Giving Thanks for Hard Truths

Tomorrow, my beautiful wife Elizabeth and I will have been married for twelve years. There is much I am grateful for about her, and I’ve celebrated some of those things here in the past. However, as I reflected on our anniversary this year, what I found myself feeling gratitude about was something less romantic but perhaps more important to our continued love: the unflinchingly realistic view of marriage we were given as young people when we entered into that covenant together. I just want to reflect on a few of the truths we were told. We didn’t understand them at the time, but they continue to echo in my ears as I seek to love and cherish this woman God has given me.

“You never marry the right person.”

This is the place to start. When two people decide to marry each other, their perspective on the other is almost always skewed by a cocktail of youth, infatuation, and sexual desire. They are convinced this person completes them, that they are “the One,” and that they will always desire and enjoy each other. They might not admit it, but their beloved seems perfect.

Notably, while this perfectionism drives couples to marry, it also drives some people into perpetual singleness. They are seeking to find Mr. Right or Ms. Always-Okay, to have absolute certainty that they have discovered the ideal mate. Because they are more honest than the first group, however, they end up never marrying because they recognize the faults in every potential spouse.

In the face of such ideas, what we were told was something fundamentally harder but better: there is no such thing as “the One.” There is no perfect partner. Any two human beings will fit together awkwardly, both physically and relationally. More than that, sin is a universal human condition, and the intimacy of marriage will allow your sins to hurt each other more deeply than in any other relationship in your life.

Marriage is good not because we are good. Rather, it is good because it is designed to handle our sin. If we are faithful to our vows, they actually have the power to help us work through our sin and find love and healing on the far side.

“Marriage vows are about the hard times.”

Speaking of those vows, they are crucial to understanding this reality. I sometimes talk to couples who want to write their own vows. What is striking is how different they sound than those handed down to us through the centuries. Couples in our day want to promise love “for laughter, for happiness, for always being your best friend.” What is absent is the other side – the tears and sadness and times when you feel like your spouse is your enemy.

We don’t need the covenant of marriage when things are going well. It is easy to hold and to cherish when we are young and healthy and rich and life is grand. The vows, in a real sense, are about the other stuff, the “poorer, want, and worse” of our lives. This is why such commitments are ordinarily indissoluble. You might not realize it, but you have already named the things that would drive you apart and pledged yourself to love in spite of them.

“Love is an act of daily commitment.”
Of course, those vows are only part of the story. A wedding is sort of like a birth – it begins something that can be beautiful and is rightly celebrated, but it can just as easily be the beginning of something ugly and painful. Every child is a miracle when they first exit the womb; it is the days that come after that determine whether they will be a blessing or a curse to the world. Marriage is not about the past but the present – about whether we will pursue love today.

The question of marriage is not “did you do it once” but “will you do it now, in these circumstances.” Of course, the answer to that question should be predetermined in the past. The point of the covenant is to constrain us so that we aren’t making the choice based on circumstances. However, the choice must still be made. The fact that you have run the last 95 meters is of no credit if you decide to stop in the last five. Yesterday, you promised to hold and love and cherish this person. Today is when you have to do it.

“Love is not based on the beloved. It is based on Jesus.”
The best resource for successfully living this calling is an experience of the love of God. The essential question we must ask, in the face of such a calling, is “why do it.” Our tendency is to anchor that reason in our spouse. They are so great, they’ve done so much for us, we are so in love with them. However, that is an unstable foundation. What about when they aren’t being particularly lovable? What about when they are so broken by sin or circumstance that they have nothing to offer? What could motivate us to be faithful then?

The Christian answer is that our call to love is not rooted in the beloved but in God’s love for us. Regardless of what my wife is like today, regardless of how our life together looks, the unchangeable fact is that Jesus suffered and died to make me his own. I bring my sin and worthlessness and Jesus brings an unswerving love which cost Him life itself. As long as I am so loved, so I am called to love.

“What you choose drives how you feel.”
None of this should leave us with the idea that marriage is always miserable. At moments it might be, but there are many more where it is a joy. I have far more delight in my wife now than I did when we were first married, despite three kids and a season of employment struggles and a deeper sense of our sin and her terminal cancer. However, the key to this delight has been in recognizing that it is not the cause of our love but the result.

It is a deeply counter-cultural idea. We assume in our world that our current feelings and desires should be the key determiner of our actions. However, true freedom comes not by feeding our desires but by mastering them. In marriage, this means that our desire for our spouse usually arises as a result of our choice to show them love. As we act out service and care, our hearts grow in their feeling of love. Our affections are not outside the realm of choice. Rather, they are usually the result of what we choose.

Final Thoughts
All these truths have become especially relevant as we have walked through cancer. It would be easy for the stress and grief to turn us against each other. It takes a daily sacrifice on each of our parts not to do it. However, the reality is that sacrifice is one we joyfully make because we have found true joy in each other, a joy not born of Hollywood romance and our spouse’s excellence but based on the reality that God’s call to love is its own reward. As we obey it, we discover that buried beneath the sometimes-hard soil of commitment is the beautiful treasure of delight. I give thanks for this woman, and she gives thanks for me, though we are sinners and though these years have brought much suffering. There is nowhere else I would rather be.