Seeing Marriage More Clearly

What is marriage?  And how should people go about having a good one? 

These are, without a doubt, fundamentally important questions, both for individuals and our society as a whole.  New research by Dave and Amber Lapp among working class young adults (i.e., those with a high school diploma but no college degree) provides a look at how at least some Americans view the answers. What did they find?  They explain in a recent article at The Public Discourse:

Even as working class young adults dream of love, commitment, permanence, and family, they inherit a cultural story about love and marriage that frustrates those longings.  And while there are other factors—both economic and social—this inadequate philosophy of love and marriage helps to account for the “new normal” [of the high rate of births outside of wedlock].

I’m not a social scientist, but one of the many things I found to be interesting about the Lapps’ article was that the “cultural story about love and marriage” that they detail appears to be one that is embraced far more widely than just in working class young adults.  I’ll mention some of the relevant features for you to judge for yourself:

Marriage is essentially about personal happiness. 

This means that although most people view marriage in light of traditional values like commitment and fidelity, they tend to think it makes sense only as long as both spouses are happy, or to put it another way, “love each other.”  It also means that marriages are not necessarily seen as integral for children. 

Love, which is thought of as integral to marital happiness, is thought of primarily as a feeling. 

From the article: “As one woman defined love: ‘You know when your body lights up when you get that first kiss from a guy and your whole body is like in overload? …When you are still with that person in ten years from now, and you still feel the same way.’”

Determining whether the “spark” of love will endure is therefore really important.  And one of the best ways to find out is to live together. 

Research among a nationally representative sample of twentysomethings indicates that 62% of believe “living together before marriage is a good way to avoid eventual divorce.”

For Christians who care about the institution of marriage and all those affected by it—in short, everyone—this narrative has a great many implications.  Two foundational thoughts in response:

First, it’s critical that the church communicates an understanding of marriage that is biblical and realistic. 

Contrast the approach to marriage bound up in the above with this description from Tim and Kathy Keller:

We are defining marriage as a lifelong, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman.  According to the Bible, God devised marriage to reflect his saving love for us in Christ, to refine our character, to create stable human community for the birth and nurture of children, and to accomplish this by bringing the complimentary sexes into an enduring whole-life union (The Meaning of Marriage, 16).

Speaking as both a veteran pastor and husband, here’s Keller again:

Marriage is glorious, but hard.  It’s a burning joy and strength, and yet is also blood, sweat, and tears, humbling defeats and exhausting victories.  No marriage I know more than a few weeks old could be described as a fairy tale come true. …At times, your marriage seems to be an unsolvable puzzle, a maze in which you feel lost. 

I believe all this, and yet there’s no relationship between human beings that is greater or more important that marriage. …And that is why, like knowing God himself, coming to know and love your spouse is difficult and painful—yet rewarding and wondrous (21-22). 

Second, accomplishing the first point will necessarily mean understanding and teaching a biblically shaped view of love.

As Steve Cornell writes over at The Gospel Coalition:

Over the years, people have told me they want to be married because they love each other. I’ve also had people…tell me that they want out of their marriage because they no longer feel love for their mate.

This has led me to ask some serious questions about the nature of love. In my evaluation, I’ve concluded that we need to distinguish two dimensions of love.

1. Being in love

This dimension is the emotional attraction of love. It’s what people mean when they speak of “falling in love.” It’s usually based on more superficial reactions to appearance and first impressions. Clearly, it’s a natural part of human attraction. Though not necessarily wrong, it’s not enough to sustain a meaningful and lasting relationship. It’s far too superficial. Deeply satisfying relationships are built on the second dimension of love.

2. Behaving in love

This dimension does not depend on feelings and chemistry. It’s the love of volition. It’s the choice to respond to my mate in a loving manner, regardless of feelings. This dimension of love is a choice to value my mate and seek his or her best. While I can’t always make myself feel a certain way, I can always choose to act in a loving way.

As Cornell goes on to point out, this view seems to be born out by the fact that the most famous of biblical passages dealing with love speaks of it in terms of actions rather than feelings:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:1-8a).

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