The Lookout | 6.2.13
By Alan Dowd
My wife and I were reorganizing our bookshelves—another wild
weekend at the Dowd house—and I came across a little book titled “Love
Everlasting.” Someone had given it to us on our wedding day, and it had been
sitting on the shelf for the better part of a decade. As I thumbed through
it—10 years late—I came across a simple but profound statement about marriage.
“It takes guts to stay married,” a wise man observed. “There will be many
crises between the wedding day and the golden anniversary, and the people who
make it are heroes.”
I had never thought of it that way, but the deeper I enter
into the mystery of marriage, the more I agree with those wise words—and the
more I admire those who hold on through the worries and wonders, hopes and
hurts, struggles and surprises of marriage. Those who make it really are
heroes, and they deserve the support and admiration of those of us still early
in the journey.
Before considering some ways our churches can better
support, strengthen and celebrate marriage, it may be worthwhile to spend a
moment reminding ourselves why marriage deserves and needs to be supported,
strengthened and celebrated.
Because marriage is difficult
My wife and I have talked many times in recent years about
how much we didn’t appreciate about marriage when we took our vows. It’s not as
easy as it looks from the outside. In fact, two becoming one is hard work.
We should have known better. After all, Paul bluntly warned
us: “Those who marry will face many troubles in this life.”[i] I
love the way The Message captures
Jesus’ words about marriage in Matthew 19. “Marriage isn’t for everyone…But if
you’re capable of growing into the largeness of marriage, do it.”
The implication of both passages is that marriage is
anything but a slumber party. It takes work, effort and growth—and with growth
come growing pains.
marriage is easy
Once upon a time, our culture had a predisposition in favor
of holding marriages together, but that has tipped to indifference toward
marriage and perhaps even to outright hostility toward marriage.
Consider “no fault” divorce. Nolo, a legal-assistance
network, describes “no fault” divorce as “any divorce where the spouse asking
for a divorce does not have to prove that the other spouse did something wrong.”[ii]
“Over 80 percent of no-fault divorces are unilateral”—meaning
one spouse wants to end the marriage, and so it ends—according to Cathy Meyer,
who calls herself a “Certified Divorce Coach.” That such a profession exists underscores
my point about our culture’s predisposition against marriage.
It’s no surprise that between 40 and 50 percent of first
marriages end in divorce or separation.[iii]America’s divorce rate peaked at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people in 1981. Today,
it’s around 3.6 per 1,000 people.
marriage is even easier
The declining divorce rate sounds like good news, but it’s
actually a function of not-so-good news. Cohabitation—living together outside
marriage—has increased tenfold since 1960.[iv]
Again, this is a function of culture. The culture around
us—TV, movies, music, public policy—used to encourage marriage and frown on
cohabitation. Today, our culture trivializes marriage and encourages
In short, marriage
is difficult because humans “specialize in separateness,” as Gladys and Keith
Hunt observe in their book “I Do.” God, on the other hand, specializes in closeness
and intimacy. After all, He created Eve so that Adam would not be alone.
Intimacy may not
have made Adam’s life easier, but it surely made it better. What was
true in the garden remains true today. The intimacy of marriage—the shared joys,
pains, discoveries, hopes, fears, wonders and worries—can make life better.
This mystery of two becoming one also can make people
better. Think about this in the context of Paul’s description of the fruits of
the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5). Those marriages that stand the test of time, it
seems to me, produce many or all of the fruits of the Holy Spirit:
They are held together by love, which covers
over a multitude of sins, which makes all
the difference. The miracle of love buries those sins and hurts that
inevitably happen in marriage.
Marriage teaches kindness and other-centeredness and simple
goodness. I know it has for me. I wasn’t a mean or a bad guy when I was a
twenty-something bachelor, but I’m certain I was less kind, less thoughtful and
more selfish than I am today, after 12 years of marriage.
Not only do long-lasting marriages depend on humility; they
seem to produce it. A husband who truly loves his wife the way Christ loves the
Church humbles himself, serves her and lifts her up. A wife who truly loves her
husband the way the Church is supposed to love Christ humbles herself, serves
him and lifts him up. This kind of humility is impossible without Christ.
Those in long-lasting marriages have found joy not in change and
chasing after fads, but in commitment, which means they are faithful in a
faithless world. They have summoned or been blessed with the self-control to
resist temptation in all its forms—temptations to cheat on the other, to tear
down the other, to neglect the other, to use the other, to ignore the
In those marriages that last, the couple has found a way not to
avoid disagreeing, but rather to make peace after disagreements arise.
Those who succeed at marriage grow in patience and gentleness. A
friend recalls how angry he used to get when his wife would leave a
peanut-butter-covered knife in the sink, but over time God changed how he
reacted to those peanut-butter surprises. What was once a pet peeve and source
of frustration became a sweet reminder of his best friend. With tears in his
eyes, he says, “I know I will miss seeing those peanut-butter knives when she’s
gone.” What a powerful picture of the Holy Spirit’s transforming power.
To extend Paul’s metaphor from Galatians, this fruit takes time
and tending to grow—just like a good marriage. That brings us back to
how our churches can support and strengthen marriage.
To begin, we must never make those who are unmarried feel
like they are somehow incomplete or flawed. To the contrary, as Paul showed
with his words and in his life, they may be more complete and in tune with the
Lord than those of us focused on our “earthly
Similarly, we must recognize there are biblical reasons to
end a marriage, and our churches must show those who are divorced that they are
not failures. As Christ did for the woman at the well, we are called to mend
and love those wounded by divorce—and to ease their heavy burdens.
On the other side of the spectrum, we need to encourage
pre-marrieds that waiting until marriage may be difficult, but it’s right. Long
before they are engaged, young people need to see real-life examples of healthy
Examples matter. My notion of marriage was shaped by the
examples around me—examples of marriage being a lifelong commitment.
One set of grandparents argued lots—and loudly—but they
stuck together until death. For them, marriage was about keeping a promise. And
I believe the Lord honors that.
My other set of grandparents never argued in front of others. They found a way
to work around, live with, and overlook the other’s imperfections. And I
believe the Lord honors that.
Finally, there’s my mom and dad’s marriage. It has been a
rock for our family. Through all the stuff of this life—military service and
maternity wards, kids and credit cards, joys and jolts, promotions and pink
slips, cancer treatments and cardiac stents, and a thousand other challenges
and changes that only they know—they have clung to each other and to their Rock.
What a gift that is to a child—to know that Mom and Dad aren’t quitting.
Those who don’t quit on marriage are indeed heroes. They
have accomplished something significant and worth celebrating. As a matter of
fact, since getting married is relatively easy and staying married is so
difficult, it might make more sense for us to have modest weddings and
extravagant anniversaries. There’s an idea for our churches: a victory
banquet to honor those who have the “guts to stay married.”
Corinthians 7:33 (NLT).