Before we get started again with this most personal topic, please let me say that I am only speaking from my experience. Many of you have been through things I cannot imagine with your spouses, and some of you have endured the breakup of your marriage. Please do not think I am judging anyone for having difficulty being married. We had great difficulty being married, but we also had great happiness. Maybe those two things go together.
Some of what I write may seem easy for me to say because I am not married anymore. For instance, I never parented teens with Jeff; that is a daunting challenge that we just didn’t face. I would have much to learn from anyone who reads this post because your experiences are just as joyful and painful and valuable as mine. I am just sharing what I learned in the hopes that I will be able to encourage someone who needs it.
Marriage is essential to God’s plan for humanity (not, however, an essential part of His plan for every individual). The marriage of Adam and Eve begins the first relationship and the first covenant; God is the minister and the only wedding guest. God often uses married love as a metaphor for His love for us. Consider this passage, where Moses speaks to the nation of Israel:
…For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)
In the context of marriage, I might have said this to Jeff: You are special to me, set apart. I chose you to be my husband. Out of all the guys I have met, I wanted you. I didn’t set my love on you because you were the hottest or smartest or funniest guy ever, because you weren’t really all those things.* I chose you because I loved you. And I am keeping the promise I made to God and to you on the day I married you.
Here’s the parallel: The person I marry is the only person I “set my love on” in the way God has “set His love on” me. All my other family members come to me by way of birth or marriage; my spouse is the only family member I choose. Because of this, my spouse has a particular role in my sanctification, and I have a unique role in his. God designed marriage to be a relationship where I can experience what it means that He chose me, set His love on me, and remains fully committed and completely faithful no matter what happens between us. Within our marriage Jeff and I could learn to give and receive that kind of love. It is a privilege and a gift to have and to be a spouse, and the promise made at the wedding seals the deal.
This sanctification and commitment talk doesn’t sound very sexy, does it? Sometimes it isn’t. Many of you know that very well. Our road together included cancer, and anyone who has nursed someone through a serious illness knows this commitment gets down and dirty. We dealt with some really gross medical stuff, and Jeff suffered through some things I had never experienced up close. The nurse who taught us about colostomy bags took one look at me and said, “Oh boy- you’re not much of a nurse.” I was pretty annoyed, but she was right. By the grace of God, I became a nurse, and I was a good one. What’s more, I caught a glimpse of what it means to “Count it all joy… when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1: 2-3)
Applying colostomy bags was not in Anna’s wheelhouse. It was a huge test for me. While I will not claim that I enjoyed the actual task, we learned to laugh our way through it. (Actually, once we got comfortable with it, we found the whole process pretty hilarious. Those things make awesome farting noises.) Once I committed (reluctantly, fearfully, unwillingly) to do what Jeff needed, God gave me the stomach for it. Very soon I did not mind it much. To say a colostomy was a “joy” might be a stretch- but taking care of Jeff sure was a joy. And my love for Jeff grew more committed and steadfast in the process.**
I am no saint and I am no nurse. But I had set my love on Jeff Harris. God used me to do what I could never have done in my own strength, and the biggest miracle was that I was glad to do it.
My love for my sons functions similarly, but there is a key difference. Parent-love for me (so far) feels almost involuntary. I could not stop loving my sons even if I tried, but with Jeff it was different. Sometimes that love worked like a car battery: I took it for granted and didn’t notice it much until it lost its charge. My best efforts couldn’t restart the engine. God had to supply the jumper cables to power that love up again. Jeff was not the problem; my own selfish heart could not sustain the will to love without God’s help.
I remember middle-of-the-night times, when Jeff was asleep (he always slept so easily). I lay awake next to him in the dark, my mind churning through the struggles in our relationship. I would lay a hand on his arm and desperately pray, “God help me love him.” At first I was praying for the feeling of love, that emotion which makes the hard times easier to bear. But the feeling of love can be quite slippery in a marriage sometimes. I could not always hold onto it. I began to pray for love- the verb- the will and the power to act in his best interest, to see him as God saw him, and to cheerfully prefer him over myself.
Right now you probably feel sorry for Jeff because he had a wife who needed the power of God to love him well. But I know this: Jeff had to re-choose me sometimes too, when loving Anna didn’t come easy. The fact that love is sometimes an act of will rather than a tender feeling does not diminish its value- in fact, quite the opposite. The act of choosing renders both the lover and the beloved more precious than ever.
Go back to the verse from Deuteronomy. God didn’t set His heart on Israel to be His holy people because they were so much better than everyone else. He chose them because He loved them. In other words, they weren’t worthy in any way of the great affection of the God Who created the universe. He chose them anyway, and His love for them made them worthy.
Here’s the difference: God is love. I am not. The very essence of God is love; the very essence of Anna was not until I received the Holy Spirit and became aware that He chose me. Since that time God has been in the process of making me more like Himself- sanctification- and that transformation means I am learning to love like He loves. By that Spirit, I am being changed, receiving a “heart of flesh” for my “heart of stone.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
Jeff did not choose me because I was “all that;” he chose me because he loved me. I was (am) deeply flawed, not particularly worthy of his special affection any more than he was worthy of mine. But God gave him love for me, and me for him, and so we chose each other. That mutual love carried with it the possibility of transformation, calling us to become more loving than we were before.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am that Jeff Harris and I got to do some of our becoming together.
*In all honesty, I thought he was pretty close!
**I also need to tell you that Jeff endured tremendous pain with virtually no complaint. I am quite sure I will never be able to appreciate how much he restrained himself in his agony. He minimized his suffering as much as he could for our sake. Whatever I went through during his cancer cannot compare with what he went through. That was a gift he gave to my boys and to me.