Your Marriage and the Sermon on the Mount

“Your Marriage and the Sermon on the Mount,” Ensign, Aug. 1991, 12

New Testament

Your Marriage and the Sermon on the Mount

A few years ago, Rick and Jane decided they needed marital counseling. They looked to a counselor to help them resolve the deep differences that were tearing their marriage apart. He listened to their stories. Both told him convincingly of ways in which they had been wronged by the other. Their resentments were so deep and their positions so hardened that the counselor didn’t see how they could be reconciled.

As he struggled to help them find solutions, he thought of what the Sermon on the Mount taught about forgiveness, anger, judging, and other principles. He explained to them that President Harold B. Lee had called the Sermon on the Mount “the constitution for a perfect life.” (Decisions for Successful Living, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974, p. 56.) Then he handed them a Bible and asked them to open it to Matthew, chapters 5 through 7.

“Will you read the entire Sermon on the Mount out loud, together, three times this week?” he asked. “And each time, after reading it, will you each name at least one thing that you must change to bring your life into harmony with its teachings? Remember that you must not tell each other how to change. Focus only on what you must do.” They were hesitant but agreed.

The next week, they returned to the counselor’s office relaxed and friendly to each other. Their attitudes had changed. They were ready to talk about ways to compromise and cooperate. The things that had divided them so deeply a week earlier now did not seem insurmountable. At least three good things had happened as a result of their completing the assignment. First, reading the scriptures together brought the Spirit back into their marriage. Second, the assignment forced each of them to examine their own motives and behaviors rather than those of their spouse. And third, they did the assignment without fighting.

The Sermon on the Mount teaches many principles that can help any marriage, troubled or not. I would like to examine four of these principles and suggest ways we can apply them in our marriages.

Forgive One Another

Richard and Carol had been married for twenty years and were the parents of four children. When they first came to see a counselor to resolve their marital difficulties, Carol complained that Richard was cruel, manipulative, thoughtless, and had a bad temper. The counselor turned to Richard, expecting to hear his side of the story, and was surprised to hear him agree with Carol.

He later learned that Richard had grown up with low self-esteem, and he compensated for it by trying to control Carol and their children. Richard acknowledged that he needed help and said that he was anxious to change.

Over the next year, the counselor watched Richard gradually become kinder and more thoughtful. Happy with the changes he was making, Richard felt good about himself. Nevertheless, Carol filed for divorce not long afterwards. While it was true that Richard had treated Carol poorly during their marriage, he had repented and changed. It was Carol’s unwillingness to forgive him that led to their divorce.

The story of Richard and Carol is not unusual. Many couples hold grudges for years, sometimes using the accumulation of hurts as a justification for punishing each other. Since an unwillingness to forgive stifles communication, their interaction becomes strained and less spontaneous.

The Savior taught: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14–15.)

All of us need forgiveness. We begin to receive it as we forgive others. Unfortunately, a marriage can collapse under the weight of unforgiven offenses just as Richard’s and Carol’s did. The Savior suggests an alternative: “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him.” (Matt. 5:25.) This doesn’t mean we must always give in or let our spouses take advantage of us. It means we should look for areas of compromise, or say clearly yet kindly how we feel about our spouses’ actions. And since it is impossible for us to know everyone’s motives and the challenges he or she faces, the Lord said, “Of you it is required to forgive all men.” (D&C 64:10.)

Keys to Forgiveness

  1. See the situation from your spouse’s point of view.

  2. Trade places with your spouse and imagine how much you would like to be forgiven.

  3. Remember all the good things about your spouse. The positive will always outweigh the negative.

  4. Speak only when you feel you are in control of your emotions.

  5. Forget about who is right and who is wrong.

  6. Seek the Spirit. The Holy Ghost will help you to forgive.

Go the Extra Mile

Jim and Marian spent much of their time determining who was making the greatest contribution to their marriage. They believed that a marriage would work only if it was a fifty-fifty relationship. Neither felt that the other was being fair. Both kept mental checklists of their own accomplishments and compared their respective contributions to the marriage. Each was constantly upset about how little the other partner gave to the marriage.

The Savior had a solution to this problem: “If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” (Matt. 5:40–42.)

Jim and Marian needed to understand that they each had an exaggerated view of what they were giving and that they underestimated each other’s contributions to the marriage. When Jim and Marian changed their focus from how much they each could receive to how much they each could give, their marriage began to improve.

Mormon said that “charity is the pure love of Christ” and that charity “seeketh not her own.” (See Moro. 7:45, 47.) A principle for making this work is found in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:12.)

To make this work, Jim and Marian each needed to find out what the other really wanted. Marian had a romantic nature and valued things like thoughtful notes, cards, an occasional flower, and frequent verbal reminders that she was loved. By contrast, Jim was practical in his orientation: he placed a high value on order, regularity, and security. Neither of these orientations is superior to the other. The problem was that Jim felt that he best said “I love you” by fixing things around the house, keeping the yard neatly groomed, and providing financial security for the family. Marian, on the other hand, frequently put love notes in Jim’s lunch, bought little presents for him, and told him at least once a day how much she loved him. Once they learned that the “language of love” was different for each of them, they began to speak each other’s language. As a result, they began to see each other’s contributions to the marriage as fair.

Keys to Fairness in Marriage

  1. Set your heart on giving to your spouse.

  2. Don’t keep track of how much you give and how much you receive.

  3. Be sensitive to your spouse’s needs and recognize they are probably different from yours.

  4. Learn to speak each other’s “language of love.”

“Judge Not”

Fred and Jean wanted to buy a new dishwasher. They often went shopping together and compared various models. At last they found a dishwasher they both liked, but they hesitated to buy it because of the high price. The next day, Fred went back to the store alone and bought the dishwasher as a surprise for Jean. He arranged to have it delivered while she was out of the house. When Jean returned and saw the dishwasher, she was upset. She accused Fred of being inconsiderate of her feelings by leaving her out of the final decision. Her accusations led to an argument and finally Fred left the house, feeling frustrated.

Judging is a frequent source of conflict in a marriage. Usually, as with the story of Fred and Jean, judgments are based on false assumptions. Both the assumptions as well as the accusations can lead to anger and resentment.

The Savior warned: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matt. 7:1–3.)

Judging a spouse harshly is usually an indication that something is amiss in our own lives. Instead, we should ask ourselves, Why does this behavior or attitude of my spouse bother me so much? The answer to this question will probably help us discover what we can do to change. Once we have “cast out the beam” from our own eyes, we will be less likely to see faults in a spouse.

Keys to Avoid Judging

  1. Keep the lines of communication open. Couples who regularly talk to each other are less likely to have serious misunderstandings.

  2. Have realistic expectations for your spouse.

  3. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt.

  4. Remember that people’s strengths and weaknesses differ. Everyone grows at his or her own rate.

  5. Look for ways you can change, not ways your partner can change.

Use Self-Control

John and Cathy, a couple in their early thirties, visited a counselor for help with their marriage. “John can’t control his temper,” said Cathy. “He’s angry all the time, and I usually don’t even know why.” As the conversation with the counselor progressed, John became steadily more agitated. Suddenly, he stood up and yelled at his wife, “I don’t have to listen to this! You’re the one who needs counseling, not me!” Then he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him and leaving Cathy trembling and pale.

It is impossible to have the Spirit when we are angry. The Savior told the Nephites that “contention is not of me, but is of the devil.” (3 Ne. 11:29.) When we allow the spirit of anger into our homes, we provide an atmosphere in which Satan can drive wedges between family members. Anger by its very nature is self-serving; it makes us feel out of control, and it feeds only our own emotions.

The Savior spoke against anger in the Sermon on the Mount: “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matt. 5:22.)

Notice also that this scripture tells us not to participate in name-calling. How often do family members place destructive labels on each other or use belittling names and phrases in an attempt to hurt?

The alternative to anger is self-control. This doesn’t mean that we should never express our displeasure or correct offensive behavior. But when we do, we need to keep in mind that it is the behavior that is offensive, not the individual being corrected.

The Lord’s counsel is that we should exercise “gentleness and meekness, and … love unfeigned; … reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.” (D&C 121:41, 43.)

The keys are self-control and love. These attributes are developed over time and take patience.

Keys to Overcoming Anger

  1. When you feel angry, ask yourself, Who will benefit from this expression of anger? If a correction or criticism will not benefit the one toward whom it is directed, don’t say it.

  2. If it is necessary to reprove, practice the principle of reproving and then showing afterwards an increase of love toward the one reproved.

  3. Avoid name-calling or labeling a person, especially in anger.

  4. Work on increasing your self-control in other areas of your life.

  5. Seek to have the Holy Ghost in your life. You cannot feel the Spirit of the Lord and the spirit of anger at the same time.

The Sermon on the Mount Can Help

There are other gospel principles that tie the Sermon on the Mount to success in marriage. Some of them are service, patience, listening, humility, love, and the Spirit. The development of these attributes is a purposeful pursuit. A good marriage is not something that just happens. The strongest marriages become that way because the individuals in those marriages work to make them so. The scriptures describe husbands and wives as becoming “one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24.) While each spouse retains his or her identity, their wills become blended.

The gift of the Holy Ghost is perhaps our greatest asset as we work toward this unity in marriage and overcome “self” in the service of a spouse. As we do this, our marriage becomes more like a heaven on earth, and we move closer to the ideal set forth by the Savior in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:48): “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”

  • Director of the Kaysville Institute of Religion, Paul K. Browning serves in the bishopric of the Bountiful Fifty-fourth Ward, in the Bountiful Utah Heights Stake.

Engraving by Gustave Dore

Illustrated by Cary Henrie