I have been inspired to write this, first, because of the mini sermon series I am in right now on marriage and, second, by listening to my wife’s online message about what she learned from her mother. Incredible message! If you want wheelbarrow loads of practical wisdom for your family, and trunks full of insight into the kind of woman I married, and windows flown wide onto what shaped the Piper family for the last thirty-eight years, listen to this talk. It’s about forty minutes long, and it’s built around the memories captured in a fortieth-anniversary quilt she and her eight siblings made for their parents. I couldn’t turn it off.
Now, what about that sermon title: “Staying Married Is Not About Staying In Love”? What’s the issue with being “in love”? The problem with basing too much on it is that it is a fuzzy thing. Not as in warm fuzzy, but as in fuzzy photograph. The line between when it’s there and not there is vague. Am I in love with Noël? This is a test. You decide.
1) When she goes away, I miss her—not just because I might get tired of cereal (except that nice people bring us things), but also because there is a vacancy in the kitchen and in the living room and in the car and in the bed and in the air.
2) When my day off rolls around each week on Monday, I want to do something special with her. Admittedly not very special. I just want to be with her. Old Country Buffet. (No kidding—real people and all-you-can-eat for two for fifteen dollars. It’s a cultural experience!) Famous Dave’s. (Where else can you get corn on the cob in January?) Scrabble. (She almost always wins.) River walk in the summer? A long easy evening sitting in the same room reading. The point is: I like being with her in all this.
3) I am sexually attracted to her. Remember I am giving a test for you to judge if I am in love. God has been very good to me by giving me eyes only for Noël. The point is not that I am not tempted to look too long at risqué pictures. The point is that I am not now, and never have been for the last forty years, drawn to any other women. I have never had to kill a rising attraction to another woman. There never has been any. In fact, I have said to Noël that God has, so far, built a safeguard into our relationship that the thought of being romantically involved with another woman makes me physically nauseated—almost as much as a homosexual imagination. It doesn’t feel like a virtue. It feels like acid reflux. (Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. Will do.) She is all I have ever been attracted to. And I still am.
4) Noël’s admiration matters uniquely to me. There are thousands of people who think John Piper is not admirable for all kinds of reasons—shouts too much in his preaching, too black and white, dogmatic, judgmental, too conservative, misogynist, hypocrite, proud, not separatistic enough, too separatistic, post-tribulational, hedonistic, Baptist, charismatic sympathizer, subjectivist, tolerates drums, uses questionable language, reclusive, too serious—for starters. That matters to me—some. But what Noël thinks about what I am and what I do matters uniquely. I would rather have her approval and commendation with a thousand emails of disapproval than the other way around.
However, things are not the way they used to be. I can remember the way it was the first time we held hands in 1966. It was not a small thing. It was romantic and sexual. Today we still hold hands. Often it is a sign of truce. I’m done being angry and I want things to be good. Other times it means: I’m glad you’re with me as we go to the doctor. Other times: God was good to give you to me. It’s different. The fruit has ripened. It is not flush with spring green. It is gnarled and worn with thick skin. When you live through fire, the fruit has to develop very thick skin to protect the vital, succulent core.
Unlike the early days of being in love, life is hugely practical. We talk about practicalities of home and work and children a lot. The relationship has a large business component. This home has been a little company: five children to raise, food to prepare, house to keep, car to maintain, health to tend to, clothes to buy and clean, education to plan and pay for, friendships to nurture, ministry to navigate, money to manage, etc. Romance does not dominate this relationship like it did at the beginning.
We know everything there is to know now about each other’s failures. Past failures. Ongoing failures. There is no idealization any more. Marriage is risky business and should not be entered without a huge confidence in the sovereignty of God. If the text is true (which it is), “They were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25), then the day is long past in world history, and in our marriage, when freedom from shame is based on having nothing to be ashamed of. Now it is true—God make it more and more true!—by the maturing of grace.
In the end, the gospel of Christ crucified for sinful husbands and wives is the ground of our marriage. Here is where we see grace. Here is where we receive grace. Here is where we learn to give grace. Growing in grace-received and grace-shared is how we are moving forward toward the day when Christ will be all in all and there will be no marrying or giving in marriage (Matthew 22:30). It is a precious gift while we have it. It is a painful and happy school for heaven. I am thankful for my wife. I am committed for life. Am I in love? You decide.