By Audrey Stallsmith
"Fifty years?" said the woman who set up the tent for my parents’ golden anniversary celebration. "That’s pretty unusual these days, isn’t it?"
It was a blistering Saturday in mid-July. The rented tables proved to be so non-stick we found it impossible to attach streamers to them. We set the food bowls and trays atop containers of ice and, before our three-hour open house concluded, the cold cuts had sunk like the Titanic. Since people don’t eat much when they’re hot, we had almost enough melon and pasta salads and chopped vegetables left over to have supplied that ill-fated luxury liner, but the punch and iced tea ran out after the first hour.
At least the thunderstorm waited until the party was over to crash it. From the safety of the house, we watched a deluge descend on the abandoned tent. And we crowed with delight as the gold and white helium-filled balloons, which had originally bobbed just under the canvas ceiling, began to spurt merrily out of the shelter on every side.
Mom and Dad could have told the tent woman that a good marriage, like our party, has its difficult patches. But, if you stick around for the long haul, you’ll find the storms bring out the best in you. The same can be said for our relationship with God.
Couples from my parents’ generation are more likely to hang onto their marriages because they were raised during the Depression. After that, they never expected anything to be easy! And, since divorce was still disgraceful at the time they wed, many of them simply never considered it an option.
Neither did Christ. He allowed what was to Him the cutting apart of a single body only under the most extreme circumstances. "No man may divorce what God has joined together. . . Anyone who divorces his wife, except for fornication, and marries another, commits adultery." (Matthew 19:6b, 9b LB)
The innocent spouse is, as He points out, not at fault if he/she can no longer live with the betrayer. And I suspect Christ would advise the victim of abuse to leave as well since, by staying, he/she implies there is nothing wrong with what the abuser is doing.
But, although modern Christians rightly protest about exceptions becoming the rule in the case of abortion, they apparently divorce as much as nonbelievers do. If they can’t remain faithful to the spouses they have seen, how do they expect to remain faithful to the God they haven’t?
Chesterton writes in one of his columns, "People must be tied together in order to talk; for twenty minutes at a dance or for forty years in a marriage. . .if anything is to be got out of the relation, it must be a secure one." Elsewhere he asserts, "to be entirely romantic a thing must be irrevocable." And, in The Defendant, he notes "a phrase which is a black and white contradiction in two words--‘free-love’. . .It is the nature of love to bind itself."
That binding is necessary because we all change. But love, as Shakespeare pens so eloquently in one of his sonnets, "is not love that alters when it alteration finds." On the contrary, it accepts change as adventure and adapts. In his book, On Happiness, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin describes true union as "a continual discovery and a continual conquest."
So it’s not the people who abandon their marriages or their God who are the true explorers, but the ones who stay! In Christian Behavior, C. S. Lewis concludes bad people live "a sheltered life by always giving in."
The modern hedonist thinks he can have the pleasure of love (sex) without having to limit himself to one lover. "The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage," Lewis informs us in Mere Christianity, "is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. It is like trying to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again."
Sentimentalists, on the other hand, abandon their marriages every time they fall "out of love" with their current partner. (These, I would venture, are probably the same people who "backslide" every time they no longer feel God’s presence.) As George MacDonald once wryly noted in What's Mine's Mine, instead of saying "they had a feeling," it might be more correct to say "a feeling had them."
It is the commitment that keeps a covenant relationship alive, not our up-and-down emotions. "Love," Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in "A Wedding Sermon from Prison," "comes from you, but marriage from above, from God. As God is high above man, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of marriage above those of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but the marriage that sustains your love."
Or, as Don Francisco expressed it in his song "Love Is Not a Feeling," "Jesus didn’t die for you because it was fun. He hung there for love, because it had to be done. And, in spite of the anguish, his word was fulfilled. ‘Cause love is not a feeling; it’s an act of your will."
God couldn’t order us to love Him, if love is an emotion that we can’t control. After all, we occasionally find God hard to live with too! And, if we are feeling distant from Him, it’s often for the same reason we feel distant from a spouse or friend. Because we haven’t been acting as if we love that person. At a writers’ conference, Tony Campolo told us, "It’s the action that creates the feeling. You act and then you feel." We too often expect it to be the other way around.
Lewis agrees, advising, "Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’ And go and do it." He would probably offer the same counsel to those who are having trouble with their marriages. "Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved my spouse, what would I do?’ And go and do it."