A good start

I think it was near our 40th wedding anniversary when a friend at church overheard me mention it and said, “Congratulations! That’s a pretty good start.” His own marriage was closer to 60 years old and it put the whole thing in perspective for me. I tend to think of these things, seniority and experience, as rungs on a ladder; once you’ve reached a step, no one can take it away from you. But it’s really not that way at all. Everything good we do is a race, and nothing matters if we don’t finish. 

Tammi and I will pass 43 years this summer and I don’t take that for granted. God has grown me substantially through my relationship with this woman. But I’m humbled a little in my pride of attainment when I see people my age falling by the wayside in their marriages for relatively trivial reasons. (I would call abuse a nontrivial reason, by the way.) Perhaps at one point in the journey they figured they had finished something that couldn’t be lost. From my observation, it can easily be lost. 

I tend to be hard on young people who are at the front end of a lifelong marriage. I emphasize the promises they make to their families, their church, to each other and to God as greater than any personal feeling likely to come their way. This is a debt, an oath freely entered into and binding. But it’s easy to assume that those who have weathered the difficult years of raising kids and building a career are somehow beyond the risks of abandoning their marriage covenant. I once heard Chris Osborne say to a group of young pastors that Satan would rather trip up someone in his last few years than at some point earlier in his career, and I believe the same is true of our marriages. Consider what’s at risk. 

Your long life and happiness are at risk. A retired friend recently abandoned his wife for another woman. In the process he split with lifelong friends, disappointed his extended family and placed his short future in the hands of a near stranger. That’s no way to go into old age. 

Your influence is at risk. Many of us don’t think about this enough. By retirement, most of us are working alongside people the age of our children. They know the age gap and don’t disrespect it as much as we might assume. These young people may project on us a little of the wisdom they have seen in their parents or grandparents—they may listen to us and learn from what we do. Our call in these relationships, and those of younger families at church, is not to be perfect, but to be who we say we are. It costs them something, as it costs us something, when we treat their respect as something small by breaking our most important human commitment. 

Your family is at risk. When Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa blow up their marriage, the wreckage roars downhill. Your kids and grands will still love you, but you’ve slammed shut an opportunity to teach them how to handle what happens next with integrity. Intellectually, the young and the beautiful know that their own winter is coming. They can be relatively carefree from that reality because they see those who are weathering it gracefully. That’s how the lives of those 20-30 years further down the road have always looked to me. It was a comfort to know that someone has gone the way I’m going without catastrophe.

Your spiritual growth is at risk. Granted, a man or woman who abandons a marriage already has some spiritual troubles. This life-changing sin is along the path seeded with a hundred “mundane” sins. But this one is life changing nonetheless. I think of it as the difference between anger and murder. Jesus said that the man who is angry with his brother has killed him in his heart. The point is, we are not sinless just because we have not committed a legal felony. I can repent of and apologize sincerely for anger more easily than I can apologize or make amends for murder, a sin with life-altering consequences. If you are a bad husband, abandoning your marriage is doubling down on that sin. The road back will be more painful and destructive. 

There is a positive way to say these things. Long marriages are a testimony of faithfulness and hope. The potential they have to bring joy to the couple and encouragement to those around is demonstrated in your life and in mine. We’ve seen it and, to some degree, we’ve lived it. But sometimes those benefits are hard to see in the face of the difficulties of later life. My point is that we risk trading difficulty for tragedy, and that is not at all hard to imagine. 

Think of your 10 years or 30 years or even 60 years of marriage as a “good start.” You know the race is not finished because you are still here. Your joy and influence are real, even when they are not apparent to you. We must carefully husband those precious things until the finish line. 

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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