Here’s an excerpt from my latest book, which, if you haven’t already (what’s the matter with you?!), you can get here.
The reason I insist that the couples over whose nuptials I preside are people of faith is because they need to believe that the call and response of repentance and forgiveness is the only way they will be changed. I use the passive voice on purpose. The call and response of I’m sorry/You’re forgiven is the liturgy of married life. It’s the back-and-forth of bride and groom by which God sanctifies us.
Offering forgiveness freely and freely receiving it, we are made holy. We do not grow closer to God or grow more like God through improvement. The language of spiritual progress implies a gradual lessening of our need for grace the nearer and nearer we journey to God. Yet, the God who condescends to us in the suffering, humble, and humiliated Christ is not ever a God waiting for us to make our way up to him. The God who came down to meet us in crèche and cross continues to forsake his lofty throne. God comes down still. He hides behind unimpressive words like, “I forgive you.”
God changes us through the ordinary means of “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” As much as water, wine, and bread, your wife’s free offer of forgiveness in the face of your sin is a sacrament of God’s transforming grace. The Beloved gets no closer to us than our bride or our groom. The Bridegroom has condescended to us whenever we see our sin in the eyes of our beloved yet hear instead words of unmerited pardon. God not only wears these words of forgiveness like flesh, God uses them to transform us. This is why, to every prospective husband and wife who gushingly tell me how they’ve found their soul mate, I’ve practiced responding, “Big deal.”
We have so much in common.
She’s just like me in every way.
We fit together like two puzzle pieces. [People actually talk like this.]
We’re so compatible.
Don’t get me wrong, compatibility sounds awesome. The language of compatibility makes marriage sound easy. The problem my unimpressed “big deal” is meant to unveil is that, to the extent Christian marriage is meant to be a parable of God’s own love, change does not come through compatibility. Change, Christianly speaking, comes through collision. We are not transformed by seamlessly fitting another into our life. We’re not all puzzle pieces strewn across the great cosmic game table. Sorry, no one is The One for you. Another can only become The One for you as you are both made holy. And holiness comes through the rough-and-tumble process of having another reveal our true sucky self to us.
Before we’re married, not only do we have an incomplete understanding of the other person. We have an incomplete understanding of our selves. We bring in to marriage a self-image that’s been formed by the judgments and praise of people who don’t know us as well as our spouse eventually will know us; consequently, as we live our lives with someone else, we discover that we’re not the same person we thought we were. And in a marriage, there’s not a lot of room to hide. You’re exposed. All the veils are pulled away. It’s not that there’s no secrets in marriage. It’s that there aren’t as many secrets as we want.
It’s the inverse of what I like to call Jason’s Rule, which is really a cribbed version of Hauerwas’s Rule. Jason’s Rule states that You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying. The corollary to Jason’s Rule is that You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married.So once you’re inside a marriage, it’s not just the other person’s flaws and imperfections that are revealed. It’s your own.
But notice, it’s not your spouse who’s unveiling your flaws and imperfections. It’s marriage. This is what collared types like me mean when we call marriage “a means of God’s grace.” It’s a means by which God condescends to us to convict us and to change us. Our true self must be revealed through the painful process occasioned by the need to say “I’m sorry” so that through his word of free pardon, God can unveil, by degrees, our transformed self.