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Cover image via Associated Press.
Instead of inconveniences and irritations, some people see goodness and blessings. One of my heroes is John Glenn. He is a hero because of his pioneering space accomplishments both as a young man and as a mature man. He was a conscientious politician. But perhaps he was most heroic in his marriage.
John and Annie grew up together. They played together as children and dated through high school. John described Annie as “pretty, with dark hair and a shy, bright smile.” They were in band, glee club and YMCA/YWCA together.
However, there were challenges. Some classmates teased Annie for her severe stuttering, but John didn’t see her stuttering as a problem. “It was just something she did, no different from some people writing left-handed and others right-handed. I thought it was cruel and thoughtless to laugh at someone for something like that—especially Annie, whom I cared for—and I told them so”[i]
Annie’s stuttering made it almost impossible for her to shop alone. She would have to write a description of what she wanted and show it to a clerk because she was not able to ask for it. Any public appearance was painful for Annie. Yet John lived a very public life.
At one point when John was preparing for a space launch, he got a message to call Annie. Vice President Johnson wanted to visit their home and interview her. Annie refused. John was threatened that his place in the space program could be in jeopardy.
Most of us might have fared poorly as husbands in such a situation. We might have called our wives and said “Look, I’m risking my life for the country, can’t you simply step out of your comfort zone and meet with the vice president?” In our hearts we might have accused, “Why must you think only of yourself.” We tolerate imperfections in our partners until they inconvenience us. Then we expect change.
But John Glenn was different. “Annie wouldn’t have refused to see the vice president without a really good reason . . . I told her whatever she wanted to do, I would back her 100 percent.”[ii]
Years later John Glenn was considered as a running mate for Jimmy Carter. Reportedly he was not chosen in part because of Annie’s stutter. “It shocked us and it hurt.”[iii] However, once out of the political race, John Glenn joked that he was free to mow the lawn at home.
At one point in later life Annie took an intensive course to help her overcome stuttering. After the three weeks of grueling training, John described her homecoming:
“John,” she said when she got home, hiding an impish smile, ‘I’ve wanted to tell you this for years: Pick up your socks.’ . . . Annie grasped the gift of speech and held it tight. Our lives were transformed. Our phone bill increased as she started calling friends around the country.[iv]
John Glenn might have been irritated many times by Annie’s stuttering, her quietness, and the impact they had on his life and career. But he wasn’t. He helped her. He saw past her impediment.
John Glenn’s accomplishments as a pilot and an astronaut are remarkable. His strength of character is commendable. Yet his greatest accomplishment may have been the kindness and tenderness he showed his wife, Annie. Though he might have been irritated many times by Annie’s stuttering, her reticence, and the impact they had on his life and career, he never showed that. Instead he loved his Annie. I miss John Glenn.
Our own hearts stutter
In some ways Annie’s stuttering is a great symbol for the large tracts of territory in our character where the natural man still rules. Each of us has weaknesses, “thorns in the flesh.” When we see weaknesses in our partners, it is easy to be annoyed. In fact our own weaknesses—which should make us humble—may make us even more annoyed by our partners’ weaknesses.
We will continue to be annoyed by our spouses unless we are humbled enough by our own limitations to call on heavenly grace. Paul called on heaven for relief from his limitations. When the relief did not come, he set the example for all of us with his attitude:
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10, emphasis added)
This is one of many gospel ironies. It is only when we recognize our weakness that we can be made strong by His perfect grace.
How do we get charity?
How do we obtain the precious gift of charity? Note carefully:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen (Moroni 7:47-8, emphasis added).
The answer is clear. We receive charity as we become true followers of Jesus Christ and we beseech Him for the gift. We must want it with all our hearts.
Putting charity into perspective
I have tried to make sense of the two great triads in scripture. The first principles and ordinances of the gospel are faith, repentance and covenants (which includes both baptism and confirmation). The scriptures also talk about faith, hope, and charity. How do the two triads relate to each other?
I have wondered if the former are the commandments that guide our choices and the latter are the fruits of our choices. Perhaps faith as a desire to believe results in faith as an inner assurance. Perhaps repentance—turning our sins over to Jesus—leads to hope—that sense that Jesus can and will save us. Perhaps entering into covenants of baptism, the sacrament, and any personal covenants we make with God direct us to charity, the mind of Christ.
Charity is the culminating gift of our spiritual seeking. “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Charity comes only when we humbly recognize the weakness of our mortal natures and throw ourselves on “the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8, emphasis added). The Book of Mormon teaches clearly and repeatedly that “there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:1, emphasis added).
What difference does charity make in marriage?
It seems that every relationship faces an Abrahamic test. Somewhere along the way some challenge surfaces that seems insurmountable. It may be a spouse with a temper, one who will not be close and affectionate, or pornography and unfaithfulness. These challenges are insurmountable—unless we have charity. We simply will not survive and thrive in the challenges of marriage unless we take upon ourselves the mindset that Jesus has. His redemptive mindset is called charity. (This is not to suggest that we should merely shrug at major violations of trust. Appropriate action is needed. Yet, whatever else is appropriate, charity is still essential.)
It is important to note that charity is necessary not only for big challenges but also for the small chafings of daily life. All who have been married more than an hour have felt irritated with their spouses. Some people, like my dear wife, hardly let irritations rise to the level of awareness. She almost always shrugs them off.
I do a much better job of representing the fallen human race. I chafe about word choice in a simple statement she makes. I grumble about indecision. I grouse that she doesn’t know that I don’t like celery—let alone celery soup. I moan when she is late (even though I am late far more often than she), and I gripe when the table is set with the knives facing the wrong direction. My unchanged soul protests such violations of order and propriety.
I have repented a lot in over four decades of marriage. I am learning little by little to see as the Lord sees. I am learning to follow President Joseph F. Smith’s counsel:
We all have our weaknesses and failings. Sometimes the husband sees a failing in his wife, and he upbraids her with it. Sometimes the wife feels that her husband has not done just the right thing, and she upbraids him. What good does it do? Is not forgiveness better? Is not charity better? Is not love better? Isn’t it better not to speak of faults, not to magnify weaknesses by iterating and reiterating them? Isn’t that better? And will not the union that has been cemented between you and the birth of children and by the bond of the new and everlasting covenant, be more secure when you forget to mention weaknesses and faults one of another? Is it not better to drop them and say nothing about them—bury them and speak only of the good that you know and feel, one for another, and thus bury each other’s faults and not magnify them; isn’t that better?[v]
A similar thought has been expressed by a wise observer: “How delightful is the company of generous people, who overlook trifles and keep their minds instinctively fixed on whatever is good and positive in the world about them. People of small caliber are always carping. They are bent on showing their own superiority, their knowledge or prowess or good breeding. But magnanimous people have no vanity, they have no jealousy, and they feed on the true and the solid wherever they find it. And, what is more, they find it everywhere”[vi]
We can test the power of charity by reflecting on our experiences as recipients of charity. It softens us. It causes us to relax. It brings out the best in us. Even those of such strong character and great spirituality as the Prophet Joseph Smith have experienced the power of kindness. “Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.”[vii]
When we choose to see the good, think about it, talk about it, and appreciate it, we bless those around us—often by evoking the same attitude in them. This can cascade us to Zion.
Keeping our focus
At some point in your marriage, like me, you have probably enjoyed at least 80% of your spouse’s traits. Even then, there is that bedeviling 20% that still annoys us. Most of our marriage-fixing efforts are focused on that bothersome 20% of our partner’s character that just annoys us.
We notice, study, analyze, and organize our lists of our partners’ faults. Then we either undertake a deliberate spousal improvement project or—in weak moments—we explode with complaint. Anyone who has objectively observed human nature knows the effect of either cool or hot criticism: it creates discouragement, distance, and defensiveness.
The failure of our partners to appreciate our analyses of their characters is likely to result in more analysis and more criticism. Over time the marginal discontent can become the focus of our relationship. What a tragedy!
Such tampering with spousal character, though well-intended, is simply not effective. Criticism does not lead to repentance and growth; It leads to anger, defensiveness, and pain.
The human preference for support was well expressed by Noel Coward: “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.” In other words, most of us would prefer that our partners think about the 80% of us they like rather than dabble with the 20% they don’t like.
As Wendy Watson observed, “the best-kept secret in many marriages is the strengths spouses see in each other. . . . An interesting fact about commending your spouse is that the more you do it, the more you see in him or her to commend.”[viii]
Some things never change!
John Gottman has made interesting discoveries about that 20% that we don’t like. He has discovered that approximately 70% of what we don’t like will never change! We can be mad about that. We can feel cheated. But heaven seems to have constructed that annoyance and it is not likely to change!
What a wise design! Rather than re-working our partners to our liking, we are invited to cover their weaknesses with our charity! God is serious about cultivating our charity. Irritations with our partners are not a challenge to diplomacy as much as to our charity. There are no right words when our hearts are wrong.
Of course we can divorce the disappointing spouse and marry someone different—someone who doesn’t irritate us in the way our spouse does. And we may be happy . . . for a time. However, every relationship comes with irresolvable differences. That seems to be a law of nature.
On average it takes two years for couples to realize that their marital differences will stubbornly remain a part of their relationship. After that “honeymoon” with one spouse, we can divorce, marry someone new, and enjoy a new honeymoon—for a short time. Inevitably we will find a new set of problems with the new partner. Rather than hitchhiking down the marital road, God invites us to stop, make a commitment, and cultivate our aptitude for appreciation.
Those of you who are careful accountants may be thinking that if 70% can’t change, what about the remaining 30% of what we don’t like that can change. There is another intriguing irony here. According to marriage research, the ONLY way to get partners to change that 30% is by enjoying them the way they are! You can spot the irony. When we love our partners the way they are, we don’t care if they change! That is the very thing that liberates them to change. Acceptance is the key to change in those areas where it is possible.
So the messages of research and the gospel are the same: We should enjoy and appreciate our partners. We should forgive them of their humanness. The single most promising marriage-fixing effort is not tinkering with our partners’ characters; it is in loving, cherishing, and appreciating them!
This fits with the research discovery that partners in happy marriages see qualities in their spouses that even the spouses’ best friends don’t see! Good marriage partners become serious talent scouts. In fact, like good parents who exaggerate their children’s good qualities, good marriage partners are likely to exaggerate their spouses’ strengths.
Better ways: tools for charitable living
There are several keys to charity. They are no surprise. We must be humble enough to recognize our own failings. We must have faith unto repentance, that is we must trust Jesus enough to be willing to run to Him with our sins, begging for His help with managing our mortal selves and changing our natures.
Consider the case of the woman who was rushing from one evening duty to the next. As she passed her husband, she sighed, “I’m so tired.”
An unwise husband might give unwelcome advice: “Why don’t you lie down for a minute?” A wiser husband knows that his wife’s words have special meaning even if he doesn’t know what the meaning is. Kent R. Brooks teaches us how to discover those special meanings: “We need to let our partners teach us how to meet their underlying needs. . . . Save for the influence of the divine, the best authority we have on how to meet the needs of our spouse is our spouse!”[ix]
The earnest husband may not know the meaning. But he is open to being taught. So he might say things such as: “Today has been a burdensome day?” “You sound worn out.” “Tell me more about what you’re feeling.”
As his wife describes the special meaning of her words to him, he gets better ideas for how he can help. Maybe he is tired too. If so, he may call on Heavenly resources, “Father, give me the strength and the goodness to help my dear wife.”
She might need words of love and encouragement. He might also call out for pizza. The best response to her statement depends on the special meanings it has for her. Marleen S. Williams underscores the central role of seeing through the eyes of our partners: “When you understand another person through the lens of his or her own life experience and history, you will find it easier to interpret that person’s behavior accurately and to learn how to accommodate differences.”[x]
The formula for spiritual power
In the great section of the Doctrine and Covenants in which the Prophet Joseph Smith cried out for relief for the saints and vengeance on enemies, the Lord taught Joseph the principles of heavenly power. Near the conclusion of the section, God gave the formula. Notice the two keys:
Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and [especially those in your own home], and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever. (D&C 121:45-46, emphasis and paraphrase added)
It appears that charity and virtue are the keys to accessing heaven’s power. Consider a couple of examples. Terry Olson shares an excellent example of lubricating life with charity. He describes a situation where many of us would be annoyed and abrasive. Yet this man apparently had (at least on this occasion) risen above the natural-man reaction.
The wife of a long-distance truck driver is worried about dinner being late. She and her husband always celebrate his return from his three or four days on the road with a quiet dinner. Although he is a little later than she expected, she is grateful she has not yet heard the brakes of the big rig in front of the house, because she wants the whole thing to be ready, and it’s not. Alas, there is the noise she had been both dreading and hoping for. She begins to imagine his coming in the back door, hanging up his jacket and then, before washing up, leaning around the hall entrance and smiling a greeting. She worries he will see the unset table and discover the unready meal. She is worried that his face will fall, that he will think his homecoming is no longer a big deal or will not include the spirit of welcome she typically offers. In other words, she is imagining him being offended—perhaps even resentful—at her unpreparedness. She worries he will hold it against her. Her imaginings seem absolutely realistic to her.
Her husband, however, presents her with an alternative reality. When he actually does lean around the corner and sees that dinner preparations are incomplete, he smiles, catches her eye, and says, “Hi, honey. Looks like I got here just in time to help. Be right there.”[xi]
In an honest story of transformation, an anonymous author tells in the Ensign of moving from frustration and judgment to appreciation and love—to charity.[xii] She and her husband fought regularly. She got to the point where she neither loved nor liked him. She felt trapped. She could have miserable singleness or miserable marriage. She prayed. A new thought came to mind. She could stay, love her husband, and be happy.
Unfortunately her best efforts to conjure up some love for her husband were fruitless. She did nice things for him—but he didn’t notice. After three weeks of sincere effort, nothing was better. She begged God to change her husband. God invited her to change herself. Having already given her best effort, she didn’t know what else to do, but continued to pray for help. In Gospel Doctrine class the answer came as they read Mormon’s invitation to pray with all the energy of heart for charity.
She began trying to see her husband as Jesus saw him. And she felt invited to look for the good in him. At first this was very hard. Although she found it much more natural to catalogue his faults, she started looking for his positive qualities.
The author reports that something wonderful was happening within her. She began to realize that her husband wasn’t the big jerk she had thought him to be. He had many wonderful traits that had been overlooked or forgotten. Then came a second blessing. In the absence of nagging, her husband started dropping many of the bad habits she had pestered him about.
Though their relationship had improved, she still felt no love for her husband. She prayed more earnestly. She reports that one day she looked across the table at him, and suddenly, was filled with an intense love for him. Tears filled her eyes. She suddenly saw him as her eternal companion, whom she loved more than words could express. She felt his infinite worth and wondered how she had ever overlooked it. She sensed the Savior’s love for him.
That is the blessing we all seek. It is the heavenly gift that changes everything.
Creating Your Own Story
Look for good qualities and kind deeds by your partner. Don’t discount their goodness by looking for imperfect motives. Notice the good. Appreciate it.
Reflect on the wisdom of sages:
“Fill us with Thyself, that we may no longer be a burden to ourselves.”[xiii]
“How much larger your life would be if [you] could become smaller in it. . . . You would begin to be interested in [others]. You would break out of this tiny . . . theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”[xiv]
Pray with all the energy of heart for charity. Make it the desire of your heart.
According to the scriptures, we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). The same can apply to marriage. Our partners will love us because we first love them. Love first. Don’t wait to be loved.
[i] John Glenn and Nick Taylor, John Glenn: A Memoir, New York: Bantam Books, ,3
[ii] Memoir, 252-53.
[iii] Memoir, 335.
[iv] Memoir, 325-327.
[v] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , 180-81, emphasis added.
[vi] Van Wyck Brooks, A Chillmark Miscellany.
[vii] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 240.
[viii] “Love and Marriage,” BYU Magazine [Spring 2002], page 59.
[ix] Covenant Marriage, 97.
[x] Covenant Marriage, 77.
[xi] Covenant Marriage, 125.
[xii] See Name Withheld, “Falling Out of Love and Climbing Back In,” Ensign, Jan. 2005,50.
[xiii] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith, New York: Association Press , 213
[xiv] Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, , 20-12.