I learned to love, really love, from Patty in the years of our marriage.
When the Lord moves in our hearts and becomes our life, our closest relationships benefit. Marriage at its best is both a haven and a laboratory of grace. It is the relationship where I grew the most on my spiritual journey.
I loved being married to Patty. To tell the whole truth, I never wanted to be married, at least not to marry just because that’s what one does at a certain age in life. Books, videos, seminars and retreats on the subject have always seemed graceless to me, like manuals on the manufacture of happiness. Manufactured happiness is an oxymoron.
I know many happy, healthy singles. The Lord has led them down his path for their lives and they find their identities and their happiness in their relationship with him. Being married isn’t inherently better than being single–it is different with its own experiences and discoveries. Married or single, true contentment is found in God alone.
That said, I just wanted to spend my life with Patty and she wanted to spend her life with me, so we have done that for forty-two years. We loved each other. I can’t think of another reason that would justify spending one’s life with someone else.
We liked to talk to each other – reveled in our conversations. One of the delights of our marriage was our nightly chat about politics and current events. Another delight was our frequent conversations about the things of God which encouraged us and focused us on our hope for the future.
One evening while we were dating, I asked Patty what things were most important to her. She replied without hesitation, “My relationship with God and my faith.” Her expression was both serious and tender. I realized that her walk with God was real, holy and something private to her. It evoked reverence in me.
Patty’s faith was well-informed. She possessed a searching intellectual curiosity and was a rational thinker with an unflappable calm. She didn’t waste her words, and could assess situations and people quickly, accurately, and humorously. She was firmly, but happily independent which I really liked. I fell in love with her and asked her if she would marry me and she said “yes.”
We were married in a little mountain church surrounded by blooming apple orchards on the first day of spring, 1976. We exchanged the vows that committed us to “love, honor and cherish each other in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, in faithful love until death.” Those vows were a commitment to live by grace and we honored that commitment.
God endows marriage with a spiritual power so great that Paul used it as the metaphor for how much Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25). It is the power of the Creator released to men and women willing to surrender possession of their separate identities–bodies, souls, and spirits–in acceptance of the sacred responsibilities of love.
Standing by and pointing one towards God is the most important thing a spouse can do for the other. To try to complete one’s mate, to attempt to fill what the mate seems to lack or demand the mate do the same thing for you is emotional cannibalism. Two half-people do not make a whole marriage.
The popular metaphor for marriage as two hands with fingers interlocked can lead to disaster. Pressure on interlocking fingers causes strain and pain, but does not lead to strength. Try this for yourself.
The right metaphor for marriage are two hands coming together, side by side, palm to palm, finger to finger, pointing upwards towards God. Two emotionally and spiritually whole and healthy persons make a good marriage. If the desire of each of those persons is to be a true partner which is what the Latin root of “spouse” means, then they will mutually submit to each other before God on the way to attaining marital wholeness and health.
One cannot enter marriage thinking, “I will change you to become the spouse I really want.” You take each other as you are, not as you should be or hope to be. A love that depends on fulfillment of a future condition is no more than an expectation. It is fertile ground for disappointment and bitterness.
Yet, Patty and I learned a marriage has to have enough room and grace to allow the other person to change and grow. Here is how the British writer David Runcorn describes this need for space–
[A] painful lesson of loving is that no relationship can grow unless there is a willingness to live with change. Change is a fact of life. It is no use trying to cling to the way things used to be.
I remember speaking to a man whose life and marriage were facing very demanding stresses. He could see clearly that both he and his wife would emerge from that time as different people. He knew what he had first loved in her but now he was asking rather fearfully. “Will I love what she is becoming?”
Equally clearly, when we try to preserve a relationship by fearful or possessive clinging to the other, no real love or life is possible. It becomes a suffocating embrace. The paradox of real love is that it is not expressed in how close we can get to each other. It actually involves learning the right space between each other (David Runcorn, Touch Wood, [London: Dartman, Longman & Todd, 1992] p 121-122.
Although Patty and I prized our independence, we didn’t know about this need for space in our marriage at the beginning. But God knew that each of us had a need for him and we couldn’t vicariously fill that God-need for each other. Because God offered us real life, each of us needed our own personal relationship with God. God unified the two of us into one, only after we surrendered our separate lives to him.
The lesson that each of us needed to surrender to God for him to truly unite us in marriage was revealed on a sunny day when we had taken our four-year-old son Andrew to the zoo. On the way home Patty and I were discussing spiritual things when she began to tell me of her personal journey through a long period of sadness and doubt.
Shortly after we adopted our infant son, office politics had turned Patty’s professional workplace into an oppressive thicket of venal manipulation eventually leading her to resign a job that she liked. Her health suffered from the effects of a chronic genetic disease. She had to endure many painful laser treatments to save her eyesight. The care of an infant, though welcomed, was especially difficult with these devastating challenges.
Patty was watching me come to renewal in Christ and enjoy a growing life of prayer and study with friends and co-workers. Yet she was traversing a barren, lonely passage in her own soul. It seemingly stretched on and on with no end in view for her.
After she dropped off Andrew at pre-school on week-day mornings, she would come home and sit on the living room couch to ponder her sufferings and spiritual drought. She prayed, “Lord, I’ve always thought of you as my friend. A friend wouldn’t allow this to happen to someone that friend loved. Lord, Kent has this experience with you. You are making Kent happy, why not me?”
Patty told me that these sessions of prayer-wrestling would go on for hours a day for months, but she experienced only silence, futility and despair.
Ironically, she played praise and worship CDs as background music to her wrestling with God. Then one morning, the words to a chorus penetrated her thoughts.
I worship You, Almighty God;
there is none like You.
I worship You, O Prince of Peace;
that is what I want to do.
I give You praise
for You are my righteousness.
I worship You, Almighty God;
there is none like You.
(Sondra Corbett-Wood, (c) Integrity Music/ASCAP, 1983).
Patty told me that in that moment she realized God is so much more than her friend. He is the eternal, almighty God and we are called to worship him beyond any other consideration. The Holy Spirit convicted Patty that she belonged to God rather than God belonging to her. It was then, and only then, that her heart and mind found peace and the healing began.
I was shocked and horrified that her ordeal had escaped my notice. I asked her, “Was I so blind and self-absorbed that I completely missed you going through the darkness.”
Patty said. “No. You need to understand this was between God and me. You made your peace with God, but I hadn’t. If I wasn’t able to work this out, I knew that I couldn’t stay married to you.”
“Why?” I anguished. “I love you. I would never have held those doubts against you. I would have stuck with you no matter what.”
She said, “Listen to me. This wasn’t about you. It was between God and me. Until I settled things with him, nothing else would be settled.
“Two years ago,” I said, “I wouldn’t have had a clue about what you are talking about. Now I know. God isn’t just what we want him to be. God is everything!”
“Exactly,” she said.
Placing God in first place over me is the greatest compliment Patty ever paid to our marriage. Marriage is sacred ground between two souls, but that ground belongs to Christ. The integrity of marriage is founded on remembering we belong to God and everything else we enjoy is his gift.
As an attorney, I come in contact with many men and women who are struggling with their marriages, even though I don’t practice family law. Frequently, they say, “It’s my time now. I have given enough. I need someone who understands me, who gives me what I need.”
“What about the commitment you made?” I ask.
“Things change, people change,” they often say. “Nothing lasts forever. We’ve grown apart. I think I’m entitled to love. Everyone’s entitled to feel good.”
That doesn’t make sense to me. Marriage is about faith more than feelings.
I first learned about faithful marriage from the same people who introduced me to God. My paternal grandparents were married for fifty-four years. My parents were married for seventy-one years. Patty’s parents have been married for sixty-eight years. My brother has been married for fifty years. My sister had been married for thirty-three years at her death. None of these marriages were perfect. There were hard times, temptations, and much self-sacrifice has been required.
What made these marriages work? Talking with God and each other! Agreement isn’t always necessary, but communication, the active form of communion, is essential. Prayer sorts out real needs from feelings like nothing else and makes God an active partner in the marriage.
Worshipping together and individually also puts God first like Patty and I learned to do. Worship focused us on God in obedience and that led us to repentance from marriage-rotting selfishness.
Unselfishness seeks the best for the partner. The mark of unselfishness is generosity and trust. Generosity and trust must be embarked upon as intentional practices, not as conditional, “carrot and stick” games of manipulative power. Each spouse needs to take responsibility to love and serve and care for the other.
Tender forgiveness is also essential. Without tender forgiveness, the frictions of living together are unbearable and bruised hearts cannot heal.
“We love because he first loved us” is the operational principle of a healthy marriage (1 John 4:19). In the same line, Solomon wrote “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
True love is intentional, not a random accident. I have written before that the best thing parents can do for their children is to love each other. The best thing parents can do for each other is to love God and seek his will which is always to love and accept love.
I had an intense prayer experience early one morning, years ago. I was struggling with many issues in my roles as husband, new father, employer and counselor and was feeling a bit of self-pity. I asked God, “How I can know that you love me?” In answer, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart, “The sign of my love for you is Patty. She belongs to me and not to you, but my grace overflowing in her and through her blesses you with my love.” I was truly overwhelmed in those fifteen minutes of prayer.
God’s love for me is the most important truth I know. He used Patty’s love and faithfulness to open my heart to his love and I am grateful.
Under the mercy of Christ,
Please note that the content and viewpoints of Mr. Hansen are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.
Kent Hansen is a Christian attorney, author and speaker. He practices corporate law and is the managing attorney of the firm of Clayson, Mann, Yaeger & Hansen in Corona, California. Kent also serves as the general counsel of Loma Linda University and Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.
Finding God’s grace revealed in the ordinary experiences of life, spiritual renewal in Christ and prayer are Kent’s passions. He has written two books, Grace at 30,000 Feet and Other Unexpected Places published by Review & Herald in 2002 and Cleansing Fire, Healing Streams: Experiencing God’s Love Through Prayer, published by Pacific Press in spring 2007. Many of his stories and essays about God’s encompassing love have been published in magazines and journals. Kent is often found on the hiking trails of the southern California mountains, following major league baseball, playing the piano or writing his weekly email devotional, “A Word of Grace for Your Monday” that is read by men and women from Alask