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Published Date: April 30, 2006

Published Date: April 30, 2006

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Marriage as a Mystery

Someone once said, “Life is what happens after someone makes plans for their life.” Proverbs says it more succinctly, “In their hearts, human beings plan their course, but the Lord determines their steps.” (Prov. 16:9, TNIV) Interestingly, what individual Christians plan and how the Lord directs them are not necessarily the same.

The plan I envisioned for my life when I was 31 years old is not quite where I am today at age 61, and my wife would concur. After 37 years of marriage, three children, six grandchildren, and eight major geographical moves, I can say without a doubt that God has directed our lives, but the life He has given us is not the life we pictured. Proverbs 16:9 has not only rung true in our lives, it also has been vitally important to the way we think about marriage and gender roles.

As I wrote in my book, The Christian Family in Changing Times (Baker 2002), marriage is more mystery than anything else. Though I have written several books on men’s issues, and my wife has written on women’s issues, gender issues in our marriage continue to be a source of constant amazement, humor, and frustration! The daily living out of life by two people often seems to defy the common “rules and roles” approach with which so many Christian couples struggle and try to faithfully implement. A passage that underscores my view is found in Proverbs 30:18–19. Agar, the author, writes,

There are three things which are too amazing (or
Mysterious1) for me;
     four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
     the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
     and the way of a man with a young woman.

Each illustration reflects a fundamental limitation to human reasoning and knowledge. Some couples rise to great heights in their marriage (like eagles), others sort of slither through life in a way that makes outsiders wonder how in the world they have been able to stay together. Still others sail through life as a ship in calm, smooth waters.

Each couple settles into its own unique environment and their journey leaves no evidence of the course traveled. They leave no tracks that others can follow! In this sense, every couple is a trailblazer living on the edge of some new frontier. Their experience cannot, nor should not, be traced, and where they have been, they cannot adequately describe.

I am a fan of Agar, whoever he was. But his view of the way of a man with a woman is not quite what is often offered as “the biblical position on marriage or the roles for husband and wife.” I believe the daily relationship of two adults living together in marriage defies a mere role approach. Arguments about who should be “in charge,” or who pays the bills, or whether some jobs and chores are more feminine or masculine, miss the wonderful mystery in all relationships. Let me illustrate from another angle.

Anglican scholar John Stott said many years ago, “It is easy to be biblical, and it is easy to be practical; the real tension lies in being both biblical and practical. I know the Bible verses people use to talk about marriage. They get commonly reduced down to “husbands, be the head of the home, and wives, submit.” Regardless of whether this gives the husband more authority in the relationship with his wife or not, the important issue for me is how one uses whatever authority he or she has. Whether I have authority over my wife or not, is not what a relationship is about.

 If I am the authoritative head, then it is still my responsibility before God to submit to my wife and sacrifice for her if need be, because that’s what Jesus has done for both of us. She is also to submit to and respect me (Eph 5:22,33) but this does not mean she is never charged with leadership. In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul encourages younger widows to get married, bear children, and keep house; the Greek word for “keep house” is oikodespostein, which Gingrich translates, “master of the house.”2 Literally, it can be translated “house lord or despot”! What is most important to me in all of this is not the issue of authority, but the quality of the relationship. What makes marriage work is not authority, but relationship.

When my wife points out to me that the trash needs to be emptied, I don’t do it because she has more authority than me as the house lord, nor do I refuse to do it because “it’s not my job.” For various reasons I will get to later in the article, my wife lived alone while I was a “geographically separated bachelor,” a term the military uses for those on long deployments. During those times, my wife took out the trash and took care of everything I usually did. The reason both of us take out the trash is because it needs to be done!

There is no conflict in our roles here and authority is never an issue; we just do what needs to be done as governed by our relationship and the needs of the moment. In this sense, our biblical understanding of marriage must be practiced daily by joint problem solving and performing basic household tasks, while trying to have a little fun along the way. Our doctrine of marriage, as Stott mentioned above, must be both biblical and practical.

In our experience, the practice of Christian marriage has thrust us into new territories (mostly against our desire and wills), that necessitated fresh energies, strategies, adjustments, and heavy doses of the Grace of God. If Scripture is inspired by God (as I believe it is), and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness, in order that the Christian may be equipped for every good work, then even our doctrine of marriage and family must be lived out in very practical ways (2 Tim. 3:16)

Many years ago, I was invited to do a lecture series on marriage and family on the beautiful island of Fiji. At the time, the culture was a mix of Indian Hindus and tribal Fijians. In the middle of the front row of every session was the Fijian “Ratu” or chief alongside his wife.

When I began to teach on Ephesians chapter five, I explained that in my view, Paul was breaking down the cultural barriers that existed between husbands and wives, resulting in a relationship that was governed not by authority, but by love. If a husband loves his wife as Christ loved the church, he must be willing to do anything for her, even if it goes against the dominant cultural consensus.

I noticed his wife did the common transcultural “elbow maneuver” suggesting an “I told you so intent.” In response, the Ratu interrupted me and asked, “Does this mean I should change our babies nappies [diapers]?” (In that culture, it was completely a women’s role.) I answered, “Well, changing the diaper while my wife is away is better than tolerating the ongoing crying and mess.” Everyone laughed!

Several months later, when I returned to my office, I received a letter making me an honorary Ratu, along with a note at the bottom saying, “I now change the nappies.” In my opinion, this simple teaching transformed the life of this Fijan couple and made them a powerful example of Christian marriage to the entire island. The Bible is realistically practical, equipping us for every good work. On a more personal level, I do not think our marriage would have survived the last couple of decades, had our concerns been directed at maintaining strict husband and wife roles or what some call the “traditional family.”3  Since 9/11, as a reserve chaplain, I have been called upon several times to do extended active duty for various contingencies.

I spent three months ministering to the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan at Landstuhl Medical Center, Germany. I was a geographically separated bachelor for four years, commuting back and forth from our home in Orlando, Florida to Montgomery, Alabama while serving the Air Force Auxiliary. During these times, my wife, with full-time employment, managed the house, paid bills, took out the trash, and still made time for adult children and grandchildren.

This past year, I was deployed to Plaquemines parish, Louisiana as a Joint Force Chaplain in response to Hurricanes  Katrina/Rita. My wife volunteered for Red Cross duty during the same time. These experiences called forth new resources within us both, and necessitated major adjustments mixed with extreme flexibility. Throughout, our concern was joint problem solving, talking about who needed to do what, how our kids and grandkids were doing, and making special times when we could be together. However, the greatest adjustment our marriage we would face took place in January of 2002. This is the part of God’s plan no one would ever desire. While enjoying a wonderful family vacation in the mountains of North Carolina our oldest daughter, then 31, developed chest pains. We took her to a small mountain clinic that took x-rays and gave her medication. No doctor was available to read the x-ray, but by the time we arrived home, a message had been left saying to have Charis see her family physician immediately.

After many tests and evaluation, she was diagnosed with Lymphoma, Type B, non-Hodgkins (she had a tumor the size of a fist sandwiched between her heart and breastbone). She was also asked if she knew she was pregnant!

The standard protocol in such cases is for chemo-therapy, but not with an unborn child. Doctors encouraged her to abort the child to save her own life. She and her husband prayed and talked about the options, and though they had one daughter, decided to postpone treatment until the baby could be taken by C-section. The little family of three moved into our house where my wife could care for Charis. At eight months, Tommy, our first grandson was born and chemo-therapy began without success. In fact, the tumor grew larger during chemo. The last resort was a bone-marrow transplant. Fortunately, my other daughter, Ashley, was a perfect match to be the bone-marrow donor. After research and physician recommendations, Charis chose a hospital in Houston as the place to have the procedure done. They require a round-the-clock care giver to be with the patient at all times, so my wife took leave of absence from her job to be the primary care giver. Jason, Charis’ husband, also took leave of absence from his work to be with Charis and manage the two children at home.

For almost four months, my wife Cynthia stayed with our daughter night and day, often acting as more of a nurse than those tasked with the job. I commuted the best I could back and forth to Houston during the duration of her stay and always felt guilty that I could not be there. But someone needed to be working to provide for now two families. As I look back on this tragic interruption of our lives, I do not remember having any discussions with my wife or kids about the roles we as husband and wife should play. Facing life threatening situations has a way of sorting out the peripheral from the primary. There’s no room for who ought to be doing what, only who can help us get through this day. Loving relationships work that way.

The good news about the transplant is that it worked. After two six month evaluations, there was no presence of the deadly cancer. They were back in Orlando, in their own home, and again planning life together and we were thinking that our lives with Charis were getting back to normal.

However, the down side to the transplant was that Charis’ existing immune system had to be destroyed in order for her body to accept the donor bone marrow. Thus, when she became cancer free, it would take several years to rebuild the immune system. On February 10th, at ten o’clock p.m. she died of streptococcus pneumonia after a week long battle. We buried her on a rainy Valentine’s Day.

We are asked often, “How did you get through all this?” We have our cliché phrases that give tribute to the help extended family, friends, and churches gave. Even one synagogue heard about our situation and sent money. Of course, the grace of God was unusually present at times. In the deep, dark honesty of my heart, I can only respond by saying, “I don’t have a clue as to how we got through it.”

Remember Agar’s mystery of things too beyond human comprehension to understand? Couples face their own unique trials, tasks, and traumas. “Closure” never takes place in losing a child, but one does move on. Our track may not be of any help to those who follow us. I’m not even sure I can describe what our track was. But one thing I do know for certain is what does not help: a strict hierarchical structure dictating my role or my wife’s role would have been no help at all in us getting through the last decade of our lives.

A few weeks ago, I received a call from a woman I had worked with years before. She had heard about us losing our daughter, and revealed that her daughter had been diagnosed with cancer and was perhaps going to need a bone-marrow transplant. She was looking for information, but more than that, assurance. I quickly turned the phone over my wife, saying she was the primary care-giver for our daughter and would do a better job about answering her questions.

Cynthia took the conversation to another room, but several times I heard her say, “You can do this…you can do this.” After the conversation, I told my wife, “That was brilliant! You didn’t say things would be okay (because we don’t know that), or how she should go through this (praising God and other Christian phrases that sound  so cliché in times like that), you just kept affirming that no matter how fearful she was, she could do it.”

Life is what happens after we have made plans for our lives. Our plan would have never included losing a daughter. But here we are, still intact, somewhat in our right minds, trying to enjoy the blessings we have every day rather than lamenting about the things we’ve lost. As I look back, I can only describe our marriage as Agar did: “a way of a man with a woman is too wonderfully mysterious for us to comprehend.”


  1. Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford, p. 810. Hebrew word for wonderful in the stem form is pala’, that translates, “beyond one’s power, too difficult, surpassing or extraordinary.”
  2. F. Wilbur Gingrich, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. 147
  3. For a historical look at the various models for family life see my book, The Christian Family in Changing Times, Baker, 2002)