“When we marry we are offering ourselves to our partner to be her or his primary partner/coach/cheerleader as she or he works to grow. And—if we are wise—we are also asking her/him to help us in the same task. It’s a “spiritual friendship” of the first order.”

I write these notes in anticipation of our marriage conference coming up on Saturday, March 5th, which will focus on “middle marriage”—somewhat roughly defined as waaay-post-honeymoon, and (hopefully) waaaay pre-death.

These are the years when the marriage begins to ride low in the water, sometimes almost out of sight under the weight of career, kids, finances, larger family responsibilities, a bathing suit that no longer fits, a lawn to mow and pipes under the sink to fix. The days get full and you're scrambling to cover all the bases.

Cracks in the relationship can start to appear, and while struggles in relationships are not unusual in life, they can particularly affect your marital relationship: a job dries up; a serious health problem emerges; you drift apart and begin to feel emotional pulls in “new” directions; your dreams fade. If any of these happen to one of you, it causes additional stress on both of you, and often between you.

I don’t want to make this sound too grim. The fact is, these things happen whether you are married or not. But if you’re married, there is a prime target for blame: the one who was supposed to be the “bright spot” in your otherwise rather dower world, the one who was supposed to save you from yourself.

Timothy Keller has a chapter in his excellent book, “The Meaning of Marriage” titled “Loving the Stranger.” It's about what happens when the “You n’ me, babe” phase of the relationship gives way to the “What’s happened to us?” phase. He highlights the importance of anticipating the rich benefits of marriage as we enter it. But many of us also have seen other marriages that didn’t seem very enjoyable. When mid-marriage seems more like the latter, our response can be to panic, or draw back and protect ourselves. Or to think we have failed and decide to close out of this relationship and make a “better choice” next time.

He suggests instead a change of expectancy and a rethinking of what's going on. “What if,” he writes, “you began your marriage understanding its purpose as spiritual friendship for the journey to the new creation? What if you expected marriage to be about helping each other grow out of your sins and flaws into the new self God is creating? Then you will actually be expecting the ‘stranger’ seasons, and when you come to one you will roll up your sleeves and get to work.”

One of the difficulties we face in all aspects of life, certainly not less in marriage, is our less-than-humble desire to look wonderful to everybody else. We want the admiration of the whole world—or at least our circle of friends—for how great we are at something (in this case marriage). We are surrounded by media that feature individuals who have done the coolest things, and we naturally would love to be “featured” as well. If all else fails, we at least want our husband or wife to admire us.

But God’s gift in the marriage of two sinful people is exactly the opposite: the humbling effect of someone who sees in detail all my faults, and has to do the hard work of loving me anyway. I love Dr. Keller’s choice of a label for marriage: “spiritual friendship.”

My point in this short piece is to invite you to engage (if you are already in the middle stage of marriage) or anticipate (if it’s coming) this change of perspective. We can rightly assume we are here to learn. We can see that we are here to grow in wisdom and in clarity of understanding about who God is shaping us to be. We live in the shadow of our future selves and should be purposefully preparing for the life ahead. We have somehow discovered that the God of the Bible is real. We are beginning to know his character. And now we perceive we are to do the hard work of shaping our character to align with his.

When we marry we are offering ourselves to our partner to be her or his primary partner/coach/cheerleader as she or he works to grow. And—if we are wise—we are also asking her/him to help us in the same task. It’s a “spiritual friendship” of the first order. There may be other spiritual friendships...other inputs...but this one is the premier one.

There’s a lot more to this concept than I can explain in a short article like this. I urge you to read Keller’s chapter, in fact, read the book...and then read it again. Dr. Keller will wisely remind you that it takes a sense of humor to be married. And, as we’ve already seen, it takes some (OK, a lot) of humility.

You’ve probably found that out already by now. But what you may not have noticed is that the “delights” of marriage are not the obvious ones you expected. They are the deeper ones, the ones that last a lifetime and more. These are the delights of the growing spiritual friendship of middle marriage.

Jim Leonard

Jim serves Cornerstone through pastoral care and by overseeing internal ministries and administration.

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