Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rick and Kay Warren Talk About Their Unlikely--and Sometimes Difficult--Marriage...What It Tells the Rest of Us

Rick Warren is the author of The Purpose Driven Life, among other books, and the founding pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California. He and his wife Kay have undertaken an international ministry dealing with Third World poverty and the prevention of AIDS.

But in a new book, excerpted in Christianity Today online, they reveal that their marriage hasn't been of the story book, happily-ever-after variety. Kay Warren recalls preparing for their wedding, an event precipitated by the belief each had that God meant for them to be together though they had no real affection for one another:
"I remember standing in the back of the church," Kay recalls, "waiting to walk down the aisle, going, 'Okay, God, those feelings that you said you'd bring? It would sure be nice if you'd bring those feelings sometime soon.'"
Things went from bad to worse as the couple descended into what the book describes as "marital hell," including a disastrous honeymoon, sexual dysfunction, constant squabbling, a hospitalization triggered by ongoing stress at home for Rick Warren, and other issues.

The two have kept their marriage together over the years, it seems, owing to two major personal factors.

First, they were, as mentioned above, convinced that God wanted them to be together.

Second, they entered their marriage with the firm resolve that divorce would never be an option. They believed firmly in Jesus' words on the subjects of marriage and divorce. One place where Jesus discusses these topics is in Mark 10:2-12:
Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
These words may be grating to our twenty-first century ears. (They were probably even more grating on the ears of Jesus' first hearers: Whether among his fellow Judeans or their Roman overlords, divorces were far easier to get and far more common than is true today.) But, we must wrestle with the fact that Jesus was firm in asserting that God means for marriage to be a lifelong commitment and that it shouldn't be destroyed for flimsy reasons.

The Warrens believed that. So, they decided that no matter what, they would not divorce.

I once knew a couple who vowed to one another prior to their wedding day, as the woman told me some forty years into their marriage, "We will never divorce." Like the Warrens, this couple hasn't had the easiest of times. One of them is a recovering alcoholic; the other has found it hard to keep steady work. But they've stuck it out and today they enjoy a happy marriage, savoring each other, their children, their children's spouses, and their grandchildren.

Most of us, of course, never get a clear sense of God telling us to marry a particular person, as happened to both Rick and Kay Warren. (It was a weird experience for both of them, it seems. Rick Warren says that never before or since did he sense God telling him to do something so directly and clearly.) So, most won't have a moment of clear revelation to fall back on when a spouse drives them nuts for the umpteenth time or when the arguments seem never to stop or when husband and wife seem, simply, to be rowing in different directions.

But, like the Warrens and countless others, we can rely on God to help maintain and strengthen our marriages.

In the marriage liturgy of Lutheran Book of Worship, the following address, rooted in sound Biblical teaching, is often given to couples as they stand before the altar:
The Lord God in his goodness created us male and female, and by the gift of marriage founded human community in a joy that begins now and is brought to perfection in the life to come.

Because of sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast and the gift of family can become a burden.

But because God, who established marriage, continues still to bless it with his abundant and ever-present support, we can be sustained in our weariness and have our joy restored.
There are several things that I love about this address.

First, I love how it alludes to Genesis 2, where we're shown that men and women, created in God's image, are complementary. Males and females are called together into the marital relationships because only a man and a woman both share the imprint of God's image while remaining utterly different. The two of them are made complete by their union into one flesh. They are made for each other.

Second, I love how it reminds us of the promises of God. God is always willing to renew and strengthen us in the impossible venture of remaining in a marriage for a lifetime. Every time our faith flags, our enthusiasm wanes, and we think we can't take one more moment, those who dare to submit to God for help can find the same renewal the prophet Isaiah talked about hundreds of years before Jesus was born:
God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:29-31]
I'm personally convinced that every day of the week, there are couples who crash land into divorce courts unnecessarily, faint, weary, and exhausted from trying to keep their marriages together with personal effort and duct tape.

But what happens if both husband and wife submit their marriages to God, if each partner willingly takes responsibility for whatever personal sin and selfishness they brought to the table on the day they said, "I do" and everyday thereafter?

That submission to the God we know in Christ and those confessions can be the first steps toward the healing and restoration of their marital relationships. Such reliance can help couples realize that their spouse may not be the enemy, that, in fact, their enemy is often themselves, or their ridiculous romantic notions, or a culture that so elevates individual and personal fulfillment that it leaves no room for the most wonderful human relationship any of us can enjoy, the marital relationship.

In recent weeks, as some people have challenged me for my opposition to changes made in the policies of my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), regarding the acceptance of monogamous homosexual relationships, whether among clergy or laity, I'm asked, "If the Church has so dramatically changed its views on marriage and divorce, why shouldn't it change its tune on gays and lesbians in committed sexual relationships, legitimizing such relationships?"

There's a certain fairness in the question. While the Church and Christians are not called to play the role of vigilante, the Church does have a responsibility to declare God's truth as found in God's Word. The Church is also called to exercise the Office of the Keys conferred upon it by Jesus, to declare forgiveness to the repentant and to withhold it from the unrepentant.

In spite of the call to both restraint and respnsibility though, the Church--the whole Church--has, in recent decades more or less looked the other way as Christians have married, divorced, and remarried. (And done so at levels which often surprass those of the general population.) We don't spend much time reminding couples that the Rick and Kay Warrens of the world, in staying together in spite of enormous challenges and differences of opinion, ought to be the norm and not the startling exception.

Christians are called to have the same unassailable commitment to making their marriages work that the Warrens have demonstrated. Like them, couples who decide to take Jesus seriously both as God-in-the-flesh and the One most capable ot laying down God's expectations when it comes to marriage, may need to seek out good counseling. Successful marital restoration isn't guaranteed; but failure is guranteed for those who don't seek God's help in prayer and who aren't honest enough and courageous enough to enlist the help of competent help from counselors who can provide godly advice.

To those who point to the failure of the Church to deal with the seriousness of marriage and God's dim view of divorce as a reason for ordaning gays and lesbians in committed life relationships and for allowing churches to bless the unions of gays and lesbians in such relationships, I can only say that I admit the mistake of the Church in not doing all that it can to encourage married couples to stay together. This is a mistake I personally pray to avoid in my future years as a pastor. We need to take marriage more seriously...and more inviolable.

But just because we have dropped the ball in upholding marriage as a lifelong commitment and ignored couples' adoption of a "for as long as we both shall dig it" proposition, doesn't mean that we should replicate the same mistake. Having turned our back on one Biblical imperative doesn't mean that we should ignore yet another Biblical teaching on marriage, namely that it exists for a man and a woman living in complementarity and mutual servanthood for a lifetime. One mistake cannot jutify making another one.

But the core point that Rick and Kay Warren demonstrate for us all is that not even the most problematic of marriages is beyond help from the God we know in Jesus Christ.

So, the next time you get exasperated with your spouse, remember a few inportant points:
  • Whether you think that God brought you together or not, you are together. God expects the two of you to work things out, to do your level best to fulfill the vows you once made to each other.
  • Pray for help from God. Be prepared for that help to sometimes come through competent counselors. (You should expect your counselor to evidence both counseling competence and a deep connection to what the Bible has to say about marriage, divorce, life, death, salvation, and priorities. If they don't fit the bill on both counts, don't go to them for counseling!)
  • In the end, it doesn't matter what brought you together in Holy Matrimony, unless you have a spouse who has committed adultery, has utterly spurned you for your faith, or subjected you to abuse, divorce shouldn't be an option.
Where there's a vow, there's a way. The question is if both husband and wife remain willing to live out their vows. If they are, good things can happen. God can make it possible for them to do things they cannot do on their own, however well-intentioned they may be.


Jeff Branch said...

Really good food for thought both on marriage between a man and woman or otherwise.

Carol said...

As a person who's been married for 26 years, I know the challenges that come and must be worked through for couples. Probably the only reason I'm still married today is due to the fact that I just didn't have the energy to move all my stuff. (Sad, but true.) But, I feel that your blog may be condemning to women trapped in the bondage of an abusive relationship. They look to the Bible for how to be the perfect wife, or Christian and it tells them to suck it up? If BOTH parties are willing to take responsibility for the marriage and humble themselves before God to help them, then, yes, stay and try to work it out. But I have seen too many women be put through guilt and persecution because it would be sinful to leave their abusive spouses. These women are frail and vulnerable and look to the church for guidance and answers. We need to be more sensitive to the fact that many are hiding their pain due to shame involved. Please remember that these situations exist more than you suspect. I know God hates divorce, but I think it would make him sadder to see anyone have to suffer the emotional, mental and physical torture suffered in the name of being "Christian".

Mark Daniels said...

Boy, I hope that I didn't come across as telling people to stay in abusive relationships, Carol. That was far from my intention.

Over the years, I've counseled with many individuals in abusive relationships and I've always shared with them my belief that there is more than one way for spouses to be unfaithful.

One of them, in my book, is to be physically or emotionally abusive. Anyone who disparages the humanity of their spouse in this way isn't really married or committed to the marriage. When an abused spouse leaves a relationship, they are, to my mind, only verifying a truth that already exists; the marriage had already been broken by the abuser.

I agree with what you wrote in your comments.

God bless.

Pastor Mark