Read an Excerpt
Honoring the Past While Moving Past It
Navigating the Generational Shift in Marriage
“Who wants to drive?” A voice piped up from the circle of grad students in front of the dorm. I took off in a jog to the parking lot a quarter mile away and returned in my gunmetal gray Isuzu Trooper. Trying to live up to the rugged, adventurous image of my truck, I chirped the tires as I approached the swelling crowd of guys and girls awaiting a ride to the ice-cream store.
I ( Jerome) had been on the seminary campus for only a week, and I was relishing all the new experiences and faces that made up the tight-knit community of five hundred in this South Carolina sauna called Columbia. Girls and guys started piling into my SUV, and finally the front passenger door opened. No, it can’t be! Things like this only happen in movies. But there she was–an auburn-haired beauty I had met just briefly before. She slid into her seat with surprising grace, which wasn’t so easy in this highmounted truck.
I think that’s the thing I noticed first about Kellie…well, okay, maybe not the first thing but close: she had this quiet grace about her. Nothing snooty or put-on, it was patently authentic. What do you call it…bearing? poise? To me it communicated that she was a lady, that she had confidence and self-respect. It also represented something of a subtle challenge…the man who would win her affection would have to earn it.
That’s where it began for us, a blurred rocket ride that moved us faster than the speed of thought to the steps of Kellie’s home church a mere six months later–where time slowed to a surreal slow motion as I slid a golden band on the third finger of her left hand.
Now, fifteen years later, we are very different people than the ones who squeaked out those celestial vows. Did we have even a clue then? Yeah, a clue…but not much more. How do you begin such an uncharted life? Getting married is at the same time the most natural and the most foreign step most of us ever take. What do you honestly have to go on? Besides the premarital workbook that you may have scribbled in incoherently in your love-drug buzz, where do you find guidance for the specific shape of your relationship? Even within a Christian context, how are you supposed to understand this mysterious creation called marriage? And once you’re past the initial giddy awkwardness of it all, the question is still a valid one: what shape should your marriage take? What is the connection between the marriage you observed growing up and your unique shape as a couple? Should you follow your parents’ example, or should you work hard at doing things differently? When you find that things aren’t working, is it possible that you’re stuck in structures and mind-sets that God never intended for you and your spouse to adopt? What are God’s specific intentions for your marriage?
Marriage is the quest that takes you beyond the forms of your parents’ relationship–no matter how good or bad–and into your own destiny, held in the heart of God and waiting to be unwrapped by you.
In the Beginning Was…Confusion
[Jerome] Let’s start with where we began. Our marriage was born in a wonderful, romantic fog of excitement and anticipation. But within just a few months we had lost the foundation of oneness that is now so central to our vision of marriage. Inadvertently and subconsciously, I had already made a lot of decisions for our new life together before we were even married.
[Kellie] That’s what I now find so hard to believe–that we didn’t discuss our plans more. We were so in love we thought that everything would be okay, that everything would work itself out. We didn’t think–or at least I didn’t think–we needed to evaluate or question our future. It’s funny…I don’t even remember talking about it!
[Jerome] I think the thing we talked about most was that I wanted to continue my job as worship pastor at my local church…that it would be a great place for us to start our life together.
[Kellie] I don’t even remember having that conversation! I think you felt that way because you were already doing it–you were already on staff, already leading the college group and leading worship. I got excited that we could lead the campus ministry together. That was what I envisioned for us. That’s the way my head works: It’s hard for me to think ahead and figure out how I’m going to feel about something or what it’s going to look like until I’m actually in that situation.
[Jerome] Yeah, we sort of stumbled through all these “nondecisions” in our new life together. We had premarital counseling, but our minds were clouded by idealistic images that were disconnected from the grittier realities of life. We didn’t formulate a plan for our new life or even our first year. Marriage is just so different, so “other” than anything we’d experienced before. It was hard to know what to anticipate. Maybe you can relate. Marriage might have seemed like a simple thing, a natural next step. You were so in love that you couldn’t imagine not spending your lives together. And the details of being married–or, more specifically, what it meant for you and your spouse to live in the unique relationship that God called you to–was given little thought. Or marriage might have seemed just the opposite to you. Perhaps the models of marriage you had observed growing up lacked love and permanence, and the things that went into a good marriage were a mystery to you. So the idea of thinking intentionally about your marriage and how you wanted to fashion it was a daunting venture. Either way, entering into marriage without thinking through and discussing the particulars of the marriage is common. And it’s only later that people realize that more intentional work is needed.
The Damage of Nondecisions
[Kellie] So we got married and moved back to North Carolina to get settled, and you decided you didn’t want to do the college ministry after all.
[Jerome] A classic blunder…at least in the sense that we didn’t make the decision together. Looking back on it, I can see that I was afraid I would fail. The college setting seemed a lot more “dangerous” to me than ministering inside the church.
[Kellie] A specific example of this decision-making dynamic was when we first moved to town. We lived that first month with your parents, who had a wonderful guest room over their garage. You were sick with strep throat, so opportunities for apartment hunting were limited. We did eventually find our own place–what seemed to be the best thing going in our price range–but I wasn’t quite ready to make a decision. That weekend we were going to my parents’ house, and you felt strongly that we needed to go ahead and put down a deposit and sign the lease so we wouldn’t lose the place. I wanted to take the weekend to pray over the decision, but we went ahead and signed before we left town. I wasn’t upset with you, but I wasn’t comfortable with the decision.
The very next day we got a call from a lady in our church. She owned a very nice townhouse that was suddenly vacant, and she offered to rent it to us for a fraction of its worth.
[Jerome] That townhouse was more than we could have dreamed of. It was a situation where God was determined to bless us beyond our wisdom or foresight. But I guess the point is that if we had been committed to making decisions together–as we are now–we wouldn’t have made the blunder. We wouldn’t have lost the deposit on the apartment. But we learned from that. Now we don’t make any decision of consequence that affects the other without consulting each other…without having the chance to really process it and truly come into authentic agreement.
[Kellie] Psalm 133 talks about being in unity and how that is where God commands the blessing. When you’re not in unity, it’s harder for God to bring that blessing. God’s overwhelming desire is to bless each of you and to bless your marriage. But he wants to bless you in a way that will build his larger design for your marriage. If you move in unity, that brings his heart and intention to bear on your marriage. God blesses your efforts to move forward together as you take each other into account and seek agreement in all your major decisions. When you fail to move in unity, you risk forfeiting God’s blessing.
Conflicting Opinions and an Emerging Partnership
[Kellie] It was a hard awakening for us. You wanted so much to be a godly leader, and we learned early on that I had discernment and strong opinions. So it took us a while to make those things mesh. It was messy at first.
[Jerome] It was a process of discovery. I certainly didn’t know when we got married how strong your opinions were–or that it was a positive thing. At least it’s a positive thing now that we’ve come to understand it and channel it through our partnership. But for a long time it didn’t appear to be a good thing at all. There were times I felt you didn’t respect my leadership because you wouldn’t just let me make the decisions! And that was faulty thinking on my part.
[Kellie] The way marriages often unfold is either a strong husband doing the leading or, at the other end of the spectrum, a strong wife doing the leading. Intuitively, we didn’t want either of those, but we defaulted to the husband-driven model because we thought it was biblical.
[Jerome] That was more faulty thinking. The biblical framework for marriage is oneness; that’s the grid through which we have to understand leadership. Everyone talks about oneness in marriage, but what does that really mean? What does it look like, and how do couples live it out? An older couple helped us understand a simple truth: until we come into complete agreement, we should delay making a decision. Sometimes this takes more time, but it’s always worth the wait. Oneness is the heart of marriage, and it’s at the heart of God’s desire for your marriage. But there is a danger in talking about oneness, because the word has lost much of its deeper meaning. That’s why we’ve chosen instead to use the word partnership. It’s much easier to talk about what it means to live together as partners; oneness seems too ethereal. The words oneness and partnership both attempt to describe the mystical union of two people who enter marriage. Oneness highlights the single identity of the covenantal relationship. Partnership highlights the reality that this covenant will always be comprised of two distinct souls. In this sense, partnership is a practical way of looking at how two people bring their individuality into one vision, one purpose, and one destiny. Oneness is the goal; partnership is the means to that goal.
Finding Your Shared Destiny
Even among young adults, it’s common to believe that it’s the man’s job to find his calling from God and then to find the woman he thinks should be his wife. He brings the woman into his world and says, essentially, “This is my calling. Can you be a part of it?” It’s not always stated that directly, but there is the expectation that she will join his calling. There is little awareness of a shared calling and very little pursuit of what God is calling them to do together. When we met and got married, we didn’t see our life’s calling as a shared calling. Perhaps you didn’t, either.
This grows out of a misunderstanding of Genesis 2, which we’ll look at more closely later. But the germ of it is that in Genesis 1, God gave a mandate and spoke a destiny over Adam and Eve as a couple. It came to them jointly, as equal partners in destiny. And that gives context to the anchor verse for marriage, Genesis 2:24 (MSG): “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife. They become one flesh.” Whatever marriage is, it’s about oneness! It isn’t that the man has a destiny and the woman is left either to join in or to choose not to marry the guy. Instead, it’s their destiny–given by God to both of them. The way you understand what together means will largely determine how you live out your marriage.
Your life together will also be shaped by the unique blend of your personalities and your gifting. Marriage isn’t meant to look the same in every generation. In some ways your marriage may look very similar to your parents’ marriage, and in other ways it may look completely different. Even within your own generation, the marriage relationship is meant to have a unique expression for every couple. But oneness–living together in complete partnership–is the one nonnegotiable. God wants to take you to the highest level of oneness possible!
Partnership does not mean that a man comes to his sense of destiny and then finds a woman to support his vision and care for his needs. Partnership means that God brings the two together to become one. A man and a woman were created specifically for each other, and when God aligns their paths, they have a shared destiny that they can fulfill only with each other. At the moment of their joining, their new, shared destiny is birthed. If a couple fails to understand the shared nature of their destiny, God’s blessing in their lives will be hindered.
[Jerome] Destiny can’t be discovered outside of community. Of course we are born as individuals, and we come into a sense of personal purpose related to who we are meant to be before marriage–the real Jerome and the real Kellie. These are foreshadowings of destiny.
[Kellie] I would call that self-discovery–the process of discovering who we are as individuals. For instance, when we come into marriage, we should already know our spiritual gifts, our strengths and weaknesses, and what motivates us. It’s so much easier for God to communicate destiny to a husband and wife when they already know who they are.
[Jerome] Part of the beauty of marriage is that once God brings two people together, not only do they begin to discover their joint destiny, but they help each other to see the blind spots they have toward themselves. It’s like looking into a mirror; you begin to see things about yourself that you didn’t realize before. And that aids the process of understanding yourself and becoming who you are meant to be. But the further along we are on that journey before we get married, the more quickly we are able to build a healthy marriage.
A Wrinkle in Time
We hope that self-discovery and a shared destiny appeal to you. But it’s possible that your parents have pursued very different priorities in their marriage. In between any two generations there usually is a shift in expectations, goals, priorities, and core desires for marriage. That’s why it’s important to look at your marriage in terms of what God is doing today; don’t try to squeeze your relationship into a model that fit a past generation. God has given each of us a past to draw from, whether it was largely healthy or highly dysfunctional or somewhere in between. Marriages you observed while growing up, both positive and negative, tend to serve as defining models for your marriage. Most couples either try to replicate a marriage they admire, or they try to fashion the exact opposite of a destructive relationship they were exposed to.
The truth is you can learn from both the good and the bad that you observed in your parents’ marriage (or marriages, as the case may be). We want to emphasize an attitude of honor toward the heritage we received. So as you look at your past, identify what should be honored, whether little or much. Honor and respect that and build on it. But don’t allow your marriage to be completely defined by it.
God’s purposes and basic principles for marriage don’t change, but the applications and expressions of those biblical values change constantly and emerge in unique ways in every generation. Past generations were marked by husbands’ feeling a keen responsibility to provide for their families. That is honorable, and it produced generations of hard workers. And while we honor the hard work and the deep sense of financial responsibility of those fathers, we also understand that they often had a very different idea of what it meant to be a father. Some men equated being a father primarily with being a provider, so many of these fathers were emotionally and physically distant from their children. Rearing the kids was thought to be the mother’s responsibility. Fortunately, God has been calling husbands and wives to a wider understanding of his heart for how parents–fathers and mothers–nurture their children and care for each other. This is just one example of how God continually reveals more of his heart over time.
Both Kellie and I grew up in exceptional homes where our parents loved each other, loved their children, and modeled a desire for God’s rule in the family. My parents broke new ground at the time by carefully guarding a weekly family night where we all played games, read books, and just hung out together. Kellie’s parents intentionally limited their careers in the education field so they could give their family the best portion of their time and attention. Both families had the extraordinary foresight to recognize the heavy cost of allowing television to rule the home…and banned televisions from their houses! As a result, we both grew up interacting with our families instead of plugging in to the mind-numbing effect of the boob tube. Our fathers have faithfully honored and cherished their wives for more than forty years. Our mothers have loved and respected their husbands, served the church, and nurtured their children. Our parents led us into a personal discovery of Jesus Christ and the pursuit of his purpose for our lives. They taught us the value of personal purity and elevated our vision for marriage. This is the depth of the heritage we brought to our marriage. And beyond our parents, we inherited a deep contribution from prior generations. The last several generations modeled a tremendous commitment to work, community, and family. Their industry set an honorable example of sacrificing their own resources and ambitions for the sake of their children and their children’s children. My ( Jerome’s) grandfather, Hugh Daley, worked myriads of jobs in small businesses until he made enough money to buy his first hotel. Through wise investments and a Spartan lifestyle, he built his own company, from which he has tithed and given generously all his life.
Every generation seeks to right the “wrongs” of the past generation, both real and perceived. But each new generation also builds on the foundations that have been carefully fought for and defended. We owe a great debt to our parents, our grandparents, and all the generations who brought us to this moment.
God’s Heart for Generations
Every generation has its own divine purpose, and God always tries to restore and redeem certain things in certain generations. Paul described King David’s role from an interesting perspective: “When David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep” (Acts 13:36). The destiny of Israel’s greatest king can’t be understood outside the unique context of his particular generation. And so it is today. A new set of values and priorities emerges with each generation. And some generational currents affect all of society, Christian or not. Those currents need to be looked at critically: they either reinforce Kingdom values, or, alternately, they cut across the Kingdom and confront it.
This is a challenge for both the older generations and the younger: the prior generation needs to avoid automatically rejecting cultural shifts, and the new generation needs to moderate the urge to automatically embrace every new current. Both generations should expect culture to change and should look for the Kingdom opportunities that emerge within those changes.
This is the bigger, zoomed-out context in which we look at biblical marriage. God wants to express himself through marriage in a way that demonstrates his heart for the world. We see God stamping upon today’s generation a new and broader sense of partnership. It’s not new in the sense that other generations didn’t have a similar vision, but it’s new in the depth and breadth of expression that is beginning to mark today’s young men and women. This is not to elevate one generation above another…or to elevate people at all. It’s God’s idea and initiative, and it’s God’s glory that is at stake. It’s to his honor that Kingdom values are revealed in lives and marriages! God intends to unveil the values of community, equality, and partnership, not exclusively in marriage, but uniquely in marriage. And as God does this, the face of marriage will take on the radiance of heaven itself and will advance the cause of Christ on the earth. This is part of God’s destiny for this generation. The past generation has worked to protect the sanctity of marriage in the midst of a culture that has torn at the holiness and beauty of marriage.
Our spiritual Enemy is doing everything in his power to undermine marriage. The church has fought to defend the rightful place of marriage at the core of God’s heart for his people and the world. We believe God’s vision for partnership gives shape to the sacred dimension of marriage. God designed marriage for one man and one woman to come together, and together they bring a completeness that mirrors an infinite God through a finite humanity. As a man and woman become one, marriage displays the heart of God like nothing else on earth. The full image of God cannot be exhibited in only one gender; it takes both man and woman (see Genesis 1:26—27; 2:24).1
God does call some to remain single, and when he does, his purposes require that person to live within a very strong community of Christians. God said it’s not good for men (or women) to be alone. We know that from direct experience. Our souls long for a soul mate; we long to be known, to be understood, and to be loved. Marriage is about a man and a woman coming together completely…and that togetherness is sacred. That is holy.
Oneness Is Exclusive
It’s not as though you can come together for five years and then say, “Well, I’m not complete with you any longer; I need to join my life with this other person so I can really be complete.” Your union with your spouse is complete in its potential, and you have to work to unpack the potential. You are made for your spouse exclusively. That’s what marriage does; it keeps other people out!
And one of the first groups of people who need to be kept out of the marriage is the parents. The role of parents and extended family changes dramatically when their children marry–or it should change dramatically. But often there is a lack of understanding about how this shift in roles takes place. It’s significant that God, while he chooses to say relatively little about the details of marriage, uses the seminal verse from Genesis to charge the husband to leave mom and dad in order to join himself to his wife.
This passage, Genesis 2:24, is the first mention of marriage in the Bible and, as such, warrants special attention. God wants to lay a foundational mind-set about marriage right from the beginning. This mind-set involves a new couple separating emotionally from their parents–and separating in a unique way from the husband’s parents. This is a big enough issue that we’ll take two entire chapters to address it. The partnership between husband and wife is essential, and it must be protected from the forces and relationships that would compete against it.
God says, “Don’t you let it happen! You must protect the exclusiveness of your partnership against all comers.” It’s not just parents that can compete with your partnership; it’s also close friends, work responsibilities, hobbies, and even ministry. All of these can undermine the priority you need to place on your partner. Your marriage is sacred and must be set apart, free from the entanglements of other soul ties or loyalties that can compromise the integrity of your union.
A Work of Art
The question remains: how do you find God’s intention for the unique shape of your marriage? Do you look to your parents, one another, Scripture? Do you find the unique shape in generational currents, from your intuition, or from God himself? The answer is yes. God intends to paint a brand-new masterpiece showing his idea of intimacy, oneness, partnership, and destiny. And he wants to display this masterpiece in your marriage. He will use the same palate of colors he has always used, drawn from his unchanging character as revealed in the Bible, but every stroke will be custom-fit to your unique blend of personality and calling. And it will be beautiful!
God will draw upon themes and examples you have inherited from your parents. There is a good and right sense of multigenerational continuity that reflects his glory. God will also use brush strokes that are consistent with his intention for the current generation. Where the yearnings of this generation amplify the heart of God, they will show up in your relationship. What kind of generational yearnings? The cry for authenticity, the hunger for real community, the passion for a rich personal experience, and the intuitive reach for an artful approach to both relationship and worship. These are some of today’s cultural currents that resonate with–and in fact emanate from–the heart of God. Certain men and women from prior generations modeled similar passions, but now it’s going to mark an entire generation!
And, not least, God will allow each of you the fearsome privilege of holding the brush and painting what you dream into your partner. You will mirror God’s heart to one another. Even as the Holy Spirit channeled divine thought through the colorful personalities and language of the biblical writers, so the Spirit will direct his wisdom to you and allow it be colored and applied through your hands to each other. The result will be a new living testament, if you will, to the radiant beauty of God.
QUESTIONS FOR PRAYER AND CONVERSATION
1. Do you and your spouse consistently make decisions together?
Do you ever find yourself caught in patterns of “nondecision”?
If so, what is a recent example?
2. Is partnership a good description of your marriage? Why or why not? What does partnership in marriage mean to you?
3. As a couple, where are you in the process of discovering your joint destiny?