A TALE OF TWO TEARS
The faithful pastor’s face grew taut as he told me, “Let me be honest with you. My marriage has constituted the biggest cross of my life.”
The tears that slipped out of his eyes and rolled down his cheeks provided a sobering picture of the weight this man carries with him every day of his life. Instead of launching him into newer and bigger opportunities, instead of providing encouragement and sustenance and hope, his marriage is acting like dead weight. God continues to use him, but he walks his journey with a rock in his shoe that hurts him every step of the way.
A thirtysomething woman looked into my eyes and let tears of another sort flow freely as she spoke of her husband’s care for her. She’s had some health-related issues to contend with, and life has not been easy, but her husband has been another kind of rock, a source of tremendous encouragement and acceptance: “Next to Jesus, my husband has been the greatest joy in my life. I can’t even imagine where I’d be without him or how I would have faced all that I have without him by my side.”
Both of these scenarios are true. I’m sorry that they may reinforce gender stereotypes—the male leader and the woman needing support. Because they are based in fact I can’t, with integrity, change them. Look past that for a moment to see the real-life frustration and joy, respectively, that each person feels. One person is crying tears of pain, working as hard as he can to keep his marriage together, but his relationship is compared to a cross. It saps his strength, but he perseveres, because he knows it’s the right thing to do.
The other person is also crying, but not because she is struggling through a difficult relationship. She weeps because she is grateful for a man who loves her so well, so wonderfully, that she can’t imagine life without him.
Tears of pain and tears of joy.
A marriage compared to bearing the cross.
A union compared to a foretaste of heaven.
Ten years after you’re married, what kind of tears will you be crying? Will they be the stinging tears of pain or warm tears generated by joy? The reality is, every marriage has plenty of both kinds of tears, but it’s also true that some marriages are marked primarily by pain while others are marked primarily by joy. No marriage is easy, but some marriages build each partner up, while others tear each partner down. Every marriage takes time and effort, but some marriages sap the spouses’ strength, while others generate joy and enthusiasm and intimacy.
I’m writing this book because I want you to cry tears of joy on your tenth anniversary. I want you to be able to say, with all sincerity, “Next to becoming a Christian, marrying _______ is the best decision I’ve ever made.”
But here’s the thing that might shock you: the answer to this question may well be driven more by why you get married than by who you marry. It’s not that the “who” doesn’t matter (in fact, it matters very much); it’s just that asking and settling the “why” question first will set you up to make a wise choice about the “who.” Why do you want to get married? That’s what you need to ask before you decide who to marry.
It’s a particularly important question because if you make one bad financial investment, you can always start over, but biblical marriage is a one-shot deal. Many Christians believe there are a couple of biblically “accepted” causes for divorce, but these are limited and severe. In the vast majority of cases, should you become disappointed in your choice, your obligation as a believer will be to work it out instead of walking out and starting over. This fact alone makes it doubly worth the time, effort, and even the heartache of a breakup for believers to make sure they’re making a wise decision before they enter into marriage. Once you get married, every evening, every weekend, every holiday, every morning will be marked, for good or for ill, by that relationship.
The person you marry is the last person you’ll see every night before you go to sleep. Their face is the first one you will see when you wake up in the morning. Their words will encourage or discourage you, their humor will make you laugh in amusement or cry in shame. Their body will pleasure you or threaten you. Their hands will hold you or hurt you. Their presence will be a healing balm or a reminder of all that could have been.
Many years ago, when speaking at an event in California, I slipped out of a hotel ballroom in order to pick up an extra shirt at an outside mall (poor packing). Surrounded by beautiful people in a beautiful setting, I longed more than I can describe to see my wife walking toward me. I had a fantasy about my wife, but there was nothing sexual about it. I just wanted to see her walking out of that mass of people and smiling in my direction, to know she would spend the rest of the weekend with me. It was an impossible fantasy—Lisa was a thousand miles away, just north of Seattle, caring for our children, but there wasn’t a sight in the world that would have given me more joy that day than to see Lisa—my wife—walking toward me.
I want you to have moments like that—where, even when you’re apart, you wish you could be together. I don’t want you to be like so many couples I talk to whose fantasy is watching their spouses walk away.
It changes you as a person when a woman who calls you her pastor is crying on the phone because she’s worried that your work with her husband will cause him to stay. She’s exhausted by her marriage, disappointed to the extreme, ready for it to be over with—but she wants to honor God, so she and her husband meet with you. She then listens to you talk and thinks God might actually use you to convince her husband to fully repent and change his ways, and that’s what causes her to break down. She and her husband had a good nine months of dating, but there hasn’t been a good nine-month stretch in their entire ten-year marriage, and his divorcing her would feel like liberation.
I don’t want that for you. I don’t want you ever to be at a point where you think your happiness as a spouse depends upon my failure as a pastor to convince your spouse to stay. But, friends, that’s real life for a lot of couples. They rushed the process or made the decision for poor reasons and now are fighting the consequences every day of their lives.
So let’s briefly introduce the “why” of marriage to set you up to make a wise choice about the “who.” A home established on Matthew 6:33—“Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (NKJV)—is a glorious thing. While this verse contains a command, it’s also an exciting promise of a rich and meaningful life. When husband and wife are committed in Christ, growing together in the Lord, supporting each other in their spiritual walks, raising children in the fear of the Lord, loving each other out of reverence for God, joy abounds and miracles happen. Selfish people become servants. Self-centered children grow up to become workers in God’s kingdom. Strangers become intimate friends. Daily life is filled with the drama of kingdom building. There are plenty of mistakes, lots of repenting, times of frustration, sickness, and even doubts. But in the end, God’s presence prevails, people are transformed, kingdom work is accomplished, and trials are overcome. If two people join themselves around this mission—if they make their marital choice based on the best person with whom they can accomplish this mission—they are far more likely to have a fulfilling and soul-building marriage.
On the other hand, I’ve witnessed how miserable people can make each other when they live for themselves. Though their initial sexual attraction might have been off the charts, it is usually only a matter of months until they are saying and doing awful, awful things to each other, so awful that they will call a pastor on the phone, someone they don’t even know, because they are so desperate to find another way to live. There was a time when they couldn’t live without each other; every second, they had to be together. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Now they can’t bear to live together. When they’re in the same room, or in the same car, or on the same telephone call, they can’t stop fighting.
It’s made me realize that the old cliché is all too true: a good marriage is the closest two people will ever come to heaven this side of eternity; a bad marriage is the closest two people in an affluent society will ever come to hell.
Such problems usually erupt from trying to build a life together without purpose, without mission, without something that not only establishes a connection but keeps you caring about each other for the next fifty to sixty years.
Can I be honest with you? There isn’t a person alive who can keep you enthralled for the next five or six decades. If they’re really funny, really attractive, and you’re really infatuated, you can be enthralled for a few years, but selfish people—even wealthy selfish people, or beautiful selfish people, or famous selfish people—eventually get bored with each other, and the very relationship that once gave them security and life feels like prison and death. No matter how intensely you feel in love now, the same thing will happen to you if you get married without a shared mission.
I want you to have a spiritually enriching marriage, a marriage that spawns life, vibrancy, intimacy, a lifetime of memories with your best friend, and the overwhelming joy of creating a family together. Family life is such a good life, and intimate marriage is such an amazing gift. The friendship that results from facing all seasons of life together, praying together, raising kids together, serving the Lord together, having fun, having sex, suffering heartaches and heartbreaks, overcoming setbacks and learning to deal with disappointments, growing together through all of them, creates a bond that no initial sexual attraction or romantic infatuation could ever hope to match.
The reward for making a wise marital choice is so tremendous that I don’t want you to miss it. The consequences of making a foolish choice can be so painful and lasting that I don’t want you to have to endure them.
I cannot overstate how crucial it is to be cautious and discerning in making such an important decision. You don’t want to miss out, do you? This is not a time for romanticized foolishness. If you remain rooted in Christ, fully engage your mind, and draw on all your resources—God’s guidance, Scripture, your family, your church, your sensible friends—and approach this decision with all intention, purpose, and wisdom, you are far more likely to enter a rich, satisfying, and soul-building marriage.
Ask yourself: “Ten years from now, what kind of tears do I want to be crying? Tears of joy, or tears of pain? Do I want to be in a marriage that lifts me up, or one that drags me down? A union marked by a shared partnership, or one where we’re hiding from and hurting each other on a regular basis?”
Stick with me, and I’ll do everything I can to help you cry tears of joy.
1. Describe a marriage you respect: what is it about the couple that makes you admire their relationship?
2. Ten years after you’re married, how do you hope someone will describe your marriage relationship? Write out the “ideal” description of the relationship you hope to have.
3. Describe some of the marriages you’ve seen that you definitely do not want to model your own marriage on. What attributes of those relationships do you hope to avoid?
4. Have you ever asked yourself the question, “Why do I want to get married?” Why do you want to get married?
5. How do you think getting married with the intention of “seeking first the kingdom of God” will change the way you pursue someone to marry, as well as the type of person you might consider?