Fifteen years ago today, a man stood in front of around fifty people and promised to love me for as long as we both shall live.
We’re both people who take words very seriously, so we put a lot of thought into what we were going to say – and as we’re conscious of our human limitations, we added to our “I will”s the crucial “with God’s help”.
Because how else can you possibly carry on loving someone forever – how can you carry on loving them at those times when they’re being totally unreasonable? how can you carry on loving them when you feel totally exasperated, when they’ve done that thing again even though you’ve talked about it a hundred times… and even when you yourself are at the end of your resources, when you’ve had the worst day/week/year and you just don’t feel you have even an ounce of patience left… How can you? Only with God’s help.
And there’ve been plenty of times when it was hard. There’ve been times when it’s felt impossible. Does this seem like a weird thing to be talking about on my wedding anniversary? We’ll be going out to celebrate later, and I’ve just written him a card to thank him for loving me and putting up with all my foibles over these fifteen years – because it works both ways, and just as there’ve been times I’ve found it very hard to keep loving him, I know there’s plenty of times when I’m not easy to love! And yet, we keep doing it – because that’s what we committed to, and it’s what we believe God wants us to do, and because we can see how important it is: knowing I’m loved unconditionally is what gives me the security to be myself, to keep growing, to take risks… I know that he’s not going to turn up one day and say: I don’t like how you’ve changed, so I’m leaving. He promised to keep loving me as long as we both shall live – not: as long as you stay nice and lovable/as long as you stay the way I like you/as long as you conform to my idea of what sort of wife I want.
And this is a mirror, a tiny reflection of how God loves me – that’s why it’s so awesome! because human beings generally don’t: human beings generally tend to set conditions on their love. That friend you met at college and really clicked with, and you’d hang out together for hours and later on when you moved you’d have long phone calls and you just really felt so close until… something happened and they decided they don’t want to be friends with you anymore. That guy you met at a party and really hit it off with, and he said he loved you and you moved in together and it was fantastic for a while, until… something came up that shocked him about you and he got up and left. Or he realised you wanted more out of the relationship than he felt able to give. Or he just got tired of all those annoying little habits of yours that seemed cute at first… Even family sometimes fall out. But God – God’s love is unconditional and forever, and that’s the love that in Christian marriage we are called to emulate: not a fuzzy sentimental kind of love, which you can’t sustain for long beyond the initial “falling in love” stage. No, it’s not about being sentimental, it’s not about cuddles and red roses and calling each other smoochy names. It’s about being gracious towards the other person even in their super obnoxious moments. It’s about putting the rubbish out when you said you would. It’s about making them a cuppa when they’ve behaved in a way that makes you feel like strangling them. Not because they deserve it – God loves me even though I totally don’t deserve his love! No, it’s all about grace – undeserved, unearned, but constant.
I’ve been married before (we divorced; he later died), and it was very very different in lots of ways. One of the differences was that my first wedding was a Jewish wedding, in which not only do people not promise to love until death us do part, there’s even a traditional part of the wedding which involves a promise by the groom as to what he would give his bride if he decides to divorce her. Some might commend this as a realistic approach, because hey, how can you promise to keep loving someone…
With God’s help, you can.
As a Christian, that principle applies to my whole life: I am not, as in other religions, trying to somehow do what I should, to somehow live up to a whole load of rules and standards, to somehow love my husband/love God with all my heart/love my neighbour as I love myself… No, in my own strength I can’t, but through Jesus I have God’s unconditional love, the total assurance of salvation no matter what I do, forgiveness for all my sins, and the Holy Spirit to help me do better! The awesome power of unconditional love is this: it enables me to rest in that love, to live without fretting about whether I’m good enough/I’ve done enough, and so I’ve been able to gradually grow and change. I will never be good enough to meet God’s perfect standards, but Jesus is and I’m in Christ so I don’t have to worry about it. And it’s this kind of love that my husband demonstrates to me in our marriage – he stood in front of a whole load of people and said he would, with God’s help, keep loving me.
It’s not a promise to always feel a certain way – you can’t. Our emotions have ups and downs. But when we got married we committed to overruling our emotions when they get in the way, and behaving in a loving way towards each other even when our feelings say something very different. It’s not easy – but it’s so so so worth it!
On a pragmatic note, I should add this: apart from prayer, the one major thing we’ve found helpful in our marriage is loving and respectful communication. When something comes up – and especially early on there was a lot of stuff coming up as we were figuring out how to live as a couple, and learning about each other’s needs – we use a simple technique we were taught in marriage preparation: basically, taking turns at speaking and listening to each other; when you’re the one listening, you listen silently so that the other person gets a chance to say all that they need to say, without interruptions; then, when they’re finished, you tell them what you think they’ve just said – this can feel kinda weird at first, but the effect is seriously profound, because at the end of this exercise you each feel you’ve been heard and understood. (And when you’re the one speaking, you own your feelings – saying stuff like “when you do x, I feel hurt because…” rather than accusatory phrasing like “why do you always…”) Once we’ve both had the chance to express our feelings and know we’ve been heard and understood, then we can talk about possible solutions: how would you feel if I did y? would it help if I made this change? do you think you could manage to do z?
Also: don’t be scared to admit it when you need outside help. There was a point when we were really struggling, and we went to see a counsellor together. I shudder to think what would have happened back then if we didn’t go see that guy – but we did, and he helped us so much, our marriage was transformed from a near-wreck to a beautiful blossom. It’s ok to need help. Marriage isn’t easy, it’s not like in fairy tales, it takes effort – like most things of value, and like anything that involves fallible human beings. (So the analogy with God’s love is, of course, imperfect – because my relationship with God is not like the relationship between two fallible humans. God is perfect, and that’s why I can totally trust in his faithfulness 101% – and hey, that relationship isn’t even limited by “till death us do part”, it’s forever!)