Up In Flames


God has had me preempt the article I had intended to write this month, in order to write about something that is very near and dear to my heart - our marriages.

As Chuck and I have been extensively traveling this past month, we have been deluged with questions about failing marriages. Recent letters have expressed the very same concerns.

So, before I begin an overview of my new book, Ascent to the Son (faith in the "night seasons"), I thought I would first recap our own personal story of how God saved our marriage and turned it around by His Love. Then, in the following few months, we'll talk a little about God's Love, examining exactly what it is and how it's completely opposite from natural, human love.

Many of the Christians we've talked to and heard from are confusing God's Love with human love. Thus, their marriages are failing, their lives are empty and unfulfilled and many of these precious people are nearly ready to give up. 
Twenty years ago, Chuck and I had what seemed to most people a fairy tale life and a "perfect marriage." We had been married, at that point, for about twenty years. We had four beautiful children, two boys and two girls. Chuck was a successful business executive-CEO of a major computer firm. We lived in a gorgeous, sprawling, three-acre ranch house with pool, stables and guest quarters. We drove a Ferrari and a Mercedes. On the outside it looked like we had everything anyone could ever want.

But on the inside we were like so many Christians we talk to today; just existing. We were experiencing no real love or joy, no meaning or purpose in our lives and were incredibly unhappy and unfulfilled in every way. We were what the Bible calls "whited sepulchers," which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are "full of dead men's bones and everything unclean." It says "outwardly (you) appear righteous" (and loving), but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy. ( Matthew 23:27-28) This describes us exactly and, I believe, many other Christians today.

What makes our story a little different from so many others you might hear is that we were Christians at this time. We weren't "backsliding" Christians; we taught Bible studies in our home, we went faithfully to church and we prayed daily. But we still had no idea what God's Love really was or what it meant to love Him in the way He wanted us to.

Both of us were teaching others in our Bible studies that Christ is the answer to all our problems, and in our hearts we knew this to be true. Yet, in our lives behind closed doors, it wasn't true at all-our lives were totally falling apart. And our boys, who were teenagers at the time, saw the whole thing! Sarcastically, they would ask us, "Why would others want what you have? You are no different from people who don't even know God." Oh, how those words hurt! They hurt because we knew them to be true!

Recent statistics show that one out of every two marriages fail - Christian and non - Christian alike! How can this be? Don't we as Christians have Someone special inside that is supposed to prevent this? Many of these marriages are said to be, "loveless, utilitarian relationships to protect the children." And that's exactly what our marriage had become. 
We had what I like to call a "professional marriage"-that's a marriage where two people are existing together only for the purpose of convenience, show, security or, as that statistic stated, "to protect the children."

Marriage Trials

Let me back up and briefly try to explain how we got to that point in our marriage. I was raised by parents who always gave first priority to their marriage relationship. My dad was always there for my mom and her needs, no matter what they were. He was there for us kids, too, whenever we needed him. Dad and Mom always seemed to have a "united front" on all matters. I remember a very calm and undisturbed household with no internal tensions or outside pressures tearing it apart.

When I thought of marriage, then, Mom and Dad's was the kind I envisioned and hoped for. I didn't know any other kind existed. So it was a huge shock to find myself married to this "dynamo," who began to place ten times more importance on time spent in business and at work than he did with me or the kids. And it seemed the tighter I grabbed hold of him and tried to make him change, the more he just pulled away and threw himself even deeper into his business.

At this time, Chuck was chairman of the board and chief executive officer of a major computer company. He "lived, ate, and breathed" his company and thrived on the high stress and challenge of "growing" a big, dynamic corporation. His typical workweek consisted of six eighteen-hour days, besides bringing home mountains of paperwork in the evenings and on the weekends. His secretary used to tell me he received between 40 and 50 important phone calls a day to return. I can't imagine that kind of pressure, but Chuck loved it. He also loved to travel. He was on the road - or more precisely, "in the sky" -an average of one-to-two weeks each month.

As you can imagine, the result of this kind of lifestyle was that he had very little time for home and family. And when he was home, with all the tremendous pressures on him, he was always totally preoccupied on the phone, the computer, doing business reports, mail, and other pressing issues.

When I would complain about his long hours at the office or his travel, he would just respond, "Hey, that's what you married; that's what you're stuck with!" In other words, "Don't rock the boat! Don't try to change me!"

Personality Differences

Chuck has incredible verbal abilities. These abilities are great assets in the business world, but these same attributes are devastating if you are on the other end of an argument with him.

I used to have the best "fights" with the bathroom mirror before or after confronting Chuck. In the bathroom I could always say just the right things. But when actually talking with Chuck, it would all come out wrong; or he would use a word I didn't understand, and it would send me to the dictionary to find out what he had just called me.

I'm not an explosive person. I have, in general, a rather placid temperament and I tend to shy away from confrontation. But when hurt or attacked verbally, I used to take everything inward and allow it to stay there, to fester and grow, because I didn't know what else to do with it (this was before I found The Way of Agape). On the outside, I would smile and pretend everything was fine, but on the inside, without realizing it, deep roots of bitterness and resentment began to grow. Unknowingly, these things began to motivate some of my actions.

Financial "Roller Coaster"

In addition to our marital trials, we've also had tremendous financial trials. We have never in our 40 years of marriage (maybe with a few exceptions at the very beginning) had an eight-to-five job with a stable income. We have either been millionaires (I think we've been there twice!) or at the other end of the gamut: totally broke and paupers.

The last several years of our marriage have probably been the hardest of all financially. In 1990 we lost our beautiful dream house in Big Bear Lake, California, our cars, and our medical and life insurance through bankruptcy when Chuck's company failed.

Then, five years ago, the rented home that we moved to after the bankruptcy turned out to be on the epicenter of a 6.8 earthquake. As a result, we lost many of our personal possessions. So, financially and materially, it has been an incredible roller coaster ride.

When we were first married, Chuck used to say to me, "I can't promise you our marriage will be easy, but I do promise it won't be dull." He has definitely kept that promise to the letter!

Problems With Our Children

As if our marital and financial problems weren't enough, we've also had tremendous problems with our children. A main contributor to our family problems was that we were always moving. We have moved 25 times in 40 years of marriage (most of those moves were in the early years when the children were home). The kids used to ask after each move, "Shall we keep our bags packed?"

We have four beautiful children: Chip, Mark (both in their 30s), Lisa and Michelle (both in their 20s). But in the midst of our trials, 18 years ago, the boys were just teenagers. And as a result of our continual moving, they had their own set of problems. Adjusting every year or so to new friends and new schools can be very traumatic and, thus, they began to look elsewhere to fill the emptiness that they too were experiencing.

In addition to the boys' problems, our last child, Michelle, was born with extreme medical problems. She was allergic to the "entire" cow. If she drank or ate anything from the cow (milk, meat, cheese, jello, whey, casein, etc.), she would vomit uncontrollably and have diarrhea for days.

Then, when she was 18 months old, we discovered that she was hyperactive. And thus began an incredible period of about four years where we tried desperately to find a suitable diet for her. The doctors urged us not to let her have anything containing artificial colorings, flavorings or preservatives.

It even got worse when we had to withdraw apples, peaches, grapes and other fruit from her diet because they, too, contained the natural chemicals that cause hyperactivity. This left us with a diet consisting of papayas, bananas, fish, lima beans, squash, spinach and rice cakes. Try cooking for a two year old with that diet! It was horrible!

If that wasn't enough, at the age of two Michelle began to limp. One day she just started dragging her leg. The doctors told us she had "a disease of the bone marrow" and if we ever wanted her to walk again, we had to keep her off her feet and in bed for an indefinite period of time. Have you ever tried to keep a two year old in bed for any length of time-let alone a hyperactive two year old?

Excruciatingly Painful Time

This time in my life was excruciating, with our marriage on the verge of breaking up, our financial roller coaster, the boys' problems, our continual moving and little Michelle's situation.

As my feelings of rejection, bitterness and frustration over these things would become unbearable, I would go the Lord and say, "Where is the abundant Life that I'm supposed to have as a Christian? If You are the answer, then why am I so miserable? (My marriage is falling apart, my family is in upheaval and everything is crumbling.) Where is this Love You talk about in Your Word?"

God's Love

What I didn't understand at that time is that Agape (God's Love) is not a human emotion or feeling, but it's God Himself loving through us. God is the One doing the loving, not us. And all God desires from you and me is the willingness to set our selves aside, so that He can love His Love through us.

Now, when I say "self," it's important to understand exactly what I mean. Self is all of our own thoughts, emotions and desires that are not of faith (things that are not of God, things that are contrary to God). For example, anger, guilt, bitterness, resentment, unforgiveness, criticalness, doubt, pride, fear and so forth - these are things that would be defined as "self." Even if these things are "justified" by the world's standards, if we hold on to them, they will end up quenching God's Love in our hearts.

And so, all God wanted from me was the "willingness" to yield and surrender these things to Him, so that He then could freely love His Love through me and, thus, begin to change my world. In other words, God's Love doesn't automatically flow through us just because we are Christians. All of our hurts, anger, resentments, etc. that we choose to hold on to, block His Love in our hearts and cause it to grow cold in our lives.

So, the key is that we must be clean vessels in order to experience His Love in and through us. And this was exactly the problem in my own marriage.

Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 24 about all the things that will happen in the end times. One of the things He mentions is that God's Love "will grow cold" in Christians. I was one of those Christians.

Next month, we'll continue the story of how God saved our marriage by His Love and the secret to staying that open and cleansed vessel so His Love can flow.

This article has been excerpted from Chuck and Nancy's books, The Way of Agape and Why Should I Be the First to Change?