1606 Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character.
1607 According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust; and the beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work.
1608 Nevertheless, the order of creation persists, though seriously disturbed. To heal the wounds of sin, man and woman need the help of the grace that God in his infinite mercy never refuses them. Without his help man and woman cannot achieve the union of their lives for which God created them “in the beginning.”
MICHAEL SPENCER’S NOTE: In this essay, I venture into a highly personal area of my life and the life of the person I love most. Not to be sensational, but to worship and enjoy God, and to hold out hope to those readers who may have given up on their own marriages.
For Judy and Mike
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God.
For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)
God’s Big Mistake
There’s a picture that comes to mind every time I read Genesis 3. It’s a prison movie. A prisoner has escaped, and is running as hard as he can along a seemingly deserted county road. Then, out of nowhere, the police cars appear, catch up to him in a field and surround him. He has nowhere to go, and he collapses on the ground in anticipation of being manacled and taken back to prison.
Out of one of the cars steps a cigar-chomping, hefty, stone-faced captain of the prison guard. He stands over the prisoner, silently looking him over. Then the guard pulls out his revolver and shoots the prisoner in the leg.
“Now. Keep running.” And he gets back in the car, and they all drive away, leaving the prisoner bleeding, but alive…and confused. He gets up and runs off into this strange, wounded freedom.
How does it remind me of Genesis 3? Adam and Eve rebel against God and reap the immediate consequences. Their perfect marriage is shattered. They are selfish, arrogant, blaming and blind. They’ve turned from God and turned on one another. Adam blames God and Eve. Eve blames the serpent and whines. God pronounces a judgment of pain, estrangement, conflict and eventual death over them both. All is lost, it appears.
But they stay married.
Was this really a good idea? I mean, it’s not for me to question the Almighty, but this doesn’t make much sense. There are a lot of things Adam and Eve could still do in their fallen state. I assume they could work, create, manage, invent, even love and serve others. I think they could still be passable parents. But I don’t see how they can stay married the rest of the lives to the same person, loving that person and finding joy and fulfillment in that relationship. I don’t see how they can be unselfish enough, humble enough, faithful enough, sacrificial enough, patient enough and honest enough to succeed in marriage. God almost seems cruel to let them try. You know it’s going to be a mess.
God disagrees. He said to keep running. In fact, the Bible is full of God’s using the marriage relationship as his favorite illustration of the intimate and obedient relationship He wants with His people. Israel is his bride, and so is the church. Jesus is the bridegroom, and we are the beloved. There are many admonitions to faithfulness in marriage, and promises of blessing in marriage. At times, it seems as if the whole Genesis 3 business never happened, and all that God expects of us and promises to us in marriage means we are actually capable of going back to the Garden.
But that’s not what it’s like. Ask anyone who is married. We really are running wounded, and sometimes nothing seems more ridiculous than the proposition that we can really bring about more good than harm, or experience more love than suffering in this vulnerable relation called marriage. The reality is written in marriages every day. We celebrate their inauguration, milestones and perseverance, but who has not marveled, as you sat at an anniversary gathering, what it took to get there? What terrible price was paid to stay together? I’ve watched a spouse walk out of a hospital room after seeing their partner of fifty plus years pass on, and I wondered, how could they find the love and grace to make it this far?
We just seem too wounded for such a long run.
I’m not a pessimist about marriage in particular. I am a Biblical realist about human nature. C.S. Lewis said the story of history was like a machine built to run on one kind of fuel, but forced to use another. It runs, maybe even well, for a while. Then, it “conks.” So the highest human aspirations to love, selflessness and faithfulness seem to run well for a while, then sputter and conk. In some cases, the marriage ends, in other cases it survives in a sort of cold truce. In some instances it evolves into something truly terrible, wreaking havoc and harvesting pain for generations.
And yet, despite our fallenness, smallness, arrogance and stupidity, there are marriages that truly resemble the glory that must have existed between Adam and Eve. There are, in most marriages, glimpses of heaven, hell, and both sides of Eden. In some marriages, the glimpses of Eden prevail, and become constant. In some marriages, there is even a taste of heaven on earth in the love between two people. Scripture seems to echo this, even as it describes in many places the display of human wretchedness that marriage can become. It is far more optimistic than Genesis 3 would lead you to believe.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
The Catechism of the Catholic church says that marriage persists, though seriously “disturbed.” O how much lies in a single word! The Catechism also says what anyone knows: Marriage, if it is to succeed, needs God’s help.
The Always Untold Story
At this point, I pause to tell you a little about my own marriage. Very little. In fact, I am not going to tell you anything like the whole story because it is not a story that can or should be told to anyone but God.
Denise and I are approaching twenty-five years. We are more than grateful to be at that point. Worshipful would be the best word. Only the two who have lived out the experience could sense the power of divine intervention, protection and grace that has allowed us to be married and devoted to one another in Christian love at this point in our lives. Thomas Merton said that if God showed you the way He was going to bring you to Himself you would never come. If we had seen this road in advance, I doubt we would have ever traveled it. And we would never know the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
For one thing, we began in utter ignorance. Of course, we all do. Taught by our good, but imperfect families, deceived by the lies of the culture and misled by the deceptions of the media, we walked blindly into marriage thinking that romance, passion and affection–and made-up vows recited in church–would get us through. Within a year, we were a mess, and a big part of the mess was I hardly knew it was a mess. We looked like a couple, but how hard was that? I did enough damage in those first few years to kill off most marriages. And yet, we survived.
Our survival was partly the result of my vocation in church ministry, and partly because we were too ignorant to even know how to break up. By year four, we moved to seminary, and thought we were putting it all behind us.
The fact is, we were bringing it all with us, and adding more. We did not know how to treat one another, and being hurtful came naturally. Again, ministry provided the cover and the base motivation for survival, and for the first time, some of my own crimes against my wife–things I thought minor offences any husband should be allowed–began to be clearer in my own mind as real hurts.
We moved again, this time to a “real” job, and now my personal mental health and vocational issues were becoming acute. Of course, no one knew that except my wife, because I unloaded my emotional garbage on her. In this chapter, she had the good sense to break the code of silence and seek outside help, a move which I resented and whined about for years. I was somewhere between being a cruel husband and a non-husband, and all I knew was that I wanted to be a preacher.
My own issues pushed me ever downward into anger and depression, and I thought another church move was the answer, so after the mandatory four years, we left, this time for the pastorate, with two children in tow.
Again, I pause to say that by any reasonable measure, we should have called the marriage off. We were not violent or immoral or cruel. I was very messed up and hurting in ways I could not admit or own. Denise was hurting because of me and doing the best she could. If she’d known a lawyer with a nose for a fee, I would be divorced.
The pastorate put the strain of an increased work and parenting load on both of us, and my anger had now become toxic. I felt responsible for everything that went wrong, and I made mistakes that separated me from some of the people who mattered most. I was a good pastor, but it almost destroyed me to be a pastor. Denise was a naturally good parent and a brave survivor in such a marriage. I was desperately, stupidly selfish and emotionally empty. Almost two decades later, I still see the scars I left on my family in those days.
Mercifully, this could not go on forever. God intervened. I came to my current ministry with a clear word from God that if I would come here, He would heal me. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I’d never had an experience like that, or anything like the specific confirmation in a similar experience a few weeks later. I believed God was showing me a way to something better, and we moved to the mountains of eastern Kentucky, hoping things would change.
God was gracious. My current ministry was much kinder to me. I got better. Now it was Denise’s turn to contribute to our distress. For most of a decade she struggled with her own issues, and much of those issues involved the pain I had caused in the past, and the methods of retaliation she chose. Unlike her disorientation earlier in our marriage, I understood what was happening, and at times we weathered the crisis better than we would have earlier, but soon we both knew there had arisen between us a distance that might be unhealable. Alongside the pain, there now came fear and a sense of doom. The possibility of the end was discussed more than once. It horrified us, but we did not know if we were capable of emerging from the universe of hurt we lived in.
At times, in this last decade, there have been moments of incredible despair, followed by enough mercy and hope to survive another day. Finally, the distance, the hurt, and the despair drove us to a final brink. Events had reeled beyond our ability to go on in pretense and lies. We lived like enemies disguised as friends, and succeeded in almost destroying what we had left. We finally came to a day when a decision had to be made. And at that brink, at that moment of seeing the abyss, I think we finally, for the first time in over twenty years, came to know and to begin to love the other person as God meant us to know and love one another. With undeserved grace, God allowed us to not simply survive, but to experience and enjoy the power of a renewed married love, a love that is an echo of His own mighty and faithful love for His people.
For months and years since then, we continue to discover that this will never be simple. There are resentments and patterns of judgment that must constantly be abandoned. There is much to unlearn and old wounds act up at the most unwelcome times. We do not let go of our old protections easily. Watching the marriages of other people, we realized some of the inherent strengths of our own relationship, and began to consciously spend more and more time together and to enjoy one another as sharers in the grace of life. I finally moved beyond the demons of ministerial success that haunted me most of my career, and found that in my current ministry I could devote myself to the joy of my wife and children, and care far less about the church. I discovered that God had brought me to this place–and through these times–to heal me as He promised.
In July, we will celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary at The Cove, enjoying the teaching of John Piper, whose vision of marriage as the matrix of Christian hedonism has been part of my own repentance and hope. We have been recipients of a severe mercy, but a Christ-embracing mercy. As I said, we are grateful, but more worshipful, at what God has allowed to happen between us, and we know it was His hand.
The Lessons of a Marriage
In all of this, I have concluded that our Catholic friends are on to something when they say that marriage is a sacrament. I may not not agree with all the theology behind such a statement, but do I believe that God meets us–God in Christ Himself–meets us in this covenant of marriage in a unique and particular way? Yes I do. I cannot read the scriptures without coming to the conclusion that God makes himself available to married persons in the covenant promise of marriage and in the journey to be faithful to that covenant. And this may sometimes be our only hope. God–that covenant-keeping God who has stayed faithful to the most unfaithful people–is with us in this marriage, and will give us what it takes to love again.
God is always the optimist, and I believe He was always the inexplicable hope that arose between us at the moments of despair. It was not hope that came from any rational or reasonable source. No, it was hope that arose ex nihilo–out of nothing. But this hope was real nonetheless. I think Christ hovered over the chaos of this marriage and brought peace and order and beauty where there was only ruin and darkness. He did not do this because we took the right path. We continually avoided–for the most part–the right path, preferring the path of anger, bitterness, and revenge. No, God did this because He delights to do so. A marriage is the perfect canvas for such a gloriously optimistic God to paint upon. And in the long, dark nights of our lives, He quietly paints his masterpieces, preparing to unveil them without our permission.
I believe it is not an accident that Jesus speaks so often of forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount. In the teaching that we must be willing to extend forgiveness if we are truly to receive forgiveness, there is the reminder that who we truly are cannot be separated from how we live with others. The hurts that we experience can define us, unless we choose to be defined by a greater power: forgiveness. Marriage demands much forgiveness. It is a daily matter, but it is also a deep matter. In the accumulation of a storehouse of wrongs are the seeds of great despair and continuing pain. Forgiveness washes out that cellar and lets the air in. Forgiveness makes us count our treasures of bitterness as worthless, and count the treasure of Christ as priceless.
I will admit that I struggle with forgiveness. Not in forgiving others. Fortunately, I am by nature quick to forgive. No, I struggle with believing that those I have hurt can ever forgive me. In this struggle, I am given two gifts: the gift of true spiritual self-knowledge and the gift of the cross of Christ where my sins are paid for plainly and tangibly.
Marriage, more than any sermon or book, has shown me my own soul in all its fallen ugliness. In evangelical Christianity and in the culture of self-esteem, we are constantly told we are children or flowers or beautiful people. In fact, we are criminals and rebels against God and against all the necessary, good ideals of marriage. I cannot see this in someone’s romantic fantasies or shallow descriptions. I see it most plainly in what I have done to my wife and my family; in my own failures as a human being and as a husband. In this laboratory of depravity, the cross makes abundant sense. How else but by the bloody sacrifice of my innocent Savior can my renegade heart be brought back to sanity? If I cannot admit the horrors of my illness, I will not accept the cost and the miracle of my healing. That I can now sit with my wife and feel the love we have for one another after all that has passed….it is as profound as any resurrection. And as necessary.
We need to talk about these things. Not in books and pulpits. Certainly not in those horrible “How To Have A Successful Marriage” seminars. No, we need to talk to one another in small groups. Over dinner. In one another’s homes. Because there are so many who do not believe they can make it. I now look into the eyes and listen to the words of my married friends, and I often see much of the same pain that resided in our home and hearts. It is well hidden, but one of the advantages of our journey is that such disguises no longer work well. I can hear the suffering and the confusion. I know that hopelessness is near to many that I love. If we could speak to one another about the truth of our lives and the grace of God given to imperfect marriages, some could be saved.
I know that some will read this and be surprised. Perhaps someone will read it and think that somehow I have less authority as a minister because of this journey. That’s all right. I believe most will read it and recognize much of themselves. Perhaps some will read it and feel hope for the first time in a while.
I love my wife. I have romantic feelings and passionate attraction. We share the deep and grateful love of parents and fellow travelers. I have the amazed love of one who sees a partner who should have quit the adventure many storms ago, but stayed with me when it would have felt so right to go. I have the love of one who is loved and treasured; the love of a person who feels the humbling baptism of underserved love and kindness from one who knows my flaws and sins all too well. But most of all, I have the love of God in Christ present to me in my wife. Not as a verse, but as a reality. As close as her touch and her words. As Jesus promised–and as His death and resurrection demonstrated–a love that is stronger than its enemies and a love that triumphs over the darkness. Hopeful, stunning, grace-energized, ever-more-wonderful love from the heart of God, mediated to me in this marriage.
Such is God’s goodness to those of us running wounded. May you find it as well.