Sailboats and Marriage and Self Sacrifice


My wife and I travel in different circles, and are usually headed in different directions. She is a natural planner and strategizer, I am naturally empathic and sensitive. I feel first, she plans first. I work in a Christian ministry, she works at a University. When we got married, I had no idea what my dreams were, what my life’s goals were, or what calling God had placed on my life (whether or not you believe in such things). When we got married, Maija was already working the plan for her life. We’re very different to one another. We’re best friends, we’re lovers, we’re mom and dad to the same kids, but in many ways we’re poles apart. On our best days, our differences bind us together like distinct but complementary parts of the same machine. If our marriage is a sailboat, then I’m a sail, and Maija is a keel. I’m flexible and adaptable, you can flip me inside out and I still work, I get filled with vision and potential (and hot air), but if not directed right I tend to flap in the breeze and accomplish nothing. Maija is focused, more rigid than I, she holds to the course and doesn’t lose momentum. She’s reliable, strong, and doesn’t get whipped around by the storm. When properly aimed and guided we are pretty much unstoppable.

On our best days, of course.

On our worst days, we ask each other why we got married in the first place since we’re so different. We ask each other if we’re sure we wouldn’t be happier with someone else.

These kinds of differences, if not responded to, can readily result in your marriage falling apart. At first your marriage is just fun and exciting. Love is all you need, but love requires very little investing. It’s transactional and lovely. Much like getting your first job. There’s an abundance of everything, and no need for long-term planning. Given time, you’ll discover that your relationship needs real work to be maintained though, just like your career. And just like a sailboat. The constant tension between the sails and the keel requires maintenance, lines and rigging need to be checked and replaced. Sometimes patches in the sail need to be made. Sometimes the keel needs to be repainted.

Given more time, you’ll probably have children, which will distract you from the needed work. If you’re as different to one another as Maija and I are, then given the passage of decades your careers, your family, your failures and your victories will all conspire to ruin the delicate balance of your relationship. You’ll run into challenges far more significant than you ever anticipated, and there’s a good chance no one will notice and you won’t know who to turn to.

“I don’t feel like I know you.”

“I don’t feel like you’ve ever known me.”

“I only just began to figure myself out, and the person you think I am is not the person I think I am.”

“I’m struggling to respect your career choices.”

“This was never important to you before, why is it important now?”

These are not the things people tend to tell you during pre-marriage counselling. But even if people did tell us, it wouldn’t matter, because few of us would believe it. Forewarned may be forearmed, but since your early love is so transactional and easy, we can be blinded to the actual reality of the working out of that love over the long haul. Forewarned is not always functional. Our society has little value for long-term endurance, large scale projects that require decades of work, so everything around you will suggest that you should protect yourself, and cut and run when things get hard.

But marriage is beautiful. Marriage is worthy of our effort. Building something to last decades is a noble, counter cultural mission. It requires almost constant vulnerability, trust that is earned and also extended fearfully without being earned, it needs mutual patience and grace. Marriage amplifies all those things that make up human life and connection, which is one of the many reasons I think most everyone should marry. Please note that if you’ve been in a deeply troubled and/or abusive marriage, I am not really talking to you here. Abuse of any kind is a different conversation entirely.

Maija and I recently discovered that a few things in our sailboat were getting worn out. Things that might seem small today, but given enough time, would cause cataclysmic damage to the power and potential of our vessel. The tension necessary for us to both excel was causing damage, and in some areas that damage wasn’t being noticed. And since it wasn’t noticed, it wasn’t being repaired. Now we’re armed with knowledge, so we can start the work of healing the areas that have been neglected. That healing is worked out with humility, and gentleness, and patience, and vulnerability, and trust. The more we have sown these things into our relationship, the more we will have to reap when the time comes for healing. The more trust you have deposited, the more you will be able to withdraw. Your early “transactional love” needs to switch to investment love at some point in the first 10 years, because you’re going to need it in the next 10.

Ultimately, all of this love comes from God. You and I can love only so much, but the very nature of God himself is love. He is constructed of self-sacrifice, offered up for the benefit of others. That is love. God loved us before the Big Bang. God loved us before humans walked the earth. God loved us before we were conceived. God loved us when we did the most horrible things in our lives. And God loves us today. And God will love us tomorrow. You and I are anchored in an eternal ocean of God’s limitless love. And God gave his life up for us, made himself lowly, took the pain necessary, and redeemed us to himself.

I believe that’s our model in marriage. Serve one another. Take in ourselves the pain and the cost of redeeming the other.

Dare I say it, I believe this is very specifically our model as husbands. Husbands leading their wives means husbands taking the lead in giving their lives up, making themselves lowly, taking the pain, and redeeming their families. Saying sorry first. Forgiving first. Being honest first. Setting a high bar for vulnerability and compassion and self-sacrificial love in the context of your marriage. Jesus already set the bar higher than we could reach, but since his spirit indwells us, we can love our spouses the same way God loves us.

And he is ever watchful, and ever ready to pour healing into our relationships. If reading this has made you worried about how our marriage is doing, please don’t be worried. We’re doing really great! Better than we’ve ever done. But I have this crazy dream that our best expectations for life, family and marriage pale in comparison to what is possible for us.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God…  I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. - Philippians 1:9-11, 20-21

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. - Ephesians 5:1-2, 25-27