I am not surprised when the thermometer reads 4 degrees in the yellow-gray light of the delayed dawn. Brushing the snow dust off from the bottom of my boots, I lay down the wood and peel off my ski gloves, hat, and winter jacket. The wood I had just gathered is from the woodpile, maybe not even twenty feet from my front door. Somewhere vague in my mind, I remember myself a few months ago, jogging out quickly in pajama bottoms and slippers to grab the morning’s kindling. Feels like a lifetime ago, or maybe just a dream? I unlace my winter boots and shiver.
I kind of can’t believe that it’s been this cold, for this long; that the norm has become donning every last piece of winter outerwear I own, just to go start the car or drop something in the mailbox. And it’s been months since my kids have played outside. I remember a green Christmas morning spent in the sunshine; I believe that might have been the last tolerable day for such sensitive baby skin in this polarized vortex of a winter.
And it gets me thinking (of course this is spiritual, were you momentarily fooled?), how similar our spiritual thermometers can be? Where the temperature starts to drop, the pressure changes, first for a few days at a time, and then, suddenly, we’re no longer surprised when the thermometer is below zero for days, weeks at a time? Or, we find that it is the talk of the grocery store when it *might* reach 20 degrees? Twenty degrees, I can tell you, is nothing to write home about.
So, I’ve been thinking about marriage a lot recently — and how powerful it is, to both build up and to destroy — and I am wondering if these trivial observations on weather hold any deeper application. I mean, doesn’t this speak to a paralyzing theme in discontent marriages across the globe? These seasons of cold? These lifetimes of frostbite?
Sometimes, I think, bitterness creeps into our relationships because of complacency. We couldn’t be bothered to take a stand against bad habits, or critical thoughts, or impulses of our flesh. Our default position as human beings is to indulge our pride (see Eve, Genesis 3:6) and secondarily, to blame someone else for it (look at Adam, Genesis 3:12); when we don’t take a position guarded against these things, then what we end up with looks like how I would guess Adam and Eve’s marriage looked, after the fact: probably filled with bitterness.
And how bitter is the winter, especially north of the Mason-Dixon Line? It is BITTER. They call it “bitter” cold for a reason, don’t you think? It hurts.
Bitterness is like the cold, too, and it sticks around quite naturally. Have you ever noticed how, in the summer, if you leave the door to an air-conditioned room open, you feel the cold coming out, not the heat going in? And in the winter, if you open the door even briefly, the draft will quench in moments what it might have taken your old and trusty furnace hours to heat? There’s a science there somewhere, but I don’t know enough about energy or thermodynamics or really anything at all to make suppositions.
Annnnyway, the point is that the coldness trumps the warmth. Bitterness naturally trumps love, thanksgiving. It is an easy game for bitterness to play, and to win.
…Except when we decide not to play the game. James 4:7 says, “resist the devil and he will flee from you.” I think bitterness, as a bona fide scheme of the devil, is the same way: resist the temptation to be bitter, and bitterness will flee from you.
Marriage is difficult because, Lord willing, a marriage is comfortable. It should be a place where you can be yourself, where you can fail and flop, where you can experiment and try out new things, where you can share your heart without fear. But when we get too comfortable places, we start overstepping the bounds at times and we can take liberties that might be inappropriate or even offensive; we can do things that desensitize us to bad habits.
Take, for example, my children. When a guest comes over the house, they will be all coy and shy for a few minutes, hiding behind furniture and smiling sheepishly from under their blankets, snuggled quietly next to me, checking the new face out. But soon, once the person has engaged them and seems the least bit trustworthy, my kids will begin asking questions, then asking favors (“Didn’t you bring me something?”), and before you know it, they are helping themselves to that person’s personal lap space and describing to them in various colors the explosive poopy diaper their baby brother had earlier. (This may or may not have happened last night). The way you know my kids really like you? They will begin throwing their blocks at you and laughing hysterically.
They probably seemed like nicer, cuter kids hiding behind those blankets.
The point is, sometimes places of comfort allow us justification in failing to heed certain healthy, and Godly, guidelines. The world will try to argue that we should feel free to “be ourselves” but, I’ll tell you what, you better beware if I am feeling loose enough to “be myself.” I am a wrecking ball and have all the power necessary to tear a person down, right in my itty bitty tongue. For those of us who call Jesus our Lord, our Master, then we are no longer free to be ourselves … We are constrained by His love for us, compelled by the things He has done; we are free instead to serve Him and to walk in the Spirit.
The way to get out of seasons of cold, seasons of bitterness, then? I’m not sure. I’m tempted to give instruction here, but I can’t find consistency in the application I’ve set out to make — using winter as my illustration. The only thing we can do to get out of winter is to wait for spring.
But perhaps therein is part of the deal: we wait for spring, yes, each of us, for the same amount of time. But how do we wait? Do we wait with longing, and anticipation? Do we wait with hope, excitement? Do we wait with expectation?
Or, Do we wait with anxiety because the time is moving too quickly and the passing of another season just means more time is lost? Do we wait with bitterness that this has been a long, dark, and cold, cold winter? Do we wait with regret that we have wasted the frigid days away longing for something better?
I wonder if this is like marriage — two people, in love and united at the beginning, fallen away to some bad habits and neglected affections somewhere along the way, and now in a season of cold, a circulating polar vortex. How much does it take to seek revival?
Both partners in a marriage must endure two sides of the same coin, the same days of a long winter — is it possible that one wait with longing and hope for melting snow, even while the other wallows in disappointment and regret? Is it possible that revival comes from underneath, the first flows of the stream under the ice caps, breaking up the things of the frozen? Or from the ground that begins to thaw underneath, even before the snow is melted away? Even when one set of hands sits stubbornly atop the cold, clenching bad memories and mistakes gone by? Can this thing still be moved? How much does it take?
I have seen this happen, the chunks of ice lifted and carried down stream, and I’ve tasted of the warm, sweet breeze that blows behind this very miracle: that one half of our united flesh lags behind, sorry for itself, and its better half marches on with sights set on longer days. I am not proud to say which half I have fulfilled for the most part, but I am thankful to say we always catch up to one another, and that eventually, we keep moving forward.
And maybe that’s what marriage is like in these changing seasons. There is no Biblical reason we have to defend ourselves against difficulty and struggle, suffering on the inside or out; in fact, Scripture says we should expect it, even count it as a blessing. But what we do have in our marriages, and in our walks with the Lord, is continued motion, the momentum of one foot in front of the other, the leaning in and the pressing on. We have strength, in Him, to put one foot, one heart, out in faith, and inevitably, the other foot — or heart — will have to make a choice: to stay, or to follow the lead? A disgruntled but softening soul can still yield to the forward motion and follow; I promise that it is possible.
One day, months from now, I will be sitting at this very keyboard in short sleeves, sipping a beverage with ice in it, and I will re-read this tediously long entry and vaguely remember how cold I really was feeling at this time, writing from the hearth and shivering under my long underwear and wool sweater. But it will be just a memory, with no way to re-create the experience of it in that moment, and I will wonder at the miraculous creativity and drastic works of this mighty God we serve.