With the marriage three weeks ago of the last of my five daughters, I hope I've earned the right to repeat in this space some observations I first made much earlier in the process.
At the wedding, I shed a few tears-but found no deep regrets or worrisome apprehensions. Am I a dreamer? Is it foolish in today's context not to be paralyzed by the prospect of failure in marriage?
Why have our expectations been so radically lowered that we're scared, when we meet someone we haven't seen for 10 years, to ask how the family is doing?
It's partly because we've also forgotten what high expectations God has of marriage. Yet that's why when I kissed my daughter goodbye a few days ago, it was with much more joy than fear. I think she and her husband have an exciting glimpse of the prospects God has put before them.
My own first serious thoughts about marriage came in the late 1950s. In spite of the fact that in my parents I witnessed a marriage that was both solid and romantic, I recall getting a strangely discomfiting message from other sources during my late adolescence. "Marriage is OK," I heard. "But don't expect too much from it. It's hardly designed to put you in orbit."
I heard such cautions from several sophisticates who thought they were doing me a favor. They didn't want to set me up for a fall. They didn't want me to go off dreamy-eyed into the land of matrimony with all its traps and pitfalls. They meant well-but I came to resent what they said.
For when I did marry and then discovered those flat spots every married person encounters, my instinctive response was to say, "Oh, this is what they meant. This is why the veterans said, 'Don't expect overly much. It's OK-but don't expect heaven on earth.'"
So I didn't-and that was a poisonous concession. Satan has wicked tricks to play on people who get close to God's good blessings. When a young couple tastes the excitement of a good marriage, Satan goes all out to spoil the fun. He takes advantage of the low spots, taunting the unwary with half-truths. "Did you really think you deserved better than this? Do you really think God owes you perfection?"
Precisely because those accusations are almost true, we fall then for Satan's bigger and terribly destructive lie: "This is as good as it gets," he says, blunting God's great promises. We swallow seeds that lead first to skepticism, then to distant coldness, then to alienation and separation, and too often to divorce itself. For it's not a very big jump from "What did you expect?" to "What's the use?" Condemning ourselves-and too often seeing very few good marriages around us to cheer us on-we settle back in resignation, numbed with the discouraging recollection, "So this is what they meant."
The problem with the lower "realistic" standard is that pretty soon people buy into it. The lowered standard becomes what everyone starts shooting for-and then they start missing even that. The disintegration of what we used to call normal becomes predictable.
But that's not what God had in mind when He designed marriage. Hope rises against all that gloom because of our conviction, as Christians, that God did intend marriage to send people into orbit. He specifically meant it to provide a taste of heaven on earth. Marriage, after all, is His own carefully drawn picture of the relationship He wants to have with us. If that discovery comes a little late for some of us laggards, let's at least ensure that it comes early for our children. Let's stress to them that God means marriage to be the most elegant and satisfying expression of all possible relationships between people-and that if it's less, they've diminished God's glory and shortchanged their own pleasure and delight. Let's stress those truths both by honest precept and by modeling believable excitement in our own marriages.
It takes work, of course, and that's part of the problem. In this era of instant happiness, we tend to forget that those endeavors that bring the greatest joys usually also require the most excruciating endeavor.
I wish that a couple of weeks ago I could have passed on to my daughter and her husband as a wedding gift a society where the threats to a happy and enduring marriage are smaller than they were a generation ago. But, of course, I couldn't.
Failing that, however, I've determined to raise the standard high and to tell my children plainly: "God made marriage good. No, that's not emphatic enough. He made marriage much better than good. He made it to be terrific. And don't ever let our blurring of the picture, or your own self-doubts, keep you from discovering that for yourselves. Whenever God's promises are involved, it's worth a whole lifetime of hard work."
And then I pray that someday, they'll sit back in their own delight and say, "Oh, that's what he meant."