I met the couple in my study at 7 o’clock. They had telephoned for an appointment to discuss getting married, and it was the first time I had seen them. Thirty-five years old, the woman had a daughter aged eleven. Her husband was dead. He had been killed in Korea, and she had been a widow ever since. The man was about five years younger, blond and heavily muscled. They had met five months before when he had come to Chicago to find work. She worked as a waitress. He worked for a trucking firm.
Originally she was from Texas, a Baptist. He was vague concerning his religious background, and equally vague about the jobs he had held. I wondered if he could support a home and family. As we talked I noticed that he spoke very little. He had little opportunity. She interrupted continually. Seldom did she allow him to answer a question.
In the face of these facts I sought to analyze my task as a counselor. They had a wedding license; in the eyes of the state they were qualified to be married. Was it my task to examine their spiritual qualifications? Neither was divorced. Having settled that matter, was the counseling finished? Was there nothing more to do except to explain the mechanics of rehearsal, the marriage ceremony, and of course, the fee for the custodian, if they wished a formal wedding? Certainly a pastor’s task is greater than this.
They had sought me out because I was a minister of the Gospel. Was I to ascertain in some way whether or not this was a union that God could bless? After all, why did they come to me? Were they consciously seeking God’s blessing? These are questions I bluntly ask the couples who come to me for marriage counseling. I want them to face them squarely, and I want to hear their answers. If they are really seeking God’s blessing upon the home they wish to establish, I then ask if they would be willing to accept counsel from me that didn’t go along with their plans. Would they postpone marriage because of anything I might say? There is very little purpose in counseling those who have already made up their minds so that nothing the minister might suggest would make any difference.
Are They Ready For It?
There have been times when I have felt that a couple was not ready for marriage. Early in my ministry I hesitated to say much about such things but with increasing age there has come increasing courage. I now ask them why they think their marriage would work. I point out factors that have meant unhappiness in the lives of others and ask how they expect to overcome them. These may include a great difference in age, opposite religious backgrounds or cultural and racial differences.
Does the fact that the state has granted me the privilege of conducting marriage ceremonies obligate me to do so regardless of factors which would make a successful marriage unlikely? If I refuse them will they go to some civil authority for a marriage service of bare questions: “Do you take this woman to be your wife? Do you take this man to be your husband? I now declare you to be husband and wife.” If I turn them away will I be slamming the doors of the church in their faces forever?
We have obligations to the couple sitting on the other side of the desk, and we have obligations to God. For myself, I choose to explain my sense of obligation to the couple. They have come to me freely because they want God’s blessing upon their union and the home they hope to establish. I would neither fulfill my duty to God nor to them if I didn’t state plainly what marriage means. This, for me, means reading some of the biblical statements about marriage.
In Mark 10:6–9 the husband-wife relationship is placed above all others, never to be broken by man. Marriage is a love relationship demanding submission to each other (Eph. 5:21–33 and 1 Pet. 3:1–8). Then there are the wedding vows.
Those being married deserve to be charged in advance with the obligations they are assuming. “To love, to cherish, to honor until death do us part” are pledges they choose to take “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.” They come to me because they want to take these pledges before God, and they ask their friends to come as witnesses.
These are binding vows. To honor, is something we choose to do. To cherish is something we choose or choose not to do. To love is not a disease; it also is something we choose to do. These vows are not excused or erased because somebody loses his temper or doesn’t carry his share of the load. Those who are not ready to face these obligations as eternally binding are not ready for marriage. I want assurance that the couples who come to me are taking these vows freely and accepting them as eternally binding upon their lives.
The Bacon And Egg Questions
Pre-marital counseling should make the couple aware of the adjustments required if their home is to be what they hope it will be, a harbor where there is serenity and peace. How do they picture their future home? Do both have the same picture in mind. I am not too interested in the physical description, and I refuse to put too much stock in the anticipated income. I know that for some $75 a week would be enough. Others would be doomed with so little.
All of us are creatures of habit. Does the prospective bridegroom ordinarily eat bacon, eggs and potatoes for breakfast? Does the bride-to-be think of a cup of black coffee and a piece of dry toast as being plenty? These things need to be faced in the calmness of the pre-marital relationship. In the counselor’s study they are laughable, but they could easily detonate explosions later on. Some are accustomed to eating highly seasoned foods while in some homes the pepper shaker is unknown. A person who has eaten highly seasoned foods for 25 years is not going to switch to a bland, neutral diet without pain.
Opposites seem to have a kind of fatal attraction for each other. The girl who likes concert going and the vicarious thrill of watching others perform falls in love with the activist. Suddenly a man who has been playing golf every morning and softball every evening during the summer finds himself in double harness with one who has never done anything more athletic than getting in and out of the bathtub. I try to paint these pictures for them to see. They ought to study them carefully before taking any vows.
Most persons will discover that some of the partner’s friends are intolerable to them. Old friendships have to be broken off, and this may seem unreasonable to the one who does the breaking. Is the pastor not obligated to warn them that until their marriage means more to them than any or all of their old friends, they are not ready for marriage?
The newly married enter upon new relationships. They have lived for years in the independent “I” relationship; they enter upon an interdependent relationship of “we.” This calls for a complete shift of mental and emotional gears if the marriage is to mesh without a lot of noise and bumping. Neither will have complete control of the money. Neither will be able to do as he pleases without considering the wishes of the other. Neither will be a free agent from that time forth if the marriage is to be all it is meant to be.
Are They Really In Love?
Pastors do not have the right to play God to the couples who come to them. But they should remember that those who come to be married are caught in the spell of an age-old dream, and not always are those bewitched able to tell love from physical attraction. Perhaps they are only two post-teens with palpitations.
Back in the corner of my brain there is sometimes a nagging question. Is the marriage initiated and planned by heart and mind and soul or have other forces been at work? Is the marriage a subconscious escape from parental domination? Has the girl been overwhelmed by the constant barrage of propaganda emphasizing sex appeal that saturates our culture? We live in a society that puts a frightfully high premium on sexual desirability. I would like to write another article on this sometime, because I feel that many ruin their lives trying to maintain themselves as sex symbols without really being persons. Some girls seem to feel they have failed if they haven’t gone steady at least three times by their fourteenth birthday. Living under such pressures is it not possible that some girl might say “yes” to a marriage proposal because she is haunted by the fear of being passed by? Have glands made a decision that should have been decided by mind and heart? The flipping calendar has declared them to be the right age, and they search out a heart throb with whom to set up housekeeping. Some seek to find in marriage a cheap housekeeper or an easy meal ticket. We know such things happen. Should such thoughts as these be expressed in words during the counseling sessions? The law of averages would probably bring to us some couples who have these motives ushering them down the wedding aisle.
Are They Spiritually Ready?
The counseling sessions I have with couples are sometimes punctuated by laughter, but their facial expressions tell me that there is some thinking going on too. This is encouraging. I want them to see that before they can be husbands or wives worthy of asking God’s blessing they must first be honest persons. They can’t afford to hide behind shams or be lost in dreams. Being able to fulfill the requirements for a marriage license is not enough. They have to be children of God if they are to know the ultimate in the marriage relationship. If they are not committed to Christ I feel it is my duty to ask them directly, “Why do you ask God to bless your marriage and your home if you have never accepted him as your Lord, Saviour and Redeemer?” It is not necessary for me to go into the details of this, but I believe that they have business to do with God before they take any wedding vows. I want to make sure as far as I can that they take care of that business then and there. In every wedding ceremony there are prayers. When I bow my head to petition God for the woman and man who have knelt before me I want to be able to pray, knowing that they are children of God. I regret that there were times in my early ministry when I was more timid. I now have a heavier sense of responsibility as a minister, as God’s undershepherd. Talks with my fellow pastors have convinced me that I am not alone with these feelings.
Marriage is too long a journey with too many pitfalls to be entered into lightly, and no possible number of counseling sessions can do all that should be done. Proper preparation for marriage begins at a mother’s knee. Since we as pastors have very little to do with that except in terms of educating our people, we ought to preach often on marriage. Theodore Adams, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, is said to have made it his practice for years during the month of January to preach on marriage and courtship. These messages have been distilled into a book, “Making Your Marriage Succeed.” Such preaching as is found in this book should help a congregation face the emotional and the spiritual tensions that can wreck a marriage. Forewarned, the prospective marriage partners can face them in a calm objective atmosphere. Under these conditions problems and differences are not nearly so prickly to handle.
I need not suggest to wiser men than I that there are many springboards for such sermons in the Scriptures. The church is compared to a bride with Christ as the bridegroom. There are weddings described in both the Old and New Testaments. The duties of husband and wife are delineated, and both the dangers and boons of marriage are dramatized before our eyes in the pages of the Bible. Every time we discuss anything that applies to emotional maturity we are preparing people for marriage.
Some denominations have prepared marriage questionnaires and guides. These can be given to couples who are looking forward to marriage. Better yet, they can be given to teen-agers who anticipate a marriage far in the future. In working with our high school group we schedule programs every year which present some of the problems discussed in this article. We want our young people to be prepared for both the obligations and the joys of marriage. If this is to be, they must accept personal responsibility and be willing to pay the price to make the marriage successful. Not everything happens as it did in a story I read at least 30 years ago.
A newly married couple were determined that they would solve their problems without fighting. So it was agreed that if either one noticed anything in the other that was irritating, anything at all that carried the seeds of future trouble, he or she would write a note about it and put it in the “complaint box.” At sometime each one would go alone to the “complaint box” and take out the notes with his or her name on them. In an atmosphere of calmness and self-examination they would read the note and do their best to change. The plan seemed to work perfectly. One month rolled into two, two into three and four, and they were as happy as they had been during the honeymoon. At the end of the year they were discussing their marvelous invention for happy homes and discovered that neither had ever opened the “complaint box.” Each one had been so certain that he or she was innocent of all fault that neither one had looked in the box.
The author had his story end with a surprise twist and all lived happily ever after. Real life marriages are not often handled so neatly. Happy homes have to be paid for. The responsible pastor has to make sure that the bride and groom know the price.
Preacher In The Red*
WHY DID I EVER LEAVE CARDIFF?
In the autumn of 1923 I arrived from Wales, my native land, with the party of David Lloyd George, famed British Prime Minister. I soon found myself the guest of the African Inland Missionary Home in Brooklyn, a guest who was a very lonely and homesick young man. A large group of retired lady missionaries, sensing my loneliness, arranged an afternoon tea to help dispel my gloom. At the close I was asked to say a word to the assembled ladies, and looking them squarely in the face I exclaimed, “What language is there to describe my gratitude to you dear women for all this kindness? What word can describe my feelings?” Then in a burst of enthusiasm I thundered, “I know just the word, you are without doubt the most homely women I have ever met.” Brother, I learned the hard way that there are words used in the old country that are never used here, even if homely in Wales does mean wholesome, gracious, kind, loving and motherly.—PETER R. JOSHUA, Presbyterian Evangelist, Geneva, Illinois.
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