When my husband and I got married four years ago we discussed whether we ought to write our own wedding vows or use a more traditional format. Traditional wedding vows are pretty comprehensive – for richer and for poorer, for better and for worse, and quite a few things in between. Ultimately, we chose traditional vows, in part, because we liked how they fit with our ceremony. But the main reason that we chose to say our vows this way was that the words felt solid and time tested, spoken by countless couples before us. We figured that if they had worked for others, then they would work for us too.
Maybe if I had known what I was really getting into – what hand we were to be dealt in the first year – I would have have been a bit more cautious about saying yes to those vows. We had no idea at the time that the “better and worse” we were agreeing to would cover career change, living with the in-laws, unemployment, multiple moves, disappointment, intense loneliness, and miscarriage…and that was just the first year.
Now, four years into my marriage, I can say that as comprehensive as our vows were, they were also incredibly vague. It seems that wedding vows are good at establishing what each partner in a marriage will do but are pretty lousy at spelling out how to do that. It’s very noble and romantic to promise to stay married through a variety of extreme circumstances, but actually doing that is another matter entirely.
So how do we follow through with those vows? And what’s the point of staying married if things really get bad?
Many people would say that if a marriage has hit rock bottom, there is not much point in sticking it out. This is the impression given by the media, advice columns, and the slew of opinions expressed via social media. The general consensus in American culture today is that a marriage is worthwhile as long as the two people involved are happy and are in love with their partner.
According to D’Vera Cohn’s article Love and Marriage for the Pew Research Center, most Americans believe that love is the primary foundation of a marriage. In fact, “in a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, love wins out over ‘making a lifelong commitment’ as well as ‘companionship,’ ‘having children,’ and ‘financial stability’ as a very important reason to wed.”
The trouble with love and happiness is that they are emotions, and, as C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all.” Despite the fact that the majority of the people seem to think that marriage is based on these emotions, I believe there is more of a reason to stay married than whether or not I feel happy or in love with my spouse at this present moment.
What is it, then, that gives meaning and purpose to a marriage when things get rough and the good feelings run out?
The answer to that question, from the Christian point of view, is quite a few things. The starting point for the Christian understanding of the purpose of marriage is in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Many Christians believe that the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first humans, is also the part of the Bible where God most clearly lays out the intention and purpose for marriage.
Reflecting God’s Character
In Genesis 1:26-27 (ESV) we see the creation of man and woman, and the first indicator of God’s purpose for marriage:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
In this passage, God reveals his nature as a relational being – in speaking to himself he references the Trinity, that he is the three distinct persons of God the Father, God the Son (manifested in the person of Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit while still being one God. When God creates man and woman in his image, he endows them with characteristics that he has – reason, language, creativity, and capacity for relationships. In a marriage, the husband and wife are intended to reflect the character of God through their relationship to one another.
Reflecting the character of God in the marriage relationship is also apparent in the directive that man and woman are to have dominion over the created world. This verse is also understood to mean that the man and woman will take care of, tend to, or be stewards of the world around them. This isn’t something that is told to the man or the woman as individuals, but rather the intention is that they will work together at this in unity, as one entity, thus further reflecting the oneness of God.
Husband and wife are intended to reflect the character of God through their relationship to one another.
I want to pause here and address the fact that, when talking about the purpose of marriage, it can be easy to alienate those who are single. Though Christians look to this passage in Genesis to understand the purpose of marriage, it is worth noting that the marriage relationship is not the only way that Christians reflect God’s relational nature. Men and women – as individuals – are each fully made in the image of God. By engaging in relationships with family, church, and community, we can demonstrate the relational aspects of God, as well as his other characteristics.
God reveals even more about his purpose for marriage in the verse that follows this passage. Genesis 1:28 (ESV) says, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” This verse is the basis for the view that many Christians hold that raising children is a key part of God’s plan for marriage.
While this passage instructs men and women to reproduce, procreation doesn’t come easy for everyone. In their article Together for The Center for Biblical Equality, Tim and Anne Evans explain, “This procreation mandate is not limited to biological parenthood; it includes adoption, foster parenting, and caring for spiritual children. Parenting allows us to remember that ‘it’s not about me.’”
Learning To Love
This is the difference between the current culture and Christianity’s perception of the purpose of marriage: Contrary to what the world around me may say, marriage isn’t solely about me and making me happy. Later in the Bible, Jesus reiterates how we can best honor God with our lives, when he repeats the greatest commandments in Mark 12:30-31, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Marriage is about both loving God. It’s also about loving people. Marriage allows me the opportunity to learn to love people (specifically my spouse) the way God loves him, at both his best and his worst. Sometimes loving my spouse in this way is easy, and sometimes it is a challenge. However, marriage is ultimately one of the best ways to learn to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
But given that loving someone the way that God loves me isn’t always an easy task, can a marriage still reflect the nature of God if two spouses are struggling to do this?
While God intends marriage to be about living out the greatest commandments, he does not intend for it to be an unpleasant experience for the couple involved. One of the key purposes for marriage is also companionship. Genesis 2:18 states, “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Up until this point, everything that God has made has been good. The man’s loneliness deviates from this and must be amended.
So God brings someone else into the picture as a helper for the man. It’s easy to be put off by the word “helper.” I tend to associate this word with someone in a subordinate position. This isn’t the case here–in this context, “helper” means “one who supplies strength in an area that is lacking”. When the woman is created to meet this need for the man, she is neither inferior or superior but a perfect match for him.
The oneness or intimacy that is possible inside of marriage is echoed in the man’s response to meeting the woman for the first time, when he exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23a). “Companionship” seems too weak a word to describe the depth of relational unity that is present here. The man uses a phrase that, in ancient cultures, was used exclusively to describe blood relatives. Here, he uses it for the woman, indicating that marriage is intended to create one of the most intimate of human relationships.
A significant factor in fostering the intimacy of the marriage relationship is sex. Sure, we’ve already addressed the fact that one of the aims of marriage in the Christian understanding is to procreate. But not all sex is procreative in nature; much of the time, it is about building a connection between spouses. As Madeleine L’Engle says in her book The Irrational Season, “Until [my husband] and I started our first baby, our love-making was a discovery of each other, was creating this strange new creature, a marriage.”
So when we break it down, we can see that there is a lot more to God’s intent and purpose for a Christian marriage than happiness and feeling “in love.” The marriage relationship is intended to reflect the nature and character of God, to allow for a couple to work in unity as stewards of the world, to procreate, to learn to love, to provide companionship, and to allow for a truly intimate human relationship.