Jennifer Ripley, Ph.D.
This is not what I hoped for in marriage, but God’s Hope for my Marriage is Better than Mine
In an interview with the theologian N.T. Wright about hope he is quoted as saying “The point is that we all too quickly hope for “our heart’s desire” without thinking that perhaps we need to let God do quite a job of reordering our hearts. In my tradition we have an old prayer which asks that God would so enable us “to love what you command, and desire what you promise.” Far too much of modernity, including would-be Christian modernity, is wanting God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire. Eliot, (echoing St. John of the Cross) is challenging that and suggesting we might have to wait on God’s fresh leading before we know what we should really be hoping for.” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/april-web-only/nt-wright-we-mourned-our-alleluias-on-easter.html)
Does this version of hope apply to marriage?
So let’s do an exercise together. Imagine yourself in some previous time when hope was high about marriage. Perhaps when you were engaged or newly married, or some similar hopeful time. What did you imagine and hope your marriage and family would be like? You might even go find a picture from that time in your life. Or stop and have a conversation about it as a couple. Looking back, what did you think was going to happen in marriage?
I would venture that many people in Western marriages would have common desires: A best friend for life, someone to share life ups and downs, someone to have and raise children with, to enjoy sex with, to support each other in our careers, health, and personal goals. A nice house, a dog, cat and picket fence. A group of friends you host for dinners at your home. Birthdays, graduations, weddings, travel to beautiful places during retirement. There is this sense of promise, of something we deeply desire.
These desires aren’t evil. If your best friend, or beloved child were getting married you would hope for all of these things for that person too. It’s not just for you. You would hope your friend or child would be treated kindly and protected from the harshness of life by their partner. You would hope they would know and experience love over decades of life together. Our desires for marriage and family life are pretty huge. I ask you- do you know anyone who has gotten all that they hoped and desired from their marriage and family? A theology of family is weak if it can’t handle the pain and suffering that real people face every day. How do you handle life struggles when they impact your marriage? Your parenting? Perhaps we need a change in perspective.
What Tom Wright is challenging readers to consider in this quote is a change of perspective.
Let’s read it again
The point is that we all too quickly hope for “our heart’s desire” without thinking that perhaps we need to let God do quite a job of reordering our hearts. In my tradition we have an old prayer which asks that God would so enable us “to love what you command, and desire what you promise.” Far too much of modernity, including would-be Christian modernity, is wanting God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire. Eliot, (echoing St. John of the Cross) is challenging that and suggesting we might have to wait on God’s fresh leading before we know what we should really be hoping for.
I think it’s a rather useful change in perspective that is robust to the slings and arrows of a real life in this fallen world. It’s OK to lament the marriage or family outcomes you hoped for. Lament is a Christian activity. Let me say that again- It is OK to lament the marriage or family outcomes you hoped for.
Sometimes I think marriage and family ministries in church don’t allow much room for lament within the family. The pressure is intense to be the perfect family, to be blissfully happy as a couple, to have great outcomes. When you see the friend who posts online about how perfect his or her spouse is, how their kid got into ivy league college after a stunning missionary journey, or their happy beautiful travel pictures. It leaves the temptation out there to hope for outcomes. But the outcomes of our family are not the definition of who we are. We are defined by the love of Christ and our love for others.
I would encourage a spiritual activity. Imagine God were to sit down with you today, and you were ask Him “This week (or this season of my life) what is it that you desire for my partner, children, marriage and family?” I expect the answer might be more about the process of loving and being part of a family, not the outcomes.
We want good outcomes. But repeatedly in Scriptures God’s directives for our relationships, whether family-relationships or other relationships, is a description of how to be: to be loving, focus on the other, practice hospitality, not to think too highly of ourselves but be humble, show gratitude, do the next right thing. It’s more about loving God, and loving others. Sometimes that brings good outcome, but not always.
Sometimes the children one wanted to raise together don’t happen, or don’t happen in the way you expected. Or sometimes those children struggle with their health, mental health, or spiritual health. Spouses grieve losses or experience traumas that change them, rob them, or harm them. A job or career is lost from circumstances, or a series of poor decisions, and the impact on the family can be long-lasting and deep. Partners can get stuck in mutual traps due to different needs in the relationship, both feeling like they are neither giving nor receiving what you really need. Alzheimer’s disease comes early, or cancer, or heart disease and the outcome of a happy retirement together playing with grandchildren disappears. Even when the outcomes are terrible, tragic or traumatic, the process of loving each other remains. This is a love that can’t be stolen, regardless of the outcomes.
Marriage and family ministries in our churches need this kind of robust strength and brutal authenticity. We shouldn’t just warn the newlyweds that life will be hard- no “really hard.” We should equip them with a lifetime of practices and processes that make them more like Christ in their life together. We should encourage the young parents or parents of teenagers to create a circle of encouraging friends who will love them. We as the church should care about the authentic struggles of life within a family. Leaders can model re-evaluation of personal desires in light of God’s desires. In following God’s desires we are free from the weight of happy outcomes and able to stay in the loving relationships with God, and our family.
I challenge you to close this time praying the prayer that Wright was referencing with your focus on your marriage or family. To let God’s hope for your marriage be the guiding force.
“Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners (in our family): Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979