Joyce and I drove from Princeton to Cape May on February 15th, 2000, in the midst of a lashing rainstorm. Crossing through the pine barrens of New Jersey is not the most pleasant drive in the first place, but the rain made it worse for me, as I had planned to propose to my girlfriend on the shore at sunset.
I didn’t want one of those Rube Goldberg proposals that involve elaborate plots and a series of hints, as though your bride-to-be is a little girl to be led to the treasure of…you. I wanted to get down on one knee at sunset, alone with my beloved on the beach beside the Cape May lighthouse, and tell her how much I adored her and how enormously privileged I would be to spend the rest of my life with her.
The rain ceased just as we reached Cape May. The clouds parted as we arrived at the beach, and the earlier rain had driven away the crowds. We were all alone with the lighthouse in the vermilion sky and the gentle wind rising off the waves. I drew the music box from my pocket, opened it to play our song, and made my proposal while she looked at the ring. I was so nervous that I forgot to get down on one knee. She said yes, we embraced, and we both felt light enough to drift away on the ocean breeze.
Seven months later, on September 9th of 2000, I married my best friend, a beautiful soul, a wellspring of joy, and a far better woman than I deserved. That proposal was a microcosm of marriage itself — or, at least, our marriage. Planning and spontaneity, love and humor, disappointment and deliverance, immaculately chaotic and perfectly imperfect. Marriages are paradoxical by definition.
I was not unprepared. I was told “marriage is hard” repeatedly throughout childhood and early adulthood. The preachers and teachers and Bible study leaders who uttered these three words were trying to shape our expectations. They wanted us to know that marriage takes work. They wanted us to understand that you do not find the perfect person and just magically mesh. In marriage, two thoroughly sinful individuals commit to remain together through thick and thin — and if you don’t think that’s going to take an awful lot of effort and forgiveness and long-suffering patience, then you simply do not understand the perniciousness of sin. One of the benefits of being raised in an evangelical setting is that, by the time you marry, you have probably heard hundreds of sermons and lessons on the hard work of fashioning a strong marriage.
A little less than two years ago, after I had written a piece called Why We Have Children, I began to write a piece called Why We Marry. I could never finish it. The reason, I now believe, is because Why We Marry and Why We Stay Married are two different things.
For most of us, there is no single choice to marry. There is (again, for most of us) no discrete moment when we draw up the pluses and minuses, consider the ledger as a whole, and decide to make a lifelong commitment of fidelity and love and service. It’s the kind of decision that accumulates. Eventually, it becomes clear that you are already wholly committed to one another. It becomes clear that you’re meant to be together, that your souls have intertwined and you are becoming one.
Joyce and I married when we were 24 — relatively young, compared to our friends. I often heard those friends tell me that they did not want to marry until they knew who they were. This could be positive: it helps to know our fundamental beliefs and convictions, and it’s important to have a strong sense of self so that marrying is a joining of equals and not an occasion for one person to be trampled by another. But it can also be negative: as though an individual has to figure everything out, set a life direction, get established before marrying, as though marrying is a garnishment or something you do when all the important stuff is taken care of.
The truth is, I didn’t know who I was until I married. I found myself in finding her, and in being found by her. In becoming one with my beloved, I became who God intended for me to be from the beginning. This does not mean that my own individual personhood is extinguished. It means that it’s enhanced, enriched, empowered. We are created in the image of a God who is profoundly inter-relational, a God who IS by being in loving relationship, a God who is abundantly mystically more than the sum of his parts, a God in which each person contains the whole and the whole contains each person. We too overflow our individualities. We are who we are together. There is something beautiful in finding who you are together, becoming one, and then building a life on that rock-solid basis.
This is part of why we marry: because we are created in the image of a God who is One in Many, a God who is who He is by virtue of an eternal and overflowing love that is given and received in unity and multiplicity. And when we are joined as one, then our love too becomes creative and life-giving. The ultimate union of husband and wife is so powerful that it is the only thing in the universe that brings new human life into the world. Yet before love can overflow, it must first fill. We reflect and participate in the love within God, the love between the Persons of the Trinity, when we love our equals.
As Timothy Keller wrote not long ago, however, your spouse is always changing (and so are you). The person you married is not the person to whom you are married one year later, not to mention ten. “You Never Marry the Right Person,” he wrote. His point is that you never simply mesh perfectly — and even if you did, you would no longer mesh perfectly after a little while. And he’s absolutely right. People are imperfect, and people are sinful, and over time the hurts and grievances will grow, even if you strive not to keep accounts.
I won’t lie. Marriage, for Joyce and I, has not always been easy. Particularly since having children, we have struggled, sometimes profoundly. Our love for one another has deepened and strengthened. We have seen one another in all our warts and weaknesses. We have made many errors and we still bear the emotional marks of those struggles. So, why do we stay married? Why do we, and the countless other couples out there who struggle mightily to fulfill their vows after 10, 20, 30, 50 years together or more?
What I’ve come to learn is that staying married is an even greater act of faith than getting married in the first place. We celebrate marriage, as we should. But anniversaries — the extraordinary accomplishment of remaining married and continuing to fulfill our vows to one another — is even more worthy of admiration. There’s a sense in which getting married requires us to have faith in each other. Staying married requires us to have faith in God, faith that God is capable of healing the deepest wounds, faith that God can overcome the problems that seem impossible.
Getting married is light and joy, the celebration of something new. Staying married is courage and commitment, faith and an ironclad commitment to remain with one another through thick and thin. So we marry because love binds us and makes us. We are created in God’s image — and God is love. Therefore we are made in the image of Love. But in the knowledge that we will always be faithful to one another, then we have the safety to be ourselves. When love is conditional, then we behave in the ways we do in order to achieve or retain that love. But when love is unconditional, then we are safe. Then we have a haven. Then we have someone before whom we can be honest — brutally, completely, painfully honest. Without that honesty we may never be truly and fully loved, because the person who is being loved is not who we are but the person we pretend to be. We stay married so that we can be free and so that we can be known.
God’s love overflows into the creation of his children. But God also loves within himself. Just as God is intrinsically relational, we too are irreducibly relational creatures, made for relationship and made in relationship. We are created by love, in love, and for love. But we are made in and for a love that endures. A love that lasts forever. We practice that love in marriage and prepare for that love from God. In the sense that every relationship is preparation for the God-relationship, marriage is the ultimate and highest human relationship to prepare us for God’s love precisely because it is given in eternal covenant.
Joyce and I have only been married for twelve years, as of today. But the love we share, and the love we covenanted over twelve years ago, is eternal, and is fundamental to who we are. That’s why our commitment is for life. That’s why we will fight through whatever troubles may come. I thank God that I have a partner who loves me unconditionally, a partner who will never leave me, a partner who lets me love precisely who she is each and every day.
Happy anniversary, my love. You have given me great joy, you have given me one-ness, you have given me two daughters, and I pray you will give me many anniversaries more.