Don Carson relates an interview he heard with a man who’d been married for 60 years:
‘Have you ever considered divorce?’ the man was asked. ‘Divorce?’ he replied, ‘never. But murder – often”.
Marriage is not easy. I don’t know any couple who can’t understand what that man means on some level. But when you’re facing times of murderous incomprehension, it can feel like you’re alone. More specifically, it can feel like you’re the only Christians on the planet who are struggling. Because there’s a benchmark of acceptable problems (minor tussles about finance, in-laws or childcare issues) – but go past these (or struggle for more than a brief period) and suddenly, it feels like you’re outside the camp.
If this is the case, then church can make you feel more isolated, rather than less. Surely no-one else has had a blazing row in the carpark? Or spent the last few months in separate worlds, let alone beds?
Plus, who do you go to for help? Not every church has a good pastoral support network. Sometimes those struggling are (gasp) on the leadership team themselves. In some contexts, counselling is viewed as a sign of failure – and it may be that only one of you wants to go. But the less you’re able to talk, the more pressure you feel to keep it all together – when in fact, you’re falling apart. Over time it can feel that there’s no hope; and no escape. You’re wedded till death; no-one will help and worst of all, you have to pretend that everything is fine.
No-one should be surprised by finding marriage hard. Really hard. Since the fall, all of our relationships are broken: and the marriage one is no exception. We should expect difficulties, because we’re letting someone else in on who we actually are. Which, (if you’re anything like me), is not pleasant. I’m happy for Glen to challenge me on certain issues that don’t cut too deep. Brands of catfood. Being grumpy. But there are parts of me that I don’t even go, let alone guests. No way do I want him there, poking around and letting in light. When he does, I panic. I tempted to retreat or lash out. And when I shine the torch on his corners, he’s tempted to do the same to me.
At this point we’re faced with a choice, based on what we think our marriage is. A Christ-centered covenant? Or an alliance of mutual affection? One of those definitions means unconditional commitment, the other is about ‘returning favours’. Only one is a biblical marriage.
So often we settle for an amicable partnership where neither gets too close and comfort is the goal. But Christian marriage pictures Christ and his bride. It involves suffering and sacrifice and challenge and joy – but not comfort. We invite the other person to (gently) walk with us in the dark bits. And we look to Jesus as our rescuer, not to each other.
Which all sounds rather nice – and simple. If only! The reality can be messy: breaking plates, long silences, tears, accusations and anger. Isolation and despair and regret.
And when this happens, much depends on how we answer these questions:
What do we think marriage is? A covenant of unconditional commitment, or a cosying up of two individuals?
What do we think church is? A hospital for sick sinners, or a place to keep up appearances?
What do we think a Christian looks like? A sinner saved by grace, or a shiny pretender?
How do we see ourselves? Valued because of Christ’s love, or dependent on the love of a spouse to tell me who I am?
How do we see God? Is He enough – when even my partner spurns me, or do I need something – someone – more?
There are other questions too.
Can I forgive my partner when they’ve hurt me more than I can express? Can they forgive me, when I’ve betrayed them and trampled on our vows?
All of us make mistakes and Christ offers us forgiveness and hope – whatever our past. But as Christians, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that our relationships are sometimes hard. Whether it’s our marriage that’s in the furnace; or we’re praying for someone else: we’re human, we’re fallen and we all need grace from outside.