It’s been more than four decades since my wife, Darcy, and I recited the classic wedding vows. Since that time, we've often found ourselves as part of an audience listening to some other couple repeating those same words. It's amazing how differently those words hit us now than they did back then. Decades of marital mileage have a way of doing that to a couple's perspective.
I think I know why. For one thing, when young couples get married, they're pretty much operating within a bubble of delusion. We sure were! They tend to believe that love will always come easily and it will be more than enough to carry them through adjustments and trials. Then married life shows up and pops that bubble. Nothing prepares you for the reality of reality … like reality.
Now when we hear the "for better or for worse" lines exchanged at someone else's wedding, we appreciate the wisdom of the original writer. Time has taught us that the challenge isn't in making the promises; it's in maintaining a heart connection in spite of all the challenges that go with keeping those promises.
The universal struggle
Most couples kick off their marriage hip-deep in love. If you could somehow quantify it, you might assume they've got all the love they need for the journey ahead of them. But it's not surprising when that same love looks tired and weathered after years of:
- adjusting to each other's preferences
- filtering issues through the score-keeping promptings of culture
- processing the inevitable and sometimes harsh setbacks of life
- responding to all that threatens commitment
- dealing with the fact that both people in a marriage are selfish
If you're married — or have ever been married — you, too, have probably faced every challenge on that list somewhere along the line. Any one of them is enough to wipe the smile off your face. They fuel the vicious circle that love often goes through: from being toasted, to tested to testy. It doesn't necessarily mean we're miserable or that we want out. It just makes it hard to maintain a heart connection — to hold on to that "I'm so glad we're married and can't wait to see what's next" brand of commitment.
OK, let's nail down what I mean by the phrase "heart connection." Any couple can pull off the connected by an address, through a bank account or by the kids part of the deal. But staying connected at the heart is something quite different. It's not two people living independently of each other or codependently on each other, but interdependently for each other. Heart connection is when two people delight in living their individual lives in a way that breeds trust and consistently adds value to their identity as a pair.
Everyone reading this knows a married couple that isn't connected at the heart — you might even be thinking of your own marriage right now. And some of the people who come to mind are the very people I was referring to who started their journey hip-deep in love. Let's see if we can get our heads around why the heart connection changes.
God is love, and every human being bears God's image. Therefore, every image-bearer has the capacity to love. So why does loving go from being easy to being difficult? The problem lies in where that love actually comes from. It can either come from God's unlimited capacity or from our individual limited capacity. The love we tend to bring to marriage comes from our finite human capacity. This isn't a criticism; it's just the way things tend to be — even for people who have strong spiritual convictions.
When we define love based on how it's supposed to operate within a marriage, it's easy to see why couples often come up short. This is how I like to define love: Love is the commitment of your will to your spouse's needs and best interest, regardless of the cost.
This definition of love is doable only so long as your spouse doesn't push the envelope too far. But when he or she puts another disappointment next to another broken promise, followed by another series of harsh words, another missed opportunity with the kids and a protracted period of indifference — all lived out against the backdrop of lives that are way too busy — no one has the onboard capacity to maintain a heart connection.
And this is why we all need a Savior. The key to maintaining a heart connection through all the challenges of married life is to first maintain a heart connection with the One whose love is limitless. Darcy and I were married many years before this reality gained real traction in our hearts. For years we assumed our love for God would automatically ensure a healthy love for each other. The problem with our thinking was that it was based on our love for God. Remember: Our love is limited.
But everything changed when we shifted from being the source of our love to God being the source. It's not my love for God that I want to bring to my relationship with Darcy, but God's love for me. His love slipping through our lives to each other happened when we decided once and for all to let God assume His rightful place as the Lord of our lives individually.
Four things characterize this kind of relationship with God: Your primary focus is about trusting Him; you make sure your priorities are consistently in line with His; you defer to Him when making decisions; and you find that living in obedience to Him is a source of great joy. This shift is the game changer. And the upside of it all is that when God's love is slipping through you to your spouse, His grace becomes the defining feature of how you work through the junk in your marriage. So what does that kind of love really look like?
Grace makes the difference
This is how I like to define grace: giving your spouse something he or she desperately needs, but doesn't deserve.
A grace-filled marriage happens when we repeatedly choose to do one thing: We treat each other the way God treats us. God doesn't keep score, rehearse hurts, shame us, mock us, compare us or ignore us. But He could. We certainly give Him plenty of reason to. But it all goes back to the Savior, the Cross and that amazing work of grace He not only did for us, but also wants to do through us.
One thing God graciously does for us as individuals is He sets our hearts free. In fact, there are four wonderful freedoms He offers us all the time — and He can help us offer them to each other. If we're going to treat each other the way He treats us, then by His grace the following freedoms should be non-negotiables in marriage:
- The freedom to be different. Morning people marry night people. Democrats marry Republicans. Tidy people marry messy people. And then it's natural to assume that our way is best. But God's infinite grace doesn't think like that … or act like that. His grace shows us by example how to celebrate the quirky features of the object of our love, making it easy for that individual to be the unique person God designed him or her to be.
- The freedom to be vulnerable. Pink slips, kids who don't listen or prodigals who don't care, investments that go south and personal weaknesses that are publicly disclosed all have something in common: They leave a person feeling extremely exposed. Regardless of the issue, God is a careful steward of our feelings. He doesn't trivialize our hurts or ridicule our inadequacies. And neither should we treat our husband or wife in that way. Our emotions never have to wear Kevlar to be safe around Him, and we should feel just as safe with our spouse.
- The freedom to be candid. God is open to what's on our mind (Psalm 139), and He sympathizes with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). If God — who owes us nothing — gives us the freedom to be candid with Him, then a heart connection to Him should inspire us to give our spouse — to whom we promised everything — the freedom to be candid with us.
- The freedom to work through our failures. Although God doesn't encourage us to make mistakes, He knows we will. He also knows that all couples sin against each other. Whether it's a series of daily misdemeanors or a full-blown felony against our wedding vows, these sins can ultimately mark the end of our marriage relationship or the beginning of a deeper and more intimate love. The outcome of our sins against each other rests on where we are in our relationship with Jesus. As we allow ourselves to be true recipients of God's grace, that same grace is more likely to slip through us to our spouse.
That's why we'd all do better to preach the Gospel to ourselves daily. When we keep the Cross in the foreground of our hearts and our home, grace is more apt to hold the high ground. Grace may be the missing ingredient in most marriages, but it's also a great place to start for most marriages. God's grace is the answer to how two distracted people can exchange vows within a bubble of delusion and still end up writing a pretty decent love story.