A life-threatening illness does what it says on the tin. It threatens life. Sometimes the more secure the life, the greater the threat. Life-threatening illnesses come in different forms and sizes, eg. cancer, sometimes threatening the life of the individual and, if married, the marriage too.
I cannot imagine what it must be like to tell your partner you have only months – possibly even weeks – to live. The impact on the marriage must be immense. Yet this is the reality experienced by countless couples. Imagine, before the onset of the news, life is going well: home life settled; marriage pretty good; teenagers being teenagers… Not much to complain about, apart from the usual stuff: husband unable to do DIY and suffering from ‘man flu’ too regularly. However, the family equilibrium is unsettled when your partner gets sudden news of a terminal illness and news of months to live.
How do couples cope when they are hit by this sudden news? I wish I could say this is an infrequent reality, but such tragic stories appear to be on the increase. One day, all is OK. Literally the following day, lives are turned upside down.
The pastor who took my wife and me through marriage preparation did not touch on this sort of stuff. Instead of tackling how suffering can impact marriage, he selected benign themes, giving the impression that much of marriage is a walk in the park. Even in marriage, however, suffering is indiscriminate; it has no friends or allies. It impacts whom it wants and when it wants. It provides no answers or explanations for its actions. Suffering has a mind of its own, attacking whomever it wants, regardless of the person. So exploring this complex perennial issue with our pastor would have been more than worthwhile.
So how can couples respond, when this random knock on the door comes and the doctor says: “Your life might be curtailed by some years”? There are no easy answers. Though I do challenge the notion that faith must lead to healing, the calling home of a partner might indicate a lack of faith on behalf of the couple. This is a theology I have to contest and challenge directly. The older I get, the more I love God – yet the less I feel I understand how He works with His children and the world He has created. But what I do know is God does not punish because of His children’s lack of or limited faith. God is bigger than that. As important as faith is – for you cannot have a relationship with God without it – a lack of it, particularly when in a difficult situation, does not lead to God’s wrath. God is fully aware that high levels of faith are not universal. Some people just have it, regardless of the situation they are facing. Other couples find it very difficult to muster faith, believing that Christ will intercede on their behalf.
Married couples are often in a position where their faith is tested, usually because of an illness that has suddenly descended upon one of them – sometimes even both. If that has become our lot, somehow we need to hold onto the fact that God’s love for us remains undiminished and unaffected, even if our love for Him has become questionable. God is so able to cope with our fluctuating commitment. He is big enough to cope with our unpredictability, doubts and questioning. He does not fall to bits because of it. God remains love – regardless of us.
And so here is my point. Christian couples, who are faced with relentless suffering, do not need to be told again and again that their faith will make their situation well, as if to say that if their situation gets worse it’s due to their lack of faith. To the contrary: they need to be told that in the face of depression -even near death – they are totally loved and adored by their God, regardless of their levels of faith.
All Christian couples go through difficult times. It is an inevitable part of the marriage journey. And I agree that bags of faith might help us navigate our suffering more carefully than those who have very limited faith. But, as far as I am concerned, the way in which we deal with hard times is not determined by our faith alone. There are several helpful support mechanisms, such as close friends and family to speak to, counselling, cultivating hobbies and, of course, prayer.
A friend, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and determined that the illness should not unduly impact his wife and children, has taken matters into his own hands by daily saying to the cancer: “You do not control me; I control you.” He feels that this daily mantra has helped him and his wife to cope. Married couples impacted by this sort of thing will find different ways of addressing their illness. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Yet, regardless of the strategy we might employ, God communicates a generic message to all married couples that find themselves in the desert, namely: I AM who I AM. I love you. I am walking with you. I feel and know your pain.