I received an email some weeks ago from a dear younger sister approaching marriage. It was peppered with question marks, sincere queries from a woman that truly wants to be the best wife that she can. As I read them over, I thought how blessed her future husband already is to have a girl so desirous of fulfilling God’s potential as his mate. Her attitude, far from a self-righteous sense of ‘knowing it all’, was humble and honest and teachable towards God. I sincerely wonder if there is a more valuable trait in a woman about to be married—I can only think that the Lord will be able to do beautiful things indeed with such a cooperative heart.
I’ll admit, her questions overwhelmed me a little. They were so broad, so pointed: What was the one thing you were least prepared for in marriage and wish now that you would have known? What surprised you? What’s one thing you would tell any bride-to-be to help her as she prepares for marriage? I smiled over my limited perspective of 7 years, 9 months and 2 days—a baby compared to so many other married women I know and admire. And I knew that any response I could formulate would but barely scratch the surface. But in my head, I heard other girls asking me the very same things since I’ve been married. I heard myself not too many years since asking the same questions of my friends who married before me. If I had her—or any of you—sitting here on my front porch, rocking lazily to and fro and sipping iced tea, with all the time in the world to chat, I would have ever so much more than ‘one thing’ to say… So grab your iced tea and pull up a rocking chair!
If you’re not engaged, or even close to it, please don’t skip over this post! So much—I’d venture to say almost all—of the sisterly advice my heart is brimming with can be of use well before your intended ever shows his face, if only in the realm of your ideals. If you aspire as a girl towards a Christ-centered, fulfilling, dynamic marriage, your values will grow in that direction, as a plant towards the light of the sun. True love and beautiful marriages really do exist. And the dreams God allows us to dare to dream in our girlhood are, I believe, where such marriages are born.
That’s not to say the course ahead will run smooth by any means… I think the Bard had some wise words on that account. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it to have faith in something so beautiful that only God could have thought it up in the first place. It’s worth it to learn to wait on Him and hope in Him and to find, after all, that He is the Lover of your soul. It is worth it—all the longing and disappointed hopes and even heartache that may lay before you—to be able to one day stand before the person you love best in the whole wide world, wearing a white dress and veil, and to look up at him and say, ‘I have waited for God and I have waited for you.’
We have spent an enormous amount of time compiling and cataloguing an index of Courtship Stories here. We didn’t do it to breed discontent, or to give the married girls a chance to brag. We did it to ‘direct our eyes to the First Love’, to keep us in remembrance that the ‘best maker of marriages’ has an endless store of blessing to bestow—and equally infinite resources of creativity with which to confer it. Even if you have all the testimonies memorized, take a glance through them this week and see if you are not struck with the fact that not one of them looks like any of the others. Any more than I look like any of you. Or vice versa. God has not run out of ideas. He has not run out of dreams for his precious children: I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.
So that’s my first piece of advice for a good marriage:
Believe that good marriages exist in the grace of God.
Believe that God intends for you to be married unless you have a very specific calling otherwise. Believe that it can be a ‘dream come true’ of oneness and closeness and fellowship and downright fun! And remember that it is worse than pointless to try and figure out how God is going to unfold your story. I’ll be honest and say that my sweet husband is really closer to what I dreamed of as a 16-year-old than what I allowed myself to hope for as a jaded 23-year-old. But never in a million years could I have imagined how God would bring a man of his stature and caliber into my life—from the next town over, no less!
Every point has its counterpoint. Taken alone, this first bit of ‘advice’ can be dangerously construed into a ‘God-is-going-to-give-me-everything-I-want-because-He-loves-me’ kind of doctrine, and that’s certainly the last thing I would ever espouse. But hopefully I can give a somewhat balanced perspective on my favorite topic!
My next piece of ‘advice’ is so old and oft-repeated that I fear it has begun to lose some of its original meaning—or, worse yet, assume an implication that it never should have. But at the risk of some of you rolling your eyes and heaving a great sigh and saying, “Oh, that again,” I’m going to throw it into the ring once more. Because I think it’s that important. Here it is:
If you are not content single you will not be content married.
It looks so heartless in type, doesn’t it? And something within us balks at such a hard-and-fast statement. Of course, it goes without saying that God can do a work of grace in anyone’s life, no matter where they are or where they have been; He does it every single day. He can take us from disgruntlement to perfect rest in a twinkling of an eye—if we will let Him. Plenty of women have found contentment after marriage, we want to say. They got what they wanted and they are happy. Perhaps that’s true—it’s between them and God. But allow me to gently expostulate: wouldn’t it be better to have our hearts grounded in contentment before they are ever wrung by the pain and bliss of love? Before the uncertainties and cares of life wear us down into thinking that ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t exist?
And whoever said that getting what we want makes us happy? The Israelites got the quail they wanted in the dessert, and, with it, ‘leanness to their souls’. That sounds absolutely dreadful to me. How much better to go to your husband—and one day, your Lord—with arms full of bounty, the rich harvest of a happy and productive single life! This is not to over-simplify a very difficult discipline of a faithful Christian walk. It is hard, I know—actually, it’s impossible apart from God’s grace. And one magic click of a spiritual button somewhere is not going to have you set up for life. Contentment is a lesson we all must confront again and again. Even the Apostle Paul had to ‘learn contentment’.
But the principle holds, no matter how many disclaimers and provisos are propped up alongside it. Because, let me tell you, the waiting does not end once you are married. Ask any woman who has dealt with infertility. Or a military wife who doesn’t know where she’ll be living from one year to the next. Or a couple pouring their very soul’s energy into a church that seems indifferent, hoping and yearning for God’s Spirit to move—or move them.
Somewhere along the way, I think this idea has been twisted into the notion that real contentment means we have lost all longing for the desire that made us unhappy in the first place. That’s hogwash, for lack of a better word. (Jeannie has handled this topic beautifully in her series Content But Not Complete, and I recommend a regular re-reading of it if you are in a waiting stage…which is pretty much all of us.) It is perfectly possible for our hearts to break with joy and yearning at the same time. A miracle, yes, but all things are possible with God. He takes our surrender and transforms it into a threshold of true fulfillment.
A contented, grateful, happy heart is one of the best gifts that we can give to our husbands. It is a critical foundation block of a heaven-on-earth marriage. A woman who has found the freedom to be at peace with God’s plan for her life also frees her man from any of the selfish ambitions that are a by-product of discontent. He is at liberty to face the future with her, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, knowing that when the battle of each day is done he will always have a heart that he can trust in waiting for him at its close.
Not long before my wedding I had a heart-to-heart with one of my very best friends. She had been married for several years and had a relationship with her husband that I much admired. I wanted to know if she had any secrets for me, any wise words of counsel that would start me off on the right foot as the wife I so dearly longed to be myself. She smiled and sighed and looked thoughtful. And then she laughed, for once in her life completely speechless. (I now know exactly how she felt—Where to begin?!.)
“I’ll write you a letter,” she finally declared with a grin.
A few days later an envelope with a picture of Anne and Diana appeared in the mailbox, the last missive I ever received in my maiden name. Inside I found pages of closely-written lines, in a handwriting as dear and unpredictable as my sweet friend herself. She had many things to say to me, words of loving exhortation, cheerful reminders, glad-hearted promises of the joy that lay before me, and I cherished them all. But if the whole tone and flavor of her letter could be gathered up in a nutshell, it would look like this:
Don’t stop dating once you are married. Take the extra pains you would have during your courtship to enter fully into the pursuits and pleasures of your beloved. Allow yourself to be stretched and broadened by the limitless horizons of this wonderful personality you have pledged your life to. Grow, change, expand, burst into flower!
All too often, married couples eventually lose the wonder of their first fascination with each other. But it doesn’t have to be this way—indeed, I firmly believe that God had something totally different in mind than cordial compatibility when He gave us the gift of marriage. Ecclesiastes exults, Enjoy life with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life…which He hath given thee! In Proverbs we are told that a man should always be ‘carried away’ with love for his wife. There’s no doubt that the Song of Songs espouses a marriage of perpetual and increasing rapture.
Of course, there is a comfort and familiarity in marriage that comes with time and this is very sweet. I would only say, don’t get so comfortable that you neglect to do the things that you once did to show your man that simply being with him is the dearest pastime on earth. The friend who thus exhorted me loves hunting and fishing and camping with her man. Another friend with a houseful of little children arranges occasional days when she and her husband can just be together and ‘pal around’. I feel almost intoxicatingly loved when Philip takes the time to read a book with me or listen to a symphony or sit on the front porch and watch the sunset.
Sheldon Vanauken had an insight that is still unique, thirty years after his book A Severe Mercy was published:
The killer of love is creeping separateness. Inloveness is a gift of the gods, but then it is up to the lovers to cherish or to ruin. Taking love for granted, especially after marriage. Ceasing to do things together. Finding separate interests. ‘We’ turning to ‘I’…Against creeping separateness we would oppose the great principle of sharing.
Every moment that a Christian husband and wife have truly shared works like a golden thread, slowly, carefully, purposefully weaving their hearts together with God into a ‘three-fold cord [that] is not quickly broken’. It’s worth all the work and energy and time required–and do not expect it to be otherwise. But your love will be a thing of beauty, a radiant witness to the First Love. A joy forever.
At one of the parties before our wedding, an elegant dinner hosted by dear and gracious friends of my parents, Philip and I found ourselves in a quiet corner chatting over coffee with a couple we deeply admired. They were much older than us by some forty years, but there was an unspoken kinship among us, a like-minded ideal of a truly happy marriage—one upon the very threshold, the other in smiling triumph many paces down the road ahead. As our talk gravitated naturally towards the great step Philip and I were preparing to take, the wife spoke up in her very decided yet altogether lady-like way:
“I have just one piece of advice for you,” she told us, scanning our expressions to make sure we were comprehending, “and it’s this…
“If you always agree on everything, one of you is expendable.”
One of you is redundant. One of you is getting walked over.
We all like to think that when we’ve waited for the right one, fall in love and get married, that everything’s going to go along swimmingly with never a ripple of dispute. Sure, we tell ourselves with a judicious inner nod, married people have their troubles just like everyone else. Married people have flat tires and lost jobs and children with chicken pox. Some married people even argue. But not us—we’ll never do that. We love each other way too much to ever disagree about anything.
But hopefully we soon learn what God and Mrs. McCrae knew all along: differences of opinion are a completely natural, and more, a healthy aspect of a truly loving relationship. How else are we to grow, if not challenged by the other? What need have we of ‘iron sharpening iron’ if we’re already perfected to begin with? If we are not prepared, however, for these occasional divergences from what we think is right, some panic button down inside of us can send out a false alarm of anger or fear. An over-reaction. An outburst or a withdrawal. A fight.As much as we hate to be reminded of it, we are all sinful creatures. And the intimacy of marriage is only going to high-light this. If nothing can give you joy like the sunshine of your beloved’s favor and understanding, conversely, nothing can bewilder you with pain like even a momentary loss of communion. Disagreements come with the territory; it’s all part of the game—no two people, no matter how much in love, in understanding, are ever going to look at things exactly alike. But it doesn’t have to get ugly. It can actually be interesting—it can even be fun if we play by the rules. And, no matter how mature we are or otherwise, it can always be a moment of God’s grace.
So here’s my little watchword for the week:
- Don’t ever walk out the room in anger or hang up the phone on your spouse. If you need time alone to cool off, express this calmly.
- Decide beforehand not to use the words ‘always’ or ‘never’ in the midst of a disagreement. (And, for the record, ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ should be equally taboo in an apology.)
- Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. He’s every bit as entitled to his opinion as you are.
- There’s a reason the Bible tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger—it’s all too easy to get lazy with our misunderstandings.
- Keep in mind that I Corinthians 13 is really all the rules of engagement we need. And that we have the grace of our Lord at our fingertips—if we will only remember to ask for it.
Photography: JenniMarie Photography