Dr. John Barger gave an extraordinary address to a gathering of men on December 12, 1987. The address included his testimony of how he had walked the road from being a domineering husband to a serving one. The crux of the message, however, wasn’t just that husbands can do better. We all know that. What inspired me so much about his words was Dr. Barger’s message that by learning to love his wife, he got a better grip on how he could love his God.
I want to share some of Dr. Barger’s story with you:
I swaggered through marriage for many years, ruling my wife Susan and my seven children with an iron hand while citing Scripture as justification for my privileges and authority. After all, Scripture explicitly commands wives to obey their husbands.
Years of dominating my wife and children left them habitually resentful and fearful of me, yet unwilling to challenge me because of the fury it might provoke… I alienated Susan and the children, and lost their love. Home was not a pleasant place to be – for them or for me. By 1983, Susan would have left me if it weren’t for the children, and even that bond was losing its force.
Then a number of dramatic events occurred, which wrought a profound change in my moral, psychological, and spiritual life.
The first of these “dramatic events” was when Dr. Barger watched his wife endure a difficult delivery. Susan’s placenta tore loose, and she started hemorrhaging. The baby was stillborn. Dr. Barger describes further what happened:
At two in the morning in a stark, bright hospital delivery room, I held in my left hand my tiny lifeless son, and stared in disbelief at his death…. I had the power to make [my family’s] lives worse by raging against my baby’s death and my wife’s lack of love, or to make their lives better by learning to love them properly. I had to choose. And it was a clear choice, presented in an instant as I stared at my tiny, helpless, stillborn infant cradled in my hand.
In that critical instant, with God’s grace, I chose the arduous, undramatic, discouraging path of trying to be good.
I don’t have time… to tell you of all the afflictions we endured in the next four years: sick children, my mother’s sudden death, my losing my job as a teacher, three more miscarriages, and finally a secret sorrow that pierced both of us to the very core of our beings.
In the midst of these many afflictions, I found that the only way I could learn to love, and to cease being a cause of pain, was to suffer, endure, and strive every minute to repudiate my anger, my resentment, my scorn, my jealousy, my lust, my pride, and my dozens of other vices.
I began holding my tongue. I started admitting my faults and apologizing for them. I quit defending myself when I was judged too harshly – for the important thing was not to be right (or to be well thought of) but to love.
As I had made myself the center of my attention for too many years already, I said little about my own labors and sorrows; I sought to know Susan’s, and to help her to bear them. And, frankly, once I started listening to Susan – once I began really hearing her and drawing her out – I was startled at how many and how deep were her wounds and her sorrows… Most were not sorrows unique to Susan. They were the sorrows that all feel: sorrows that arise from the particular physiology of women and from their vocation as mothers, which gives them heavy duties and responsibilities while leaving them almost totally dependent on men for their material well-being and their spiritual support; sorrows that arise from loving their husbands and children intensely, but not being able to keep harm from those they love; sorrows that arise from the fact that in our society even the most chaste of women are regularly threatened by the lustful stares, remarks, and advances of men; and sorrows that arise because our society in general still considers women stupid, flighty, and superficial, and still places very little value on women and shows very little respect for them…
Women… suffer these wounds far more often and with a greater intensity than most of us men ever realize. And unless we ask them, women generally do not speak to us of these sorrows – perhaps because we men so often dismiss their troubles as insignificant or write off women themselves as simply weak and whiny…
Can men… withdraw the sword of sorrow that pierces every woman’s heart? I don’t think so. Their problems are generally not the kind that have a solution, but rather form the very fabric of their daily existence…
One of my friends, when confronted at the end of his long workday with his wife’s complaints about the noise, the troubles, and the unending housework, snapped back at her in exasperation: “Well, do you want me to stay home and do the housework while you go off to the office?” You understand his point: He couldn’t solve her problems. What did she want him to do?
I’ll tell you: She wanted him to listen, to understand, and to sympathize. She wanted him to let her know that despite her problems, her exhaustion, her dishevelment, he loved her – to let her know that it caused him sorrow that she was suffering and that if it were possible, he would change it for her.
Dr. Barger’s earnest efforts at renewing his love for his wife and reaching a new plane of understanding worked. It took three years of “patience, listening, and growing in Susan’s trust,” spending “literally hundreds of hours talking,” but eventually Susan’s anger dissipated, overcoming her cynicism, which in turn “softened her and gentled her.”
Living in a renewed marriage, life became unusually sweet. John and Susan believed they were “on the verge of a long and happy marriage,” when tragedy struck again.
Susan was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
An eight-month battle ensued, and Dr. Barger was challenged to express his new love in very concrete ways. Caring for a seriously ill person is extremely difficult work, but John welcomed it as an opportunity “to show her how much I really loved her.”
Even though Susan was given the best care, the cancer won out, and Susan died. She breathed her last breath surrounded by her family and dearest friends, and holding the hand of her beloved husband.
Dr. Barger looked back on their lives together with bittersweet feelings. The hurt was encased in their renewal – now that they had become best friends, now that he had learned the deeper meaning found in truly loving rather than in dominating, he had to say goodbye. But the sweetness was in remembering an unusual love, knowing that he had experienced something that most of us yearn for but don’t find – true, soul-deep companionship.
In his contemplations, Dr. Barger discussed how this experience with his wife reflected on his relationship with God:
Consider the virtues I have recommended as necessary to a deep relation with your wife: patience, listening, humility, service, and faithful, tender love. I hope it is not heretical for me to claim that in his dealings with us, God acts in many ways like a woman.
Women are capable of and sometimes commit magnificent acts that manifest incredible power and awaken in us men a profound awe, if not fear and trembling. Yet when they love, they love quietly; they speak, as it were, in whispers, and we have to listen carefully, attentively, to hear their words of love and to know them.
Isn’t God also this way?
Doesn’t He intervene in most of our lives in whispers, which we miss if we fail to recollect ourselves and pay careful attention – if we do not constantly strive to hear those whispers of divine love? The virtues necessary in truly loving a woman and having that love returned – the virtues of listening, patience, humility, service, and faithful love – are the very virtues necessary for us to love God and to feel His love returned. As we cannot lord it over women if we are to know them and grow intimate with them, so we cannot lord it over God if we are to know Him and grow intimate with Him.
We cannot successfully demand the love of a woman or the love of God. We have to wait. And just as a woman’s heart is melted when she encounters in us weakness accompanied by our humble admission of it, so God’s heart is melted and He is most tender and gracious to us when He encounters in us weakness accompanied by our humble admission of it.
While this story targets males, I suspect the same principle is true for women. That terrifyingly difficult man to love just may be your gateway to learning how to love God. This is a biblical truth. The beloved disciple John lays it out bluntly:
If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And He has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:20–21
This man or this woman seems so different from you, I know. That’s why it seems so difficult to love him or her. When you think on one level, she thinks on another. When you’re certain this perspective matters most, he brings in another angle entirely. And you ask yourself, “How can I possibly love someone who is so different from me?”
And yet consider, if you can ask this question with integrity, try asking yourself this one: How could you possibly love God? He is spirit, and you are encased in flesh and bones. He is eternal, and you are trapped in time. He is all holy, perfect, sinless, and you – like me – are steeped in sin.
It is far less of a leap for a man to love a woman or for a woman to love a man than it is for either of us to love God.
But I think it’s more than that. I think marriage is designed to call us out of ourselves and learn to love the “different.” Put together in the closest situation imaginable – living side by side, sleeping in the same room, even, on occasion, sharing our bodies with each other – we are forced to respect and appreciate someone who is so radically different.
We need to be called out of ourselves because, in truth, we are incomplete. God made us to find our fulfillment in Him – the Totally Other. Marriage shows us that we are not all there is; it calls us to give way to another, but also to find joy, happiness, and even ecstasy in another.
There are no lessons to be learned when a husband dominates his wife. There are no inspiring examples to emulate when a wife manipulates a husband. But love unlocks the spiritual secrets of the universe.
Love blows open eternity and showers its raindrops on us.
Excerpted with permission from Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas, copyright Zondervan, 2002.
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Gary Thomas says that committing to learning to love one’s spouse passionately and crazily may be one of the most spiritual things you can do. Even for those of us who are unmarried, loving sacrificially is our call and God is our example. How can you love your spouse, children, friends, co-workers, and those around you today? ~ Devotionals Daily
Gary L. Thomas
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Devotions for a Sacred Marriage
Gary L. Thomas
FaithGateway Price: $16.99