My sisters and I used to shuck peas and snap the ends off beans on hot summer days. My mom and dad would pick them by the bushel from our two huge gardens, and then we’d prepare them for my mom to freeze and can. I’m not sure I ever tasted store-bought fruits or vegetables, either frozen or from a can, before I left home and went to college.
Anyway, while we sat there on the back stoop on our lawn chairs with our buckets and pans, we’d talk about our dreams for the future—sometimes, about our weddings. How many bridesmaids, the theme colors, the receptions, the music, how many children we would have. We’d count down the buttons on our clothing—rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief—to see who we were destined to marry on that day. We knew it was silly, but my imagination would run away and I’d imagine a rich, handsome man waiting for me at the end of a beautifully flowered aisle with bridesmaids in lovely gowns. I’d be wearing the most beautiful lacy white gown that ever was.
We view ourselves grandly in our dreams about our future lives. Why would we dream about putting ourselves in difficult situations where death claimed our loved ones, our children were born with special needs, or our spouses turned out to be abusive or criminals? Nevertheless, reality seldom matches our dreams.
“ But in looking back at my childhood dreams, everything rosy and perfect, they all centered around me. ”
Yet, in May of 1976, I walked down a beautifully flowered aisle on my father’s arm to the music I had chosen, five of my best friends in pastel gowns standing by, and a very handsome man gazing at me. He looked scared to me—like he wasn’t sure what might happen once those vows were taken. Later, when I told him that’s how he looked, we both had a good laugh. I mean, aren’t grooms supposed to be a little afraid? To us at that moment, we were confident of each other’s love and we thought everything from that moment forward would be good—maybe not blissful—but good.
But in looking back at my childhood dreams, everything rosy and perfect, they all centered around me. I would be loved perfectly and my happiness would follow. I would be charming and agreeable, outstanding in my performance of life’s duties. I would of course recognize God, and all would be well. I never considered the what if’s. What if he found fault with some part of me? What if we disagreed on some major point? What if we kept secrets? What if he had expectations of me that I couldn’t give him? What if???
What if everything centered on what I wanted, even though I thought I had no intentions of forgetting about God? I was just beginning to know Him and I loved Him. My soon-to-be husband and I had spent hours talking about Him, too. I remember how happy I was when he expressed that his desires included putting God first in our lives. But it turned out that the extent of “putting God first” meant we expressed gratitude that God had brought us together, and then we found a good church.
“ His creation of our world, His making man in His image, this was the beginning of His love story for us. ”
Oh sure, we had good discussions about spiritual things, but those were the things we agreed on. What was absent was accountability of our thoughts and actions first to God, then to each other. Still, we’d gaze into each other’s eyes through the years and ask, “Why do you love me?” There were reasons I guess, but when we thought about it, we didn’t love for those reasons—we just loved. However, even our love couldn’t carry a marriage.
The thing is, none of this is why God created marriage. We don’t marry to live happily ever after. There is no doubt, though every culture forgets, that God did indeed create marriage. God says marriage joins us together as one. A union of love. A union of love with Him. The whole concept of love comes from God. His creation of our world, His making man in His image, this was the beginning of His love story for us. We were made for Him, and only in Him will we ever find complete satisfaction, fulfillment, and contentment. Joy unspeakable. His desire was for us to live together (man and woman) with Him eternally in paradise.
But right away we got distracted by a lying evil serpent. That old serpent has not stopped spreading the lies. So in our dreams of paradise, we go looking for a spouse to share the garden. We seek the spouse, rather than seeking the God Who loves us and created us for His garden and His garden for us. Then when we think we have found him, this prince of lovers, we often throw on our spouse all the piled expectations of what we have dreamed their love should mean to us.
Thank God some couples understand it better than others, but I’m telling my story here. We had a big fight on our honeymoon. From what I’ve heard, I don’t think that’s terribly uncommon. First of all, we had put so much into planning the wedding day. Especially me. The special day. I wanted it to go without a hitch. I had given more thought to that than how the marriage might go into the future. While the day itself did go well, good memories were definitely made, excellent photographs taken—we were exhausted. Exhaustion is not a good way to start what you expect to be a fairy tale honeymoon.
“ We had hidden from God in our little garden of romance, trying to cover ourselves by our own righteous justifications, thinking we could circumvent our sin and redeem our love story all by ourselves. ”
There were many other contributors to that quarrel as well. Each of us thinking for our selfish selves and not considering the other. For years after that I often blamed him. I was mad that his helping a friend at the wedding who was having car trouble, delayed our getting started to our honeymoon hotel. Not that we were on a schedule but I knew the way I wanted everything to go. At the time I thought my reaction was just and righteous. That’s my problem. I’m a good blameless blame-shifter. Not that he wasn’t at fault, too. Yet, I have often seen in myself that justifying what I believe are my own righteous actions leaves me ending up a lot like Moses. Striking the rock hard instead of just speaking to it as God instructed.
But also the both of us together—we had hidden from God in our little garden of romance, trying to cover ourselves by our own righteous justifications, thinking we could circumvent our sin and redeem our love story all by ourselves. We could show the world that we were okay with God and were honoring Him in our marriage. Even though the consummation had occurred long before the wedding. Even though we had moved in together and then decided to wed so as not to live in sin anymore. Even though we had first married in secret, because I still wanted to have my dream wedding. And even though I was two months pregnant at the “dream” wedding, and had to leave the dinner table the week before at my dad’s house to throw up.
Read the whole Bible and you find botched up marriages everywhere. People pleasing themselves. Look at the Church and sadly, you see much of the same. Unfortunate, because these are the very couples that are supposed to reflect God to an unbelieving world. But we get so distracted by what we want, that we are like Abraham telling the king that Sarah is his sister and allowing him to take her as his wife. We hide in our gardens, hoping God won’t see what we’re doing. We forget that God wants to walk and talk with us daily and enjoy our companionship, and we His. We forget that He IS the love we lack in our marriages.
“ It took 22 years for me to realize that my marriage was a self-made idol, distracting me from the very real love of God. ”
So my husband and I went on doing a lot of playing at marriage—looking on the outside like all is well, while deteriorating on the inside. Losing love. Ignoring the True Source of love. Playing all the harder to make everything look right and be right. We had our house and our children. We had good friends. We had good neighbors. We lived in an exciting city. We had a good church. He had a good job. Sometimes we were dealt a bad hand and there were ugly moments. But everyone has those. You just work through them.
However, you can’t pretend forever; when real life started to take its toll, what did I do? I pretty much blamed him for anything going wrong. I never sat still before God and asked how I contributed to this mess of a marriage. Instead, I saw that it was not going as intended, and I focused on all the stuff wrong with my husband. It never even occurred to me that I had anything wrong with me. So with that attitude, the door to good communication had slammed shut, along with the humility I needed to encourage him—to actually love him with a Jesus kind of love. It never occurred to either of us to seek God. Instead, we each continued to seek our own way.
It took 22 years for me to realize that my marriage was a self-made idol, distracting me from the very real love of God. For 22 years, I kept saying, I want and need my husband’s love. God seemed to be getting more distant, but for some reason I believed my way back to God had something to do with God letting me have and keep my husband’s love. I never saw until the end of my marriage that none of us is capable of truly loving someone else unless we realize and reflect the love of God.
Ann Voskamp writes, “What you need most deeply is to be deeply wanted as a person, valued and needed, seen and safe and known.” God is the one and only source for that and we are utterly on the wrong track when we think we can seek a spouse who can meet all those basic needs. God is the one who calls for us to come to Him with our longings, our desires, our empty hearts. “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations,” (Deuteronomy 7:9).
“ We are courted throughout our lives by a Husband who gave His life for us so that we would be able to unite with Him in a sacred union that transcends all earthly marriages. ”
Our marriage stories are meant to portray the union between Jesus and the Church. We are courted throughout our lives by a Husband who gave His life for us so that we would be able to unite with Him in a sacred union that transcends all earthly marriages. “It is not our loveliness that wins his love. It is our unloveliness,” writes Dane Ortlund in Gentle and Lowly. Nor does He withhold His love when we upset Him and turn against Him. Rather, Ortlund continues, “The present manifestation of his heart for his people is his constant interceding on their behalf.” When had I interceded on my husband’s behalf, except to ask that he be more like I wanted him to be?
The work we must do to preserve our marriages first begins by seeking this ever-loving Savior and giving Him all of ourselves. The first step forward in any relationship must be taken by me, not by the other person. As I seek my Savior and mirror His love to my partner, I change. When both partners are actively doing this together, the marriage changes and grows. Then we see that the way Christ sacrificially loves the Church is the way that both husbands and wives should love one another. And we see in the way that the Church should be loving Jesus—sacrificially, living for Him, serving Him, following Him—that is the way that both husbands and wives should be loving one another. We see that these aren’t ugly roles of slavery and bondage, but are freeing, joyous, and fulfilling.
When things go wrong in our marriages, (and they will from the get-go; we still have sinful natures and our Father teaches us a lot through hard times by teaching us to love Him more), what should be the united plan of both partners, is to stop and look to Jesus, seeking, trusting, loving, listening, and obeying Him. Yes, there are many practical tools that can benefit us—but unless God is the foundation of the marriage, even they can’t heal the sin that creeps in. When we are quick to see our sin, quick to confess it to God and our spouse, quick to repent of it, and quick to replace it with love and obedience to Christ (the fruit of which is that we will love our spouse even more)—such is the stuff holy marriages are made of. We are only able to do all of that when we keep abiding in Christ.
Good life-long Christian marriage partners know their relationships are only for this earth, and that doesn’t make them sad. Their salvation is not found in their marriage. The ultimate of wedding feasts is yet to come. Our ultimate love story is yet to be consummated. You and I began as a thought in the great Creator’s mind. From that point on, He has relentlessly pursued us in Love. Then will come that day. That wedding day. On that day, we will actually know Him who first loved us!
For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
For the marriage of the Lamb has come,
And his Bride has made herself ready;
It was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure…
Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb….
These are the true words of God.”