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When Selfishness Becomes an ‘Understandable Mistake’

Getting along with one another means not making excuses for the self-centered things we do.

A friend of mine confessed to me that he had committed adultery. He later told me his wife was so unsupportive of the ten­sions he lived with every day, that his desire to be appreciated by a woman simply got the best of him. "And," he added, "when I explain all of that to my wife, she just doesn't understand. I've decided to do the right thing and stick with my wife, but let me tell you it's hard. It would sure help if she understood me better."

Adulterers often have a distorted perspective on how life works. They see their sin as necessary to their soul's well-being, and therefore more understandable than wrong. And a powerful urge more basic than lust — the wish to be understood and appre­ciated by a member of the opposite sex — carries them along a path that seems inevitable. Whatever voice of conscience remains gets swept away like a stick in a tidal wave.

Those of us not guilty of the more heinous sins shake our heads in disbelief that anyone could ever rationalize such obvious evil. We are proudly unaware that the same mechanism for excus­ing sin operates regularly within us, rendering us vulnerable to the worst sins imaginable.

Jarrod and Abby

A simple illustration will make this point clear. Jarrod and Abby, a busy working couple with two daughters in grade school, routinely trade off responsibility for driving the kids to and from school and to various after-school activities. On an especially hectic day, Jarrod forgets that it is his day to pick up the girls and take them to soccer practice. When the school administrator fails to reach Jarrod by phone, Abby receives an urgent call and has to step out of an important work meeting to pick up the girls. As he's driving home at the end of the day, Jarrod finally listens to the accumulated messages on his cell phone, including an angry message from Abby. When he walks into the house, the first thing Abby says is, "I can't believe you forgot—and you missed dinner."

Jarrod feels both guilty and defensive. He considers trying to explain his work crisis and why he forgot to pick up the girls, but then thinks better of it ("What's the use—she's too irritated to listen"). Without saying a word, he walks past her to the bed­room. As he changes his clothes, he rehearses an attack on her for her unsupportive attitude, decides to skip it ("It would only cause more hassle"), and just go get something to eat.

It doesn't occur to him that she may be feeling neglected and insensitively treated. If it had, the thought of gently moving toward her would feel too risky and weak, certainly uncalled-for at that moment.

He therefore returns to the kitchen, heats some leftovers in the microwave, and stares at his meal through the glass door until the bell sounds. As he carries his plate to the now deserted din­ner table, he feels angry satisfaction in meeting her irritability with his noiseless sulk. "Does she really think I enjoy dealing with disasters and working late?" he mutters to himself.

As he continues eating, the pleasure generated by his angry thoughts fades; loneliness arrives in its place. He realizes that he could have called her to apologize about forgetting to pick up the girls and to say he would be home later than expected. He decides to make things right with Abby.

He walks to the living room, sits down next to her, and apolo­gizes for failing to pick up the girls and for being late. He gently explains the crisis at work, showing an understanding of Abby's mood.

She softens under the influence of his tender spirit and, with mutual promises to be more thoughtful of one another, they unite in a hug that begins a pleasant evening.

The harmony thereby restored is not solid. The promises are not strong. As I have described this event, it's clear that Jarrod apolo­gized to relieve his own loneliness rather than to soothe Abby's hurt. Like most apologies, his included an explanation for the offense, making it into a request for understanding. His was not a true apology.

Seeing ourselves as we are

True apologies never explain, they only admit, acknowledging that the error was without justifiable cause. Repentant people realize that inexcusable wrong can either be judged or forgiven, never understood and overlooked, and so they beg for forgiveness with no thought of deserving it. Truly repentant people are the ones who begin to grasp God’s amazing grace, the ones who know that they need only confess to experience the forgiveness that is always there in infinite supply.

Whether we are adulterers or thoughtless spouses, the prob­lem with all of us is that we stubbornly regard our interpersonal failures not as inexcusably selfish choices, but as understandable mistakes. The things our spouses do to us seem more like the for­mer; the things we do to them more like the latter.

Excuse-making has been a natural tendency in people ever since Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. Without some means of self-justification, we would be forced to face ourselves squarely as we really are, corrupt by God's standards and deserv­ing punishment.

And seeing ourselves as we are would mean taking our place as condemned sinners, worthy of judgment, powerless to improve ourselves, humbled that our very best deeds provide no defense, and utterly at the mercy of a righteously angry Judge. This doesn't sound like much fun. Surely the path to the top would never begin with a descent this steep! How can joy emerge from such misery? 

Perhaps the hardest thing to get through our brain-damaged heads (when Adam fell, he must have fallen on his head) is that this painful point of nakedness and humility is not only where life begins, but also where joyful growth continues.

More than anything else, what gets in the way of getting along is self-centeredness that seems reasonable. God does his deepest work in making us more truly loving when we more clearly see how utterly ugly our selfishness is.

Getting along with each other requires that we stop mak­ing excuses for all the selfish things we do. And if our tendency toward self-justification can be weakened, perhaps then we will more easily recognize our anger when it's there, call it wrong, and experience the thrill of Christ's forgiveness and the power of his cleansing. We're not condemned and we're empowered to love.


Adapted from Men and Women, copyright © 1991, 2013 by Dr. Lawrence J. Crabb Jr. Used by permission of Zondervan.

You can hear Larry Crabb talk more about learning to enjoy the differences between men and women on a recent FamilyLife Today® interview.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family. 

Meet the Author: Larry Crabb

Dr. Larry Crabb is a well-known psychologist, conference and seminar speaker, Bible teacher, popular author, and founder/director of NewWay Ministries. In addition to various other speaking and teaching opportunities, Dr. Crabb offers a weekend conference throughout the country entitled Life on the Narrow Road and a week-long School of Spiritual Direction held in Colorado Springs, CO. He currently is Scholar in Residence at Colorado Christian University in Colorado and serves as Spiritual Director for the American Association of Christian Counselors. Dr. Crabb has authored many books including; Understanding People, The Marriage Builder, Finding God, Connecting, The Safest Place on Earth, The Pressure's Off, Shattered Dreams, andSoulTalk. His latest book, Fully Alive, was released in June 2013. Dr. Crabb and his wife, Rachael, live in the Denver, Colorado area.

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