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Elder Hafen has described three kinds of wolves that test every marriage. The first is the adversity that is a part of mortality. The second is our own imperfections. He describes the third as the “excessive individualism” that causes us to evaluate everything in terms of its effect on us. The value of every experience and every person is based on whether they meet our needs and honor our preferences.[i]
When we have this mindset we are like the person described by Thomas Clayton Wolfe: “Poor, dismal, ugly, sterile, shabby little man…with your scrabble of harsh oaths…Joy, glory, and magnificence were here for you…but you scrabbled along…rattling a few stale words… and would have none of them.”[ii]
The gospel of Jesus Christ is designed to lift our vision from our own petty and relentless wants to something nobler. “Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God” (D&C 82:19).
Bart Benson tells of being called upon to give marriage counsel when he was a just a young man serving as a missionary and branch president in Venezuela. A ward member had joined the church over the objections of his wife. Every time they tried to discuss the subject, she became angry. The man sought counsel from the young, untrained, and inexperienced missionary.
I opened my mouth to spout some platitudes of comfort and hope, but instead an idea crowded them out and expressed itself. For once my broken Spanish was clear and unencumbered.
“My friend,” I began, “next time you and your wife begin to discuss your baptism and you start to feel anger and frustration, stop. Say no more for a moment. Then take your wife into your arms, and hold her tight. Tell her that you love her, you appreciate her, and nothing will take her place in your life.”
He looked at me blankly. Perhaps he had expected a lecture or some grand principle that would save his marriage. He waited, maybe expecting me to continue, but I had nothing else to say. . . .
“Yes, Presidente,” he said. He left my office solemnly without saying anything more.
A week passed, and once again Fernando walked into the chapel. But there was a lightness in his step. His head was up, his eyes were clear, and he smiled. Throughout the meeting he fidgeted like a small child. Afterward he came to my office.
“Presidente, Presidente!” he exclaimed in a quiet but excited voice. “You will not believe what happened. I did as you said. We talked again of my faith and my baptism. Again she criticized me and told me I was deceived. I wanted to yell and tell her she was wrong, but I remembered your words. I stopped, took a breath, and looked at her, trying to remember all the years of love we have shared and the love that I still feel. She must have felt something in my gaze, for she softened. I took her into my arms and held her. I whispered that I love her, that I appreciate her, and that nothing could take her place as my wife. We cried. Then, sitting close, we talked for many hours about all we have experienced—the good, the bad—and then I held her again. For the first time in many weeks we felt love. Thank you, Presidente.”[iii]
When we are in disagreement in a marriage, very often our focus is on persuading our partner that we are right. This is much like trying to grab something from a child. As surely as we grab, the child will resist. As surely as we try to take from our partner her or his beliefs and preferences, we will get resistance and defensiveness.
When we try to drag our partners to our view of the world, they kick, fight, and scream. When, in contrast, we invite our partners to gaze with us on truths of eternity, we are more likely to find common ground. When we choose to love and appreciate our partners in spite of our differences, we open the door to love. When Fernando chose to focus on their common love rather than his own religious discoveries, he and his wife could move forward together.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has counseled us about the danger of focus on self in marriage: “I find selfishness to be the root cause of most of [the problems that lead to broken homes]. I am satisfied that a happy marriage is not so much a matter of romance as it is an anxious concern for the comfort and well-being of one’s companion. . . . There is a remedy for all of this. It is not found in divorce. It is found in the gospel of the Son of God. He it was who said, ‘What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder’ ( Matthew 19:6). The remedy for most marriage stress is not in divorce. It is in repentance. It is not in separation. It is in simple integrity that leads a man to square up his shoulders and meet his obligations. It is found in the Golden Rule.”[iv]
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ requires that we trust that God is working to rescue our spouses even as He is working to rescue us. When we have energizing faith in Christ, we trust His progress with our partner. The more we trust God’s purposes in perfecting our partners (and don’t try to take over the job ourselves), the more we all progress.
As Elder David A. Bednar said at BYU, “I wonder if we ever learn to acknowledge our daily dependence upon the enabling power of the Atonement.”[v] We cannot have great marriages without His participation.
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ assures us that we are not living a game of chance.
As marital irritations accumulate, it is easy to imagine that our marital choice was a hormone-sodden mistake. We forget the affirmations that pushed us toward marriage. We begin to honor instead our pre-marital doubts and vacillation. We might even begin to believe, as a friend in a troubled marriage once said to me: “This marriage is a punishment for my youthful impulsiveness.”
In the grip of such delusions, it seems necessary—even wise—to quit the relationship and start over. “I’ll do better the second time.” “My life might be so much better if I had just chosen differently” or “It wouldn’t be that big of a deal if I blew out of this marriage and into one with a better person—perhaps God might even want that for me.” This is Satan at work.
[There are circumstances where divorce is appropriate. For a wise and insightful article on the subject, see Should I Keep Working On My Marriage?]
As an almost universal rule, the best course is to honor covenants. One of the best-kept secrets in this world is that troubled, painful relationships can become both satisfying and growth-promoting as we fill ourselves with faith in God and love for His purposes. To quit a relationship because it is difficult is like dropping out of school because a course is so much harder and requires so much more of you than you expected. It is better to get a tutor.
It is hard to rightly express the truth about God’s influence in our lives. I believe the truth is something close to: “If I am trying to live the gospel, God will not allow anything to happen to me that cannot become a blessing for me.” Of course there is a little trick in this formulation. God can turn almost any of our choices into blessings. He has an amazing ability to transform our bad decisions into growth. But I believe it is also true that He even rescues us from having to face or confront decisions if we are not prepared for them. He keeps us from challenges that we cannot reasonably conquer.
As a loving parent, our perfect Father will help us in a multitude of ways to avoid ruining our lives and pre-empting our growth unless we simply defy Him.
A vital part of the truth is that God can take our messed-up lives and transform them into purposeful growth. Our choices in partners are not just random events in our lives. With our limited view, it’s reasonable to question if we might have bettered ourselves by choosing differently. Yet God is orchestrating our lives to a greater extent than we appreciate. Faith invites us to honor covenants and not jettison a relationship because of continuing troubles. God honors those who honor their covenants.
A dear and respected friend called me once to ask, “Can I quit this marriage yet?” His wife had turned her back on him and on the Church. There appeared to be nothing that could be done to rescue the relationship. Could he file for divorce yet? My answer was that, when we understand covenants, we do everything we are able. We don’t pull the plug.
This good man returned to giving his best to the relationship. His wife continued her path and eventually left the relationship. Yet he knew that he had given his best.
When we have vibrant faith, we trust that God brought us together for a good reason. We trust that He will refine and perfect us if we keep trying. We trust that all things work together for good for them that trust Him. We trust that we will one day be happier together than we can imagine.
This is the perspective of faith. It acknowledges that our lives are not random or meaningless.
Brigham Young said, “There is not a single condition of life that is entirely unnecessary; there is not one hour’s experience but what is beneficial to all those who make it their study, and aim to improve upon the experience they gain.”[vi]
At times of relationship stress the best of us may wonder if we should have married differently—if we made a mistake. My guess is that, in ways not discerned by us, God guided us to be together. My guess is that God can take our marital choices and make them ideally suited to bless and balance us. At my best I am the perfect man for Nancy. Nancy at her best is the perfect partner for me. I believe that. In fact I believe that God guides our lives in ways that we almost never discern. Not only does He sustain us from moment to moment by lending us breath, He also guides, rescues, protects, teaches, and blesses constantly.
With that belief as context, I think that one of Satan’s fundamental objectives is to undermine that sense. He wants us to think our lives are random or full of mistakes. I believe that any time we are trying to serve God, He protects us in numberless ways.
If I’m right, the idea has important consequences. It means that we should put our thinking and acting in service not only of the covenants we have made but also of the blessings God has brought into our lives. For example, any time we feel irritated with each other it is an opportunity to grow. Irritation is an invitation to better thinking and acting. Since, in most cases, we are perfectly designed for each other, staying engaged with each other is vital. But it isn’t a matter of stubborn resolve. It is a matter of replacing irritation with compassion and charity; replacing accusation with humility; replacing frustration with invitation.
Satan wants us to believe that our commitments (such as marriage) are chance events. That way we have no responsibility to repent. We simply re-make the decision. We move to a new marriage. It makes perfect sense—perfect telestial sense. However, serial monogamy often means failed growth.
God has other designs. He has hooked us up with partners and life experiences that are perfectly suited to grow us toward godhood. Rather than run from repentance, He wants us to embrace it. Every time we are inclined to drop out of a life commitment, God is inviting us to solve the unpleasant chafing by becoming more like Him.
One of the neat implications of this line of reasoning is that it gives us guidance for all our feeling, thinking, and acting. When we feel any level of irritation, God is saying, “Hey! Here’s a chance for you to become more like me!” In any miserable relationship we can remain “a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy” (George Bernard Shaw) or we can repent and move one step closer to being like Him.
President Hunter invited us to this kind of faith: “I am aware that life presents many challenges, but with the help of the Lord, we need not fear. If our lives and our faith are centered on Jesus Christ and his restored gospel, nothing can ever go permanently wrong. On the other hand, if our lives are not centered on the Savior and his teachings, no other success can ever be permanently right.”[vii]
Jesus’ unique qualification
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can transform our imperfect relationships into purposeful growth and soul-filling companionship. It is the foundation on which strong relationships are built.
When the floods and storms of life assail us, and we begin to sink, we can call on Him as Peter did: “While [Peter’s] eyes were fixed upon the Lord, the wind could toss his hair and the spray could drench his robes, but all was well—he was coming to Christ. Only when his faith and his focus wavered, only when he removed his glance from the Master to see the furious waves and the black gulf beneath him, only then did he begin to sink. In fear he cried out, “Lord, save me.”[viii]
My great grandmother died years before I was born, but I feel that I know her well. My dad has told me about her, and I have read her history. Grandma had a very hard life. She raised eleven children with very little support and very little money. There were only two things she hated: alcohol and sheep. You can probably guess some things about her husband. He was a sheepherder with a drinking problem.
With all the demands of life, Grandma did not enjoy the luxury of leisure time. She looked forward to the time when her children were raised so she could have time to read and to sew. She saved to buy a cherished book.
Then the children were raised. Finally she had time! And she went blind. The irony is almost too cruel. Dad has told me about going to visit her and asking her, as she sat in her chair, how she was doing. Her answer echoes through our family history. Though she could have been bitter, her stock answer was, “I’m all right. I’m all right.”
Grandma endured mortal disappointments—and did it faithfully and cheerfully—because she trusted in God’s ability to turn experience into blessings. She did not enjoy satisfying companionship in mortality, yet she trusted God to reward her faithfulness in eternity.
Having faith does not make everything easy. Rather faith makes life and its challenges both bearable and meaning-filled.
Reflect on the peace and optimism you have felt when you have been filled with His goodness. Our best decisions are those that are made when we are filled with that love and goodness.
Creating Your Own Story
Sometimes we get buried in the here and now. Jesus invites us to look to eternity. We can lift our eyes from daily irritations to heavenly purposes and eternal joys.
Spouses unchanged by the Spirit of God are likely to find fault with many things their partners say and do. This tendency can be replaced by a much more helpful one. When our partners say or do things that surprise or bother us, we can begin a friendly investigation. In our own minds we can ask ourselves, “I wonder why he feels or acts that way.” “I wonder why that is important to her.” Rather than judging our partners, we can seek to understand them.
Many of us get discouraged with our personal spiritual progress occasionally. The best remedies for such discouragement are projects and people. When we get busy doing things that we do well, we feel better. When we are around people who enjoy us, we feel better. What projects and people can you draw into your life to lift your spirits?
Sometimes our spirits are burdened by the challenges and disappointments of life and marriage. In both arenas, we can make a conscious choice to cast our burdens on the Lord. We can trust His perfect purposes. When doubt and anxiety arise, we can call on Him to keep us safe. We can remember that He is able to do His redemptive work. He is able to repair hearts and relationships that seem irreparable to us.
Our spouses also feel burdened from time to time. Sometimes they seem cranky–but they may be quietly carrying pain and loneliness. Rather than respond to our partners’ negativity with our own negativity, we can invite them to greater closeness and peacefulness when we offer persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and by love unfeigned (See D&C 121:41).
If you would like to buy your own copy of Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, go to:
[i] Douglas E. Brinley and D. K. Judd (Eds.), Living in a Covenant Marriage, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book , 3.
[ii] Laurence J. Peters, Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time, New York: Bantam , 6.
[iii] Bart Benson, “Unexpected Marriage Advice,” Ensign, Aug. 2005, 68.
[iv] “What God Hath Joined Together,” Ensign, May 1991, 73-74.
[v] “In the Strength of the Lord,” Brigham Young University 2001-2002 Devotional and Fireside Speeches, 7.
[vi] Journal of Discourses, 9:292.
[vii] Howard W. Hunter, The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft , 40.
[viii] Jeffrey R. Holland, Trusting Jesus, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book , 75.