There is nothing quite so helpful for mortals as total desperation. As long as there is even a sliver of hope that our efforts might remove us from our dilemmas, we are likely to keep floundering along. But when we come up against impossibility, then we discover the power.
It certainly was true for Moses. Imagine how he felt with the Red Sea in front of him, millions of clamoring children of Israel behind him, and bloodthirsty Egyptian troops behind them. Faith is always much easier in retrospect than prospect; From our historical vantage point it seems obvious what Moses needed to do—especially if you have seen the Cecil B. DeMille version of the parting of the Sea.
But when Moses came face to face with utter hopelessness, he did not have the benefit of the Bible in movie form. He knew that he was hopelessly over his head. And, when their own efforts cannot possibly save them, that is when mortals are most likely to turn wholeheartedly to God. If they have faith.
When caught in the squeeze, Moses’ faithless people complained bitterly: “For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12). Their complaining must have added pressure to Moses’ dilemma. Had Moses been shown their path ahead of time? Was he spared soul-stretching pressure because of his foreknowledge?
My suspicion is that he, like all of us, was required to lean on faith for support. “And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace” (Exodus 14:13–14). What a powerful declaration of faith.
Based on four decades of wilderness tutoring Moses knew that God would deliver them, but did he know just how God would do it? Did he wonder if an earthquake would swallow Pharaoh’s army? Did he hope for lightning to frighten them? Or maybe heavenly chariots to destroy the armies of Pharaoh? Or did he already know that God would part the Red Sea?
It seems that only after Moses had exercised and announced his faith that the answer was revealed: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward: But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea” (Exodus 14:15–16).
Crisis presses us to stretch our faith and enlarge our character.
A woman sought my advice about her marriage. “After 25 years of disappointment and pain, I think there is a 90% chance that we should simply divorce. We have tried everything. I see no way to redeem our relationship.”
Ah, the blessing of desperation! Unfortunately, even when cornered, humans would rather do almost anything but throw themselves on the merits, mercy, and grace of him who is mighty to save. It is popular to blame others. “My husband is an insensitive lout who would rather fish than care for his family.” Other people have a strong bias toward blaming themselves: “This is exactly what I deserve: total misery and hopelessness.”
Yet he stands and waits and waits and waits for an invitation to rescue us. For each of us he is as the father of the prodigal who waited through many seasons for his squandering son to return to him. Despite the son’s wastefulness, “when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
Even when we are far from God, after we come to our senses and turn to him, he runs to us and embraces us just as he did the prodigal. When we are ready to turn our lives to him, he prepares the feast for us.
Marriage is an especially fruitful area for God’s growth-promoting purposes. Is there any enterprise that we enter with such ridiculous hopes? Is there any relationship where we take so personally the simple humanness of another? Is there any situation where we are so regularly tempted to think we have made a mistake? Is there any place where annoyance is more likely?
While there are hints of trouble early on—even before marriage—it takes most people some time to reach cosmic dismay. After two years it is obvious to the mildly alert person that the spouse has certain disagreeable behaviors that do not change readily and have become more difficult to wave away with infatuation.
But there is a special kind of despair reserved for those who have been together for a couple of decades or more. After investing so much, it seems absolutely intolerable that we should get so much less than we deserve. We amass the evidence of our abundant sacrifice. We itemize our partner’s offences. We calculate the deficit. The answer is clear: “I must get out in order to save my soul. This person will destroy me.”
Desperation is just the place where God does his best work. He will work a miracle for us if we, like Moses, declare: “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the [spouses] whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again [in the same way] no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.”
When we have given a relationship the best we have and find that it is not enough, we may turn to God. The One who heals the lepers, blind, lame, and palsied also knows how to heal the disenchanted, bored, resentful, and alienated. But we, like Moses, must be willing to let God do his work. We must want him to transform us with a mighty change of heart, renew a right spirit within us, and give us the mind of Christ.
I wonder if the commonest form of latter-day idolatry is the worship of our own abilities. We do not turn to God because we assume that we (self or partner) must try harder and be better. We heap scorn on ourselves for our failures or our partner’s failures. We commit to fix things. Yet we fail to acknowledge that we are less than the dust of the earth. We are worthless and fallen. As long as we depend on our own arms of flesh, we are enemies to God. That is latter-day idolatry.
When we stand at the edge of the marital Red Sea with a multitude of disappointments clamoring for something better, we should call on God. I like to use Alma’s words: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:18). If we give him place in our souls, he will fill our minds with compassionate understanding, our souls with earnest helpfulness, our mouths with charitable words, and our spirits with steady resolve. He is able to do his work.
The One who calmed the storm can quiet our squalls. The One who multiplied the loaves and fishes can magnify our charity. The One who cast out devils can remove resentments.
Satan must laugh as we discard covenants and relationships for the honorable-sounding cause of self-protection. While there are certainly those who must leave a relationship because their agency has been removed by a spouse, the majority of divorces would be prevented by drawing on heavenly resources rather than our puny, human ones.
Even among family scholars there is a growing alarm that many of us are so filled with individualism that we trade our covenants for a mess of self justification. Bill Doherty has observed that marriage can be like living in Minnesota. When the bitter winter comes, we are tempted to head south. Even friends and therapists warn of getting frostbite in flawed marriages. We should “trust our feelings of unhappiness.” Yet every relationship will have its winter. While we could leave our marriage with hopes of instituting a better one, that relationship will inevitably enter its winter. If, in contrast, we stay together and warm each other, “the next springtime in Minnesota can be all the more glorious for the winter that we endured together” (2001, p.105).
Michele Weiner Davis suggests that our culture is biased against the sacrifices of marriage. Even in very troubled cases, divorce “doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. In fact, in most cases, divorce creates more problems than it solves” (p.12).
John Gottman has observed that most (he calculates 69%) of the things that irritate us about our partner are not going to change. As to the 31% that can change, he observes that “one of the great paradoxes in therapy is that people don’t change unless they feel accepted as they are” (1994, p.184). Gottman has provided solid, research-based recommendations for strengthening marriage. His recommendations are different from those prescribed by the natural man, natural therapist, or natural society.
None of this should be understood to say that science now has better answers than God. Father has always known how to succor his children. However, it is my view that, in these times of great temptation, God has unleashed a flood of truth even through scientists so that the very elect do not have to be deceived if they will turn to better ways. God has always taught those better ways. Now they are confirmed by good research. God invites “will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Nephi 9:13).
Marriage has not become, in the last few decades, more difficult and treacherous than ever before. What has changed is not the nature of marriage but that our commitment has lessened while our demands to have our needs met have escalated. That is not a celestial combination. If, when we confront the impossible Red Seas of marriage, we turn to God, to his power and his principles, we will find a miraculous way opening before us. The gospel of Jesus Christ is simply the most under-utilized resource in the universe. Faith, humility, kindness, and charity are the timeless virtues that strengthen relationships.
Davis, M. W. (2002). Divorce Remedy. New York: Fireside.
Doherty, W. J. (2001). Take Back Your Marriage. New York: Guilford.
Gottman, J. M. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Crown.