Steven Curtis Chapman: Marriage in the Real World

steven-curtis-and-mary-beth-chapman
Courtesy Stephen Curtis Chapman

Steven Curtis Chapman has been sharing honestly in his music for more than 30 years. It's that sincerity about his love for the Lord and his commitment to family that has endeared him to listeners and made him one of the most highly acclaimed Christian recording artists in history.

More than just a musician, Steven has used his public platform to shine light on important issues such as prison ministry, adoption, forgiveness, depression and grief.

He and his wife, Mary Beth, already had three biological children when they adopted three young daughters from China. Then, in the spring of 2008, the Chapman family experienced tragedy when their 5-year-old, Maria Sue, died in an accident at their home. Since that time, Steven and Mary Beth have worked to keep their marriage and their family intact.

Steven's new book, Between Heaven & the Real World, offers readers a back-stage look at his faith, career and family amid the highs and lows of life. Steven shares about his innate need to "fix" every situation, and his struggle to let God "fix it" when his marriage was crushed by grief. Here's a small glimpse of his story:

The grief settled over us like dark, gray clouds heavy with rain. Grief devastates many marriages. We'd heard that 95 percent of marriages don't survive after the death of a child, and at first, that was hard for us to understand. How is that even possible? I wondered. After all, in the beginning of our journey following the loss of Maria, our attitude was, "We need each other more than ever." We could not even imagine allowing Maria's home going to heaven to become something the enemy could use to destroy us.

Similar to how a person might feel after a major surgery while still taking medication to hold the pain at bay, I felt as though God had initially given us a strong anesthetic, temporarily dulling the full effects of our grief. For a while, it felt like we were living with a necessary numbness that allowed us to keep breathing. We knew we were hurting, but the most intense pain was mercifully being kept at bay. 

There comes a day, however, when the patient is discharged from the hospital, they are weaned off the strong drugs, and they begin the journey back to real life, to the "new normal," as Mary Beth called it. That's usually when the worst of the pain begins to be felt.

Mary Beth and I were trying desperately to bear each other's grief, but neither of us was capable of doing so. We could hardly bear the load together, much less individually. As months passed, the darkness moved in even closer, and it began to take a toll on us. Mary Beth's and my marriage was strong, and we were deeply committed to each other, but we wondered if we could survive.

Mary Beth and I knew we needed more than just an hour-per-week counseling session that barely scraped the surface. Our pastor, Scotty Smith, suggested we do something more intensive, a counseling encounter where we could draw away from the everyday routines of life and focus for a prolonged period of time on our condition. Even though I knew better, I couldn't help but think, Maybe this will finally be the fix we need.

So Mary Beth and I arranged to visit with Dr. Larry Crabb for several days in late August 2009.

"We desperately need help," I said. "Tell me what to do. Cut me open, give me a lobotomy, a heart transplant, or something so I can think straight; do whatever you need to do. I want this to be better. I want my wife to be healthier. Tell me what to do, or tell my wife what to do."

Larry smiled, but he didn't offer any easy fixes, or any difficult fixes for that matter. He listened to Mary Beth and to me, provided some insights, and allowed us to talk about some of the deep concerns we carried, and that was helpful — but Mary Beth wanted change. "How are we going to change?" she asked.  "I don't want to go back to the way we were before."

That had been our ongoing struggle.

While Mary Beth's need was for predictable time, my need was for affirmation and respect, to know that she believed in me. I longed to hear the words, "I believe in you; I trust you; you are taking good care of me."

Added to that emotional mix was the spiritual truth that there were needs within both my wife and me that no human being could meet. Only God could provide that peace and security.

Through the years, no counselor that Mary Beth and I went to ever suggested I stop doing what I felt called by God to do [my music]. In his or her own way, each said, "I really don't believe that's the answer. That will not fix what is broken. You need to be sensitive; you need to communicate; you need to be wise about giving up unnecessary opportunities, or getting involved in things that take excessive time away from your family, but that has to be done in any career. Every husband and wife have to determine where to draw those lines in their relationships."

Ultimately we came back each time to what we knew to be the bottom line, as Ephesians 4:2 (NIV) puts it: "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." The Bible makes it clear that we will never master the art of the perfect relationship, especially marriage, this side of heaven. Instead, it calls us to humbly, patiently and gently care for and bear with each other, with love as our final goal.

We came away from our time with Larry clinging to the good things we had learned yet ultimately disappointed. We had gone to the "master" for five days, hoping he could perform heart and brain surgery — that he could fix us. He couldn't. Instead, he could only remind us, "This is a journey, and you're going to have to keep taking the next step forward."

Something I've come to realize is that Mary Beth's and my failings are a part of our story. The places where I have allowed my foolish, self-righteousness to create insecurity in her are real; her failure to be the encourager I have desired is real, too. Out of that, we have both been forced to trust God, knowing that we love each other, that we honor each other, but that we are not able to fix each other, to reshape the other person into our own image.

Although our counselors couldn't wave a magic wand over us and make everything better, Mary Beth and I were grateful to spend time in the darkest of our days with some of the wisest, most respected people in Christian counseling. We saw that as one more of the many ways God proved to be with us and for us on our journey. We had to keep trusting Him and taking the next step.

We still have plenty of days when the weight of grief comes and knocks the breath out of us again. Tears come freely without warning or even any explanation sometimes. We know there's a day coming when every tear will be wiped from our eyes — just not yet. 

We understand that we really are in between heaven and the real world, living day to day with the sure hope of heaven before us. And we also know how important it is for us to show up in the here and now, where God has us today. This life is so short, and there is much good to be done and much love to be shown in these few days we have on this side of the veil.

Steven Curtis Chapman is an award-winning Christian artist who shares honestly about faith, family and career in his new book Between Heaven and the Real World.

Adapted from Between Heaven and the Real World by Steven Curtis Chapman, copyright 2017. Used by permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

If you or someone you know needs marital help, Focus on the Family has resources and counseling to assist. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 800-A-FAMILY (232-6459) or help@FocusOnTheFamily.com.

© 2017 Steven Curtis Chapman.

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