Not long after I graduated from the University of Arkansas, a female friend at the university came to me for counsel. She was dating a young man who happened to be my best friend, and I knew what was happening in that relationship. She wanted to marry him, but he was uncertain of whether he was willing to commit himself to her.
For some reason I had doubts about whether they should marry. So I told her a parable I had recently heard:
A little boy named Johnny was playing marbles in his front yard. His uncle drove up and decided to play with the boy for a few minutes. Then the uncle reached into his pocket and pulled out a dime and a dollar. "Johnny," he asked, "would you like a dime today or a dollar next week?"
Johnny's boyish eyes bounced back and forth between the shiny dime and the crisp greenback. He thought, "I could buy a bag of potato chips today, or I could wait until next week and buy a rubber ball." He felt some hunger pangs, so he grabbed the dime, bought some chips and wolfed them down. They were delicious. A week passed, and when Johnny went out to play one afternoon he noticed that every other boy in his neighborhood had a rubber ball. He wanted one, so he rode his bicycle over to his uncle's house. "Hey, uncle, how about that dollar you promised me?" Johnny asked. But his uncle looked down and said, "Johnny, last week I promised you a dime today or a dollar next week, and you made your choice. You can't have the dollar now."
When I finished that story, I asked the young lady, "Do you believe that God is big enough to give you someone else later on that you could love more than this guy?" She thought for a moment and nodded her head yes. "Perhaps," I said, "God in His sovereignty knows this young man you are dating is a dime and He has a dollar for you later on."
Well, perhaps you've guessed the end of my story. That young lady, Barbara Peterson, decided not to marry my best friend. In fact, just over a year later she became my wife. To this day, people find it hard to believe that I really had no mixed motives when we talked that day!
Once in a while Barbara and I pull out our old wedding pictures and gaze in wonder at those youthful faces. There we are, posing with our families. Reciting our vows. Cutting the cake.
I remember the sense of relief I felt. We did it! Finally it was over! Physically, mentally, and emotionally, we felt like we had completed something, and we had—a six-week engagement filled with so much activity that we hardly had time to rest.
Did we truly realize what we had just done? Did we have any idea what type of commitment we had just made, and what it would mean?
In reality, our wedding was not the completion of engagement but the beginning of a new life. Yet we scarcely knew what that life would involve. There's so much we didn't know about this thing called marriage.
No other human relationship can approach the potential for intimacy and oneness than that which can be found within the context of the marriage commitment. And yet no other relationship can bring with it as many adjustments, difficulties, and even hurts.
There's no way you can avoid these difficulties; each couple's journey is unique. But there is much you can do to prepare for that journey. That's what engagement is—not a preparation for a wedding, but for a marriage.
At least Barbara and I were both mature Christians, heading in the same direction in life. We knew that God was calling us together as man and wife, and we took our marriage vows seriously.
Unfortunately, in our society today it's more difficult to obtain a driver's license than a marriage license. I could fill a book analyzing all the reasons that America's divorce rate is so high, but they boil down to this: People don't know how to make a good decision about marriage, and they don't know how to be married. They grow up in a culture that emphasizes individuality over responsibility. They grow up in families that are increasingly fractured. They never learn how to relate to another person, how to be committed through any type of hardship. They never learn how to love.
That is why I worked with four other men to develop a workbook called, Preparing for Marriage, and an accompanying mentor's guide. With this curriculum, we are praying for two things to happen in the church. First, we'd like to see more churches make comprehensive premarital training and mentoring one of the cornerstones of their ministry. Nationally, 73 percent of marriage ceremonies are held in either a church or synagogue. This provides a strategic opportunity for the church to insist on well-planned, helpful, and mandatory training for every engaged couple. I truly believe there are few ministries more strategic or effective.
Second, we're praying that hundreds of thousands of lay people would agree to mentor these premarried couples. I know of a large church in Southern California that probably marries about 60 couples each year. And most of the premarriage training is done by the pastoral staff. This church has not recognized the potential sitting in the pew. With a little training and encouragement, they could use lay couples to guide young couples through the training. Frankly, lay couples may even be able to teach these couples more than the pastors could, because many lay couples have more time to invest.
Statistics tell us that most divorces occur within the first five years of marriage. Just think what would happen if God raised up an army of mature Christians who were willing to mentor younger couples—before and after marriage.
Before us is the opportunity of a lifetime. A generation of people are broken, lonely, and looking for help. The world has no answer for our cultural crisis in marriages. I am absolutely convinced that the body of Christ is the answer—if it's willing to be available.
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