This weekend Shauna and I celebrated seventeen years of marriage. YAY!!!

I’m humbled to say that we’ve been told countless times that our relationship is an inspiration to many people.  That thrills me to no end, but while I love our marriage, I want it to grow beyond where it is now. So who knows? Maybe in another seventeen years, I’ll know a little something. 🙂 But I’m starting to know some things, and I’m telling you, it’s all about the pronouns: Him, her, us, I, and them.

1. HIM. No, not the husband. Jesus.

On September 4th, 1993 Shauna and I exchanged rings and then looked the congregation in the eye. Holding hands, we made a declaration: “This marriage is built on the name, the power, the love, and the Person of Jesus Christ.” When it comes right down to it, marriage is not about “his needs / her needs,” but needing to do the will of Jesus Christ. But not Christ as some vague, third person. No. Christ incarnate, made flesh in me to Shauna, and in Shauna to me.

One of the Greek words for the Holy Spirit as Counselor is “paraklete,” which means “called to encourage alongside.” If the Holy Spirit already lives within me, what’s this “alongside” deal? Well, he does his best alongside work through people, and never more intimately than through our spouse. Marriage is Jesus getting uncomfortably close to me, coming alongside me through Shauna. Loving me through her. Confronting me through her. And the flip-side is also true: marriage is Jesus walking alongside her through me. I really do believe there are things God cannot do as well from within us. Things that only work from the outside in, coming from alongside us. From community. All that to say, it’s about him, first and foremost.

2. HER. This is the spousal pronoun.

For me, it’s a her. Shauna, my angel. For you, it may be a him. A husband.

On the eve of our wedding, it gave me peace to realize that marriage wasn’t some mysterious theoretical union, it was Shauna in all her guts and glory, ’till death do us part. Being with her, walking with her, loving her, stubbornly loyal “until death separates us or Jesus comes again,” as our vows put it. I’ve shared this thought with lots of trembling engaged folks, and most of them respond by saying, “Oh. It’s her? Well, I can do THAT.”

Marriage is a primary testing ground for verses like, “You should not only look to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” It’s a sobering thought that one of the reasons God put me next to Shauna for a lifetime is that there are things about her that he wants me to love into being. Things that will never see the light of day unless I give myself for her growth and godliness.

Over the years I’ve slowly replaced the word “love” with another one that still holds power for me: treasure. Treasuring someone, now that’s a mission and a half. Loving them can get all mixed up with Tina Turner lyrics and sentimental slush and roller coaster romances. Treasuring, that’s clear to me.

Of course, her marriage mission is the mirror opposite of mine, so our needs get met  indirectly through each other.

3. US. In other words, our couplehood.

This is the one that people tend to forget all about. I’ve met good Christian couples who get the Him and her thing down. It’s all about Jesus, and giving myself up for my spouse. Right. But without the US, people get lost. Codependence creeps in. Marriage is not just about Shauna, not just about me, it’s about what we share. You could say this is the word that describes our intimacy. How much of us overlaps. This is what the Bible calls being “one flesh,” or “the two  become one.” We don’t lose our selves, we create a third category. The US.

If it’s all about Shauna, I can descend into the realm of a resentful spirit. While I’m supposed to give myself to her even if she doesn’t return the favour, there is no real, intimate marriage unless a life is being built together. So I don’t just ask Shauna “How are YOU doing?” I also ask, from time to time, “How are WE doing?” How are we relating? Are we building our family? You get the idea. Hence, our trip to Maui this Spring. No kiddies along. Just US.

4. I. As in, me.

I know, you’ve been told that “There is no I in marriage.” But look at the word. It’s in there! So is me, actually. If it’s all about HER, all about US, and I never tend the ME, the US will suffer and so will SHE. I must tend my own heart. It’s like the principle behind the oxygen mask instructions on commercial airline flights: In the event of an emergency, attach your own mask first so you can help others. I’m in no shape to give and live sacrificially if I’m an empty shell. So I must—without apology—take time for my own walk with God, my own projects, my own life-giving restoration. Period.

I hear so many people say, “When I do that I feel guilty.”But I don’t. Really. It’s funny, when we were first married, Shauna would notice me getting grumpy and send me to my room (our study). “Go. Spend time with God. You’re not the man I married.” And sure enough, an hour later I’d emerge with a repaired heart, ready to love her well again. She knows I need time every week to explore something, to create and play and rest. When I don’t get that, everyone  suffers.

So there you have it: Him. Her. Us. Me. Marriage.