Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christian Marriage: Gift or Curse?

C. S. Lewis, the author of Mere Christianity, confesses at the beginning of his chapter on marriage that he did not particularly want to write it, in part because he was not married, but also because “the Christian doctrines on this subject are extremely unpopular.” Sixty seven years later, I couldn't agree more!  The Christian perspective on marriage is still unpopular…even among some Christians! I want to talk about the idea of Christian marriage as though I was communicating not to a room full of believers…but to the community beyond the walls of the church who do not quite understand it, and may even be offended by it. My prayer is that by God’s grace I might be able to help explain Christian marriage as Jesus speaks of it… not as a curse to be avoided; but as both a gift to celebrate, and a crucible in which we are tested and changed for the better.

(i) Christian Marriage is the miracle of a total union. The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh (Matthew 19: 5). As Lewis reminds us, this Greek phrase (sarka mian) means something like “one body” or “one organism.”  Now there are many types of “marriage” that are being recommended today. There is so-called open marriage where partners have the freedom to have sex with anyone they want. There is polygamous marriage, where one man has several wives; there is disposable marriage, where marriage and divorce and remarriage and divorce is only routine; and there is gay marriage, marriage between people of the same sex.

Now we must be honest: the Bible is not very experimental when it comes to marriage. It’s rather narrowly committed (some would say ignorantly committed) to the model that Moses describes, Jesus commands, and Paul commends. They all seem to think it’s a good model…the best model, and they clearly have their reasons…and if you think the Bible is more than just a good book, you have to take this recommendation rather seriously.  By the way, I don’t think we should be surprised as Christians that there are different marriage models since the world does not universally embrace this Book. I think we can say that fidelity is always better than promiscuity regardless of your model; but that the biblical model has in its favor, over 6000 years of testing behind it.

The biblical view of marriage is based on the assumption that the two halves of the human species must come together in pairs for human life to continue (a biological fact)…and not only must they come together sexually (as when the male and female reproductive cells, each containing half of the 46 human chromosomes are fused in the ampulla of the fallopian tube or in a test tube); but they must come together spiritually, emotionally, and relationally in order for life on earth to continue.  Now the human temptation is to try to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the others and to fixate on it and even deify it…and what Jesus is saying is that you can’t do that without getting hurt and causing great hurt - but that never seems to stop us from trying....

A few months ago on CNN, author and former mistress Holly Hill was arguing that married couples should consider what she calls negotiated infidelity… where couples give permission to each other to have sexual liaisons for the good of the marriage. It was supposed to be a radical new idea…but it was really an old idea. It took a psychologist to bring some common sense to the discussion. “I think what's universal is that no one likes sharing partners -- whether you're male or female.” In other words, when we sin, people get hurt. Last week I read about a girl who bragged that she had slept with 13 guys on her high school’s football team. How does everybody know this? Because she rated their sexual performance by name on her Facebook page; and because of the nature of the internet, it will be part of their permanent online resume. Sobering thought.

When we try to experience sexual union without the emotional, psychological, and spiritual union that biblical marriage provides, there is the risk of hurting ourselves (by making it more difficult to bond with a future mate); hurting others because promiscuity invites us to start comparing, and can create jealousy and insecurity (Women in particular are vulnerable because of the risk of pregnancy); hurting society (because promiscuity encourages the breakdown of families and the spread of devastating diseases); and….hurting God because when we live outside of God’s commands we experience the consequences of a broken relationship with Him. There are precious few of us who do not stand under God’s judgment for sexual sin, for Jesus reminds us that sexual sin begins in the mind and heart. We need to take that judgment on sin seriously…but not more seriously than the good news that God, in his love, sent his Son to restore and heal what has been broken.

(ii) Christian Marriage is the courage to make a lifelong commitment. Jesus is very clear in his response to the Pharisees who question him about divorce. “What God has joined together let no one separate….” (Matthew 19: 6) and later, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” Understand that Jesus said these things to protect women and men equally from the pain of divorce. According to Jewish law, a woman could be accused of adultery against her husband, but a husband could not be accused of adultery against his wife! If a man wanted to discard his wife in order to take up with another woman, he simply gave her a letter of intention to divorce. End of discussion. The Greek attitude toward women was even worse. Demosthenes wrote: “We have courtesans for our pleasure, prostitutes for daily physical use, & wives to bring up legitimate children.” In Rome, divorce was easy & women were repressed. Seneca said that “women dated the years by the names of their husbands.”  Now Jesus turned the tables on this double standard. He warned men who casually divorced their wives to pursue another relationship that they were committing adultery! In fact, says Jesus in Matthew 5: 28, you men are committing adultery if you even look at a woman with lust in your heart.

The grounds for Jesus’ assertion that the marriage relationship should be a lifelong commitment is nothing less than God’s unbreakable commitment to his people.Throughout Scripture, the Lord refers to his relationship with his people as that of a husband pursuing his bride with unbreakable devotion and steadfast love – even when she is unfaithful.... "For your Maker is your husband— the LORD Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected," says your God. "For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the LORD your Redeemer" (Isaiah 54: 5-8).

The power to live in faithfulness to one’s spouse comes from God’s unbreakable commitment to us. But what about those who know they have not been faithful…whose eyes and hearts and even bodies have wandered…or who have experienced the pain of an abusive and destructive marriage that could not endure without injury to one or both… I want to answer that question in a moment, but first I want to make a third point which is implied in Jesus’ words in Matthew 19 and stated explicitly elsewhere…

(iii) Christian Marriage is the promise to love, not just feel “in love.” We can presume that one of the reasons men in Jesus’ day wanted to divorce their wives was that they had grown bored of their partners…that they no longer felt “in love.” We can also be pretty certain that their wives also felt “out of love” now and then…though they had no legal right to do anything about it. The very fact that Jesus does not consider this change of “feelings” a good reason to end a marriage tells us that he had a very different view of what holds a marriage together…that marriage is a promise to love, not just feel “in love.”

Lewis says, “Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling…Love as distinct from ‘being in love’ is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both…receive from God…It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.”

The Greeks had four words for love: Storge, the love of family affection. Phileo, the love of friendship. Eros, the love of physical intimacy and romance; and the highest form of love, Agape, the love of self-giving, the love that says “I’ll hold on to you, no matter what.” There is no greater description of love in this highest sense than the one found in 1 Corinthian 13: “Love is patient. Love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful….Love bears all things, believes all thing, hopes all things, endures all things; love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8). If you are not feeling the feelings any more, if you are not feeling in love, that’s the time to start loving…to start serving her, praying for him, listening, doing the hard work of reconciliation and forgiveness, recalling your common purpose, standing side by side, eyes fixed on the horizon of God’s greater purpose.

From Mr. Linz in my Junior High metal shop, I learned that a crucible is a furnace in which metal is subjected to extreme temperatures, removed of impurities, and changed into a more durable substance. Marriage is a crucible in which we are being tested and changed for the better…but sadly many turn away from this test in search of the next easy, romantic fix…instead of developing the love that never ends. One more thing: this kind of love, the highest and best… is not reserved for marriage – how could it be? Family can know this love… dear friends can share this love…and above all we can experience this love with Christ who showed this love for us on the cross (Eph. 5: 27-33).

(iv) Finally, Christian Marriage is a gift….but not the only one. As the disciples listen to Jesus’ teaching on marriage, especially the calling to sacrificial, self-giving love, and the condemnation of casual divorce they say something unexpected: “Perhaps it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19: 10-13). Perhaps, as we began by saying, marriage is really a curse to be avoided.  But Jesus responds, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.” Marriage is not to be entered into lightly. It is a gift…but there are other gifts. Jesus refers here to those other gifts in a cryptic reference to “eunuchs from birth, eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and eunuchs who have made themselves eunuch for the sake of the kingdom” (Matthew 19: 11-12). What is he talking about?

In reverse order, there are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom; who have chosen the celibate life in order to serve God more freely. The single life is a noble calling (Jesus, let us remember, was single, and he had many close friends who were also single -- like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at whose grave he wept). If nothing else, this is a reminder that singleness is as much a gift as marriage, because our wholenesss is found in Christ…not in any human relationship.

But what about the others that Jesus mentions (somewhat mysteriously) those who were made eunuchs (castrated, wounded) by force or simply born that way. In Acts 8: 26ff. the Holy Spirit sends Philip the Evangelist to share the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch. It’s an amazing passage as we read that Philip literally runs alongside his chariot to find the Ethiopian reading Isaiah 53.  He learns from Philip that Jesus is the Suffering Servant spoken of by the prophet, the sheep led to the slaughter, the One by whose stripes we are made whole. Isaiah writes in that chapter that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Now what makes this story so powerful is that according to the Mosaic law, this man was excluded from the temple on two counts: he was a gentile, and he was a eunuch -- physically maimed and disfugured (Deut. 23:1; Lev. 21: 16-20)! The good news is that this man who had been formerly excluded from temple worship, was now being welcomed into God’s kingdom in fulfillment of Isaiah 56: 3-5 (read it!)…and friends, that should give every single one of us hope who feel like outcasts, sexually broken, maimed, or even violated.

I'm thinking of Jackie Pullinger who spent decades with the outcasts of society in Hong Kong. She tells the story of a 72 year old woman in her church who was a heroine addict and a prostitute for 60 years. Day after day, she would sit outside the brothel waiting for customers, as she poked in the sewers. She injected her back three times a day because the veins in her arms and legs had collapsed. She had no identity card and did not exist as far as the Hong Kong gov’t was concerned. Through Jackie’s ministry, she gave her life to Christ, received God’s forgiveness, and in one of Jackie’s halfway houses, she began to experience God’s healing. Eventually, she married Little Wa in 1992 who was 75 years old. Jackie called it the Wedding of the Decade. The former prostitute was able to walk down the aisle in white, cleansed and forgiven by Jesus Christ – she had been reborn (from Question of Life by Nicky Gumbel).

Friends, every single one of us has a scar or an invisible wound… some of us were wounded at birth, others received wounds that were self-inflicted, or were caused by others. Some of us feel the sadness or guilt of failed relationships and marriages, some of us have been abused or violated, some feel out of place, outcasts among God’s people because of physical or emotional scars. I pray that regardless of the nature of your scar or your story, that you might hear Christ welcoming you, calling you to turn toward him, from everything you know is wrong, that you might become (like his Bride, the Church) pure and spotless, cleansed, forgiven, and above all loved with the perfect love that is God’s greatest gift.

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