Many have sounded the alarm regarding the health and status of the institution of marriage in modern society. Marriage is being delayed considerably; many do not marry at all. For far too many, marriage becomes a dispensable commitment, viewed in terms of a transactional relationship more than a lifelong commitment. At the same time, people in modern society still value marriage and aspire to it; if anything, many make too much of the marriage relationship, expecting spouses to provide greater meaning, fulfillment, and satisfaction in life than ever before.
Christians do well to understand marriage according to what God has made known to the fathers through the prophets and in Christ and His Apostles. Even when considering dating Christians should always understand what the end goal of marriage ought to look like; it is very hard to get to a healthy destination by unhealthy means.
Marriage is honorable (Hebrews 13:4). When God made Adam, He observed that it was not good for man to be alone, and thus He created Eve, declaring that the two should become one flesh (Genesis 2:18-24). Since men and women are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27) and God is one in relational unity, One in Three Persons, sharing love within Himself (John 17:20-23), it naturally follows that men and women seek to share life with others in relationship, especially the deep, intimate relationship between a husband and wife (Matthew 19:4-6). God described His relationship with Israel in terms of husband and wife; Paul speaks of the relationship between a husband and wife as a means of understanding the relationship between Christ and the church (Isaiah 50:1, Hosea 1:1-3:5, Ephesians 5:22-33). These metaphors “work” for a reason: the intimacy which should exist between husband and wife is a physical shadow of the spiritual reality of the intimacy between man and God. Marriage, therefore, is part of the order of God’s good creation, and ought to be held in honor and a means by which we can come to a better understanding of our relationship with God.
Marriage is intended to be a life-long covenant established by God (Malachi 2:14-15, Matthew 19:6). A covenant is a sacred agreement and trust between two parties featuring terrible consequences if violated. God demonstrates throughout the Scriptures how covenants are not to be taken lightly: He considered Israel as spiritual adulterers and adulteresses when they served idols because they acted faithlessly toward Him, and His prophets proclaimed and embodied the message of profound pain and suffering God experienced as this faithful “husband” of a faithless “wife” (Hosea 1:1-3:5, Ezekiel 16:1-63). Since marriage is a covenant, we need to take it seriously (Malachi 2:14-15). Jesus said it succinctly: “what God has joined man is not to separate” (Matthew 19:6). God brings a man and a woman together in the covenant relationship of marriage, and only the death of one or both spouses should end that covenant (cf. Romans 7:1-4). Men and women who are married or who are considering marriage must look to marry for life, not thinking of divorce as an “escape route”: just as we are to commit ourselves to the Lord for eternity, knowing that separation from God in Christ leads to terrible consequences (cf. Romans 12:1, Hebrews 10:26-31), thus we must understand marriage as a lifelong commitment with devastating consequences for faithlessness. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16): all divorce is either sinful in and of itself or the direct consequence of the sin of sexually deviant behavior (Matthew 19:9). To separate from a spouse and to be joined to another is adultery, and unrepentant adultery leads to eternal death (Matthew 19:9, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Revelation 21:8).
Marriage involves difficulties (1 Corinthians 7:28). As humans are not perfect but have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), so marriages do not involve perfect people. One of the curses of the Fall involves competition and difficulties in the marriage relationship (cf. Genesis 3:16), and this is apparent in the conflicts which take place as a man and a woman seek to truly become one in their marriage. To strive for relational unity in covenant loyalty in marriage requires work: the investment of time, energy, and interest, and the willingness to simultaneously prove vulnerable while suffering loss and place for the benefit of the spouse. Marriage demands seeking the best interest of the spouse and the relationship over one’s own desires, which demands compromise and sacrifice, if it will last and be a blessing.
Nevertheless, the beauty in marriage can be found in covenant loyalty throughout and despite all the difficulties. Humans seek marriage because they desire companionship and intimacy, and dread the prospect of abandonment and being alone. We want to be loved for who we are without the pretense and for what lies underneath the “presentable” self we display. Too often we focus on the wedding day with its beautiful people, vitality, and well-rehearsed lines and rituals as expressing the beauty of marriage. In truth, the beauty of marriage is found in a man providing for, nourishing, and spending time with his wife of many decades who now has dementia and no longer even recognizes him; the beauty of marriage is found in a woman who sees the best, praises, and affirms her husband who has been beaten down by the world and can only see his failures.
Marriage, therefore, is a gift; a great grace for those who are committed not merely to the institution of marriage, but to the particular man or woman to whom God has joined them. Most of the things highly prized in finding a spouse fade and lose their value over time; the relational connection which is taken for granted at the beginning often dictates whether a couple will grow together in their marriage and thrive or grow apart and be miserable. A marriage cannot work well in isolation or a vacuum; no one person can fully satisfy, complete, or fulfill any other person, and those who are enmeshed in a healthy support system of God in Christ and fellow humans will be more likely to maintain healthy marriages than those who expect their spouse to be everything for them. Yet marriage remains a good thing (1 Corinthians 7:36, Hebrews 13:4); Christians do well to pursue marriage, yet according to what God has made known in Jesus in relational unity in covenant loyalty, and not according to the fitful, frenetic, and impossible to maintain standards of marriage in the world. In all things may we strive to participate in the marriage supper of the Lamb and obtain eternal life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry