Marriage from the Other Side: The Good
Over the last year, I have found myself thinking a great deal about marriage. About my late wife Elizabeth particularly, of course, but also about the thing we built together over 13 years, the good of it and the challenges. It is a strange thing to still be relatively young but have the whole arc of a marriage to remember, from the first kiss in a church parking lot to the last kiss on lifeless lips growing cold. I’m going to write through some of what I’ve been reflecting on in a series of posts, both for myself and (hopefully) for others as they think about this strange two-becoming-one that is so basic to our makeup as God’s creatures.
The place I want to start is with the things I am most grateful for. They are not the things that first drew me to Elizabeth, although the hints of some of them were there. Neither are they things unique to her. And they aren’t as simple as saying “she loved Jesus.” Our shared faith is woven through them, but what made our marriage so sweet to both of us was the way our shared faith worked out in specific ways.
First of all, I am grateful for our shared commitment to grow. We both understood our wedding not as the peak of our love but the first step onto the foothills. It is so easy to settle in marriage, not for a partner but for yourself and the current state of the union. I sometimes talk to couples who seem to feel like they are experiencing God’s will simply because, while they are miserable and distant, they at least are refusing to get a divorce. While I certainly don’t want to encourage covenant-breaking, I also ache for the thing they’ve settled for. Marriage is meant to be so much more than tight-lipped doggedness, and it can be, if you give yourself to dreaming together about what it could be and then doing the hard personal work of growing toward that dream.
Every few months, one of us would initiate what I came to think of as “growth conversations.” We would ask where we could be improving in terms of loving the other person, or what frustrations they had, or what they really appreciated when we did it. Usually, we would each come up with something. And then we would try to make a plan to grow in that area. I’m not going to pretend like all of those changes happened overnight; we certainly had some of the same conversations again (and again). It is, I have learned, hard to break habits like leaving your clothes all over the floor. That said, the commitment to keep asking those questions and to keep working on specific ways to put them into practice became foundational to how we both experienced and understood that we were loved.
Second, I am grateful for our shared sense of mission. We both understood that marriage, even a good marriage, is not an end in itself. It isn’t the goal. A marriage and a family were, to us, missionary outposts of the kingdom of heaven. Our purpose in living together and in raising our kids was to build each other up for this calling and to welcome others into our home and lives to bless them and be Jesus to them.
Obviously, part of this was especially realized in terms of my formal ministry. While I resent the stereotypes about pastors’ wives, Elizabeth flourished in a space where she could love women, lead bible studies, and otherwise serve as a partner in that work. But I mean something deeper. Our goal in everything was to glorify God by loving and serving people. That meant that everything, from parenting to hospitality to finances, shared the same purpose in our minds. We were able to work through disagreements with relatively little pain because we both had the same destination; we just had different ideas about how to get there.
I am also grateful for our commitment to repentance and forgiveness. Even the best marriage is two sinners navigating the challenges of life at close range. Years ago, we sat down together and tried to codify what forgiveness would mean for us: we would not return to it (in our minds, replaying our grievances), we would not reuse it (in fights against each other, dredging up the past), we would not repeat it (to others) and we would seek reconciled relationship on the far side.
Of course, this relationship of repentance and forgiveness only creates beauty when both partners are doing their part it. Forgiveness is not an excuse to enable or excuse sin; repentance requires real work and seeking after change. And it cannot be demanded; the posture of repentance acknowledges that forgiveness is an undeserved gift of grace. However, as we were both quick to admit our sins and to forgive each other, we discovered a haven of safety within which we could fail and see those failures addressed.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for us, we had a shared commitment to delight in each other and our lives. Life contains real suffering, and marriage is a part of that. I don’t mean what follows to trivialize the pain or minimize the tears. However, the truth is that every inch of creation is charged with the generosity and goodness of God. There is an almost infinite supply of beauty we can rejoice in and relish, but it requires a commitment to seek that joy and not let the shadows and hard edges dominate our vision.
Here is the greatest secret I was ever taught about marriage and life in general, and the one I hold most dearly: attraction and infatuation happen to us; delight is something we choose to do.
This is true at the most basic, physical level. Especially in our last few years, cancer ate away at Elizabeth in ways that aged her. There are things that happen to a dying body (or one being poisoned by chemotherapy or cut open by surgery) that are objectively ugly. However, I never ceased to view her as beautiful, not because of some noble romanticism, but because I chose to delight in her. And there was much still to delight in, as long as I kept daily making that choice. And while my body wasn’t ravaged in the same ways, she chose to delight in my transition from athletic youth to… something rounder and softer… stemmed from the same source.
But it isn’t just physical; the choice of delight is also true at the level of whole persons. We got married young, with much of our futures and even some of our temperaments and foibles unwritten or undiscovered. It would have been easy to drift apart; we both became different people than those the other married. But instead, we took those changes as opportunities for discovery and delight. Again, because it was a choice. We chose to seek our joy in each other, and as a result, a world of enjoyment was ours.
Of course, it is these good things that continue to be the seedbeds for my grief. I miss them, and I miss her. Yet I would take the story all over again, even knowing the ending, because of what we discovered together and what we made. As we share ourselves in these ways, marriage becomes what it was always meant to be: an imaging of God’s love within Himself, of Christ’s love for the church, and of what humanity was truly created for.