I was reading a story today that was commenting on how marriage is dying as an institution in our society. The story talked about cohabitation and homosexuality, socioeconomic differences, etc. It also pointed out that among Christians, the divorce rate is just as high as among non-Christians, and we as Christians have not held up our end in promoting marriage as a good place to be.
So many times, when I hear Christians talk about marriage, the emphasis put on the promises that we make to each other "For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health."
When a couple comes to the altar and says those vows to each other, usually the joy of the day and being in love mask the depth of what those vows mean. Everything is simply beautiful and dreamy. We're promising our lives, our love to each other forever. Sigh...Image via Wikipedia.
But it is not those promises that join us together. It is God.
When the couple later hits difficult times, and Satan, the World, and our sinful flesh attack , often they are reminded of those promises that they made. And at that time, those promises weigh heavy -- Those vows come back and scream "you haven't done this ....your spouse certainly hasn't done this." "I didn't mean this." "This is going to go on for the rest of my life." "I have NO idea how to fix this. It can't be fixed." And the final conclusion -- "I can't save this. I made a mistake. Fixing this means stopping it."
And often couples get battered over the head and heart by those promises they made that were really too big for them, if keeping them relied solely on them. As Christians, we are not alone in the sustaining of our marriage. The Lord who created marriage is there.
It strikes me that in our baptismal and confirmation rites, when we make promises regarding steadfastness, our oath is "I do, by the grace of God." In the wedding rite, instead of an "I do" or an "I will" the vow really should be "I do, by the grace of God."
Because the strength of the Christian marriage is not the husband's strength or the wife's strength. It is the strength of God. The strength of the very God who sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again. And after the promises that the bride and the groom make to each other, we hear God's promise to us.
"What God has joined together..."
I'm convinced where we are falling down with marriage is that we are marriage pietists. In almost every other aspect of life, when we Lutherans talk about sanctification, we talk about how the Holy Spirit sustains, strengthens, guides us through all things. In teaching and counseling on marriage, the emphasis still tends to be on the promise WE make. Not the promise God makes.
In those words "What God has joined together," He has promised to bless the union that takes place. He promises to sustain it. He promises to guide it and strengthen it. And He promises that He is the one supporting it when it seems like there is absolutely no way that it can last one more day. That marriage didn't rely on the judgment or the feelings that were there when the engagement happened or on the day the vows were made. It wasn't the husband and wife that made that marriage. It is God that made that marriage. He made two people become one. And once he's done that, He's not going to leave it to those two people to keep it together by their own strength. It wasn't a mistake. No matter what the difficulties were, God allowed that marriage to happen and He PROMISES to bless you through your husband or wife.
And just like when we lose our jobs, when we've lost a loved one, when we are called to war, or when we face bankruptcy -- we trust that God will provide and get us through. Its the same with marriage. The answer is not "to suck it up and fly right," the answer is to trust that God will fix it, even when we can't individually find a way, and be patient and wait in that promise.
Social science bears that out -- in study after study, couples who have reported significant marital dissatisfaction, five years later, if they remained together, a vast majority report a great amount of satisfaction with their marriage and happiness. Those who divorced on average report much lower levels of happiness.
The Bible promises that we will have hard times, and that these times of suffering shape us and strengthen us, and that God will not give us more than we can handle. Those bad times happen in marriage, too. I don't know why we don't expect it to. It's the most intimate relationship we will ever have. It is a reflection of Christ's bond with His bride, the Church. Of course, Satan is going to use that to attack us. It is our most vulnerable point. God will sustain us through these times. And these times strengthen us, strengthen our faith, strengthen our bond with each other, and they bless us, just as surely as the romantic dates and the great sex do.
Rather than focusing on the law, we need to focus on the gospel, because it is surely there. God created the marriage that happened between the handsome guy in the tux and the pretty girl in the white gown, not the vows that they repeated or wrote. He will sustain it.
The gospel is that there were no mistakes made on your wedding day, because God sanctioned the marriage. God made the two one. And God was there between you, promising to sustain that marriage. If we base our marriage teaching on this promise and when we counsel those who are in trouble, maybe Christians will be able to stay married simply by doing what we are supposed to do -- lean not on our own understanding, but instead trust in God to provide all that is needed in our marriages, as in everything else. Because He will.
(note: this does not necessarily apply to situations that the Bible addresses -- such as where Christ says that divorce is permissible in cases where the spouse has abandoned the marriage or broken it through adultery. Eventually it becomes impossible to save a marriage when the other person has determined to destroy it)