Category: Marriage

What Makes Meaningful Relationships Difficult: The Other’s Freedom

Lewis

Bonhoeffer 2

In rereading Bonhoeffer’s masterful Life Together (1954), my favorite book, I was again blown away by the passage quoted below, where, in discussing how Christians must “bear each other’s burdens,” he says that the reason that such bearing (or forbearing, or sustaining) is difficult is because of the other’s freedom, meaning that in all their particularities and needs and quirks and sins, that person – something completely real, outside of ourselves – makes demands on us and challenges our own freedom and preferences and selfishness. I think this is a basic but profound reality that sheds light on what makes all meaningful relationships – whether in friendship or brotherhood or marriage – so difficult at times. This same reality, however, is what can make them so worth it, because in testing our limits, as such relationships will often do, they broaden those limits to make us more loving, more patient, more humble, and stronger – in short, more large-hearted. This reminded me of another passage (below) that stopped me in my tracks: What C.S. Lewis said about marriage, based on his brief experience as husband to Joy Davidman, an American poet and writer whose romance with Lewis began over a series of intellectually- and literary-minded letters to the Oxford Don.

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C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed (1961), his devastatingly honest account of his spiritual and emotional agony following the death of his wife Joy:

“The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.” (19)

And from Bonhoeffer:

“It is, first of all, the freedom of the other person, of which we spoke earlier, that is a burden to the Christian. The other’s freedom collides with his own autonomy, yet he must recognize it. He could get rid of this burden by refusing the other person his freedom, by constraining him and thus doing violence to his personality, by stamping his own image upon him. But if he lets God created His image in him, he by this token gives him his freedom and himself bears the burden of this freedom of another creature of God. The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weaknesses and oddities, which are such a trial to our patience, everything that produces frictions, conflicts, and collisions among us. To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept it and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.” (101)

Monica: Model Wife and Daughter-in-Law

Augustine and Monica, Ary Scheffer, 1846.

Augustine and Monica, Ary Scheffer, 1846.

Monica, the pious, long-suffering mother of Augustine, for whose soul she shed many tears because her greatest desire was to see him leave behind the Manichean heresy and become a baptized Christian, was not only a terrific mother but, as Augustine tells in his Confessions, she was also an infinitely patient and loving wife to a difficult husband (the unbelieving Patricius, for whom Augustine seemed to have little affection), and a wise and devoted daughter-in-law to a woman who otherwise might have made life even more difficult for her and her husband. To our modern sensibilities Monica probably put up with more than she deserved from Patricius, but then again, this was a pious woman who put her faith and the covenant of marriage above her own temporal comfort and happiness. Whether male or female, we can all learn from her example.

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“She never ceased to try to gain him [Patricius] for you as a convert, for the virtues with which you had adorned her, and for which he respected, loved, and admired her, were like so many voices constantly speaking to him of you [God]. He was unfaithful to her, but her patience was so great that his infidelity never became a cause of quarreling between them. For she looked to you to show him mercy, hoping that chastity would come with faith. Though he was remarkably kind, he had a hot temper, but my mother knew better than to say or do anything to resist him when he was angry. If his anger was unreasonable, she used to wait until he was calm and composed and then took the opportunity of explaining what she had done… Many women…used to gossip together and complain of the behavior of their men-folk. My mother would meet this complain with another – about the women’s tongues.

“…Her mother-in-law was at first prejudiced against her by the talebearing of malicious servants, but she won the older woman over by her dutiful attentions and her constant patience and gentleness. In the end her mother-in-law complained of her own accord to her son and asked him to punish the servants for their meddlesome talk, which was spoiling the peaceful domestic relations between herself and her daughter-in-law. Patricius, who was anxious to satisfy his mother as well as to preserve the good order of his home and the peace of his family, took the names of the offenders from his mother and had them whipped as she desired. She then warned them that anyone who told tales about her daughter-in-law, in the hope of pleasing her, could expect to receive the same reward. After this none of them dared to tell tales and the two women lived together in wonderful harmony and mutual goodwill.” (194-195).

The Most Important Thing About You

SinnersWhat’s the most important thing about you? Is it your accomplishments? The responsibilities you have at work and in your family? Perhaps it’s your nationality, or the education you’ve received?

Those things may be important, and even defining, aspects about who you are. But as Dave Harvey writes in the book When Sinners Say I Do (Shepherd Press, 2007), the most important thing about you is what you believe about God. He explains this in the context of the marriage relationship, arguing that our theology is the most important part of the marriage equation (a clear example of this relationship is having a greater capacity to forgive because one believes that God has forgiven one’s sins, even the ugliest ones), but this applies to all of our lives, not only marriage. Here’s how he puts it:

“The most profound thing that shapes anybody’s worldview is their understanding of God. What a person believes about God determines what he or she thinks about how we got here, what our ultimate meaning is, and what happens after we die. So essentially our worldview, our perspective on life, is determined by our perspective on God.

“… Whether we realize it or not, our ideas about life, needs, marriage, romance, conflict, and everything else reveal themselves all the time in our words and deeds, inevitably reflecting our view of God. If you listen closely, theology spills from our lips every day” (20-21).

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This is why in this book about marriage, Dave Harvey can make the fundamental claim, “What we believe about God determines the quality of our marriage.” But as we’ve seen above, this same claim can be applied to every major area of our lives. So, what do you believe about God? And how does it show in your everyday life, at work and at home?

What to Look for In a Spouse

MarriageIn The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), pastor and author Tim Keller says that at the heart of marriage is friendship. So if we’re ultimately pursuing marriage, he says, we  shouldn’t put such a high value on things like sex, chemistry, and attraction, which will change over time, but rather we should look for a companion – the kind of person we can walk alongside for decades in a mutually satisfying and meaningful relationship.

So how do we find this kind of companion? I like how Keller puts it:

“It often happens that you have a good friend of the opposite sex with whom you share common commitments. You trust this person’s wisdom and you find you can open up and share many intimate things without fear. He or she understands you well and listens to you and gives you great advice. But the person doesn’t attract you romantically. Maybe he or she doesn’t have the body type that you find appealing. You feel no sexual chemistry at all. Then imagine that you meet someone else to whom you feel very attracted. This person has the physical and social attributes you have been looking for and is interested in you, too. So you start seeing each other and you have a lot of fun together and things are moving along into more and more romantic intimacy. But if you are honest with yourself, this person you say you are falling in love with does not make nearly as good a friend as the one you already have, nor is that likely to change.

“You are in trouble. Your spouse has got to be your best friend, or be on the way to becoming your best friend, or you won’t have a strong, rich marriage that endures and that makes you both vastly better persons for having been it” (125).

He advises:

“Look for someone who understands you better than you do yourself, who makes you a better person just by being around them. And then explore whether that friendship could become a romance and a marriage” (126).

The Deeper Freedom of Promising

MarriageIn The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011)Tim Keller explains how rather than limiting your freedom, promising can expand and deepen it. Promising, he writes, is the “means to freedom” because “in promising, you limit options now, in order to have wonderful, fuller options later. You curb your freedom now, so that you can be free to be there in the future for people who trust you” (93).

Keller quotes Christian theologian and ethicist Lewis Smedes:

“When I make a promise, I bear witness that my future with you is not locked into a bionic beam by which I was stuck with the fateful combinations of X’s and Y’s in the hand I was dealt out of my parent’s genetic deck. When I make a promise, I testify that I was not routed along some unalterable itinerary by the psychic conditioning visited on me by my slightly wacky parents. When I make a promise, I declare that my future with people who depend on me is not predetermined by the mixed-up culture of my tender years.

“I am not fated, I am not determined, I am not a lump of human dough whipped into shape by the contingent reinforcement and aversive conditioning of my past…when I make a promise to anyone, I rise above all the conditioning that limits me. No German Shepherd ever promised to be there with me. No hom computer ever promised to be a loyal help…Only a person can make a promise. And when he does, he is most free” (94).

Identity and Marriage: Making Promises, Keeping Promises

MarriageIn The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011)Tim Keller argues that at the core of marriage is the covenant – a binding promise of lifelong faithfulness. He then explains that the very act of making this promise helps the couple keep that promise. He shows this by quoting Christian theologian and ethicist Lewis Smedes, who offers these words on how our identity is shaped by the promises we make:

“Some people ask who they are and expect their feelings to tell them. But feelings are flickering flames that fade after every fitful stimulus. Some people ask who they are and expect their achievements to tell them. But the things we accomplish always leave a core of character unrevealed. Some people ask who they are and expect visions of their ideal self to tell them. But our visions can only tell us what we want to be, not what we are” (90).

Keller then connects identity to marital love, and even quotes the great political theorist Hannah Arendt (confirming that he is an intellectual’s intellectual):

“It is our promises that give us a stable identity, and without a stable identity, it is impossible to have stable relationships. Hannah Arendt wrote, ‘Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wanter helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.'” (91)

Marriage and Men: Learning Self Mastery

meaningLipton

In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), Tim Kellers cites an excellent New York Times article by Sara Lipton (above), professor of history at SUNY Stony Brook. In it, she compares today’s sexually rogue men – men like Schwarzenegger, Spitzer, and Weiner – to the “manly men of yore,” for whom the ability to rule oneself, both for the good of their families and their societies, was one of the key measures of a man.

Writing of the Schwarzeneggers and Weiners of our day, Lipton claims: “In every case, they had resisted the traditional purposes of marriage: to change their natural instincts, to reign in passions, to learn denial of one’s own desires, and to serve others.”

Keller then writes: “The conventional explanation for this is that marriage simply doesn’t fit the male nature…that ‘a need for sexual conquest, female adulation, and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition, and confidence in the “alpha male.”‘ But Lipton argues that marriage was traditionally a place where males became truly masculine: ‘For most of Western history, the primary and most valued characteristic of manhood was self-mastery…. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex – who failed to “rule himself” – was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity…'” (32)

On a personal note, I’ve already seen these insights come to life in our six months of marriage. For example, I’m more motivated (and often reminded) to do things around the house, such as washing dishes, or taking out the trash, or vacuuming and tidying up before guests. I know I wouldn’t do the same things were I living on my own, and certainly I wouldn’t be cooking delicious meals for myself like my wonderful wife does for us. In large part because of doing life with her, I’m more disciplined and on a daily basis aware that my “personal” time isn’t necessarily “Javi” time. It also helps, however, to have an awesome wife who encourages me and lovingly challenges me to be a better man every day. I pray that by grace and with much love this continues for many years, trusting that though difficult seasons will come, they won’t prevail. Thank you, mi amor – you know who you are!