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Sacred MarriageWhat If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?
By Gary Thomas
ZondervanCopyright © 2000 Gary Thomas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE GREATEST CHALLENGE IN THE WORLD A Call to Holiness More Than Happiness
By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you'll become happy. If you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher. -Socrates Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate. -W. H. Auden
I'm going to cut him open.
Historians aren't sure who the first physician was who followed through on this thought, but the practice revolutionized medicine. The willingness to cut into a corpse, peel back the skin, pull a scalp off a skull, cut through the bone, and actually remove, examine, and chart the organs that lay within was a crucial first step in finding out how the human body really works.
For thousands of years physicians had speculated on what went on inside a human body, but there was a reluctance and even an abhorrence to actually dissect a cadaver. Some men refrained out of religious conviction; others just couldn't get over the eeriness of cutting away a human rib cage. While an occasional brave soul ventured inside a dead body, it wasn't until the Renaissance period (roughly the fourteenth to the sixteenth century) that European doctors routinely started to cut people open.
And when they did, former misconceptions collapsed. In the sixteenth century, Andreas Vesalius was granted a ready supply of criminals' corpses, allowing him to definitively contradict assumptions about the human anatomy that had been unquestioned for a thousand years or more. Vesalius's anatomical charts became invaluable, but he couldn't have drawn the charts unless he was first willing to make the cut.
I want to do a similar thing in this book-with a spiritual twist. We're going to cut open numerous marriages, dissect them, find out what's really going on, and then explore how we can gain spiritual meaning, depth, and growth from the challenges that lie within. We're not after simple answers-three steps to more intimate communication, six steps to a more exciting love life-because this isn't a book that seeks to tell you how to have a happier marriage. This is a book that looks at how we can use the challenges, joys, struggles, and celebrations of marriage to draw closer to God and to grow in Christian character.
We're after what a great Christian writer, Francis de Sales, wrote about in the seventeenth century. Because de Sales was a gifted spiritual director, people often corresponded with him about their spiritual concerns. One woman wrote in great distress, torn because she very much wanted to get married while a friend was encouraging her to remain single, insisting that it would be "more holy" for her to care for her father, and then devote herself as a celibate to God after her father died.
De Sales put the troubled young woman at ease, telling her that, far from being a compromise, in one sense, marriage might be the toughest ministry she could ever undertake. "The state of marriage is one that requires more virtue and constancy than any other," he wrote. "It is a perpetual exercise of mortification.... From this thyme plant, in spite of the bitter nature of its juice, you may be able to draw and make the honey of a holy life."
Notice that de Sales talks about the occasionally "bitter nature" of marriage's "juice." To spiritually benefit from marriage, we have to be honest. We have to look at our disappointments, own up to our ugly attitudes, and confront our selfishness. We also have to rid ourselves of the notion that the difficulties of marriage can be overcome if we simply pray harder or learn a few simple principles. Most of us have discovered that these "simple steps" work only on a superficial level. Why is this? Because there's a deeper question that needs to be addressed beyond how we can "improve" our marriage: What if God didn't design marriage to be "easier"? What if God had an end in mind that went beyond our happiness, our comfort, and our desire to be infatuated and happy as if the world were a perfect place?
What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy? What if, as de Sales hints, we are to accept the "bitter juice" because out of it we may learn to draw the resources we need with which to make "the honey of a holy life"?
If this sounds like a radically different view of marriage, it's important to remember that the very concept of "romantic love," which is so celebrated in movies, songs, and cheap paperbacks, was virtually unknown to the ancients. There were exceptions-one need merely read the Song of Songs, for instance-but taken as a whole, the concept that marriage should involve passion and fulfillment and excitement is a relatively recent development on the scale of human history, making its popular entry toward the end of the eleventh century.
C. S. Lewis-whose marriage to an ailing woman was seen as somewhat "odd" by many of his contemporaries-explained that such a monumental shift in cultural thought as the development of romantic love is "very rare-there are perhaps three or four on record-but I believe that they occur, and that this [romantic love] is one of them."
This is not to suggest that romance itself or the desire for more romance is necessarily bad; good marriages work hard to preserve a sense of romance. But the idea that a marriage can survive on romance alone, or that romantic feelings are more important than any other consideration when choosing a spouse, has wrecked many a marital ship.
Romanticism received a major boost by means of the eighteenth-century Romantic poets-Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake-followed by their successors in literature, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. These poets passionately argued that it was a crime against oneself to marry for any reason other than "love" (which was defined largely by feeling and emotion), and the lives of many of them were parodies of irresponsibility and tragedy.
One of the writers who embraced this romantic notion with fervor was the sensuous novelist D. H. Lawrence, whose motto was "with should and ought I shall have nothing to do!" Lawrence fell in love with Frieda Weekley, a married woman, and sought to woo Frieda away from her husband, as his "love" demanded he do. As part of his less-than-noble designs, Lawrence sent Frieda a note, proclaiming that she was the most wonderful woman in all of England.
Being married with three children and having already suffered a couple of affairs, Mrs. Weekley saw through Lawrence's emotion and coolly replied that it was obvious to her he had not met many Englishwomen.
Earlier in this century, Katherine Anne Porter bemoaned how "romantic love crept into the marriage bed, very stealthily, by centuries, bringing its absurd notions about love as eternal springtime and marriage as a personal adventure meant to provide personal happiness." The reality of the human condition is such that, according to Porter (and I agree), we must "salvage our fragments of happiness" out of life's inevitable sufferings.
In her startling and insightful essay on marriage written in the 1940s (titled, interestingly enough, "The Necessary Enemy"), Porter carefully explores the heights and depths of marriage, making the following observations about a young bride:
This very contemporary young woman finds herself facing the oldest and ugliest dilemma of marriage. She is dismayed, horrified, full of guilt and forebodings because she is finding out little by little that she is capable of hating her husband, whom she loves faithfully. She can hate him at times as fiercely and mysteriously, indeed in terribly much the same way, as often she hated her parents, her brothers and sisters, whom she loves, when she was a child....
She thought she had outgrown all this, but here it was again, an element in her own nature she could not control, or feared she could not. She would have to hide from her husband, if she could, the same spot in her feelings she had hidden from her parents, and for the same no doubt disreputable, selfish reason: She wants to keep his love.
Above all, she wants him to be absolutely confident that she loves him, for that is the real truth, no matter how unreasonable it sounds, and no matter how her own feelings betray them both at times. She depends recklessly on his love.
With only a romantic view of marriage to fall back on, Porter warns, a young woman may lose her "peace of mind. She is afraid her marriage is going to fail because ... at times she feels a painful hostility toward her husband, and cannot admit its reality because such an admission would damage in her own eyes her view of what love should be."
Romantic love has no elasticity to it. It can never be stretched; it simply shatters. Mature love, the kind demanded of a good marriage, must stretch, as the sinful human condition is such that all of us bear conflicting emotions. "Her hatred is real as her love is real," Porter explains of the young wife. This is the reality of the human heart, the inevitability of two sinful people pledging to live together, with all their faults, for the rest of their lives.
A wedding calls us to our highest and best-in fact, to almost impossible-ideals. It's the way we want to live. But marriage reminds us of the daily reality of living as sinful human beings in a radically broken world. We aspire after love but far too often descend into hate.
Any mature, spiritually sensitive view of marriage must be built on the foundation of mature love rather than romanticism. But this immediately casts us into a countercultural pursuit.
In his classic work The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis satirically ridicules our culture's obsession with romanticism. The demon Screwtape gloats, "Humans who have not the gift of [sexual abstinence] can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves 'in love,' and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion."
I think most of us who have been married for any substantial length of time realize that the romantic roller coaster of courtship eventually evens out to the terrain of a Midwest interstate-long, flat stretches with an occasional overpass. When this happens, couples respond in different ways. Many will break up their relationship and try to recreate the passionate romance with someone else. Other couples will descend into a sort of marital guerrilla warfare, a passive-aggressive power play as each partner blames the other for personal dissatisfaction or lack of excitement. Some couples decide to simply "get along." Still others may opt to pursue a deeper meaning, a spiritual truth hidden in the enforced intimacy of the marital situation.
We can run from the challenges of marriage-as doctors did from the human body, refusing to cut open the cadavers and really look at what was going on-or we can admit that every marriage presents these challenges and asks us to address them head-on. If we find that the same kinds of challenges face every marriage, we might assume that God designed a purpose in this challenge that transcends something as illusory as happiness.
This book looks for that purpose and meaning-how can we discover in the challenges of marriage the opportunities to learn more about God, grow in our understanding of him, and learn to love him more?
Numerous married couples have opened up their lives for us in this book, so I suppose it's only fair that I should allow my own marriage to be dissected first.
An Unexpected Engagement
Lisa and I often wonder what would have happened if she had said "yes."
During a free afternoon at a college campus-ministry retreat when we were still dating, I asked Lisa to join a group of us for a round of Frisbee golf.
"No," Lisa said. "I think I'll go for a walk instead."
She had recently returned from a summerlong missions trip to Mexico, and this retreat was supposed to be a time when Lisa and I could get reconnected. We had known each other since junior high and had been dating for about a year, and we were getting "serious." Unknown to Lisa, I had asked my best friend, Rob Takemura, to begin praying about whether I should ask Lisa to marry me. And unknown to me, Lisa and her mother had spent a Saturday afternoon the week before looking at wedding dresses, "just in case" Lisa should ever need one.
I was somewhat frustrated that Lisa wasn't being cooperative, so I said, "Fine, I won't play Frisbee golf either."
"You can," Lisa said. "I don't mind walking alone."
"No, I'll go with you," I said. Neither of us realized it at the time, but this turn of events would change both of our lives.
We walked along the river, set inside a stunning valley on the outskirts of Glacier National Park, and talked for about forty-five minutes. Suddenly, I stopped skimming rocks, and virtually out of nowhere I said to Lisa, "I want to marry you."
Lisa's mouth dropped open.
"Is that a proposal?" she asked, astonished.
I shook my head yes, just as astonished as she was. Lisa came up and hugged me.
"Is that an acceptance?" I asked, and Lisa nodded in the affirmative.
"Whew," she said after a brief moment. "Imagine if I had agreed to play Frisbee."
We laughed about it, and then experienced one of the most intense times emotionally I've ever known. There was a strange, almost mystical commingling of souls. Something was going on inside us, around us, and through us that superseded any physical connection. It was somehow deeper, more meaningful, and more amazing than anything we had ever experienced.
Over the next nine months, we made plans, as any engaged couple does. We talked about missions, family, seminary, serving God-you name it. It was an intense time, and we often prayed, "Lord, wherever you want to take us, however you want to use us, we're all yours."
We never slept together until our wedding night, so the honeymoon was a rather intoxicating experience, but once the honeymoon was over, reality immediately set in like a dense Seattle fog.
Because I was planning to save up money for seminary, we spent our first few months living in a very tiny home, offered to us rent-free by a family friend. I left for work two days after we got back, and Lisa was stranded in a small community, out in the middle of nowhere, and she began to cry.
Excerpted from Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas Copyright © 2000 by Gary Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
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