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Life together, 50 years on

Every marriage is its own story

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I said yes.

For years afterward, I wondered about my reasons for saying yes to the second most consequential decision of my life. At the time, I had not figured out much for myself. Raised in the church, I assumed I was a Christian. Majoring in Bible at a Christian college (after losing interest in two other majors), I imagined a ministry of some kind hovering foggily on the horizon. Actually, my future was waiting for some concrete force to take charge of it. The force was a young man who had decided he was ready to get married, and that I was the one. (Back then, young men were expected to get married, and obliged when they felt “ready.” Young women were assumed to be always ready.)

We met in the fall of 1970, in an overflow Greek class that consisted of five guys and me. By November we were an item. One afternoon in the student union building I was dissecting the relationship with my best friend Karen, when it hit me: “Wait a minute—I can’t marry him! Do you realize what my name would be?”

All of us have our pretensions that will be stripped away in that great light.

Karen nearly fell off her chair laughing. Two months later, on Jan. 10, 1971, she came to our wedding. Our formal engagement had lasted one week. He was ready, and unlike me he made decisions—though not always logical or wise ones. At that age, decisions are not necessarily decisions, in the sense of carefully thought out and counseled and weighed against all factors. We were mutually attracted but barely knew each other. A few weeks after the wedding I mentioned spending 50 cents on a Dr. Pepper at the local laundromat. He was upset that I hadn’t cleared it with him first: Weren’t we on a limited budget? Weren’t we supposed to discuss everything? Had I made a mistake (I wondered)?

Thankfully, he soon began to loosen up. I was good for him in that way, and he was good for my self-­discipline and sense of order (without him I don’t know what my house would look like today). We had our faults and weaknesses, which honed the relationship as much as our virtues. While negotiating our disagreements and recurring sore spots, he learned how to lead, however imperfectly, and I to submit for the Lord’s sake (likewise imperfectly).

A successful marriage, in other words, that almost derailed when he attached himself to a cult. It was a Christian cult, but one that took secondary issues far enough to hang perilously off the edge of orthodoxy. I didn’t share their extreme view of justification—not by grace alone, but by the correct understanding of grace alone—therefore my testimony was suspect.

That hurt. It threatened to undo us. But I prayed as I had never prayed before, meanwhile searching the Scriptures to see if those things they were saying were true. They were not true, but my husband stood firm. He was not tyrannical or mean, just convinced of a falsehood—that’s the dark side of Biblical headship. I came to see him as a victim rather than a perpetrator of bad teaching, and I prayed, often with an undertone of hopelessness and resentment, for his salvation.

God graciously gave him Alzheimer’s disease.

Forgetting is not always a tragedy; the doctrine my husband once defended with such vehemence has faded to a creed he can’t articulate. He could not enter the kingdom of heaven as a Scripture-twisting theologian, but he can as a little child. All of us, I suspect, have our pretensions that will be stripped away in that great light, but my husband is privileged to lose his pretensions ahead of time. And as for me, tenderness has—mostly—replaced resentment. This too is grace.

Every marriage is its own story, and the husband and wife are not the only ones telling it. God also testifies, and His testimony is the final word.

—This column appears in the Jan. 30, 2021, issue under the headline “Fifty years on.”

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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