I was dumbfounded, not really understanding what I’d just heard. My husband and I were at the gym together. Free weights, mirrors, machines, the smell of rubber and sweat. He said it again: “When I tell you to get up, I mean now. Move quickly.”
I shook my head still in disbelief. My husband does not speak to me this way. It’s been many years since we learned the kind of communication required to keep a marriage together. We speak to each other with respect, patience, and kindness. Yet he said it not once but twice.
I restrained my constant companion (pride) and resisted the urge to fold my arms across my chest and glare. I stood quickly and turned around for my next instruction. It’s not about me. It’s about heart rate, I told myself. It’s not about us. It’s about physical improvement. It’s not about him. It’s about following instructions.
Each week, I have an opportunity to practice submission at the gym. Greg is not only my husband, but he is also my personal trainer. He’s excellent at his job, but following instructions without the benefit of a “please,” “thank you,” or more importantly for me, a 30-minute conversation about why I might consider the next 10 minutes of activity good for me, is a challenge.
Our Marriage Didn’t Start this Way—It Was Much Worse
Greg has not always been my personal trainer. In the 10 years we’ve been married, we have started and stopped our relationship more than once. From the beginning, he and I struggled for control over everything. In a new marriage and a blended family of four teenage children, we battled over discipline; we played tug-of-war with ex-spouses; we argued over nutrition, family fitness, and, of course, money. At a time when our children needed unity and strong leadership, he and I could not agree on anything. Our marriage was a mess.
We separated more than once. Each time we hoped for something different, but we were unable to change the patterns of our negative behaviors. We tried counseling; we tried 12-step; we tried distance. But we weren’t truly united in anything we tried. After two separations and the divorce word threading its way through our conversations, I tried forgetfulness. Could I really pretend I wasn’t married and live happily without him? I retired my wedding ring and decided to move on.
My Marriage, My Nineveh
The Lord gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.”
But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. (Jonah 1:1–3)
I was studying the Book of Jonah with a group of women who were friends and mentors. As we neared the end of our study, our group leader suggested that Jonah’s call to Nineveh—and his response—could serve as a metaphor for many of life’s difficulties that we choose not to face. God, she suggested, requires great things from each of us. The exercise she asked us to complete: write down one thing we were avoiding that God had asked us to do.
I thought hard. I did not want to admit I was running from my marriage. This group of close friends and confidants knew most of my deep personal issues. I was willing to talk about nearly anything else . . . just not my marriage. My faced burned—the Holy Spirit usually speaks to me through rising body temperature—but I wasn’t going to write it down. I scrambled for an answer, listing every other thing the Lord might have asked of me. But it was too late. When I looked down at my Post-It note, written at the bottom of my list was “my marriage.” I blurted it out and the room went still. The air didn’t move as each of my friends stared at the floor.
I was cooked, and we all knew it.
A Promise Kept
Following my Nineveh admission, God worked quickly. While he didn’t have me swallowed by a fish, he did require I swallow something larger than a whale: my pride. I confessed that the commitment I made on my wedding day was a commitment not only to my partner and husband but also to God. The presence of my husband, or in my case at the time of separation, the lack of it, was inconsequential to the promise I made to my Lord and Savior. If I was ever going to learn how to keep a commitment, it would be by keeping this single promise.
Even if this meant staying married but alone for the rest of my life, I needed to face the consequences of my behaviors. I made a decision. I would not, under any circumstances, initiate or sign off on a divorce. It didn’t matter whether we ever spoke again—I would not break my marriage promise to God.
Giving Up, Pushing Back
Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.”
This time Jonah obeyed the Lord’s command and went to Nineveh.” (Jonah 3:1–3)
Submitting my marriage commitment to God was only the beginning. Daily, I exercised the practices of not being right, shutting my mouth, and giving grace. I submitted to authority figures in my life, trying with great difficulty not to push back, question decisions, and second-guess their wisdom. I comforted myself with shouting matches while alone in the car and tearful conversations while alone with God. I was stretched, but God was teaching me when I was most receptive: while I was tired, weak, and vulnerable.
The week after our youngest daughter moved out, I asked Greg for a chance to try again. Within days he was back, and I was stretched again. After years of separation, our lives were so different, but so were we. I was able to recognize my former inability to submit to his position as head of our family, which was a leading cause of our strife. But I now knew how to demonstrate respect by allowing him to lead.
In the areas where he was most proficient, I became his cheerleader and helper. In the areas in which I needed help, he became my teacher and instructor . . . which leads us back to the gym.
Refined Through Hardship
While we’re at the gym, Greg treats me as he would his most-valued client. This includes promises of increasing the weight on any set I suggest is too heavy. It includes adding circuits to my workout if I’m too tired to remember how many I’ve done. This means insisting I complete one-and-a-half hours of weight training before I get to do what I love: running.
I dislike weight training, cardio, and core work. What I love is running—but running is also my destruction. Without the work in the gym, I fall apart through sprains, tears, and injuries.
My husband has the skill, will, and desire to give me what I love. The only requirement is that I submit to his care. Like my relationship with Christ, my husband’s instruction is direct, but always for my good. If I choose not to follow, then I choose a path unprotected and risk self-injury.
God, too, has given me what I love. Like the joy from running after years of painful sprains, tears, and surgeries, he has given me a renewed marriage of mutual love and respect refined through hardship, discipline, and submission through too many pull-ups.
With her personal trainer husband, Mary Goodrich regularly practices Ephesians 5:22 at the gym but exercises joy on the running path. Follow Mary on Twitter @marysramblings.