Seeking the Spirit in Marriage


“If only Judy weren’t so pushy,” Darrin thought. “Then I could relate to her better.” He and his wife had been feeling distant from each other, and Darrin wanted to feel again the oneness Judy and he had felt when they were first married.

One day, Darrin read in the Book of Mormon this verse: “He commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, … having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.” (Mosiah 18:21.)

When he first read this, Darrin felt that having such a relationship with his wife would be possible only if Judy changed. But then it occurred to him that perhaps he needed to do some changing himself. “What could I do to be united with Judy?” he thought. That question gave way to another: “What manner of [man] ought [I] to be?” (3 Ne. 27:27.)

The question would not leave his mind. He remembered, for instance, how concerned Judy had been last Saturday about getting her part in the stake Primary auxiliary training meeting ready. He had been grumpy, thinking that she would make them late for the high school tournament game. His tension grew as the afternoon wore on. At the same time, he had been jealous of how many hours she was giving to preparation.

But now, while he read Mosiah with the Spirit, the event began to look different. What manner of man had he been? Had he been helpful, supportive, willing to assure his wife’s preparation, willing to sustain her in her calling? The evidence was against him. And her support and sacrifice for him condemned him further.

That same Saturday, she had risen early to type his management report. It was becoming clear to him that his accusations against Judy had been expressions of his own feelings of unworthiness. He wondered how he could have been so blind.

The scriptures describe Darrin’s situation clearly: “If we say that we have fellowship with [Christ], and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” (1 Jn. 1:6.)

In resenting and accusing Judy, Darrin had been walking in darkness. He could not continue finding fault with his wife and at the same time receive light. As he pondered the scriptures, he began to see more clearly what part he had played in maintaining division in his marriage.

As he began to repent and ask the Lord for help, he received further promptings from the Spirit. He saw what he had earlier refused to see: his own need for spiritual refinement. The Holy Spirit was showing him how to have fellowship with his wife rather than how to change her.

Darrin had learned the validity of the next verse in 1 John 1: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” (1 Jn. 1:7.)

When we are seeking to be obedient to the Lord, the fellowship we are seeking with our partners becomes easier to obtain. The Spirit will teach us what manner of men and women we ought to be.

But what kind of answers, if any, can we expect to receive if we approach the Lord having already judged our spouse to be pushy or unrighteous or insensitive? Is it possible to get clear answers when praying with such resentments? The truth is, so long as we harbor jealousy or resentment or anger or any other un-Christlike feeling, we resist spiritual guidance.

When we are at peace in our marriages, true to the light and truth we have, we can receive further light, meet challenges with faith, long-suffering, love unfeigned, and experience similar fruits of the Spirit. (See Gal. 5:22–23.) But when we resist the Spirit, we do not experience its fruits. Instead, impatience, resentment, and even despair increases. It is not possible for anyone to simultaneously seek the Spirit and resist it, to seek the love of Christ yet harbor hate. The one must be given up in pursuit of the other. Thus, couples who wish to draw upon the powers of heaven must strive to obey the principles of righteousness. Joseph Smith taught this simply and directly:

“The gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, cannot be received through the medium of any other principle than the principle of righteousness, for if the proposals are not complied with, it is of no use, but withdraws.” (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., 2d ed. rev., ed. B. H. Roberts, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932–51, 3:379.)

But what if one spouse sincerely seeks divine guidance while the other does not? What often happens, though it need not and should not happen, is that the one seeking the Spirit becomes offended by the “lackadaisical” or “disobedient” partner. Where there had been gentleness and meekness, there is now harshness, impatience, perhaps even arrogance.

Some might try to justify this reaction by saying, “Well, that just shows how frustrating a disobedient spouse can be. It’s hard to follow the Lord’s counsel when my husband doesn’t care or is fighting against me.”

This view is flawed. It implies that we could draw upon the influence of the Holy Spirit to successfully meet our circumstances—if it weren’t for our circumstances. The truth is, our failure to obtain inspiration is not due to our circumstances but to our spiritual condition. As one saying goes, “We raise the dust and then complain that we cannot see.”

I do not wish to imply that if one spouse continues in faith, patience, and long-suffering, the marriage will be made whole automatically. But the Lord will prompt us to know how to meet unjust or unrighteous situations without being unrighteous ourselves.

Marie Bailey came home from Relief Society tearful and distraught. She had prepared diligently for her lesson and thought the class went well. Afterward, as she gathered up her scriptures and visual aids, she overheard two women in the hall criticize her. It stung.

She explained to her husband, Fred, what had happened. If that was how the sisters felt, she told him, then it was time to ask the bishop for a release.

Fred suggested that she not be hasty. “Why not wait to see what the Spirit directs?” he asked.

To her, his suggestion seemed self-righteous, and she flushed much the same as when she had overhead the sisters’ criticism. “Haven’t you been listening to me?” she cried out. “Don’t you understand what those sisters did to me? How can you expect me to go back next month and teach those same people?”

Her husband said, “But it doesn’t matter whether they want you, or whether they criticize you. What matters is that you’ve been called to give service in the kingdom. I don’t think those two sisters have the authority to release you.”

Marie felt totally frustrated. “You’re just like the others,” she cried. “You can’t even understand what I’ve been through, and you’re so smug telling me what to do!”

Fred could have lashed back. To his credit, he did not. He did not protest his innocence or accuse her of blowing things out of proportion. Nor did he become hostile to the two women because they had maligned his wife. He did not even point out to Marie that she was treating him with the same spirit that the sisters had displayed toward her.

Instead, he said, simply, “I do not wish to be your enemy.”

Marie hesitated. She wasn’t sure if he was being genuine or acting morally superior. His spirit seemed right, but she still harbored animosity. Fred continued, “I want to think,” and left the room.

He felt sorrow, both for the way his wife had been treated and for her current suffering. Her accusations hurt, but he put them aside. He sensed how wrong it would be to do what she was doing—giving it back.

He thought about the problem, then prayed. Finally, he turned to the scriptures for help in charting a course. The first prompting that came to him was to “do what is right, let the consequence follow.” What exactly was right? he wondered. It came to him that only the Spirit could invite Marie to change.

What Fred finally did is only one example of what a person might do who is using the Spirit. The Lord gives specific, individual responses for each situation. “I think you’re afraid,” Fred finally said to Marie. His heart was full of love and concern for her. “I don’t know what you’re afraid of, but I believe that perfect love casts out fear. Perhaps the solution to your hurt is to love the sisters who criticized you.”

Marie did not “take it” well. She could not recognize yet that Fred’s comments were spiritually motivated. She felt that he was just putting her down again.

But he had said the right thing, even if he hadn’t said it as well as he had hoped to say it. The words fear and love began their work, repeating in her mind over and over. She began to soften and to repent of her harsh words. She wondered what she had to be afraid of, and she recognized her husband’s love for her. The next day, she told him, “I’m sorry for what I said to you. And I’m sorry I reacted as I did to the words of those sisters. When I was set apart as a Relief Society teacher, the Lord promised me that I would ease the burdens of others. Instead, I became the burden.” With that insight, borne to her heart by the Spirit, Marie began to regain her self-confidence and exercise a more Christlike love for the sisters she taught.

Marital unity can be a powerful invitation for the Spirit to come into a home. Couples need not suffer division as did the two couples in the preceding examples. Those who strive to keep the covenants they have made with each other and seek to do God’s will experience unity. In such a marriage, each partner invites the other to live worthy of spiritual guidance because he or she is an example of love and concern and puts the things of God first. What distinguishes such couples from other couples is what distinguishes the restored Church from other churches: the guidance and sanctifying influences of the Spirit.

In this light, what we are is more fundamental to receiving promptings than what we do. We cannot, with outward behavior that seems good to others, deceive the Lord about our real intentions. Any effort to obtain guidance from God is of no consequence to those who have not yielded their hearts to God:

“For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?” (Mosiah 5:13.)

If, for example, a husband sought revelation about how to care for his wife’s ailing parents but resented her demands to make a decision, his resentment would tarnish his efforts to get answers to prayer. As long as what we are and what we feel undermine what we do, we will have great difficulty receiving inspiration.

But if our hearts are humble and accepting before God and we are willing to do what is right, the heavens will open and we will receive the light and truth we need to make correct decisions. “That which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually.” (Moro. 7:13.) To qualify for personal inspiration, we must be willing to respond to and follow those constant invitations to do good.

To some, the idea that living obediently is the way to obtain revelation may seem appealing in concept but not practical. Indeed, the turmoil some experience in marriage is a real barrier to receiving help from the Lord. But as Darrin’s, Judy’s, Fred’s, and Marie’s experiences demonstrate, when we pay the price in humility and diligence, we can receive the promptings of the Spirit. When that price is paid by both partners in a marriage, then couples resolve their problems. So can we resolve ours.

[illustration] Illustrated by Phyllis Luch

Terrance D. Olson is associate dean of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences at Brigham Young University. He serves as second counselor in the presidency of the BYU Sixth Stake.