This is the fifth message in a series on the key events, people and relationships in my spiritual growth. I write about grace because I need it. My hope and prayer is these messages will stir you to thought and gratitude about the people and experiences God has used to bless you along the way.
When the Lord called me to repentance on the plane as I wrote last week, I went to my wife, Patricia, first to ask forgiveness for my neglect of her and 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 have learned and grown most on my spiritual journey.
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, and 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 wanted to spend my life with Patricia and she wanted to spend her life with me, so we have done exactly that for forty years come next spring. We love each other. I can’t think of another reason that would justify spending one’s life with someone else.
We met in college.The Home Economics Club (really!) had a formal dinner party because bears hibernate, geese fly south and home-ec majors plan dinner parties. Patricia came with her roommate and I came with my girlfriend, a student secretary for the Consumer Sciences Department.
Neither one of us had any intention of sitting down and making small talk about table-settings, souffles and flower centerpieces. Instead we stood in the kitchen and scarfed down the delicious hors d’ oeuvres prepared by over-achieving student chefs. Since it was just the two of us, we talked.
It was an amazing conversation under the circumstances. We shared our chagrin in being at such an event. We found a common interest in the Civil War and discussed generals and battles and politics. Then we discovered we both loved baseball and we plunged right into that subject. She knew her stuff and I received a whole new perspective talking to her. We still talk to each other all the time. One of the delights of our marriage is our nightly chat about politics and current events.
Much time passed before we began to date, but we found we had a lot of interests in common. Patricia was a speech pathology major and I was a history/political science major. There wasn’t much overlap in our friends at first. My involvement in student government made me well-known on campus. Patricia was quiet, but very attractive. My friends would see us together and ask, “Where have you been hiding her from us?” when I returned to the dorm.
In the second message of this series I wrote about how my dorm-room encounter with the Holy Spirit in the dark winter of my junior year deepened my thinking about God. One night, I asked Patricia 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.
Patricia’s faith was only one of her qualities that interested me. She possesses a searching intellectual curiosity and is a rational thinker with an unflappable calm. She doesn’t waste her words, and has a quick and effective way to sum up situations, often humorously. She is firmly, but pleasantly independent which I really like. I 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 are a call to live by grace and we received them as such.
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.
I brought serious doubts into our marriage regarding whether I was loved or capable of loving. Patricia never flinched away from my angry, self-absorbed questions of myself and of her. Neither did she argue with me or cajole me. She simply stated the truth and her commitment to live by it regardless of what I thought or did. Her lack of fear and refusal to engage with my projections of hurt and blame denied fuel to the fires of my anger and shame and slowly quelled and healed them.
Patricia saw me at my worst, but she stood faithfully by and pointed me towards the God of grace and mercy in the wise understanding that he alone could fill the hole in my heart.
Standing by and pointing one towards God is the most important thing a spouse can do for another. To try to complete one’s mate, to attempt to fill what the mate seems to lack or demand the mate do that 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 and for 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, Patricia 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 we 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 offers us real life, each of us needs our own personal relationship with God. God unifies us as one only after we surrender our separate lives to him.
The lesson struck home quickly on a sunny day when we took our four-year-old son Andrew to the zoo. On the way home Patricia 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 Patricia’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 go through many painful treatments to save her eyesight. The care of an infant, though welcomed, was especially difficult with these devastating challenges.
Patricia 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 him happy. Why not me?”
Patricia told me that these sessions would go on all 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).
Patricia 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 Patricia 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.”
Patricia 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 Patricia has 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 compute to me. I first learned about 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. Patricia’s parents have been married for sixty-five years. My brother has been married for forty-seven 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 things through. 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. Worship puts God first like Patricia and I learned to do. Unselfishness seeks the best for the partner. Trust is something to be embarked upon as an intentional practice, not as a”carrot and stick” game. Each spouse needs to take responsibility to love and serve and care.
Forgiveness is also essential. Without forgiveness, the frictions of living together are unbearable and bruised hearts cannot heal.
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 love. “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).
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 Patricia. 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 has used Patricia’s love and faithfulness to open my heart to his love and I am grateful.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).
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 Alaska to Zimbabwe.