Wherever I teach about goodwill, I am asked, "How do you reconcile the concept of goodwill with the total depravity of the human heart?" Some people go so far as to say, "We can't really have goodwill because we are so sinful," and they usually quote Jeremiah 17:9 to prove their point: "The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. Who can know it?" (KJV). I believe what Jeremiah teaches, but I also believe what Jesus teaches: "The seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance" (Luke 8:15, italics mine).
The obvious question, then, is "If the heart is 'deceitful and desperately wicked,' how can a person have an 'honest and good heart' at the same time?" The answer is that we have two dimensions: the side created in the image of God and the fallen side corrupted by sin. When Jesus said, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," I understand this to mean we have a spiritual side that longs to do what is good, based on the moral law implanted in us by God, but we have a carnal side that pulls us into sin. This is precisely Paul's point in Romans 7. Paul knew he had been freed from the penalty of sin and had the promise of eternal life (see Romans 6:22-23). As a Christian he did many good works and served Christ tirelessly, but he wrestled with his inability to obey all of God's law and live a completely sanctified life (see Romans 7:1-21).
All of us recognize Paul's plight, for it is ours as well. We are good willed people-or at least want to be-but sin still holds us in its grip. This is why, even though we have goodwill toward our mate, we can still sin against our mate in all kinds of ways. So, my counsel to married couples who are serious about practicing Love and Respect is always the same: whenever your spouse's good intentions fail to produce loving or respectful actions toward you, you have only one good option, and that is to make a deliberate choice to trust your spouse's goodwill.
For example: You have to leave very early in the morning, and you haven't had time to fill the car with gas. Your spouse promises to go out and take care of it while you do some last-minute packing and reports. The next day, as you are rushing to leave, you find the gauge on "Empty," and you feel a surge of anger. In the next few moments, you can choose to believe your spouse "just doesn't care" and has ill will toward you, or you can choose to believe your spouse made an honest mistake because you know she (or he) does not normally neglect a known need.
Choices to believe in your spouse's goodwill when he or she forgets or gets distracted are relatively easy to make. But what about those times when your spouse does something that is consciously nasty or maybe even a little hateful (perhaps to "teach you a lesson")? To stay with the didn't-fill-the-tank example, suppose you had come home late for dinner, hadn't called, and then forgotten to pick up what he or she wanted at the store? Perhaps your spouse is so angry they decide to let your gas tank go unfilled as payback for your careless behavior.
I have heard of all kinds of payback couples pull on each other, particularly if they are on the Crazy Cycle to any degree. One couple had a spat, and both were so angry they hadn't spoken to each other all day or evening. Before going to bed he wrote her a note and left it on her pillow:
"If I don't hear the alarm, please wake me up at 5:30 a.m. since you get up at 5:00. I have an important breakfast meeting." At 7:00 the next morning, he finally woke up and was in disbelief. His wife had not awakened him! As he angrily rolled out of bed, he noticed her note on the nightstand: "Wake up! It's 5:30 a.m."
Almost all married couples have encounters that lead to reactions designed to send the message "You hurt me, so I am going to hurt you so you will stop hurting me!" Does this sort of encounter mean that one or both of you lack basic goodwill toward the other? Of course not. Your angry spouse might temporarily not wish you well, but these exceptions don't do away with the rule, and the rule says, "I will choose to believe in my spouse's goodwill when he or she does me wrong, whether it is unintentional or intentional."
Along with his Romans 7 confession of not being able to always do what he wants and not do what he doesn't want, Paul also teaches that, despite our weaknesses, goodwill is a reality. Following through on our good intentions is possible when we seek to do God's will from our hearts and "with good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men" (Ephesians 6:7).
Next week: What if a spouse does not have good will? Can a mate choose the dark side?
Excerpts taken from The Language of Love and Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs.