Chapter 3

Keep Moving Forward

Located at the intersection of Passyunk Avenue and 9th Street, Pat’s King of Steaks walk–up restaurant boasts the finest cheesesteaks in all of Philadelphia. But it’s famous for more than its hot signature sandwich. Move close to the large menu hanging outside the window, and you’ll stand in the very spot where Sylvester Stallone stood when filming his first Rocky movie.

My husband enjoys the Rocky film franchise enough to list the fictional boxer’s opponent in each movie. I can’t even remember how many movies are in the series. But one image stands out above the rest.

The jump rope.

Raw and rugged, the films trace Rocky’s days from a down–on–his–luck boxer to world–renowned prizefighter and finally to a champion trainer. Ironically, though, Rocky didn’t build his story of success with elite gyms or high dollar trainers. He pounded the pavement in the dark of early morning, ran the seventy–two steps gracing the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and even chased a chicken. Throughout the story of the little–known fighter who rises to the top in a crude boxing club with a jump rope in his hand, this message remains consistent: the heart of the fighter determines the outcome, not his circumstances.

Countless conferences, books, and podcasts on marriage dot the landscape of Christian subculture. While these resources can strengthen our relationships, nothing is a better predictor of where our marriages go than our day–to–day decisions. Muscle doesn’t build with words. It’s the perspiration of action—our everyday choices anchored in a commitment to persevere—that changes our relationships. Disappointment and failure aren’t our preferred training tools to make our marriages stronger, but they are the pressure points that provide the pushback to build the muscle of relational resilience.

It’s the perspiration of action that changes our relationships.

The ground and pound of staying connected to our spouse in the middle of a disagreement doesn’t feel romantic. Tempers flare, anger rises, and self–protection promises safety. In those tense moments of unmet expectations we don’t typically feel hopeful. Instead, we want to run, or pull away emotionally. However, we gain ground when we choose to stay connected, reaching toward the one who has failed to meet our expectations. We make real progress as we grow ever–sensitive to the nudging of Christ’s Spirit within us, reminding us of the things we have learned in his Word. In the day to day encounters with my spouse, I keep moving forward when I

    1. choose to make understanding my spouse a higher priority than trying to control him.

    2. formulate my responses based on my trust in the Lord rather than in an expectation of my spouse.

    3. value forgiveness and the process of change more than perfection.

Each choice to remain transparent in the hard discussions moves the relationship toward wholeness. Here we remember a God–breathed marriage is more than two well–behaved people living a happy, comfortable life together.

Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants” (Mark 4:30–32). Jesus knew many of his followers viewed the kingdom of God through the lens of their political expectations. They were looking for a radical, immediate solution. We may not tie our marital hopes to our politics, but we can certainly fall prey to the same mindset. We want God to work in our marriages, and we want him to do it now and according to our expectations.

When Jesus drew his followers’ attention to the mustard seed, he was not just telling them that the kingdom was happening in more than what they could see. His was also making clear that his plan (and his method) would accomplish something greater than what they desired. Something so significant, in fact, that it would provide refuge, hope and sustenance for the whole world. The mustard seed creates what it is genetically designed to produce. Small faith has exponential impact, but the power to flourish in our marriage isn’t just based in a small hope for something. Our faith, our very hope, must embody the genetics of God’s kingdom. If the highest aim I have for my marriage is a pleasant life, then I have missed the mark.

A God–focused marriage has the potential to disrupt the darkness. A conduit of Christ’s power to destroy Satan’s influence on this earth (John 10:10; 1 John 3:8), the unity shared between a husband and wife holds great power (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12). Because of its purpose in bringing together two separate individuals as one flesh, connected through the power of the Holy Spirit (Genesis 2:24), marriage entails warfare—and not just the kind that develops when our mate leaves a wet towel on the bathroom floor for the millionth time. Choosing to create a relationship with Christ as its center is the decision to make war with the kingdom of Satan. And choosing to be made holy through covenant love with our spouse is an invitation to the battle line. Is it any wonder then that marriage is challenging?

Choosing to be made holy through covenant love with our spouse is an invitation to the battle line.

For the first nine years, Scott and I would have told anyone who asked that we had a good relationship. But we had become adept at sidestepping the baggage we each carried. As we grew more connected to one another, times of conflict reminded us all was not well. For years, we kept our private lists of what we wanted to change in the other person. Desperate, we each began to allow God to work in us. The timing was different for Scott than for me, and the process as unique as our personalities and life experiences. But what we previously believed to be a far–fetched dream became our reality as we learned how two could become one.

Imagine our surprise when in year twenty we couldn’t get on the same page about several different issues. Areas of our marriage we thought had proven battle worthy became vulnerable. I asked the Lord as why Scott and I seemed to have lost strength. As I was praying, a very simple word picture came to mind. I remembered how in past years I had been working more intentionally on developing my physical strength. As I moved from machine to machine, I could not immediately assume the same level of weight for each exercise. Strengthening different muscles groups required that I exercise a set of muscles based on their individual development, not according to what I had just lifted on a different machine.

As I continued to think on that picture and pray, the Lord helped me understand the word picture’s application: transitions in our life circumstances are akin to working different muscle groups. Doing one hundred bicep repetitions with thirty–pound weights doesn’t mean I can lift the same load using my triceps, even though both muscle groups are in my arm. Life circumstances had shifted, and so had our relational pressure points. Our relationship hadn’t atrophied; we were in a different season of training.

Our relationship hadn’t atrophied; we were in a different season of training.

It was the everyday moments—the decision to press through the tense disagreements—that became our jump rope. But it began by seeing beyond our individual stories. It’s about who my spouse and I are becoming because of who God is (Hebrews 11:1, 6). We keep moving forward to be a visible picture of God’s redemptive work in humanity.

Just before his first fight with Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa said to his beloved Adrian, “All I wanna do is go the distance.” If Jesus calls us to a faith far more tenacious, rich, and powerful than whatever is happening to us in the moment, then certainly the same is true for a marriage rooted in Christ. When we allow the Holy Spirit to counsel us, even the least likely of events can build intimacy with our spouse. The jump rope doesn’t just become sufficient; it becomes needful.

Chapter Questions

1. In what ways does the culture in which you live in feed you an expectation of marriage that is at odds with God’s perspective?

2. In your opinion, what is the most formidable hurdle you and your spouse face when it comes to moving forward in your relationship with one another?

3. When it comes to marriage strength–training, what is your jump–rope? In other words, what is an aspect or situation in your marriage that would otherwise be considered mundane or insignificant that will enable you to do the hard work of choosing to love your spouse well.