The Fighting Marriage (Part 4 of 5)
Jo and I were living in a Portland suburb with our two small boys and newborn baby girl. One hot summer night, we pitched a tent in the back yard for the boys. As Joshua and Jonathan drifted off to sleep, the couple behind our house began to fight. Since none of us in the neighborhood had air-conditioning, and it was too hot to close the windows, everyone heard the argument, punctuated by louder and increasing uses of the “f” word. Amazingly, our sons slept through the battle. Finally we heard a loud slap of hand hitting flesh, followed by a woman’s wail. The argument was over.
It was hard to imagine that those two people ever cared for one another, let alone stood in front of an altar pledging to love and cherish each other until death.
Most of us know we shouldn’t eavesdrop on a marital spat, but when we inadvertently hear one, it’s almost impossible to ignore. Consumed with uncontrollable passion and rage, the combatants aren’t thinking about who might overhear. These are not civil discussions characterized by cold indifference. When lovers quarrel, sparks fly!
An Angry or Loving God?
There are many people today who say they can’t accept the God of the Old Testament because He is so judgmental. His wrath scares people, and with good reason. Sometimes it feels as though God’s anger is totally out of control. Naturally, many people prefer to worship only a God of love. They view God as a caring deity who would never hurt anyone. On the other hand, some of these same people get angry with a loving God whom they perceive to be indifferent to their suffering. They would like to see God execute justice on those who hurt them.
So which God is He — a God of love, or a God of anger? I found it difficult to reconcile the two until I began to see God as a jilted lover. Because He loves so passionately, He gets angry when His love is spurned. In that context, God’s wild emotions make sense.
John Eldredge has described reading the prophets as the equivalent of overhearing a man and wife fighting in the next room. That’s a pretty accurate assessment. When we think about how we’ve been hurt in our relationships, we recognize many of the same emotions in God’s indictment of Israel. I’ve concluded that God loves His people with great passion, and the evidence of that passion is most apparent when He angrily confronts idolatry. It’s not unlike a man catching his wife in bed with another lover.
The Bible records many heated encounters between God and Israel. Most of the marital fights are rather one-sided; God does most of the yelling. After listening to Him for a while, I have to wonder what person in his right mind would put up with such an unfaithful spouse.
God considered the nation of Israel His wife. He’d made a covenant with Abraham and his descendents — an irrevocable commitment. He was hurt — just as anyone of us would be — when His wife committed adultery. But the worst feeling came when His beloved not only was seduced by other lovers (other gods) but actively chose to pursue those worthless imitations. How could she worship wood and stone replicas of creation when she was married to the One who created all things? To God, this was inconceivable!
When I set aside my assumptions about the God I’ve worshiped in nice churches for 40-plus years, I’d say He sounds a lot like a frantic lover who will say and do almost anything to save His marriage. Well, perhaps that is the case. Maybe my modern image of God is too tame. When I read the prophets, I hear God’s heart breaking. But He wasn’t simply a complaining God. He took action and disciplined Israel with tough love. There had to be a separation for a while, so that issues could be dealt with and healing might occur. This relationship was far too important to let things slide. God wanted His love back, and He was determined to do whatever was necessary to accomplish that.
Fighting for Marriage
I can’t help but be impressed with how hard God fights for His marriage. If there is one very alarming trend now in the culture, it’s the number of "amicable" divorces. I hear of couples simply drifting apart. They say they don’t love each other anymore; there is no passion, so they go their separate ways. There is no battle at all for the marriage. Is it because couples don’t expect much from their marriages? We fight passionately for those things we care most about.
It occurs to me as I review passage after passage of God’s challenges to His beloved that maybe His anger shows us when and how to fight within a marriage. First, God’s complaints are based on the covenant. It’s interesting that He held the people of Israel to a much higher standard than other nations. He had given Himself to them as their God, and they had agreed to be faithful to Him alone. Heaven forbid that God should ever go back on His word, but if He had, the people could have rightly called Him to account.
In fact, there is one situation where that happened. God was angry with His people after they built a golden calf to worship while God was giving Moses the law on Mount Sinai. God told Moses to get out of His way so He could destroy them. "Then,” He said, “I will make you into a great nation." You’d think this was a golden opportunity for Moses. But Moses didn’t see it that way. He appealed to God: "Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendents as numerous as the stars.’"
Moses had every right to challenge God based on the covenant. Because of that appeal, God relented and did not follow through on His threat. God, likewise, had every right to challenge Israel’s unfaithfulness, and He did so based on the fact that they were married.
A friend of mine, Pete, struggled with an addiction to pornography, and when his wife discovered the problem, she confronted him. At first he dismissed her accusations. "This is no big deal," he said. "Why are you upset?"
"Because we’re married," she calmly explained through her tears. "I love you. I’m here for you. You don’t need these other women."
"But they’re just pictures!" he protested. "They mean nothing."
"Then give them up," his wife pleaded.
But my friend didn’t. Pete simply did a better job of hiding the evidence. Once I became aware of his struggle, I would occasionally ask him how he was doing, and every time he would say he had the problem under control. But gradually I saw him less and less frequently. Pete’s wife was right to be concerned, for over time her husband’s problems increased. He started calling 900 numbers and visiting strip clubs. When she discovered the evidence on credit card bills, they had a far greater confrontation. Despite her evidence, Pete refused to admit he had a problem and get help. We’ll come back to Pete in a minute.
Patient, But Not Passive
My second observation is God’s astonishing patience. I find this hard to understand, for in our culture, we have a quick-fix mentality. We don’t allow much time for a person to change. But God spent hundreds of years fighting for this marriage. He continually reached out to His beloved. "Come back to me!" He’d plead. Sometimes she did. Occasionally hard times were required — famine or conquest by enemies — to bring her to her senses. Then she’d cry out for mercy and God always responded. My human attitude would have been to let her stew a little longer in her misery — it served her right.
It’s sad how many couples aren’t willing to persevere. But in a self-centered society, if I’m not happy, I don’t have much patience. I want my happiness now!
Finally, I note that God isn’t passive about the problems of His marriage. God didn’t just endure Israel’s unfaithfulness. He didn’t simply vent His emotions; He also took constructive action. For Israel that meant tough love. That meant separation for a time so she could work out her problems.
There is nothing spiritual about being a doormat. A spouse doesn’t need to endure unending abuse, whether physical or emotional. When a husband abuses his wife and demands she submit and accept that abuse, it’s wrong. This is not the love that was promised in the covenant.
Pete’s wife exercised tough love when he refused to deal honestly with his sexual addiction. After she confronted him with the evidence, she insisted he move out. "I do not want a divorce," she said. "I love you, Pete. But what you are doing is wrong. It is hurting me and it is hurting our children. We cannot continue to live this way. When you are willing to get help and become the man God created you to be, then I will welcome you back."
These words and actions were a wake-up call for Pete. He did seek help, and though there were several setbacks, the couple were reconciled a year later. Without his wife’s tough love, I seriously doubt whether Pete would have changed.
My conclusion from Scripture is that if God feels His marriage is worth fighting for, mine is worth fighting for, too.
Happily Ever After?