“How do I endure being married to someone who isn’t as strong of a believer as I am?”
This is a frequent question, most often asked by wives.
John Wesley, the renowned 18th century teacher and founder of Methodism, might suggest you are in a particularly fruitful spiritual condition able to grow in ways you wouldn’t expect if you’re the one asking this question.
John should know. Though God used him in powerful ways—his resume was full of revivals—Wesley’s marriage was miserable. To be honest, he probably should never have gotten married. His wife was a well-to-do widow not used to the sacrifice required of an itinerant preacher who refused to eat meat, drink wine, and who pledged to die with less than ten pounds to his name (a promise he kept by the way). She became understandably frustrated with a husband who resolved not to preach one less sermon though he was now a husband, and Wesley preached and traveled a lot (over 250,000 miles on horseback).
It was a clear situation of a man on fire for God married to a woman who made time for God on Sunday but whose life probably didn’t revolve around serving God. Popular Christian talk would call them “unequally yoked.” When Wesley’s wife left him for the last time, Wesley wrote in his journal that he didn’t send her away, but he also wasn’t going to go after her.
This context is essential to understand Wesley’s summation of the Christian life. He was battered by critics outside his house (they were many and fierce) and by a wife inside his house. She became spiteful and vicious with her words. Her disappointment in her husband spilling out of her on a regular basis. And here was Wesley, arguably one of the most zealous servants of God ever (you may take issue with some of his theology, but if you read his journals, you will not question his zeal) being attacked with the force of a hurricane.
In a treatise on surrendering to the will of God, accepting whatever He might bring our way Wesley wrote, “The bearing of the faults of others, and suffering evils in meekness and silence, is the sum of a Christian life.”
He adds, “We should chiefly exercise our love towards them who most shock either our way of thinking, or our temper, or our knowledge, or the desire we have that others should be as virtuous as we wish to be ourselves.”
Wesley was generous and kind in his response to his theological critics though they were rabidly vicious toward him. Add in a cantankerous wife (who Wesley once surmised may even had some demonic oppression) and it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder where “The desire we have that others should be as virtuous as we wish to be ourselves” came from.
How would our own views about family life change if we believed we could summarize the Christian life, as Wesley does, as bearing the faults of others and accepting whatever evils come our way with humility and without complaining?
Don’t we resent the faults of others, particularly our loved ones, rather than see them as helping us achieve the sum of the Christian life? Don’t we have to sometimes even obsess over the evil that comes our way begging others to notice, agree with us, and feel sorry for us, rather than see these evils as necessary trials on the way to maturity and a more solid faith in God?
We view marriage as a project to be fixed. I can’t tell you how many women have dragged husbands or boyfriends into my office and all but asked me to “fix them.” Wesley might have told these women that such husbands are in a sense gifts as they are giving their wives the ability to develop patience, long-suffering, forbearance, and humility, which together comprise, in his view at least, the “sum of the Christian life.”
Wesley saw Christianity as something we are, not just something we do. He believed faith really and truly changed our character, and that the reality of faith wasn’t demonstrated by what doctrines we held to but the state of our souls—humility, love, peace, joy, and perseverance. Of course he believed doctrine mattered, but he had no patience for people with right doctrine and wrong lives.
This all goes back to the Sacred Marriage view of matrimony: will we see our marriages as a path to holiness? If so, though we may never enjoy the challenges, we can at least learn to appreciate them.
You can’t get stronger if you don’t occasionally lift more weight than you feel your arms can currently bear—that’s the whole principle behind weight training, isn’t it? What if Christian character is the same way? What if we will never become more mature until we learn to put up with people who are less mature?
Does that not put your current struggles of marriage into a different light?
A final note to singles: don’t let the title of this blog lead you into foolishness. While speaking to married couples who have made a covenant before God, we can talk about the “benefits” of being married to someone who is less spiritually mature. Deliberately choosing such a marriage is tantamount to smoking three packs of cigarettes a day because you’ve heard a cancer survivor obliquely mention “the gifts of cancer.” You can discover benefits in a difficult marriage, but two people both on fire for God will live an entirely different life. Just ask any married person who was drawn by the title of this blog.