How would you answer that question today “If I had only known…I would have grabbed an umbrella.” Or “If I had only known…..I might not have gotten married”, or “If I had only known…I would have done xyz differently.” Today I would answer that question “If I had only known I would have blown out my candle on my wedding day.”
When we get married there’s a tradition in most churches, including my own, called the Unity Candle. The parents of the bride go up and light a candle representing the life that the bride comes from, the circumstances of her life, her family, her parents, etc. We will call that the Bride’s Life Candle. Then the groom’s parents do the same representing the Groom’s Life; we will call that the Groom’s Life Candle. Later on in the ceremony the bride and the groom come up, usually during a special song. They each take their individual Life Candles and they light the unity candle together, a symbolic gesture of their two lives coming together. It used to be, long ago, that it was a given that the bride and groom would blow out their individual Life Candles. But as time has gone on and women have gained independence it’s not uncommon for spouses to leave the individual Life Candles burning as a representation of “I am not losing myself.”
My husband and I did choose to leave our individual Life Candles burning as many couples do these days. But today, with almost 20 years of marriage and more difficulty and crisis than I care to admit, If I had only known……I would have blown out my candle on my wedding day. If I had only known and understood what it takes to have a successful marriage I would have insisted that we blow out our individual Life Candles. Instead, I specifically remember the conversation we had prior to our wedding day and why I insisted that we would leave them burning. I have always been an independent, successful woman. I saw the individual Life Candles as a representation of my independence. But if I had only known…..a true, loving, sacramental, Christian marriage is one of sacrifice not independence. When we say “I Do” in the presence of God and our family and friends, we are not pledging our independence, but our dependence on one another. 20 years ago I would have shrieked at the words dependence and sacrifice, because I was under the illusion that my marriage could succeed with each of us pursuing our individual goals and dreams. I, like many other young men and women, had bot into the worldly lies that teach us that personal happiness is what we strive for, even in marriage.
Scripture says (Mark 10:7-8) that we will leave our father and mother and cling to our spouse and the two shall become one. Sure I had heard those holy words prior to our wedding day and many of them were said on our wedding day as part of our wedding ceremony but what did I think they meant at that time in my life? I surely did not think they meant that my life was going to be lost in the boundaries of our marriage. I surely did not think that I would even need to choose a path other than what I perceived my personal happiness path to be.
Striving for our own personal happiness instead of striving for marital joy is one of the reasons why spouse’s end up resenting each other and creating a valley of distance between them. The world has conditioned us to think that the pursuit of our personal happiness is perfectly aligned with a happy marriage; that a successful marriage is one where the individual paths of each spouse end up in the same place without effort or sacrifice. I think most of us have bot into this lie from the world and then we are stunned when one day we look up and the two of us have grown apart and there seems to be nothing left to salvage. Counselors tell us to do what makes us happy. Our friends tell us that our spouse will support our decisions if they really love us. The magazines or the books we read are all about “finding” our true selves.
I learned the hard way that my joy inside of a Christian marriage is not determined by my personal happiness but determined by the joy that comes from sacrifice and dying of myself so God can resurrect a better me, one I could not plan or form with my own understanding but the divine understanding of God. A wise priest once told me that pursuit of personal happiness is an empty endeavor, one defined by the world. But the pursuit of joy, true joy manifest by God himself is in looking to:
- Jesus 1st
- Other’s 2nd and lastly
So, how do we find personal joy inside of marriage?
We were made in the image and likeness of God and when Jesus came to save us His example was not one of arrogance or striving for personal happiness. His example was one of prayer, sacrifice, forgiveness, and service to others. Imagine what the apostles must have felt in the upper room the night Jesus got on His knees and washed their feet? How humbling might that moment have been? I remember the first time I experienced someone washing my feet. It was the Youth Minister at my church. It was early in our marriage; Jim and I were core members helping with the Youth Program. We were on retreat and one evening she knelt down and washed the feet of all of her helpers. She was an ordinary person, but in that moment she was doing something extraordinary. She was putting aside her needs and was performing a very lowly task of washing our feet. I remember the feeling of awe and humility I myself felt as she washed my feet. She suffered with terribly painful knees and yet she offered up that pain while she was washing each of our feet. She did not sit in a chair which would have been more comfortable; she knelt washing our feet one after the other and pushing through what must have been terrible pain. To avoid her pain, she could have asked us to wash each other’s feet instead, but she did not. I remember how overwhelmed with emotion I was in that moment.
I had never seen this act of service done before. I cannot even imagine how much greater all of those emotions I felt would have been had Jesus been physically kneeling in front of me washing my feet? This vision of Jesus washing my feet is exactly what the Christian vision of marriage is supposed to be. A husband washing the feet of his wife and the wife washing the feet of her husband. This selfless act of humility and service is how we should approach every day of our marriage. What if Jim and I would have washed each other’s feet on our wedding day instead of lighting the unity candle and personal Life Candles? Would I have had a better understanding of how the daily walk of our marriage should be? Would I have asked myself daily, “How can I wash my husband’s feet today?” Instead of asking myself, “How can I keep my personal life candle burning today?” But after that impactful moment when the Youth Minister washed my feet, I did not draw the connection to my marriage. I remember thinking about how I could be of service to others, and how her example would effect how I approached many different acts of service. But it never crossed my mind that this service of washing feet should be applied in my marriage? It was many years later when I finally made the connection that my marriage should be the primary use of this service; my marriage should be this image of spouse’s washing each other’s feet. When I finally made this connection, there was one problem. My husband was in no shape to reciprocate the washing of my feet. If I was to move forward in my marriage, which was in terrible turmoil, I would be the only one washing feet. So as much as the ideal marriage is the image of spouse’s washing each other’s feet; how was I to do that when my husband could not or would not reciprocate? Choosing to stay married meant that I was choosing to wash my husbands feet even when I knew he was not going to do the same for me. It was then that the light bulb went off…. the ideal marriage is NOT the image of spouse’s washing each other’s feet, it is the image of one spouse washing the other’s feet knowing that the act of service would not be returned but doing it any way. Jesus did not wash the feet of His apostles as part of a reciprocating act; Jesus washed their feet out of pure love, out of pure service knowing they would deny him (Peter) and knowing they would betray him (Judas). Yes, He even washed Judas’s feet and He knew Judas would betray him?
So I asked earlier how do we find personal joy inside of marriage? Following the formula for Joy:
- Jesus 1st
- Other’s 2nd and lastly
Jesus 1st = pray to Jesus to give me strength to do His will instead of my own;
Other’s 2nd = wash the feet of my spouse; be of sacrificial service daily to my spouse
You last = do for myself only after I have done what is best for my spouse.
This was not an easy process to learn and I still have to remind myself daily of this formula for Joy. Daily choosing to wash the feet of my husband instead of pursuing my personal happiness means that I do what is in his best interest not my own. Often times this means I have to deny myself choices that would bring me daily happiness but I have learned that the JOY I feel in following this formula has resulted in my heart being larger, softer, kinder, and more joy-filled. Also, you know I mentioned that when I had this revelation, my husband was in no shape to reciprocate the washing of my feet. Over time that changed. At first I washed his feet daily (theoretically) with nothing being reciprocated. For years, it was a very lonely road, but God continued to remind me that my suffering had value and that my marriage was worth sacrificing for. Eventually, my husband started washing my feet every now and then and now he washes my feet (theoretically) daily. Truth be told, the pendulum has swung the other direction and I am sure he is more faithful at being of service to me than I am to him.
You might be asking yourself. But is it all worth it? The pain, the sacrifice. Wouldn’t it just be better to call it quits and start fresh? Yes it is all worth it and no it would not be better to call it quits and start fresh. It is the world that wants to convince us that our spouse and our marriage has lost their value, but your spouse’s worth has not changed, only the situation you are in. Your spouse is still a child of God and God would still send his son to die for your spouse. Their worth is still immeasurable. The worth of your marriage also has not changed. The untapped potential in your marriage has changed; the only way to find that untapped potential is to follow this formula for Joy and to wash your spouse’s feet expecting nothing in return.
I love my husband so much today; more than I ever did in the early years and more than I ever imagined could be possible. I fully contribute this love, this joy, to truly learning what it means to be a spouse in the eyes of God, not in the eyes of the world. Learning to be sacrificial instead of selfish. Learning to love without condition instead of withholding love for conditions. The best way to explain what this approach to marriage has done to change my marriage is to refer you back to the Love Letter to My Husband Post.
Recommended Action: No matter the stage of your marriage:
- In the morning: choose daily to do something for your spouse that would be equivalent to “washing their feet”. Before your day begins ask yourself: What can I do today to show unconditional love to my spouse? Start with something simple like taking out the trash with out being asked, or making their favorite morning coffee flavor instead of your favorite.
- Throughout the day: Pray for God to illuminate the many opportunities you have throughout the day to put your spouse’s needs before your own.
- End of Day: Look back on the day; how did you do putting your spouse first? What did you do well? What was too hard for you to do? Ask God to change your heart so you will want to do those “too hard” things for your spouse.
- Pick one of the “too hard” things from today that you will strive to do tomorrow.
Recommended Prayer (by Melissa B):
Jesus, you taught us how to pray, how to sacrifice, how to forgive, and how to be of service. Your example is something that I want to strive for every day, especially inside of my marriage. The world is constantly encouraging us to think of ourselves before everyone else, especially our spouse. Help me to ignore the ways of the world and focus on your ways and your will. Help me to put my spouse before myself, even when it is hard and especially when I want to think it is “too hard.” Give me your strength so that I can persevere in loving my spouse even when it is unpopular and difficult. Help us find that untapped potential within our marriage that only you can reveal. Help me today, and everyday, to be humble and wash the feet of my spouse even when I know they do not have the strength to return the service. By and through your Grace, Amen!
Mark 10:6-9 “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
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