"The Slow Fires of Misery"
Enduring the Pain of Flawed Marriage
This article was not inspired by Noël’s return from three weeks in Asia! It was inspired by reading a review of three new books about Abraham Lincoln (Books and Culture, Sept./Oct., 1995, p. 6). 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, and there is much gain in embracing the pain for Christ and his kingdom.
Our culture has made it acceptable (and therefore easier to justify) divorce on the basis of emotional pain. Historically, the misery of painful emotions was not a sanction of divorce in most cultures. Marriage durability—with or without emotional pain—was valued above emotional tranquility, for the sake of the children and the stability of society. In Christianity such rugged, enduring marriage, through pain and heartache, is rooted in the marriage of God to his rebellious people whom he has never finally cast off.
"Your husband is your Maker … For the Lord has called you, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, even like a wife of one’s youth when she is rejected," says your God. "For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you" (Isaiah 54:5-7).
Lincoln brought debilities into his marriage to 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 He was emotionally withdrawn and prized reason over passion.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. Before his presidency, for years 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.’”
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: 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 Abraham Lincoln did not run from the fires of misery in his marriage. There were resources for healing he did not know. But when they fail, embracing the fire is better than escape.