The marriage question has been front and center in church and society debates at least since the 60s. Same sex marriage is only the most recent debate but before it were questions about divorce, remarriage, pre-marital sex, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, polygamy, polyandry, polyamory, trouples, plural marriage, etc. I don’t expect these debates to really settle down any time soon as we will likely watch anti-bigamy laws, polygamy laws and many other forms of societal expectations and legislation continue to change while putting pressure on the church bless and conform to the demands of a public too insecure to absorb any witness to non-endorsement.
Lost in the debate is the first and most obvious question “what is marriage for?” One might expect this would be the first question to resolve and have it shed some light on the rest of the conversations and subsequent applications. The reason it isn’t asked is because our culture assumes the answer to this question is the same answer to every question of “what is ________ for?” The answer is “my short-term experience of individual fulfillment and happiness”. Marriage is to make me happy. When it stops making me happy or stops “working for me” then it must yield to whatever next situation I imagine will restore me to my necessary status of happiness and fulfillment.
My Happiness and Fulfillment
If you don’t believe what I’m saying about our culture just trying it out on a few other things.
- “What is heaven for?” My happiness and fulfillment. (see Heaven is for real)
- “What is God for?” My happiness and fulfillment (See MTD)
- “What are children for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is vocation for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is learning for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is time for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is love for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is money for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is my nation for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is my body for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is sex for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is my gender for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is the planet for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is my life for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is the local and catholic church for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What are the sacraments for?” My happiness and fulfillment
- “What is _______ for?: you get the idea.
We don’t ask “What is marriage for” because the answer to the purpose of any important thing is already assumed and so the obvious applications follow. If one spouse doesn’t produce my happiness and fulfillment I’ll find another. If the expectations and legalities of marriage don’t seem to produce my happiness and fulfillment they must be changed. Last week we looked at the story of Scott and Laci Peterson and saw how Laci and their unborn son Connor were impediments to Scott’s imagined happiness and fulfillment and so he tried to do away with them.
What if this answer is not correct? What if assuming this answer doesn’t really work, even for our own happiness and fulfillment? What if the assumption of this answer in fact leaves us and our community bruised, weak and broken and keeps us separated from God and each other? What if the assumption of this answer is a prison of our own construction that blinds us to a far greater reality?
An Answer From The Christian Tradition
If you had to look for a universal answer for the purpose of nearly every important thing in the world I think the Christian answer would be “the glory of God”. Go ahead and fill that in as the answer on the list I made above? See how that works?
For some this answer is offensive. This reinforces the reputation that the Christian God is vain and fundamentally self-interested.
One of my favorite movie clips comes from “The Color Purple” where Shug and Celie walk through the field with purple flowers.
But more than anything else, God love admiration.
You saying God vain? I ast.
Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
Walker, Alice (2011-09-20). The Color Purple (The Color Purple Collection) (p. 191). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.
I’ll paraphrase the first Question and Answer of the Shorter Westminster Confession.
Q. What is the chief end (or purpose) of humanity?
A. Our chief end (or purpose) is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
I believe the story of Adam and Eve in the garden addresses this directly. The painful exile from the garden of Eden begins with our suspicion about God’s character. In some ways the eating of the fruit was secondary, the heavy lifting of our calamitous rebellion was accomplished by planting the tiny seed of suspicion in the minds of the man and the woman. What the serpent insinuated was that God was holding out on them and rather than finding happiness and fulfillment within both the physical and relational garden of God they could instead appropriate the creation of God for their own happiness and fulfillment. From that moment forward we would identify everything powerful and important as a potential tool by us for our own happiness and fulfillment. This isn’t just true of things and institutions, it also became true especially of people because people are the most powerful and important element of creation in our world. From that time on we began to love things and to use people.
I am not surprised that the Christian answer to the purpose of everything is met with suspicion. This suspicion comes naturally to us and given our experience with other persons in the world of course we view a divine person with suspicion. We are small, frightened, fragile creatures desperate to secure not only our survival, but also that of what we love and what we value. God is the ultimate threat even if by profession one states that it is only a fictitious idea. In a strange reverse of the ontological argument if even the idea of an all powerful God is a threat how much more would such a REAL God be a threat?
Some at this point might wonder how far away we’ve gotten from what is supposed to be a sermon about the commandment “you shall not commit adultery”. Should we be by this point talking about sexual sinners? Doesn’t the church just love to point a hypocritical finger at sexual sinners and condemn them for violating what seems to be a most obvious and essential biological imperative?
I don’t begin this way out of fear of stumbling into the WWI battlefield which is our current cultural conversation about these things.
On one side are the religious traditionalists who are declaring their contemporaries who believe that liberation from tradition is the path to happiness and fulfillment. On their side they have hundreds of years of tradition, civilization, their holy books and it is imagined they stand with their god or gods eager to watch the other side lose and be condemned for it. Fred Phelps of course became a caricatured poster pastor for this side.
The other side also has a finger to point and charges to make. They point out that traditionalists and their leaders have been spectacular failures even at their own standards. Most have long since caved on divorce, and if you dare to point to the Roman Catholic church they’ll point out sexual abuse and cover-up done by priests. They will point out that these rules have never “worked”, have seldom been fully fair, consistent or complied with and so the best strategy moving forward is to let individual consenting adults find what works for them and make things up as they go along. What they then want from churches and governments is for their choices to be affirmed, validated and protected by ceremony and law.
What both sides want is for their champions to stand up and rouse the base to go over the top and try to take the next trench of the enemy. This is done until the landscape is reduced to mud and blood.
The Bible Says
American evangelical traditionalists will usually wade in and say “we should follow what the Bible teaches about marriage, sex and family” as if there was a passage in the Bible that simply laid it out for all to see. I think in all honesty those of us who say we read the Bible should admit that there is no such passage. The Christian position on marriage, sex and family is a theological position not simply lifted from the pages of the Bible as a prooftext but is the fruit of a long theological tradition.
That might sound like a modernist sell-out to some of you, but I would remind you that this is also true of other essential Christian positions like the Trinity and the work and person of Jesus Christ. While you can surely cite passages to support a position, the position itself, like most theological positions, is not simply found prescribed and fully elucidated.
The seventh commandment is a terrific example of this. As originally stated and applied in its original context the primary audience was men and they were commanded not to sleep with the wives of other men. By implication the command applied to married women who were not to sleep with anyone besides their own husbands. Any reader of the Bible who is paying attention and has the determination to continue to read the Mosaic law in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy will discover that the marriage and sexual regulations for ancient Israel were a far cry from what the Christian church asserts today. Some of these laws horrify us and appear to violate what we imagine should be the rights of women and what we would consider to be young girls who are too young to marry. This adds to the skepticism about the god of the Bible being a good god or the applicability of the Bible for today’s world.
I would assert, however, that even within the brutal world of the ancient bronze age within this law there were seeds of a justice we can recognize applied to a world we don’t live in and have difficulty understanding.
If we imagine that people are available for our individual happiness, pleasure and fulfillment it becomes obvious very quickly that all that matters is power. Women can find pleasure in men. Men can find pleasure in women. The person with the most power can quickly find a way to use the qualities of another person for their own pleasure, comfort and well-being and discard them when they are no longer useful.
Andy Crouch has written a book on God and power. He notes that we too often dismiss power as evil but he calls it a gift. Power, however, should be used for flourishing. This is the kind of power that God used in creation and its purpose is for flourishing.
God’s glory is not simply a selfish thing. God’s glory is seen and enjoyed when it is for glorious flourishing in the world. God wants the seas and the skies and the land to team with life. God wants humanity to be joyful and peaceful and creative and productive.
For me one of the most foundational stories of the Bible where we see God’s purpose for the world is in Isaiah 5, the parable of the vineyard. God uses his power to make the vineyard for wine. What is wine for? Celebration and enjoyment. God’s glory and our happiness and fulfillment are in fact connected, but they are inseparably connected in a far more permanent and communal way that we want to admit. God’s frustration is that the vineyard did not produce good grapes for good wine, but it produced violence and bloodshed. He saw injustice and cries of distress so he took down the wall and let chaos back into the vineyard.
What even the bronze age law recognizes is the power must be used for flourishing in the community, not simply individual happiness and fulfillment. In that context often the man had power and it was easy for a man to use his power to take form the woman her sexual beauty for his pleasure and her reproductive power for the increase of his own power and glory. After the woman’s beauty and reproductive power had been spent it would be easy for the man to abandon the woman because she was no longer useful to him. To this God said “No, you shall not use her and dispose of her. You must honor her and cherish her all the days of her life even after she is no longer useful to your selfish idea of your happiness and fulfillment. People are to be loved, not used.”
It isn’t hard to see how this applies today where one person will use the other for their happiness and enjoyment and discard them when they no longer “produce” as they did.
In the garden when Adam saw Eve he sang a joyous song. After the calamity with the serpent he changed his tune and said “it was that woman that you gave me”. Marriage keeps Adam from only valuing Eve when she spontaneously elicits and song and then discarding her when he looks at her in a darker light.
You Shall Not Commit Adultery
The commandment also stated that not only must restrain yourself but you must also protect the societal standard for the well-being. While David had many wives his great sin was taking the wife of his servant. David was to be the enforcer of the standard but he used his power to violate the standard and then to cover it up.
The commandment was designed to protect the weak either in force or information from the strong who would use the other for their advantage.
Marriage is for the glory of God and that glory is first found in the flourishing of society where power is used to honor and protect persons, especially the weak of which children are always a part. Marriage is for the community as much as it is for the individual.
Marriage Does What Biology Cannot
In Stephanie Coontz’ Marriage, A History after studying the incredible diversity of marriage throughout human history, the singular uniqueness of marriage apart from all of its diversity was that marriage can make family out of people who are not blood relatives.
Every child born born into this world receives either an X from dad and an X from mom or a Y from dad and an X from mom. Scientists studying our genetic code increasingly recognize that we receive the biology and even some of the story of our ancestors in every cell of our bodies. Blood IS thicker than water.
What marriage does, however, is turn a stranger into a family member. It turns someone with whom we don’t share a direct genetic link into a family member and together, the man and the woman ideally have the capacity to create a living being that in their very body represents this unity. This is a truly audacious gift. Marriage is the best societal and spiritual context for that incredible gift. Marriage is the place where the story in the world embodies the story in the genes. It is the place where the stories are supposed to come together into full flourishing where a new story together with the new being goes out to be fruitful and multiply and fulfill the earth. Each marriage is the pre-echo of a new creation.
A Broken Institution in a Broken World
Marriage, like many other things in this world, however, is both something we can’t seem to live without, yet our embodiment of it is rarely perfected. In the Bible you can find numerous forms of imperfect, unhappy and unhealthy marriage. There is polygamy, underage marriage, concubinage. forced marriage, etc. While romantic love in the Bible gets its own book and is celebrated in numerous passages the Bible is very honest about our capacity to fully live up to the glory of the institution and its purpose.
New genetic beings are brought into the world without the context that mirrors their genetic creation. We seek out all sorts of ways to catch up or to remedy or to just do the best we can in this broken world of failed promises and death. When Jesus says “God hates divorce” it is because God wishes that all stories bear the fruit potential within them and every divorce is either a failure or is witness to failures in other places. Divorce is the torn fabric of a story that should have brought joy and flourishing, just as Adam’s blaming of Eve is the torn fabric of the future his joyful song in Genesis 2.
The Disappearance of Marty McFly
Part of why adultery is taken so seriously goes beyond the concerns of bloodlines or hereditary. Andrew Root write a book called The Children of Divorce where he makes the point that when his and his wife’s parents divorced at a deep level something in his existence was undone. In an Christianity Today article he likens it to Marty McFly in the original “Back to the Future” movie seeing himself dissolve as his parents almost don’t come together to eventually have him and his siblings.
Root will go on to talk about marriage and its rupture in terms of ontological security.
Ontological security is a sense of safety. It is confidence and trust that the natural and social worlds are as they appear to be. Giddens explains, “The phrase [ontological security] refers to the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action. A sense of the reliability of persons and things … is basic to feelings of ontological security.”5 You must trust that your social world is as you experience it.6 And this experiencing is more than simply cognitive knowing; it is more basically about unconscious encountering. An infant does not cognitively know that if she cries, her caregiver will appear to meet her needs, but in multiple encounters with her caregiver (experiences of feeding, embracing, and cooing), she feels her being secure. Ontological security is a deep awareness of reliability, for it is based in being, not simply in knowing. For instance, if the child believes the family is secure (not perfect, but secure), and then she is told that the family as it is presently constituted will no longer exist, then the child is struck not at the level of social capital (not now, at least), but at the level of ontological security. Her world is no longer steady and dependable.’ Staal expresses this ontological insecurity as she reflects on what she calls “the night of revelation”:
The night when I learned of my mother’s affair … in my mind … is that night of revelation when my family abruptly came undone, even though my mother didn’t actually move out for another year. That night, in the span of minutes, my entire belief system was shattered. And sometimes when the phone rings late at night or someone walks into the room with a stricken look, I feel the same icy tingle I felt so many years ago, as if my body has programmed itself to receive the unexpected jolt. That’s how deep the memory lies for me.’ The memory is as deep as her being itself, for in hearing the news of her family coming “undone,” the dependability on which she is (has her being) is thrown into question.
Andrew Root. Children of Divorce, The: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being (Kindle Locations 765-769). Kindle Edition.
God’s Bad Marriage
While I noted before you won’t find “God’s prescription for marriage” as such in any one passage of the Bible, one way of reading the Bible is as the story of God’s bad marriage, his bad marriage to us. In both the Old and the New Testaments the prophets and the apostles work this imagine.
The creator god would have every right to use and and discard us as he would see fit, but the story of the Bible is the story of a covenant god. A covenant is different from a contract. Marriage is a covenant and God’s covenant with us informs every marriage covenant we make.
Lew Smedes spells this out a bit in his book Mere Morality
A marriage is a covenanted partnership between two people who give themselves to one another in committed love. We call it a covenant for two reasons. First, it is created by the free wills of the people who make it and lasts as long as those wills determine. In this sense, a covenant is different from an “estate of matrimony,” indestructibly set within reality by sacramental power. Second, marriage is meant to be a personal life-sharing union; what marks it is the unreserved sharing of two human lives. The life-sharing of a covenant makes it different from a contract; a contract calls for an exchange of goods and services, and can be cancelled as soon as the arrangement is completed. The essence of covenant is different; it is a wholeness of life-sharing, not merely an exchange of goods and services to meet the needs and desires of the partners.
Lewis B. Smedes. Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People (Kindle Locations 2329-2334). Kindle Edition.
God enters into covenant with him and we break covenant with him. At this point God has every right to reciprocate and break covenant with us, but does not.
There are many passages in the Old Testament where Yhwh, like a wounded lover, talks about having his revenge on his unfaithful partner. God wants to abandon us and leave us to the miseries we’ve asked for in how we fail to love him and each other. Each time, however, God “repents” from his desire to abandon us and moves back towards us. Christians believe that the greatest act of this was in Jesus Christ.
Jesus, Son of A Bad Marriage
Jesus will take up the story as the son of a bad marriage who suffers from his warring parents. His father is divine, and his mother human. Jesus will rehearse the story of the vineyard in numerous parables and even note that the son of the owner will be killed by the tenants. Jesus is caught in a bad home which will in fact lead to his own death.
Barbara Ehrenreich has one of the best, most insightful lines about families in her book Living with a Wild God. The early chapters of the book tell about the failures of her parents and the brutality of her early family life. One day when she was quite young to her utter shock and surprise her mother had accused her of seducing her father when nothing of kind had come close to happening. She makes this observation.
The problem with families is not that you get stuck in the same persona for life, which is what everyone complains about, but that you’re always getting confused with someone else and end up taking the blame for them. You may think of yourself as a freestanding individual, a unique point of consciousness in the universe, but in many ways you are just subbing for absent family members or departed ancestors.
Ehrenreich, Barbara (2014-04-08). Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything (pp. 33-34). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.
In a strange way in our dysfunctional family Jesus gets blamed by both sides. Jesus is killed by his relatives on his mother’s side, and in the process takes the blame from the Father’s side.
Saved By Marriage
The gospel can be seen as a marriage story. Marriage is for the saving of the world. God, who would not abandon us although it would be in his best interest, instead sent his son to live with his us. Jesus was abused by his family but miraculously through that abuse redeems the family and makes us into children of God.
The Apostle Paul will work this angle in Ephesians 5 and understand the upending of the Roman way of marriage as an image of the God’s saving us through his commitment to us.
Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude
I know therapists who would chastise me for making this analogy because it reinforces what has sometimes happened where especially women have stayed in abusive marriages from which they should have fled. I get that. There is one messiah in human history and none of us are him. While Jesus presents a model for how God saves divorce has its place and there are times when it is the lessor of two evils. I’m not going to dictate here on this platform how you should apply God’s teaching to each of your individual situations. God gives each of us choice and we exercise it either to our joy or our misery, usually both.
At the same time it is also a dangerous thing to hold too high an expectation of what marriage in this broken world can achieve. Earnest Becker noted in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death that, like Ehrenreich’s observation, when we no longer believe in God we substitute in a romantic partner for a divine one. We look to romantic partners or spouses “to complete” us as in “As Good As It Gets” or “save us” as in “Titanic”. All human partners fall short in this broken world.
Every marriage no matter how life giving will fall short. Every marriage will end in divorce or death. The age of decay will take down your marriage no matter how strong or well intentioned you and your spouse are. It is a fact.
What the son of our bad marriage to God accomplishes, however, is our rescue. In his death he buys our pardon. In his resurrection he undoes our decay. He frees us to no longer look to a spouse as a savior, but now as someone for us to love.
Marriage within Gratitude
One engine for contemporary divorce is both the overblown expectations of marriage and our inability to live up to the institution. We frantically imagine that we’ve got 40 years or so to achieve the epitome of happiness and if in the moment an unfortunate and difficult spouse is not able to accomplish this we have a duty to ourselves to jettison him or her and find another that will accomplish this goal. While for some this transaction yields some improvement, for all it costs and usually costs others, especially the children.
What no longer having to look to marriage for our salvation actually does is release us to love with less fear of failing to maximize or acquire by our own power or fortune and helps us fulfill our vows even when they are difficult. In this way denying one self can actually bring flourishing and shalom to your community and possibly even give you a chance to learn and grow into a person with the capacity for love even to love a difficult person.
What Marriage is for
Marriage is for glory and marriage is for flourishing of human community which always includes individuals.
Marriage is designed to inhibit us from loving things and using people.
Marriage is intended to help us grow beyond ourselves so that we can get beyond facile self-love and learn to actually love another human being not for what they can do for us but even simply for themselves. This is, at our core, the kind of love that all of us want. We wish not to be loved for whatever find attributes we may have that may benefit another, but to be loved for ourselves. Only within this kind of covenantal love that we are so bad at, and that God is so determined with, do we actually arrive in this place.
The story of humanity is in fact a love story, the story of God’s difficult marriage in which we regularly betray the qualities that might make us useful to Him, but in his determined love he woos us to fully love him freely allowing these qualities to finally emerge and into a new undecayable world where they go further up and further in to endless lengths of joy.