Ready for Marriage?
Coming together is a start, keeping together is progress, working together is success. If you have worked through to this last chapter of the book, you should have a much clearer idea of whether you two want to marry and when. Even so, the decision to marry is never easy. Ulrich Schaffer explains why:
I found the decision to marry you
I had visions of losing my freedom,
of being bound
and not being able to do the things
I had been doing up to then.
I pictured myself as another nonperson,
a gray blob in a grey mass,
just another average guy;
I was afraid of not being able to fulfill
some of my hidden dreams.
And I was afraid of your expectations,
your projections and wishes;
and sometimes I felt that you could only love me
because you did not know me yet.
And then I was afraid of making the wrong choice,
because I did not really know what I wanted
and whom I really wanted
And what to hope for in that person:
I was afraid of the impossibility of backtracking
the one-way street of marriage.1
Understanding the doubts
If you have worked through the questions together, you will have clarified what you want of your partner in marriage and whether it is each other you want. By now the man should be certain. As Paul Tournier puts it: "When a man tells me he wonders whether he loves his fiancé enough to marry her, I have to tell him that it certainly is not the case. If he loved her with a masculine love, there would be no question in his mind."2
Even so, uncertainties might hover, like the mist which gathers in the valley on a summer's evening. There is a sense in which doubts are to be expected, for important decisions are rarely easy. The responsibility of decision-making often seems formidable and at varying stages of your relationship the doubts will shift from the man to the woman. Walter Trobisch suggests, and I agree with him, that the woman usually "knows" with a deep, intuitive certainty early on in the relationship that this partner is right for her.3 Her partner's awareness catches up some time later. But many couples are mystified by the change which happens in the relationship after this initial surge of womanly assurance. Just as the man decides that this relationship is right, that this is the partner he wants to marry, his girl-friend loses this certainty and lacks assurance. She might even decide to call off the friendship, like the girl who came to see me the other day distressed because she had just returned her engagement ring to her fiance. "Have I made the right decision or not?"
Does this mean that women are fickle? I don't think so. Paul Tournier puts his finger on the nub of the matter with a fascinating observation:
Nature has willed love to be aggressive in the man and passive in the woman. No one can change that. Love in the man needs to conquer and therefore needs to know what it desires in order to assert itself. On the other hand, romantic literature has abundantly illustrated the paradoxical truth that in the woman's soul there is something that impels her to refuse that which she desires: she says no to the man all the while seeking to be conquered in spite of her refusal.
Normally her refusal raises the man's desire to conquer ... If ... she analyzes herself and wonders if she truly does love him or not, she is asking a man's question, and therefore there can be no answer for her.4 (My italics.)
It will follow that working through fluctuating doubts requires patience, understanding and a keen sense of humor. But before we move on from the subject of doubt, another observation is worth making. If your uncertainties are accentuated by the climate in which we live; if you fear your ability to create a healthy marriage at a time when marriages all around us are disintegrating, then be encouraged. These fears are to be applauded. They push couples back, not on their own resources but on to God. And couples who cooperate with God can create good, wholesome, Christian marriages. I am not saying that God will automatically bathe you in happiness or success. I am saying that hard work on the part of both partners, coupled with the all-sufficient grace of God, turns weakness into strength, even overwhelming success.
Do you nurse doubts about your relationship?
What are they?
How do you feel about the observations made so far in this chapter?
Don't ignore them; respond to them.
The hard decision
The presence of uncertainty underlines the precarious nature of relationships. At any time they might terminate. Even though your friendship is serious enough for you to work at the assignments contained in this book, it is unwise for either of you to form an exclusive friendship with the other. Your other friends and activities are important. They are vital to both of you, whether you stay together or separate. Others need the warmth which you can give them. And, as Christians, no relationship should detract from your prior calling, to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
Is your relationship in danger of becoming exclusive? How?
Twosomes which leave no room for others rapidly become dead-end friendships. And good, outgoing relationships between persons
of the opposite sex might also lead you into a siding. What then? Supposing you have worked faithfully at the questions I have posed and your doubts about marriage or one another have increased? Or supposing your letters to each other have revealed unmistakable discrepancies? Then you must seek advice from an older Christian whom you respect. It may be that the gulf between you can be bridged; but it is also possible that it will widen. Then you must separate. This farewell will not be easy.
Parting is always painful. C.S. Lewis described it well:
Even if two lovers are mature and experienced people who know that broken hearts heal in the end and can clearly foresee that, if they once steeled themselves to go through the present agony of parting, they would almost certainly be happier ten years hence than marriage is at all likely to make them even then, they will not part ... Even when it becomes clear beyond all evasion that marriage with the Beloved cannot possibly lead to happiness when it cannot even profess to offer any other life than that of tending an intolerable invalid, of hopeless poverty, of exile, or of disgrace Eros never hesitates to say, "Better this than parting. Better to be miserable with her than happy without her. Let our hearts break provided they break together."5
Feelings may dictate the lie that to allow the loved one to go is folly; but feelings are wrong. The truth is that, despite the pain, the relationship must end.
How do two people cope with the pain of this mini-death? How does one live with the emptiness of aloneness again after the sense of belonging which being loved generates? How do you bind up the bleeding wounds of abandonment? And what treatment is there for the sting of injured pride? Is there a remedy for the scars inflicted by the whiplash of guilt?
There is a hair's-breadth-gap between accepting this pain so that you work through it to maturing and wallowing in the mire of self-pity; between resignation and detachment.
You feel empty, lost and alone. Don't deny these feelings. Don't repress them. Acknowledge them. Allow God to move into the hurt and any failure. And just as you entrust Him
with your wounds, handle them yourself with gentleness, sensitivity and self-acceptance. This is not a time to blame yourself. It is a time to receive the love of God to yourself. And what does He say in the situation?
He encourages us to be patient in any kind of trouble (Romans 12:12). His desire is that we open ourselves to His glorious strength at any time when the going is tough (Colossians 1:11). Then He demonstrates to us that we can keep going, even though our hearts plead that we cannot. Moreover, whenever we have failed, whenever we discover that the seeds of lust, selfishness and lack of self-control reside as much in our lives as in our brother's, He delights to forgive (see Luke 15). This "bereavement" period, then, is a time for the confession which leads to a glad absorption of the forgiveness of God. Any scars which remain from this severed friendship then become trophies of His grace, not signs of our disgrace.
If you bring God into the sorrow, the tears and the agony, He will teach you a vital lesson of the Christian life detachment. He will help you to learn, little by little, to unclench your fists from the one who was precious but who was not God's choice for you. I repeat that this will not be easy. But with God it is possible to say goodbye. And when you have waved your last farewell, then you must move on to the next thing with Christ. You will embrace the world again.
If that sounds melodramatic, it probably means that you have never suffered the heartache of watching someone you love walk out of your life. It hurts.
The other hard decision
But maybe you have no plans to separate? Maybe you are certain of one another because your feelings whisper the secret that you are meant for one another. Or maybe you believe that God has revealed to you that you are meant for one another. You have no need, therefore, for this book?
Feelings are unreliable and visions "from God" must always be tested. The revelation might indeed come from Him. But it is all too easy to believe in a so-called divine message if it tells you what you want to hear. If your feelings are right and
if this vision is from God, they will be substantiated by the discoveries you make as you prepare for marriage using some of the questions in the preceding chapters.
How do you feel about working at your relationship in this way?
Sometimes when I am walking in Derbyshire I think of couples who stubbornly refuse help with marriage preparation. Towering above the Amber Valley stands a gaunt castle known as Arkwright's Folly. In the early eighteenth century, Thomas Arkwright began to build this edifice for his family. It was never finished, because funds ran out before completion. Now it stands as a monumental mockery. Couples can save themselves the degradation of beginning to construct the edifice of a marriage they cannot complete by preparing wisely.
Are you prepared to work at your relationship, to increase your understanding of one another? How will you go about it?
When Sarah and James spent a week-end working through some of these questions, they seemed radiant. They shared their feelings with me. "We now feel our certainty is based, not just on fluctuating feelings, but on facts. We understand each other better than before. We therefore rejoice with a deep sense of joy."
A few weeks later, for they were already engaged, they took their vows. They did not make the wedding promises with cocksureness: "We know we can do it." Neither did they accept the vocation to a life of fidelity and love lightly: "It doesn't matter if we fail." And there was a complete absence of deceit in their hearts. Neither of them wanted to hoodwink their parents, one another or God. Because their understanding and trust of one another had grown, they stepped across the threshold into marriage knowing that, with God, growing into love was possible. Without Him they would fail. As the Psalmist puts it: "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain" (Psalm 127:1).
Are you contemplating marriage?
What attitude will you adopt when you take your vows?
But perhaps you are not yet engaged? If, by now, you know you want to take
the first step of commitment, to become engaged, it is worth considering the timing of this crucial event. Some couples fall in love and want the world to know immediately. They therefore rush into engagement. Is this wise?
There are problems attached to a short engagement. Engagement, like betrothal, is the gateway to marriage. It is the drawbridge which leads to the castle. But it is not the castle itself. Engagement is a commitment with the options open.
Some people question this appraisal. The Bible makes it clear that betrothal spells commitment, but it did not equal the inevitability of marriage. Thus, when Joseph discovered Mary's pregnancy (Matthew 1:18), he determined to sever their relationship. And Deuteronomy makes it clear that even on his wedding night, if a man discovered his wife had previously lost her virginity, he could terminate the marriage contract forthwith.
Similarly, I believe, engagement should be viewed as a serious commitment with a wide-open loophole. Engagement rings are, after all, signs of a loving intention, not handcuffs.
And yet, as soon as a girl wears an engagement ring, parental pressure is exerted. Her mother sets in motion lavish preparations for the great day. Friends bring engagement presents which accelerate the pace. And the personal pressure to fix the date, the church, the reception, speed couples along the road to marriage. Suddenly, a U-turn becomes almost impossible. In my view this is regrettable. Couples miss out on much of the fun of the secrecy of pre-engagement if they go public too soon. They also deny themselves the freedom to work in the way this book encourages if they move into the limelight too early.
On the other hand, Jane and Colin decided to "go public" earlier rather than later because it was the only way they could convince their parents that this relationship was serious; that they wanted to prepare for marriage, not just enjoy a flirtation.
Which would be better for you a prolonged pre-engagement with a short official engagement, or a longer official period of engagement?
The other day I stumbled upon an enchanting Chinese custom
which is growing in popularity among Christians in our church who plan to marry. On their engagement day, Chinese Christians attend a church ceremony and move on to this drawbridge of engagement in the company of a few prayerful, supportive friends. This is not a lavish occasion like a wedding. On the contrary, it is a simple acknowledgment that if they are to grow into love, they need God's grace and the fellowship of other Christians. Perhaps that is why Chinese Christians display a banner at their wedding reception. Its symbols contain a message, "May you enjoy double happiness." The source of happiness for Christian couples is found within the love of God. A double portion of this joy comes through learning the art of loving each other.
Table of Contents
1. Ulrich Schaffer, A Growing Love, Lion Publishing, 1977, p.16. Quoted by permission of the author.
2. Paul Tournier, Escape from Loneliness, SCM Press, 1962, p.72.
3. Walter Trobisch, I Married You, Inter-Varsity Press, 1972, p.8.
4. Escape from Loneliness, p.72.
5. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Fontana, 1963, pp.98f.
Table of Contents
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