By Sean E. Brotherson
I have spent a lot of time recently pondering about what is most likely to cause marital distress. I have talked with many couples and read many things. And I have been led to ponder upon a message that the Savior taught with power in the New Testament, in Matthew 23, a message of the perils of hypocrisy and sins of omission. The lessons of Matthew 23 for marital relationships are insightful and compelling. The lessons are disturbing. The lessons of the Savior make it clear that hypocrisy and sins of omission may damn us, may stop our growth in the gospel and our joy in each other, and thus bring about marital distress that becomes the opposite of what the Lord has intended for husbands and wives in marriage.
Let’s read in Matthew 23 and apply it to ourselves and then talk about sins of omission.
Whited Sepulchres and the Weightier Matters of Marriage
In Matthew 23, the Savior speaks to a multitude and his disciples, and he causes them to ponder upon the “scribes and Pharisees” who are often before the people. He uses them as a symbol of some great problems and then invites us to look in the mirror of their transgressions and see if we also find our own selves there. What is it that He calls them to repentance for so dramatically? It is, in a sense, this simple thing He points out in verse 3: “for they say, and do not.”
For they say, and do not.
Does this apply to us as husbands and wives? Do we ever say, and do not?
Do we say that we wish to spend eternity (lots of time together) with our spouse, and then refuse to share our time with them in a meaningful way?
Do we say that we believe understanding each other is important, then refuse to listen or to truly share our feelings?
Do we say that affection and love for others is important in following the example of the Savior, and then refuse to share touch and intimacy and affection with our spouse?
Do we say that we want to be a disciple of Christ and take His teachings into our lives, and then refuse to forgive a spouse of mistakes or transgressions they have made?
For they say, . . . and do not.
Sins of omission.
In verse 4 of Matthew 23, the Savior talks about the impact of such hypocrisy in the relationships that we share in life. He notes that in speaking of virtues or acting as if love and caring and forgiveness are important, but withholding them, then the Pharisees, or we ourselves at times, do “bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s [and women’s] shoulders; but [we] ourselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (verse 4). In our sins of omission that relate to marriage, we bind heavy burdens upon our spouses that are terrible and lonely to bear . . . and then we do nothing to lift them. We turn away.
Christ is our example in all things. He came to lift burdens. He came to turn our hearts toward one another. He always has His arms outstretched to help us bear our difficulties and moments of pain. He has taught that we should love one another, especially in marriage, as He has loved us. And yet, in too many circumstances we cast heavy burdens upon a husband or wife by our unwillingness to truly live out our covenants in the relationship, and we then turn away.
The Savior speaks sternly in verse 13 of Matthew 23 to us as we learn about what it is ourselves to be as the scribes and Pharisees that he condemns. He states:
“But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”
Let me draw an analogy here between the “kingdom of heaven” and the haven of home and marriage between a husband and wife. The Savior is the one who stands at the gate of heaven. He is the gatekeeper there. He is also the gatekeeper to happiness between husband and wife in marriage. We can receive that happiness as we follow His example. But if we, like the Pharisees, turn from following the Savior and usurp the role of gatekeeper, then we in our poor judgment too often deny both our spouses and ourselves the happiness that we are meant to enjoy.
There is a concept in my field of family studies that refers to the roles that men and women play in each other’s lives as “gatekeepers.” In other words, each of us has the opportunity to open and close gates to meaningful family happiness for each other. We also are gatekeepers of one another’s happiness in marriage, particularly to the degree that we follow the Savior’s example or abandon it. Are you a good keeper of the gate to marital happiness? The Savior notes that it is possible to shut up the gate of happiness against another person.
In marriage, when we withhold time or communication or affection, we not only close the gate of happiness upon ourselves but upon our spouses. We sin as we omit from our hearts the willingness to follow Christ’s example.
There is no loyalty that is higher than to love a spouse as Christ has taught us to love. There is no commitment that is more significant than the covenant to cherish a husband or wife. The message of Matthew 23 for marriage is that each of us must look into our own hearts and see, truly, if we stand guilty of hypocrisy and therefore sin.
The Savior continues in Matthew 23:23 with another stern warning, that it is perilous and wrong to “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin,” or to pay attention only to the surface requirements of discipleship, while at the same time we “omit the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” He then commands, “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” What does this mean for marriage?
To “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin” in marriage is to do the simple things, the surface things, the things that you think make it look like your marriage is going okay although beneath it is in distress.
To go about your marital tasks as if your spouse’s happiness and well-being were not really something to consider seriously. To drop the kids at soccer practice each day but not to take time for a daily phone call just to talk. To ask if any bills need to be paid but not to look into your spouse’s eyes and communicate your willingness to listen. To share a bedroom but not to share your bodies and souls with one another in caring intimacy. To speak words of piety in Sunday School but to then lie in bed at night with an unforgiving heart toward your spouse.
These are small sins and great sins both. Why? Because to give only at the surface of your love and your life is to give only the shadow of what God has commanded us to give. It is to omit the weightier matters of marriage-wise judgment about how to be supportive, mercy in our spouse’s moments of loneliness, and faith in each other in times of difficulty or fatigue or despair.
I understand that each one of us has moments of hypocrisy in our lives and relationships. That is part of our mortal experience. And yet, I suggest here that it is unchecked hypocrisy and ongoing sins of omission that may distress and destroy the beauty of our marital relationships. I wish to quote from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and his lovely wife, Patricia Holland, for they have discussed the seriousness and sanctity of the marriage commitment in this context as powerfully and persuasively as anything I have ever read. They state of marriage:
“Elder Holland: To give ourselves so totally to another person is the most trusting and perhaps the most fateful step we take in life. It seems such a risk and such an act of faith. None of us moving toward the altar would seem to have the confidence to reveal everything that we are-all our hopes, all our fears, all our dreams, all our weaknesses-to another person. Safety and good sense and this world’s experience suggest that we hang back a little, that we not wear our heart on our sleeve where it can so easily be hurt by one who knows so much about us. . . . But no marriage is really worth the name, at least not in the sense that God expects us to be married, if we do not fully invest all that we have and all that we are in this other person who has been bound to us through the power of the holy priesthood. Only when we are willing to share life totally does God find us worthy to give life. Paul’s analogy for this complete commitment was that of Christ and the church. Could Christ, even in his most vulnerable moments in Gethsemane or Calvary, hold back? In spite of what hurt might be in it, could he fail to give all that he was and all that he had for the salvation of his bride, his church, his followers-those who would take upon them his name even as in a marriage vow?”
“Sister Holland: And by the same token, his church cannot be reluctant or apprehensive or doubtful in its commitment to him whose members we are. So, too, in a marriage. Christ and the church, the groom and the bride, the man and the woman must insist on the most complete union. Every mortal marriage is to recreate the ideal marriage sought by Adam and Eve, by Jehovah and the children of Israel. With no hanging back, cleaving unto each other,’ each fragile human spirit is left naked, as it were, in the custody of its marriage partner, even as our first parents were in that beautiful garden setting. Surely that is a risk. Certainly it is an act of faith. But the risk is central to the meaning of the marriage, and the faith moves mountains and calms the turbulent sea.”
“Elder Holland: It would be well worth our time if we could impress upon you the sacred obligation a husband and wife have to each other when the fragility and vulnerability and delicacy of the partner’s life is placed in the other’s keeping. . . . I know her likes and dislikes, and she knows mine. I know her tastes and interests and hopes and dreams, and she knows mine. . . . I know much more clearly how to help her and I know exactly how to hurt her. I may not know all the buttons to push, but I know most of them. And surely God will hold me accountable for any pain I cause her by intentionally pushing the hurtful ones when she has been so trusting of me. To toy with such a sacred trust-her body, her spirit, and her eternal future-and exploit those for my gain, even if only emotional gain, should disqualify me to be her husband and ought to consign my miserable soul to hell. To be that selfish would mean that I am a legal, live-in roommate who shares her company, but not her husband in any Christian sense of that word. I have not been as Christ is to the church. We would not be bone of one bone, and flesh of one flesh.”
“Sister Holland: God expects a marriage, not just a temple-sanctioned understanding or arrangement or live-in wage earner or housekeeper. Surely everyone within the sound of my voice understands the severe judgment that comes upon such casual commitments before marriage. I believe there is an even more severe judgment upon me after marriage if all I do is share Jeff’s bed and his work and his money and, yes, even his children. It is not marriage unless we literally share each other, the good times and the bad, the sickness and the health, the life and the death. It is not marriage unless I am there for him whenever he needs me.” (Jeffrey R. Holland and Patricia T. Holland, On Earth as it is in Heaven, 1989, Deseret Book Co., pp. 107-109).
God expects of us, in marriage, to live up to the weightier matters of the law. It may take growth. It may take repentance. It may take time. But God expects it of us.
In a final, remarkably descriptive symbol of the nature of hypocrisy and sins of omission, the Savior warns in Matthew 23:27-28:
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
“Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
Many years ago I spent a period of time in the Holy Land, and there observed a number of these sepulchres. A sepulchre is a small building that is built as a tomb for the bones of the dead. The architecture and sculpture on these small buildings are often remarkable. They are often beautiful to look upon. But they are not beautiful on the inside.
On the inside, as the Savior remarked, there is often a darkness and an emptiness and even a sense of uncleanness. There is only the appearance of the beauty on the outside, while on the inside there is no genuine beauty but only the absence of it.
The Savior leaves us with this warning which is so applicable to us in marriage. It is a peril and a severe problem to appear outwardly righteous to others and even to ourselves regarding our attitudes and behavior in marriage, but within to be full of hypocrisy and sins of omission that leave our relationships barren and unfulfilling and void of the love and selflessness that Christ has encouraged us to express. I’d like to briefly point out four areas that can become sins of omission in marriage that we must strive to overcome.
Lack of Attentiveness as a Sin of Omission
Recently I interviewed a couple who had experienced marital difficulties and we talked about what they had experienced and overcome. At the end of our conversation, they asked me what I had learned from them about keeping marriages healthy and living and loving. I pondered that for a few moments.
I had learned the power of attentiveness. This might be called the Time Factor. Unity in marriage requires meaningful time together as a husband and wife. Not just time-meaningful time. Sometimes, however, just starting with time together is a beginning.
Almost every couple I’ve talked to in my career that has experienced marital difficulties has become estranged due to a lack of time together. Sometimes it is that one spouse has needed to spend a great deal of time in pursuing a career. Sometimes it is that one spouse has pursued personal interests, such as computer games or sports activities, to the exclusion of time together in the relationship. Sometimes it is that one spouse comes home and rushes on into a personal corner of the house without taking time to connect and visit and talk for a few moments. The death of time together often begins the death of a marital relationship.
Sins of omission are so difficult because they are often not conscious sins. They are often not intentional transgressions. And yet, they are so dangerous, for as the scriptures teach, it is the tendency of the adversary to “lull [us] away into carnal security” and think that “all is well,” so that he “cheateth [our] souls” and “leadeth [us] away carefully down to hell” (see 2nd Nephi 28:21).
We may be frustrated with our spouse and so we just spend an extra half hour at the office. We may not want to have a painful conversation and so we closet ourselves away, keeping busy with small projects or service to others or reading a magazine. And yet, to withhold our time and attentiveness to the one we are supposed to spend time with throughout eternity . . . it is a sin of omission. It is something we should change.
It is attentiveness that helps to correct lack of time as a sin of omission.
Lack of Communication as a Sin of Omission
Often the image that we get of marriages in distress is of husbands and wives arguing, shouting, or becoming verbally abusive and threatening. This is true of some marriages in distress. But it is often the opposite.
Silence. Emptiness. Absence of communication.
Marriages that have drifted into the realm of parallel lives, where spouses are only living under the same roof rather than loving each other in an active and caring manner, usually reflect a lack of communication. Perhaps it is not a “lack” of communication, for you may speak volumes if you refuse to talk in any serious way with your husband or wife. It is, rather, an unwillingness to talk from the heart and with love. It is a deficiency of expressing love through conversation and compliments and caring. It is a sin of omission.
Another couple that I spoke with went early in marriage to see a counselor, and then periodically visited at critical points in later years. I asked why the counselor was important to them. He told me that at first he had seen visiting a counselor as a weakness, then he said that he realized that when they were “stuck” in their communication the counselor was a “good sounding board.” He had never seen his parents communicate about marital issues and so he tended to avoid such discussions. His avoidance led to breakdowns in communication and frustration with each other.
It is not simply talking, but talking with patience and listening with care, that exhibits healthy communication between husband and wife. This is a skill. One or both spouses may need to learn it or re-learn it. That is okay. But learning is growth and provides hope. To avoid such learning and to avoid meaningful, caring communication is a sin of omission.
It is learning to listen and talk with love that helps to correct lack of communication as a sin of omission.
Lack of Affection and Intimacy as a Sin of Omission
I’ve often wondered what kind of boy our former prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball, was as a child. Was he prone to affection? Was he outgoing? Was he anxious to hug his father and kiss his mother? I wonder because President Kimball, as an apostle and prophet, was legendary for his expressions of love and affection. Perhaps this came to him naturally. But, perhaps, it is something he learned to express as he became more like the Savior.
Each person has different levels of comfort with expression of affection in physical ways, such as through a hug or a kiss. My point here is not to mandate expressions of affection. But it is important, I believe, to recognize that affection and also intimacy are meant to be expressed as part of a loving relationship between husbands and wives. We may fall into sins of omission in this area in at least two ways.
First, it is interesting to note that in the field of child development there is a phenomenon called “failure to thrive.” It occurs in children who have been deprived of some essential interactions with others in the surrounding environment, almost always characterized by at least one dimension-lack of touch and affection. Children who are not simply held and hugged and hovered over by someone who cares are at serious risk of developmental problems that can be devastating. They may even die. Read the scriptural accounts of the Savior’s healing efforts and notice how often he touched physically those that he healed.
Caring touch that is nonsexual is important in husband-and-wife relationships.
My wife and I will often sit down in church on a row with our several children and find ourselves divided by a couple of little ones. I may try to hold them on my lap and keep them quiet if they do this. My wife does not allow this. She will hold them but move them so that they are not between us, then clasp my hand in hers or encourage me to put my arm around her. It is a small thing. But it is a powerful thing.
To omit caring touch and affection from our relationships, whether with a spouse or children, can be a sin of omission. We each need the reassurance of a hug or a warm embrace.
Second, we may omit from our interactions in the marital relationship a meaningful relationship of physical intimacy as husband and wife. This may not only be unwise but un-loving. The Proclamation on the Family states clearly, “Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other.” To love each other. To willfully abandon meaningful intimacy with a spouse or to consistently avoid or abuse this dimension of love can also be a sin of omission.
A number of factors may affect spouses in this dimension of love: depression, illness, past abuse, or other life challenges. I do not suggest that these factors should be simply ignored if they have affected the intimacy between a husband and wife. However, neither should such factors be used as an excuse to avoid the meaningful expression of love that physical intimacy is intended by God to bring to a marital relationship.
I do not pretend that couples who face this particular difficulty can wave a magic wand and make things all better immediately. But help is available and solutions do exist for most challenges related to intimacy. I have been, frankly, amazed at times by the utter lack of concern for a spouse’s feelings of hurt, confusion, and rejection on the part of men or women who have chosen to abandon physical intimacy in the marriage or to engage a spouse only occasionally with reluctance and distaste. Again, this is a complex issue with delicate concerns involved. But it is too often true that an otherwise caring spouse can become selfish or self-absorbed and engage in a sin of omission by their poor attitudes or behavior regarding intimacy in marriage.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has taught of marriage and intimacy:
“They work together, they cry together, they enjoy Brahms and Beethoven and breakfast together, they sacrifice and save and live together for all the abundance that such a totally intimate life provides a couple. And the external symbol of that union, the physical manifestation of what is a far deeper spiritual and metaphysical bonding, is the physical blending that is part of-indeed, a most beautiful and gratifying expression of-that larger, more complete union of eternal purpose and promise. . . . It is in that act of ultimate physical intimacy that we most nearly fulfill the commandment of the Lord given to Adam and Eve, living symbols for all married couples, when he invited them to cleave unto one another only, and thus become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24).” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” in On Earth as it is in Heaven, 1989, Deseret Book Co., pp. 189-190).
To give of ourselves in this manner may require growth. It may require learning. It may require time and patience and effort. It may require forgiveness.
It is learning to give of ourselves in love that helps to correct lack of affection and intimacy as a sin of omission.
Lack of Forgiveness as a Sin of Omission
While a student at Brigham Young University many years ago, I was involved in a class where we studied family relationships in literature. We ready many great books and I learned a great deal. One book that we read was the outstanding novel by Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose, which essentially tells the story of a husband and wife on the frontier of western America. The story of their courtship, marriage, and ultimate pain and difficulty in their relationship is both haunting and illuminating. I struggled to make sense of what it was this couple lacked in their relationship with each other. One evening as I thought about it the answer came in a quiet flash of impression-they lacked forgiveness.
There are many virtues that contribute to the creation of a healthy marriage relationship. But I think no virtue is so important as the virtue of forgiveness. It is essential to the easing of tensions and the maintenance of love. It is the balm of healing. It is the comfort of wounded souls.
Christ himself is the model of forgiveness. He who experienced all bitterness through bitter experience was willing to extend mercy and forgiveness to all upon conditions of repentance. He gives to each of us the capacity to forgive when we do not feel the desire to forgive.
Forgiveness that is withheld can be a sin of omission. Forgiveness is much like repentance. It is not always easy. It may take time and effort and prayer. Yet as with repentance, forgiveness brings to us freedom and peace.
Open the Gates of Happiness in Marriage
We cannot omit from our lives and our hearts those things that are essential to marriage without experiencing marital distress and difficulty.
We cannot omit time and attentiveness from our relationships without reaping emotional distance and alienation.
We cannot omit communication with our spouses without reaping misunderstanding and emptiness.
We cannot omit affection and intimacy between with a husband or wife without reaping ill feelings and loneliness.
We cannot omit forgiveness, the cardinal virtue of marriage, without reaping broken hearts and broken hopes.
I hope that you will read Matthew 23 and apply its lessons to your own marriage relationship. I hope that you will consider the sins of omission or hypocrisy that may apply in your own marriage relationship and seek to overcome them with repentance and effort and faith. I know that I have been challenged to do so. I hope that you will seek the example of the Savior and study His patterns of attentiveness, communication, affection, and forgiveness, for He is the Master Teacher and has modeled for us how to create lasting and happy eternal relationships.
I hope you will attend to the weightier matters of the law in marriage.