The nuptial idea is used as a primary symbol for the relationship between God and His people in both the Old and New Testaments, and it is the highest relationship between a man and a woman. Jesus honored marriage by granting His first miracle at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Marriage is meant to illustrate the mystical union between Christ and His church, and between husband and wife.
Then why do we make it so difficult for ourselves? Years ago an article I read in a church periodical placed the primary responsibility for submission upon the wife, but the article also stressed the corresponding need for submission of the husband to his wife. Indeed, mutual submission is inseparable from Christian love, for it is only within Christian love that there is true submission. Otherwise, tyranny results. Only in love is there the freedom to say, “I will. " And the only way to keep that promise, that nuptial covenant, is mutual submission under God’s dominion. The true standard of Christ cancels out the double standard that exists in so many marriages. In a truly Christian marriage two egos succumb to the I AM. Where this is not the case, the two egos clash.
In my own marriage, as in so many marriages, the sweet icing of attraction and intensity turned sour for us once the heavy responsibilities overwhelmed the once carefree days and nights. In the heat of anger and frustration I began to doubt the wisdom of this much-touted institution of marriage. I became convinced it was an institution of the penal type, with no time off even for good behavior. My friends, who I unwisely let in on my problems and who were locked in the same woeful situation, readily agreed, of course. “Misery loves company, " goes the adage. One truth is certain: discontent breeds quicker than rabbits. We did not help each other!
Then one short-fused day something I heard on the radio helped me to accept the idea that staying in my marriage was God’s will: “You may think you have gone against God’s will when you married, but don’t ever consider it a mistake, because God can cut the cloth to fit the pattern. " I was so impressed with that image of God fitting us to His will. That day I prayed for faith to believe that in the human circumstances of misunderstandings, fatigue and all the other robbers in marriage (Satan is the robber baron), God would trim and shape our frayed cloths of pride and selfishness, our hurts and hates.
One’s imagination can make a valuable contribution to life. It can also be like a wild bacterial disease racing through the mind, growing rapidly and pushing out positive and constructive thoughts. In marriage, as in any close relationship, the faculty of imagination must be brought under spiritual control, just as all other members of our bodies must be given to His control. Satan, knowing how easy it is to take control of our minds, insinuates the idea that our spouse no longer loves us because he or she forgets to do something, or says something in the distress of fatigue or illness that hurts us. For some reason it’s all right for the neighbors to have an off day, even the in-laws, but the spouse is expected to be in top emotional and mental shape 24 hours a day, 366 days a year.
As I prayed and thought about our marriage, I found a major problem was my own overactive reactive imagination that reveled in rehashing past hurts that should have been long forgiven and forgotten. When I wrote the list of my husband’s good points and my own bad ones, I decided to regroup images into a more constructive pattern. I wanted to “see" - with a productive imagination - the good marriage we could still have. When the imagination started to conjure up the bad memories and experiences, I prayed to the Holy Spirit to remove the unholy spirit that is the source of our destructive thoughts.
I want to stress here that I realize there are unbearable situations in families in which separation is the only recourse that will bring peace and harmony. My stepfather finally divorced my mother after she got drunk and threatened him with a gun. I watched with horror as she put the gun to his chest. The shock triggered a massive heart attack. Somehow he survived, and when he was well enough he got a divorce - and me! I don’t believe God requires us to remain in impossible situations.
My concern here is with the marriage that shipwrecks on the rocks (pebbles, really) of those nits of misunderstanding and impressions that lead to depressions. But the battered hull is salvageable, and it can be repaired with God’s hammer and wood, and re-varnished with a coat of God’s love. I know to the despairing this may sound like something written by the angels who have no earthly experiences. It may seem impossible to start again and to love again. Certainly I thought so. Then after I read 1 Corinthians 7:12-14, I was ashamed to admit that I couldn’t be Christian enough to remain with a situation that I helped forge with my own hot tongue and temper. Scripture compelled me to step back and take an extensive and objective view of my spouse. I was forced to recognize and admit that he is a good, decent, dependable and hardworking man.
When I searched Scripture, the final arbiter of my actions, I couldn’t come up with an excuse to do what I wanted to do. The only message from the Bible that came through so clearly was the necessity of unconditional love and understanding on my part and, above all, forgiveness. I prayed to better understand my own motivations and lack of innovations to make the marriage work. I begged God to give me the strength and grace to be a true helpmeet for my husband.
Had I ever known the meaning of love as Jesus translated it in Gethsemane and on the Cross? “Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or selfish or rude. Love does not demand its own way. It is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do wrong. It is never glad about injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out. If you love someone you will be loyal to him, no matter what the cost. You will always believe him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, TLB).
No! I hadn’t reached that pinnacle of spiritual success, and probably never will. And if I, as a professing Christian, had to admit that I failed every day and fell so short of the glory of God, what right did I have to blame my husband for any failures, alleged or real? And what right had I to leave him, considering the damage I had inflicted on us?
If, as already stated, one of the reasons for the rush to dissolve marriages is lack of appreciation, another is the diminution of the sense of responsibility towards others. The “me-first" blocks we use to build the precarious foundations of families and societies eventually become stumbling blocks. Like it or not, we have a responsibility to others, primarily our spouse and our children. We cannot possibly measure the present and future effects of the thought, words and deeds of our lives, or even our deaths, for what we do and say lives on in the hearts and minds of those entrusted to our care while on this earth. Yes, it is an awesome responsibility!
If we are normal, we all have days when we would like to say to our children, “I’m fed up with all these demands and chores, kids, so I’m taking the day off from smother-hood. " Or to our spouse, “I’ve had it up to my fast-graying hair with having to account to you for everything. I think I’ll take a month off and do my own thing. " If I had a nickel for every time I’ve nursed those temptations, I could afford a divorce! But the fact remains that when we say those vows we also accept the obligations and burdens that accompany them. Even so, you say, God gave us choice. We can walk out on it. We can also choose to stay with it. But for the serious Christian who can find no excuse to divorce, there is no moratorium until we reach the mortuary! Again, let me stress that I realize there are indeed impossible situations that demand relief. This is not an attempt to pass judgment on anyone else’s circumstances.
One day my husband and I were discussing the impending divorce of friends of ours who had been married many years. Our state law has what is known as the “dissolution clause. " My husband unwittingly called it the “disillusion clause. " I laughed, then thought how appropriate, really. We go into these lifelong contracts with great illusions and expectations, only to discover that we all have feet of clay and hearts of stone. The only way we are going to be freed from idolatry and slavery is to pray for new hearts of tender flesh and new minds of tolerance and understanding.
I have discovered that forgiveness is the real essence of a close relationship. This is the gold vein in the gold mine of love. But how my heart rebelled against it. Forgiveness! Had I not every right to resent what was done or not done? Said or not said? “No, God, " I vowed, “I won’t forgive!"
It’s amazing how we nurture snakes in our proud bosoms. I nurtured hatred, and I wasn’t going to let anyone take that prized possession from me. Then one day a friend brought me a book that gave new words to an age-old lesson that we so often refuse to learn. The author made statements, in terms I could not mistake, that we are responsible for our sinful hearts, our sick minds, and our lawless natures, in the sense that we can be rid of them if we want. The author suggested that the sooner we learn it is our own attitudes and reactions that make us happy or unhappy, and not others’ actions, we would be that much closer to a healed mind and contented heart. It was a distasteful dose of spiritual medicine, but one I needed desperately at the time. I dropped to my knees and begged the Holy Spirit to “create in me a clean heart . . . and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10).
The book also helped me to view my husband from the perspective of my own sins and shortcomings rather than through the clouded lens of his alleged faults. The light reflected back on me, and I saw my own black heart. If God can wipe away that blackness from my heart, the buildup of years of myopic self-pity, I thought, then surely He can give me the power to forgive my husband, someone He had already forgiven long ago. It was the only route I could travel, the final option open that would keep us together. If Jesus at the Last Supper with patience and love and humility could wash the feet of twelve bickering disciples (including the man who betrayed Him!), then a sinner such as I must forgive fully and freely and in turn be freed from the prison of hate.
I methodically studied the gift of forgiveness in the Holy Scripture and other religious books. There is no mistaking God’s demand that we are to be peacemakers. A paragraph by A. P. Stanley from a treasured book Daily Strength for Daily Needs, written many years ago, spoke directly to my heart: “We may, if we choose, make the worst of one another. Every one has his weak points; every one has his faults; we may make the worst of these. We may fix our attention constantly upon these. But we may also make the best of one another. We may forgive, even as we hope to be forgiven. We may put ourselves in the place of others, and ask what we should wish to be done to us, and thought of us, were we in their place. By loving whatever is lovable in those around us, love will flow back from them to us. Life will become a pleasure instead of a pain, and earth will become like heaven, and we shall become not unworthy followers of Him whose name is Love. "
I constantly reminded myself that there is a law which operates in this lovely but difficult business of forgiveness: God forgives us, and we forgive each other. But if we don’t forgive each other, then He can’t forgive us. Above all, we can’t extract the last ounce of payment before we grant full pardon. The story is told of a married man who went further than indiscretion with a certain lady. He expressed his profound sorrow to his wife. She then spent the next several years salting the festering wound, never letting it heal. Finally one day the long-suffering man had suffered long enough and he told his wife that he was leaving. She began to cry and she begged him to stay, assuring him that she now would forgive and forget his sin against her. “Oh no, you don’t, " he snapped back as he walked out the door. “You can’t give me something I paid for years ago!"
Marriage is proudly called a 50-50 proposition, but a successful union calls for 100 percent of our effort. The IOUs add up in the drawer of our mind, and we pull out the drawer during stress times. Instead of keeping track of our spouse’s IOUs we might try putting our own into the empty space: IOU for taking on the responsibility of a family; IOU for loving me enough to overlook my moods; IOU for letting me pursue my hobbies without question; IOU for being kind enough to leave me alone when I need that aloneness; IOU for being willing to stay home alone when I go on fishing trips, etc. We can think of many more, I’m sure. In the thrust of anger we might try pulling out a few of these. They’re guaranteed to make us feel ashamed when we realize how much we take for granted! Our own IOUs take the “contentIOUs" of our marriage!
Gratitude seems to have become a lost art, if not a lost cause. In this age of scientific advances, when material goods are so plentiful, it’s too easy to forget the Giver. Likewise in marriage, it’s too easy to forget the human giver. Only when food becomes unavailable do we really get hungry. Only then do we appreciate what we had when food was there for the taking. The analogy can be applied to our loved one. Perhaps, along with our morning worship, we should visualize an empty chair where our spouse usually sits, and consider the loss and what its effect on the family would be.
Gratitude is a sign of maturity and spiritual perception. “There were not found any that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger" (Luke 17:18). Jesus honored the one who returned to thank Him. We forget to thank many people, and those we thank the least are those with whom we spend the most time. It should never be said among family members that “familiarity breeds contempt. " Instead, close association should develop love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control. And our spouse and children should have first pick of that rare and beautiful fruit of a converted spirit.
Gratitude also implies contentment in whatsoever state we are, literally and figuratively. Paul had experienced the best and the worst and he could be happy with either. That is quite an accomplishment and a goal devoutly to be wished for in our own lives. If gratitude is on one side, then the flip side of the matrimonial coin is that forgiveness we discussed earlier. If we can keep our minds filled with the positive values, then the mind won’t be free to wander into forbidden territory. There won’t be room for Satan to return with his seven devils of impatience, pride, irritability, resentment, selfishness, injustice, and rudeness that strangle the life out of marriage, as well as other relationships, including our children.
Now in fairness to the “staff" (whether rod of authority or crutch), I would like to speak for the distaff side of the couple. I realize we have been “liberated, " but only when a man is able to bear a baby in all senses of the word will I be convinced that male and female are truly equal. At the risk of setting back “progress" two centuries, I state my belief that if both men and women performed the roles assigned them by God from the beginning, there wouldn’t be such a mighty attempt to neuter the world.
Christ Himself paid the supreme compliment to women by personifying the church as both mother and bride. This alone should convince us of our sublime purposes and responsibilities. Thomas Otway, who lived from 1651 to 1685, speaks glowingly, “O woman! Lovely woman! Nature made thee / to temper man; we had been brutes without you; / Angels are painted fair, to look like you; / There’s in you all that we believe of heav’n, / Amazing brightness, purity, and truth, / eternal joy, and everlasting love. " We women haven’t changed much since the 17th century. Imagine a 21st century man coming home to such a lovely wife!
This fits in with what Peter says of the meek and quiet spirit of woman: “Your adornment is rather the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the unfading beauty of a calm and gentle disposition. This is precious in God’s eyes" (1 Peter 3:4, NAB). We may attempt external beauty through lotions from the drug store, but we can attain loveliness of character only through God’s grace, recognizing that our role is that of comforter and not combatant. Men and women were created to complement each other - and a compliment a day would help, too! Not even the women can blame the men for their anger if the men hear demands for “rights" while the “duties" are left home crying. Soon the men count more wrongs than rights. A woman once told me that she wished the females who seem so intent on their rights would leave hers alone. She enjoys the privileges of not having to compete for a living, and she likes being treated as “the weaker sex, " although we gals know this is not true!
I firmly believe that the family is the basic unit of society. If we can mend our families, then we will have a mended society. But this indeed takes the mind of Christ, a mind that can wade through instant gratification and the tyranny of the now with its consequences, to the quiet, everyday love and loyalty that ensures domestic and societal tranquility. It may not be as much fun, but it certainly is more rewarding! With prayer and a willing spirit, we can achieve it.