SOURCE: Jerusha Ann Clark
Allowing pain to nourish your marriage
I’m not sure how long Jeramy and I sat in the hospital parking lot. It might have been fifteen minutes; it could have been forever. The bitter cold of Colorado winter wrapped its arms around our silver Jetta, scattering ice crystals on the windows. Maybe on a different night they would have been beautiful to me.
For me, any response to the world would have been a welcome relief. I hadn’t been able to carry on a normal conversation in weeks. Often Jeramy would catch me staring off into space, but when I “came to,” I could explain neither where I’d been nor what I’d been thinking. As far as I can remember, I only thought, breathed, and lived pain during those hellish days.
St. Stephen’s loomed in the not-so-distant foreground. It was one of those seventies-style concrete hospitals that looks more like a communist tenement than a place of healing. It was a psychiatric hospital.
I had been placed on a 5150, a psychiatric hold for people who are a danger to themselves and others. The social worker who did my intake evaluation told Jeramy that, based on her 20-plus years of experience, I was suffering from the most severe level of postpartum depression possible. At least they let Jeramy drive me from the ER to St. Stephen’s. Still, he had to leave me there—alone. Not until years later did he tell me that he wept for the entire 40-minute drive home.
Neither of us knew what to do. Neither of us felt the comfort the Bible promises for those in pain. Neither of us could pray with any conviction of hope. We knew God was there, but he seemed distantly cold. The pain was wreaking havoc on our marriage.
We were Christian authors, a pastor and pastor’s wife, a couple who wanted to honor God with life and marriage. We were in agony. Up to this point, we didn’t understand what it meant to suffer together, and—to tell you the truth—we didn’t want to learn how to let God walk us through the valley of the shadow of death…together. We would have traded what authors have deemed the “gift of suffering.” And yet we would have missed the very things that have shaped our marriage and ministry in the most powerful ways.
An Era of Pain
It seems as if every marriage is hurting during these difficult times. Several of our closest friends are facing financial ruin. Husbands and wives are looking at one another across the dinner table, wondering how their relationship dissolved into an endless string of loveless, lifeless days. Two couples we’re close to are going through divorce and custody battles. Infertility is robbing those we love of the joy they desperately want to experience. The children of our friends are straining their parents’ marriages with choices to live alternative lifestyles, to cohabitate—seemingly without guilt—to stridently abandon the faith of their youth. The death of loved ones, the news that it’s cancer, teen pregnancy, horrific violence in elementary schools—it’s hitting everyone we know. We live with the constant awareness of deep suffering.
Christians may understand this on an intellectual level: “When troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow” (James 1:2-3). We want to do this. But did anyone ever teach you how to suffer as a couple? Our premarital counseling didn’t address it, and we had the “best of the best” mentoring us. What we’ve come to realize is that the joy of suffering together can be won only by actually suffering together.
Since we fought the battle against postpartum depression, Jeramy and I have faced other pains: a best friend’s betrayal, suffocating challenges at work, confusion about the future of our work and ministry, my diagnosis with fibromyalgia, the murder of a family member. Life overflows with pain, doesn’t it? But what we’ve learned about suffering together has changed the way we face pain.
We choose—though we don’t always do it well—to let suffering together untie us and bless others.
The Hidden Invitations in Suffering
Although most of us have figured out there’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all formula for how to suffer with our spouses, we also know that our Father gave something far better—his Holy Spirit, the Comforter, God’s indwelling presence to guide and guard. The Spirit who walks alongside us picks us up when we stumble and screw things up and ache from the consequences of our sin or the awful, uncontrollable circumstances we never could have planned for.
The Spirit who guides us directs tenderly and compassionately. Suffering is an invitation to know the Spirit on a level more preciously intimate and real. Do you desire this? Will you walk with your spouse through pain to experience it?
Suffering together produces fellowship with Jesus, God the Son, who agonized here and understands well our pain. I love The message translation of Hebrews 4:15-16: “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.” His mercy is there for you and your spouse. Do you ache for it? Will you reach out for it together? Jeramy and I have had to choose this. It hasn’t happened naturally. Every one of the pains we’ve faced together has extended us two invitations: draw close to one another through Jesus or allow the wedge of anguish to drive us apart.
Suffering together is likewise an invitation to know the character of God the Father, not as a list of Sunday-school attributes, but as the very life and breath of our marriage. Grace, peace, hope, goodness, faithfulness—these are not resources God metes out. They are the incarnation of his person within us. Love isn’t merely a characteristic of God; it is the very essence of his power and presence, pouring himself into you and through you to your spouse.
I realize that very few of us would opt to know God through the agony of suffering. But as A.W. Pink wrote, the truth is “the promises of God never shine as brightly as in the furnace of affliction.” You and your spouse, suffering together, can know the truth of who God is in a way that would not have been possible on a road unmarked with pain.
But how do we do that?
Okay, so we don’t have a formula. We’re invited to know God on a deeper level. But how do we walk—day by day—through the pain?
Jeramy and I, not only in our battle with postpartum depression, but also in the anguish of various broken dreams, unmet expectations, and delayed hopes, have discovered some practical helps for suffering together. Perhaps these three will encourage you.
1. Offer one another the gift of presence. Suffering often drives couples apart, and it’s far easier to stay a few extra hours at work than come home to a house in chaos, a house filled with pain. It’s easier to check out emotionally than to talk to one another about what you’re facing. But, just as Emmanuel— the God with us—models, we are called to be present to and for one another.
The Greek verb tense used in Galatians 6:2, “Share each other’s burdens,” might be better translated “Keep onsharing one another’s burdens.” You can share in carrying the burden only if you are present with one another.
It takes so little…holding her hand, speaking a word of respect to him, offering to serve in a way that enlivens and unites the two of you. I remember the night Jeramy came home from Wal-Mart with two movies I loved as a kid: The Three Amigos and Ghostbusters. All we did was sit on the couch together and watch. I could barely laugh. I’m not even sure—to this day—what Jeramy was thinking. But he was next to me; he spoke love to me without words. He was present with me.
After I was physically and mentally stable, Jeramy needed to work through anger, resentment, and confusion about what we’d gone through. I listened, trying as far as I was able to be present with him.
2. Choose to press in. All of us would like to end our suffering right away. Who wants to prolong pain? Often, we think that rushing through the valley of the shadow would be best for everyone involved. Instead of trying to escape or just “get through this,” what if you pressed into what the pain says about you, your spouse, your marriage, and your God?
Jeramy and I went through months of therapy—together and individually. During one of the sessions, my counselor asked that I read Matthew 5:4 aloud. “God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I parroted the words, not feeling blessed in the slightest. She asked me what the verse meant. Seriously? I thought. I just got out of a psychiatric hospital. You want me to exegete Scripture? I looked at the words again, and it hit me with ferocity. Tears of illumination burned in my eyes. “I have to go through the mourning to get the comfort, don’t I?” Yes. Yes. We cannot escape the pain, but we can allow it to lead us further up and further in.
It didn’t happen all at once, but slowly, as Jeramy and I pressed into the pain rather than avoiding it, we found that we were not alone there. Jesus was with us and we experienced it, not just “knew it.” And as we grew in intimacy with Christ, we grew in intimacy with one another.
3. Remember the days of your suffering. Over the years, Lamentations 3 has become a beloved passage of Scripture for Jeramy and me. This portion of God’s Word is most famous for its declaration that “Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning” (Verse 23).
Perhaps it’s been a while since you read what comes before and after this beautiful assurance. In verse 1, the prophet Jeremiah wails, “I am the one who has seen the afflictions that come from the rod of the LORD’s anger.” You do not need to bury the memory of your suffering. Indeed, you cannot. The memory of his anguish was what allowed Jeremiah to shout, “Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the LORD never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness” (21-23).
This can be your experience, too. As you and your spouse allow the memory of your pain to nourish your marriage and spill out of your relationship into the lives of those around you, you will be able to help others see “No one is abandoned by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he also shows compassion because of the greatness of his unfailing love. For he does not enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow” (Lamentations 3:31-33).
Perhaps it’s difficult for you to imagine exactly how remembering your suffering as a couple can help anyone else. Here are a couple of ways that has worked in our marriage. Together, we actively remember significant dates. We choose to recall the day I was admitted to the hospital. We remember the moments in therapy—individual and couples—when God broke through our suffering in order to heal. We don’t try to erase those memories. We embrace them as ways to recall God’s faithfulness.
Letting God use your memory and your openness isn’t always easy. But it is true and good and beautiful. And, as is so often the case, allowing God to use us becomes every bit as significant a blessing and source of healing for us as it is for those we desire to bless. Picture this for a moment: how different might the world be if all of our marriages proclaimed the truth that pain can heal, can unite, can be transformed into praise, can bless the body of Christ, wounded in so many ways?
Our hope as a couple, and my prayer through these words you’ve read, is that God will comfort your marriage with the comfort he has given ours.
Indeed, in everything we can choose to say, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
May it be so, Lord, for Jeramy and me and for my brothers and sisters.
Jerusha Ann Clark is a writer who lives in Escondido, California. She is the author of several books including The Life You Crave: The Promise of Discernment.