Over the past few weeks, I have had a couple of meetings with a group of premarital couples. They are excited about their upcoming marriage—full of hope and promise of what will be. They sit closely to one another and smile liberally. In some ways their enthusiasm is infectious and a great reminder of the thrill that marriage is intended to incite. Over the past few weeks, I have also met with several crisis couples—some of whom appear on the verge of divorce. They are frazzled about a marriage that feels like bondage—full of criticism and despair. Their verbal and non-verbals communicate disdain and even contempt. In some ways their despair is infectious and a stark reminder of what happens when a marriage drifts apart. What do I say to those premarital couples to guide them away from the path of these married couples in crisis? I want to tell them about Ruth’s prayer.
Whether you wed thirty years ago or thirty days ago, there is a promise within your marriage. This is not a human promise of words and good intentions, nor a promise subject to social morays or political persuasion. Sadly, the promises that seal wedding vows are all too frequently broken by “irreconcilable differences.” ”To love and to cherish” devolves into “to compromise and to tolerate” or, in more painful marriages, “to search and destroy”. These earthly promises, however well-intentioned, fluctuate with the prevailing winds of personal feelings and the opinions of others and are therefore, as many of us know from experience, unreliable. This has been the path of these couples in crisis.
But, there is another path–Ruth’s prayer.
Evangelist Billy Graham has led more than 2.5 million people to Christ worldwide. It is estimated that this dairy farmer from Charlotte, North Carolina, has had a lifetime audience, including those reached through television and radio broadcasting, exceeding two billion people. This audience has included every sitting American president since Harry Truman and the leaders of innumerable countries. Graham writes in his autobiography that from a young age he understood his purpose – to preach the gospel.
Billy Graham has deservedly received many accolades for his faith journey and evangelism. But, I believe that his great achievements were buttressed and maybe even empowered by someone who hasn’t received the same attention—his wife Ruth Bell Graham.
Billy and Ruth met when they were students together at Wheaton College. When considering matrimony, Billy Graham records Ruth’s prayer in his autobiography (Graham, 2007). It reads as follows, “Ruth went back to her room (she later told me), got on her knees, and told the Lord that if she could spend the rest of her life serving Him with me, she would consider it the greatest privilege imaginable”.
Ruth’s prayer placed godly service as the centerpiece of holy matrimony. It remains a timely and convicting message almost seventy years after its utterance. In deconstructing this narrative, I discern four steps that I want to tell these premarital couples to avoid the destructive path that these married couples are journeying.
Step 1: Seek God’s direction
The first thing that Ruth did was to get on her knees in prayer. Your marriage is not about you. It is about what God has for you to do and to become. Seek God’s direction as to whether this is the right person for you to marry. And, if you feel affirmed in this decision seek God’s direction as to the purpose for your marriage. God’s purpose extends beyond physical intimacy, raising children, and accumulating material possessions. God’s direction will always steer you towards actions and attitudes that draw you together as a couple and draw people towards Him. This is the promise of the gospel. Before you do anything else, seek God’s direction.
So many couples struggle to pray together and seek God’s direction. Sometimes, this struggle happens because of the harried lifestyle they lead. But, often times it is a result of emotional distance.Regardless of the current status of your marriage, the single most important thing that you can do to improve it is to establish prayer pattern.
For years, my wife and I have a practice of praying together in the mornings. It isn’t a very long or deep prayer. But, I credit this practice more than anything else that we do for the stability of our relationship. Ruth’s prayer and my own experience convince me that establishing a culture of joint prayer is the top priority in our relationship.
Step 2: Choose who to serve
Ruth’s prayer clearly indicates God’s will as the focus of her desires. Ruth commits to the Lord that if God sanctioned this marriage she would treat it as a sacrament back to God. After marriage and children, Ruth continued to cultivate a spiritual discipline of daily prayer and devotion in their home for the remainder of her life.
Many couples today go to God to get their own will blessed rather than seeking God’s will for the relationship. And, when these couples do not see their own desires coming to fruition they sink into a marital spiral that tears the emotional fibers of their marriage.
Ruth’s prayer prioritized serving over being served. That is the model for all of us. Of course, when we adopt this servant-hearted stance it is an offering to God and to our spouse. Even when our spouse takes it for granted, God never does. Your decision to serve always has its own reward.
Step 3: Commit for life
Though subtlety noted in Ruth’s prayer, she informs God that this life of service to Billy and to the Lord is something that she intends to spend the rest of her life living out. And, there is no question that when Ruth died in 2007 that she had done just that in raising five children and nineteen grandchildren that though experiencing their own life’s challenges have undoubtedly had tremendous Christian influence.
Ruth’s lifetime commitment to God and to Billy is a model for these premarital and marital couples alike. Marriage is not about conditional commitment. Unconditional commitment is the hallmark of all great marriages. And, God honors that commitment of one’s heart. Of course, there is also significant responsibility in our behavior that comes with that unconditional commitment.
Step 4: Acknowledge the privilege
Ruth told God that the opportunity to serve Him alongside Billy would be the greatest privilege imaginable. For me, that is a powerful testimony of faith. Ruth spoke something that she believed through a lens of faith. She expected her marriage to be extraordinary. I’m sure that she had no idea of its ultimate global impact. I am reminded of the 1 Corinthians 2:9 biblical passage, “But as it is written: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” God had a tremendous ministry for this faithful couple as he does for yours. I believe that Ruth’s prayer was one of the catalysts for their unparalleled influence as a couple.
A marriage of godly proportions is a privilege. However, so many couples take it for granted. They think that their marriage belongs to them and they behave as such. But, if these couples could reframe their relationship as a privilege to which they are being held accountable, it would change the trajectory of their relationship with one another and on the world around them. I want to tell these premarital couples to not take one another for granted. See each other as a precious treasure that if nurtured holds immeasurable promise.
Premarital couples have tremendous potential to set their marriage on an extraordinary path of purpose by committing to Ruth’s prayer for their own relationship. This simple prayer has the power to transform cultures. Ruth and Billy Graham have proven that.
Of course, this extraordinary prayer is for any couple that seeks to pursue their ultimate life’s purpose as a partnership. Make the decision today to pray that the Lord give you the rest of your life to spend in service to Him with your spouse. Then let your attitude and your action demonstrate that it is the greatest privilege imaginable. I promise that this will unleash the unimaginable in your life.
Let me know if you and your spouse can commit to that prayer.