My friend Harold called me about a month ago, asking, “Can you come speak on marriage at our church retreat? We have so many couples in crisis!”
H’mm, I thought. I enjoy public speaking. The date is open. I can promote my latest book. It’s a great opportunity to share God’s love. Everything checked out perfectly. But even while my mouth formed a “Yes,” my stomach churned a “No!” in the fearful defiance of a child being forced to shake hands with a stranger.
I do marriage counseling. I must be somewhat effective, or the referrals wouldn’t keep rolling in. But something about teaching marriage seminars unnerves me. It must be the vulnerability factor. You see, counseling focuses on the client. The clients could really care less about my personal life. I could be on my seventh divorce, and as long as I helped them, they’d pay it no mind.
But when one teaches, one goes on display. Even the most private public speaker (How’s that for an oxymoron?), just by virtue of addressing a subject as a kind of expert, submits herself to the question: Does it work for her? Marriage seminar presenters could very well live in a glass case on wheels with the placard “Exhibit A” attached to the front. Roll them in, they talk, you watch and see if the water in the fishbowl ever gets frothy with conflict, cold with apathy, or murky with negativity. If so, forget everything they said and go on to the next seminar.
Now that I’ve made you wonder if Michael and I hate each other, I’ll assure you that we don’t. In fact, we love each other more with each passing day. Most of the time we live in sweet peace and harmony. We share many passions, including organic gardening, camping, winning souls to Jesus, and our beautiful daughters. We pray together twice a day, almost without fail. Most of all, our shared history (33 years and counting) flows between us, a powerful, surging river, sometimes shooting up in sparkly moments of reminiscence: “Remember how Alison used to call shampoo ‘bubbles-a-rubbit?’” “I wonder where Marsha and Daniel are now.” “Man, you were so good-looking, why did you fall for me?”*
Okay, enough beating around the bush. My husband and I have struggles. Significant conflicts. Philosophical differences. Without giving you the deets, let me say that, ideologically speaking, it sometimes feels like Obama and Romney under one roof. And those differences have pretty much parked themselves in our living room like a dissembled car that no one knows how to fix. Because neither of us handle differences with perfect love, emotions flare at times and feelings get hurt. Sometimes we go on vacation from each other, not talking much for a few days. Humanly speaking, some consider us a complete mismatch. These realities have kept me from wanting to speak publicly on marriage. We love each other, but we’re not always camera-ready.
But one thing makes me willing to pack my bags next Friday and jet off to Dayton, Ohio to stand in front of people and talk about something I haven’t mastered. It’s that I myself don’t want to hear about an ideal marriage. I don’t want to hear from someone who has never cried herself to sleep or lost his temper and thrown something. It’s not that those in ideal marriages are bad people—in fact they may be really, really good people. And quite possibly their marriages really are better than mine. But I need to hear how God’s love can flow into and around and through even a flawed marriage. As a counselor I’ve watched people whittle away at a problem only to make it worse by their “fixing.” But once they started to love one another in Christ in spite of the problem, once they accepted their partner as they were,* the problem shrunk like a tumor, into the perspective of agape, which never fails.
I believe we should do all we can to ensure compatibility before we marry and harmony within marriage. But when inevitable differences arise, and when the flow of human love exhausts itself in the heat of the battle, are we to assume that God has withdrawn His blessing? If I know my God, He’s just pulling back one blessing to make room for a better one. And that better one is the love of Jesus, flowing into us and our relationships in fuller and fuller streams until He comes again.
*Jen talking to Mike. Don’t take the past tense to mean he’s not still gorgeous.
*Abuse and infidelity shouldn’t be accepted, ever.