Today is my tenth wedding anniversary. It’s also been 10 days since my wife coded and was revived in the hospital shortly after the birth of our 2nd child. So, I’ve been thinking a bit about marriage today.
[My wife's arm after a few days in ICU--it actually looks much worse today.]
Some years ago, Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book about what he called “The Gift Nobody Wants.” The book was about pain. Dr. Brand was a medical missionary for years and he treated patients with leprosy. Without pain, lepers are unable to know something is wrong. No one wants pain, but it has a purpose.
If ever there were a culture totally unsuited for enduring pain it is ours. For most of us, the highest good to be achieved is the avoidance of pain. We spend our days amusing ourselves to death, popping pills and seeking diagnoses, jumping in and out of bed and in and out of marriages, all with the end of minimizing pain and maximizing comfort.
Pain cannot ultimately be avoided, however. You can numb yourself with opiates, but the pain in your soul will only increase. The brief physical pain that comes from dental surgery can be palliated, but soul pain must be endured. Which brings me to marriage.
On my wedding day I said:
Everyone likes those words; those words are why we want to be married in the first place.
But the vows I said on my wedding day also include the antitheses of those words:
“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health….”
How wise of our ancestors to include in the wedding service the words that nobody wants.
Nobody wants worse or poorer or sickness, and yet marriage includes those words, too. Marriage, like all of life, includes pain. It’s the gift nobody wants.
Last week in the middle of the night, I leaned over my wife’s bed in her ICU room and used a straw to drip drops of water on her parched tongue as she looked at me with eyes wild with pain and fear. Drop. Pause. Drop. Pause. At that moment I was afraid she was going to die, but at that moment I also felt that I was closer to being her husband than any previous moment in our 10 years of married life together.
Pain is the gift nobody wants, and I’m wondering if pain is not also the primary gift of marriage.
Don’t misunderstand: my wife and I rarely fight and our first 10 years of marriage have been exceedingly happy. What I mean is that marriage has a way of confronting you with pain. One day of course, there will be the pain of death and the loneliness of being left behind, alone. There will be the pain of seeing the other suffer throughout your married life together, in small and great ways. And, most importantly, there is the pain of being confronted with your own selfishness. This last pain, I believe, is the primary gift of marriage.
Tim Keller says somewhere that selfishness is the cause of all marital problems. I believe, though, that selfishness is why God calls a man and a woman together into a marriage–to use the husband to confront his wife’s selfishness, and vice versa. When you are married, you are constantly discovering that your heart is much more selfish than you’d previously understood. Men and women are different, and the effect of bringing a man and a woman together into marriage is friction. It’s pain.
That pain is the gift nobody wants.
And yet it’s the pain we need if we are going to become the creatures God created us to be. If there were another way for us to become holy apart from pain, we’d have discovered it centuries ago. But there isn’t.
No one chooses pain. Some people are physically courageous and will endure physical pain, but the deepest pain is spiritual pain, and spiritual pain breaks everyone. A boxer might step into the ring year after year; he can stand the pain of getting his nose broken over and over again, but not the pain that comes when two sinful people are joined together in marriage.
The pain that comes from marriage is a searing pain: it hurts to know that you are not as good as you want to believe, that you yourself caused your wife pain with a petulant remark or hard heart that chooses not to forgive. Sin burns.
It’s not surprising that a culture that sees avoidance of pain as the highest good will struggle with marriage. This is why the Christian story of marriage is so countercultural. Marriage, the church has always taught, is not a contract to terminate as either party desires, but a covenantal promise that includes better and worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. And it’s when we endure the worse, the poorer, and the sickness that we can become wise and good.
I don’t want pain. I don’t want the pain of watching my wife’s vital signs taper off, and I don’t want the pain of being confronted with my own selfishness and sin in the daily work of marriage. And yet I know that pain is a gift, even if it’s the gift nobody wants, and I’m grateful.
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