Black stains adorned my hands as I typed. No metaphor there. Years ago I pulled into Panera on my way to a graduate counseling class that covered the life cycle of marriage. I sat down with my coffee and pulled out my journal for a rare forty-five uninterrupted minutes. Did I mention that snowflakes fell softly on the other side of the window? For an Edenic moment I thought I was in Colorado. I wrote my first sentence and then noticed a large black ink blot on the adjacent page. Must be a defect in the journal, I thought. But the ink had a shiny and glossy wet look. I inspected my pen to find it was leaking around the tip. As I used my napkin to clean it off, I saw the black droplets on the table. I wiped those clean only to notice more splotches on the back side of my left hand. Then my right. You get the idea. My pen, bleeding from both ends, made a mess of me and my morning plan.
As I threw away seventeen stained napkins, I could not escape the thought that my graduate class on marriage had begun prematurely. Like my ink pen, marriage gets all over us. To choose marriage is to relinquish personal control in favor of a transformational experience. Just as Jacob limped away from his encounter with the living God, marriage will inevitably leave its mark on us.
Marriage is a Perfect Storm
We say “I do” and rush off to the honeymoon with the hope that we can check our baggage on the departing flight and leave it there indefinitely. For many, the difficulties of marriage come as a shock. I know of a counselor that declines all requests to conduct pre-marital counseling because the real work begins only once naivety has shattered. But even those that enter this sacred covenant with an appropriate expectation do not have a prayer to keep the ink off. I was one of these.
Prior to marrying as a 22 year old, I learned from mentors and read enough books to know that I was setting sail toward a perfect storm. I knew I had emotional baggage, and I knew she did, too. We had both been through individual therapy and completed pre-marital counseling together. Rough waters would certainly accompany the blissful days of smooth sailing. However, I thought knowing that the waters would get rough would somehow make them easier to sail.
One month into marriage, I shared some struggles with a friend. With wisdom he sighed and said, “Just wait until you’ve walked through ten years of this.” I resented his comment. I already knew marriage would be hard. I had read the books and completed the training. Didn’t I belong to the club? Hadn’t I paid my dues?
Almost twelve years later, I realize that I both knew and did not know. I could have technically assessed why marriage would be hard, but I lacked the wisdom that can only come with experience. Before entering marriage, I was like a boot camp graduate. While I have seen Saving Private Ryan, I do not pretend to know what war is like. But I would wager that no amount of training fully prepares a GI for combat. And no soldier returns home unchanged. As C.S. Lewis put it,
Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.
If you are preparing for marriage or if you are married, be encouraged that God does not waste experiences. During the smooth sailing and the rough waters, embrace the experience with the anticipation that God is always inviting you toward growth, transformation, restoration, and life. Like the ink that adorned my hands at Panera, marriage will mark you. Look for the invitation and beauty in the stain.