You Marry a Sinner, a Man, a Husband and a Person by Elisabeth Elliot
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “Let me be a Woman,” published in 1976 and copyright renewed in 2004.
You Marry a Sinner
IN THE past several years I have talked to college and seminary women on marriage. What I have said to them I say to you, and it can be summed up under three headings which are three questions:
1. Who is it you marry?
2. What is marriage?
3. What makes marriage work?
First of all, who is it you marry? You marry a sinner. There’s nobody else to marry. That ought to be obvious enough, but when you love a man as you love yours it’s easy to forget. You forget it for a while and then when something happens that ought to remind you, you find yourself wondering what’s the matter, how could this happen, where did things go wrong? They went wrong back in the Garden of Eden. Settle it once for all; your husband is a son of Adam. Acceptance of him—of all of him—includes acceptance of his being a sinner. He is a fallen creature, in need of the same kind of redemption all the rest of us are in need of, and liable to all the temptations which are “common to man.” Our old friend Dorothy has taught me many things out of her long life of trust in God and keen observation of humanity, and one day as we were discussing friendship and marriage she said, “Well, dear, we’re none of us prize packages. Just look for the essentials and skip the rest!” The prize package we think we’ve found is likely to contain some surprises, not all of them welcome. What a lot of heartbreak would be avoided if we could concentrate on the essentials and skip the rest. How much more we could relax with one another and enjoy all there is to enjoy.
In the service of Morning Prayer we repeat on our knees this confession: “We have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against Thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.”
As I say those words I sometimes think of the people who are saying them with me and I think, “I belong to this company. Lost sheep. No health in any of us.”
It might not be a bad thing, even if you and Walt are Presbyterians, to say this prayer together once in a while, remembering that “we” means both of you. You will be less likely to turn into a nagging wife if you recall continually that it is not only your husband who leaves undone those things which (you think) he ought to do, and does things which (you think) he ought not to do, but that you, too, have erred and strayed like a lost sheep, sinning daily by omission and commission.
The consciousness that we are alike in our need of redemption is a liberating one. For there will be times when you find yourself accusing, criticizing, resenting. You begin, almost without realizing that you are doing it, to make a mental list of offenses, anticipating the day when some straw will break the camel’s back and you can recite the whole list, sure to add at the end “and another thing …!” But you will find yourself disarmed utterly, and your accusing spirit transformed into loving forgiveness the moment you remember that you did, in fact, marry only a sinner, and so did he. It’s grace you both need.
‘Tis grace path brought us safe thus far
And grace will lead us home.
One of the silliest statements ever to catch the public imagination came out of that silly movie Love Story–-“Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” If it doesn’t make you sorry to hurt somebody you love, what in the world would ever make you sorry? You do need forgiveness. You do need to forgive. And it is a wonderfully healing thing to confess your sin to the one you’ve sinned against and to ask for his forgiveness. At times when you are thinking to yourself that it’s high time he asked for yours, remember that you are equal in your need of redemption. There’s no keeping of score in love.
Nor is love blind. In fact, the one who truly loves sees clearly the truth about the beloved which is hidden from others eyes. It is perhaps because the beloved makes the very sunshine brighter and the whole world sings that it is not always easy to remember that he is a sinner. But when love becomes an everyday fact that we live with, we begin to discover imperfections to which we respond either lovingly or unlovingly.
Sara Teasdale has expressed the loving response in “Appraisal”:
Never think she loves him wholly,
Never believe her love is blind,
All his faults are locked securely
In a closet of her mind;
All his indecisions folded
Like old flags that time has faded,
Limp and streaked with rain,
And his cautiousness like garments
Frayed and thin, with many a stain—
Let them be, oh let them be.
There is treasure to outweigh them,
His proud will that sharply stirred,
Climbs as surely as the tide.
Senses strained too taut to sleep,
Gentleness to beast and bird,
Humor flickering hushed and wide,
As the moon on moving water,
And a tenderness too deep
To be gathered in a word
So—you marry a sinner. And you love, accept, and forgive that sinner as you yourself expect to be loved, accepted, and forgiven. You know that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” and this includes your husband who comes short, also, of some of the glories you expected to find in him. Come to terms with this once and for all and then walk beside him as “heirs together of the grace of life”
You Marry a Man
YOU marry not only a sinner but a man. You marry a man, not a woman. Strange how easy it seems to be for some women to expect their husbands to be women, to act like women, to do what is expected of women. Instead of that they are men, they act like men, they do what is expected of men, and thus they do the unexpected. They surprise their wives by being men and some wives wake up to the awful truth that it is was not, in fact, a man that they wanted after all. It was marriage, or some vague idea of marriage, which provided the fringe benefits they were looking for—a home, children, security, social status. But somehow marriage has also insinuated into their cozy lives this unpredictable, unmanageable, unruly creature called a man. He is likely to be bigger and louder and tougher and hungrier and dirtier than a woman expects, and she finds that bigger feet make bigger footprints on the newly washed kitchen floor; they make a bigger noise on the stairs. She learns that what makes her cry may make him laugh. He eats far more than seems necessary or even reasonable to a woman who never ceases her vigil against excess weight. When he takes a shower his broader dimensions mean more water used and a greater surface for water to cling to and therefore she finds that the towels get much wetter, and he probably doesn’t hang them up folded in three as she wants him to in order to display the monogram. He may not hang them up at all. He won’t use a washcloth, which means he consumes three times as much soap as she does. When she cleans the bathroom she finds she has to clean in places she never had to clean before. He’s a toothpaste-tube twister instead of a roller. Anything he does which seems to her inexplicable or indefensible she dismisses with “Just like a man!” as though this were a condemnation or at best an excuse instead of a very good reason for thanking God. It is a man she married, after all, and she is lucky if he acts like a man.
“Men are men,” Gertrude Behanna says; “they are not women. Women are women. They are not men.” It’s another of those simple facts which are not always so simple to remember.
I know it’s hard for you to imagine this early in the game, but someday you may think to yourself (you might even say it out loud), “I’m not sure my husband understands me.” You are probably right. He doesn’t. He’s a man. You’re a woman. There are some areas in which ne’er the twain shall meet and we should be glad of that. Although there are times when we are frustrated and infuriated by the inability to fathom the depths of another personality, who can deny the fascination of mystery, of knowing that there are depths we haven’t plumbed?
There is a story in the Bible which tells of a man who was able to answer all a woman’s questions. The Queen of Sheba went to Jerusalem to test Solomon, the famous king, with hard questions. She went with pomp and splendor—-appropriate to so momentous an encounter. We have heard of the wisdom and justice of Solomon, but no mention is made of his long-suffering. This story reveals it, for it is said that the queen “told him all that was on her mind.” That must have taken a long time. Not many men would want to hear all that was on a woman’s mind, but apparently the king listened, for “Solomon answered all her questions, there was nothing hidden from Solomon which he could not explain to her.” What a man he must have been to have command of all the answers and the patience to make all the explanations necessary to satisfy a powerful female potentate who had doubtless come with skepticism and perhaps jealousy and scorn. But she was thoroughly convinced. He won her over, and she saw his wisdom. She surveyed also the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, the attendance of his servants and their clothing, and his burnt offerings which he offered at the house of the Lord. When she had seen it all, “there was no more spirit in her.” The display took all the wind out of the queen’s sails. She did manage to pull herself together sufficiently to commend him and remind him of God’s blessing to him. When she had presented him with the gifts she had brought and received gifts from him, there was nothing left for her to do but go home.
Not many men can do what Solomon did. Not many men ought to try. And a woman who sets out to test a man with hard questions should be forewarned that she may end up with no more spirit in her, nothing to do but turn around and go back where she came from. It is probably not only a safer course but much wiser not to tell a man everything that is on your mind, not to press him with hard questions. Leave room for mystery.
When we were preparing for a panel on marriage for college women, five panelists gathered in our house to discuss which topic each of us was to cover. In the course of what became a highly animated conversation I suggested that somebody ought to talk about crying. This surprised some of them. What on earth did I mean? Well, women cry. Many of them don’t do it often, of course, but it’s a possibility a man should be ready for. Nothing is more baffling to a young husband than his wife’s tears—usually at most unexpected moments and for seemingly wholly unexplainable reasons. His anxious questions get nowhere, and her attempts to explain only increase his anxiety. Men ought to be warned that it’s no use trying to explain. It’s just one of the things that prove that men are men and women are women.
This argument was met with loud protest. “Why, I’m sure I don’t cry more than once a week!” one woman insisted. Your stepfather happened to pass through the living room just at this juncture. He had been perplexed that we were to have a panel at all. What was there to talk about? A panel on marriage? With five people as panelists? For an hour? What would we say? When he overheard this sample he left quickly.
Later he and I were visiting in the home of an exceedingly attractive couple in their thirties. He was an athlete; she had been a beauty queen and a model.
“Tell them about your panel on marriage,” Add said to me.
“Panel on marriage?” said the husband, looking blank.
I told him what it was and where we did it.
“But—what is there to say?” he asked. His wife and I looked at each other. For some reason women have no difficulty imagining a discussion on marriage. Men find it unimaginable. But when I told them about the preliminary discussion on crying, it was the husband who understood at once.
“I know exactly what you mean!” he said. “Sometimes I come home from the office feeling great. I go to bed at night pleased with myself, and I lie there with my hands locked under my head on the pillow, thinking about that brilliant decision I made at work and that beautiful hook shot I made down at the gym. Then all of a sudden I hear a snuffle.
“‘Are you crying?’ I say.
“‘Come on now. You’re crying!’
“‘No I’m not!’ (snuffle, snuffle)
“‘What’s wrong?’ I say.
‘Nothing!’ she says, and she’s still snuffling. Well, I’ve been married long enough to know that this is going to be a three-hour deal, and it’s going to mean lights, robes, and coffee!”
The whole time he was telling this, his wife was sitting on the edge of her chair, grinning from ear to ear. They both knew exactly what I was talking about. They agreed that it deserved some mention on the panel.
But I can’t leave this part of the discussion without adding that men cry too. I am not drawing simple dichotomies here, as though all women and no men cry. I know men who weep much more readily than I do. Know your man. Know that there are things that make him different from you. His masculinity will help to explain some of them.
YOU MARRY A HUSBAND
THE third thing to remember is that you marry a husband. For you, Val, I doubt that this will be as difficult to remember as it is for women who have had brothers and sisters, and who have known their own fathers. For some of them it is easy to transfer what they expected of fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers or girlfriends to their unfortunate husbands and this is a burden no man can bear. He stands in a relationship to you which is totally new and unique and it is going to require a measure of maturity for both of you to enter into it.
If you succumb to the temptation to expect your husband to fulfill all the roles of all the relationships you have had prior to marriage you will learn that this is asking too much. He needs his male friends, you need your female ones, even though your marriage and your home take top priority in your interest. Try not to put your poor husband in the indefinable position of having to listen to all your troubles, little or big (and your classification of them will most likely differ from his), to discuss hairdos and recipes and diets and menus and the color of the living-room draperies as well as the topics that may interest both of you far more. Now I know men who take a lively interest in their wives’ hairdos and recipes, men who actually go shopping for their wives’ clothes, and I even know of one husband who makes his wife’s clothes. Some men want to know what you’re planning for dinner and want to rearrange furniture. If he’s interested, that changes the whole picture. If he’s not, talk it over with somebody who is if you want to talk it over at all.
I know I’m sticking my neck out to mention food and clothes and furniture at all. The stereotypical “traditional” wife is interested in nothing else. That’s nonsense, of course. We could as easily accuse men of talking only about cars, sports, or the stock market. Anyone, man or woman, who has a live and curious mind may be interested in food, furniture, sports, and the stock market for after all, all of us eat, we need furniture, recreation, and money. Why shouldn’t we talk about them occasionally? But it doesn’t mean that nothing else is of interest. I like to cook, and good cooking takes a lot of time, talent, and imagination. I talk about it sometimes. But when I’m peeling an onion I’m not thinking about onions. My mind ranges far from the sink. A man has to drive a car, he probably likes to drive a car, and he wants a good one. He talks about cars sometimes. But when he’s driving it his mind may be on theology or big-game hunting or even on his family.
All I’m suggesting is that you not be a bore. Some topics will interest your mother more than they will interest your husband. Remember, he’s a husband!
Your father used to say that every woman needed three husbands: one to bring home the bacon, one to love her, and one to fix things around the house. It is a lot to expect of one man, and a woman ought not to judge her husband solely on the basis of how good he is with a hammer. If a woman happens to have had a father who fixed faucets and doorknobs and loose tiles, who went around oiling hinges and planning sticking drawers without even being asked, she expects her husband to do the same. What kind of man is it, she asks, who is no good with wrenches and screwdrivers?
There are women who have grown up in athletic families where all the boys played football or baseball, and the whole family slept, ate, and drank sports all year-round. It comes as a shock to such women if they marry men who have no use for team sports but would rather fish or hike. A young wife I know was dumbfounded at the array of gear required to keep her husband “in shape.” He had two or three sports going at once and on some days had to change clothes two or three times in order to meet the requirements. She found herself going around picking up “all these outfits!” as she said, and having to keep up with the laundry. She just wasn’t prepared for that when she acquired a husband.
I believe a woman, in order to be a good wife, must be (among other things) both sensual and maternal. Marriage entails sensuality—an appreciation of the body and the senses as distinguished from the intellect—but a woman must also have a certain maternal feeling toward her husband. Not that she babies him. Deep resentment is ex pressed sometimes by women who feel that their husbands want to be babied. But a wife must want to take care of her husband and to minister to him as gladly as a mother ministers to her child.
The husband has a corresponding task. The word husband carries the connotation of conserving, caring for, managing, or protecting. A wife needs to allow herself to be cherished. Let him “husband” you. This is easy for certain women. It is perhaps too easy, and they may not only allow themselves to be cherished but they require coddling. You know me well enough to know that this is not what I mean. You have not been coddled. Growing up with Indians taught you to accept very matter-of-factly what most of us “civilized” people would call hardship. You knew from the beginning that you were not expected to fuss, and you learned your lesson well. You have been independent, ever since the days when you would go off with the Indians for a whole day’s fishing or gathering, leaving me behind. On your first day of school in the States the school bus went right past you and I had to drive you down to the school. The children had all gone in when we arrived, but you marched with courage into that completely new place, carrying your lunch box and holding your head up.
So I am not fearful of your being a clinging vine. But do let him cherish you. He is your husband.
YOU MARRY A PERSON
FOURTH, you must remember that you marry a person. I put this fourth on the list, not first. I have come to treat the word person rather gingerly in recent years because it is so overused. I hear people talk of wanting to be treated “not as a woman but as a human being” or “as a person.” I hear words like chairperson and spokesperson, and even absurdities such as the “freshperson class” and “personhole covers.” There is something seriously distorted about this view of humanity. I don’t want anybody treating me as a “person” rather than as a woman. Our sexual differences are the terms of our life, and to obscure them in any way is to weaken the very fabric of life itself. When they are lost, we are lost. Some women fondly imagine a new beginning of liberty, but it is in reality a new bondage, more bitter than anything they seek to be liberated from.
I want to know not “people” but men and women. I am interested in men as men, in women as women, and when you marry you marry a man because he is a man, and being a man, he becomes your husband. This is the glory of marriage—two separate and distinct kinds of beings are unified.
But when you have accepted him as a sinner, as a man, and as a husband, you must still remember that he is a person. As a person, he has a name. Nothing more infallibly reveals your attitude to another person than the name you call him by.
There are those who never call each other anything. I have heard a husband shout out a question or a comment to his wife from another room without using any form of address at all. I have heard wives do the same, and I have heard both refer to their spouses only by the third person pronoun. It seems to me that those who do this have never recognized or have forgotten the person they married. He has become a fixture.
Then there are those who call each other “mommy” and “daddy.” This is fine when speaking of the other to the children. But for a man to call his wife “mommy” is a dead giveaway. The magic has gone out of that marriage. Is he her lover still, or has he become her little boy? Is this a relationship that is still growing toward maturity, or is it regressing?
I would be the last to complain of endearing names. I like them. It does my heart good to hear a man call a woman “darling” or even “cream puff” if he wants to. It shows she’s special to him. Katherine Mansfield, whose tender and delightful love letters have all been published, unabridged, called her husband “Bogey” and he called her “Wig.” All I ask is that a couple call each other something. That they show by the way they address each other, in public or in bed, that they recognize a personality.
One of the most joyful discoveries of life is that in recognizing, affirming, and comforting another person we find ourselves recognized, affirmed, and comforted. It is a dead-end street to set out to know yourself or to “find” yourself or to define “who am I?”
“It is plain that no man can arrive at the true knowledge of himself without first having contemplated the divine character,” wrote John Calvin in the Introduction to his great Institutes. And it is in relation to other people that we ourselves become full persons. “No man is an island.” We are called to fellowship with God and we are called to fellowship with each other. Marriage is the most intimate and continuous relationship into which two people may enter, and as such provides the most uninterrupted opportunity for fulfillment of the personality. This is not to say, of course, that only married people can know fulfillment. The measure of self-giving is the measure of fulfillment. There are married people who have not learned the first lesson in self-giving. There are single people who have gone very far along the road. It has always seemed to me relatively easy to give myself for my husband first because I loved him with all my heart, and then because the rewards were usually more obvious and more immediate than they may be in other relationships. Loving a wife, as the Bible says (and surely it applies to loving a husband as well), is the same as loving your own body.
But if your husband is a person this means that you must accept the mystery of his personhood. We have already spoken of how men and women do not and cannot perfectly understand one another. And this is not simply because of sexual barriers. Persons of the same sex find also a closed door. Your husband is known fully only to God, and stands in a sense alone before Him. God said to Abraham, “Walk before Me and be thou perfect.” He did not suggest that Abraham could walk before Sarah and be perfect. Ultimately he is God’s man. He is free, and you must always reverence this freedom. There are questions you have no right to ask, matters into which you must not probe, and secrets you must be content never to know.
“Hasn’t a wife a right to know all?”
No. She cannot take or even ask for what is not given, and there are things a man cannot and ought not to give.
FORSAKING ALL OTHERS
FINALLY, you marry this sinner, this man, this husband, and this person. Marriage is a choice of one above all others. Each partner promises to forsake all others, and the Bible says that man will leave his father and mother and “cleave” to his wife. Any choice we ever make in life instantly limits us. To choose to take this man as your husband is to choose not to take every other man on earth. When you decide to marry this particular sinner you have committed yourself to putting up with his particular sins even though you don’t have a clear idea of what they will be. You will begin at once to find them out, and as you do, remind yourself that you married this sinner. You can always look at other sinners and thank God you don’t have to live with their varieties of failure, but then what kind of sins would you choose if you could choose which ones to live with? It’s a good thing you are not asked. You love this man who happens to be this kind of sinner and you do your best to accept, to forgive, to overlook, to forbear, and, perhaps, in the mercy of God, to help him to overcome.
When you decide to marry this particular man you have decided not to marry every other man, and this particular man has limitations. You don’t start right in on his limitations like the lady in My Fair Lady who’ll
redecorate your home
from the cellar to the dome
and then go on to the enthralling fun
of overhauling you!
You don’t marry him with the idea of a complete renovation. When asked for advice for women contemplating marriage Mrs. Billy Graham said, “Marry somebody to whom you are willing to adjust.”
If you are a very generous wife, you may perhaps allow that you husband lives up to 80 percent of your expectations. The other 20 percent you may want to change. You may, if you choose, pick away at that 20 percent for the rest of your married life and you probably will not reduce it by very much. Or you may choose to skip that and simply enjoy the 80 percent that is what you hoped for.
You marry this person. He may be the person who was, ten years ago, the “Big Man on Campus.” You were attracted to him because he was a football star or the president of the student body or the most articulate leader of campus protests. But life settles down to the humdrum. Marriage is no house party; it’s not a college campus or a stimulating political row or an athletic contest, and the man’s having been a spellbinding orator or a great halfback somehow does not seem terribly significant anymore. But you ought now and then to remember what he was, to ask yourself what it was, really, that caught your eye. Come now, you will say to yourself, you didn’t marry him because he was a great halfback, did you? No, you married this person. Whatever the inner qualities were that enabled him to do the things he did then are still a part of this person that you go to bed with and eat breakfast with and wrestle over the monthly budget with. He is a person with the same potentials he had when you married him. Your responsibility now is not merely to bat your eyelashes and tell him how wonderful he is (but breathes there a man with soul so dead as not to be cheered by a little of that?) but to appreciate, genuinely and deeply, what he is, to support and encourage and draw out of him those qualities that you originally saw and admired.
I had been a widow for thirteen years when the man who was to become your stepfather proposed. It seemed to me the miracle that could never happen. That any man wanted me the first time was astonishing. I had gone through high school and college with very few dates. But to be wanted again was almost beyond imagination. I told this man that I knew there were women waiting for him who could offer him many things I couldn’t offer—things like beauty and money. But, I said, “There’s one thing I can give you that no woman on earth can outdo me in and that’s appreciation.” The perspective of widowhood had taught me that.
Some years ago there was a series of letters to columnist Ann Landers on the subject of men who snore. Wives wrote in complaining of the countless hours of lost sleep and the irritation of that awful noise beside them in the bed. Others wrote offering solutions, but the discussion came to an end with one letter, “Snoring is the sweetest music in the world. Ask any widow.”
How often I have sat in a roomful of people and heard a wife contradict, criticize, belittle, or sneer at her husband before the rest of the company and I have with difficulty restrained myself from leaping from my chair, going over and shaking that woman by the shoulders and saying, “Do you realize what you’ve got?” She doesn’t. She hasn’t my perspective, of course. If only there were some way for every wife to have the experience of losing her husband for a little time—even of thinking that he’s dead—in order to regain the perspective she needs for genuine appreciation.
Your growth toward maturity will bring you a wider perspective. The apostle Paul, always desirous that his convert should move on into spiritual maturity, prayed for the Colossian Christians that they might see things from God’s point of view by being given spiritual insight and understanding. What could be a greater help to a wife than to see her husband as God sees him? God has created him, formed him, redeemed him, he is His. God is bringing him to perfection and is not by any means through with him yet. We are all unfinished, a long way from what we ought to be, but if we can look at ourselves and one another from God’s point of view, we’ll know where we ought to be going and in which direction our relationship should move.
Not long after my second marriage we were invited to speak as a team in a church whose pastor had himself been recently remarried. He and his first wife, who had died of cancer, had been in college with me. I wanted to know what he had learned in a year of second marriage. Without hesitation he told me.
“I’ve learned that Marcie can give me things Sue could never have given. Sue gave me things Marcie can’t give. So I’ve learned appreciation—for both of them. I appreciate Marcie for exactly what she is, in a way I hadn’t the capacity to appreciate Sue.”
I know that you will not be shocked by my asking the question, nor by the man’s making comparisons between Wives One and Two. Why shouldn’t he? It’s natural, and the comparison between Marcie and Sue was made not to disparage either, but to appreciate each fully for what she was. To the Christian who has prayed for years to be led to the right partner and who believes that the one he marries is indeed God’s choice for him, it is reasonable to conclude that the personality given is the one that best complements his own, the one that meets his needs in ways he could not himself have foreseen or chosen. It is the very differences themselves that open our eyes to what we are and, if we pray for the spiritual insight and understanding that Paul prayed for, we see them as God sees them and appreciate the glorious imagination of the Creator who made them. [68-91]