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Forging a Solid Marriage takes Commitment
All the passages below are taken from Bill Hybels’ book “Making Life Work” published in 1998 by Inter-Varsity Press.
Till death do us part
The key passage for establishing solid marriages is summarized in Proverbs 5:18—19: ‘May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer---may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.’
‘May you rejoice in the wife of your youth,’ says the writer, and in so saying he gives us the first qualification for solid marriages: permanence. Marriage is the bedrock upon which families are built. How can a family be strong if its foundation collapses? It can’t. So the only way to strengthen the building block of society is to establish and maintain permanent marriages.
But I do not say this lightly. Lynne and I have never hidden the fact that our marriage requires a tremendous amount of work---more than many marriages do. We have been married for nearly two-and-a-half decades, and still it seems we have to struggle for every tiny step of progress we make on the path toward marital joy. Personal hurts, personality differences and the pressures of a highly visible lifestyle increase our challenges. But we pray, we talk, we seek advice, we discipline ourselves, we grow, we change, we compromise, we apologize, we confess, we adjust our expectations, we remind ourselves of our commitment, we look to the future, and we refuse to give up. We are in this marriage for life---we have chosen to stay with the spouse ‘of our youth’---and we thank God for each step that brings us closer to rejoicing.
Why do we keep working at it? Because we know that in order to forge a strong family we need to establish a solid marriage. It would be wonderful if solid always meant ‘easy and happy’, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes solid means ‘solidly committed, solidly persevering, solidly striving for the goal’.
Is it worth it? We think it is. Our family recently spent three days in California celebrating the graduation of our daughter, Shauna. Together we worked to finish the last-minute details for a huge graduation party, together we greeted and entertained new and old friends, together we ended the weekend with a Mother’s Day brunch in our hotel, together we said our emotional farewells before Todd went back to college to finish the academic year, Shauna began her cross-county drive home and Lynne and I flew back to Chicago. What did each of us carry with us as we left? A treasure of family memories. Perhaps for us, those memories are all the more precious because they have not come cheaply.
The only kind of marriage the writer of Proverbs understands is a lifelong marriage. He would patiently listen to all the current banter about no-fault divorces and serial marriages, and then he would say again, ‘Rejoice in the spouse of your youth. When you get married, stay married. Make compromises. Get help. Work at
it. Fast, pray, try and try and try again. Do whatever you have to do to stay together. Make the most out of your marriage. There is no other way. Solid marriages are the key to strong families.’
Meeting in the middle
But the writer of Proverbs doesn’t just tell us to stay together. He complicates the matter by telling us to rejoice! ‘Don’t just grin and bear it,’ he says. ‘Don’t settle for a mere detente or even for a peaceful coexistence. Go for more than that. Find joy in your marriage!’ As if that weren’t enough, he paints a picture of sexual passion (‘May her breasts satisfy you always’) and even a deep and lasting emotional bond (‘May you ever be captivated by her love’). It sounds great. But how do we get there from here?
We get there by building on every foot of common ground we can find. Every common interest. Every common value. Every common goal. Every common pleasure. Every common recreational pursuit. Every common involvement in ministry. If we have none of these in common, then we compromise, we change, we grow, we develop in new directions until we do have something in common.
Lynne and I both love to go to our family cottage in Michigan, but once we get there, our natural tendency is to head off in different directions. There is nothing I would rather do than spend time in a boat---for hours. There is nothing Lynne would rather do than walk on the beach---for miles. Both those activities are great for us as individuals; they refresh and renew us. But they do tend to separate us.
So, on a regular basis Lynne gives up the serenity of the beach for the pounding of a powerboat or the rocking and rolling of a sailing boat. Though Lynne genuinely enjoys sailing, she has to work quite hard to appreciate my recent interest in powerboating, but she is making the effort.
Exchange is no robbery, so I walk on the beach with her. I still tend to see walking as a purposeful activity directed towards a particular destination, but I am beginning to see some sense in Lynne’s claim that the walk itself is the destination.
While Lynne is learning to appreciate the excitement of speed, the matchless (to me, anyway) thrill of two engines in perfect harmony and the beauty of a hand-waxed hull, I am learning to appreciate the sensation of sun-warmed sand on bare skin, the graceful sway of beach grass, the lonely call of seagulls and the gentle lapping of waves at my feet. Not bad lessons for either of us to learn!
Clearly Lynne and I come at life from nearly opposite directions. Though we are compatible in most of the major areas discussed in the previous chapter, when it comes to matters of personality we could hardly be more different. This is not uncommon for married couples. Despite the desire that most of us have to share life deeply and broadly with our spouses, many of us end up marrying opposites. . . and ultimately wishing we hadn’t.
What often drives this ‘opposites attract’ tendency is a subconscious pull toward wholeness. In a person who is different from us we see personality traits that seem to complement or balance our personalities. We see strengths that counteract our weaknesses. We see qualities of character that we would like to have. We see someone whose ‘oppositeness’ will make us rounded and complete personalities.
The desire for wholeness is good. But this is how it often works itself out when opposites attract. Let’s say that cool-headed, logical, mathematical Tom falls head over heels in love with free-spirited, feeling-oriented, poetry-loving Betsy. Betsy’s spontaneity and emotional intensity free Tom to feel less rigid and more tuned into the childlike side of life. His caution and practicality make Betsy feel less out of control, less extreme and more grown up. So they go to the altar in a rush, believing that their differences will serve them both well.
Six months later they look at each other and say, ‘We are opposites, but we are certainly not attracting.’ The romantic flame that had been fuelled by their mutual desire for wholeness has been doused by the polarization caused by their differences. Why did this happen?
Let’s go back to the beginning to answer that question. Tom and Betsy were attracted to each other out of a desire for wholeness. That desire is good; wholeness is good; joining up with a person who can help us achieve wholeness is good. But what they did not realize is that the only way another person’s opposite characteristics can help us achieve wholeness is if we incorporate those characteristics into ourselves, if we learn from our spouses and try to take on the characteristics in them which balance our own.
Unfortunately, most of us do not even know we should be striving for that kind of wholeness within ourselves. We have bought into the charming but erroneous notion that it is enough to go through life as one half of a whole, the whole being the marriage itself.
So each partner fulfils the unique responsibilities of his or her respective half. He provides the logic; she provides the emotion. Or she provides the stability, he provides the spontaneity. Or he provides the seriousness; she provides the fun. The longer they each commit themselves to making their unique contributions to the whole the more settled and extreme they become in their opposite positions, to the point where they begin to irritate each other---and their complementary characteristics lead to polarization.
This does not have to happen. But the only way to avoid it is to give up our romantic notions of the beauty of opposites and strive for individual wholeness. We need to learn from one another and incorporate one another’s strengths into our own lives. How much better for Tom and Betsy if they would each strive to be logical yet fully alive emotionally, stable and yet free to be spontaneous, serious and yet able to loosen up and have fun.
Lynne and I are both extreme people. That is why it is so hard for us to be married to each other but why we are also good for each other. In life outside marriage Lynne and I can enjoy people who are quite different from us, but we are free to take those relationships only so far. When they start getting uncomfortable we can back off, we can escape, we can avoid the discomfort. But there is no backing off in marriage, no escape, no avoiding issues. In marriage we are forced to confront each other and ourselves, we are forced to compromise, we are forced to grow---or be miserable. And like it or not, whatever forces us to grow is good.
Proverbs 27:17 says, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.’ The same can be said of spouses. Being married to someone as sensitive and emotionally deep as Lynne has definitely sharpened me. It has challenged me to stretch my own capacity for sensitivity and emotional depth, which has greatly enhanced my effectiveness as a leader, a pastor, a friend and a father. Being married to someone as goal-oriented and disciplined and determined as I am has similarly sharpened Lynne by challenging her to use her gifts constructively and to find practical outlets for her insights and creativity.
We went into marriage thinking we would each make great halves of the whole. We didn’t realize that the task before us was to grow to the point where we could each bring wholeness to the marriage. Nor did we realize that marriage provides the university-level course in life and personal growth, and is the tool that God uses in our lives to lead us towards wholeness.
Years ago Lynne and I wrote a book on marriage called Fit to be Tied. Perhaps we might better have titled it Tied to Be Fit. We have not yet arrived at the goal, but dearly our marriage is slowly making us fit---fit in the sense of adequate, competent, healthy mature, balanced, godly, whole.
And what are we discovering? That whole people have a way of stumbling upon mutual joy even if they are very different. Why? Because whole people are willing to try new activities. Whole people are willing to embrace new ideas. Whole people are willing to learn new skills. Whole people are willing to work hard. Whole people are open to new friends. Whole people dare to face challenges. Whole people have the courage to speak the truth. Whole people are not afraid to take the risks of loving. Whole people can bend without breaking and compromise without being untrue to themselves. Whole people can meet in the middle and embrace what they find there . . . and together, they can rejoice!
But even then, even when couples reach the point of being able to rejoice together---or if they are among those rare couples who find it easy to rejoice together from the beginning---even then they cannot get careless about working on their marriage. Every marriage requires vigilant attention and effort. I wish someone had told us almost twenty-five years ago when we got married that one of the most important things we could do was to commit ourselves to a marriage enrichment programme the day we returned from our honeymoon.
During the past two-and-a-half decades, I and other Willow Creek pastors have married hundreds of couples and watched them head off into life together. Of all these marriages, the ones that I have seen flourish have shared one common feature: both partners have made huge investments of time and energy in the marriage. As couples, they have committed themselves to regular nights out, frequent meals together and weekend breaks. Most of them have deliberately developed common recreational interests. Others have read and discussed books and articles on marriage and have listened to tapes on marriage. Some have attended marriage enrichment weekends. Many have joined small groups dealing with marital development and have discovered the tremendous benefit of gleaning insight from other couples who are as committed as they are to marital growth.
If every great marriage is the result of genuine and sustained investment by both partners, none of us can justify laziness. Yet I have seen wonderful relationships deteriorate and die out of sheer neglect. How tragic for partners to end up in the divorce court because they have failed to nurture, enhance and breathe life into the relationship that was once so precious to both of them.
Get help quickly
I recently talked with a woman who had just come from there---from the divorce court, that is. The story she related to me was as predictable as the setting sun. ‘We started drifting apart,’ she said. ‘I knew something was wrong but my husband didn’t want to talk about it, so I pretended things were all right. But after ten years of increasing remoteness and coldness, something inside me just died. His refusal to talk, I now realize, was the beginning of the end.’
So another painful divorce and a few more children thrown out into the world wondering if mothers and fathers ever stay together any more. What might have happened if ten years ago, at the first hint of trouble, that woman had said to her husband, ‘Oh, no, you don’t. Not here, not in this home, not in this relationship. We are not going to give up without an attempt to make this relationship work. We are not going to let ourselves drift apart. We are going to admit that we need help right now and we are going to get it’? What might have happened if they had gone to their parents, to trusted friends, to church leaders or to a Christian counsellor and said, ‘We have hit a rough patch in our marriage. Will you help us through it? Will you give us some advice?’
When a couple’s marital difficulties are addressed early on, the probability of healing the relationship is high. Probably it was not that long ago that the partners stood at the altar, lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes and longing more than anything else in the world to live life together. Even if the love that initially drew them into that mutual longing has been buried beneath a lot of careless words, hurt feelings, unresolved conflicts and hidden hostilities, it can most likely be uncovered if couples get help soon. So don’t wait. If you are aware of even the slightest hint of trouble in your marriage, get help now. Then you can get back to the business of enjoying your relationship and making it strong enough to provide a solid and stable environment for your children.
The scarlet letter---Adultery
Before we go any further, I need to address a problem that the book of Proverbs recognizes as one of the major threats to solid marriages: the sin of adultery. Knowing that adultery cuts the heart out of many marriages and families, the writer speaks as straightforwardly as possible. ‘But a man who commits adultery lacks judgment; whoever does so destroys himself. Blows and disgrace are his lot, and his shame will never be wiped away’ (6:32-33 NIV).
Adultery is such an utterly destructive activity says the writer, that anyone who engages in it lacks sense. What sensible person would do something that leads to hostility and shame and destroys spouses and children in two sets of families? It makes no sense, says the writer, so don’t do it! Take it off your list of options. Consider it out of the question.
The writer feels so strongly about the destructive potential of adultery that he even warns about the danger of inappropriate flirtation. This is not a blanket prohibition of cross-gender friendships. This passage should not be used to create suspicion in society or in the church regarding friendships between couples or within groups. Nor is it a legalistic condemnation of the innocent cross-gender banter that comes in the category of legitimate fun. But... when it comes to the kind of seductive flirtation that can lead to sexual sin or adultery, Proverbs again minces no words. Flirtation can be deadly!
Proverbs warns a young man about the seductive ploys of a woman who is tempting him to commit adultery. The passage could also apply to a man engaging in seductive behaviour. ‘“So I came out to meet you; I looked for you and have found you! I have covered my bed with coloured linens from Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let’s drink deep of love till morning; let’s enjoy ourselves with love! My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took his purse filled with money and will not be home till full moon.” With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk. All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose till an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird darting into a snare, little knowing it will cost him his life.’(7:15-23).
Nowadays the offer of coloured linens and a bed perfumed with myrrh might be traded for a fire in the fireplace and a bottle of wine. The point is, the woman was painting for the young man the most seductive picture she could paint, boldly suggesting that they make love throughout the night, and clinching her argument with the revelation that her husband would be gone for a long time.
She offers the bait and he bites. But in the end, according to Proverbs, ‘it will cost him his life’.
What is the warning? ‘Caution! Extreme danger!’ Entering into careless conversations is bad enough. But if you add a seductive setting, a weak moment and the wrong person, you will be placing yourself on an almost certain path toward a sexual sin with the potential to destroy marriages, families and lives.
Strong families can only be built upon the foundation of solid, permanent, loving marriages. We must therefore steer clear of anything that imperils or undermines marriage. We cannot afford to be naïve regarding the power of temptation and seduction, even for those in strong marriages. ‘So, if you think you are standing firm,’ the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:12, ‘be careful that you don’t fall!’ None of us is beyond being tempted. This is particularly true with respect to adultery because rarely does the reality of marriage measure up to the fantasy that a seducer promises. But we cannot forge a strong family on the foundation of a fantasy. Only the reality of a marriage based on mutual commitment, individual wholeness and growth in relationship provides a foundation strong enough to support the building of a family.
After being a pastor for more than two decades, I have lost count of the number of times I have sat with wayward husbands or wives who have wept in an extreme, heart-breaking way that you have to hear to appreciate. Almost every time they have said, ‘I have wrecked everything because of what I have done. If only I could turn the clock back. If only I could make a different choice.’
No matter how unsatisfying or painful your marriage is, or how much seemingly irreparable damage it has sustained, adultery is never the answer. Even if you believe your marriage was ill-advised from the beginning, and even if it has never come close to providing you with what you hoped and dreamed it would---even then adultery is not a justifiable or constructive option.
Adultery will not reduce your pain; it will eventually and inevitably multiply it. It will add deceit and betrayal to the volatile mixture of marital disappointments you are already experiencing. And when adultery comes out into the open as it almost always does, the shock and shame will be so much worse than you anticipated. No matter how much you are suffering in your marriage, adultery is not the answer.
There are always other answers, even for people in intense marital pain. Marriage counselling, separately or together, is the first option; even if the goal of a satisfying marriage cannot be reached soon---or perhaps ever---counselling can help individuals learn how to live fulfilling lives even within the context of a marriage that is not working as well as they would hope. Other options are to go more deeply into one’s relationship with God and with friends and relatives, and to become more involved in church activities or recreational pursuits. All of these are reminders that marriage is just one dimension of life; it is not the whole of life. It is possible to create a rich and joyful life even in the midst of marital disappointments.
A wise counsellor can also help partners to readjust their expectations. Many of us go into marriage with unrealistic expectations; in some cases, no human being could ever live up to the standards we have established. Others of us have reasonable expectations but they are not realistic for the particular personality combination in our marriage. Instead of aiming for the ideal marriage of our dreams---or even for the enviable marriages we may see some of our friends enjoying---we have to decide to do the best we can with the realistic potential that exists in our marriage.
In a badly wounded marriage, a period of separation is sometimes a necessary step in the healing process. The Bible teaches that in some extreme cases divorce may be permitted because of immorality or desertion, but even then, the days leading toward a divorce will be much more endurable without the additional trauma of adultery.
For some of you, reading the past few pages may have been extremely uncomfortable because you have committed adultery or have been through a divorce. You are burdened by memories filled with pain and regret. To you I would like to offer a reminder that at the heart of Christianity is a God of grace who offers a second chance to moral failures like you and me, a God who says, ‘I know you stepped over the line. I know you made some stupid mistakes. I know you sinned. But you can find grace and forgiveness at the cross. And you can walk from this day forward in purity and obedience.’ As Christians we honour a Christ who came not to condemn us but to save us and to set us on a course that leads to fullness of life, peace and joy.
I call this chapter on marriage ‘Forge strong families’ because a thriving husband—wife relationship is an essential foundation for the entire family. It is the first requirement for establishing a home in which children can grow in all the ways God intends. Faced with what seem to be overwhelming marital challenges, many people today attempt to redefine and restructure the family unit. But does anyone really have a better idea than God’s idea of a mother and a father living in loving harmony and creating a safe and stable home for their children?
If that is the best goal, shouldn’t we pull out all the stops in aiming for that? Some of us will have to work harder than we ever dreamed; all of us will discover that there are no short cuts to marital growth. It almost always takes more time, more sacrifice, more tears, more compromise, more prayer, more humility and more maturity than we anticipate. It requires us to act like adults when we would rather behave like spoilt children, to learn to look at the world through another person’s eyes when we would rather cling to our familiar perceptions and to stay engaged in a continuing process when everything in us wants to give up.
Stiff challenges? Yes, but we must face them. What we as parents do with our marriages will deeply affect our children. None of us will hit the bulls-eye and create a perfect union, but don’t we owe the children we have brought into the world our most determined efforts? Don’t we owe them the best parenting partnerships possible? The greater the security between husband and wife, the greater the security children will have in their relationships with their parents, with their siblings, with themselves and with God.
A solid marriage is where we begin as parents. But we also need specific help in parenting effectively. Proverbs has much to say about that as well, and so the theme of forging strong families is continued in the next chapter as we consider how we can relate constructively to our children. (140-151)
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