Recently, a newly wed friend asked me this question. “What’s the purpose of marriage? Sometimes I think of it as free sex and housekeeping. Is marriage just an arrangement of living off my husband financially in exchange for taking care of a home and making meals?”
From a purely pragmatic perspective, my friend is right. Marriage is an arrangement of bartering goods and services. Even in a less traditional marriage, the husband may provide nurturing, sex and childcare while the wife “brings home the bacon.” Marriage also provides an exchange of less tangible goods, like companionship and emotional support.
If marriage is only a fair exchange of goods and services, then it makes perfect sense to live together without the paper making it legal. After all, a man and woman can exchange all of these things without being married. And if this is how we view marriage, we should dissolve marriages when the exchange between husband and wife is no longer fair. In reality, this is why most marriages fall apart. The “arrangement” is no longer working.
But marriage is much, much more. The true meaning of marriage has nothing to do with fairness or equity. Wedding vows have never said, “I promise to give you as much as you give me” or “I will love you as long as our relationship is equitable.” Marriage is not an agreement, but was designed from the beginning of time to be a covenant.
A Design Written Within Our Bodies
At its core, marriage is not a cultural invention to keep people civilized. Yes, the research has proven that cultures that affirm marriage are far more stable than those who do not. This is because we were designed for marriage, and life works better when we live according to God’s design.
The essence of marriage is written within our bodies.
I have three teenagers. Why around the age of puberty have all three boys become fascinated with girls? If you have girls, I’m certain you’ve seen the same “awakening” in them. Why in young adulthood is there a tension between choosing intimacy verses staying safe and isolated? Why is it only within the context of the promise of “till death do us part” do we finally have the freedom to stop performing for the person we love? And why is there no pain like the pain of sexual betrayal and exploitation?
These are not random evolutionary qualities within humanity. They speak to a design … a plan… a story written within our bodies. Within every one of us is a cry for intimacy, a longing to be known, and the drive to express fully the joy of love. Those urges can be squelched by fear and even rejected because of the pain we’ve experienced, but they will never completely go away.
A Story Written on Our Hearts
The drama of romantic love and the fulfillment of it within marriage speak of the story of God’s love for us. Every high and low, the pain of longing and the ecstasy of expressing love, and even the tedium of faithfulness during boring times are shadows of the universal drama of the Gospel.
So often in our relationship with God, we view Him as a transaction. We can think of religion as just another exchange of goods. If I please God and do what is right, than He owes me happiness, success, and health. When that “contract” seems to be broken, we may walk away from God to find another cosmic relationship with a god who will play fair. But God never offers you a contract. Instead, He extends a covenant…. a vow that can never be broken. “While you were yet a sinner, I died for you” and “I will never leave you or forsake you.” He asks for complete trust and fidelity, even during times when our relationship with Him makes no sense.
A Gospel Displayed Through our Lives
My friend’s new marriage has little to do with who cooks the meals and how often they have sex. These are the everyday expressions of the promise she and her husband made to live out the Gospel in front of a watching world. Through the disappointments and challenges, their love will be tested. Someday they will face a crossroads of truth: Have we simply agreed to a contract of fairness or have we committed to a vow of love?
The greatest impact of our culture’s rejection of marriage (and there are many!) is that the most tangible metaphor of the Gospel has all but disappeared. Rarely do you meet a couple that grasps that their vows are about more than their own personal happiness and fulfillment.
I have the privilege of having a mom and dad who are still married and loving each other after 55 years. They have faced illness, financial stress, sharp disagreements, successes and failures. The example they have lived before me not only gives me hope for my marriage, but also gives me a glimpse of what it means to make a covenant of love and keep it.
While our society preaches the supremacy of personal happiness and fulfillment above all else, the call to fidelity and commitment will never completely disappear from humanity. Why? Because the hope of all that marriage represents is written on our hearts with indelible marker.