I remember the night my parents split up.
My older brother Caleb came into my bedroom and whispered that Mom and Dad were in the kitchen talking about divorce. We weren’t surprised.
Mom and Dad, both sincere believers, couldn’t keep going; and in retrospect, it’s easy to see why. Their marriage of 17 years had been through the death of two children, unemployment, medical issues, isolation from other believers and serious financial troubles, among other things. At some point, they had started surviving separately.
As my parents pulled apart, I felt like I was being pulled apart with them. Throughout my childhood, I had begged God to keep them together; but by age 13, I could no longer bear to live with the consequences of my answered prayers. So I waited in my bedroom with Caleb, wondering if it was finally over.
My dad knocked on the door, came in with hands shaking and shortness of breath, and delivered the news: He and Mom weren’t just getting a divorce; he was moving out that night.
After Dad left, Caleb went outside and cried by himself. I felt relieved and looked forward to sharing the good news with my friends at school the next day. I naively thought that when my parents’ marriage was over, it would heal the wounds that I sustained while watching it fall apart.
Death of a Fairytale
Six years after the breakup, my mother spoke to a women’s group about her divorce. She wanted Caleb and me to hear her testimony, so she brought home a recording of it. We weren’t prepared for what we were about to hear.
We played the tape in my bedroom, reliving the memories with little emotion at first. But as Mom’s talk went on, it started hitting raw nerves that had largely been untouched since my parents’ split. Tears ran down our cheeks.
At the end of Mom’s testimony, Caleb wiped his eyes and said something that stuck with me: “That wasn’t supposed to happen to Prince Charming and Cinderella.”
In my imagination, I saw the cartoon Prince Charming and Cinderella in the ballroom, but they weren’t dancing anymore. They were arguing. He threatened to leave (again). She told him to get out.
During the coming years, I replayed that image in my head many times. The subconscious message behind it was something I had already internalized as a 13-year-old: There’s no such thing as a fairytale marriage.
As I grew into adulthood, I developed less and less nuance in my view of my parents’ failed marriage. Erased from the history books were the many happy times we shared as a family. Buried were the memories of Mom and Dad singing duets at church, teaching us the Bible in fun and profound ways, and making each other laugh. I reimagined their marriage as a dark blot on the timeline of my life, and I knew one thing for certain: I was not going to have a marriage like that.
Without understanding why, I steered away from dating. I didn’t spend time alone with women. I backed away when I thought a woman was interested in me. I even proudly called myself a “eunuch for Christ” (I’d love to hear a psychiatrist unpack that). And that one time in college I got really excited about a woman, we started talking about marriage before we even went on one date, and everything fell apart almost immediately.
I felt the ache of loneliness and the frustration of wanting companionship, but my resolve to avoid the risk of relationship was too strong. Nobody could break down the walls around me — not even me — until I ran into an unlikely foe: passion.
Here Comes the Bride
During my freshman year of college, I became close friends with Shon and Beth Cunningham, a young married couple from church. The Cunninghams’ affection for one another was obvious. You could see it in the way they looked at each other, talked to each other, touched each other and resolved tension. They honored and liked each other. They wanted to be together. And the more I spent time with them, the more I wanted what they had.
I actually think it had something to do with Shon’s theology. Shon had this fixation on the bride of Christ — not as a theory or an analogy — but as a true story about Someone in pursuit of romance at any cost, even dying for the one He loved. He also saw his marriage to Beth through that lens — as a reflection of that love story. He got choked up talking about it, and his perspective changed the way I saw the cross: Jesus didn’t just go to the cross to die for our sins — He went to the cross to die for us — His church, His bride. And we came with serious baggage. Yet Jesus embraced it.
Over the years, my growing understanding of Christ’s passion took on new life as I watched Shon model that kind of love with Beth. It gave me the courage to believe that the risk might be worth it if I could find a love like that. With caution, I began the search for romance.
The Real Thing
My pursuit began with the basics: I started dating. Naturally, it took me quite a while before I got comfortable with it — I hadn’t been on a date since senior prom. But even after I loosened up, I rarely made it past the second date without finding some reason to move on. I didn’t want to risk getting close to a woman who might not be worth a lifetime commitment. I was looking for this perfect combination of looks, intellect, commitment to Christ, healthy family of origin, and chemistry. It wasn’t out there.
While I was searching for the perfect mate, I failed to notice the liabilities I would bring to a marriage. To my horror, those liabilities came blazing into full view after I made a series of poor choices just before meeting Raquel, the woman who would eventually become my wife. My descent into sin was a crash-and-burn of such magnitude that overnight, I went from seeing myself as a hot commodity to seeing myself as a man who wasn’t worth a good woman’s gamble.
Thank God Raquel didn’t see me that way. Shortly after starting to date, I opened up to her about my failures. I expected her to run away, but she didn’t. She told me she respected my courage in telling the truth, and then she opened up about her own mistakes. We acknowledged that while we were both well on our way down the road of repentance, neither of us were a safe bet.
Even so, we went ahead and loved each other all the way to the altar, then through three moves, three kids, plenty of conflict, character flaws, medical issues and many other challenging circumstances beyond our control. Almost ten years later, I’m still amazed that we took a chance on each other.
The Great Gamble
As I’ve watched many marriages dissolve through the years, I have learned there are no safe bets in marriage, no guarantees, no insurance policies. But those who embrace the risk of entering into covenant relationship with another dare to participate in the reenactment of the greatest romance of all time: not Prince Charming and Cinderella — but Jesus and His bride.
Marriage calls us to throw ourselves upon the mercy of another human being and run the risk of losing the battle as the world, the flesh and devil fight to tear us apart. But Jesus, the only perfectly faithful husband, has led the way. He stretched out His arms on the cross and called His bride to come, to fall into His embrace and remain in His love. That invitation required Him to put His very life on the line, to be willing to lose it all to gain love. He can give us the courage to take that risk too, no matter what brokenness we’ve seen in the marriages around us.
In “The Four Loves,” C.S. Lewis writes:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
I could have cowered in the shadow of my parents’ broken marriage. I could have called myself the victim of a tragic story and refused to risk love for fear of failing. But thanks to the grace of our loving God, the example of couples like Shon and Beth, and the love of a good woman, I now know the highs and lows, risks and rewards of a marriage that leans in and fights through the challenges for a common purpose. Seeing how far we’ve come, it’s too late for Raquel and me to turn back now.
And we don’t want to.
Copyright 2017 Joshua Rogers. All rights reserved.