By Alan W. Dowd
My wife and I were reorganizing our bookshelves—another wild weekend at the Dowd house—when 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,” the writer 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.
Perhaps we need to remind ourselves why marriage deserves and needs to be supported, strengthened, and celebrated.
Marriage is difficult. Paul bluntly warned us, “Those who marry will face many troubles in this life” (1 Corinthians 7:28). 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” (vv. 11, 12).
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.
Ending marriage is easy. Once upon a time our culture had a predisposition in favor of holding marriages together, but that has tipped to indifference and perhaps even 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.”
“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.
Avoiding 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.
Again, this is a function of culture. Television programs, movies, music, and public policy used to encourage marriage and frown on cohabitation. Today, our culture trivializes marriage and encourages cohabitation.
In short, marriage is difficult because humans “specialize in separateness,” as Gladys and Keith Hunt observe in I Do (Discovery House, 2010). God, on the other hand, specializes in closeness and intimacy. After all, he created Eve so 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 the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23.) Marriages that stand the test of time display the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
They are held together by love. Love buries the sins and hurts that inevitably happen in marriage.
Marriage teaches kindness, others-centeredness, and simple goodness. I know it has for me. I wasn’t a mean or a bad guy when I was a 30-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 its many forms—temptations to cheat on the other, to tear down the other, to neglect the other, to use the other, to ignore the other.
In 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 would miss seeing those peanut butter knives if she were gone.” What a powerful picture of the Holy Spirit’s transforming power.
How can the church support and strengthen marriages? To begin, we must never make the unmarried feel 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 responsibilities”
(1 Corinthians 7:33, New Living Translation).
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 teach the unmarried 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 marriages.
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.
My parents’ marriage 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 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.”
Alan W. Dowd is a freelance writer in Fishers, Indiana.
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