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.
Do I Want to Get Married?
Paul states in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9: “To the unmarried and widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” The distinction is between the good and the better. Here Paul introduces the idea of burning, not of the punitive fires of hell, but of the passions of the biological nature, which God has given us. Paul is speaking very candidly when he points out that some people are not made for celibacy. Marriage is a perfectly honorable and legitimate option even for those who are most strongly motivated by sexual fulfillment and relief from sexual temptation and passion.
The question, Do I want to get married? is an obvious, but very important one. The Bible does not prohibit marriage. Indeed it encourages it except in certain cases where one may be brought into conflict with vocation; but even in that dimension, provisions are left for marriage. So, to desire marriage is a very good thing. A person needs to be in touch with his own desires and conscience.
If I have a strong desire to marry, then the next step is actively to do something about fulfilling that desire. If a person wants a job, he must seriously pursue employment opportunities. When we decide to attend a college or a university, we have to follow the formal routine of making applications, of evaluating various campuses. Marriage is no different; no magic recipe has come from heaven that will determine for us the perfect will of God for a life partner. Here, unfortunately, is where Christians have succumbed to the fairy-tale syndrome of our society. It is a particular problem for young single women who feel that if God wants them to be married, he will drop a marriage partner out of heaven on a parachute or will bring some Prince Charming riding up to their doorstep on a great white horse.
One excruciating problem faced by single women is caused by the unwritten rule of our society that allows men the freedom actively to pursue a marriage partner while women are considered loose if they actively pursue a prospective husband.
No biblical rule says that a woman eager to be married should be passive. There is nothing that prohibits her from actively seeking a suitable mate. On numerous occasions, I’ve had the task of counseling single women who insist at the beginning of the interview that they have no desire to be married, but simply want to work out the dimensions of the celibacy they believe God has imposed upon them.
After a few questions and answers, the scenario usually repeats itself: the young woman begins to weep and blurts out, “But I really want to get married.” When I suggest that there are wise steps that she can take to find a husband, her eyes light up in astonishment as if I had just given her permission to do the forbidden. I have broken a taboo.
Wisdom requires that the search be done with discretion and determination. Those seeking a life partner need to do certain obvious things such as going where other single people congregate. They need to be involved in activities that will bring them in close communication with other single Christians.
In the Old Testament Jacob made an arduous journey to his homeland to find a suitable marriage partner. Isaac did much the same thing. Neither of these patriarchs waited at home for God to deliver them a life partner. They went where the opportunity presented itself to find a marriage partner. The fact that they were men does not imply that such a procedure is limited to males only. Women in our society have exactly the same freedom to pursue a mate by diligent search.
What Do I Want in a Marriage Partner?
A myth has arisen within the Christian community that marriage is to be a union between two people committed to the principle of selfless love. Selfless love is viewed as being crucial for the success of a marriage. This myth is based upon the valid concept that selfishness is often at the root of disharmony and disintegration in marriage relationships. The biblical concept of love says no to acts of selfishness within marital and other human relationships. However, the remedy for selfishness is nowhere to be found in selflessness.
The concept of selflessness is originally one that proceeds from Oriental and Greek thinking where the ideal goal of humanity is the loss of self-identity by becoming one with the universe. The goal of man in this schema is to lose any individual characteristic, becoming one drop in the great ocean. Another aspect of Oriental absorption is the notion of the individual becoming merged with the great Oversoul and becoming spiritually diffused throughout the universe. From a biblical perspective the goal of the individual is not the annihilation or the disintegration of the self, but the redemption of the self. To seek selflessness in marriage is an exercise in futility. The self is very much active in building a good marriage, and marriage involves the commitment of the self with another self based on reciprocal sharing and sensitivity between two actively involved selves.
If I were committed to a selfless marriage, it would mean that in my search for a marriage partner I should survey the scene to find a person for whom I was willing to throw myself away. This is the opposite of what is involved in the quest for a marriage partner. When someone seeks a mate, he should be seeking someone who will enrich his life, who will add to his own self-fulfillment, and who at the same time will be enriched by that relationship.
What are the priority qualities to seek in a marriage partner? One little exercise that many couples have found helpful is based upon freewheeling imagination. While finding a marriage partner is not like shopping for an automobile, one can use the new car metaphor. When one purchases a new car, he has many models from which to choose. With those models there is an almost endless list of optional equipment that can be tacked onto the standard model.
By analogy, suppose one could request a made-to-order mate with all the options. The person engaged in such an exercise could list as many as a hundred qualities or characteristics that he would like to find in the perfect mate. Compatibility with work and with play, attitudes toward parenting, certain skills, and physical characteristics could be included. After completing the list, the person would have to acknowledge the futility of such a process. No human being will ever perfectly fit all the possible characteristics that one desires in a mate.
This exercise is particularly helpful for people who have delayed marrying into their late twenties or early thirties. Such a person sometimes settles into a pattern of focusing on tiny flaws that disqualify virtually every person he meets. After doing the made-to-order mate exercise, he can take the next step: reduce the list to the main priorities. The person involved in this exercise reduces the number of qualifications to twenty, then to ten, and finally to five. Such a reduction forces him to set in ordered priority the things he is most urgently seeking in a marriage partner.
It is extremely important that individuals clearly understand what they want out of the dating and eventually the marital relationship. They should also find out whether their desires in a marriage relationship are healthy or unhealthy. This leads us to the next question regarding counseling.
From Whom Should I Seek Counsel?
Many people resent the suggestion that they seek counsel in their selection of a marriage partner. After all, isn’t such a selection an intensely personal and private matter? However personal and private the decision might be, it is one of grave importance to the future of the couple and their potential offspring, their families, and their friends.
Marriage is never ultimately a private matter because how the marriage works affects a multitude of people. Counsel can be sought from trusted friends, pastors, and particularly from parents.
In earlier periods of Western history, marriages were arranged either by families or by matchmakers. Today the idea of arranged marriages seems primitive and crass. It is totally foreign to our American heritage. We have come to the place where we think that it is our inalienable right to choose one whom we love.
Some things need to be said in defense of the past custom of arranged marriages. One is that happy marriages can be achieved even when one has not chosen his own partner. It may sound outrageous, but I am convinced that if biblical precepts are applied consistently, virtually any two people in the world can build a happy marriage and honor the will of God in the relationship. That may not be what we prefer, but it can be accomplished if we are willing to work in the marital relationship. The second thing that needs to be said in defense of arranged marriages is that in some circumstances, marriages have been arranged on the objective evaluation of matching people together and of avoiding destructive parasitic matchups. For example, when left to themselves, people with significant personal weaknesses, like a man having a profound need to be mothered and a woman having a profound need to mother, can be attracted to each other in a mutually destructive way. Such negative mergings are repeated daily in our society.
It is not my intention to lobby for matched or arranged marriages. I am only hailing the wisdom of seeking parental counsel in the decision-making process. Parents often object to the choice of a marriage partner. Sometimes their objections are based upon the firm conviction that “no one is good enough for my daughter [or son].” Objections like these are based upon unrealistic expectations at best and upon petty jealousy at worst. However, not all parents are afflicted with such destructive prejudices regarding the potential marriage partners of their children. Sometimes the parents have keen insight into the personalities of their children, seeing blind spots that the offspring themselves are unable to perceive. In the earlier example of a person with an inordinate need to be mothered attracting someone with an inordinate need to mother, a discerning parent can spot the mismatch and caution against it. If a parent is opposed to a marriage relationship, it is extremely important to know why.
When Am I Ready to Get Married?
After seeking counsel, having a clear understanding of what we are hoping for, and having examined our expectations of marriage, the final decision is left to us. At this point some face paralysis as the day of decision draws near. How does one know when he or she is ready to get married? Wisdom dictates that we enter into serious premarital study, evaluation, and counseling with competent counselors so that we may be warned of the pitfalls that come in this new and vital human relationship. Sometimes we need the gentle nudge of a trusted counselor to tell us when it is time to take the step. With the breakdown of so many marriages in our culture, increasing numbers of young people fear entering into a marriage contract lest they become “statistics.”
What things need to be faced before taking the actual step toward marriage? Economic considerations are, of course, important. The second greatest reason given for divorce is conflict over finances. Financial pressures imposed upon a relationship already besieged with emotional pressures of other kinds can be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. That is why parents often advise young people to wait until they finish their schooling or until they are gainfully employed so that they can assume the responsibility of a family.
It is not by accident that the creation ordinance of marriage mentions that a man shall leave his father and mother and “cleave unto” his wife and the two shall become one flesh. The leaving and cleaving dimensions are rooted in the concept of being able to establish a new family unit. Here economic realities often govern the preparedness for marriage.
But entering into marriage involves far more than embarking upon new financial responsibilities. The marriage commitment is the most serious one that two human beings can make to each other. I am ready to get married when I am prepared to commit myself to a particular person for the rest of my life, regardless of the human circumstances that befall us.
In order for us to understand the will of God for marriage, it is again imperative that we pay attention to God’s preceptive will. The New Testament clearly shows that God not only ordained marriage and sanctified it--but he also regulates it. His commandments cover a multitude of situations regarding the nitty-gritty aspects of marriage. The greatest textbook on marriage is the sacred Scripture, which reveals God’s wisdom and his rule governing the marriage relationship. If someone earnestly wants to do the will of God in marriage, his first task is to master what the Scripture says that God requires in such a relationship.
What does God expect of his children who are married or thinking about getting married? God expects, among other things, faithfulness to the marriage partner, provision of mutual needs, and mutual respect under the lordship of Christ. Certainly the couple should enhance each other’s effectiveness as Christians. If not, something is wrong.
Now, while celibacy is certainly no less blessed and honorable a state to be in than marriage, we do have to recognize Adam and Eve as our models. God’s plan involved the vital union of these two individuals who would make it possible for the earth to be filled with their “kind.”
Basically I cannot dictate God’s will for anyone in this area any more than I can or would in the area of occupation. I will say that good marriages require hard work and individuals willing to make their marriages work.
Ultimately what happens in our lives is cloaked in the mystery of God’s will. The joy for us as his children is that the mystery holds no terror--only waiting, appropriate acting upon his principles and direction, and the promise that he is with us forever.