Their hike in the mountains of east Tennessee proved to be a beautiful springtime family adventure. Steven Curtis Chapman, his wife, Mary Beth, and their three oldest kids (Emily, Caleb and Will), along with their spouses, huffed and puffed their way to the scenic overlook — and the view was breathtaking. In that moment Steven recognized the parallel between this family hike and his family’s personal journey, and he was grateful he hadn’t missed the beauty of family just because marriage was so much work.
The Chapmans are celebrating 32 years of marriage and more than 30 years in the music industry. Steven and Mary Beth met in college and married young. Steven started work in Nashville and admits that at the time he thought the great adventure of marriage would be easy because he and Mary Beth had so much in common. But just a few years later, he found himself trying to juggle all the competing priorities in his life as he pursued a busy career, parented three small children and supported his wife in her struggle with clinical depression. Married life was much harder than he had anticipated.
Building a family on a rocky foundation
During those early years, another unexpected reality rocked Steven’s world. His parents called to say they were getting divorced. These were the people who had raised their sons to believe that marriage was a lifetime commitment. Steven recounts his parents telling him repeatedly, “Divorce is not a word in our vocabulary — it’s not even an option for us. It’s all going to be OK.” So when they called to share their news, there was a sudden realization that words were not enough to hold a marriage together. For Steven and Mary Beth, the real work had only just begun.
Scottie Smith, the Chapmans’ pastor and friend, was the first to clearly explain the roots of the struggle that was affecting Steven and Mary Beth’s relationship. They loved each other and were committed to making their relationship work, but as Scottie put it, “Tigger and Eeyore got married.” Steven approached life with a “fun, fun, fun, fun, fun” perspective, while Mary Beth was more cautious and “Eeyore-esque.”
“In my Tigger foolishness,” Steven explains, “my tendency was to say that Tigger’s was a much more godly approach to life. You know, ‘Give thanks in all things’ and ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ ” Steven now better understands how hard it must have been for Mary Beth to live with his Tigger personality, and he regrets hurting his wife by his determination to “fix” her.
Today Steven says, “God really was up to something good when He brought the two of us together — when He brought Eeyore and Tigger together. He knew that two Tiggers would wear each other out and two Eeyores would just dig big holes and cover themselves up.”
In addition to building a marriage, Steven and Mary Beth continued to build their family. In 2000, the entire Chapman family flew to Beijing, China, to adopt their daughter Shaohannah Hope, and over the next few years, Steven and Mary Beth would return to China to adopt little Stevey Joy and Maria Sue.
Crisis and grief
Then grief washed over the Chapmans in a way that threatened to drown them all. On May 21, 2008, while Steven and Mary Beth were at home in Tennessee, their three young daughters were playing outside when their older brother Will headed up the driveway in his Land Cruiser. He couldn’t have known that one of his tiny sisters was running to greet him — and Maria Sue couldn’t have known that her brother was unable to see her from the driver’s seat. Tragedy struck. Steven and Mary Beth found themselves grieving the loss of their youngest at the same time they ached for all their hurting children.
Steven says he’d heard that 95 percent of marriages don’t survive the death of a child. But after losing Maria, he and Mary Beth couldn’t imagine how divorce was possible. They needed each other more than ever. Not until the fall of 2009 would Steven and Mary Beth realize what a toll the tragedy had taken on their marriage. They committed to intense marriage counseling in hopes of surviving the darkness together.
Steven says that Ephesians 4:2 was a foundational Bible verse as they worked through their challenges. Even today, Steven and Mary Beth continue to hold tight to the apostle Paul’s admonition: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (NIV). Steven says that bearing with each other has helped bring his marriage to a place of shared joy.
“Love bears all things,” he explains. “There’s a reason we’re encouraged to do that, not just so we bear it and bear it and bear it and then it’s over, but you’re bearing that burden in order to reach, I believe, these places you only get to experience as you make the journey.”
Steven and Mary Beth are now experiencing family life with three married adult children, two teen daughters and four precious grandchildren. Mary Beth is learning to find joy amid the pain, and Steven is learning to “honor the sadness in their shared journey.” Although the grief of the past nine years can still take each of them to some dark places, Steven can now sit with his wife in the brokenness. “We’re [all] longing for heaven and we’re longing for it to be right and whole,” he says, “and it’s not going to be all good here. It’s broken. We’re broken.”
Following that hike in the mountains, the family lingered at dinner where the men at the table took time to bless their wives. Steven and Mary Beth had shared many tears of pain and sorrow over the years, but that night they shared tears of joy and gratitude as they watched the next generation speak life-giving words into their marriages. “To see someone do that for your daughter was an incredible gift,” Steven says. “[Then] to watch my sons honor their wives and to hear them speak those words that breathed life into their marriages, and then to get the opportunity to do that for my bride, Mary Beth, and to acknowledge how she’s stewarding the pain and sadness of her own story to bring some joy into the lives of others — how precious that is and how great are these moments when we get to taste and see God’s goodness.”
Do you know of a marriage in crisis? Learn more about Focus on the Family’s marriage intensives by visiting HopeRestored.com.