On Saturday we opened up the topic of marriage at our leadership training. There is a lot of change coming to fruit in U.S. society regarding marriage and the changes can be very confusing. Some of our confusion came to my attention when a cell asked me for a “private session” to talk about cohabitation and same sex marriage. When we had talked over some of their issues, one of them finally asked, “So Rod, what is marriage?” I’m not sure why the question surprised me, but it did. I realized we had some theologizing to do. Their thinking had been colonized by the philosophies of the age that did not recognize Jesus; they needed to talk. So let’s keep talking, here — gently. Arguing about intimacy and sex is never a good idea, in my opinion.
This is some of what I was saying on Saturday.
Understanding marriage starts with a story, not a definition. Though U.S. laws and philosophies demand otherwise, any wisdom about marriage is going to start with a story; and it will be one about relating to God at the center of it. Some people connect with congregations of the Church and one of the first things they ask for is the congregation’s definitions surrounding sexuality to see whether it is tolerable. If that is you, I can only ask that you are patient with our Bible-like ways. If you ask Jesus, “What is marriage” he will probably tell you a story. Marriage is too mysterious and too full of God to reduce it to a definition one can control and fight about. U.S. society has no center, so it is in a constant fight about definitions that become laws. The kingdom of God just does not work like that.
One of the first stories about marriage is in Genesis 2, where the Bible collects tales about the creation of the world. Among the many things that Genesis 2 is, it is a marriage story. I think we learn three things from it:
We are not alone in our garden, God is with us.
I suppose when God presented Adam with Eve, the man could have responded in other ways than with the wonder he expressed. He could have said, “What in the world is it?” Likewise, Eve could have whispered to God as they walked down the aisle of Eden, “Are you sure you know what you are doing?” Instead, Adam and Eve went with the miracle and trusted God for what was being created.
God expresses the Trinity’s character by creating us male and female in the Lord’s own image. Our coming together, is a mysterious, complete picture of who God is as we love one another as male and female. This is not the only way the image of God in us is revealed, because it happens when I love my children or comrades, too, and it happens when I choose to be my true self in the Spirit. Obviously, Jesus and Paul are not married and recommend their condition as a way to be married to God, so to speak. So people who are not married must not feel like they are missing out on the heart of the matter. But marriage is a basic way we creatures show how we are made in God’s image. The story of creation ends with marriage being the “moral” of the story: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). One of the basic reasons for the story was to explain why people get married and how God is with us in that.
Marriage is a primary way we come to our wholeness.
We all might know that in the story of Adam and Eve they get in quite a bit of trouble together. They make some choices that have some severe consequences. Their oldest children are not very well put together. I don’t think the whole clan has fully figured out how to be human for the first few chapters of the Bible, if then. In this process of sin and redemption, crime and wonder, marriage is a central crucible for growth. It is a laboratory for learning love. It is a crucible because it contains some volatile stuff that needs a gracious container to mature in. Many of us have blown up the lab a couple of times, and we know what I am talking about.
Yes, marriage is for romance and pleasure, but those elements are not enough motivation to sustain a love that can suffer like God’s. Personal satisfaction (whatever that moving target is!) is not enough to make a marriage worthwhile over time. If marriage is a practical process of learning how to be a human who can be his or her true self in Christ, how to be a person who is able to come together in a kiss that is packed with mutual care, then we are getting somewhere.
Marriage is a primary way we fulfill our purpose
Some people think that Adam and Eve just wandered around in the garden hanging out, naming new animals and fruit they discovered. Not entirely. It says they were given the garden to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). They were partners. They needed each other. Then sin made their work even harder! They were charged to be fruitful and cover the earth — have children, create community, keep the earth in shape, develop humankind. They had a whole earth to explore and tend and an eternity to do it. Their relationship had innate purpose. Just as God created them in a purposeful way, with love and goodness in mind, they were to be creative and purposeful.
Some of us have had relationships in which having the relationship was the goal of the relationship. Perhaps one partner was the avoider and one partner the pursuer — that often keeps couples occupied. Maybe both partners surprised themselves and their mate by discovering new issues they had with intimacy — that often gives people something to do. All relationships are challenging, but relationships with nothing else in life but the relationship are even more difficult. No person can be our “everything” – thanks for the confidence in me to think I could be, but no thanks. Being made for more than a relationship with your mate is not an either/or thing. Having a purpose should enhance intimacy.
There is a lot to learn from the story. On Saturday, we began by thinking about what our parents’ marriages had been like. How did they bring us into creation? It makes a big difference to how we think we are to function in it. We are part of their ongoing story. If the family was eating forbidden fruit all day, it makes a difference.
If you are considering making a marriage covenant, are attached to a regular sexual partner, or are cohabiting, I think it is crucial to understand the story you are writing. When mating, Jesus followers probably want to match the creation/re-creation story in significant ways, since we are in the process of creating a new community with two people at the center, and we are leading the community of the church in significant ways by what we do. These days people tend to have sealed off love (don’t connect too much) or solace love (hang on for dear life), when what we want is synchrony love (mutuality and understanding). We tend not to know our own story too well, or to even think we should have one. We are more reaction than action. The marriage story in the creation story encourages good meditating and deciding about how God is in everyone’s picture and how to make sensible choices in relation to others.