God’s Will and Your Marriage (pt. 1)
(Continued from God’s Will and Your Job)
Perhaps in no other area of human activity do Christians expend more decision-making energy than in the area of marriage. No wonder, since the decisions relevant to the marital relationship have such far-reaching effects on our lives. How a person feels about his marital status determines, in large part, his sense of fulfillment, his productivity, and his self-image. The reality and the seriousness of the marital relationship are brought home when we realize that the one who knows us most intimately; the one before whom we are the most fragile and vulnerable; and the one who powerfully shapes and influences our lives—this one is none other than our marriage partner. That is why entering into the marital relationship is not something anyone should take lightly.
Now, before we tackle the general question, Is it God’s will for me to marry? several specific questions need to be considered.
Should I Get Married?
The answer to this question is often assumed by our culture. From early childhood most of us absorb the idea that marriage is a natural and integral part of normal life. From the fairy-tale characters Snow White and Prince Charming, the romantic plays of Shakespeare, and the mass media heroes and heroines, we receive signals that society expects us to be numbered among the married. Should we fail to fulfill this cultural expectation, we are left with the nagging feeling that perhaps something is wrong with us, that we are abnormal.
If a young man reaches the age of thirty without getting married, he is suspected of having homosexual tendencies. If a woman is still single by thirty, it is often tacitly assumed that she has some defect that makes her unattractive as a marriage partner, or worse, has lesbian preferences. Such assumptions are by no means found in the Scriptures.
From a biblical perspective the pursuit of celibacy is indicated in some instances as a legitimate option. Under other considerations it is viewed as a definite preference. Though we have our Lord’s blessing on the sanctity of marriage, we also have his example of personal choice to remain celibate, obviously in submission to the will of God. Christ was celibate not because of homosexual leanings or from a lack of the masculine traits necessary to make him desirable as a life partner. Rather, his divine purpose obviated the destiny of marriage, making it crucial that he devote himself entirely to the preparation of his bride, the church, for his future wedding.
The most important biblical instruction that we have regarding celibacy is given by Paul in a lengthy passage from 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.
Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I have the Spirit of God.
The teaching of the apostle Paul in this matter of marriage has been subjected to serious distortions. Some observe in this text that Paul is setting forth a contrasting view of marriage that says celibacy is good and marriage is bad, particularly for Christians called to service in the interim period between the first advent of Christ and his return. However, even a cursory glance at the text indicates that Paul is not contrasting the good and the bad, but rival goods. He points out that it is good to opt for celibacy under certain circumstances. Moreover, it is also good and quite permissible to opt for marriage under other circumstances. Paul sets forth the pitfalls that a Christian faces when contemplating marriage. Of prime consideration is the pressure of the kingdom of God on the marriage relationship.
Nowhere has the question of celibacy been more controversial than in the Roman Catholic church. Historically Protestants have objected that the Roman Catholic church, by imposing upon its clergy a mandate beyond the requirements of Scripture itself, has slipped into a form of legalism. Though we agree that Scripture permits the marriage of clergy, it indicates, at the same time, that one who is married and serving God in a special vocation does face the nagging problems created by a divided set of loyalties—his family on one hand; the church on the other. Unfortunately the dispute between Protestants and Catholics over mandatory celibacy has become so heated at times that Protestants have often reacted to the other extreme, dismissing celibacy as a viable option. Again let us return to the focus of Paul’s word which sets forth a distinction between rival goods. His distinction, in the final analysis, allows the individual to decide what best suits him or her.
Paul in no way denigrates the honorable “estate” of marriage, but rather affrrms what was given in creation: the benediction of God over the marriage relationship. One does not sin by getting married. Marriage is a legitimate, noble, and honorable option set forth for Christians.
Another aspect regarding the question, Should I get married? moves beyond the issue of celibacy to whether a couple should enter into a formal marriage contract or sidestep this option by simply living together. In the last thirty years the option of living together, rather than moving into a formal marriage contract, has proliferated in our culture. Christians must be careful not to establish their precepts of marriage (or any other ethical dimension of life) on the basis of contemporary community standards. The Christian’s conscience is to be governed not merely by what is socially acceptable or even by what is legal according to the law of the land, but rather by what God sanctions.
Unfortunately, some Christians have rejected the legal and formal aspects of marriage, arguing that marriage is a matter of private and individual commitment between two people who have no further legal or formal requirements. These view marriage as a matter of individual private decision apart from external ceremony. The question most frequently asked of clergymen on this matter reflects the so-called freedom in Christ: Why do we have to sign a piece of paper to make it legal?
The signing of a piece of paper is not a matter of affixing one’s signature in ink to a meaningless document. The signing of a marriage certificate is an integral part of what the Bible calls a covenant. Biblically, there is no such thing as a private marriage contract between two people. A covenant is done publicly before witnesses and with formal legal commitments that are taken seriously by the community. The protection of both partners is at stake; there is legal recourse should one of the partners act in a way that is destructive to the other.
Contracts are signed out of the necessity spawned by the presence of sin in our fallen nature. Because we have an enormous capacity to wound each other, sanctions have to be imposed by legal contracts. Contracts not only restrain sin, but also protect the innocent in the case of legal and moral violation. With every commitment I make to another human being, there is a sense in which a part of me becomes vulnerable, exposed to the response of the other person. No human enterprise renders a person more vulnerable to hurt than does the estate of marriage.
God ordained certain rules regulating marriage in order to protect people. His law was born of love and concern and compassion for his fallen creatures. The sanctions God imposed upon sexual activity outside of marriage do not mean that God is a spoilsport or a prude. Sex is an enjoyment he himself has created and given to the human race. God, in his infinite wisdom, understands that there is no time that human beings are more vulnerable than when they are engaged in the most intimate activity known to human beings. Thus he cloaks this special act of intimacy with certain safeguards. He is saying to both the man and the woman that it is safe to give one’s self to the other only when there is a certain knowledge of a lifelong commitment behind it. There is a vast difference between a commitment sealed with a formal document and declared in the presence of witnesses before family, friends, and authorities of church and state, and a whispered hollow promise breathed in the backseat of an automobile.
This is part fourteen of R.C. Sproul’s book How Can I Know God’s Will?. If you would like to study this topic further, here are a couple of products that may interest you: Knowing God’s Will CD Collection or Knowing God’s Will MP3 Collection.