As Long As We Both Shall Live - Part I
Something caught my eye on the roadside as I walked along our country lane. This wasn’t the usual fast food refuse, beer bottle, or old TV. Instead I picked up a large anniversary card signed simply “Mark”. A little further I spied another greeting card, somewhat more intricate than the first. The outside showed a pop-up city scene complete with buildings bearing window signs such as “Bakery” and “Theatre”. The outer text read something like, “I know I haven’t done a very good job saying it recently, but…” When I opened the card all the signs changed to read “I love you”. Sweet. Sort of. This one was also signed “Mark”. Not “Love, Mark.” Just Mark. He hadn’t added a message that read, “I really do love you, sweetheart!” or “I love you! Mark” or anything. Of course, finding it there on the side of the road added to the poignancy. Obviously whomever Mark had given this to was pretty ticked with him. One angry woman, I thought.
Slightly further on I began seeing the jewelry and knick-knacks. There were pins and inexpensive necklaces, and a metal name plate labeled “Mr. and Mrs. Mark Something-or-other.” Finally, I found a pillowcase with a bit more stuff inside, including a stack of college grade reports for this Mark fellow from the mid-1970’s. The likely scenario became a bit clearer. I’m guessing that Mark had dumped his wife of many years for another woman, and Mrs. Mark wanted to rid herself of everything she held that reminded her of his past kindnesses or promises. Based on his college report cards, this guy was older than Tim and I, and many of the trinkets were similarly dated, (such as Holly Hobby jewelry pins!), so this was likely a marriage of over 30 years. I grieved for the unknown woman whose pain was bled all over my little lane.
Well into mid-life now, Tim and I have seen our share of marriages gone awry. Whether our peers from high school and college days, extended family, or church members, we’ve watched with sorrow as so many marriages have struggled or come unglued. Many have been in families of professing believers. What makes the difference between a solid marriage that grows in beauty through the years, and one that becomes ever more fractured? And how in the midst of a busy life with caring for children and a home, making a living, and serving a church, can a couple not just preserve but build their marriage?
Marriages fracture for all kinds of reasons. I’ve wrestled with what to say in a few hundred words that is not simply trite and useless. As I’ve thought about the marriages I’ve seen fall apart, I can see two major themes that run through all. First, in almost every case, instead of dealing head on with sin issues that were present from the start of the marriage, the couples ignored them, letting them grow to be destructive monsters. Second, other marriages I’ve watched have crumbled because the couple “grew apart” as they would say, though I think something else is going on at the core. I’ll write more about that in later posts.
Whether anger, lust, selfishness, laziness, pride, or lack of self-control, bitter seeds come in all varieties. We choose to disobey God’s plan for the roles of husbands and wives, we don’t work at developing good communication, and we withhold sex. Husbands don’t love their wives as Christ loved the church and wives try to usurp their husbands. Sin affects all of our marriages, but if we ignore the sin, believing it doesn’t matter that much or that it will go away on its own, instead it will grow and give birth to death. (James 1: 14, 15) “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”
One day this summer on a walk I picked up a little pebble in my sandal, but thinking it was too small to bother with, I ignored it. Mistake! That sharp little stone created a deep gouge in my heel that took a week to heal. Often in the early stages of courtship or even the first years of marriage we can more easily overlook sin, but given the wear and tear of years, these metaphorical pebbles in the sandal, if not dealt with, cause deep puncture wounds in our homes. Let me give you an example. Women are commanded to respect their husbands. (Eph. 5:33). But as we get to know our man, we inevitably know his faults, shortcomings and, yes, common sins, much more intimately than when we first married. These things can rub and irritate us, causing us to disdain and disrespect our husband instead of honoring him, respecting, loving, and encouraging him in righteousness. I have seen this lack of respect from a wife contribute greatly to the death of a marriage. My husband feels this is one thing that causes a middle-aged man to seek out a younger woman who will very often admire and look up to him, unlike his wife who is so familiar with his flaws as well as his strengths.
Since no one escapes from the reality of sin, what can we do? First, and most important, recognize problems and be willing to deal with them. Those who counsel couples with troubled marriages will tell you that most crises are preventable. With cancer or other disease, early detection leads to much better long-term prognoses. Likewise, discovering and dealing with marital wounding sins in the early stages can lead to less painful remedies. So be willing to take a hard look at yourself, hate your sin, deal with it, put it to death.
But while we need to be serious about looking at our own wrong attitudes and actions, at the same time we ought to be gracious in dealing with our spouse. Pray for him, and allow the Lord to convict him of his sin. There will be times to directly point out sin, as this is one of the means of sanctification in a marriage. But very often, we need to extend grace to our spouse, not point out every little slip. Don’t take offense easily, and he will likely start displaying the same grace to you. Proverbs 19: 11 says, “A man's discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.” And James 1: 19, 20 reminds us that, “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”
Sometimes, though, you are at an impasse and don’t know where to turn. What then? First, make sure to stay connected in a good, strong church! Don’t quit going to your small group, but stay and ask for prayer. Seek pastoral counsel. So often when people begin having trouble, rather than clinging to the body of Christ, they want to slip away out of embarrassment or pride. Find a godly older couple whose marriage has borne good fruit. Talk to them, asking them for help and wisdom.
In the strong marriages of several decades that I am intimately familiar with, each couple has at one time or another had to struggle through some very thorny marital issues. Sometimes in the early years these problems seemed minimal, just a minor irritation. Left unchecked, plus with the added grist of increased life pressures, these things could have continued to mature, causing increasing turmoil. The happy, godly marriages that I know did not continue on as if nothing was amiss, but instead confronted the problems, and by God’s grace, made efforts to change behavior, attitudes, and thoughts.