Gifts are the language of the holiday season. Meaningful gifts are often unexpected, meet a particular need, and communicate a message of value or importance. We love giving and receiving gifts because they are founded on love and sacrifice. The Christmas season celebrates God, offering himself as a gift in the incarnated Christ. In this gift-giving time, I am reminded of the marital union being bonded through the giving of self. I want to explore that idea in this blog and suggest ways you can be a meaningful gift for your spouse.
Marriage takes hard work. Many modern myths attempt to convince us that if we find the “right one,” marriage should work. But these myths make us lazy about the real work of marriage. Bono, the lead singer of U2, published a memoir titled Surrender in 2022. He reflects on his 41-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, Ali.
“I’m sure that oneness is the direction of travel for all great loves, but I also accept that it does not happen on cue, at a ceremony, for example, like a wedding. It can happen in all kinds of different circumstances in the middle of the night or the middle of the day, when two lovers decide they want to be part of each other’s lives more than they desire their own independence, and in continuum they pledge their lives to each other…The universe may marvel at such perfectly imperfect love and the stars light your way, but back on earth, if you heed the statistics, it’s as if the world stands in the way of love. I’m sure the essence of romance is defiance, and what is more defiant than two young hearts, twenty-two and twenty-one, deciding to take on the odds, to challenge the dull-thud facts around an ancient ceremony in a modern world…Ali and I were moving in together, and now we were beginning to move together. On paper our marriage started that honeymoon week, but in truth it didn’t feel like that. We’d honored each other, made sacred vows, but the biggest moments in life may not be those we notice at the time. No fireworks, no explosions, no falling even more deeply in love now that we had time together. We were the playwrights and the play, the actors and the critics. Excited and nervous to begin our adventure together. No idea where we’d be in ten years. Twenty. Thirty. I raise you again. Forty years. We’ll eventually figure out what was going on in that moment.Rather than falling in love, we were climbing up toward it. We still are.”
In the memoir, each chapter is represented by one song selected from the U2 library. In this chapter about his wedding and marriage to Ali, the song chosen is “Two Hearts Beat as One.” In this song, Bono sings the lyric, “I said don’t stop the dance, maybe this is our last chance.” All marriages face “last chance” moments; survival depends on each partner staying in the dance, giving and receiving. In those moments, the power of “oneness” can save us if we do the work. The work requires communion between partners where each sacrifices to give themselves as a gift to the other consistently.
All of this reminds me of Pope John Paul’s words in his book, “A Theology of the Body,” in which he explores the marital union. He conducts a rich examination of the Genesis creation accounts of Adam and Eve. He reminds us of the moments when God parades all the animals of creation in front of Adam to explore whether one of them might be a suitable partner. Of course, none suffice, not even the dog. God had, through love, given the gift of life to Adam, and the Pope asks a poignant question as Adam stands alone in his humanity. “…we must ask ourselves whether this first “man” in his original solitude, “lived” the world truly as a gift, with an attitude that conforms to the actual condition of someone who has received a gift…?”
There has to be an “other” to exchange the gift with. This is what God meant when he said it is “not good for the human to be alone. (Gen 2:18)” Humans need relational companionship to realize their makeup as image bearers of God fully. As Pope John Paul says, “He [Adam] realizes it only by existing ‘With someone’—and put even more deeply and completely, by existing ‘for someone.’” It is through this communion with someone that we can experience the reciprocal giving of self as a gift to another. It is at the heart of God’s identity and was fully realized in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God wants to live in reciprocal communion with each of us, and he created us to do the same with each other.
The heart of the communion in marriage is being a gift to your spouse. You gave yourself to each other. But this was not a one-time event. It is an ongoing process of giving yourself continually, consistently. I want to tell you about three ways you can offer yourself as a gift to your spouse. You can give Unexpectedly, Meet their Need, and Communicate their Value.
Most everyone loves a surprise gift. Though I recommend the occasional unexpected gift for your spouse, being an unexpected “gift” for your spouse is much deeper and will require more work.
The work involves your ongoing decision to offer unearned grace and forgiveness. I speak about this in the chapter called “Safe Marriage” in my book. Marriage is to be a safe place when couples consistently forgive. Forgiveness is the decision not to make your spouse pay for the injuries they cause. This makes marriage safe because it clears the battleground of retaliation. Many of us know when our choices hurt our partner. As humans, we expect punishment or retribution. But the unexpected response of pardon reconciles and restores.
If you are still thinking that flowers, candy, or a dinner out at the right time is the formula for providing an unexpected gift, then you are missing out. These things are nice, but your partner needs more. They need your unexpected gift of grace. In those moments of peace, restoration, and intimacy explode.
Meet a Need
There have always been jokes about the husband who gets their wife a vacuum cleaner or some other appliance for their birthday or Christmas. It is a joke because, though the gift meets a need, it falls short of meeting a deeper emotional need for connection and understanding. Intimacy is rarely practical.
What does your spouse need right now? Just think about that. What have you heard them say that is on their heart or they are concerned about? If you could do one thing for them right now, what would help them? If you can answer that question clearly, then stop reading and go do what came to mind. Serve your partner and meet their need.
If nothing is coming to mind, then you should listen and engage with them a bit more. In my chapter, “Stable Marriage,” I share a concept called “I am Present.” This is the willful act of being available, listening, and understanding my spouse through engagement and empathy. We are a gift for our spouse when we have taken the time to listen and truly hear their needs. Meeting those needs consistently builds stability in your marriage. It is those sacrifices of service (not your pocketbook) that ultimately strengthen your bond.
Expensive gifts are nice. At their heart, they give a message of value to the recipient. Car companies with commercials of cars with bows on top are abundant in the holiday season. Many car companies would love to sell you a car in December to help their year-end bottom line and help you have a momentary romantic vision of the bow on the car in the snow-covered driveway (though the snow is unlikely in Texas, where I live).
But again, giving your spouse an expensive gift is not the best way to communicate their true value. The best way to be a gift to your spouse is to see their value and share that value in the ways you speak to them, build them up, encourage and support them. Your words are powerful, and they have the very power of life for your spouse. I share thoughts about this idea in my chapter, “Successful Marriage.” Your marriage has the opportunity to participate in the life-giving resurrection work of God’s kingdom. This is done in the gift of your words to your spouse.
When you speak kindness, encouragement, or value to your spouse, they are made alive. This world and the life we must live in is full of discouragement and death. Your marriage can be a restorative space. You are a gift when you speak healing to your partner’s hurts. You are a gift when you speak the truth about your spouse’s character. You are a gift when you encourage and support them to use their gift and talents.
These are the ways to be a gift. Unexpected grace, Meeting Needs, and Communicating Value. As you unwrap presents this holiday season, you can offer yourself as a gift in these ways. I pray God blesses your efforts.