how they need to become a better spouse to you?
Edith Schaeffer wrote, “The philosophy of living with an underlying motive of doing everything for one’s own personal peace and comfort rapidly colors everything that might formerly have come under the heads of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’… If one’s peace, comfort, way of life, convenience, reputation, opportunities, job, happiness, or even ease is threatened, ‘just abort it.’”
When my life isn’t ordered around God, I fiercely resent being inconvenienced. I’m driven to do what I want to do, what I think is best for me, and my wife will pay the heaviest price for my evil self-obsession.
According to Dallas Willard, “Self-idolatry rearranges the entire spiritual and moral landscape. It sees the whole universe with different eyes…The fundamental pride of putting oneself at the center of the universe is the hinge upon which the entire world of the ruined self turns.” He quotes John Calvin, who said that “the surest source of destruction in men is to obey themselves.”
Husband and wife: will you realize that self-obsession may be the biggest threat to you and your marriage’s happiness? If we do not admit that this is evil, if we are not aware of and do not actively confront the evil of self-obsession, that evil will make us and our marriages miserable. It is so much easier and feels so much safer to talk about the evils of others rather than our own. Dallas Willard again: “It is common today to hear Christians talk of their ‘brokenness.’ But when you listen closely, you may discover that they are talking about their wounds, the things they have suffered, not about the evil that is in them.”
When I understand how evil I am and how evil I can yet be, and that evil begins with self-obsession, I am more determined to order my life around God’s word and will and, just as importantly, release my wife to do the same. I will seek out the Scriptures to understand his heart. I will submit my thinking and actions in a way that proclaims in fact, not just in word, “You are my Lord and my God” and “You are my wife’s Lord and God.”
One of the best gifts you can give your spouse is to be ruthless about admitting and discarding the evil in your own heart, beginning with the evil of self-obsession.
Gary Thomas, GaryThomas.com
[Note: this post could be harmful to men and women married to abusive spouses who have given themselves over to evil. While all of us need to explore and discharge the evil in our hearts, some spouses need to be saved from an evil, oppressive situation. If you suspect that may be the case with you, please seek other counsel. This teaching is for those who want to save their marriage, not for those who need to be saved from their marriage.]