(for any who missed the nightly 7-part instalments that have just finished, this is a round-up post of all seven parts in one place).
Seven from Seven.
Seven is a very cool number. Seven is symbolic; seven is significant. Six days of work plus one day of rest make up God’s ideal week, making seven a number of completeness and fulfilment. Seven pairs of clean animals were required on the Ark compared to just one pair of unclean animals. There are seven stems on the lampstand in the Tabernacle in Exodus, Jericho fell after seven circuits by the Israelites on the seventh day and there are seven qualities of the Messiah in Isaiah ch. 11. There are seven “I AM” statements by Jesus in John, seven fruits of the Spirit in Galatians and Revelation is absolutely obsessed with the number seven: seven churches, seven angels, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven bowls of wrath, seven everything. These are just some of the 735 references to the word ‘seven’ in the Bible. Seven is associated with perfection, forgiveness and Godliness.
What about outside the Bible? The number seven is also significant in other religions and also in secular society. Seven is perceived to be a lucky number, there are seven wonders of the world and seven colours in the spectrum of light. I could go on.
This year Lucy and I celebrated seven years of marriage. More than any other milestone we’ve reached so far, this one felt special. They talk of a ‘seven-year itch’, a point after which marital commitments tend to be sealed and divorce rates drop markedly. You can find divorce rate statistics suggesting all kinds of things, most at variance with the others, but from my own observations the danger point for marriages is within the first few years, when the relationship is still bedding in. I’ve also heard it said in Christian circles that it takes about seven years just to stop thinking like individuals and start thinking like a couple. I’m sure that’s not a hard and fast rule, but again it rings true. I was unmarried for over two-thirds of my life so far, and it takes a long time to counteract the selfish habits built up in those years of childhood and singleness.
So it feels good to reach this point. It’s good to buck the trends where many marriages end early, especially for those who marry as young as we did. It makes me sad to see marriage as an institution diminished by being treated as an experience or a passing phase. For us, it’s the absolute bedrock and foundation of family life, sacred and precious. From the very start we knew it wasn’t just about the big day – we were in it for the long-haul.
So today, seven years in to our marriage, I’d like to share seven things we’ve learned in these seven years. It’s a mixture of the practical and the philosophical, things I feel should be better known and which, had we understood them from the start, would have made the first few years much easier.
First, we’ve learnt that we’re not perfect and that we shouldn’t expect too much of each other. There are perfectionist tendencies in western culture that put us under a lot of pressure, and not only us, but those around us. Husbands have to be this, that and the other, handyman, counsellor, friend, lover, cheerleader, pathfinder and on and on. Wives are expected to be able to do everything, combining so many different roles that it would take several people to do them justice. The truth is that we’re fallible and we’re limited. Marriage doesn’t suddenly fix all our selfishness or character flaws and doesn’t magically make up for those areas we’re just not good at something. It’s a process and a journey, a slow and gradual transformation into the people God wants us to be. There’s scope within that for helping and spurring each other on, but it should stop short of trying to change the other person. The change will come naturally, it doesn’t need to be forced. Love is accepting our spouse, imperfections and all, just as they are. Love is having the grace to let them be selfish or angry or insensitive and choosing to love them all the same.
Second, we’ve learnt that we’re not God. I know – hold the front page. And yes, probably something we ought to have known already, but what I mean is this: we’ve learned that we can’t replace the role of God in our spouse’s life. We can’t be everything to them and we shouldn’t try. There’s a long list of things that only God can do. Partly this goes back to my first point about not expecting each other to be perfect, but partly it also shows the importance of quality time with God individually as well as together. The truth is that God is more important than our marriage. My relationship with Him takes priority over my relationship with Lucy, and the same is true in reverse. If it’s the other way round then marriage becomes an idol and things are out of kilter. If our fulfilment and self-worth and identity are invested solely in another person, then we’re setting ourselves up to fail and putting intolerable pressure on that person. Actually, God is a much wiser choice when seeking those things, because His resources are limitless, and He won’t disappoint your hopes. And the best bit is this: when you put God first, far from suffering your marriage actually benefits.
Third, we’ve learnt not to go to bed angry. Ephesians 4:26-27 says this: “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” We’ve learnt to do whatever it takes to at least begin solving a quarrel before we shut our eyes. It might not be fully fixed, but you’ve got to make a start, talk about it, apologise. You don’t want to wake up with a wall of issues between you. That’s when the devil gains his foothold. Mornings are busy, you have to get going, so it’s all too easy to rush on and forget the issue at hand. It then gets buried under the busyness of life, and never dealt with. And what does the devil do with his foothold? He builds on it, pushing to gain more and more territory in your life. An unresolved dispute festers, gnawing at those involved and growing larger in their minds than it should be. It could be the hidden thing that causes you to snap or suddenly respond with anger to something trivial later. Left too long, it might even cause you to drift apart and endanger your marriage. No, this is not how it should be. Issues need to be brought out into the open. That requires vulnerability and trust; it requires a willingness to have difficult conversations. But that discomfort is short-term compared to the damage of harboured resentment or bitterness.
Fourth, we’ve learnt that love is sacrificial. Love is not just a warm fuzzy feeling or intoxicating passions, love is anything and everything we do each day to bless the other. It is sacrificial in the sense that you have to give up your right to be number 1, taking all the decisions yourself and getting your way all the time. It means sacrificing your right to be right or to hang onto grievances, all for the sake of long-term unity. True love is shown when someone is willing to sacrifice something for the other, demonstrating in countless on-going decisions that that person and the marriage is more valuable than the thing being sacrificed. For God that extended even to His own Son, His sacrifice of Jesus being the greatest expression of love ever made. Our sacrifices, big and small, are an echo of that ultimate love.
Fifth, we’ve learnt to speak in each other’s love languages. Different people speak different love languages; they express and receive love in different ways. What to one person is loving is to another barely worth taking notice of. Gary Chapman has defined five love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, gift-giving and acts of service. Some people can do most or all of these at times, but, like having a mother tongue, we all have one love language which comes most naturally to us. In marriage love has to be conveyed in a language that the other person understands. Lucy likes gifts as much as the next person, but I can lavish all manner of presents on her and she can still feel unloved if I don’t give her the quality time that is her primary dialect. If I neglect that, I might as well be speaking Greek to her. Conversely, Lucy does all kinds of acts of service for me, whether it’s cleaning the bathroom or sketching out a design I’ve got in my mind, but that’s not my main love language. I appreciate those things, but unless they’re accompanied by words of affirmation I will feel unloved. So, even though these other expressions of love might not come naturally to us, we have to become fluent in them for the sake of our spouse. It’s as hard but as rewarding as learning another language, say French of Italian. But a failure to do so will mean all kinds of frustration and mis-matched efforts. Your best will never be enough if it’s lost in translation, so spare yourself wasted effort and invest your efforts where they’re most readily understood.
Sixth, we’ve learnt to keep each other’s love tank full. The concept of a love tank comes from a marriage devotional book by Gary Thomas. Like the fuel tank in a car, it can either be empty, when a person feels very low and unappreciated, or full, when a person is basking in the full knowledge that they’re loved. Neglect, hurtful actions and unfulfilled requests all drain the love tank; whereas time, attention and thoughtfulness fill it up as surely as a petrol hose plugged into a car. With the best will in the world, that tank will often run low, you can’t always keep it brimming at the surface (unless you’re some kind of super-husband/super-wife), but the important thing is to remember to fill it up before it drains down to the bottom. That’s when the car stops working/marriage starts seizing up. Learn to spot the symptoms of a low tank, those signals given by your spouse like the flashing fuel gauge on the dashboard, and act quickly to put it right. Again it goes back to those love languages. For Lucy’s tank to run dry I don’t necessarily need to do anything really bad or hurtful (although those things are rapid tank-drainers), it may just be that I’ve been speaking in the wrong love language. I might be really affirming her or being physically affectionate in passing, but all the while her gauge is getting lower. I know that what I need to do is spend time with her, put other things aside and give her my undivided attention. That’s like filling up at the petrol station for her. Learn what fills your spouse’s tank, get an accurate gauge, and keep it topped up as much as you can.
Seventh, we’ve learnt that marriage is really a metaphor of God’s love for us. All these lessons really come back to Him. God is love and Jesus showed us in person what that love is really like. The longer I’m married, the more I learn about God’s love. The more I learn the more I try to imitate His sacrificial, selfless, servant-hearted and sublime example. Marriage is a worthy institution in its own right, but it’s not just about man and woman, husband and wife. It represents something greater, the union between Christ and the church. Just as when man and woman become one flesh, so Chris abides with His people. As the husband looks after his wife, so Christ cherishes His church. As a wife respects and honours her husband, so the church reveres Christ. All the instructions Paul gives for Christian marriages in Ephesians 5 are based on the model of Christ and the church. The former flows from the latter. Marriage is there for the company and delight of two individuals, and as the basis of family life, but it is also a revelation of the kind of relationship we have with Jesus, and a foretaste of the even greater intimacy that is to come. This eternal perspective helps us in the here and now. It helps us look beyond short-term circumstances and overcome passing problems. It encourages us to be a better husband and a better wife. I thank God that He uses something so vivid and tangible to give us such profound insight.
So these are seven things that Lucy and I have learnt in seven years of marriage. We’ve learnt to have reasonable expectations of each other and to both look to God for what only He can provide. We’ve learnt to settle quarrels quickly and not give them room to fester. We’ve learnt that love has to be sacrificial, and that is has to be expressed in the right terms. We’ve learnt to keep each other’s love tanks full, whatever it takes, and we’ve learnt how our marriage symbolises God’s devotion and commitment to each and every one of us in the church. These aren’t the only lessons we’ve learnt, just some of the most important. Each one has enriched and strengthened our marriage, safeguarding it against selfishness and indifference. I wish we had learnt them all right away, so that our first couple of years together would have been easier, so I would encourage other couples to be mindful of them right from the outset.
But now that these seven years are complete, another seven begins. May God continue to speak to us and shape us in His image, giving us the grace to love each other ever better. There are more lessons to be learnt along the way, but these seven are a strong foundation for the stories we build next.