November 30, 2020

“It’s not that I have to; it’s that I get to.”

One of the great love stories of my lifetime is that of Robertson and Muriel McQuilkin.

Dr. Robertson McQuilkin was a respected Bible teacher, author, and missionary leader who was president of Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) from 1968 to 1990. During the 80’s his wife Muriel began showing signs that her memory was deteriorating. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but continued to try and live as normally as possible.

Gradually, however, Muriel began losing her life. First, she could no longer do her radio program. Then she had to give up speaking and all forms of public ministry. She tried to keep counseling the young people who came to her and stay involved in the community, but it wasn’t long before those efforts failed. Even the letters she wrote to her children were becoming incomprehensible.

In 1990, McQuilkin wrote, ‘Muriel never knew what was happening to her, though occasionally when there was a reference to Alzheimer’s on TV she would muse aloud, “I wonder if I’ll ever have that?” It did not seem painful for her, but it was a slow dying for me to watch the vibrant, creative, articulate person I knew and loved gradually dimming out.’

At age 57, Robertson McQuilkin approached his board and encouraged them to begin searching for his successor. If Muriel were to need him full-time, he planned to make himself available for that. But it was a struggle for the college president. He had devoted his life to Christian service. Dear friends and colleagues reminded him of that and encouraged him to arrange for care for his wife so that he could continue to serve Christ and his Kingdom. After all, did not Jesus say that sometimes we must “hate” those nearest and dearest to us for his sake?

Against this counsel, Robertson McQuilkin resigned from Columbia in 1990 to care for Muriel.

When the time came, the decision was firm. It took no great calculation. It was a matter of integrity. Had I not promised, 42 years before, “in sickness and in health . . . till death do us part”?

This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.

Perhaps Robertson McQuilkin’s heart is seen most fully in these unforgettable words: “She is such a delight to me. I don’t have to care for her, I get to.”

By 1993, Muriel McQuilkin could no longer recognize her husband. In 1996, Robertson wrote, “Love is said to evaporate if the relationship is not mutual, if it’s not physical, if the other person doesn’t communicate, or if one party doesn’t carry his or her share of the load. When I hear the litany of essentials for a happy marriage, I count off what my beloved can no longer contribute, and I contemplate how truly mysterious love is.”

He cared for her until her death in September, 2003.

Love truly is mysterious and wonderful. It looks at people and situations and, when others might say, “Do I have to?” love says, “What a privilege! I get to!”

• • •

The following is a slide show of the McQuilkins, with audio from his moving resignation speech in 1990.


For three classic CT articles by Robertson McQuilken on his love affair with Muriel, and the privilege of caring for her, read:


  1. wow…




  2. A love story well worth proclaiming indeed. I remember well how I sensed the glory of God when McQuilken resigned from CBC to care for his wife. The glory has only grow since then. May we all make such decisions as wisely.

    To Christ be the glory!

  3. This is the man I was trying to think of! It is an awesome love story.

  4. <>

    I live near this school and am sadly not surprised by this. It’s common for kids in our social circles to go there and I’ve just always had a feeling it would never be a right choice for my family.

    Thank you for the beautiful story of devotion!

    • Quoted from the article but apparently didn’t copy to the post above: Dear friends and colleagues reminded him of that and encouraged him to arrange for care for his wife so that he could continue to serve Christ and his Kingdom. After all, did not Jesus say that sometimes we must “hate” those nearest and dearest to us for his sake?

      • It really jarred me to read this, too!

        It is interesting how this is Scripture is invoked when basic family obligations come into conflict with ministerial career (think: taking care of sick relatives, rearing children on the mission field). Somehow because the career is ministerial the “sacrifices” are no longer selfish, but holy. Outside the evangelical ministry bubble, I imagine the verse more readily addresses situations where merely becoming a Christian and remaining obedient to Christ conflicts with the orders of parents or invites persecution.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Well, “ministry” is somehow sacrosanct to Evangelicals, THE most prestigious and “Godly (TM)” career path which trumps all else.

          Can you say “Corban”?

      • Richard Hershberger says

        It does rather suggest, quite bizarrely, that caring for your ill spouse and serving Christ are somehow unrelated.

  5. The fulfillment of those vows we usually speak when we are young, beautiful, healthy and have not quite figured out where the physical attraction ends and “love” begins.

    I can relate to his statement that his wife was unhappy with anyone except him. When in labor, and again when having a severe neurological/mental reaction to a drug I am allergic to, no one, and I mean NO ONE could reach me or calm me except Tom.

    While my darling and I joke that we hope the Lord will send us mutual heart attacks some night in the middle of marital intimacy, we both know that one of us will have to learn to live without the other, and it may be after a long illness. That IS what we signed up for……although looking BACK, I am amazed that the Church and State allow children of 21 to marry!

  6. Here is a man who appreciates how God’s love is perfected in smallness. No megachurch mover or world changer. Does God need us to do BIG things? Only some, few of us. Mr. McQuilken left a big thing to do a little thing that ,in God’s eyes, was bigger than the big thing. What he did is what the gospel is all about. That changes the world and staves off evil. That brings the spirit of holiness into our midst. It sure isn’t easy and it sure isn’t flashy but it’s Christianity.

    • I really like the way you put that, Chris.

    • Chris-

      Many Christians today are all about the here and now. They lack the patience to work with many people, and embrace those from diverse backgrounds. “Christianity” today thrives on a stage and people bask in attention that draws to them self. Didn’t Jesus talk about how those who receive their reward publicly squander their inheritance?

      Small things move mountains. Its less flashy and doesn’t garner the same type of attention. But its beauty is beyond description.

      • i agree Eagle.. Especially when it comes to small things. When looknig back on life , small things stand out the most. for me at least.

        • Add me in….didn’t the Lord warn us about blowing trumpets before us as we sacrife, and told us to go into a room and close the door? How many hundreds of thousands of others are serving Christ in these hidden ways, whose Glory only God sees and rewards….

      • Amen

    • Very well said, ChrisS.

  7. The have-to vs. get-to is a common explanation of law versus grace. Law says, I have to; the new life, born by the spirit out of grace through faith, says, I get to. The have-to born out of law looks for short cuts and ways out. This was best articulated by Pat Roberston in his comment about divorcing a spouse suffering with alsheimers. This also helps explains why antinomianism is a by-product of legalism, not grace. Once one knows he or she can’t obey the law, rather than being exposed as a fraud, he or she looks for ways to appear to obey the law while in fact breaking it. This is what the law of the Pharisees accomplished.

    The fact is, we never can. Someone experiencing the pain of such a horrific disease is unequal to the task. But grace allows us to say, I can’t; God help me. I believe; help my unbelief.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Once one knows he or she can’t obey the law, rather than being exposed as a fraud, he or she looks for ways to appear to obey the law while in fact breaking it. This is what the law of the Pharisees accomplished.

      I believe this phenomenon is called “Never breaking the law, but knowing how to Bend it.” Very characteristic of lawyers.

  8. Truly beautiful. Nothing can match the power or the witness of a selfless and Christlike love like this that by its very nature does not seek the spotlight but serves in the often forgotten places of this world. I’m convinced it is in those places and through these actions that the Kingdom of God is with us in its most authentic form, and through which it will be ushered in.

  9. Robertson McQuilkin stands as a testimony to the commitment we all aspired to when we made our wedding vows. He kept that commitment. And he spoke recently in Columbia, SC, about what it was like and what he learned through it all. You may view this talk — it is the featured resource on and is titled, “7 Lessons on Love I learned from Muriel.”

  10. I’m reminded of a friend’s grandfather (who it was my honor to call “Pa” along with them) being approached by a well-meaning person shortly after his wife died following years of dementia. “At least you’re done with all that bother of having to care for her.” Pa just said, “She never was a bother,” and walked away.

  11. This brought a tear to my eye. It also reminded me of my grandparents. My grandmother had Parkinson’s disease and eventually had to go into a nursing home; my grandfather didn’t want to send her but it became clear that there was no other option.

    Every single day, he would get up, eat breakfast, go over to the nursing home, sit with Nanna all day, and then go home, eat dinner and go to sleep. This went on for at least for years, if not more — I can’t remember exactly when she went in. Ever day.I never, ever heard a word of complaint from him. It was his wife, he was going to be with her. Always. My aunt was there most days as well, and my Dad too, but Dandan was unfailing.

    When I think about the kind of love and devotion I want to find — that’s what I think of. That’s what my inspiration is. They loved each other so much, and never saw each other as a burden. I miss them, but I hope that someday I can be so lucky.

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