Columnists > Voices

Irritating love

So many bail the marriage boat because it's overweighted

Issue: "Iraq: Unity in adversity," Feb. 12, 2005

Groucho Marx on love: "Everyone says 'I love you,' though just what they said it for I never knew. It's just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who says 'I love you'" (Animal Crackers, 1930).

Paul on love: "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13, a.d. 70).

There you have it: Groucho and Paul agreeing on love and trouble. Who needs to be "patient" or "kind" where there is no one testing patience or kindness? Why exhort against being "irritable" if there are no irritating elements around? What is there to "bear" where the beloved is eminently lovable, or "believe" where there is no risk in trusting, or "hope" where relationship is already perfected?

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But Groucho's question is a valid one. Why say "I love you" if this is how it is? "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry," said the disciples (Matthew 19:10), punctuating with an audible "Phew!" The Lord, not arguing the point, replied, "Not everyone can receive this saying." Consequently, men through the ages (those not made eunuchs for the kingdom of God) persist in a custom that Groucho holds to ridicule, as he reclines in his rowboat and strums idly on strings.

Little wonder the hip-hop generation has cold feet. Statistics portend that half the "I love yous" pronounced at the altar will end in "poor sucker" songs and a bailing out of the boat. That makes the big story here not that so many are choosing to forgo marriage but that so many are marrying in spite of casino odds. It can't all be for "two-for-one meal coupons and discounted health club memberships," as one magazine put it. We evidently want intimacy and commitment.

Since marriage is not going away, then, despite the trouble it invites (cf. Groucho and 1 Corinthians 7:28), let us not enter in willy-nilly. A king at war with another king is thought foolish if he does "not sit down first and deliberate whether" he has the resources for it (Luke 14:31). And Lord knows we have lost more good men and women to badly prepared marriages than badly prepared wars. A few words of advice from someone who's "been there" but not necessarily "done that." (A friend once said, "Nobody's useless: You can always be a bad example.")

Firstly, visualize a triangle. You and your partner at the two lateral angles, God at the top angle. These are the three persons in your marriage. But God is your main relationship. The main one you talk to.

The main one you get life from. The person across the kitchen table (and the triangle) from you, being both a sinner and finite, can never be your finally sufficient relationship. Reckon with this. As Francis Schaeffer writes in True Spirituality: "The trouble with human relationships is that man without God does not realize that all men are sinful, and so he hangs too much on his personal relationships, and they crush and break."

Secondly, the above advice is useless pious sentiment unless rehearsed on a regular basis. The reason is purely mathematical, I would say: The world hammers at you every day, and if you do not combat it every day with truth-that God, and not your mate, is the source of all your good, that He rewards the righteous and those who wait for Him-then worldly wisdom will soon come to look vivid, and the truth will seem thin and unreal. I know a woman who framed her marriage vows on the wall and rereads them every morning lest she forget.

What liberation! What freedom to discover that when we unburden marriage of impossible freight, when we see our spouses correctly as fellow creatures, and when we deny "being in love" the status of a religion, we can enjoy what is beautiful in marriage without needing it to be perfect. Relationship can be authentic without being everything.

As for the trouble, Groucho, well, there is trouble in the world anyway, married or single. But "take heart," Jesus says, "I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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