ERLC Q&A with Jeff and Sarah Walton
Editor’s Note: This Q&A is not intended to apply to marriages where abuse is present.
Will you tell us a little bit about the hardships your marriage has faced?
Sure, I’ll (Jeff) do my best to condense the past 15 years. Less than three years into our marriage, we welcomed our first child into the world. All was going well until he spiked a fever and was hospitalized with a severe infection at 7 weeks old. After five days in the hospital with terrifying, inconclusive reports, we were sent home without answers. We thought it was an isolated incident, but over time it turned into years of life-altering neurological challenges that have forever changed our family’s lives. Every day, we helplessly watched as our sweet, smart, funny little boy would turn into someone else, displaying behavior that was extremely difficult to control and navigate. Countless consultations, tests, and evaluations left doctors shaking their heads, and all we were left with in the end was an increased financial burden, a stressful home life, and growing fears for him and us.
Along with that, Sarah’s health was rapidly declining, and with each of our four children that she bore, she was increasingly unable to function through her chronic pain and illness. On top of that, an ankle injury that she sustained in high school has now led to five surgeries and an inability to do much of what she loves anymore—and is taking her ability to walk.
As our son’s disorder continued to intensify, and as Sarah grew sicker and our younger children began to exhibit their own chronic pains, my job as a consultant to orthopedic surgeons often kept me from being home. Our marriage began to suffer under the weight of it all.
In 2015, we were led to a group of doctors who connected Sarah’s many symptoms to Lyme disease, and over the following year, the growing symptoms in each of our children led to testing that revealed the illness had been passed on to each one of them. The medical community gave us conflicting advice and very little support, but the growing neurological and physical ailments in each of our children were impossible to deny, and became increasingly confusing and expensive to navigate.
When we were at our lowest point, convinced that we couldn’t endure anything else, it became clear that I could no longer sustain my on-call job. So I left it behind, along with half of our income. We sold our dream home and downsized to a smaller rental home. A year later, my new company began to struggle, and suddenly I was without a job—leaving us with no income at all.
Our family was in crisis. Most of our time spent together as a couple consisted of doctor appointments, navigating challenges with our son, soothing crying and hurting children, discussing what treatments we could afford, healing from each of the nine surgeries undergone between the two of us, dealing with Sarah’s chronic pain, and stressing about our draining finances, all the while being too exhausted to address the tensions that were building within our marriage. We were both broken and both wondering where God was and why he was allowing such deep and layered suffering. As we endured one loss after another, we found ourselves battling despair and hopelessness, and being confronted with deep questions of faith that neither of us had faced before. We were surviving, but we—and our marriage—were hanging on by a thread.
But we’re still here. Still together. And, somehow, God has not only held us together, but he has used these trials to strengthen our marriage in the process.
What were some of your greatest temptations durings those hard times?
I’d say that the greatest temptations have been two sides to the same coin: to either turn against each other or look to each other to be the answer to the trials we’re facing. Trials have a way of squeezing us and drawing our sin to the surface—sin we were once able to keep hidden behind comfortable circumstances. But when we’re both feeling the pressure, it’s tempting to take our disappointments, pain, and fears out on each other, rather than acknowledging them and taking them to the Lord. However, we’ve also been tempted to have the opposite response, and look to each other to be our primary source of comfort, security, and hope, rather than the Lord.
Not surprisingly, both temptations come when Christ isn’t in his proper place in our marriage. But by God’s grace, he has grown us to come more quickly to Christ in our pain, sorrow, and need, depending on his comfort, strength, and hope, rather than each other. And when we look to Christ as our Savior and Provider, rather than to each other, it guards us from both turning against one another and expecting something that the other can’t give. Although these temptations will always remain to some degree, God has grown us to see each other as a gift that we’ve been given to walk this hard road together.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your marriage? And what would your advice for couples be as they face this unusual strain?
On one hand, having been through many years of deep suffering, we found ourselves not as thrown by the challenges of the pandemic. However, on the other hand, it also further complicated many of the challenges that were already there (job loss five months prior, special needs, chronic illness, etc.), while adding new challenges to the mix. Needless to say, like most, we’ve been thrown into uncharted waters. Because of that, it was easy for misunderstandings to happen as we navigated new roles, new pressures, and new unknowns, tempting us to grow impatient and short with each other.
As painful as these seasons can be, they can also end up being some of the sweetest seasons of learning to rely more fully on Christ for our every need, and experiencing his comfort, provision, and peace.
However, what God has been showing us and what we’d encourage other couples to see in this unusual time, is that God is not surprised by any of this—and he is at work within it. Rather than viewing our lives and marriage as if they’re being tossed wherever the wind blows, we have to remember that God is sovereign over both, and is able to guard and even grow our marriage through them. Instead of fixing our eyes on what feels impossible or what we can’t control right now, let’s allow this season to drive us deeper in God’s Word and prayer, asking him to provide for what we need, both in life and our marriage relationship. As painful as these seasons can be, they can also end up being some of the sweetest seasons of learning to rely more fully on Christ for our every need, and experiencing his comfort, provision, and peace.
Friends, as our earthly securities are shaken, it will either lead us to anger and despair or it will cause us to seek a firm and lasting foundation to set our feet upon. Therefore, if you or your marriage feel unstable right now, I encourage you to take your eyes off of each other, off of your circumstances, and fix them on the promises of God through Christ, who promises to be faithful—even when we can’t see it in the moment.
During the lowest points of your marriage, what has helped you turn from sinning against one another and turn back to loving one another?
The turning point in our marriage came after we had exhausted ourselves by trying to change each other. By God’s grace, he gradually opened our eyes to the futility of our efforts and, rather than fixating on each other as the sole problem, we each began to plead with the Lord for healing, change, and growth in our own hearts. And in the areas where we each had felt hurt and misunderstood, we prayed that God would open each other’s eyes in his timing and as he saw fit (although neither of us knew the other was praying the same prayer!). Although it wasn’t overnight (and it’s still a process), a profound work of healing began in our marriage. Our conversations became more fruitful, our hearts began to soften for each other, and God began opening both of our eyes to areas that we had been blind to.
Sometimes couples just need to have fun together. What have you done to enjoy your marriage during hard times?
We’ve needed to work hard at not allowing suffering to define our relationship. Since our trials can feel all-consuming at times, it’s easy to lose sight of the friendship that initially drew us together. Therefore, we’ve needed to be creative in keeping fun and laughter in our relationship. One way has been to find ways to laugh and enjoy each other outside of our typical conversations of life’s challenges. For example, we try to make it a priority to go out on a date and set aside a certain amount of time that we won’t discuss any of our challenges or other heavy topics. And because we often feel like a deer in headlights when we suddenly step out of the chaos, we often bring along a set of cards with lighthearted questions about likes and dislikes, traveling, childhood memories, etc. We’ve found this to be incredibly helpful in reminding us to laugh, enjoy each other, and gain perspective outside of trials.
By and large, what has helped your marriage weather the storms you’ve been through?
The truth and promises of God’s Word. If he is good, then we have to believe he won’t waste this. If he is faithful, then we have to believe he will carry us through what he has called us to. If he is sovereign, then we have to believe he has purposes beyond what we can see. If he loved us enough to save us, then we have to believe that he is only allowing this pain if he has something greater for us in it—and one day, he will fully redeem and restore us in his presence.
By God’s grace, he has held us up and enabled us not only to survive, but to see the good gifts he has given us along the way. Though it’s been harder than we ever imagined, there have also been moments of laughter, sweet memories, and undeserved gifts. Somehow, in each moment of each day, God has helped us press on, has held our marriage together when we haven’t had the strength to fight for it ourselves, and has taught us to find joy, even within the sorrow. And by his grace, he continues to hold us up each and every day, despite many of our circumstances remaining the same. He continues to teach us that our hope is not found in this world or in our marriage—it is found in Christ alone. And as he loosens our grip on the things of this world and drives our faith roots deeper into the truth of his Word and the hope of the gospel, he has grown in us a steadfastness and joy in the life and marriage he has given us.
What would you say to the couple whose marriage is hard or failing to live up to their expectations?
First of all, I’m so sorry. There are so many incredibly difficult circumstances that couples are facing—whether that be from outside trials pressing in or difficulty within the relationship itself. I pray that those who find themselves in a difficult situation or marriage will seek wise and godly counsel and support, because we aren’t called to walk through this alone.
But in the end, the central truth to remember is this: Our relationship with Christ is not dependent on our spouse. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Our relationship with our spouse is dependent on our relationship with Christ. That truth doesn’t guarantee a perfect marriage, but it is the source of hope for our marriage and even more, it is the hope we can rest in, regardless of the state or outcome of our marriage.
Brother, sister, let your marriage be a place where you learn more of who God is, rely on him, and press on in faith as you move toward the day when you will see Jesus. Let it be that when you get there, you can look back at your marriage as one that endured through trials, where you clung to Christ, encouraged each other, displayed Jesus, and came to see and know the unending faithfulness and goodness of God—together, through the storms.
Check out the Walton’s new book, Together Through the Storms.
[Post Credit – ERLC.com]