Two nights ago, Stasi was in an accident. She was making a left- hand turn, hit a patch of ice, and slammed into a parked truck. The impact blew out the passenger window and pretty much destroyed the door of our car; thank God no one was hurt.
She called to ask me what to do. I am ashamed to admit how quickly I started jumping to conclusions. I wanted to blame her for going too fast; I wanted to chastise her for not using four- wheel drive. Good grief. My poor wife is standing out in the cold, shaken, asking me for help, and I’m leaping to accusation like a prosecuting attorney.
My only comfort— it is a sick sort of comfort I’ll admit— is that I’m not alone in this. When crisis hits and something shakes us to our foundation, we all start grasping, clutching, and looking for someone to blame or someplace to hold on. Like people do when they are drowning. Panic overcomes us; we rush to blame or to speculation or to a box of doughnuts.
Before you make another move, you need to ask yourself: Why is it hard right now?
Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t start making unexamined agreements. We’re going down. He doesn’t love me. It’s my fault. We should never have gotten married.
Slow down for a second. Your interpretation of what is going on will shape everything that follows— your emotions, your perspective, and your decisions. If you are mistaken, you will wander way off course and pay a great price. Take a deep breath. Put down the gun. Ask yourself, Why is it hard? What is this about?
I [John] remember the first time we went whitewater rafting as a family. It’s a pretty exhilarating thing to do— careening down a raging river in a small inflatable raft, dodging rocks, plowing into standing waves, intentionally throwing yourselves into conditions that the Boy Scout Manual tells you always to avoid. Water was crashing over us constantly, and I’m thinking any moment now our little lifeboat is going to swamp (inflatable raft implies therefore deflatable, right?). “Do we need to start bailing?” I asked the guide, who seemed unaware or unconcerned about the volume of water pouring in. “This is a self- bailing raft. It’ll flow right out,” he said as we hit another wave. Okay. This is normal. No need to panic. It's flowing right out. It’s flowing right out.
The hard and even scary times might be normal. Wouldn’t that be a relief to know? We are going to be okay. The hard and scary times might be signs of something more serious. Wouldn’t you want to know that as well? We need to deal with this.
Catch yourself. Don’t jump to conclusions. Walk with God. Why are things hard? Scripture gives us any number of reasons for rough waters; each of them requires a different response.
Whatever else might be going on, you know God is using your marriage to forge your character. You also know by now that the log in your eye makes it hard to see anything clearly. So even if the primary cause for the crisis lies beyond you, it is best to start here. For too many years of our marriage, I [Stasi] lived in a posture of fear. I thought that if John had a problem he wanted to talk about, it meant something terrible about me or about us. If we ignored it, maybe it would just go away, or better yet, magically fix itself. If I turned a blind eye to a tense situation or skirted around a painful subject, everything would be okay. You know, the “Queen of Denial” and all that. Just like I tried to fool myself to believe that food eaten in secret didn’t count, I was an ostrich with my head in the sand hoping that problems in my marriage would go away if I just did not look at them too closely.
In his love God used trouble to get me to look at my fearful way of handling life, and the reasons beneath it, in order to set me free. Whatever else their reason, whatever their cause, God will use the hard times to expose our sin. Our spouse’s sin as well. It is best to begin by asking him, Lord, what is being exposed here? What are you after? Notice your reaction, your emotions, your inner thought life. Notice what you tend to do. Though other issues might be at play— are almost always at play— this is a good starting point. Accept your own transformation.
You live in a world at war. Spiritual attack must be a category you think in, or you will misunderstand more than half of what happens in your marriage.
Think of it as gas on the fire. There may be a real issue between the two of you—unresolved anger, a hidden addiction, misunderstanding. That is the “fire.” But it gets blown out of proportion, or it becomes irresolvable because the enemy has leapt on the issue prodding, provoking, and distorting. That is the “gasoline.”
You’ll find it surprisingly helpful to bind the enemy when things get hard or crises strike. The enemy may not be the cause of it, but you can sure bet he wants to take advantage of the situation. Kick you when you’re down. Pray against the ways the enemy might be involved; bind him from your marriage. Get all of that off of you so that you can see clearly.
Ignore the presence of warfare, and you will find it very hard to see your way through.
A friend of ours has an eating disorder; she has had it since she was sixteen. Her husband— a devout Christian— has tried in vain to help her. “You’ve just got to be more disciplined, sweetheart.” He made her write down everything she ate in a day. She continued to lose weight. He made her eat in front of him. She couldn’t. He got angry. “You just need to obey God.”
You would not ask someone with a broken arm to swim the English Channel. So you can’t demand the broken to live as if they were whole. Discipline is not the issue; apply discipline and you’ll make it worse. What is needed is healing. Sometimes the craziness in our marriage comes from deep brokenness in us or in our spouse. But we’re so embarrassed by it we try to hide it as long as we can. So God uses troubles to flush us out of hiding.
What we need to ask him is: Where is the brokenness, Lord? What is this all about? And, just as important: Where is healing to be found?
Marriage has its ebbs and flows; that is just the way it is. As sober ol’ Ecclesiastes says, there is simply a time for everything, “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). There will be times when you are close, and times when you could not feel farther apart. For no other reasons than that is just the way these things go. We don’t really like winter much (so why in heaven’s name do we live in Colorado?), but winter comes like it or not.
People have their ebbs and flows, too. If one of you is walking through a dark valley personally, of course it affects the marriage.
But it is not about the marriage. This is really quite relieving. However, if you can’t allow for ebbs and flows, if your marriage must always be “happy,” then you will turn what is simply a low season into something worse. You can whip a rain shower into a typhoon.
If you can’t allow room for your spouse to have ebbs and flows, take personal struggle, turn it on you, and then you really will have a mess. It’s like picking a scab; keep your hands off and it will go away.
Check in with God—Is this simply an “ebb,” Lord, or are these signs of something else?
The law of entropy in a marriage works thusly: All things decline to a lowest common denominator. We fall to what is easiest. Stasi and I like to go out to eat. But I’ve noticed over the past couple years that we always choose restaurants close to our home over restaurants that are funner, or tastier, or might prove to be a new adventure. We could go across town or we could go down the street; when we are tired, we always end up down the street. After a while we are sick of the same old burrito, so we stay home.
The law of entropy happens in conversation, too; we fall into a kind of shorthand that requires the least amount of energy.
“How was your day?”
“Your mother called.”
“Where are the boys?”
“At the game.”
How many arguments happen for no other reason than that you are both tired? How many times is “sexual disinterest” not an issue of lost attraction, but simply exhaustion? The question is, Why are we so tired? Has the world crept in and stolen the life from us? Jesus, is there something about the way we live that needs to change?
There is a passage in the book of Hebrews we do not like very much. “Although he was a son”— it is speaking about Jesus Christ—“he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).
Dang. If Jesus needed to learn through suffering, well, it just does not leave any room for complaining, does it? How are we going to skip this class if he had to take it? Suffering will be a part of our education as God’s children.
This is NOT to say that every bad thing that comes your way is God’s discipline. It does not mean that marital crisis is some sort of retribution for past sins. That is bad theology and it has hurt a lot of people. A friend was suffering from a terrible flu; she said, “I sure hope I learn what God has for me in this, so I can get over it.” I didn’t want to be unkind, so I kept my mouth shut. But inside I thought,
You think God made you sick!? There are others things at work in this world. Germs, for instance.
We live in a broken world; disease, accident, and injury are just part of life east of Eden. This world has foul spirits in it, too; they cause a lot of havoc. The sin of man is enough to sink any ship. Stir all these together and you have got plenty of reason for suffering.
So don’t go thinking that every bad thing that happens is God punishing you.
As Dallas Willard reminds us, What we learn about God from Jesus should prove to us that suffering and “bad things” happening to us are not the Father's preferred way of dealing with us— sometimes necessary, perhaps, but never what he would, on the whole, prefer.
Not his preferred means; keep that in mind.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to any human being. (Lamentations 3:32–33)
Having said that, we do have to accept the reality that suffering is a mighty powerful teacher. There is nothing that will get our attention like pain. The good news is, it has a surprising effect upon us:
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)
Hope is a fruit of proven character; proven character is forged through persevering during times of suffering. Some hard times are simply for our good. “Neurosis,” said Carl Jung, “is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” There is legitimate suffering. There are certain things you never discover about God until you go through hard times; there are things you never discover about yourself, too.
And so it is good to ask God: Father, is this from your hand? Is this simply something you are asking me to endure?
Stand by Me
These are hard times for marriage. Family is distant for most folks these days. Community seems like a thing of the past; and church feels less and less relevant (whether it is true or not). We’re all so busy we have practically no time for genuine relationships, especially together as a couple. And so we get isolated. And that is dangerous.
No marriage can make it on its own. We need the loving support of others. For most of the past twenty- five years, Stasi and I have been a part of a small group, a home fellowship of some kind or other.
What a relief to have friends who care, who pray, and who help us work through hard times. John Donne could just have easily substituted the word “marriage” for “man”—“no marriage is an island.” Don’t make any big decisions alone— decisions to leave, to separate, or to end the marriage. Get counsel from friends who know your marriage, your pastor or priest, a Christian counselor, people who walk with God. You need the eyes of others on your marriage.
You need other couples. In fact, it would be a beautiful thing to invite a few couples to join you to do small groups together. It would deepen existing friendships, and open the door to new ones as well! It would also provide a context for you and your spouse to explore these issues in a loving and supportive environment.
Excerpted from Love and War by John and Stasi Eldredge Copyright © 2009 by John and Stasi Eldredge. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
John Eldredge is the director of Ransomed Heart in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a fellowship devoted to helping people discover the heart of God. John is the author of numerous books, including Wild at Heart, Waking the Dead, and Desire, and the coathor of Captivating. Stasi Eldredge is the coauthor of Captivating; she leads the women's events of Ransomed Heart. John and Stasi have been married for more than twenty-five years and they have three fabulous sons.