This morning our usual James study was put on hold so we could hear the powerful story of a missionary husband and wife. This Swedish couple served as missionaries in southern Russia. One night, on their way home from a church gathering, they were kidnapped at gunpoint – thrown in the trunk of a car, and eventually forced into a tiny jail cell with a mud floor, a bucket for their toilet, no window – their new home for the next 165 days. They were allowed to keep their Bible, which became their ultimate source of sanity and hope when they were beaten, mocked, and treated like animals.
I won’t retell their whole story (although I really want to). What struck me most about this couple was their absolute joy as they spoke. I’m not sure I’ve really seen anything like it. I mean, this couple was glowing with joy as they spoke about the most deplorable conditions I can even comprehend.
Another beautiful thing about their story was that they were allowed to stay together in their prison cell. They created a “home” in the mud. They memorized scripture, they prayed all day. They even “fasted” from their meager prison rations every few days. They huddled together in the winter. They invented games to pass time. They cried together. They sang worship songs together. They etched off the passing days on the wall with chalk. Could you even imagine going through this with your spouse? Could you imagine being thrown in a prison cell with your husband, sleeping the mud, sweeping out the rats? Talk about a marriage retreat.
Their love for each other was so evident – even as they spoke this morning. During the entire hour, there were maybe one or two minutes they were not touching in some way. I thought to myself, "Do you think an affair is going to end this marriage? Do you think they're going to fall out of love with each other? Do you think they’re going to let little annoyances drive them apart?" I’m guessing no. I’m not saying this couple doesn't have to still work on their marriage, but I just think there’s something about being tortured beside your spouse that tends to cement a relationship. They didn’t even really talk about their marriage, but it didn’t need to be spoken. It was just who they were.
Christian couples, what are we enduring together for the cause of Christ? This couple reminded me that my marriage isn’t something I have to huddle around and just defend from the world all the time, it’s a weapon – a powerful weapon against the enemy. With my husband, I can endure anything. With me, my husband can conquer anything. Christ designed marriages to be strong, to be a force for his glory, even strong enough to endure cancer (one amazing couple comes to mind), job loss, and the unthinkable – torture and imprisonment. We can face anything together and fight every battle together. Why do we let the enemy steal power from our marriages? Maybe the biggest poison to our marriages is just an easy life that never requires us to endure anything together?
This story was so encouraging to me. Even though David and I are far away from prison (although sometimes I think Thai food….nevermind), I can still quote scripture to him. I can still pray over Him. I can still make myself into his strongest fellow warrior in battle – his most trusted confident. He can do the same for me.
Sometimes I feel like I have the spiritual muscle tone of spaghetti. I’m no health expert (says the bowl of nutella in my lap), but somewhere I heard that you build a muscle by tearing it down. You overload the muscle so it gets stronger. Sometimes God gives me the smallest challenge and I look at him like he just asked me to do 100 pull-ups: It ain’t gonna happen. I think we build spiritual muscle by going through the hard times with God, with our spouses, with our families. We can beg God to take it away (Paul sure did and so did this couple), but when he doesn’t, we just keep going. We keep fighting. We keep enduring. When we feel the weakest, when we just can’t lift anymore, I think that’s when that muscle is formed in us. That’s how we get strong in Christ. That’s how our marriages get strong – not just by existing in every day life, but by doing something for Christ together, by enduring it together—even in the middle of every day life. Oh how he loves us in spite of our weakness. He is for us and for our marriages.
Praise God that we all don’t have to be thrown in a Russian prison. But – something about seeing this radiant couple speak today – it just makes me think maybe they understand something about joy that I don’t get to understand yet– something about the depths of marriage and intimacy only found on the other side of suffering side by side--Something about experiencing the Light of God that you can only truly absorb when you’ve been in the darkest pit.
May I not shrink back the next time I have an opportunity to build a little spiritual muscle in myself and in my marriage.
Praise God for the strength he is building in us.