If you’ve ever run marathons, you’ve likely seen the handmade sign that says, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” It’s a cliché in running circles, and the people holding the signs are usually standing at the bottom of a hill (like just before the Madison street hill in Seattle or Heartbreak Hill in Boston).
Like many clichés, this one has a lot of truth in it. When training, you can swallow the pain a little easier if you remember it’s making you stronger.
Perhaps because of this experience, rather than seeing difficulty as something to deny, I see it as something to embrace and celebrate. It’s a necessary path to something worth pursuing.
When Sacred Marriage first came out, one of the truths that most hit a chord with people (and that agitated some others) was that I openly spoke of marriage as a difficult relationship. Prior to that, many Christian books downplayed this reality, promising that with five or six steps you could have an easy marriage with rainbows every morning and a full moon every night. And I came along and said even the best of marriages will have difficult and perhaps excruciating moments.
Some have complained that the overall tenor sounds too negative. It’s not uncommon for a writer to “over-react” when he sees something being ignored, so that critique might have some validity to it. When I updated Sacred Marriage recently (the new version is coming out in April), I tried to watch out for that. I understand why some recent writers have cautioned us to not overemphasize the “difficult” part (which is amazing to me in that nobody used to even mention the difficulty; we’ve come quite a ways as a church!). I get that—but when I asked 500 couples in Idaho to remain standing if their marriage proved to be easier than they thought it would be, only five couples remained standing. One of those couples later confessed to me they had only been married for ten days.
Human experience teaches us that all noble efforts—the kind we rightly celebrate—can break our hearts with their elusiveness and struggle. You’ll never learn to play an instrument well if you stop when it gets hard. Your business will fail if you expect it to be easy. Your first painting won’t be a masterpiece. I’m so grateful that someone like Stevie Wonder pushed through the difficulty to create a musical masterpiece like Superstition. I’m thankful Steven Jobs overcame excruciating financial challenges and near bankruptcy early on, years of litigation, and constricting government regulation to lead Apple to produce some of the most life-transforming technological gadgets we could ever imagine.
Looking at marriage in this light, why would I even want to downplay the difficulty behind every intimate union? If pain is “weakness leaving the body,” then marital frustration can be the mark of impatience leaving the soul. Marital conflict can lead to self-centeredness leaving the house. Marital disappointment can be false hope leaving the mind. A spouse’s sickness—responded to appropriately–can be selfishness leaving the spirit. Financial challenges can be a lack of faith leaving our heart.
Marital oneness, while glorious, while totally worth fighting for and working for and forgiving for and serving for and praying for, doesn’t come on the first anniversary and not even usually on the tenth. And if the couple isn’t thoughtful, it may never come.
Do we think something as noble as becoming more like Christ is supposed to be easy? Do we expect two selfish individuals learning to adore and cherish and serve each other should take about as much effort as making a purchase on Amazon? Make a few promises in front of a church while wearing a white dress and a tux and presto, you’re there? A thirty minute ceremony can’t possibly guarantee intimacy, empathy, and commitment.
If God designed marriage (not exclusively, but inclusively amongst other things) to make us holy even more than to make us happy, then I’ll embrace those marital moments that grate on my selfish, arrogant, entitled soul, just as a runner with an Olympic dream accepts his/her coach’s workout with relish all the while knowing how much it will burn their legs and scorch their lungs.
For marriage the payoff is double: becoming more like Christ and becoming closer as a couple are two amazing things. Each one, on its own, is a worthy pursuit. Both, together, are unimaginably glorious and since the same path—seeking first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness—will take me to both destinations, why would I walk any other? Why would I even seek any other?
I’ll admit—thirty years in, my marriage to Lisa feels easier than it has ever been. That’s not uncommon for recent empty-nesters. But until I am more like Christ, I don’t expect marriage will ever feel completely like an afternoon nap. If it does, then I’m likely either unaware of how much residual sin is still impacting me (in which case I’m arrogant and spiritually blind), or I’m beginning to lose my mind (in which case I’m senile), neither of which I hope ever happens.
If physical pain is weakness leaving the body, then marital pain can be sin leaving the soul.
(Shameless plug: if you haven’t already, please stop by our new landing page for the new book: www.alifelonglove.com)