“I Do” Is Not “I Can”: From Jason Micheli’s Living in Sin

Thrilled to share this excerpt from Jason Micheli’s brand-new book Living in Sin: Making Marriage […]

Mockingbird / 6.10.19

Thrilled to share this excerpt from Jason Micheli’s brand-new book Living in Sin: Making Marriage Work Between I Do and Death. The following comes from Chapter Three, “That’s What She Said” (pp 52-56).

Strike what I said earlier against advice-giving because here’s some. But this isn’t just marriage advice, it’s Christian advice, advice on how to see other humans in light of the gospel. Here it goes: seeing others as Ali sees me, as bound and unfree, is the easiest way to find patience and empathy for others. It’s when you mistakenly think people are free that you get pissed off at them. When you see people as active agents of everything in their lives, choosing the crap decisions they make, you can confuse what they do for who they are.

And I know this: you’re just like me. You have your own Angelinas, your own jars of pickles, and your own bags of Cheetos you can’t stay away from. You’re not an enigma, but you have plenty of them in your life. Every spouse knows it already. The only consistent thing about you is your inconsistency. You’re just like me.

The only fix for what ails us in our life with another is our willingness to receive and reciprocate a mercy that is as unmerited as it is unexpected, which means often it will stick in your craw, striking you as somewhere between uncomfortable and offensive.

When you vow “I do” to another, you are not promising “I can.” You’re not asserting an ability innate to you. Instead of the tit for tats that come so naturally to us, by your “I do” you’re pledging your willingness to volley and serve a grace that comes so unnaturally to us that it first had to come to us as God in the flesh.

The love that can make marriage work between “I do” and death, in other words, is the love with which Christ loved us—a love that died for us while we yet sucked.

Marriage is a means of God’s grace. God gets to us with his grace through the grace our beloved gives us. Forget what all the be-fruitful-and-multiply-family-values people vomit onto your TV screen, for my money this is the only Christian foundation to any formulation like Christian marriage. Like John the Baptist pointing his long, bony finger away from himself and onto Jesus, the forgiveness offered to you by your lover is a sacrament of that permanent forgiveness provided by Jesus’s passion. And just as I say with bread and wine at the altar table every week, the promise of his passion is that it delivers us from captivity to our propensity to screw things up.

When Ali and I got married, I volunteered to file our taxes for our first joint return. I was still a graduate student. She was the one working to put me through school. Doing the taxes struck me as a fair and thoughtful division of labor. “It’s just math, right?” I remember saying. Only, I also had a paying gig at a small church as a part-time pastor. Clergy taxes can be a conundrum, fine print no one walks you through in between New Testament Greek and systematic theology. Confused, I put the tax returns away to do another day. It never came. Our insides are tricky. We’re remarkably deft at deceiving ourselves. Whether I forgot to file them or avoided it altogether, I cannot say for sure. What I can vouch as the truth is that when Ali followed up and asked if I’d done them, I lied.

“Yep,” I said reflexively.

And we said no more about it. Again, I can’t say for sure, I thought no more about it. Until the following spring when the lie, like the interest owed, seemed to have compounded tenfold. Too big a lie to confront, I simply repeated it. I shelved the 1040 behind some old bills. When she asked again if I’d filed it, I said, “Sure.”

Still skeptical about that word, sin? Sure, “the devil made me do it” can sound like a crappy excuse. Captivity can also be the best explanation.

Consider this. Even though I was determined to tell her the truth, I lied to her. And I kept on lying to her. I don’t want her to think I’m a liar who can’t be trusted (that could hurt our relationship), so I’ll just lie to her about it, I thought to myself while ordering a Frosty at the Wendy’s across from our apartment. I legitimately thought that sounded like a rational course of action.

Back when I was kid, during the bad old days, my dad had perpetrated the very same pretense, leaving my mom holding an outstanding IOU from the IRS. She couldn’t pay it. Her dad bailed her out. The federal government was the only onlooker who could’ve considered their marriage a joint venture at that point. Ali and I were a year into our marriage when I discovered I’d become the man I’d begrudged all my growing up years. As a pastor, I hear church folks gossip all the time about the apple that fails to fall far away from the tree. What pewsitters don’t realize maybe is that the apple, who is able to gauge its proximity to the tree whence it came, is able—eventually—to forgive its provenance.

Like that yarn about getting tangled up in the deceptions we weave, I kept the lie about having paid our taxes going for the first several years of marriage. Eventually, the truth of it became too big not to leak out all over our marriage. I never knew what couples meant when they said they had work to do in their relationship. I understood the day Ali found me out. The tears in her eyes confirmed she’d spied the treason in my own, confirming for me that I owed more than just back-taxes plus interest. I’d committed penalties against more than the IRS. Rightly, every spring thence sparked a rehearsal of the betrayal. In the months in between, anything that hinted at even a little white lie conjured up the bigger one between us.

On the outside we were fine. And after a while, we really were fine again. But on the inside, I loathed myself. I don’t know about my cholesterol, but whenever I ventured too far inside, I struck up against shame in no time.

After I got stage-serious cancer, I went on medical leave for a long while. I volunteered to do our taxes that spring, and I discovered that I’d accidentally underpaid on the gifts we’d received to help with my gargantuan medical bills. I shit a brick. Instantly I feared this would be the keystone that brought our whole marriage down. It symbolized too much cumulative baggage between us. This was too severe a case of Post Tax Stress Disorder for us to survive. It sounds hyperbolic, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that I sweated telling her about the tax bill more than I did telling her about my cancer. The doctor had promised I didn’t do anything to get the cancer; tumors, at least, weren’t my fault.

I met her outside in the driveway when she came home. I told her. She asked how much. I told her. She nodded.

“It’s okay,” she said, “Thanks for telling me.” As far as pregnant pauses go, this one felt like it had the gestation period of a manatee. “I forgive you,” she said.

Not until I heard her say it did I feel freed to reply. “I’m sorry,” I said, noting even then how her forgiveness preceded my repentance and most likely made it possible.

Nothing convinces you more that you bring nothing to the table like a lifetime of sitting at supper across from your spouse and seeing yourself as she sees you.

Yet, I’m loved.