The following is excerpted from Ravi Zacharias’s I, Isaac, Take Thee, Rebekah(Nashville: W Publishing, 2004).
I have heard it said that the longest journey in life is from the head to the heart. Another way to say the same thing is that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Yet another aphorism of our time is that beginning well is a momentary thing; finishing well is a lifelong thing. All of these point to one reality—our knowledge and our response are not always in keeping with each other. We seem to be inclined to separate what God intended to remain joined together.
Solomon proved this centuries ago. He made a fascinating statement in the Book of Ecclesiastes. He relates all the areas in which he searched for meaning—pleasure, riches, power, fame, and everything else one could imagine. Through all of these forays in a search for fulfillment, he says, “My wisdom stayed with me” (Ecclesiastes 2:9). How is that possible, we ask, when his day-to-day life was a colossal mess? I understand him to mean that in the midst of his duplicity, his theoretical knowledge of right and wrong never left him. He knew how to discern. But he was volitionally weak and unable to resist the tug of attraction into wrong behavior.
I have shared the following story many times over the years. Those from parts of the world where this is foreign shake their heads in disbelief, wondering how this can even be theoretically plausible, let alone practically workable. But read the reasoning first and then I will try to explain.
I give you an example of my older brother, who lives in Toronto, Canada. The story dates back to the late 1960s. At that time he was a systems engineer with IBM. Since that time, he has gone on to do several very impressive things in the world of computer software. In other words, he is mentally all right. He doesn’t have any major problem as far as his IQ is concerned. I say that because you may begin to wonder as I tell his story.
When he was in his mid-twenties, my brother came to my father and said, “You know, Dad, I’ve always maintained even when we were in India that I’m only going to marry the girl you choose for me. I guess I am ready now. Would you please begin a search for a girl for me to marry?”
I really didn’t believe he’d go through with it. We were living in Toronto, thousands of miles and a cultural planet away from the land of our birth. But this was his choice. He wanted my parents to help in “The Search.” My father and mother said, “Fine. Tell us the kind of young woman you’re looking for.” My brother gave his “ideal partner” speech and proceeded to describe the kind of person he would choose to marry.
Under normal circumstances, the parents would travel around and look for somebody that met the criteria, but in this instance my brother said to our father, “Look, you really don’t need to do that. Why don’t you just write to your sister in Bombay and let her do the groundwork? We’ll just correspond back and forth and take it from there.”
Thus began his quest and what I called our family entertainment hour every night around the table. My father wrote to his sister, and in response came numerous letters with suggestions, photographs, and information sheets ad nauseam. Oh! The jokes that would fly! The unsolicited advice from every member of the family was profuse. The sarcasm, wondering whether this poor woman had the faintest clue of his shortcomings! (From my experience with photographs I have learned that if you find a good photographer and pay him enough, he can make anybody look splendid. One of the first things people do when you arrive for a speaking event is to compare the reality with your publicity photograph. Many times they can probably say, “Twenty years ago he may have looked like that, but now . . .”)
Pictures can tell an awful lot that’s really not there. The camera can and does lie. But my brother would sit in his bed at night and look over all those pictures, study the lists of accomplishments and qualifications, and say, “What do you think of this one, Rav? Isn’t she lovely? Look at the description. She’s even the church organist.” I could not resist pointing out how important a feature that was for a successful marriage.
He narrowed the “applicants” to a short list and, finally focusing on one person, began to correspond with her. Then they advanced to telephone conversations, but not many because that was “too expensive.” One could tell that reality was closing in. Finally, believe it or not, they both felt this was it. The dates for the engagement and the marriage were set with these two never having met.
My brother and my father flew from Toronto to Bombay. More than one thousand wedding invitations were sent before my brother and his bride-to-be had ever seen each other. Two days after his arrival was the engagement date and a day or so later was the wedding date. He would then bring his bride back to Canada, all within a week, and they would live “happily ever after.” That, at any rate, was the plan.
I thought to myself, Oh my! You know, this is faith. Maybe it is even less than that. This is credulity! I began to get really concerned, so before my brother left for Bombay, I mustered up the courage to caution him. I said, “I don’t want to challenge anything you’re doing, but I do have a brief question. What are you going to do when you arrive in Bombay, come down the Jetway and see a young woman standing there with a garland in her hand, and say to yourself, Good grief! I hope that’s not her. I hope that’s somebody else! Or she looks at you and thinks to herself, I hope that’s not him. I hope that’s his brother! What on earth will you do? Are you going to take her aside, talk it over, and then make an announcement saying, ‘We have met . . . we will not be proceeding with our plans’? Will you get on the telephone or write letters to everybody and say, ‘Folks, we’ve met. The wedding is off.’”
My brother just stared at me. He said, “Are you through?” I told him that for the moment I was just awaiting his answer. Then he said something that was absolutely defining for him: “Write this down, and don’t ever forget it: Love is as much a question of the will as it is of the emotion. And if you will to love somebody, you can.”
That statement brought our conversation to a sudden stop. That was thirty-five years ago. My brother and his wife now have three children and make their home in Toronto. Has it been easy? No. Marriage never is easy. But the challenges they face do not come from an absence of commitment.
The statement “If you will to love somebody, you can” has the ring of truth, but deep inside we wonder, How does one “will”? It is a little bit like ordering somebody to love you. How does one go beyond the discernment to the practice? If knowledge does not guarantee behavior, where does one go to translate the prerequisite into action? Can it really be done?
A False Start
The first thing to bear in mind is that we exaggerate the separation of the emotion and the will as two distinct faculties of operation—some kind of misshapen two-headed monster. Think, for example, of the caricature we make of one difference between men and women. We seem to think that women are more emotionally driven and men more cerebrally driven. If that caricature were true, why is it that more men fall into infidelity after marriage than do women? If women are more emotionally driven, should it not be the other way around? I think it more appropriate to say that women in general recognize the emotional ramifications of their acts better than men do. Men do feel emotion, but they do so selectively and fail to face the consequences of reality. Betray a man and you find out that his emotions surge to the top. I believe that a legitimate understanding of what is happening here can preserve the grand union between emotion and will.
Without the will, marriage is a mockery; without emotion, it is a drudgery. You need both.
We like the side dealing with emotion, not the will. I have now been married more than thirty years. I often look back at the time when I was on the other side of the marital line and remember how I thought about marriage then. One particular conversation stands out. A year before I was married, I was sitting in a Christian education class when the professor quite dramatically started to philosophize about life. Commenting on the home, he said, “I want you students to know that love is hard work.”
I leaned over to my classmate and whispered, “I wouldn’t want to be married to anybody who goes around telling everybody how hard it is to love me.”
He said, “I agree with you. Why don’t you ask him about it?” Like a fool, I did.
I stood up and said, “Excuse me, sir . . . I am not quite comfortable with your categorization of love as ‘hard work.’”
The professor stared at me, evidently not taking too kindly to my challenge, and demanded, “Zacharias, are you married?” When I responded, “No, sir,” he said, “Then why don’t you just be quiet and sit down? You don’t have a clue what you are talking about.” I sat down.
One year later I was married. After being married all these years, I can unblushingly say, he was right. Love is hard work. I would carry it one step further. It is the hardest work I know of, work from which you are never entitled to take a vacation. You take on burdens and cares. You inherit problems. You have to feel beyond yourself. You have to think of things other than yourself. Your responsibilities are now multiplied, and you are trusted with greater commitments.
You see, the easiest part of our marriage was the wedding ceremony. I remember arriving at the church early. I could hardly wait. As the church filled with guests and the appropriate music was played for the ceremony to begin, I turned to see my bride enter the sanctuary. No, I did not think of all the weddings I had gate-crashed or of all the ceremonies I had witnessed. This was not someone else’s wedding; this was a special moment for us. It was one of the most ecstatic feelings the human heart could ever endure. There is no word in the English dictionary to describe it except the word Wow! It was the crystallization of my every romantic dream. That which was once far off was now near. That which I longed for was now in hand.
As Margie came up the aisle to join me at the front of the church, my heart was in a flutter. So much so that when the minister told me in old English to “salute the bride,” out of sheer nervousness I was on the verge of literally saluting her. There is nothing so magnificent as a beautiful, blushing bride behind a veil that cannot hide the radiant glow of a dream coming true. If the flutter of a heart were all that one needs to fly, the groom would soar to celestial heights. No! The groom does not need to soar at that moment, for God Himself comes near and says, This is My precious gift to you. Receive it with reverence and guard it with diligence.
The ceremony was followed by the reception. What a wonderful way to celebrate with friends. At the end of the reception we drove to the honeymoon capital of North America—Niagara Falls—where we stayed for the night at Michael’s Inn. (Thankfully, Michael wasn’t.) From there it was on to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I remember carrying her over the threshold. My heart was as full as I had hoped it would be. I had an overwhelming sense of gallantry as I carried her into the room.
At about two o’clock in the morning, Margie got up. I thought, Surely the honeymoon couldn’t be over already . . . where is she going? So I asked, “Where are you going, honey?” She answered, “I’m going to get a glass of water.” I said, “Stay right here, I’ll get it for you.” That was May 6, 1972. I was thrilled to get up at two o’clock in the morning and get her a glass of water. My! What sacrifice!
But five years go by. Someone has wryly quipped, “Sacrifice in America is when the electric blanket doesn’t work.” So one night I find myself comfortably tucked in bed, and about two or three o’clock, I hear the rustle of the sheets. She’s getting up again, and the temptation is to pull the covers over my face and cease to hear anything at that moment—for at least one reason. She looked different. You see, on May 6, 1972, she looked grand. Absolutely grand! But five years later, she had some funny things in her hair at night that generally prompted one question, “What stations are you able to get under that influence?” I have been chided for that remark many times so I should add that she no longer wears them. Times have changed. But I do recall that sight. Somehow the first word that leaped into my mind was not the word Wow! But I still do the right thing, because the tug of love is a commitment stronger than merely the flutter of the heart.
Chivalry in love has nothing to do with the sweetness of the appearance. It has everything to do with the tenderness of a heart determined to serve. That is the first hard lesson to learn. You do not act under the impetus of charm but out of a commitment to make someone’s life the joy you want it to be. In the early days of marriage, joy precedes the act. Tragically, as the years go by joy can be severed from the act until finally, the act itself is no more. This ought not to be. Over time it is the companionship that brings joy, and service is the natural outworking of the joy of commitment. Failure to act kills it.
William Doherty begins his excellent book Take Back Your Marriagewith a powerful illustration. His office is located in St. Paul, Minnesota, not far from the farthest point north on the Mississippi River. He describes the river’s formidable but silent current that drives its waters southward. “Everything on the water that is not powered by wind, gasoline, or human muscle” heads south. Then he adds these words: “I have thought that getting married is like launching a canoe into the Mississippi at St. Paul. If you don’t paddle, you go south. No matter how much you love each other, no matter how full of hope and promise and good intentions, if you stay on the Mississippi without a good deal of paddling—occasional paddling is not enough—you end up in New Orleans. Which is a problem if you want to stay north.” 1
But this kind of commitment does not come easily. Only if it is taken seriously does it become a sheer delight of the heart. I will also add that this kind of commitment is not seen much in the times in which we live. The reason we have a crisis in our gender relationships is not that we are culturally indoctrinated but that we would rather be served than serve. We would rather be the head than the feet. The Christian faith stands unique in pointing out that the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost. The Son of Man came to serve. This means that the service He gave to humanity was given even when we least merited that sacrifice. There is a joy in service that transcends emotional temporariness.
A Realistic Picture
An act, especially of such magnitude as marriage, must be thoughtfully considered before it becomes an act. Impulsive acts die impulsive deaths. This works both ways, in honoring that which is right and in resisting that which is wrong. Always make the decision before the emotion stirs you into wrongheaded commitments. We refer to people as impulse buyers. That is not a good way to buy. Step back, measure the value of what you are getting, and then buy it. This applies a thousandfold more in marriage. Don’t be deceived by the flutter of the heart. Love is a commitment that will be tested in the most vulnerable areas of spirituality, a commitment that will force you to make some very difficult choices. It is a commitment that demands that you deal with your lust, your greed, your pride, your power, your desire to control, your temper, your patience, and every area of temptation that the Bible so clearly talks about. It demands the quality of commitment that Jesus demonstrates in his relationship to us.
Jesus said that greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friend. But it is probably more difficult to live a life of continual dying to oneself than to die in one moment. Marriage is hard work, and that’s why, when you come to that pivotal moment of decision, my suggestion is that you seek the advice of somebody you love and respect. Don’t make such a decision on your own just because you have romantic feelings. Seek out the wisdom of your minister, the wisdom of your parents, and the wisdom of friends, and realize that romance has to be transcended by a strong will and a degree of commitment to you and by you. The important thing to bear in mind is that you must face your willingness to die to yourself before you choose to walk down the aisle. Is this person the one for whom you are willing to die daily? Is this person to whom you say, “I do” also the one for whom you are willing to say, “No, I don’t” to everybody else? Be assured that marriage will cost you everything.
I recall a young couple who came to me for premarital counseling. They looked so much in love and cherished each other. But as I administered a premarital test to see where their expectations and hopes matched or differed, something very startling emerged. They disclosed to me that the young man had tragically contracted a deadly disease some time back, a disease that would also make intimacy precarious. Only in his twenties, he was facing death within two to three years. As we talked, they were obviously struggling with whether it was the right thing to be married or whether they should just let this dream die. Their love was deep, and they were willing to face even a short wedded life to have the delight of those few years. Many asked them to think it through carefully.
My counsel to them was simply this: Think it over, because the person you are now and the person you will be when you have to say your final parting will not be the same. You will have to change and work at sacrificial expressions in such a way that it will not be just your names that will change but your very being. Each of you will have a part of the other in your emotions and in your thinking so that you change for the sake of the other. Can you face the aloneness when he is gone and then find it possible to love another with a part of this person ever in your soul? Will you want to go through it all over again? Think about it, because you will be giving huge portions of yourself over a short period.
I could not fight off the tears when I heard their decision, although their reasoning was sound. They both knew that to marry would entail an emotional component that would put them on the edge, right from the beginning. When the time came for him to depart, her life would also have been spent emotionally, though she would still be young. Recognizing the emotional cost of saying yes, they chose the path of saying no to conserve the power of her youth and save it for someone else who in the long run would merit that total investment of her life. They chose to give up their dream of marriage but remained very close friends.
To many of us this story may seem sad, but it is the lesson of the will. If you are to learn to control the will, you must harness it early in any battle. Lines must be drawn not at the level of acting but at the level of thinking. Lines must be drawn not at the level of doing but at the level of desiring. Lines must be drawn not at the level of contact but at the level of sight. Lines must be drawn knowing that marriage is not just a condition of being but a condition of becoming. The two become one, but the becoming is both a moment and a process.
Steadying the Will
How do you harness the will? First, by recognizing that dying to yourself is an act of the will. You must choose to lay down your life in the best sense of the term. You surrender your will to the will of God by an act of commitment and in the power of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God. That is the indispensable beginning. No one likes to begin life with a funeral. But in a sense, that is where marriage begins. You choose to die to yourself and to bring to life a new affection.
The famed Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers once preached an unforgettable sermon titled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” While his theme was conversion, the implications are similar for marital commitment. An affection of such force takes charge that it expels other affections that are inimical to this one. That is the first step—dying to yourself.
There is no greater illustration of marriage and of the appropriate action to take when it is in trouble than the story of the prophet Hosea. A pastor, Hosea married a woman who sold herself into prostitution. Even the names of their three children illustrated the pain of this broken home. But the remarkable thing is that while Hosea’s wife was still in her lifestyle of prostitution God commanded him to buy her back. Even more remarkable and difficult was the rest of God’s command to Hosea: “Go, show your love to your wife again” (Hosea 3:1).
We see it here clearly. Love is a command, not just a feeling. Somehow, in the romantic world of music and theater we have made love to be what it is not. We have so mixed it with beauty and charm and sensuality and contact that we have robbed it of its higher call of cherishing and nurturing. Watch two young people in a passionate embrace—it may be love, but it may also be nothing more than passion. Watch two elderly people walking hand in hand with evident concern for each other, and you are closer to seeing love in that relationship than in the youthful embrace.
- Chesterton said these powerful words: “They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words—‘free love’—as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.” 2
This brings into focus an element of the will. The will is that faculty which can only be tested when pain is as much a part of its choice as pleasure is. Let me state it another way. The will is that disposition of the mind that will choose a path and bind itself with love, even if pain is mixed with the choice. In the West, particularly, we have become so resistant to pain that at the slightest hint of it, we prepare to flee by some shortcut or some solution that masks the discomfort.
By His example, Jesus teaches us the opposite. Think back to the scene we find within the pages of the Gospels when Jesus was about to be tried and crucified. He struggled with the agony of being separated from His Father and of bearing the entire weight of human sin. None of us will ever know what that felt like, but we know what it is to bear a small portion of sin’s weight and feel crushed by it.
During the days of my undergraduate studies in India, I remember an incident that to this day brings a negative response within me. We were in the midst of a class when the professor asked the student in front of me to answer a question. The student stood to his feet, presented his answer, and as he was about to sit down, the student next to me covertly slid the stool out from under him with his foot. I only had a fraction of a second to reach out and try to push the stool back into place so that the young man would not land on the floor with a terrible, possibly injurious jolt. But I couldn’t do it fast enough and the student fell hard.
The professor had only seen my hand trying to reach the stool and assumed that I had pulled it out from under him. Without any discussion, he ordered me out of the class. I got as far as saying, “But sir . . .” before he interrupted me and said, “I don’t want any explanation for such a shameful act. Just get out of my class.” The boy who had actually done it sat quietly and said nothing while both the boy who fell and the professor thought it was I who had done it. Others who had watched it all happen thought they had better stay out of it for fear of some reprisal. In short, I bore the wrong of another person and to this day am rankled by the memory.
That is a small, minute thing in the light of what I say to you. When Jesus took, by His own will, the guilt of the world upon Himself, knowing the agony of separation from the Father that would follow because the Father would have to treat Him as the guilty one, He cried out to His Father, “If it is Your will, take this cup away from Me” (Luke 22:42 NKJV).He did not want to taste the bitterness of human sin, the greatest consequence of which was separation from God the Father. But then He also cried, “Nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (v. 42 NKJV).
I wonder what I would have done if a third student, in order to protect me, had stood up and taken the blame? I would have found it unfathomable, but an act for which I would have surrendered much in order to express my heartfelt gratitude. You see, the will is always in a dramatic clash with other wills, including our own wishes. Fear, self-protection, indifference—numerous emotions and concerns test the will and often lead us astray. At the moment my will is tested to do wrong, it must remember the price that was paid on my behalf by the One who took the punishment for my will. By that act, He invited me to die to my own will, having received the gift of being accepted by Him, which my will alone could not have made possible.
In exchange, I receive the will of God by which to live and find delight. Nothing brings harmony more than embracing the will of God. Nothing brings fragmentation more than turning away from the will of God. Marriage is the harmony of God synchronizing two wills with the will of the Father. When that happens, the heart resounds with the feeling, even though it involves sacrifice.
Marriages are broken when even one of the two wills breaks from the will of the Father. When that happens the heart is broken as well, even though there is a path that may seem to provide an easier way out. That is when God takes over. Unless I understand the Cross, I cannot understand why my commitment to what is right must take precedence over what I prefer. Your marriage, as your conversion, begins at the Cross. Only then does the resurrection follow.
When my younger brother was about seven years old, he contracted double pneumonia and typhoid fever. As each day came and went, his condition deteriorated and the doctors said there was little chance of him recovering. Our entire family moved out of our home to live with my aunt while my mom was living in the hospital with my brother.
I recall going to visit him in the hospital one evening. He was not expected to survive the night. He looked absolutely pathetic, shriveled to a bundle of bones. But something happened that night as we were to find out later. All of us, except my mother, left the hospital not expecting to see him again. But my mother spent the night by his bedside, reaching out and touching his face or stroking his head. As the night wore on, out of sheer exhaustion she fell asleep in her chair. Night after night she had stayed awake, yet on this night, his last night, she had run out of strength. Her head drooped and she fell asleep for a couple of hours—the very hours she was told he would die.
She awakened with a start to find him still alive. In fact, she felt a warmth to his body she had not felt before. As one day passed into another, he became stronger until he had fully recovered.
My mother told us often that she felt that when she had given all she had to give and could give no more, God had taken over and given her the sleep she so needed as He restored the ailing frame of her son. This, to me, is a remarkable expression of will and hope. The rest of the family was comfortably asleep at home. The one whose heart was most entwined with his young life, by sheer sacrifice and self-denial, worked for his well-being until she could do nothing else but stay close, and that’s when God took over.
When your will is committed to God, He carries you when all else seems spent, to rescue what you had invested by your dedication.
A few days ago, while writing this chapter in a small Asian city, I took an early morning walk and saw two workmen who were dismantling a cement block wall, taking great care to keep the blocks intact for another structure they were building. What a metaphor this is for the home! When two lives meet, they are like two distinct walls. Each has to start by dismantling his or her wall one brick at a time, and then those bricks are taken intact and with other materials used to build a structure with a roof that brings them together at the top. That is the new home. Two wills are as two walls. Rightly dismantled and rebuilt they provide the strength for a new union of two lives.
The playwright Thornton Wilder said it well: “I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them—it was that promise.”3Ravi Zacharias is Founder and President of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
1 William Doherty, Take Back Your Marriage (New York: The Guilford Press, 2001) 11.
2 G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Rash Vows” in The Defendant (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1904), 23
3 Quoted in Doherty, 7.