Christian LivingMinistry

Marriage lessons in the present distress: Pastoral reflection

The postponement of marriage ceremonies hurts acutely during this pandemic, not only because of the goodness of what is being withheld, but also the length of time and preparation most couples put in for the day. This was certainly the case with my friend and brother in Christ, M. Coming from India and in keeping with his tradition, his wedding has taken an extraordinary level of planning. First, parents and elders of the family met to look for a suitable spouse for and on behalf of him. Then, M and his potential spouse took time to get to know one another. Finally, both families and relatives came together to confirm a marriage date. The whole process took several years, and M and his fiancée were set to marry in India in July last year. Families and relatives from all over the world flew to India to prepare for a big celebration, only to have the wedding indefinitely postponed due to the COVID outbreak there. M still hasn’t been able to go back to India to wed his betrothed more than a year on, with no firm date in sight yet. It has indeed been a distressing time.

Despite the heartache however, the present distress has been teaching invaluable marriage lessons for M. In the past year, M and I have frequently found ourselves coming back to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7. As Dani pointed out in the first part of this mini-series, the gospel truths in this portion of the Scriptures are comforting and instructive in his present distress, but (we believe) these gospel truths are also better preparing us for the marriage that is to come, that is, the marriage of the Lamb and his bride, the church. Here are at least three marriage lessons we have been learning and practicing through the present distress: ‘Losing control’, ‘Remaining cheerful’ and ‘Channelling the longing’.

1. Learning to lose control

The pandemic reminded everyone of just how little control we have over our lives. Losing control brings frustration and anxiety. We don’t do well with losing control. And if there is one thing we like to go according to plan, a wedding day (not to mention marriage!) would certainly be at the top of many people’s list. But losing control when it comes to marriage and weddings reminds us of who we are and also of what marriage is about. Sometimes couples seeking marriage think that they are the ones who brought themselves together. Yet a moment’s reflection on their journey both as a couple and as individuals would remind them of just how little control they had in coming together. If you’re married, think back to how you and your spouse met one another (in M’s case, this is very clear to see. His betrothal has only been made possible by direct intervention and mediation of many family members). If you feel as though you had a lot to do with meeting your spouse, then think about your birth year and sex, your appearance and ethnicity. How much control did you have over that?

Your meeting and committing to marry one another has been made possible only because God has overseen your every step and called you together (cf. 1 Cor 7:17-24). In anxious waiting under the present distress, engaged couples would do well to remember that the Lord who has brought them to this point in the first place has not and will not lose control. Your present unfulfilled married state is not an unfortunate accident. Rather, it is given by the same Lord who brought you to make a commitment towards marriage. The reasons may not be clear at present, yet it is the will of the Lord. So would you “remain there with Him” (v.24) with contentment and patience? In losing control and being reminded of how small we all are under such present circumstances as this, we learn to rest deeper in the Lord’s control and His great might.

If the steps you are taking towards marriage feel unexpected and out of control, it is also a good preparation for marriage (if and when it comes). Marriage will often make you feel like you’re out of your depth and not in control. For marriage is one of God’s training grounds to make us more like Christ. We learn how to rest in His control when all things seem to be out of control. To quote Russell Moore, “Family [Marriage] crucifies us. That’s because family [marriage] is one of the ways God gets us small enough to fight the sort of battle that can’t be won by horses or chariots but by the Spirit of the Lord” (The Storm-Tossed Family, p.21). Perhaps you can receive the present distress as God’s severe mercy to grow deeper into the image of Christ and better equip you for the true marriage that is to come.

2. Remaining cheerful

The apostle exhorts the Corinthians who were under distress:

29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning.

How can one mourn as though they were not mourning?

In a chapter with somewhat of an unusual title, ‘How to be Theologically Funny’, Stanley Hauerwas engages with the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. He comments that Barth was naturally a witty and fun-loving person. Then he hastens to add that for Barth however, humour was not simply a personality quirk. Rather, it was a testimony to and originated from his gospel conviction. He writes:

“Barth grounded humour in the eschatological character of the Christian faith, which means it is incumbent on Christians to refuse to take the present with ultimate seriousness. Such a perspective elicits a liberated laughter that derives from the knowledge of our final position –  in spite of appearances to the contrary – with present reality.” (Work of Theology, p.245)

The goodness of what is being withheld from engaged couples during this time makes grief fitting. It almost sounds cruel to say to couples in the present distress to remain cheerful or “mourn as though they were not mourning”. But the truth of the matter is, we can remain cheerful, and we can mourn as though we were not mourning. Not because we are blind optimists or because our loss isn’t real, but because there is always joy “in the Lord” (cf. Phil 4:4). That is, we know our final destination. It will be truly glorious. And as the Psalmist praises, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul” (Psa 94:19).

Everything sad, whether it be postponed marriage, failed marriage, or good marriage forgone ‘will become untrue one day’ (to quote J.R.R. Tolkien), “for the present form of this world is passing away!” (1 Cor 7:31). In the Lord, our life on this earth will be a comedy in the end, sooner or later. So let us remain cheerful. Despite the loss you feel, grow outward in serving and loving others (where the needs are great in the present distress). Make the best use of the remaining time of singleness instead of being solely focused and drowned by the present sorrow and disappointment.

3. Channelling your longing for marriage to fuel your desire for the Marriage

Speaking of the end reminds us that our marriages here on earth are but a shadow and foretaste of the Marriage. This is not to disparage nor minimise legitimately good and worthy desires for marriage (cf. 1 Tim 4:3). However, we are (I certainly am!) prone to forget about the Marriage (cf. 1 Cor 7:34-35). Compared to how much time and energy we spend on things to do with earthly marriage, how freely and willingly we reprioritise, or put on hold, everything else in life for the sake of the things of earthly marriage, heavenly marriage often takes a back seat or easily slips out of our minds and hearts.

The heartache and intense longing of the couples whose marriages are postponed can teach us how to prepare and wait for the Marriage. Feel the pain of your postponed marriage. Don’t minimise the frustration, anxiety and the loss you feel. Feel it in full. But don’t stop there. Channel your longing for marriage to fuel your desire for the Marriage. Don’t forget that feeling but have it imprinted in your heart. For that is the desire and longing we ought to treasure in our hearts till death do you part and you enter into the eternal marriage, which will never be cancelled or pass away. In this way you point your married brothers and sisters in Christ to do the same, as we all long for the day when all is made right.

My friend M and his fiancée have been learning and practising these lessons. Their pain and loss are real and immense at times. Sudden sadness and anxiety from an uncertain future overcome them in times of weakness. But they find peace in the Lord who has called them. And they are determined to not waste any state the Lord has called them to without responding with “undivided devotion to Him” (1 Cor 7:35b).