Before we moved abroad, we did some marriage counseling. What I mean is, we sat in an old guy’s office for fifteen hours and cried. It was amazing.
He told us our marriage could be a safe-haven on the field. Or not.
He said we could strengthen and encourage each other on the field. Or not.
He said that our marriage could bring peace and stamina and even joy to the mission field. Or not.
He was right.
If you and I were chatting at a local coffee shop and I asked you, “Hey, I’m curious, how would you describe marriage?” In general, what words would you use?
Would you say, “Marriage is…
&#^$? [that could mean good things or bad things, I suppose]
How do you describe your own marriage? Often, the first word I hear people say is “hard.” And after they say “hard,” they quickly follow up with, “but it’s good.”
Now, think about your relationship with your best friend. How would you describe that relationship?
Would you say, “Our friendship is…
Would you call it “hard, but good”? Honestly, what would you think of someone who spoke of their closest friendship, first and foremost, as hard? Um, weird.
What about your relationship with God? Is it, first and foremost, hard?
Is that really what we’re going for? Is our chief end to endure the hard, with God and our spouses?
On a gut level, I think we know there’s more. There has to be more.
A Dangerous Idea
“The purpose of marriage is to make us holy.”
“Marriage is hard, but it’s ok, because it makes us holy.”
“My marriage is really difficult. But that’s good, because marriage is supposed to make me holy.”
Have you ever heard a variation on this theme? Often, people don’t say it so explicitly, but I’ve heard this a bunch, and I think it’s dangerous. It’s almost like we looked around and said, “Well, marriage is really difficult, and a lot of folks never experience intimacy or joy or happiness in their marriages, so let’s just tell them marriage is supposed to make them holy instead.”
We sound so spiritual when we talk like this, and we think we’re elevating the institution of marriage, when in fact, we’re simplifying it and cheapening it. We’re robbing it of beauty. And, we’re insulting people.
We’re insulting the people who aren’t married. How are they made holy? Are they doomed to a life of less holiness due to their marital status? Are they holiness-deficient? Are we implying that our single brothers and sisters, widows and widowers, or folks who’ve dealt with the trauma of divorce, don’t have access to the thing that can make them holy? Namely, a spouse?
Can marriage make you holy? Sure. Any relationship with another human has the potential to wear off rough edges, point out selfishness, expose our sin, and through the work of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifice of Jesus, make us holy. (See: Parenthood.) But saying “marriage can make you holy” is very different than saying “the purpose of marriage is to make you holy.”
The real-life implications of this belief are what scare me the most. If marriage is to make me holy, and if what I really mean by that is that the hard parts of marriage make me holy, then I’m actually completely justified in staying in the hard parts, without any hope of or desire to change. There is no impetus to seek deeper intimacy with the one I’ve promised to be with forever.
You know, sometimes marriage is hard because we’ve got issues that need to be worked on. But instead of acknowledging the emotional pain, or the fear of intimacy, or the past offenses, we deflect and avoid, consoling ourselves, “Well, at least it’s making me holy.”
This is not God’s plan for marriage.
Instead of hitting conflict or hardships and deflecting to “holy,” we need to start asking the tough questions, like “Why are we having this conflict?” or “Is there deeper emotional pain that’s making this so hard?” Can we stop using the idea of holiness as an excuse to avoid the hard questions?
And more to the theological core, I think we believe marriage can’t be pleasurable and enjoyable, because then it wouldn’t be as spiritual. This is an ancient discussion. Pause and analyze for a second if any of these fallacies have crept in to your thoughts on marriage:
Marriage can’t feel good.
Marriage can’t be good unless it’s purely spiritual.
Spiritual intimacy is the most important part of marriage.
Physical and emotional intimacy in marriage is inherently “less than” spiritual intimacy.
Again, we don’t really talk like this, but it is often our meta-message.
Marriages are not meant to be endured.
Marriage is for intimacy.
The sharing of souls and dreams and flesh.
The first taste of summer.
Marriage, the joining together of two unique persons, predates sin and exists beyond it. Marriage satisfied Adam. It excites Jesus.
The first marriage was designed by a loving Father, for joy and companionship. Closeness. It was good. The last marriage, a proclamation of Love’s victory that echoes in eternal joy and companionship and glory. A celebration such as the cosmos has never seen.
Marriage is the mysterious coming together of two people; the blending of heart and vessel and marrow. The tearing of the veil. Intimate. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be.
But intimacy can be a scary thing. It’s vulnerable and exposed and leaves us naked. It’s also amazing.
The opposite of intimacy is withdrawal. Distance. Disconnection. Ask yourself, ask your spouse, “Are we close? Are our hearts even in the same room, communicating easily? Have we settled for a dull disconnect?” It’s worth talking about. And for the record, if one spouse feels like there’s distance and disconnection but the other spouse thinks everything’s great, the first one’s right, and the marriage needs help. If you’re the spouse that’s denying distance, I beg you to stop. Now. Listen to the heart-cry of your husband or wife.
Every relationship will have seasons. Seasons of grandeur and awe and warmth, and seasons of darkness and winter. But there’s a big difference between a season of winter and an ice age. If you’re living in an ice age, please get help. It doesn’t have to be that way.
A Blessed Arrangement
Intimacy with your spouse is a gift, a fountain of youth. Treasure it, protect it, and fight for it. Here are some ideas:
Explore the relationship between Christ and the Church. Study Ephesians 5. Read the Song of Solomon. Slowly. Find a marriage counselor, even if you don’t have any “issues.” Pursue emotional healing.
Say no to good stuff so you can say yes to better stuff. Do not embrace your mission so much that you lose your marriage. Keep porn far, far away. Porn will destroy intimacy faster than you can click “delete browser history.”
Read good books about marriage. Trade babysitting. If at all possible, when someone comes to visit you on the field, let them get over jet lag and then leave the kids with them so you and your spouse can get away overnight. When you’ve got little munchkins at home, even 26 hours away (our last getaway) can be awesome. (And someone please tell me I’m not the only one who counts those getaways in hours!)
You may be in a place where getting away is impossible, or unsafe, or just really stupid. So, change your definition of “a date.” Putting the kids to bed early and catching up with your spouse over coffee (or tea, I guess) can be romantic, if you want it to be.
Regarding Sex [a word for my brothers]
Sex and intimacy are not synonyms. But still, a marriage characterized by emotional intimacy will include some form of healthy physical intimacy.
Men, we think we know a whole lot more about sex than we actually know. And that’s a problem, because we think we don’t need to learn, or even worse, we think that we’ve learned about sex already, you know, because we watched some porn once or listened to guys in the locker room. Yikes. Our wives deserve better than that.
Having sex doesn’t take much skill or special knowledge, but really making love to your wife’s heart and body, now that takes some practice. And research.
I think you should research sex. I know you think about it a lot, so why not study it from a healthy source? Have your wife do some research, and read whatever she thinks you need to read. And if she thinks you need to read something, then you need to read it. However, if she doesn’t want you reading about sex, she’s probably got a very good reason, and you should look into that before you start calling her names. For example, if you’ve violated her trust, or pressured her in the past, she’s probably not going to be too excited about this paragraph. And she’s probably right.
That being said, a pretty basic book that might be a good place to start your research is A Celebration of Sex, by Dr. Douglas Rosenau.
A longtime missionary and medical doctor once told me something interesting about sex. (And I always listen when someone tells me something interesting about sex.) He said, “Often, the sex life of a missionary couple is a barometer for the health of their marriage in general.”
Sex doesn’t create intimacy, and you can’t fix an unhealthy marriage by having more sex. That wasn’t his point. He was just saying that emotional distance, or a lack of emotional intimacy, will show up early in a couples’ sex life. It’s a warning sign. And if the emotional intimacy between a husband and wife begins to diminish, it should be addressed sooner rather than later.
It should be noted here that a healthy sexual relationship has nothing to do with frequency. It has to do with intimacy. Do you, as husband and wife, regularly connect with each other both physically and emotionally?
Husbands and wives, enjoying each other physically and emotionally, is very pleasing to God.
When One Partner Doesn’t Care
Maybe you hate this article. Maybe you’re already gearing up for the comments section. Please, hear me out.
For most of this article, I’m assuming that both husband and wife want to grow closer. I’m assuming you both want a healthy marriage characterized by deepening intimacy.
However, I realize that many people live in marriages that aren’t like that. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you’re in a marriage that’s missing something and you already know it and it’s breaking you. Maybe you wish things would change, but they haven’t, and you don’t think they ever will. If that’s you, I want you to know that I totally believe you. I see you, and I’m so very sorry.
It is not good to be alone. But being married to someone and still alone, now that might be worse still.
If that’s you, you may find yourself in a valley of grief, and that might be right where you need to be for a time. Grieving the loss of dreams. Grieving for the broken places, and the broken things.
If you’re in that hurting place, may the Lord of Peace surround you with his love. May you find friends and confidants who will walk beside you, encourage you, and strengthen you. May you find the Church to be a welcome and warm place, full of people who care about you, about seeing you. Not you, the part of the “bad marriage” or the “failed marriage,” but you, the child of the King, who is worth so much. May you know intimacy, with your God and with his people. And may he bring you safely home.
Marriage is a great gift, and we honor the Giver when we accept the gift with joy and excitement. We honor him when we treasure each other, respect each other, know each other.
We miss the Father’s heart when we think he gave us marriage “to make us holy.”
Yes, marriage is sometimes hard, and life is not all peaches and cream, but if your default description of marriage is “hard,” I’m telling you, there’s more. Look for that. Pray for that.
A Marriage Blessing
May your marriage be beautiful. May it remind you often that God gives good gifts. Very good gifts.
May people look at your love and see that there is a God and he is awesome.
May you show the world – and the Church – that it’s not about submission or obedience or “who’s in charge.” That in your love and mutual submission, you will race each other to the bottom. And when you get to the bottom, may you find love, wholeness, joy, peace, and life. In other words, Jesus.
May you laugh often. At each other, with each other, because of each other. And if and when God fills your home with children, may you sit around the table and laugh and laugh and laugh.
May you taste heaven when you taste each other.
And when you walk through the shadowlands, and you will walk through the shadowlands, may the One who led you together continue to lead you together. He is the Creator of the soaring mountaintops and the scary valleys. May he sustain you and remind you.
May 2015 be the best year of your marriage. Until 2016. And may 2016 be the best year of your marriage. Until 2017. May you experience the intense joy of being known, deeply, and the great honor of knowing another.
May your love, promised and given, echo into eternity.
May people hear your stories, witness your love, and say from now until forever, “Look at what the Lord has done!”
- The Gift of Grief and the Thing I Heard in Portland - February 10, 2017
- In 2017, Get to Know Some Dead People - January 3, 2017
- A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any - December 2, 2016
- It’s Not All About War: Balancing our Kingdom Rhetoric - November 3, 2016
- When God Won’t Give Me What I Want - October 11, 2016