I saw the Facebook post. And I smiled. I see a lot of Facebook posts and I smile often, but I remember this particular post and this particular smile because I’d posted on Facebook almost identical words only a few months earlier. ‘My wife is one of God’s greatest gifts to me.’
It makes you smile, doesn’t it? A husband’s unbridled joy in his wife; a joy that cannot be caged causes you to delight in their delight. One of my marriage mottos—and I can only identify a few— is to ‘delight in the wife of your youth’. This comes from Proverbs 5:18 and surely the command as you age to continue delighting in the wife of your youth, assumes delighting during your youth. So I read the post and smiled.
Yet I smiled for a different reason than shared joy. When I’d typed these words I was a man married seven or eight years. The post I was reading was from a relative newlywed. His post was no doubt arrived at independently of mine. In fact, I may be conflating a number of posts from a number of friends into this one memory as this type of newlywed bliss is so common. We even have a name for this ‘honeymoon period’, when the true fault lines of our personal tectonic plates have not yet caused any quakes. This is the time when overcome with joy, or the intimacy of friendship, one feels the need to declare to the whole world (or at least the part of the world they can get a megaphone to on Facebook) that this woman is God’s great gift to me.
I smiled because I thought ‘he has no idea what he’s saying.’ And at least internally I shook my head a little bit. He. has. no. idea. The post was not clueless; it was not a silly thing to say. On the contrary it was in every way lovely. It was not even bordering on carelessness, because you cannot rightly describe an expression which is true in and of itself as careless. It was not quite ignorance. Perhaps simply it was a naiveté. There was an innocence because the declaration was premature. The words had not yet been given an opportunity to take on the depth of meaning which I was certain they would over time. It was naïve in its one-sided-ness. It was calling this gift of marriage good when it was still viewed from a distance as a circle when in reality it is a sphere. And only time can reveal this.
Sarah and I got married at 20 years of age. By modern standards we were young (with the implication of foolish). When Sarah and I announced our engagement, people would sometimes suggest to my mother that we were too young. Mum, to her credit, would sometimes challenge her friends who expressed this about how old they were when they married. For many of my parents’ generation it was fairly common to marry in their early 20s but apparently society knows better now. If I had my time again I’d change lots of things but getting married at 20 isn’t one of them. However I’m scarred enough to know that if I was a 30 year old divorcee I would think differently. And I’m aware of my own failures enough to know that it is a special mercy of God to keep two sinners married, together, and in love for any length of time.
For there is nothing like marriage to expose your imperfections. Although I think having kids is a close second. It’s one thing for your spouse to call you out for your flaws, it’s another to have your kids taking on your behaviours and marauding around the house as a living, breathing, less-sophisticated embodiment of your sinful traits. But Sarah gets to see things I can hide in public. Not shameful or violent things, just the rough bits.
I could do a better job of hiding some of the rougher parts of my personality when I was only a son and brother. But my wife has had to see me at my worst and there is an ugliness there as there is in all of us. Much of marriage is managing the ugliness. In both of us. Some people say marriage is about ‘loving an imperfect person perfectly’ but even then our love too is stained by its own imperfections. When two sinners are joined together they don’t complete each other like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It’s more like two tectonic plates being pushed together and all those connections are jagged and jarring and when the pressure mounts in the right way they can explode.
I’m thankful that Sarah and my personal jagged edges mostly presented themselves after we were married. We’d been pressed together by then. If it had happened during our courtship I wonder if my younger immature self would have re-started the impossible pursuit of the perfect person. It would have been fruitless. And it would have only delayed my personal humbling. No matter the person we choose to marry, our tectonic plates are shaped differently—some more jagged than others—but never a perfect fit. Yet the bond of marriage forces you to work on your tectonic plate alignment. To try and find the best fit, try and smooth a few of our own rough edges. I’m thankful that, committed to me in faithfulness, Sarah has chosen not to trade me in for a newer, less arrogant model.
This all sounds like a glass-half-empty view of marriage. My intention is not to be pessimistic, but reflect Reality. Although I do fear these caveats misrepresent the mostly happy times. Nevertheless, the day-to-day experience of my marriage has been positively mundane. And I mean positively. But it is not glass-half-empty. It is simply ordinary. And even then this ordinariness is most often interrupted by times of joy.
But reflecting on ten years as a husband, my mind keeps going back to a day a few weeks before I got married. A good mate and I were sitting down with an older Christian man. He’d been married longer than we’d been alive. For some reason the conversation reached a point where he felt he needed to temper our idealism. He was giving us our Reality Check. But the way he did this still stops me in my tracks. He shared with us that before conversion, as a married man he’d committed adultery through a one-night stand. It was only after years of guilt that post-conversion he could confess his deceit to his wife. There was not a shred of boast in the words. Just brokenness. Not a feigned humility. He was showing us Reality. Brokenness. His wife as a woman clothed in the gospel was able to forgive him. At least, after a time. But. it. was. forgiveness. Forgiveness that is just as Real as the sin. Forgiveness which reconciled their marriage and remembered the sin no more. And it’s knowing this forgiveness—the kind learnt from the God who while we were sinners sent his Son to die for us—that meant this man could share his deepest shame with a couple of young idealistic blokes. He didn’t just know mercy, forgiveness, and love. He had experienced mercy, forgiveness, and undeserved love.
I am thankful my marriage has not required a painful healing of that order. But there are enough smaller hurts that I don’t know how marriages survive without knowing God’s forgiveness. Obviously many do. Yet I can’t see how I’d do it. Being broken yet welcomed into friendship with God cannot help but shape how I react to sin in Sarah, and her to me. It constrains our reaction to the ugliness. Because we’ve been loved before we were worthy. And this is Real.
After ten years, Sarah and I are great friends. And this has been a great coolant on the normal frictions of married life. In our moments of greatest distress we cool quickly. It is a genuine affection and friendship that is forged not only by bliss but pressure and time, and experience. It’s a friendship formed through the moments of greatest fear and distress and loss. But then again it’s forged just as much by the inanity of life: making cups of tea, driving to church, playing board games, doing the shopping, sending texts.
I could fill volumes with stories of Sarah’s grace, courage, patience, thoughtfulness, kindness, generosity, care, love and selflessness. I could also write a small companion piece of her many faults. I know this because there’s a draft version in my mind that I quote to Sarah in my worst moments. But ten years in, my maturing as a husband has had so very little to do with Sarah and almost everything to do with me.
You see, that Facebook post about God’s great gift to me of my wife, was written not in a moment of joy but in a moment of repentance. The biggest shadow over our marriage has for many years been sickness. It’s sometimes a cloud, sometimes a fog, always there in the atmosphere. Just enough to interrogate my vow of ‘in sickness and in health’ most weeks, and sometimes for weeks at a time. You see caring for an unwell person has been very revealing. It has exposed where my expectations as a husband were about keeping score rather than sacrificial love. For where is a give-and-take relationship when one half has little to give? Unfair expectations. Selfishness. Pride. And this has been painful. And yet what time has revealed is that this itself is perhaps the greatest gift Sarah has been to me – of seeing the ugliness and loving me anyway. She has helped me again to experience the gospel, to know forgiveness and welcome.
I think this is most of all why I smiled at my newlywed friend speaking of God’s gift of a wife. He had no idea. Because a decade in, God’s gift to me of my wife has been so much greater than I imagined. The expected joys have been tempered by Reality. And it is beautiful in all its ugliness.
Ten years. You’d trade a car after that long. But I’m trusting this particular model is becoming a classic. Now I’m not triumphalistic; too many marriages of dear friends have ended around us to have me relax. And only God knows how these two sinners will navigate the next waves we face. But I’m also hopeful—should the Lord will—that in another decade I can look back with just as much gratitude. And it wouldn’t surprise me to look back on the man I am today, to smile at this naïve young man and think ‘he had no idea.’