Marriage is in a very sad state in modern secular culture. I am not, in stating it this way, specifically responding to the same-sex marriage debate that I addressed last week. I am referring to marriage as a social and religious institution that brings a man and woman together in a promise to live together in love until death separates them.
For all of the couples who get divorced, a number which reveals just how troubled the institution really is, there are still a considerable number of couples who remain married, many of them in unhappy marriages where they are trying to make the best of it. Honestly, I have encountered all too few truly happy and healthy marriages in my days on this earth. At best, most marriages seem to get by but very few thrive in a deeply satisfying way.
If half of America’s businesses failed we would be in the worst depression ever. If half of the students in my class failed I would quite likely fall into complete despair. My point is that individuals who fail in a marriage often fall victim to causes that go beyond their personal choices and responses. There is an enormous amount of conflict in most modern marriages. Given the pressures of a consumerist, me-oriented culture the institution of marriage goes far beyond the failure of one or both people in a relationship. My point is rather simple–the institution of marriage itself is crumbling and unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. Church attendance provides modest help but in many cases conservative Christians actually divorce at a rate as high, or higher, than non-church attenders. (Some studies suggest that when two people pray together the situation improves!)
All of this underscores one of the major reasons why I think blaming homosexuals for the breakdown of marriage is a massive mistake. Marriage, as an institution in modern American society, was failing decades before the current acceptance of same-sex marriage became an issue. When an institution fails I believe we have every reason to seek answers that take us beyond the simplistic personal solutions that are commonly offered by religious teachers.
Here is the short story version of what happened. The kind of marriage that we’ve known for centuries in America was created by a synthesis of Western ideals with the teaching of the Christian church. The institution was designed to achieve Christian goals and objectives that were aimed at a social context in which husbands and wives, as well as children, could thrive and grow.
When institutions undergo great change, for whatever reason, we generally have an enormous public response. So why is there not a greater response to the breakdown of marriage in our culture? I think one reason has to be that most people fatalistically accept what is happening and the reason is that they retain romantic notions that no longer work in our society.
When whole cultures undergo major social changes various institutions become less and less able to be efficient in these radically new contexts. The result of this is that we have a large number of people who now want to preserve marriage, as they’ve understood it, and a significantly larger number of people who want to redefine the institution since it seems to them to have failed. What has really failed in America is not just men and women getting married, though more and more people live together without marriage. What has failed is the institution of marriage itself. Let me put this very simply: How many of you know wonderful, good and decent (even godly) people who have been divorced once, twice or even three times? What has failed in the Western world is not primarily men and women, but the social institution that we call marriage. This has opened the door to radical redefinition’s of this institution more than any single factor.
I am convinced that the greatest misunderstanding about marriage in our culture is a fundamental misunderstanding of love and the relationship of real love to the institution of marriage.
Think about this for a moment. We use the word love so broadly that it describes almost every preference and emotion we have. I say, quite often, “I love baseball.” Or, almost as often, I say, “I love books and reading.” These loves are not sinful but they confuse and conflate the word love in English. If love is then applied to marriage, and this love is primarily about the ideal of romance, then you have a major problem. I believe you can either have love or romance but you cannot have them both, at least with equal intensity. If your marriage truly works then you must settle this issue once and for all. Love is not about personal fulfillment and happiness, or at least about my private happiness and fulfillment.
For anything to work well, especially a social institution like marriage, then you must be clear about the purpose of the institution itself. Holy matrimony has several purposes:
- To fashion a human cultural community in which the lives and characters of its members are shaped and fashioned according to the truths of the gospel of grace. This is what matters far more than our personal satisfaction.
- To create a moral environment in which we can grow holy together in experiencing the grace of God. God did not want man and woman to be alone. Families work best when unity is understood and preserved. If you’ve been married forty-three years, as I have, and you can still speak to one another amicably and work out day-to-day problems successfully, then you really have something very good.
- To help us understand the nature of God through the mystical and spiritual reality of what marriage truly means. When God set about creating companions for himself, human persons made in his image, he made them able to love him or reject him. Love is not love if it is forced.
Let me explain this last point just a bit. When God designed to reveal himself in time and space, to each human person, he made each of us in such a way that we can share, to varying degrees, in the divine nature. No two of us are alike. Whatever is good in another, especially in our husband or wife, reflects back to us something of the divine nature. But no human can ever fully satisfy us. Only God can fully fill our hearts with love. Our partner, within the covenant of marriage, can only whet our appetite for more. We were designed for more but we try to get this more through another person and thereby expect of them what they cannot give us. I desire love and the infinite good but no woman can ever give that to me fully.
I conclude then that marriage is a holy bond, wonderfully rich and deeply rewarding. But God did not give me a wife to satisfy my need for love. Only God can give me such love. God gave me a wife to whet my appetite for love and to show me just how much I need his love in order to love her and make this relationship really work. God has called me to live for forty-three years with a wonderful, attractive and amazing lady. She loves me like no one else but there remains a mystery about our love and oneness. This mystery points me beyond her to God alone. Without this understanding our marriage has little chance to succeed since at its best it is no more, or less, than a taste of the overwhelming happiness that we can have in this age, an age which prepares us for the happiness that we shall fully enjoy in the age to come.