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The Natural Man’s Way in Marriagei

There is one little ploy that is at the center of most of the world’s work on marriage. It is called active listening. It involves re-stating what your partner has said until he or she is fully satisfied that you understand.

Then you can express yourself. Your partner must re-state your feelings until you are satisfied.

Most prominent marriage programs and untold numbers of marriage books have active listening as their centerpiece. Marriage training drills the skill endlessly in the hope that it can become second nature and rescue marriage from a slide into rancor and divorce.

This is as effective as taking potato salad that has been left out in the hot summer weather for a full week and trying to reclaim it by putting a fresh layer of egg slices and a sprig of parsley on top. The salad is still rotten. It is almost certain to make you sick.

In similar fashion active listening cannot cover up malicious intent. For people who are basically good and earnestly committed to marriage, active listening may help them understand each other. But if the potato salad is permeated with salmonella, no amount of garnish will make it good for you.

A Soul is like Potato Salad

When our souls are permeated with accusation and demands, there is no skill that can cover our malice and meanness.

Terry Warner poses a question that invites us to think in a different way. Maybe the key to happy relationships is not finding gentle-sounding ways to request change. Instead, “what would happen if we dropped all charges against those around us and, for their sakes, happily sacrificed all bitter satisfaction, all retribution, all demand for repayment, all vengeance without regret or second thoughts?” (Quoted by Catherine Thomas).

Catherine Thomas observes that we often get it all backwards: “Much of the emotional pain that we have does not come from the love that we were not given in the past, but from the love we ourselves are not giving in the present” (p. 5)

We need more than a set of skills for expressing discontent and requesting changes. We need a change of heart. The only way to build a truly healthy marriage is by being a truly good person – to be changed in our very natures.

And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? (Alma 5:14)

Unfortunately this is an elusive goal for mortals. We become good in fits and starts. In fact as we conquer one errant habit a flock of others get away from us. Self-improvement is an unpromising enterprise.

There is Only One Way

King Benjamin described the only Way to get to goodness:

And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. (Mosiah 3:17)

We may have failed to apply to marriage wise words quoted by President Benson: “You do change human nature, your own human nature, if you surrender it to Christ. Human nature can be changed here and now. Human nature has been changed in the past. Human nature must be changed on an enormous scale in the future, unless the world is to be drowned in its own blood. And only Christ can change it.”

There is the simple truth.

The Formula for Change

Jimmy Townsend has joked that “marriage teaches you loyalty, forbearance, self-restraint, meekness and a great many other things you wouldn’t need if you had stayed single.” The truth is different. Marriage is God’s finishing school for the godly soul. Marriage is ordained to stretch and refine us.

Christ is the great change agent. And His process for change is that described by the principles and covenants of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the formula for change, growth, and goodness. It is the only formula with an ironclad guarantee. I have tried to capture the essence of those principles and covenants in the chapters of The First Principles of Marriage.

Please study the table and think about God’s purposes for marriage. (You probably will see vital principles that I have missed. I hope you will add them.)

First Principles of Marriage

Actions that can change our hearts and redeem our marriages.

Chapter 1: Marriage is ordained of God.
The big picture of His plan

  • Expect challenges.
  • Welcome growth.
  • We can act on several levels: telestial, terrestrial or celestial.
  • God will show us the way back.

Chapter 2: Willing to submit in all things
The principle of sacrifice

  • Our natural ways make us enemies to each other.
  • We need a broken heart and contrite spirit.
  • We must be willing to submit to God for our marriages to survive.

Chapter 3: Lord I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ

  • We must resist evil.
  • We cannot flourish without heavenly help.
  • We can use irritation as an invitation to get heavenly help.
  • God is able to do His work.

Chapter 4: O Jesus Thou Son of God, have mercy on me.
Humility and repentance

  • We are to fix ourselves and love others, not vice versa.
  • When we focus on discontents, we enlarge them.
  • When we love and accept our partners, they grow.
  • Our pride is conquered by calling out for mercy.

Chapter 5: How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?
Purity in marriage

  • Satan uses mischief and deception to turn our hearts from our partners. He is subtle.
  • When we choose purity, we are blessed and enriched.
  • There is no way to have a great relationship without focusing our love on our spouses.

Chapter 6: Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the celestial kingdom
Consecration in marriage

  • We must be willing to put everything one the altar.
  • Each may be asked to make some Abrahamic sacrifice.
  • Every day we must make tiny sacrifices of convenience or preference.

Chapter 7: Pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love.
Charity in a healthy marriage

  • When we see our partners as Christ does, we love them.
  • His grace is sufficient to turn our weakness into strength.
  • Love is a choice including the choice to see and celebrate the good in our partners.

It seems that God’s objective for marriage is not merely to provide us companionship through the treacherous journey of mortality – though it often does that wonderfully well. Marriage is not merely for populating the world – though it can accomplish that.

God has loftier purposes. He wants to make us like Him. Phew! Like Him! “Unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ!”

Resisting God

If you are like me, your resist the possibility on the personal level: He may be able to turn Brother or Sister So-and-so into beings like Him – but I am far too weak and imperfect.

One particular experience challenged my resistance. When serving as a bishop, a new member of the ward approached me after sacrament meeting and asked for an interview. We made an appointment for that afternoon. At the appointed time she came. We prayed together.

Then she launched into the tragedy of her life. She told of abuse and immorality and ugliness and betrayal that stretched from her childhood to her current life. I sat with a peaceful facade but inner horror and disbelief. I had never heard such a tale of awfulness. What could I tell her? How could her life ever be straightened out? What hope could she ever have of healthy relationships and a productive life? She had never been more than a marginal Mormon and she had no apparent resources. It almost seemed that suicide was her only hope.

The dreaded moment came. “Bishop, what can I do?” I was amazed to hear myself saying, “There are three things the Lord would have you do.” I had no idea what those three things were.

I took a blank piece of paper from the desk drawer and said, “Number 1 is… ” and the Lord dictated the first item of hopeful and specific counsel. In like manner the Lord dictated the second and third items. We discussed them and sent her on her way with a hope she had never before known.

After she left the office, I closed the door behind her and fell to my knees. “Lord, I didn’t know. I just didn’t know how much you love your children. I had no idea that you could make something fine out of the mass of confusion that is our lives. I didn’t know.”

That is His greatest miracle. He can make us divine. I no longer remember the three items of instruction that He gave to that burdened woman that day. But I could no longer resist Him. I simply submitted to His love. I could not comprehend why he would love me – but I knew that He did. I accepted it without understanding it.

You, dear Reader, may be wiser than I was. You may have already accepted that life-changing love. If so, you know that He works with us line-upon-line shaping us into something holy. If you have not yet accepted that love, I beg you to open your heart to it. Accepting His love makes all the difference.

A New Path to Salvation

We cannot save ourselves. He can save us. He wants to save us.

Stephen Robinson summarized our situation in his lesser-known book, Following Christ :

So the great divide between the saved and the unsaved, between those who inherit the kingdom and those who do not, between those who are right with God and those who are not, isn’t just who is “good” and who is “bad,” for technically speaking we are all bad in some degree. Rather, the great divide is whether we accept or reject the covenant with the Savior Jesus Christ , the only being in eternity who can make us innocent by incorporating us into his infinite, perfect, and sinless self. (1995, p.6, emphasis added)

A related message is taught in the story of the prodigal son. Elder Porter reminds us that “t he parable of the prodigal son is a parable of us all. It reminds us that we are , in some measure, prodigal sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven. For, as the Apostle Paul wrote, all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God’ ( Rom. 3:23 ).” Sister Henrie’s poetic rendering of the great story reminds us of the one who waits for each of us at the gate.

To Any Who Have Watched for a Son’s Returning

By Mary Lyman Henrie

He watched his son gather all the goods
that were his lot,
anxious to be gone from tending flocks,
the dullness of the fields.
He stood by the olive tree gate long
after the caravan disappeared
where the road climbs the hills
on the far side of the valley,
into infinity.
Through changing seasons he spent the light
in a great chair, facing the far country,
and that speck of road on the horizon.
Mocking friends: “He will not come.”
Whispering servants: “The old man
has lost his senses.”
A chiding son: “You should not have let him go.”
A grieving wife: “You need rest and sleep.”
She covered his drooping shoulders,
his callused knees, when east winds blew chill, until that day …
A form familiar, even at infinity,
in shreds, alone, stumbling over pebbles.
“When he was a great way off,
His father saw him,
and had compassion, and ran,
and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”

We can flee Him or we can go to Him. It is always better to go to Him. When we choose to follow Christ, we choose to be changed, as President Benson reminded us.

He is Our Advocate

Jesus has given us good reason to trust Him. For example, He tells us in some detail what to expect at the judgment bar.

We half expect Him to lead the way into Heaven. Before He heads to His 40 acres by Kolob Lake, He wishes us well: “I hope you make it. I know you tried. Maybe it will be okay.” Then He is gone.

As we wait in line we wonder if there be a scripture chase.  Will we have to know all the books of the Old Testament in order?  Will there be a spreadsheet of all the months we didn’t get our home or visiting teaching done?  Will we have to account for each of our sins, weaknesses and omissions?  Will others in line laugh as the failure-ridden video of my life is shown?  Worst of all, will He be standing across the table from me shaking His head in disappointment as all my life’s thoughts and actions are reviewed?  

That is what we expect. But that is not what He does. He does not leave us facing Father alone. In Doctrine and Covenants section 45, He tells us why we should listen to Him.

Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him –

One very good reason to listen to Him is because He is our advocate with the Father. He is the One who will present us to Father. He is pleading our cause. He is the only One who can get us in. We must trust Him.

In the scriptural account He tells us just how He will present us:

Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;

We might wonder why He is saying so much about His amazing life and infinite sacrifice.

It makes our own stained life seem all the more awful. How will this help us? Sure, He will be glorified, but what’s to be done with me? How can I ever enter where the gods dwell?

Jesus continues:

Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life. D&C 45:3-5

A thunderbolt! A total surprise! He presented the merits of His life and goodness in order to win my way into Heaven! He did what He did in order to save my soul!

One by one He pushes every believer into Heaven before He Himself makes His final entrance. We who are last are pushed in first while He who is First in all things enters behind the last saint. Whether we are timid or tortured, He will find and recover every last stray sheep before He Himself enters. What a shepherd he is!

The biggest surprise in all of God’s creation is that “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds my recurring wrongs,” as Elder Maxwell testified. Or, as Janice Tindall magnificently wrote:

Burning with Light
     My soul quivers
     At thy touch.

Oh God, my God
     God of my fathers
     Wonderful, Counsellor,
Prince of Peace.

There is no mountain high enough
     Nor ocean deep enough
     Nor desert wide enough
To glorify thy name.

A Partner in the Process

I know that I can never be anything without Him. I am grateful that He is willing to labor to refine and rescue my flawed soul.

There are others to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. I am grateful for children who strive to live noble lives. I am grateful to noble parents who taught me so much about God and goodness. I am thankful to ancestors who continue to sustain us.

Yet there is one person I thank above all but Jesus. Her name is Nancy. I wish I could be objective about Nancy, but I cannot. She is mild in temperament – we laugh in the family that she is constitutionally and dispositionally unable to yell.

She is very compassionate – she seems naturally drawn to those who are lonely or disenfranchised. She is unselfish – she demands no gifts or considerations. Yet she is glad to serve – it will take half of eternity for me to repay all the backrubs she has given me in 30-plus years of marriage.

She has a gentle and clever sense of humor – only those who listen carefully get to enjoy it.

She is devoted – her children and grandchildren know that her love is stronger than the cords of death for she would gladly die for any one of them – and they know it.

She is uncomplaining – I was first drawn to her when, on a single adult activity, she fell in a bitter cold river and climbed into the raft laughing. In addition, she is beautiful – I love her sweet face and lovely frame.

As if that were not enough, she is also the kindest person I have ever known – bar none.

I regularly thank Heavenly Father for blessing me with a companion who is far better than I knew and far finer than I deserve. I cannot imagine life without Nancy.

So, why is it that I sometimes get irritated, impatient or judgmental of my dear companion? How can I explain patches of discontent?

After decades of episodic analyzing and blaming, I have discovered that my feelings about Nancy are not as much a measure of her as of me. Just as our feelings about God are a good measure of our faith, so our feelings about our companions are a reliable gauge to our personal goodness.

So why do we mortals build our dramas of discontent? How do we transform our early love into simmering (or seething) discontent?

Learning the Lessons

I should note that I do not believe that every marriage can make it. But the great mass-of-quiet-desperation marriages do not need divorce but need only more charity in order to flourish. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the cure for the common marital complaint. “Whatever Jesus lays his hands upon lives. If Jesus lays his hands upon a marriage, it lives. If he is allowed to lay his hands on the family, it lives” (Howard W. Hunter, “Reading the Scriptures,” Ensign , Nov. 1979, p.65).

Jesus is not only the Creator of worlds but the Energizer of relationships. In Him all things have life. As He said: “The thief [Satan and his servants] cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

Abundantly indeed. If I am unhappy with Nancy it is because I do not understand or do not honor the covenants I have made. I do not have charity. I believe that the covenant of consecration together with the marriage covenants effectively requires me to promise God: “I now covenant with Thee that from this time forth and forever I will never see any fault in Nancy.” It is not enough just to stay in solemn determination while occasionally mowing the lawn. I believe that God expects me to consecrate not only my time but also my thoughts! Even my feelings!

Certainly it is better to light a candle on our partners’ qualities than to curse the darkness that can be found in every soul. When I am unhappy with Nancy in any way, it means that I need to get a spiritual tune-up. As in the Lord’s great parable, having been forgiven a billion dollar debt, how can I fail to forgive Nancy her $15 (or 15-cent) debts?

I think God designed marriage to help us grow spiritually. The most important lessons I have learned about being a good person I did not learn on my mission, sitting in high priest quorum, or serving as bishop; I learned them in marriage. But it has taken three decades of work to go from a selfish clod of complaints to a marginal-saint who adores his companion. I thank Heavenly Father for the priceless lessons He has taught me about the sweet joy of love.

An Invitation

I end this exploration of marriage with Moroni’s concluding invitation (and a few editorial additions of my own):

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him,
[Only He can make us perfect!]

and deny yourselves of all ungodliness;
[especially the complaining and criticizing that is abundant in mortality]

and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ;
[Perfect in Christ! He will carry us with His merits while we struggle to be better. What good news!]

and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
[His greatest miracle is the work He does to redeem our souls!] (Moroni 10:32)

He can make us perfect.

I invite all readers to join me as we fill ourselves with the doctrine of Christ and make covenants with the Giver of Life. By this process we become the people and partners God invites us to be. As our remarkable Redeemer makes us at-one with God, He also makes us at-one with our partners. What a blessing! What a gift!

May God bless our marriages. Or, as in President Benson’s great benedictory on us:

May we be convinced that Jesus is the Christ, choose to follow Him, be changed for Him, captained by Him, consumed in Him, and born again I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


Read over the following prayer. Enjoy the sense of trusting submission. Consider whether it is a prayer you would like to take to Father:

Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of thee; Thou only knowest what I need; Thou lovest me better than I know how to love myself. O Father! give to Thy child that which he himself knows not how to ask. I dare not ask either for crosses or consolations: I simply present myself before Thee, I open my heart to Thee. Smite, or heal; depress me, or raise me up: I adore all thy purposes without knowing them; I am silent; I offer myself in sacrifice; I yield myself to Thee; I would have no other desire than to accomplish Thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray Thyself in me. Amen. (Francois de la Mothe Fenelon, quoted in Fosdick, Meaning of Prayer , pp. 58-9)


Benson, Ezra Taft (1985, November) Born of God. Ensign.

Henrie, Mary Lyman (1983, March) To Any Who Have Watched for a Son’s Returning, Ensign, p.63.

Porter, Bruce D. (1995, November) Redeemer of Israel. Ensign, p.15.

Robinson, Stephen E. (1995). Following Christ . Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co.

Thomas, M. Catherine (n.d.). Zion and the spirit of at-one-ment . Provo, UT: FARMS.

Tindall, Janice M. (1992, July) ” Triptych. ” Ensign , p.49.

i Thanks to Barbara Keil and Jim Ashman for their insightful suggestions that strengthened this chapter.

2007 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.