Is sustaining an iron-willed commitment fundamental to a good Christian marriage?
The second suggestion made by our panel of six hundred "experts" represented yet another back-to-basics concept. It focused on committed love that is braced against the inevitable storms of life. Very few certainties touch us all in this mortal existence, but one absolute is that we will experience hardship and stress at some point. Nobody remains unscathed. Life will test each of us severely, if not during younger days, then through the events surrounding our final days. Jesus spoke of this inevitability when He said to His disciples, "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
The Experience of Horror
Dr. Richard Selzer is a surgeon who has written several outstanding books about his beloved patients, including Mortal Lessons and Letters to a Young Doctor. In the first of these texts he describes the experience of "horror" that invades one's life sooner or later. When we're young, he says, we seem to be shielded from it the way the body is protected against bacterial infection. Microscopic organisms are all around us, yet our bodies' defenses effectually hold them at bay … at least for a season. Likewise, each day we walk in and through a world of horror unscathed, as though surrounded by an impenetrable membrane of protection.
We may even be unaware that distressing possibilities exist during the period of youthful good health. But then one day, without warning, the membrane tears, and horror seeps into our lives. Until that moment, it was always someone else's misfortune … another man's tragedy … and not our own. The tearing of the membrane can be devastating, especially for those who do not know the "good cheer" (John 16:33) Jesus gives in times of tribulation.
Having served on a large medical school faculty for fourteen years, I have watched husbands and wives in the hours when horror began to penetrate the protective membrane. All too commonly, their marital relationships were shattered by the new stresses that invaded their lives. Parents of a mentally retarded child, for example, often blamed one another for the tragedy that confronted them. Instead of clinging to each other in love and reassurance, they added to their sorrows by attacking their partners. I do not condemn them for this human failing, but I do pity them for it. A basic ingredient was missing in their relationship, which remained unrecognized until the membrane tore. That essential component is called commitment.
A number of years ago, I heard the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer speak to this issue. He described the bridges in Europe built by the Romans in the first and second centuries A.D. They are still standing today, despite the unreinforced brick and mortar with which they were made. Why haven't they collapsed in this modern era of heavy trucks and equipment? The reason they remain intact is because they are used for nothing but foot traffic. If an eighteen-wheel semi were driven across the historic structures, they would crumble in a great cloud of dust and debris.
Splitting Seams and Crumbling Foundations
Marriages that lack an iron-willed determination to hang together at all costs are like those fragile Roman bridges. They appear to be secure and may indeed remain upright – until they are put under heavy pressure. That's when the seams split and the foundation crumbles. It appears to me that the majority of young couples today, like some of those competing on those newlywed game shows, are in that incredibly vulnerable position. Their relationships are constructed of unreinforced mud which will not withstand the weighty trials lying ahead. The determination to survive together simply is not there.
Committed Love is Critical
This is why committed love is so critical to the success of a marriage. In stressing the importance of commitment, however, our panel of six hundred was referring not only to the great tragedies of life but also to the daily frustrations that wear and tear on a relationship. These minor irritants, when accumulated over time, may be even more threatening to a relationship than catastrophic events. And yes, Virginia, there are times in every good marriage when a husband and wife don't like each other very much. There are occasions when they feel as though they will never love their partner again. Emotions are like that. They flatten out occasionally, like an automobile tire with a nail in the tread. Riding on the rim is a pretty bumpy experience for everyone on board.
What will you do, then, when unexpected tornadoes blow through your home, or when the doldrums leave your sails sagging and silent? Will you pack it in? Will you pout and cry and seek ways to strike back? Or will your commitment hold you steady? These questions must be addressed now, before Satan has an opportunity to put his noose of discouragement around your neck. Set your jaw and clench your fists. Nothing short of death must ever be permitted to come between the two of you. Nothing!
This determined attitude is missing from so many marital relationships today. I read of a wedding ceremony in New York years ago in which the bride and groom each pledged "to stay with you for as long as I shall love you." I doubt their marriage lasted even a few years. The feeling of love is simply too ephemeral to hold a relationship together for very long. It comes and goes. That's why our panel of six hundred was adamant on this point. They have lived long enough to know that a weak marital commitment will inevitably lead to divorce. One participant wrote:
Marriage is no fairy-tale land of enchantment. But you can create an oasis of love in the midst of a harsh world by grinding it out and sticking in there.
Perfection doesn't exist. You have to approach the first few years of marriage with a learner's permit to work out your incompatibilities. It is a continual effort.
The Wisdom of Experience
Those views don't sound particularly romantic, do they? But they do carry the wisdom of experience. Two people are not compatible simply because they love each other and are professing Christians. Many young people assume that the sunshine and flowers that characterized their courtship will continue for the rest of their lives. Don't you believe it! It is naïve to expect two unique and strong-willed individuals to fit together easily like a couple of machines. Even gears have multiple cogs with rough edges that must be honed before they will work in concert.
That honing process usually occurs in the first years of marriage. What often happens at this time is a dramatic struggle for power in the relationship. Who will lead? Who will follow? Who will determine how the money is spent? Who will get his way or her way in times of disagreement? Everything is up for grabs in the beginning, and the way these early decision are made will set the stage for the future.
Therein lays the danger. Abraham Lincoln said, quoting the Lord Jesus, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." If both partners come into the relationship prepared for battle, the foundation will begin to crumble. The apostle Paul gave us the divine perspective on human relationships – not only in marriage but in every dimension of life. He wrote, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3, NIV).
That one verse contains more wisdom than most marriage manuals combined. If heeded, it could virtually eliminate divorce from the catalog of human experience.1
Love for a Lifetime, published by Multnomah Gifts. Copyright © 2003, James Dobson, Inc. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.
Other answers in this series:
Maintain a Christ-Centered Home
Sustain an Iron-Willed Commitment