Marriage is for work

husband_wifeJudging by the influx of distraught fan mail, it’s no secret that I’ve been off the Script for a little over a  month now. Rest assured, I have not withdrawn from public life. The energy required to maintain my typically torrid production here had to be diverted to other projects–namely, a marriage seminar–but having passed through that arduous season we now return to our regularly scheduled program.

Speaking of marriage, a couple months ago I offered a quote from a marriage book on the meaning of Genesis 2:18 — “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” The gist of the explanation was that it was not good for Adam to be alone without a companion. The “companionate interpretation” espoused in the book is so widely accepted these days that we count it as a truism as we quickly skim on in our reading.

But the “companionate interpretation” has three problems.

First, if 2:18 was about the need for a meaningful relationship, it’s not entirely clear why the solution should be a (single) woman and not another man or even a gaggle of people for instant community.

Second, helper is an unlikely term for someone who will be created for companionship. If the man’s relational solitude was the problem shouldn’t we expect to hear God say “I will make a companion/friend/lover suitable for him”?

Third, and most importantly, the contextual cues indicate that what the man needs is a co-worker:

1:28 God creates man & woman as his image bearers and gives them a job to do: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

2:5 The state of nature is incomplete (i.e. no plants of the field) because “there was no man to cultivate the ground.”

2:15 God creates the man and places him in the garden “to cultivate it and keep it.”

2:18 God declares Adam to be in need of a helper.

Small wonder that, charged with caring for his newly created world, God would look on the man’s solitary state as “not good” and set about creating a suitable helper for filling, subduing, and ruling the earth. At the risk of sounding thoroughly unromantic, marriage was created for work. [Unromantic? Noooo. -The Wife]

It’s not that Scripture doesn’t consider the relational good of marriage, it’s just that it doesn’t do so at Gen 2:18–at least not in the way we often think. In fact, when the Bible does point to the personal rewards of marriage it’s interesting to note how closely those blessings are associated with fruitful labor (Psa 128). It may just be that orienting our marriages toward “the joyful shared service of God,”¹ would actually prove far more satisfying than so many of the self-serving models now in vogue.


¹Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God. Ash’s work was a paradigm shift for me in my view of marriage. His book should be required reading for all pastors.

Assumptions are hard to break

In what looks to be an otherwise solid book for those preparing for marriage, I found a curious explanation of the meaning behind God’s declaration that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). In fairness, the author’s presentation falls comfortably within the bounds of popular consensus in spite of the broad assumptions:

Here is my question: in light of all we just said, why is it not good for the man to be alone? What is God seeing and talking about?

The problem that God identifies, and wants us to see, is that Adam has no one of his nature and substance to think about. He has no one in his likeness to love, serve, and honor. Left alone, his thoughts would be too wrapped around himself. This was a problem. This is what God called “not good.” In his alone state, Adam could not reflect the complete image that God wanted him to reflect. He was not as full an image-bearer of God’s glory as God desired.

Two questions. First, where is the support for this interpretation in the text? Second, if this is the problem that God identifies in 2:18, what does this mean for the singles in our midst?

Maybe we assume too much in this verse.

Marriage as a discipleship-free zone

Married for GodIt is too easy for Christians to think of marriage as a discipleship-free zone. So that outside of marriage we talk about sacrifice, taking up our cross, and so on. But inside marriage we just talk about how to communicate better, how to be more intimate, how to have better sex, how to be happy. . . . Instead we should want marriages that serve God. If they are sexually and personally fulfilled, well and good. But if they do not serve God, no amount of personal fulfillment will make them right. After all, so far as we can see, Ananias and Sapphira had a marriage with excellent communication and shared values; each understood the other perfectly; and yet they died terrible deaths under the judgment of God (Acts 5:1-11).

–Christopher Ash, Married for God, 40.

Our appetite for sex

The relational good and physical pleasure we derive from sex aren’t mutually exclusive benefits but two sides of the same coin.

Russell Moore is always worth a read and his latest article, Will a Happy Marriage Prevent an Affair?, is no exception. However, I think he overstates a point in his conclusion when he writes:

That’s why the Scripture calls us to beware our own vulnerability. That’s why the Scripture tells husbands and wives to maintain sexual union with one another. It’s not because sex is an appetite that must be filled but because sex can connect us to one another, reminding us who it is that we are called to love and to serve.

If by this statement Moore merely intends to prioritize selflessness over personal pleasure but not deny the biblical imperative to (righteously) satisfy our sexual appetite, all is well. But we ought to prioritize wisely as we consider the whole counsel of God. The relational good and physical pleasure we derive from sex aren’t mutually exclusive benefits but two sides of the same coin. As Christians we affirm God’s intention to create us as sexual beings complete with sexual appetites although sin has disrupted the design and function of our sexuality on multiple levels. Even outside of Song of Solomon the Scriptures speak to our appetite for sex and the need to sate it. Consider just two passages where we are commanded to maintain our sexual union for the sake of our appetite:

Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? (Prov 5:18-20)

Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1Cor 7:5)

In one sense it’s precisely because we hunger for sex that sex creates so strong a connection–it is the one pleasure we desire that only one person may fulfill. And let’s not forget that the appetite for sexual pleasure is a type of that hunger for even greater pleasures that only One can (and will!) fulfill in a marriage still to come.

Nearly all marriages are mistakes

Gob_Huge_MistakeIn this final excerpt (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3) Tolkien presents his son with wisdom sorely needed today: you almost certainly made a mistake when you married your partner who is, in fact, your real soul-mate. This is my favorite part of the letter and I suspect it will soon find its way into my pre-marital counseling.

Have  a great V-Day weekend!


. . . Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgment concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. You really do very little choosing: life and circumstance do most of it (though if there is a God these must be His instruments, or His appearances). It is notorious that in fact happy marriages are more common where the ‘choosing’ by the young persons is even more limited, by parental or family authority, as long as there is a social ethic of plain unromantic responsibility and conjugal fidelity.

But even in countries where the romantic tradition has so far affected social arrangements as to make people believe that the choosing of a mate is solely the concern of the young, only the rarest good fortune brings together the man and woman who are really as it were ‘destined’ for one another, and capable of a very great and splendid love. The idea still dazzles us, catches us by the throat: poems and stories in multitudes have been written on the theme, more, probably, than the total of such loves in real life (yet the greatest of these tales do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation; as if even in this sphere the truly great and splendid in this fallen world is more nearly achieved by ‘failure’ and suffering). In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an unfallen world. In this fallen world we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will. . . .

-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’

Men, monogamy, and the ‘if only’ soul-mate

Monogamy
Women are instinctively monogamous. Men are not. . . No good pretending.

In this third excerpt (see pt 1 and pt 2) Tolkien explains why monogamy entails suffering for a Christian husband and begins to address the popular notion of finding a “soul-mate.”


 

[Women] have, of course, still to be more careful in sexual relations, for all the contraceptives. Mistakes are damaging physically and socially (and matrimonially). But they are instinctively, when uncorrupt, monogamous. Men are not. . . . . No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed’ ethic, according to faith and not to the flesh. Each of us could healthily beget, in our 30 odd years of full manhood, a few hundred children, and enjoy the process. Brigham Young (I believe) was a healthy and happy man. It is a fallen world, and there is no consonance between our bodies, minds, and souls.

However, the essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’ (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify & direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the   struggle remains. It will not satisfy him — as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.

Too few are told that — even those brought up ‘in the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it. When the glamor wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only –. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’. And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. . .

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’

[read pt 4]

N. T. Wright agrees with me

{file under “beating a dead horse”}

Well, this settles it–definitions matter. [watch 0:18-1:40 for the basic point or you can watch up to 4:20 to get the broader context]

Sex as sabbath

The restorative effect of sexual delight on husband and wife may perhaps be considered by analogy with the blessing of the Sabbath. Just as rhythms of Sabbath rest are instituted by the Creator for the sake of man (cf. Mark 2:27) to refresh him so that his work may be a joy, so sexual delight within marriage may refresh and restore husband and wife for the work to which the Creator has called them….Just as God gives rest in order that man may joyfully work (and not work for the sake of rest), so he gives husband and wife joy in sex that they may more joyfully serve, and not the reverse. When reversed, sexual delight and relational intimacy become ends in themselves. The paradox and tragedy is that, having been made into idols, they inevitably disappoint, frustrate and fade. So often in a healthy marriage sexual delight creeps up on the couple at unexpected moments, in the midst of lives of active service and outward-looking work. –Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 188.

Looking to save some money on Valentine’s Day?

Men, if you can win your wife to this spiritual perspective you stand to save thousands of dollars over the lifetime of your marriage.

It is easy to condemn those who marry for money or status, but a more insidious wrong motive has insinuated its way into our culture: romance. Romance has attached to itself a raft of benefits focused on self-fulfillment and the realization of dreams (notably the dream of ‘the right one for me’), but because this is not God’s purpose for marriage, it is a self-defeating goal. Besides, as Hauerwas nicely observes, even if we seek to marry ‘the right person’, in practice ‘we always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change.’ Paradoxically, it is when we jointly embark on the endeavor of serving God in his world that romantic pleasure sometimes takes us by surprise. As a goal it evaporates, but as an unsought blessing it may be greeted with delight and thanksgiving.

-Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, p 219.

How the trinity speaks to marriage

Husbands take note:

… “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you,” the Son says (Jn 15:9). And therein lies the very goodness of the gospel: as the Father is the lover and the Son the beloved, so Christ becomes the lover and the church the beloved. That means that Christ loves the church first and foremost: his love is not a response, given only when the church loves him; his love comes first, and we only love him because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).

     That dynamic is also to be replicated in marriages, husbands being the heads of their wives, loving them as Christ the Head loves his bride, the church. He is the lover, she is the beloved. Like the church, then, wives are not left to earn the love of their husbands; they can enjoy it as something lavished on them freely, unconditionally, and maximally. For eternity, the Father so loves the Son that he excites the Son’s eternal love in response; Christ so loves the church that he excites our love in response; the husband so loves his wife that he excites her love to love him back. Such is the spreading goodness that rolls out of the very being of this God.

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith