Evenings with family come and go, but one clings to my memory with leech-like tenacity. I don't mind that memory, though, because it was the night I first understood God's grace beyond the limits of my intellect and began to understand it with my heart.
I had only been married a few months, and my wife's ten-year-old brother, John, came over to have dinner and spend the night. Since Amy's parents divorced when John was very young, she and her brother had developed a special closeness. But after our wedding, Amy and John rarely got to spend time together. So we planned an evening for them that would also help me build a friendship with John.
That night as Amy buzzed around our tiny kitchen, John "helped" her by sticking his fingers into pie meringue and hovering between the kitchen and the dinner table. I could see they were relishing their special closeness, but I felt left out. I passed the time by trying to set the table, squeezing between John and Amy. John didn't notice me trying to get around him on each trip to the kitchen.
Finally, I snapped, "John! Can't you get out of my way?"
I watched him shrink in surprise, as if facing some B-grade movie monster. I was, after all, angry, and he hadn't seen that before. He took a seat out of the way, and none of us spoke much for the rest of the evening.
Later, while Amy and I were brushing our teeth, I asked if something was wrong.
She shot back at me: "Why did you yell at Johnny?"
"I didn't really yell, I … "
"Wes, your eyes were like ice and you bit his head off. I thought for a second that I didn't even know you."
Her words hit me hard. My memory began playing an auto-reverse videotape of my angry outburst. Each time the scene replayed, the characters exaggerated themselves. I became the evil, muck-oozing monster, and my wife and her brother became the innocent, victimized townsfolk. Amy's rebuke brought me face-to-face with who I really am: a self-centered, sinful man. My show of temper had ruined one of the few times Amy and John could be together, and it had hampered my relationship with a boy who needed me as a friend.
There was a time when I could avoid this kind of self-awareness. As a single man, I was good at pretending to be a "great guy." I hid my sinful nature not just from those around me, but also from myself. Since there was nobody sharing my life, I had plenty of opportunity to vent frustration without anybody seeing it, like I did the time I was asked to help with a women's luncheon at church.
Don Porter, one of the husbands helping with the event, called and asked what my plans were for that afternoon. "Ummm … " I stalled. "What's up?" I feared losing the luxury of a single man: an unburdened schedule.
"Well, the women's luncheon is in two hours," Don said. "And Dave and Harold are stuck out at Dave's cabin. They can't get here to make the spaghetti dinner. None of us have done this kind of thing before, and, well … you have."
I was there in a few minutes, and—at least from the women's perspective—everything went exactly as planned. The husbands praised me for my Christian spirit. One even thanked me for "saving their hides." That Wes—what a saint!
But they hadn't been with me in the car on the way to the church. As I drove, I muttered complaints about being taken advantage of and expletives over serving other men's wives when I had none of my own. Hardly the attitude of a saint, and a far cry from serving others under the control of the Holy Spirit. But by the time lunch was over, I was fooled, too. By focusing on the good I had done, it was easy to overlook my earlier poor attitude.
God, however, is interested in much more than outside appearances. I needed to deal with my selfish nature. As I became aware of it, I tried to overcome my self-deceit, but failed again and again. I struggled in prayer, pleading for God's forgiveness. Intellectually, I knew he forgave me. But deep inside I couldn't believe in that forgiveness.
I eventually slipped into depression, but God intervened. He wanted me to understand his grace in a way that transcends words and reason: He wanted me to understand grace with my heart. So he brought me a wife.
It's no accident that marriage teaches us about God. The first two people we meet in Scripture are a man and woman in a monogamous relationship. The Bible declares marriage to be a union created by God (1 Tim. 4:3), and a relationship to be held in highest honor (Heb. 13:4). Marriage emulates the relationship between God and humankind. Christ is repeatedly described as the Bridegroom, and the church as his bride. It's easy to see, then, that marriage gives us a deeper understanding of who God is and what our relationship with him is intended to be.
Certainly, the God who builds reflections of his glory into the smallest details of creation would also build into marriage a reflection of his love, mercy and grace. And since grace is so central to our relationship with God, marriage should hold some insight into his grace toward us. In my marriage, Amy helps God expose my sin, which brings me to my knees before God's grace. In her loving attitudes, I sense God's presence. In the consistent way my wife lives—not just verbalizes—her love for me, I see God living his love for me. Hidden in my relationship with Amy is the signature of God.
A New Focus
After our confrontation about my angry impatience, I knew I had to ask for Amy's forgiveness. In the past, when I'd sought forgiveness from God, the motivation deep inside had been to feel forgiven and thus be free from guilt. But this time was different. I wanted to make things right for Amy—so she would feel whole again after I had hurt her. I asked her to forgive me, and she held me for a moment. Then she said, "Of course I forgive you. But it's really Johnny you should be asking."
I felt my spirit sink again. I still needed to take the focus off myself and seek what was best for someone else, so I went in to see John. Following a rather lengthy confession, I asked him to forgive me. He simply said, "That's okay." But our relationship grew after that day. We shared a silent understanding that made us closer than mere brothers "in-law." Without Amy's gentle prodding, a rift might have existed where now there is a bond.
I need Amy's gracious interaction as much now, after seven years of marriage, as I did in those early days. As the everyday demands of life press in on me, the impatient, selfish Wes still occasionally makes himself known. But the dark side that used to be so easy to conceal can no longer be hidden. Everything is laid bare, out in the open where Amy can see it—and where I can see it, too. Recognizing my sin forces me to seek forgiveness—often from both God and Amy. And with her forgiveness coupled to God's, marriage helps me appreciate God's grace all the more.
It's wonderful that God uses my wife to show me the depth of his love and the range of his grace. God has ordained my marriage as a ministry: a ministry of grace.
Wes Lundburg is an instructor of English at Fergus Falls Community College in Minnesota.
Copyright © 1997 by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.