Restoring Joy When Gladness of Marriage Becomes Overcast

[1] As a divorced and remarried clergy person, I appreciate yet sometimes recoil when, officiating at a wedding, I proclaim: “Because of sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast and the gift of the family can become a burden” (Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 203).

[2] I appreciate that our marriage rite recognizes this reality of marriage and partnership – our joy can often turn into a burden and a source of grief. When I say those words I am reminded how that sad reality includes me and the couple standing before me.

[3] I sometimes recoil because this painful reality triggers a fear in me which seems out of place just as the couple announces their intentions to share their life together. But there it is – our best intentions standing side by side with our worst fears. They do not, however, stand alone because God stands beside them. God, “who established marriage,” and “continues still to bless it with abundant and ever-present support,” so that “we can be sustained in our weariness and have our joy restored.” (Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 203)

[4] Then as the presiding pastor I turn to the couple and say, “if it is your intention to share with each other your joys and sorrows and all that the years will bring, with your promises bind yourselves together as husband and wife.” I have little doubt at that moment a couple intends, with all their heart, to keep their promise. Yet, our best intentions cannot guarantee that we will, in fact, fulfill these promises. We are, after all, human. God, no doubt, can keep God’s promise to bless and support our partnership “until death parts us.” It is that promise and support we humans rely on to fulfill our promises.

[5] When a couple in crisis sits in their pastor’s office they are often struggling with their inability to keep their intended promise. And we, as their pastor, are biased. We want to help them keep their promise. We want their joy sustained and restored. We want to witness a resurrection of the relationship from the despair that has clouded their joy.

[6] Sometimes, however, our preconceived vision of what resurrection will look like for a couple is incorrect. Only by listening to couples tell their own story can we begin to see what resurrection, for them, looks like. For some couples, finding new ways to deal with old patterns can begin to lift the burden and allow joy to return. These new ways may include improved communication practices, recovery from an addiction, or discovering more constructive ways to address family conflicts. For other couples, the only chance for joy being restored includes the need to separate – temporarily or permanently. In the case of a physically violent relationship, usually the only hope for restoration and resurrection is for the individuals to separate in order to break the vicious cycle of violence. The death of a relationship is always sad, but may be the only road to resurrection.

[7] More important than trying to impose my vision, is to welcome a couple into a process of restoration and let the resurrection emerge. This process begins by the creation of a grace filled space and relationship. Through the pastor or pastoral counselor a couple needs to experience first hand God’s love, acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation. By what we say and do, we are God’s Word of restoration and resurrection. However, being that Word of grace is easier said than done.

[8] Offering a grace-filled space and relationship requires us to put aside our own biases and expectations. One couple I worked with related to each other in a manner that I felt would not sustain the relationship. I didn’t always understand their dynamic. Yet, as their ability to listen and talk with each other improved, they found their enjoyment of each other restored and they choose to continue their relationship.

[9] When we are able to listen without being distracted with our own unspoken agenda, we offer a rare glimpse of God’s unconditional grace. We also offer a rare glimpse of God’s unconditional acceptance when we don’t judge and blame. My experience is that more than enough blame has already been slung by the time a couple seeks help. Instead of judgment and blame, a couple needs to experience being heard and recognized. Employing communication skills like active listening (restating what the other said) and assertiveness (“I want” statements) helps a couple restore that crucial sense of being heard and recognized.

[10] Through counseling couples can recover and discover their God given strengths and assets. Difficult relationships bruise self-esteem and deplete personal resources. Abusive relationships, in particular, have a devastating effect on an individual’s sense of worth. When resurrection is experienced one’s self-esteem and self-worth is restored. Resurrection reaffirms that through our baptism we became one of God’s precious children. With the help of counseling, healthy couples often are able to establish new patterns that build upon each member’s strengths, thereby benefiting both the individuals and the couple. Whether a relationship is restored or broken, I believe God’s intention for those individuals does not end. Resurrection is God’s promise – a promise of life, a promise that always works to restore joy.

[11] Rarely can a couple in distress restore their relationship as fast as Jesus rose from the dead – within three days or even three sessions. Rarely is a couple’s experience limited to a single problem or issue. Rarely do Pastors have enough time or training to offer in depth counseling. But, by offering a taste of grace filled counseling, the pastor has offered a couple an invaluable gift. Having received a foretaste a couple can be encouraged to seek a more intensive professional counseling relationship. As pastors and pastoral counselors we cannot offer couples the promise of no divorce, but we can proclaim the promise of God’s love and forgiveness that will ultimately restore joy.