Many marriage counselors are convinced that one of the greatest obstacles to a successful marriage is selfishness. To be selfish is to be excessively concerned with one’s own welfare, advantage, or pleasure without regard for others. Babies are notoriously selfish. They are oblivious to anything but their own well-being. When they are uncomfortable they scream until someone relieves their discomfort. Their disposition is determined by the degree to which things go their way.
We expect babies to gradually mature—physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Unfortunately, while many people mature physically and intellectually, their emotional growth lags far behind. They still view the world as they did when they were babies. They see it as a huge sphere revolving around themselves, existing primarily for their own well-being. They never really grow from egocentricity to a consideration of others. When things do not go their way they react in some infantile way, such as by crying, pouting, pitying themselves, throwing a temper tantrum or even throwing objects near at hand. They may try to attract attention to themselves by boasting of their accomplishments or criticizing others.
If we place two babies together without supervision they usually encounter problems in a hurry! Likewise, an emotionally immature man and an emotionally immature woman who have become united in marriage are sure to undergo conflicts. Emotional babies don’t make very good marriage partners! One of the greatest needs for stable and successful marriages is maturity.
Maturity is basically unselfishness. Of course, no human being is totally unselfish; there is a little immaturity in all of us. Someone has said, “Scratch an adult and you’ll find a child.” Someone else has suggested that the only difference between a man and a boy is that a man’s toys cost more! Since no one is perfectly mature, it becomes obvious that maturity is a relative term rather than an absolute one. In fact, maturity is a process rather than a fixed condition.
A certain degree of emotional maturity is possible even for unbelievers, since the sin nature has areas of strength as well as areas of weakness. You may know some non-Christians who are quite unselfish in certain areas of their lives, as with their spouses, their children, their relatives, or their in-laws. They may be extremely gracious and kind toward neighbors, business associates, or people in the community. They may show great compassion toward the needy and underprivileged. But when you get to know them well, you will usually find that they also have glaring areas of immaturity and selfishness.
When a person accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, another factor is introduced into his life. In addition to his sinful ego, with its strengths and weaknesses, the Lord Jesus Christ indwells him in the Person of His Holy Spirit. A person’s entire disposition now depends upon whether self or the Spirit is in control. Since the Holy Spirit is the only Person who can keep every expression of self in control, our relationship with Him becomes the single most important factor in our progressive development. We refer to this development as spiritual maturity rather than merely as emotional maturity. The two are similar, except that while emotional maturity relates primarily to the development of our human personality, spiritual maturity also recognizes the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and relates to our growing relationship with Him.
We have learned that a Christian is either spiritual or carnal to the degree that the Holy Spirit or his own sinful flesh controls his life. It is interesting to note that the Apostle Paul compares carnality to babyhood. He wrote to the Corinthians “as unto carnal, even as unto babes.”45 The reason some Christians act immaturely is because their fleshly natures are in control of their lives. In other words, they are carnal. Since there is a parallel between carnality and immaturity, we can assume that there is also a parallel between spirituality and maturity. The spiritual Christian shows evidence of growing up, of spiritual adulthood.
Even a new believer can be relatively mature. We sometimes refer to a very young child as being mature for his age. We mean that he is showing unusual evidences of development. Maturity involves growth, and we are to continue growing spiritually throughout our Christian lifetime.46 There is no such thing as sinless perfection in this life—simply continuing growth.
Spiritual growth takes place only as the Holy Spirit controls our lives. As we submit to Him, He takes charge of more and more specific areas of our lives; we thus become increasingly capable of building a happy marital relationship. Let us examine several specific characteristics of maturity.
(1) A mature person accepts himself as God made him. He feels neither inferior over his shortcomings nor egotistical about his strengths. He knows that his body, his brains, and his abilities were given to him by God for God’s own purposes.47 He is therefore neither inflated with pride over his successes nor unduly discouraged by his failures. A serious inferiority complex can produce tremendous tension in a marriage. A person who demands constant reassurance to bolster his sagging ego can drive his spouse to distraction. Likewise, a haughtier-than-thou egotist who constantly belittles his mate to enhance himself can produce the same tragic effect. Both reactions are childish, but God will help a person overcome them if he willingly depends on the indwelling Spirit. When a Christian learns to accept himself humbly for what he is as God made him, he will soon learn to accept others as they are too, and that will constitute a giant step toward establishing a happy home.
(2) A mature person profits by his mistakes and by the suggestions of others. Immature people try to find excuses for their failures. They blame them on other people or on God. When they are criticized, they take it as a personal affront, striking back with an angry defense like, “Well, you’re not so great, either!” Emotional babies are more concerned about protecting their own egos than in growing. On the other hand, a mature person graciously accepts criticism, honestly evaluating his life in the light of God’s Word and depending on the Holy Spirit to bring about the desired changes. He sees suggestions from other people as a part of God’s plan for bringing him to maturity.
Such an attitude will help relieve another area of tension in marriage. Instead of reacting to some suggestion with, “You never appreciate anything I do,” the mature person will say something like, “Thank you for your suggestion, dear. With the Lord’s help, I’ll try to improve that.” Of course, the mature person will also be careful how he makes suggestions. He will wait for the proper time, maintain an attitude of love and appreciation, and accompany his suggestion with words of commendation and encouragement.
(3) A mature person adjusts to things he cannot change. One of the most practical prayers ever uttered was, “Lord, give me strength to change what can be changed, grace to accept what cannot be changed, and wisdom to know the difference!” It is an unhappy fact that while most married couples love each other, many marriage partners simply cannot stand the little idiosyncrasies which they see in their spouses; they thus continually try to change their mates. Those irritating habits seem to send them into orbit, and as they allow the faults to prey on their minds they soon lose sight of the fine qualities that attracted them in the first place. The result is a deepening bitterness that destroys not only their marriages but their own personal lives as well. This is both childish and sinful.48 The fruit of the Spirit is longsuffering; that is, a willingness to bear patiently with the provoking traits in others. The Holy Spirit will produce that grace in us if we will let Him.
Some people who cannot accept reality flee to the unreal world of wishes and imagination. When the cold fact dawns on them that the person they married is not the matinee idol they created in their minds, they withdraw sullenly into a world of dreams, thereby crushing all hopes of improving the relationship. Mature Christians, on the other hand, find their deepest satisfaction in the Lord.49 They are thus able to accept the real world and the people in it as part of God’s plan for helping them grow.
(4) A mature person accepts unpleasantness, disappointment, or distress with calmness and stability. He recognizes that his life is in God’s hands—that everything God allows is purposeful and good.50 The mature person therefore maintains his self-control when things do not go his way. There is calmness and control when a husband brings home news of a transfer to some far-off city or when a wife calls the office to say she ran into the rear of another car!
Sometimes the tiniest things irritate us and cause us to act selfishly and immaturely. One survey showed that the most common complaint of husbands and wives against each other is an irritable disposition. We let trivial things “get to us” and upset us; then we react either by losing our tempers or by claming up and pouting. In the course of my marriage counseling I have heard some fantastic accounts of immature behavior among professing Christians, such as husbands who threw objects around the house or others who hit their wives and shoved them around. I learned of one man who lay on the floor and kicked and screamed like a baby, and of another who put his fist through the wall in an angry rage over something his wife had done! If our marriages are ever to glorify God, we need to grow up by allowing the Holy Spirit to take control of our lives. He will then display through us His fruit of self-control.
Though the preceding examples mentioned only husbands, the wives are by no means guiltless. I have listened to husbands describe kicking and screaming wives or, more commonly, moody and unpredictable mates. There is nothing more discouraging for a husband than to come home after a taxing day at work to find his wife stewing and churning about some petty aggravation which poisons the family atmosphere throughout the entire evening. Solomon must have had this experience. “A dry crust eaten in peace is better than steak every day along with argument and strife.”51 “Better to live in the desert than with a quarrelsome, complaining woman.”52 “A nagging wife annoys like constant dripping.”53 The continuous dripping of water was a form of oriental torture—not a very flattering simile! Irritability becomes a way of life, a habit pattern. We need to yield to the Holy Spirit and grow up.
(5) A mature person accepts and fulfills his responsibilities. Maturity involves dependability. Unfinished jobs, broken promises, and unfulfilled good intentions are examples of undependability. An immature person cannot happily perform the tasks for which he is responsible. He grumbles and complains, finding no satisfaction or enjoyment in a job well done. Housewives grumble because life is dull and routine. Working mothers long to be full-time homemakers. Men hop from job to job in quick, haphazard decisions that fail to include their wives. Some men overlook the common courtesy of phoning their wives when they cannot come home at the expected time. The fruit of the Spirit is faith, a word meaning “faithfulness” or “dependability.” We need to yield to the Spirit and grow up to faithfulness!
(6) A mature person finds his greatest satisfaction in making others happy. We will never find happiness by simply looking for it. The more we look, the more frustrated and disappointed we become. Selfishly seeking our own enjoyment yields nothing but unhappiness. Unselfishly living for the good of others brings rich returns, a lesson which most marriage partners still need to learn. When we trust the Spirit of God to make us so unselfish that we live solely for the happiness of our mates, asking for no favors in return, the enjoyment we receive will be unbelievably abundant. Every time you trigger a conflict in your marriage relationship, ask yourself, “Now why did I do that?” You’ll probably have to admit that you did it for your own enjoyment or convenience. Apologize and redirect your words or acts for the good of your mate. Do not even imply that your mate should do the same. Before long you may discover that your mate is responding with a new consideration too!
Now this costs something. In fact, it costs everything. But mature people are willing to give everything, then patiently wait for the Lord to work. It is only babies and children who demand what they want when they want it. They live for the here and now, insisting on their own way in every situation. Mature people often forego immediate personal pleasures so they can bring ultimate enjoyment to others. Paradoxically, this is what brings genuine happiness to the giver, too!
This vital lesson takes time to learn. We all feel we have a right to indulge our selfishnesses occasionally. We’ve been doing it for years, so why change now! But the more frequently we respond to situations in the control of the Holy Spirit, the easier the practice will become and the more quickly we will mature. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”54