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Growth by Dependence

Contrary to what the world may say, our mutual surrenders are what enrich us.

Wise parents nudge their children away from dependence toward freedom. Their goal, after all, is to produce independent adults. Lovers, however, choose a new kind of dependence: possessing freedom, they gladly give it away. In a healthy marriage, one partner yields to the other's wishes not out of compulsion, but out of love. That adult relationship reveals what God seeks from human beings: not the clinging, helpless love of a child who has no choice, but the mature, freely given commitment of a lover.

I keep falling back on marriage as a picture of this mature relationship because it is one I have lived in every day for thirty years and one the Bible itself relies on. How, exactly, do I "choose a new kind of voluntary dependence" within marriage? I think of two major decisions Janet and I have made, both of which led us to uproot and move to new locations.

The first time, we moved from the far suburbs to a downtown neighborhood. After thirteen enriching years of city life, we moved to a secluded site in Colorado, the opposite of Chicago in every way.

It seems clear that we made the move to Chicago primarily for Janet's sake and the move to Colorado primarily for mine. Janet thrived in the city, building a fine church-based program that ministered to the practical needs of senior citizens, most of them poor, some of them homeless. City life, though, with its pressures, incessant car alarms, and frenetic pace gradually drained my creative energy. We chose Colorado as a more nourishing environment for my introspective work of writing.

Both moves involved major adjustments, even sacrifices. Yet as anyone in a healthy marriage knows, a couple only undertakes these changes in a spirit of mutual consent. Because I work at home, we have more freedom to make such choices than some people. But a spirit of power ("I need a change of environment, and I'm moving whether you like it or not") or retaliation ("You had your fun, now I'm going to have mine") would spell doom. Neither of us would dare impose such a decision on the other.

Marriage offers only one sure check on freedom abuse: love. In any mature relationship, in fact, love sets the boundaries. I could point to many times in which Janet has set aside her own first preferences in favor of mine, and I have done the same for her. Neither of us wins all the time. Yet because we are committed to each other, we make the small and large adjustments necessary to live together in peace, and try to exercise power and freedom within the boundaries marked by love.

Thirty years of marriage have changed both Janet and me. We are different people from the moonstruck lovers who said "I do" when barely out of adolescence. She has taught me social skills, an appreciation for plants, a compassion for the poor and lowly. I have taught her to appreciate classical music, an awareness of natural beauty, a zest for travel and physical exercise. Our mutual surrenders have caused us to grow, rather than shrink.

Lovers understand that a lasting relationship grows in the soil of trust and grace and forgiveness, not law. Lovers know that love cannot be commanded or compelled. By nature a lover wants what the other person wants. When love requires personal sacrifice, it often seems more like a gift: "Not my will but thine be done." Lovers praise: I talk about my wife to others and boast of her accomplishments not because I feel obligated but because I want others to know her as I do. In these and other ways, I have learned from marriage how a mature relationship with God may work. Augustine described a good spiritual life as, simply, "well ordered love."

The state God wants only comes about as a result of a faithful relationship with him. We seek to please God, accept as our highest goal to know and love him, make necessary sacrifices—and in the process we ourselves change. Personal spirituality grows as a byproduct of sustained interaction with God. In the end, we find ourselves not just doing things that please God, but wanting to do them.

Philip Yancey is the author of Reaching for the Invisible God (Zondervan).

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