Last Christmas when I was discussing my visit to Russia to witness the fall of communism, my 94-year-old grandmother piped in, “Oh, yes, I remember when the Communists first took over [in 1917]. That was scary.” Being older than the century gives one a certain perspective: she had watched the full cycle as a powerful ideology appeared on the scene, burst into light, then faded away like a dying star.

As I probed my grandmother’s astonishing memory, I noticed a trend that seems almost universal in the reminiscences of older people: they tend to recall difficult, tumultuous times with a touch of nostalgia. According to polls, 60 percent of Londoners who survived the Blitz now remember that period as the happiest of their lives. Somehow a new spirit of community and patriotism sprang up to eclipse even the horror of bombs and V-2 rockets. In the U.S., the elderly swap stories about World War II and the Great Depression; they speak fondly of hardships such as blizzards, the childhood outhouse, and the time in graduate school when they ate canned soup and stale bread three weeks in a row.

For the last several years I have been writing the biography of Dr. Paul Brand, a missionary surgeon who is approaching his eighth decade of life and sixth decade of marriage. As I interview him and his wife, Margaret, about their years of life together, they too keep circling back to the crisis moments.

For example, there was the interval in 1946–7 when Paul had preceded Margaret to Vellore, India. In that year of independence and partition, unrest between Hindus and Muslims began spreading across the northern part of the country. In southern India, though, especially the region around Vellore, Hindus and Muslims lived together in reasonable harmony. Thus Paul wrote and asked his young wife to bring their two infant children and join him as soon as possible.

Back in England, things did not look so rosy. London papers reported that violence was sweeping across India, forcing the greatest human migration in history. Four million refugees had fled to the city of Calcutta alone. In the northwest, Sikhs boarded trains, made men pull down their pants, and killed all those circumcised (Muslims); Pakistanis waylaid trains going the opposite direction and killed the uncircumcised (Hindus).

Paul Brand’s glowing reports of the situation in Vellore contradicted the frightening headlines Margaret was reading in London: “Slaughter in the Punjab … Brink of Civil War … Massacre of Europeans Predicted.” Her family, not realizing the nearest trouble spots were a thousand miles from Vellore, thought it the height of folly for her to take two babies to such a place. But Margaret, trusting her husband, took a leap of faith and did so.

There were other family crises as well, and I have heard versions from both Paul and Margaret. At the time, these dramatic intrusions seemed to call into question their entire relationship. But now they retell the stories with nostalgia, for the crises fit together into—indeed, helped form—a pattern of love and trust. Looking back from the vantage point of 50 years, it seems clear that the Brands’ mutual response to the stormy times was what gave their marriage its enduring strength.

Every marriage has its crisis times, moments when one partner (or both) is tempted to give up and lose sight of the long view. Great marriages survive these moments; weak ones fall apart. When divorce happens, tragically, both partners lose out on the deeper strength that comes only from riding out such stormy times together. If, for example, Margaret Brand had judged her husband crazy for beckoning her to India in the midst of political turmoil, and filed for divorce—how sad that would have been. A splendid marriage and partnership in God’s work would have been irretrievably lost.

The path we choose

Great relationships take form when they are stretched to the breaking point and do not break. Seeing this principle lived out in people like the Brands, I can better understand one of the mysteries of relating to God. Abraham climbing the hill at Moriah, Job scratching his boils in the hot sun, David hiding in a cave, Elijah moping in a desert, Moses pleading for a new job description—all these heroes experienced crisis moments when they were sorely tempted to judge God uncaring, powerless, or even malign. Confused and in the dark, they faced a turning point: whether to turn away embittered, or step forward in faith. In the end, all chose the path of trust, and for this reason we remember them as giants of faith.

The Bible is littered with tales of others—Cain, Samson, Solomon, Judas—who flunked such tests. Their lives, like the marriages that fail too soon, give off a scent of sadness and remorse: Oh, what might have been.

Taking a long view

In America, I’ve noticed, a consumer mentality tends to infiltrate relationships as well as commerce. Some people treat marriage partners like automobiles; every few years it’s time to upgrade to a new model. Some Christians treat churches the same way. And some even approach God with a consumer spirit: when God performs satisfactorily, he merits our worship, but when God seems distant or unresponsive, why bother? Why bother? Because the deepest strength only comes through testing.

Article continues below

Partly from listening to elderly people, I have learned that faith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse. Fifty years casts another light on a marriage; the century looks different from a 94-year-old view.

And that brings me to Easter: the holy day we will soon celebrate gives a sneak preview of how all history will look from the vantage point of eternity. Every scar, every hurt, every disappointment will be seen in a different light, bathed in an eternity of love and trust. Nothing—not even the murder of God’s own Son—can end the relationship between God and human beings. In the alchemy of redemption, that most villainous crime becomes our healing strength.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.