Without missing a beat, Eric responded, “No.”
Even though I assumed his answer would be no, actually hearing the word broke my heart. Not only did he say no, but he did so without thinking about it for a second. Let this be a life lesson, folks. If you have such a question rolling around in your head, refrain from asking it over dinner with another couple – yes, we were in public.
Clearly, I was shocked and hurt by his matter-of-fact, no-nonsense response and the uncomfortable couple sitting across from us could feel it. Perhaps to ease the awkwardness a bit, the gentleman said, “Yeah, we probably would not still be married if it were not for the Lord, also.” I should message his wife and apologize. I am sure she did not like hearing this unbridled honesty any more than I did – and she did not ask!
Exposing the Truth
There is no doubt that Eric and I love each other. Even when we encounter challenges which test our love, God is faithful to remind us that what He brought together cannot be destroyed by man. Last September, Eric became ill (necessitating quick surgeries). It came on fast and we did not know what to do. God was gracious and healed him; but, in those unsure, highly emotional days, I realized how much he means to my life. I wept for God to heal him and felt the weight of fear as I questioned what road we would have to take if God chose not to heal him. In those moments, our previous fights seemed silly. I just wanted my husband back – healthy – and happily living his normal life again. These seasons, though exhausting and sometimes terrifying, have a way of clearing the excess crud around our hearts and exposing the truth.
As is often the case after God works a miracle, the appreciation and relief I felt diminished after Eric’s health improved; and, old frustrations and resentments wiggled their way back up to the surface. Due to our extremely different personalities and our sin nature (marriage and parenthood thoroughly expose our sinfulness), Eric and I have encountered some tiresome struggles along our messy journey together. He has spoken harshly to me and crushed my spirit. I have disrespected him in private and in public. He has prioritized production, study, and entertainment over our marriage. In a moment of horror, which I desperately regret, I compared him to an ex-boyfriend. We have hurt each other. We have frustrated each other. We have failed each other. We have seen the rancid, rotten fruit sin produces.
Um, Excuse Me. What Did You Just Say to Me?!?
Recently, Eric confronted me on an issue that blew me away. My perspective was 180 degrees away from his and we both felt justified in our anger. He was characterizing me unjustly! And, from his point of view, I was simply being defensive rather than apologizing. We talked for a while – neither budging from our positions – and then finally separated. Our emotions were running too high to have a productive conversation. Shortly after that, we were up and running again. Our relationship was humming along, and it felt great… until the next morning. We had a dispute about something silly, but neither of us were amused. Once again, our completely different outlooks on life and our tired, sinful natures united to create one splendid “disagreement.” To make matters more fun, we were at church! (Some of the most devastating arguments you will ever have will be on the way to church. It may do you credit to spend your church commute praying together or listening to worship music. Cut Satan off at the knees!)
Worship service seemed very long that morning and… I confess I heard very little of the sermon. My mind was consumed with our struggles. Why is it this still tough? When will it stop being tough? Are we the only couple in the world who suffers this way? As the day progressed, I pondered our current situation. My temptation, as usual, was to play the events back in my mind and find a dozen ways Eric caused me pain; but, this time I was overwhelmed with the thought, “Where is my sin in this? I know Eric is not 100% responsible for every negative moment we face together.”
So, I messaged a friend and asked her if she had noticed any sin areas in my life – areas of which I may not be aware. She could not think of anything specific off hand (only because she does not live with us!), but she did offer the hypothesis that because Eric and I work with couples and their relationships, the enemy is likely to attack us in that area.
For years, I have felt this reality – and, as odd as it sounds, I should be thankful for it. If Satan is aiming his fiery darts at us, it is because our desire is to point young couples towards Christ and help them secure a lasting marital foundation. Satan has been trying to tear down families since Adam and Eve.
Why I No Longer Despise the Pain
I no longer despise the pain in my relationship because I know that God is at work in our marriage, but that has not always been the case. When I think back to our early years together, I wonder how we did it. We had so many mountains to climb and rivers to cross – and always two completely different methods of doing so! Now, after hiking miles of rocky terrain and escaping dozens of rapids, I am slowly beginning to see and feel God’s purpose for the scrapes and bruises. He may never share the depth of His plan with us, but all I need to know is that He has one – and He does. He has a beautiful plan.
There are a handful of reasons I no longer despise the pain in my relationship:
- When the dust settles, there is growth. Have you ever held a teething baby or picked up a capsized toddler who was just learning to walk? Often, I have thought, “How gracious God is to allow us to go through so many of our growing pains while we are too young to remember them!” When I see a struggling baby, I cannot help but feel empathetic and thankful that those days of my life are past; yet, I know without the pain of sharp teeth pushing through, those little ones could never chew solid foods safely and effectively. Without wobbling around, falling down, and getting back up, children would never learn to walk – or run – or ride a bike – or drive a car. Though the struggles in my marriage hurt me in a part of my heart I did not realize I had when I was single, I no longer hate them because I recognize that God’s hand is on us – His children – as we continue to grow and mature. Without momentary pain, we would not grow. Without growth, we would have little wisdom to share with the couples we are privileged to work with and coach.
- God is not as interested in my happiness as He is my holiness. This concept certainly flies in the face of modern culture. What do you mean my relationship does not exist solely to bring me happiness?! God wants me to be happy! That is not entirely untrue. God does want His people to be joyful, content, and at peace; and, He knows following Christ’s example leads to joy, contentment, and peace. Yet, His primary concern for His children is their sanctification. He wants us to conform to the image of His Son (Romans 8:28-30). When I experience trials in my marriage, there is a hint of joy buried beneath the heartache because I know our momentary groaning and despair is leading us towards something priceless.
- Experiencing relational pain has made me more sensitive to others’ pain. In a session, several years ago, one of our young, naïve, pre-engagement clients flippantly commented about us not having any children. My face clearly read, “You have crossed the line,” but this sweet young lady did not sense my pain. She had no clue her words cut me (not understanding we were dealing with infertility), yet I could not stay upset with her despite the pain I was feeling at the time. She had not experienced such heartache before and she was in the blissful throes of love. Going through something (e.g., chronic back pain, extreme anxiety, the death of a loved one, a significant breakup, etc.) personally increases your sensitivity to and understanding of others who are experiencing the same. When our PreEngaged couples, friends, and even strangers show signs of that all too familiar ache, it is easy for me to connect emotionally; and, if I can connect with their pain, I have a greater opportunity to help them through their pain. So many of my friends have struggled with infertility, miscarriages, or long, unexplained periods between children. Connecting with another’s pain is powerful and I count it as a privilege when I can.
- It reminds me that I belong to Christ. When I was a teenager, I loved the TV show Family Matters. Even now, I will occasionally pop in a DVD and reminisce with some 90s Urkel nostalgia. One scene which sticks out in my mind is when Laura’s mom (dressed for bed and looking particularly frumpy) picked Laura up from a party after Laura ignored the curfew her mom gave her. Laura was, of course, humiliated and proceeded to complain about her mom to her best friend, Maxine. After Laura bellyached a while, Maxine responded (as best as I can remember), “I got home from the party at 3 am. And do you know who was waiting up for me? No one. No one cared, Laura. You may think what your mom did was wrong, but I would trade places with you in a second.” At that moment, Laura reevaluated her position. Though her mom embarrassed her, it was because she loved her. If her mom did not care, she would not have gone out in the dead of night and tracked her down. Sometimes, the consequences of our sin seem unfair. We are tempted to blame God for piling trials on us (even the trails we bring on ourselves); but, what we often fail to remember is that God, because of His love for us, is not willing to let us flop around aimlessly. When I experience struggles in my marriage, it reminds me to Whom I belong and that He does not let any trial or consequence go to waste.
After tasting the bitterness of hurt feelings, unmet expectations, and intense anger, the happy times are so much sweeter. They are not owed to us, but are a gift from a loving, merciful God. The joy of lying beside Eric and listening to him breathe has greater value to me now than it did years ago because of our marital mountain climb. Marriage takes work; and, not the 8-5, sit at a desk, and drink coffee kind of work. Marriage is digging ditches, felling trees, putting out fires, and a touch of disgusting plumbing kind of work.
The following is a mind-blowing idea for some, but here it goes: Marriage is not for everybody. If you are not interested in matrimony and can live righteously and purely outside of marriage, you are free to remain single (ref. 1 Corinthians 7:6-9). Most of you, however, are interested in partnering with someone for a lifetime. This is an understandable human longing, and, if not an idol in your life, a good longing. Still, I urge you to prepare. As one who got married with unrealistic expectations, I plead with you to search your heart and repent of any sin the Holy Spirit reveals to you. Postpone your rush to the altar until you have dealt with your significant pain and become emotionally healthy to begin your marriage journey well. Be ready for trials and be ready to celebrate victories. If you are a couple striving after righteousness, you will experience both.
Thank You for the Pain
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18, ESV)
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4, ESV)
As I walk – sometimes crawl – on this journey, the following chorus by Sovereign Grace Music often comes to mind: “Thank You for the trials, for the fire, for the pain. Thank You for the strength, knowing You have ordained every day.” Though we do not desire trials, we can thank God when He takes us through them because we know He has a more magnificent purpose than our humanness can comprehend.
What difficulties has God brought you through that you now recognize as His hand on your life?