I’ve been thinking about making marriage last a lifetime. Before I go there, however, let me say I understand that marriages can and do fail. The pain and realities of divorce are worth a column all to themselves. However, for today, I’d like to think about marriage.
There is no shortage of advice for the married. Books and conferences, media psychologists and well-intentioned friends provide no end of advice on marriage. Whatever the source, most advice reflects appreciation for the fact that marriage is hard work. Sustaining an intimate relationship requires incredible amounts of time and attention. Unless your rules for love and marriage include room for pain, failure and forgiveness, your rules are inadequate.
At the same time, there is a deeper issue at work. It has to do with a spiritual perspective large enough to adequately inform one’s thinking about marriage in the first place. Without such perspective, married life becomes vulnerable to selfish and small-minded behavior that keeps a marriage from reaching its greatest depth or succeeding at all.
I’d like to suggest three counter-intuitive, even counter-cultural thoughts that provide a spiritually reliable basis for marriage. The first is this: No one deserves to be married. In fact, you could even say no one has a right to be married. Marriage is pure grace, an unmerited gift.
Think about it, what person deserves to have another person pledge their entire life and future to them without conditions? That is the promise and it is an enormous one. At the same time, it is fair to ask another question — what person deserves to have another person accept them for a lifetime, come what may? The truth is I do not deserve the love and faithfulness of my wife. Neither do I really deserve her acceptance of me with all my flaws and failings. Marriage only makes sense when I see it in the light of grace … pure unmerited favor.
The second perspective I would like to suggest is that love is not enough to sustain a marriage. While romance and affection are crucial ingredients in married life, they are not the glue that holds things together. Think for a moment about the vows most people exchange on their wedding day. There is not a romantic phrase to be found. They are words of promise and decision … “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health …”
The truth is that marriage is designed to sustain love, not the other way around. Promises are the glue that holds marriage together. Our feelings can come and go for reasons totally unconnected to the marriage relationship. Marriage vows are like the keel weight in a sailing vessel. They keep marriage on a steady course and help to right the ship when it has been blown to one side or another in the storms of life.
Finally, I would like to suggest that marriage requires more than two people working hard and giving 100 percent to the relationship. The issue here has to do with ultimate realities. If you ponder the meaning of your marriage vows you will conclude that succeeding in keeping them means that one of the partners in a marriage will one day stand at the graveside of the other.
It is a sobering thought to realize that even the best of marriages are not forever.
Virtually every one of us has bet his or her life on something. There is something that gets our best time and attention. For some it is career. For others it may be a physical or financial goal. For still others the thinking may go something like this — “Career, money and good looks are not what it’s all about. What I need for deep satisfaction is to find the right person to marry and with whom to share my life. That will answer the deep longings in my soul.”
I believe that is exactly wrong! The yearnings we have for something truly enduring in which to trust are spiritual longings for God. We need to settle the eternal question individually before we can be truly successful in marriage. Otherwise we may be asking another person to do for us what only God can do, namely provide meaning and hope that will transcend death. As one of my mentors said, “A person needs to give themselves to God before they can freely give themselves to another person in marriage.” I am convinced that a flimsy and inadequate spiritual perspective puts a marriage at great risk. In the end, life is a deeply spiritual journey.
Dr. Bernard E. Johnson shares this space with the Revs. Timothy A. Johnson, Rod Anderson and Trish Sullivan Vanni as well as spiritual writers Nanette Missahgi and Beryl Schewe. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.