I’ve been doing lots of weddings these days. I was counting the other day and realized that I have six, right now, in the que. That is a lot of wonderful stories to keep straight! But it is so much fun!
One of my deepest joys as a pastor has become performing premarital counseling. It didn’t used to be. I think the pressures of the ceremony itself and the complexities of knitting two unique and very different selves into one left me feeling a bit overwhelmed and in over my head.
But I’ve grown since then, and one of the signs of that personal development has become an increased capacity and appreciation for the deeper emotional work that real spiritual maturity requires. I’m learning to detach from emotions and yet still appreciate them. To savor them, and even cherish them. It has been hard work, and yet so freeing.
This work has transformed the way I approach premarital counseling. Because I know it is going to get messy. But when it does, I can see it now for what it truly is…an invitation into something much deeper. That behind our walls of self-protection lies real intimacy.
Because all those immediate feelings of bubbly adoration that describe the honeymoon phase of marriage aren’t actually the real thing. They aren’t the end goal. And all it takes is one real moment of chaos and those hallmark card perceptions of love come crashing down. And when they do, the tendency, too often, is to withdraw, to flee, to put up our guard, and blame like crazy. But this is exactly the wrong response. This is what we must unlearn. This is where the real battle lies.
Because the chaos turns out to be the way forward. As long as we stay the course, transformation awaits. If only we can hold on and remain engaged. To lower our defenses. To allow the light of truth into those vulnerable places.
Inevitably, each couple will come to one of our sessions with that look of deep concern, even panic in their eyes. Things just got real. And the look isn’t, “is she or he the right one?” but more like “should I hit the ejection button?” There is always a huge sigh of relief when they hear that this is completely normal.
There is an illustration that I often use at times like these that I learned from Steven Pressfield in his book, Gates of Fire. It is a story about the 300 Spartan soldiers that held off a Persian army of thousands. The book explained that every Spartan held their citizenship as their highest value, as their identity. It wasn’t just part of them, it was who they were. But for soldiers, this citizenship would be stripped away from them if they lost their shield in battle. Any other item, their helmet or sword, could be dropped without penalty, but to lose their shield was essentially a death sentence.
Because their shield wasn’t for them. It was for the soldier standing next to him. His shield was mine. I was his protection. His life was in my hands.
I remember reading this for the first time and thinking, this is right at the heart of what makes marriage work. When chaos hits, we must see ourselves as going into battle, but not in our own defense, but for our spouse. I am her shield, and she is mine.
To guard my heart leaves hers exposed. But hers is the heart I’ve vowed to protect. And when I pour all my strength into protecting her heart, my insecurities shrivel. It awakens in me something deeper and nobler. My heart grows more courageous.
And when I see her do the same for me, I realize that we’ve become an unstoppable force. There is so much strength in selfless love.
As I shared this with a couple this week, I saw their eyes brighten. Their already connected hands gripped tighter. The cloud of worry and anxiety was chased out by newfound hope and vision.
Marriage calls us to more. As I look at this couple, I think, this is who we’re made to be. Deeper, more humble, stronger.
And this is who I long to be. Free enough to put Patty before myself. Brave enough to leave my own heart exposed. And courageous enough to use my shield for her sake and trust that she will protect mine.