My wife and I celebrated 30 years of marriage yesterday. We began our second 30 years today. After 30 years, 15 children, and 7 grand children (so far), I'd have to admit I've got lots of experience, but the whole "expert" label has been very evasive. Here are a few things I've learned (and often, re-learned):
1. No one is ever truly "ready" for marriage. A "good marriage" is a moving target. Conditions that make a great marriage today are the same conditions that make it hard the next day. I suppose that any marriage is, in part, the sum of the two personalities, which varies with each couple. My wife and I both have strong personalities, willing to stand up and speak up for what we think is right, which produces conflict. (Such willingness can can be good and bad, depending upon the situation). Some couples might be more passive, or have one member that is strong-willed and the other that is not up to fighting or (some are not up to fighting for even what they need to fight for). Regardless - two people are involved in a marriage (not counting the children).
Marriage is also influenced by each person's individual life experiences, which create an expected "norm" which does not exist. Each marriage is different, because each marriage brings with it two unique individuals with all of their unique perspectives that derive from their unique combination of observations, experiences, instructions, and other influences. The result is a beautiful complexity that produces a one-of-a-kind union. Though each marriage has commonalities, each marriage is uncharted territory, to a great degree.
Each day brings its own challenges. Sleepless nights or stress-filled days come, because of long work hours or a needy, sick child (sometimes for nights on end), inevitable personal hardships or sickness, daily challenges and needs from car care to house maintenance emergencies, unscheduled or unplanned obligations, and even emergency room visits - all can change one's day and outlook instantly. Further, these challenges can be compounded on any given day. Sometimes life is more like an endurance test or obstacle course rather than a relaxing stroll. In fact, it can often be the norm to face these challenges.
Who is ready for such things? Really, one only can learn and grow through the experiences as God weaves them into our lives. Each experience (and combination of experiences) brings its own unique blend of difficulty. Such requires a proper heart attitude to endure the challenges and enjoy life in the midst of what life brings, rather than waiting until "all is well." C.S. Lewis hits on this several times. One of his statements rings home: "We must stop regarding unpleasant or unexpected things as interruptions of real life. The truth is that interruptions are real life."
The truth is, God allows difficulties to refine us. Marriage is, in part, there to refine us more than existing to make us happy (happiness comes and goes). God uses the strengths and weaknesses of our spouse to reveal our own rough edges or inaccurate views of our own self. Hopefully the marriage is focused on God to the point that the couple allows God to help them work through and grow through the inevitable conflicts and challenges of life. This is a hard process, but a fruitful and beneficial one if we work through, rather than run away from, these refining moments which God allows.
2. Marriage is worth the effort. Though marriage (and by extension, family) is a tapestry of challenges, difficulties, unfulfilled (often unrealistic) expectations, changed plans, and an ongoing series of reality checks, this idea created by God is worth every bit of the effort. One key is understanding that God is at work, in us (what is going on inside of us) and on us (the pressures on the outside), to conform us to the image of His Son. This happens a bit each day, over the long haul. God's sanctifying work can often go unseen in the momentary blips of routine or chaos of a day, but it is happening. We need to continue to press on with humble and faithful hearts, even though we face difficult times.
As Jane and I have the chance to review and discuss our lives together, we readily admit the difficulty, but we also embrace the difficulties because of what they have accomplished in us. We have not ended up with all the answers, but we have a deeper sense that God does have all the answers.
In the midst of these challenges, Jane and I enjoy being lifelong "best friends." We delight in each other's company (usually in the midst of some number of children, younger or older). We enjoy being home together, rather than chasing the wind of individual, external hobbies. Life moves quickly, but it is truly a blessing of the Lord to spend that brief life with your best friend. The companionship that marriage brings to those who work at it is incomparable, and makes the struggles of life a shared challenge, rather than a lonely one.
In the midst of all of these reality checks, God brings joy. Honoring God by keeping the covenant of marriage brings abundant blessing while these struggles of life go on. Intimate conflict grows us as individuals, but also as a couple. We have some "rugs of expectation" pulled out from under us, but God replaces them with the foundations of truth. We enjoy the deep companionship that can only be molded through time and tempest. We catch glimmers of understanding of what God's bigger picture is, beyond us as individuals or us as a couple. Things may not be what our fairy tale ideas would have liked them to be, but they are better in a much deeper way. Things are as they should be. We affirm God's goodness and greatness because of His goodness and greatness, which is beyond our designs or plans.
3. Marriage is workable in God's pattern. To the best of our understanding, we have embraced the Biblical gender roles - doing what God designed us each to do. Jane has stayed home and cared for the family and home, and I have provided for the family. Such a practice is seen by most in our day, as "swimming upstream," and often classified as "impossible" by many. We are living proof that it can be done with just me working outside the home so that Jane could be the active mother of our children (not just holding the title), and the homemaker (truly making our house a home).
We have been able to do this in a way that does not depend upon the government or others to upplement our needs. We have lived, at times, on very little, and we have lived healthy lives. We did not consider it unreasonable to support and care for our own family. We actually think it has worked out better than any other "option" that others might consider. We have been able to home school our children, giving them what we believe is a better quality more realistic, more rounded education than they could get anywhere else. We have enjoyed family closeness at meals throughout our marriage which would not nor could not have happened in any other scenario. We have been able to be a family because of our commitment to this pattern which pervades the Bible. We have thrived, in the midst of struggle, on what it has brought to us. We would not change a thing. As we see it, we could only trade down.
4. Marriage really blossoms with a large family. People have heard me say, "People think we're crazy because we have so many children. We think their crazy because they don't." Jane and I really believe this. Allowing God to give us children as He saw fit produced no disappointment on our part. Rather, we have experienced incredible joy (and yes, laundry) throughout our married lives to this day. Children truly do increase the love of a home, rather than stretching it thinly. A larger family gives an ongoing joyous "mission" to parents that is truly fulfilling beyond any career or early retirement or sport or hobby. It postpones or eliminates the empty nest, and fills a home with constant companionship for everyone for years and years and years. Our children delight in one another's company at many different levels. They understand better that the world does not rotate around any one person. They learn to love and share and care and help as a lifestyle. Further, it allows us to send these blessings on into the next generation with the capability of influencing more for the cause of Christ. We cannot imagine a home without such love. Children are one of the few eternal focuses that anyone can have, and they are worth our lives to raise for God's glory, in the midst of the struggles of life. You can add more to our wealth, but you cannot add more to our joy. Children, as God's gifts, bring that joy.
We look at the nine children yet at home. We often marvel that we have been blessed the number of children that we have had. We have so much more because we have allowed God to make the decisions. We love each of our children deeply, and would not trade one of them for a better circumstance, greater liberty, more money, a higher position - nothing. Each is truly a gift from the Lord, an eternal being with his or her specialness to bring to the world. Nothing compares to the joy that each one has brought to the family, and to the world. We are incredibly, richly, blessed, and grateful beyond words.
I've learned much more, and I've had to unlearn and relearn a great deal. The learning process continues, but I wouldn't trade what I have for anything on earth. God, in establishing marriage, knew what He was doing! Bring on the next 30 years.