“What God has joined together”
The institution of marriage has been the subject of titanic cultural conflicts over the past forty years. But before marriage is an institution, it is a relationship. Indeed, it is the most important relationship formed by humans.
That many marriages are in trouble in modern America is beyond doubt. Perhaps the scope of the problem has been overstated at times, but too many marriages end in divorce. And too many of those that remain are loveless and lifeless artifacts of human dysfunction.
Fortunately, many have sought to redress these maladies in American marriages. Secular researchers like John Gottman have done much to enhance our understanding of marriage, and Christian organizations like Focus on the Family have done much to give people practical tools for improving their marriages. Pastors regularly preach sermons on marriage, mining those texts where the Bible focuses on this relationship for all it is worth.
Still, too many of our marriages are broken—even in the church, and much of the rhetoric we hear about marriage coming from our pulpits seems ill-suited to the task of fixing them. It often feels as though we are trying to shove a square peg into a round hole, not really understanding the treasure we have been given in Scripture and not knowing how to use it properly to help our people.
The series we are kicking off in this blog is designed to address this problem. I am convinced we have started too often in the wrong place in our discussions of marriage. We have gone directly to the texts which explicitly mention this most sacred of human relationships without considering how those texts are embedded within their own culture or how they reflect a larger narrative about the nature and meaning of human life.
So, I want to start us in a different place. I want us to take some of the most important claims of Scripture and see how they apply to our marriages. Some will object that the texts and ideas I intend to treat over the next few months have nothing to do with marriage, but I beg to differ. Yes, it is true these texts and ideas were not written specifically about marriage. And it is true that we need to protect God’s Word from our tendency to make it answer our questions rather than the ones God wants to pose to us.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that everything Jesus wants us to do is applicable first and foremost to our most intimate of relationships. Indeed, we cannot understand God’s heart for marriage unless we understand how that relationship is animated, contextualized, and relativized by the story of God’s redeeming activity in the world.
What Is Life About?
So, let’s turn to our first topic—one drawn not so much from a specific text, but from the entire fabric of Scripture. No one on planet earth is more pro-marriage than I am. But we need to get one thing straight from the outset. Life is not about marriage. For that matter, life is not about sex or about having children.
What I have just said may not seem terribly profound. But when you are a biblically committed Christian living in a sex-obsessed culture, it is all too tempting to turn marriage into an idol. Like the people of Israel before us, we make marriage (or sex) the solution to all of our problems. We put our hope in marriage (or sex) rather than in its Author.
Obviously, this creates enormous problems in our relationship with God, but it also creates substantial problems for any marriage God happens to give us. For one thing, we expect things of the marriage relationship it simply cannot deliver. What this really means is we expect things of our spouse which he or she cannot deliver.
Now, let me be clear about what I am not saying. Genesis 1-2 is quite clear that humans need relationships with other humans. The first human walked with God on a daily basis, and God still said it was ”not good” for him to be alone. In most cases, we need parents, siblings, friends, and especially a spouse. And the absence of any one of these relationships—or dysfunction in any one of these relationships—will invariably create wounds in our hearts no amount of prayer, study, or counseling can heal.
What I am saying, though, is we cannot depend on any one person—or any collection of people, for that matter—to heal our broken hearts. We live beyond the fall, which means our most profound wound is not caused by isolation from other humans (though that is a significant problem that must not be understated) but by our alienation from our Creator. It is the damage we have done to our own souls through our rebellion and sin that is our most pressing need, and only Christ is able to address that need.
Second, making an idol out of marriage has the strange effect of restricting our vision of what a good marriage ought to be. We focus on that part of the marital relationship that meets our needs and, in the process, lose sight of the depth, breadth, and subtle creativity to be embodied in that relationship. For example, it is quite true that marriage is supposed to be an intensely romantic affair, but it is also supposed to be a relationship of cooperation and mutual admiration. In other words, spouses are not merely lovers; they are also friends and business partners.
Finally, making an idol out of marriage leaves us ill-prepared for when our spouse—or we ourselves—fail to live up to our expectations. Dreams die hard, and it is awfully difficult to forgive the one we hold responsible for killing our dreams. But if there is anything we have learned as a species, it is that all of our relationships must make room for failure by making room for forgiveness.
So, if life is not about marriage, sex, or children, what is it about? People often try to give a simple, “Sunday school” answer to this question, but the truth is that life is about a lot of things. At its core, life is about knowing God, being known by God, and making God known to others in our words and our works. That way of understanding the purpose of life holds out many exciting, and frightening, possibilities for our marriages, and we will need to explore those possibilities in the weeks to come. For now, we can close our discussion with this question. What if we shaped our marital relationships in a way that fostered knowing God, being known by God, and making God known to one another rather than in ways that were focused on meeting our physical, financial, and psychological needs?