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Practical steps for developing a fruit of the Spirit in your marriage — patience — which will help you better love your spouse

My wife might tell you I am a patient husband. And I might agree. Until she’s not doing things the right way.

My way.

I’ve never thought of myself as the type of guy who gets easily annoyed. Well, except when someone is driving in the left lane at exactly the same speed as the car next to him in the right lane. Or when someone at the grocery store waits until all her groceries have been scanned and the total is rung up before she even begins to reach for her debit card.

OK, so apparently there are some things that try my patience.

Isn’t that true for all of us? Whether it’s a 3-year-old who uses his bedroom walls for an art project or a 13-year-old who keeps her earbuds in and her parents tuned out, it’s possible for any of us to become irritated. And when our spouses try our patience, it’s a different type of agitation. After all, they’re grown-ups who are supposed to know better.

Petty irritations can seem a bit like gnats, irritants that are pesky but mostly innocuous. But I assure you they aren’t at all like harmless gnats. They’re more like a termite infestation. We all experience irritations, but it’s how we handle those irritants that can lead to problems.

Practice patience and self-control

I’m fascinated how the most comprehensive definition of love we find in the Bible begins with this statement: “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4, emphasis mine). In other words, the starting point for a loving relationship is recognizing that we must first deal with our own impatience when another person isn’t living up to our expectations or is doing things we find annoying.

Patience is not the ability to wait; it’s the ability to keep a good attitude while we wait. Patience means enduring hardship or misfortune without complaining. Patience, in many ways, means perseverance.

Impatience, on the other hand, is the calling card of someone with a lack of self-control. Author Janette Oke once said, “Impatience can cause wise people to do foolish things.” What’s worse, impatience really does come to us naturally. It is who we are without God’s wisdom influencing our lives.

Patience is supernatural. It’s a fruit of the Spirit. When we begin to walk by His Spirit, God goes to work in us, conforming us to the image of His Son. As we grow in grace, we grow in patience.

What does patience look like in our lives? Scripture gives us a good picture of true patience: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

This passage gives us three actions to work on as we seek to develop patience in our marriages. Here are some practical steps you can take:

1. Listen with your face

Did you ever wonder why God designed us with two ears and one mouth? Maybe He was suggesting the correct proportion for the use of each! How would our relationships — especially our marriages — change if we were committed to becoming better at focused listening?

A father was scrolling through his email one morning while his young daughter talked nonstop about how much fun she’d had the day before playing with a friend. Periodically, the dad would nod or mumble an “uh-huh” while his daughter chattered away.

The girl soon realized her dad wasn’t really paying attention. She got up from her chair and put her hand right in front of the screen. “Daddy!” she exclaimed. “Listen with your face!”

In our distracted world, we think we’ve become experts at multitasking. In reality, we have become failures at the kind of focused listening that is necessary for a healthy relationship to grow. It’s not just a 4-year-old who wants her daddy to listen with his face. Every spouse longs for genuine moments of communication and connection. Indeed, marriages shrivel when we’re too preoccupied to pay careful attention to what our spouses are saying.

2. Minimize distractions

Unfocused listening makes a powerful statement. It says that what we’re distracted by is more important than whatever is on our spouse’s mind. When someone is speaking to us, sharing his or her thoughts, opinions, hopes, fears or feelings, our unfocused listening says, I have more important things to think about.

I was on a business trip when I decided to check in with my wife, Mary Ann. I was in my hotel room watching ESPN when I picked up the phone to call her. I tapped the mute button on the remote so she couldn’t hear the game.

My wife soon recognized that she wasn’t getting my full attention. “Whatcha watching?” she asked. Busted.

Focused listening is a powerful first step in the cultivation of godly patience. We choose to set aside distractions. We make sure that whatever we’re discussing is our main priority in that moment.

Your phone can wait. The game can wait. Focused listening is a demonstration of patience toward those we love.

3. Bite your tongue

There are lots of reasons why the Bible tells us we should be slow to speak. Anyone who has ever spoken impulsively, without thinking, knows the damage that can occur when we haven’t carefully considered what exactly we’re hoping to communicate.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” says the old proverb (Proverbs 18:21). The book of James says the tongue has as much power as a small fire that has the potential to torch an entire forest (3:5-6). It’s because the tongue is so dangerous that we need to be careful before we speak. In a marriage relationship, our tongues can speak with love or do a whole lot of damage.

Just because something pops into your head doesn’t mean everyone around you needs to know what you’re thinking! A patient person stops to consider not only what he or she wants to say but also when and where and how to say it.

If my wife has something important to say, she knows that the first 30 minutes of my day isn’t a good time to have that conversation with me. And I’ve learned over the years that trying to have a meaningful conversation with her at night when she’s tired is a bad idea. Being slow to speak involves learning when to speak.

4. Measure your words

When Mary Ann and I find ourselves in the middle of a marital disagreement, we have sometimes employed what Dr. Gary Smalley called “drive-thru talking.” In the same way that a fast-food employee repeats your order to you to make sure he got it right, Mary Ann and I will sometimes repeat back to each other what we heard the other person say before we express our perspective or opinion. This practice not only forces us to be slow to speak, but it also forces us to listen carefully to what our partner is saying before we jump in.

I agree with the sentiment that words are so powerful that managing them is key to permanent change in your marriage. This is why learning to tame your tongue is such a big deal. Being slow to speak requires self-control. And self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. When we are able to control our tongues, we are giving evidence that God’s Spirit is at work in us.

5. Cool it

What is the opposite of patience? Most of us would quickly answer “impatience.” But think about impatience for a minute. Isn’t it simply a softer word for “anger”? When we are impatient with one another, more often than not our anger is on display.

Once again, the book of James speaks directly to the question of anger. Not only does it tell us to be slow to anger, but it also tells us the reason why we get angry in the first place. It’s because our “passions are at war within [us]” (4:1). When we don’t get our way or our desires are not met, we get angry.

Anger is usually a defense mechanism. It manifests when we are hurt or fearful or feel threatened in some way. We lash out at our spouses in an attempt to get them to back down. Anger can be the tool people use when they feel insecure and vulnerable.

But as James points out, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:20). There is rarely a righteous root feeding our anger. More often, it’s because we didn’t get our way.

The writer of Ecclesiastes warns us, “Do not be eager in your spirit to be angry, for anger resides in the heart of fools” (7:9, NASB).

6. Control your anger

People have developed techniques to help us better manage or control our anger. We can take deep breaths or count to 10 or walk away from a conflict. There’s nothing wrong with those practices. But ultimately, what we need to do is dial down the anger.

The Bible tells us to put away “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk” (Colossians 3:8). We can — and should — prayerfully work to control how we respond to the flashes of anger we experience in life. But the solution goes beyond simply trying to curb our anger. We have to replace it with godly virtues, such as compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience (verse 12). By learning to demonstrate these qualities, we are learning to replace anger with love.

Pursue patience

The path to patience is a long one. It takes time, intentionality and effort to grow in this Spirit-empowered virtue. The three steps outlined in James 1:19-20 are not the complete answer to how we grow in patience, but they provide us with a great starting point.

Begin with a commitment to becoming a better, more focused listener. Practice waiting to speak until you’ve fully heard what your spouse has to say and are able to demonstrate that you’ve heard him or her. And decide today that in addition to curbing your anger, you’ll proactively look for ways to show kindness to your spouse.

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