Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
- Ephesians 5:1-2
Some years ago, an acquaintance and I were talking about dating and marriage, and she made an observation that impressed me at the time. She said that love isn’t really about the other person is as much as it is about ourselves, that we love a person because of who we are when we are with the person, not for who they are. Granted, I was young and didn’t know much about love, but I rather liked the definition. If some man wanted to come along and love me into my ideal self, that worked for me. I’ve since decided such a definition more closely reflects my relationship with chocolate than a man. Chocolate is yummy, and it just makes me happy all over! Men, on the other hand, do not have the same effect.
This idea that marriage is the means by which another person can make us happy by making us feel good about ourselves, even become someone we actually are not, is a common expectation of marriage in the West. Let’s think about this. Essentially, we are saying that another person can love us into being more than what we are, that somewhere out there in the wide expanse of the world is a person – or maybe even persons - who can love us enough that we will become better and more likable in our own eyes. I can’t speak for you, but I have an ideal self that I wish I were. That ideal is not anyone you know. My ideal self isn’t even anyone I know, just an idea of whom I wish I were. According to this theory, there is supposed to be some man out there somewhere who can love me into my imaginary best self, or at least make me believe I’m getting closer to my imaginary best self. Well, let me just get out to the side of the road and wait for Prince Adequate to trot up on his dusty, gray mare and offer me a step ladder to climb on up.
In spite of the popularity of the idea, this is not a viable plan for making women happy, at least not for any prolonged or semi-permanent period of time. Over the span of my life, particularly as a member of the clergy, I’ve known a lot of very good men, men devoted to Jesus Christ, men who love their wives, men who are intelligent, and men who are good-hearted, even some men who are all that and more. In spite of the wide variety of good men I know, I hate to be the one to say it, but I don’t think they’re up to the task – nor should they be.
And yet… isn’t that what we want? While my experience is that of a woman, I think men at least hope that a woman, or women, can make them happy. That may not be true to the same degree in reverse, that men expect women to make them happy, at least not in the sense of Cinderella or Snow White. But minimally, men want women to accept and admire them and to satisfy their needs. Frankly, I think women have the upper hand in this. Men will do almost anything to please women. Except, in the one thing women are supposed to want most, men are almost certainly doomed to failure from the outset.
The widespread hope among so many is to find the person whose presence will provide this heart-pounding, sweaty-palms, body-tingling feeling. If these sensations were associated with any other state of human existence, we’d see a physician. Shania Twain belted it out in her mega-hit Any Man of Mine, “… better be heartbeatin, fine-treatin’, breathtakin, earthquakin’ kind…” So, man up, boys, and get to it.
The idea of romantic love as we think of it today goes back to Renaissance and is unique to Western culture. Before being idealized in recent centuries, romantic love was treated as a medical condition, which is the source of the word lovesick, and was seen a weakness to be exploited. If we think about it honestly, we all know people (or are people) who have been deeply hurt because being lovesick is a condition that blinds us to faults. Historically and around the world today, marriage was and still is treated as an arrangement between families and as a partnership.
We are quick to judge marriage in earlier centuries or in other cultures around the world, but our view of marriage as the consummate expression of romance, lust, and personal happiness has produced the greatest chaos in human relationships in recorded history. Such a statement is inescapably obvious when we consider the increase in divorce, the trend toward cohabitation without marriage, and the changing forms of marriage in the West. Generation Z increasingly views all human relationships through the jaded lens of cynicism, and nearly half of Millennials and Generation Z view marriage as obsolete.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As with all matters settled by human wisdom, marriage has become the opposite of what God intended, and this applies to any form of marriage or semi-permanent shadow of marriage. As Christian civil religion has declined, the deformation and degradation of the marriage covenant has increased by a corresponding inverse proportion. I am not here trying to make an argument for legislating the form of Christian marriage (although I believe such an argument could be made), but rather, I want us to understand “why now?” Why is marriage so controversial and contested now? The answer to that is found in the fact that prior generations understood marriage within the context of Christianity irrespective of the seriousness of faith among the marrying and the married.
When we look closely at the animating ideas for marriage now, we find the endless search for an elusive happiness, the impossible expectation that one person can or should meet all of another’s needs, and the assumption that erotic love will always be thrilling. What we see is a definition of human relationships that focuses on the individual and what the individual will receive from the relationship. Individualistic definitions completely miss the point of marriage.
The separation of individualism and the selfishness of seeking one’s own happiness stand in stark contradiction to the life and the love of Jesus Christ. In a life and marriage lived without Christ, we inevitably seek salvation from someone else, for we need to be saved from ourselves. Thus, relationships have become the way in which many seek salvation from themselves. "We love another for who we are when we are with them," is practically a cry for salvation – love me into someone better, someone I can like, someone who is happy. There is no small irony in the fact that these views have infiltrated the church and Christian teaching.
Christian life – Christian discipleship – is the ongoing effort to die to self so we may be raised up by Christ. As He lay down His life and sacrificed Himself for our salvation, we are called to lay down our lives in sacrificial service to others, as well. The single, most important fact of Christian marriage is that the man and woman willingly choose to give to the other, first and foremost in the giving of themselves. In seeking to be like Christ, we love by striving to serve our spouse, in sacrificing our egos and our wants for the good of the union and for the blessing of our spouse. Christian marriage is one of the primary means of personal sanctification, if not the primary means. We are all subject to delusions of our own goodness, right up until we are put to the test in the relationship of greatest intimacy. Nothing reveals selfishness as clearly as the self-giving sacrifices required in Christian marriage.
When God created man and woman in Genesis 1, He gave us two tasks. He said to ‘be fruitful and multiply and to subdue the earth and rule over it.’ Christian marriage then is the means by which we recover God’s intent for man and woman, indeed, His intent for the whole of creation. Lived in Christ and with the presence and guidance of the Spirit, man and woman become one flesh and together uniquely possess the capacity to fulfill the tasks assigned in our very creation. Marriage is not about the individual, except to the extent that the married individuals give of themselves to form a greater whole. That whole being, that one flesh, enlivened by the Spirit, is then able to accomplish the purposes of human existence established in our creation.
Happiness is fleeting, which in part is why we are witness to the decline of lifelong marriage, but our Father’s intent is not our misery. He sent His Son into the world to save us from the misery we create for ourselves. For when we die to self, we are dying to the broken, selfish, blind, and lost self that is already dying. That is the hardest lesson of Christian life, that by dying to self we will receive life. While we may forfeit some happiness, although I rather doubt the truth of that, we are given infinite joy when we live in Christ.
This is also the hard lesson of Christian marriage. By sacrificing, we receive. In our serving, we are lifted up. Christian marriage cannot be lived truly when we look to receive, only when we plan to give. The paradox of Christian marriage reflects the confusion of the world, for human beings are meant to love one another by serving and by being a blessing to the one to whom we have committed ourselves – the one with whom we are one flesh.
In the next blog, I will pick up where I left off in Genesis 3, but before looking at what is revealed to us in the Scriptures, we need to realize that the ideas and values we hold today cannot be used to judge the Gospel. Simply by living in the midst of contemporary culture, we accept so many things that are harmful and dangerous because that is all we hear. In contrast, by embracing the safe haven of our Father’s love and intent, we will discover healing for our souls.
I pray we will grow in the knowledge and love of God by His grace and for our blessing.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau
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