Nine Words for Every Marriage

Someday my children will introduce me to the person they intend to marry. When they do, there are three sentences — nine simple words total — that I want to know they can say, in earnest, before they can have my blessing: I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me.

Marriage is an everyday exercise in repentance and forgiveness. There’s no way to be the perfect spouse; I am a sinner and my sin will hurt those around me. Yet in our imperfection, we can consistently point to a perfect Savior. The willingness to do that — to die to our pride that another may be glorified — shows in a real way that we grasp the goodness and power of the gospel.

‘I Was Wrong’

Our arrogance hates this sentence. Each word sticks in the back of our throats. Swelling, stewing, steaming, our ego tells us that we cannot admit any fault. To do so would ruin our reputation. It would threaten the value we get from our performance and undermine the assurance we get from our perceived aptitude. Our ability to think of ourselves as experts (or maybe even just competent!) would be shaken. Uttering those three small words feels like death to our pride.

“Marriage is an everyday exercise in repentance and forgiveness.”

But is there any biblical truth clearer than the fact that you and I mess up? And that we do it with clockwork regularity? From the wisdom of Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:20), to the experience of Paul (Romans 7:18–19), to the pastoral expertise of John (1 John 1:8), all testify to our inability to be faultless.

And yet, can the Bible speak any more clearly about God’s forgiveness? Scripture tells us that when we own our mistakes, we are delivered from their eternal consequences. You and I are free in Christ to admit when we have been wrong (Romans 8:1), remembering that there is nothing, even the height of our incompetence, that can separate us from him (Romans 8:31–39). Those promises should give us the sort of resolute joy that allows us to look one another in the eye and admit our faults without hesitation or qualification.

When conflict arises, my first instinct is to reinforce my own relative innocence while exaggerating my spouse’s guilt. My wounded pride wants to be soothed with the salve of self-righteousness. But self-righteousness is no solution at all. It merely fans the flame of hurt into an inferno of anger and cares, not caring whom it injures along the way. Instead, I need to douse the fire of an aching ego, apply God’s promises of no condemnation, and utter these three words: I was wrong.

‘I Am Sorry’

Admitting fault may feel like death to the ego, but grieving the results of our mistakes feels like death to the heart. It should be no wonder that our souls abhor shame so much — the first time we see it is in the wake of sin’s emergence into the world. Our souls were not designed to feel shame, for they were not designed to partake in sin.

Yet shame is the right and natural response when we do sin. It is the consequence of recognizing that our sinfulness, intentional or otherwise, has had a direct negative effect on others. If I tell a friend or family member that I have messed up, yet I show no sign of my heart being broken by its results, then I should not be surprised when they find my apology hard to believe. Nor should I be taken off guard when they struggle to forgive me.

Can David merely admit fault in his sin with Bathsheba? No, he must lament:

Have mercy on me, O God,
     according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
     blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
     and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
     and my sin is ever before me. (Psalm 51:1–3)

I say David must lament, not because lament is some sort of prerequisite for moving on, but because it is the heart’s healthy reaction to seeing its sin in a mirror.

When I tell my wife “I’m sorry” in the right way, I don’t deliver it with a smile. Shame and sadness are not light emotions, and I want my wife to know something of the weight my soul feels. I do not mope. I do not plead. I do not do it for show. I merely want her to know — down to the very quick of her soul — that I realize I have hurt her and I am deeply sorry for it. It is important she understands something of the depth of my sorrow, because shallow sorries often lead to failing forgiveness.

‘Please Forgive Me’

While admitting fault and showing sorrow may be painful, this process mercifully finds respite in the act of forgiveness. When we make an error that causes damage to the souls of our fellow image bearers, we must reach out and ask that they would have the courage to restore fellowship with us. This is no small ask. When we show, by ignorance or intention, that we can hurt those we claim to love, it is an act of faith on their part to entrust their souls to our care once again.

“When conflict arises, my first instinct is to reinforce my relative innocence while exaggerating my wife’s guilt.”

But the gospel is at its heart a message of restoration. And no matter how much we may want to run away from our mistakes or make as little out of them as possible, we must ask earnestly for forgiveness if we want to make gospel-like restoration evident to them, ourselves, and a watching world. That’s why Jesus says that if we remember that someone has something against us, we must forsake all other activities — even worship! — to seek reconciliation (Matthew 5:23–24).

Often, I reach out for forgiveness so that we may simply move on. My soul wants to be restored, my heart wants to quit wallowing in shame, and my mind wants to contemplate something other than my own failure. Yet my request for restitution should not be motivated by weariness, but rather energized by the gospel of grace. Forgiveness can set my sights and my wife’s sights not on a feeble and frail spouse, but on a crucified and ascended Savior. Forgiveness is a reality that’s been bought and paid for at Calvary. I can reach out to her because Jesus has already reached out to me. Behind my request “please forgive me” is Christ’s declaration to me: “You are forgiven.”

Welcome to the Family

I know in my own marriage that the amount of effort it takes to utter these three lines feels more like scaling mountains than speaking simple sentences. Yet there are few actions that more thoroughly display a working understanding of the gospel than the willingness to apologize and seek forgiveness.

And a working, vibrant understanding of the gospel is the key to success in all relationships — mine and, someday, even my children’s. Future suitors, take note: having a heart that can earnestly say, “I’m sorry” results in a future father-in-law who can eagerly say, “Welcome to the family.”

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.