The first two years of my marriage were incredibly tough. We were both in school full-time; Lisa worked part-time, and I carried a full-time job and preached at a small church on the weekends. The only time we weren’t exhausted was when we were sleeping, and we didn’t sleep much. Over time the stress pummeled our relationship, and we began to fight constantly. We stayed together, but only by the power of God and our unwillingness to quit.
One whopper of an argument started as a kind confrontation on Lisa’s part about an area of my life I needed to address. I managed to escalate that into a near nuclear meltdown. I said things I knew I’d regret. It was a Saturday night, and Lisa wanted to stay up and resolve the conflict, but I refused. I barked some unkind words, rolled over, and went to sleep.
The next morning as we both got ready for church, Lisa was surprisingly polite and gracious, not mentioning anything about the night before. As I walked out the door, however, she asked what I was preaching about. I shook my head and stormed out, because as luck would have it, I was in the middle of a series on marriage, and my topic that day was conflict resolution. As I walked away, Lisa yelled at my back, “Go get ’em, Pastor!”
But as we did the painful work of learning how to communicate with each other and embrace each other’s uniqueness, God began, day by day, to work a miracle in our relationship. By year four what had seemed to be a marriage headed straight for the courts, God and a ton of hard work had turned into an incredible source of joy for both of us. Yet those first two years marked us as a couple. We have always had a place in our hearts for couples in pain, and at every church where we’ve been we have started groups and classes for couples who are traveling the same hard road we traveled.
Our current ministry is in Philadelphia. When we arrived, Lisa and I worked with another couple on staff to start a marriage renewal course for couples. There have been many highlights. One of the couples stood up in front of the group and held up a stack of papers. “These are our unsigned divorce papers,” they said. “We came to this class as a last-ditch effort. In the past eight weeks, God has worked a miracle in our marriage.” Then they ripped the divorce papers in half in front of the entire class. The room erupted with applause. When I heard that story the next day, I wondered what would have happened if God hadn’t allowed us to have such a tough time during the first two years of our marriage. Would we have felt the need to start that class for hurting couples?
In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen underscores why it is necessary for Jesus to allow his followers to experience hardship and pain:
Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: Who can take away suffering without entering it?
The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.
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