enduring the pain of a flawed marriage

13 Dec

I love the web of relationships  through which words come. My friend David sent this out as one of his “emusings” – who in turn had it sent to him from a friend who came across it in one of John Piper’s books, who in his turn had read about Lincoln’s marriage in an article by Mark Noll. And that’s just the part of the web of which I am aware!

This musing is good. It’s true. No doubt not popular. But true.

I would extend these musings to all relationships, period. To embrace a friend is to embrace the attending fire. It is a willingness to be burned and to learn from the burning. Now, there are some really unhealthy friendships – and marriages, for that matter – from which wisdom would dictate it’s time to move on. But ponder these observations and let them ponder you and your relationships.

We have this picture of “Lincoln” chasing Edward Cullen with an axe. It’s hanging on our living room wall (my lincoln-vampire-hunter-edward-twilight-550x426daughters are marvelous decorators). Now I need one of Mary Todd Lincoln chasing Lincoln around with a knife – or a bag of potatoes. It would serve as a nice reminder that the more meaningful the relationship, the more messy it will be. And what deep work can be done through that mess, work that nothing else can so effectively accomplish within us.

And BTW, go watch Lincoln. Just sayin’…

Abraham Lincoln’s marriage was a mess, and accepting the pain brought deep strength in the long run.

I write this not because it is wrong to seek refuge from physical abuse, but because, short of that, millions of marriages end over the agony of heartbreaking disappointments and frustrations. They do not need to. There is much to gain in embracing the pain for Christ and his kingdom.

Our culture has made divorce acceptable and therefore easier to justify on the basis of emotional pain. Historically, the misery of painful emotions was not a sanction for divorce in most cultures. Marriage durability — with or without emotional pain — was valued above emotional tranquility for the sake of the children, the stability of society, and in the case of Christians, for the glory of Christ. In Christianity such rugged, enduring marriages, through pain and heartache, are rooted in the marriage of God to his rebellious people whom he has never finally cast off.

“Your Maker is your husband. . . . For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (Isaiah 54:5–7).

Lincoln & Mary ToddAbraham Lincoln brought debilities to his marriage with Mary Todd. He was emotionally withdrawn and prized reason over passion. She said that he “was not a demonstrative man. . . . When he felt most deeply, he expressed the least.” He was absent, emotionally or physically, most of the time. For years before his presidency, he spent four months each year away from home on the judicial circuit. He was indulgent with the children and left their management almost entirely to his wife.

Mary often flew into rages.

She pushed Lincoln relentlessly to seek high public office; she complained endlessly about poverty; she overran her budget shamelessly, both in Springfield and in the White House; she abused servants as if they were slaves (and ragged on Lincoln when he tried to pay them extra on the side); she assaulted him on more than one occasion (with firewood, with potatoes); she probably once chased him with a knife through their backyard in Springfield; and she treated his casual contacts with attractive females as a direct threat, while herself flirting constantly and dressing to kill. A regular visitor to the White House wrote of Mrs. Lincoln that “she was vain, passionately fond of dress and wore her dresses shorter at the top and longer at the train than even fashions demanded. She had great pride in her elegant neck and bust, and grieved the president greatly by her constant display of her person and her fine clothes.”1

It was a pain-filled marriage. The familiar lines in his face and the somber countenance reveal more than the stress of civil war. But the two stayed married. They kept at least that part of their vows. They embraced the pain, even if they could not (or would not) remove it.

What was the gain?

God will give the final answer, but here are two historical assessments.a Godward Life

(1) How was it that Lincoln, when president, could work so effectively with the rampant egos who filled his administration? “The long years of dealing with his tempestuous wife helped prepare Lincoln for handling the difficult people he encountered as president.” In other words, a whole nation benefited from his embracing the pain.

(2) “Over the slow fires of misery that he learned to keep banked and under heavy pressure deep within him, his innate qualities of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were tempered and refined.” America can be glad that Lincoln did not run from the fires of misery in his marriage. There were resources for healing he did not know, and short of healing, embracing the fire is better than escape.

Increasingly, contemporary culture assumes the opposite. Pain-free relationships are assumed as a right. But God promises his people something better. “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

From John Piper’s A Godward Life, pages 33–35.

1Quotations in this reading are from Mark Noll, “The Struggle for Lincoln’s Soul,” in Books and Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, September/October 1995, 3–6

Lincoln close up


Posted by on December 13, 2012 in musings


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2 responses to “enduring the pain of a flawed marriage

  1. Stephen Parker

    December 13, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    Mike, this one hit very hard, considering “when” I am right now. I had to revisit some dark, shame-filled places to make peace (again) with myself this morning. Even though I failed in my marriage, I know I did the best I could at the time. So I can now sincerely thank you for providing an opportunity to once again KNOW that my Savior forgives me and loves me, and accepts me right where I am. And referencing Gina’s facebook reply, I also can see the “lovely” part of this on the horizon (if there comes a “next time” for me…a chance to make better choices), so thanks to her for prompting me to recognize it.

  2. wordhaver

    December 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    That’s the hard part in posting this, for me: not wanting anyone to hear shame in this for any broken relationships. Glad you are moving in his paths of grace, Stephen!


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