There are two views of marriage (writes Martin Davie) which are deeply ingrained in modern Western culture but which fall far short of God’s wise purposes.
1. Marriage as a means of self-fulfilment
We live in an age when individual autonomy and authenticity are highly valued.
Jonathan Grant explains:
Because of our culture’s move away from transcendence, or belief in God as the source of reality, we have come to place the full weight of our personal identity on ordinary life—our material, here-and-now existence. Rather than becoming free and expansive our relationships have become narrow and constrained, having no purpose beyond themselves.
Two problems arise, according to Grant:
(1) the burden they bear becomes overwhelming because of the expectation that all our psychological, emotional, material and sexual needs will met by one remarkable soul mate; and,
(2) the very bond we crave is undermined by the inwardly focused nature of the ‘authentic’ self. We do not so much give ourselves to a relationship as expect the relationship to give to us.
Such an understanding stirs up many questions and doubts: ‘Am I getting what I need from this relationship? Does
it make me happy? Do the benefits to me outweigh the costs?’
‘Because relationships are no longer seen from a transcendent perspective, they are divorced from any other purpose than one’s own personal happiness and intimacy.’ And, ironically, the very person who is seeking personal fulfilment will struggle to commit to another’s personal fulfilment.
The Christian faith says, in contrast, that marriage does have a purpose beyond itself. First, it points toward the marriage between Christ and his church. Second, it provides men and women with love and support as they seek to fulfil God’s purpose for them to be his image-bearers. Third, it offers a stable and supportive environment for children, who can in turn experience the same purposes in their own lives.
Our Christian faith relieves us of the burden of finding all our sense of worth fulfilment within ourselves. It teaches us to look to the needs of the other person, first and foremost. Beyond this, it teaches to look beyond even the other person to God, and to God’s community, so that not even our spouse is expected to meet all our physical and emotional needs. This latter consideration opens the way towards a positive view of the single life.
2. Marriage as founded on romantic love
This approach is, of course, endlessly propagated in the media, and ruthlessly exploited by commercial organisations seeking financial gain.
In this approach, the most important thing is the experience of ‘falling in love’. The relationship will remain healthy (so it is believed) just so long as the feeling of romantic attraction can be kept alive.
From a Christian perspective, such infatuation is not all wrong. It can lift us – for a while – out of our self-centredness and cause us to focus intently on the other. In this way (as C.S. Lewis wrote) it can be an image of and even a preparation for But infatuation may be intense, but it is short-lived.
One problem with the concept of romantic love is that it is used to excuse all sorts of illegal or sinful actions. In the words of C.S. Lewis:
‘It seems to sanction all sorts of actions they would not otherwise have dared. I do not mean solely, or chiefly, acts that violate chastity. They are just as likely to be acts of injustice or uncharity against the outer world. They will seem like proofs of piety and zeal towards Eros. The pair can say to one another in an almost sacrificial spirit, ‘It is for love’s sake that I have neglected my parents—left my children—cheated my partner—failed my friend at his greatest need.’
A second problem with romantic love is that it does not provide a firm foundation for lifelong marriage. Its intense glow will quickly fade, and in order for marriage to be sustained, spadefuls of humility, self-giving love and God-given grace will be needed.
‘The problem in our society is that the quest to discover and express the authentic self has become fused with the desire to perpetually experience romantic love. This means that many people pass on from relationship to relationship, and even from marriage to marriage, seeking each time to rediscover the joys of romantic love, while failing to realise that it was never designed by God to bring them the personal fulfilment for which they are vainly seeking.’