The Original Design
Some years ago, I was out west at Philmont Scout Ranch, preparing to help lead a seminar with a colleague – a minister just a few years older than I, though we were pretty much of an age otherwise. He was telling me about a family event his son and daughter-in-law had participated in not long before this, and he said in reference to his son’s wife, “it’s his second marriage, the first one didn’t work out – but that’s okay, everyone’s entitled to one mistake.”
Now, I didn’t know his children, so this was utterly unnecessary detail, if his intent was merely to convey the story, and I gotta tell ya, I found it rather jarring. How far we have come, I thought, from the days of our youth when people spoke of divorce in whispers, as a shame – or at least, a misfortune.
And, let me say, before people start defending their life choices and want to start arguing cases with me, I understand – as I think we all do – that there are relationships that are destructive and which need to be ended. That there are people who ought not to be married to each other. Shoot, I’ve met people that I think ought not be married to anybody. So I’m not going to start hammering on divorced people. But how far we have come from the days when people shook their heads and said, “how sad – but I guess it’s for the best” – to a world in which a conservative, evangelical minister like my friend will say, “hey, everybody gets a mulligan!”
Today, of course, the big controversy is not about divorce, but about same-sex marriage. It's surprising to me who finds that okay, and who doesn’t, but in any case, the younger you are, the less likely you are to see a problem in redefining marriage to include same sex couples. They talk of fairness and of equal rights, and besides, all the cool people are for it. But inherent in the discussion of same-sex marriage is a definition of marriage that talks the language of contract, rather than covenant, that sees marriage as something less than we used to see it.
Marriage as a legal contract between any two consenting adults for the equal sharing of government benefits and power of attorney doesn’t seem particularly romantic or fulfilling, ya know? I mean, that’s it? That’s the best you got to offer?
Not to mention that there’s no reason to stop at “any two consenting adults.” I could make a far stronger case, historically, for plural marriage than for same-sex marriage. But not to worry – the polygamists and polyamorists are already seeing their chance at recognition on the horizon, and we haven’t seen the last of the marriage wars, I assure you.
Well, all this has been running through my mind of late, and I have been pondering this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees were much like us, and the best of us, at that. They went to synagogue regularly, they read their Bibles, they tithed and prayed and in all ways took their religion very seriously.
They come to Jesus with some questions about marriage – and they’re surprised at his response. Because Jesus says, You’re missing the point, marriage isn’t about the fine print, or minimum standards, not to mention escape hatches.
But then why are such things allowed, the Pharisees ask? Well, because people are people, replies Jesus, and people fail at things, and you can’t help them succeed by merely outlawing failure – “but in the beginning, it was not so.”
In the beginning it was not so.
Okay, so – in the beginning – how was it? What should we hope for? What should we try for? What should marriage be? Well, now you’re asking.
Jesus immediately takes them back to the saying in Genesis,
Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.The beginning, for Jesus, as for his hearers, is to be found in God’s original design, who made us male and female, not by accident but for our fulfillment. Male and female complement each other in a way that same-sex friendships – even “friends with benefits” – can never do, and both their sexual complementarity and the permanence of their covenant is intended to reflect something of the nature of the relationship that God extends to us: a gift from God and an imitation of his love. As we say in the traditional wedding service, marriage
is an honorable estate, instituted of God, and signifying unto us the mystical union which exists between Christ and his Church...Then, too, the marriage relationship fosters the creation of new life, which is also an imitation of the power of God.
Well, that’s fine for you Christians, say the rest of society, but why should you get to define marriage for the rest of us? Living as we do in a post-Christian age, we must be prepared to deal with such arguments, I suppose. And in that case, the beginnings of marriage must be sought, not in theology, but in anthropology.
Anthropology, not law: for marriage is older than the law, and far older than the State; indeed, marriage is one of those things that make us human, which separate us from other creatures. There, the original design of marriage was not concerned with fulfillment, but survival – for our hunter-gatherer ancestors from whom we derive marriage and the family kept only those things that increased their chances in a world where life was, in Thomas Hobbes’s famous words, “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Last year, I read a book (Catching Fire is the title) which said on the cover that it was a history of cooking. Well, I like to cook, and I thought it was going to be a history of the culinary arts, but it turned out to be some hard-core science. The author maintains that the final step in human development that made us what we are was made possible by our diet, which depended upon processing, and ultimately cooking, our food.
Processing our food was only made possible by the development of stable family relationships. In chimpanzees, where these relationships are lacking, all the animals fight over any food which is found, so gathering it all up and working it over would be pointless. But in human society, where the men hunted and the women gathered, anybody who stole from a woman who gathered for her family would answer to her husband when he got back from the hunt – and to the other men, who had a similar interest in their wives being safe from theft. And the men had weapons.
The family began, anthropologically speaking, from its survival value in sharing food and raising children. Which doesn’t seem very romantic, let alone spiritual, but in any case is about something more than my personal desires, my convenience, “my life” – which is the level most modern discussions of marriage are conducted at.
The original design of marriage – whether you consider the matter theologically or anthropologically – is one where husband and wife lay down their lives for each other, and both lay down their lives for their children, who, when they are grown, do not desert their parents. And this is not a hindrance to “my life,” not a burden, but the way to happiness. Again, quoting the traditional wedding service,
Be well assured that if these solemn vows are kept inviolate, as God Word demands, and if steadfastly you endeavor to do the will of your heavenly Father, God will bless your marriage, will grant you fulfillment in it, and will establish your home in peace.And here’s where I’m going with all this: it gets harder to do that all the time. We have such a skewed and limited understanding of marriage in our society today that those who start out on their path in life are greatly disadvantaged. It’s no wonder they fail so often: they’ve been taught that there is so little to strive for.
And we set huge obstacles in their way, both economic and educational. Young people who have reached the traditional age for marriage and who should be ready, physically and emotionally, to give themselves to each other, build a life together, to welcome children and raise them, find themselves struggling to complete school and start their working lives. Indeed, we have taught them that children are a burden rather than a joy, something that can hinder your job advancement and other life goals. Meanwhile, delaying marriage longer and longer simply means they establish transitory relationships that yield them as much hurt as comfort in the long run, while leaving them with the impression that marriage is just about “a piece of paper.”
And, let’s be honest: our track record on this – we good, church-going folk’s – is no better than the rest of society’s. What we need to be doing – we, the Church -- is helping people succeed at marriage and family life.
It’s tough helping people pick up the pieces of their shattered lives when their most important relationships fall apart; although, to be honest, I do less of it nowadays because so many folks think that their breakups and breakdowns are just the normal run of things, just what happens. So they don’t expect anyone to help; they just withdraw into themselves, lick their wounds, and then start down the same path all over again.
Surely there’s a better way.
My teaching on marriage and family life today isn’t about throwing penalty flags at people who are doing it “wrong,” but about calling us as the body of Christ to support each other in our attempts to do it right.
We need to teach men how to be men – and men of God, at that -- and not just boys in men’s bodies.
We need to teach girls about picking winners and not doubling down on losers in a vain attempt to recoup their losses.
We need to teach that faith, hope, and love – the theological virtues – cannot be enjoyed absent the ordinary traits of good character: responsibility, integrity, hard work, and so on.
We need to emphasize that purity of heart is not an antiquated concept, but the path to God – and we need to recover the language in which to talk about our sin instead of denying it or covering it up.
We need to lift up good examples of successful marriages and foster helpful relationships between different generations of adults.
We need to offer some practical help to those who are overwhelmed by all that life is throwing at them – in terms of child care and financial planning and counseling and tutoring.
We need to lift up the original design of marriage as a covenant of grace and the foundation of all human society. And that means we need to teach people how to lay down their lives for each other, not as doormats but as those who know the value of what they desire.
I asked our youth what they wanted to study at our winter retreat this year, and one of the things they put on the agenda to talk about was sex and relationships. Now, it’s not unusual that teenagers would be interested in such things, but to seek to put it on the agenda for a youth retreat – I gotta tell ya, I was very impressed, very proud, that our youth wanted to talk about sex and relationships as part of their spiritual life. It says a lot about them, and all of it good.
I won’t go into all that was said in that session, but I’ll tell you the advice I gave them at the close of it. I said that I believed in the fairy tale virtues. I don't think "love at first sight" is a requirement, but I think it happens. And I surely believe in "happily ever after." And I reminded them that in many fairy tales, the hero or heroine must face a test – must fulfill a quest, or survive a challenge, or keep a promise. The test is never easy, and there are always good-seeming reasons to turn aside and do other than you said you would. But only those who stay true and are willing to pay the cost of what is demanded of them win through to find their heart’s desire.
And picking a mate, I said, isn’t just about falling in love. To do it right, you should be able to say to yourself, I will face any test, pay any cost, bear any burden, to have my heart’s desire – and you are my heart’s desire. That’s how you know that you’ve valued that relationship rightly.
All love is about sacrifice. Witness Jesus, for God saw the cross in the first nebula he called forth into being, and did it anyway. All love is ultimately about sacrifice, about what you are willing to pay, to achieve your heart’s desire. Learning to value your husband or wife, learning to value your children, then your parents – in that way – is what we need to help each other do. For the original design of marriage is for our good – and intended to lead us to God.