Thus far in this series, we have outlined a moral triage rooted in biblical categories and considered its benefits for two couples in conflict. In each situation, we looked to the Scriptures to help understand the issues at stake and developed a biblical plan of action for resolving first a conflict of wisdom and then a conflict of conscience. But what should couples do when the Bible seems relatively silent on their specific situation? How can they move forward if they are arguing about a matter of mere preference?
Kevin and Aileen are in that kind of situation. Kevin has just mentioned an upcoming golf trip to his wife, having forgotten that her mother’s birthday party is the same weekend. Aileen is appalled that he would even ask. She has mentioned the party to Kevin multiple times and he knows how important birthdays are to her mom. Yet, Kevin is unwilling to back down. He goes to his mother-in-law’s birthday bash every year. Is it really that big of a deal to miss out one time?
While this conflict may sound insurmountable, the moral triage can actually assist in pursuing a resolution. For the sake of brevity, the key questions asked in previous posts will be summarized.
Other than general commands about loving one’s wife through sacrificial service (Ephesians 5:25, 28, 33), the Bible does not give any strict instructions for husbands regarding their mother-in-law’s birthday. It would be difficult to argue that Kevin’s golfing trip is likely to lead him into temptation, so it cannot be classified as foolish either. Finally, unless Aileen has some particular conviction about family parties, Kevin’s absence that weekend would not truly wound her conscience. Having exhausted the other categories, this couple can conclude that they are arguing over a matter of preference.
Recognizing the category, they must now work together to develop a biblical plan of action. How do the Scriptures instruct believers to handle differences of preference? A Christian is called to “look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). This command is grounded in the person of Christ, who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6‒7). Therefore, both Kevin and Aileen need to lay aside their own desires and seek to understand the interests of their spouse.
By labeling this issue as a mere preference, the couple protects the conversation from unhelpful emotions and unbiblical overreactions. They are simply two people wanting to do two different things. However, if they both approach the situation with Christ-like humility, they can work toward a solution. Perhaps Kevin could attend part of the birthday party and then join his friends on the back nine. Or maybe he could pass on the trip altogether and plan to go golfing the following weekend instead. On the other hand, Aileen may decide she wants to honor her husband by giving him a guilt-free weekend with his friends. In this case, she could arrange a visit with her mom before or immediately after the trip to make up for his absence at the party. Many solutions could resolve this dilemma. In one sense, it does not even matter how Kevin and Aileen work it out. What matters more is the manner in which they discuss their options. A moral triage helps them recognize that this problem is a preference and as such, they should seek to serve one another, following the example of their Savior (Matthew 20:28).
Before concluding this study, it is prudent to point out the limitations of a moral triage. Correctly labeling a conflict will not alone bring peace to a couple. Once the category is determined, the couple must commit to working in the power of the Holy Spirit to handle the conflict appropriately. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that two people will come to the same conclusion when attempting to classify the issues. Triaging a conflict is not an objective process. Each person has interests in the matter. As James 4:1‒3 reminds us, competing desires are at the root of interpersonal conflict. Discussing a moral grid is not going to remove these desires. The grid itself is merely a tool that will only be as useful as the Holy Spirit empowers it to be. Properly classifying moral categories requires spiritual discernment.
Finally, it must be noted that regardless of the category, sin is lurking in the midst of every conflict. Sins may be easier to identify but they are certainly more difficult to avoid. Couples may disagree sinfully, even when the issue on the table is a mere preference. An improvement in terminology will not remove the selfishness hiding in the human heart.
Nonetheless, a moral triage can be quite helpful in guiding couples through conflict. Recognizing and applying the unique aspects of each moral category protects spouses from reacting inappropriately and leads them toward addressing issues biblically. While determining the proper category will not solve the problem alone, this process is fruitful because it leads the couple to the Bible and toward one another.
Conflict in marriage is inevitable but it does not have to be devastating. By applying the wisdom of an emergency room triage, couples can sort out their differences and address the key issues in the proper way. The result—God-glorifying peace within the home—is certainly worth the pursuit.
This is the fourth and final post in this series on Marriage Conflict.
Matthew D. Haste, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Ministry Studies at Columbia International Seminary and School of Ministry in Columbia, SC, where he leads the 5-year B.A./M.Div Program. He is married to Cheyenne and they have three kids: Haddon, Anna, and Adelyn. He is co-author, along with Robert L. Plummer, of Held in Honor: Wisdom for your Marriage from Voices of the Past (Christian Focus, 2015).