My husband, Phil, and I just celebrated our 40th anniversary. Forty years ago he pledged to love and care for me. Forty years ago I pledged the same things. Forty years. That’s longer than many of you have even been alive. It’s simply amazing… and I’ve frequently quipped that those 40 years of promise-keeping proves there is a God. The thought that I could be faithful to anyone or anything for more than 40 minutes is nearly laughable.
Here’s the reality about my heart: I’m not faithful by nature. I’d like to say that’s because I grew up in a twice-divorced home or that the scarcity of spiritual instruction in my youth made me this way. And while those hurts certainly may be part of my heart’s story, they’re not the whole story. The whole story is that I’m an inherently selfish sinner who is always playing the lead role in her own version of Queen for a Day, Pride and Prejudice or The Sound of Music.
Perhaps right now you’re thinking that the reason that Phil and I have made it this far is because Phil is such a great guy. While it’s true that he is a wonderful husband, it’s also true that he’s a sinner just like me. Phil has always loved me but he’s also sinned against me. We have both hurt each other terribly, and sometimes on purpose. That’s because we are the same: two sinners bound together by an oath to love.
So, what’s the secret to our success? It’s certainly not that we had devotions every day or that we always read the Bible together. It’s not that he practiced biblical masculinity or that I was the perfect Titus 2 woman. In fact, up until the last couple of decades, we didn’t even pray together except at meal times. Yes, we both had a common commitment to church, but there were times that even that became a source of conflict, with both of us fuming in the car as we drove home.
What’s the point? The point of this confession is to say that there aren’t any secrets that guarantee your marriage will be what you’re hoping for. Sure, there are things that you can do that will strengthen your marriage…but there are no perfect spouses. It’s my suspicion that the ranks of single twenty-and thirty-somethings are growing like never before because many of them are looking for Mr. or Miss Right; you know, the man or woman who is a perfect match and will assure a successful (and happy) life. Here’s the news: Miss Perfect doesn’t exist. Mr. Right was kicked out of the Garden and hasn’t been back since.
Over the past four decades or so, in its teaching about being the perfect spouse and companion, the church has constructed an impossible standard for women and men, wives and husbands, to try to attain. This teaching (while at times mildly helpful) has borne trainloads of bad fruit: discontent, demandingness, despair and pride. Here’s the reality: All these steps come to you as law…and law will always (and only) produce death (2 Corinthians 3:7). Teaching on marriage and family is nearly gospel-less, void of any good news at all. You could use much of it in a synagogue or a Mormon service.
So… what’s our hope for our marriages, whether they’re still in the future or you’re celebrating your 40th anniversary like Phil and me? Our only hope is in the faithfulness of our God. In all our days of faithlessness, when we’re just going through the motions, our Faithful Father and our Faithful Husband, the Lord Jesus, holds on to us. He enables us to stand. He has already forgiven all our lovelessness. Jesus perfectly loved His spouse (the church) and that’s our record. The Holy Spirit continues to enable us to walk this road and causes us to remember how He has loved us. He is faithful. We are not. But he loves us faithfully in spite of the weakness of our love.
That’s good news and it’s the only news that will enable you to love your spouse, a fellow sinner, walking toward truth with you. The only way I can love Phil today is because I know I’m just like he is: a sinner desperate for grace.
Oh, and by the way, if you’re looking for a sinner to spend your life serving, then there are plenty of them around, so take your pick and learn to wash feet. And know that you’ll fail and in that failure you’ll learn how much Jesus has loved you and what He gave for you. And that, after all, is the point.
Elyse holds a certificate in biblical counseling from CCEF (San Diego) and an M.A. in Biblical Counseling from Trinity Theological Seminary. She has authored 21 books on daily living and the Christian life. A frequent speaker at women’s conferences, she has been married for nearly 40 years and has three adult children and six really adorable grandchildren.