As Anna and I prepare to celebrate 5 years of marriage, I’ve been thinking about what marriage means and why it exists. This past week, one of our small groups broke up into guys and girls and wrote out a biblical theology of marriage—in 20 minutes. The girls wrote eloquently, and the guys, perhaps predictably, came up mostly with bullet points. But the exercise was a useful one in examining the what and why, and who, of marriage.
An unmarried reader, who has been affected by someone else’s addiction to pornography, wrote to ask about the why of matrimony in a world that has destroyed most semblances of a Biblical view of marriage and sexuality. I’ve included an edited version of the admittedly long response below. I hope it serves as an encouragement to you as well, whether you are hopeful to be married, are in preparations for marriage, or are living out the profound mystery of Christ-like marriage:
Thank you so much for writing and for sharing your heart on this issue. I hope what I write will be of help to you–as an encouragement, as a reminder of the goodness of God, and as a loving push towards an answer rooted deep in God’s word.
First, I’m sorry you’ve had to experience the consequences of someone else’s addiction. Pornography, much like any addiction, feels like a personal thing to the addict–something we deal with ourselves, something that needs to be fixed ourselves, and something that doesn’t hurt other people. But this kind of sin always affects others–it reaches into our relationships, and clouds our judgment, and hurts those we love in ways we don’t understand. I don’t know if it’s simply the consequence of sin that has the ability to affect others, or if by sinning, we invite our enemy to take a large role of influence in our relationships. But either way, there’s grace from God to heal these situations. Pray for him, that he would find his ultimate satisfaction in intimacy with God, not in the false intimacy of pornography. And pray for yourself, that God would continue to heal your heart, helping you to forgive.
Your question–How can a marriage be special in a world where temptation is so prevalent–is a poignant one. And the answer is simple, and complex. The simple answer is this: marriage is not about you, or me, or any of us; marriage is ultimately about God. So it is special, and holy, because of Who it came from and What it’s meant to show.
If you are interested in the complex answer, my understanding would go something like this: The design of marriage in the beginning, and our view of marriage today, are two mountain peaks separated by an impassible gap. Our human view of marriage, particularly a worldly view of marriage, has been cheapened to such a degree that we are numb to the gloriously high view of marriage in the Bible. Today, marriage is often reduced to a business contract–if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain, then I’ll leave the partnership and go find someone else who will. Or marriage serves as a means to serve ourselves–to find someone who will do things for us, to take care of our needs. When marriage gets hard, we’re far too prone to blame, too quick to leave.
So how high is the Bible’s view of marriage? Jesus says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). And when he describes the conditions of marriage, and the prohibition against remarriage, His disciples respond by saying, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (19:10). In other words, if God’s view is that marriage is meant to last until death, and that man should not separate what God has joined together, then aren’t we better off not even marrying? The standards are just too high!
Of course, we don’t see God’s standard for marriage as this high, and part of the reason is that we misunderstand the nature and purpose of marriage. I mentioned earlier that marriage is special, not primarily because of us, but because of Who it came from and What it’s meant to show. The way John Piper says it is like this: “Most foundationally, marriage is the doing of God. And ultimately, marriage is the display of God.”
What Piper means when he says that marriage is the doing of God is this: marriage was designed by God (Gen 2:24-25), and the one-flesh union in marriage is a work of God. Jesus, in Mark 10:8-9, first quotes Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”) before saying: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” This is the Who part of marriage. So the first thing we say about marriage is that it is something God does, not something we do, and because it is a work of God, it is good.
When Piper says that marriage is the display of God, he is pointing to Paul’s statement in Ephesians 5:31-32. Paul also quotes Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” But then he makes a truly remarkable statement: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” This is What part of marriage. And the second thing we say about marriage is that it is a display of God.
How is marriage a display of God? For Paul, the profound mystery points to the relationship between Christ and His bride, the Church. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor…that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). And it is in this display of God’s faithfulness to His people, His continual forbearance and sacrificial love towards them, and His forgiveness of their sins, that we see the true meaning, and the sacred calling, of marriage.
This isn’t all the Bible has to say about marriage. There are other good things that the Bible points to in marriage: help, companionship, sexual fulfillment, procreation, enjoyment. And these good things should be received from God as gifts–good gifts from a loving Father. But ultimately, marriage is a picture to the world of the relationship Jesus has towards His people. This is why marriage in any setting, and Christian marriage in every setting, is not about us: it serves, alongside all other things, to point to Jesus (“all things were created…for him…that in everything he might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:16, 18)).
So how do we deal with the gap in our view of marriage? How do we cross from the peak of human understanding to the peak of divine understanding? It happens first through Jesus, by God’s grace, as we persist in faith, believing in God to guide us into marriage (if He so leads) and to redeem our marriages, in spite of our sin, for His glory and our joy. And it happens second through our battling our own notions of marriage with the armies of Scripture–to let God define what marriage is, why it exists, and how it means to work.
This is all fine and well, but what does it practically mean for us? How does all this help you to consider marriage in a world that has made it worthless? To answer, we have to go back to God’s word.
Part of the result, and curse, from the Fall is that sin and death entered the world. “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). The reason men look at pornography, and women sell their bodies, and the world worships sexuality, is that sin has corrupted God’s design for marriage and healthy sexual relationships. Another curse from the Fall is that men and women now have conflicted desires. Genesis 3:16 says to the woman, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing…[and] your desire shall be for (against) your husband, and he shall rule over you.” In God’s original design, the husband and wife lived together in the Garden of Eden in a unique relationship–to one another and to God. The man was made to tend to the garden, and the woman was made to help him. Both enjoyed fellowship with God and a right relationship towards one another.
But after the fall, these relationships broke. God was no longer their primary source for love; now Adam and Eve sought to satisfy their desires in each other, rather than in God. For the woman, her desire was for (or against) her husband. She desires to rule over him, but he will rule over her. And she feels incomplete in this battle. The identity she finds in him does not satisfy her soul. The love she looks to him for does not satisfy her soul, because she was created to be satisfied by Another. And the man likewise feels incomplete. He rules over his wife, but he is wont to abuse this. He begins to see his wife as existing to serve His needs, but she cannot satisfy his soul, because he was created to be satisfied by Another.
Recognizing this will go a long way in helping you overcome your fears of the sin that might arise in marriage. If you see God as the Great Satisfier of your soul, you will not go into marriage expecting something of your husband that he cannot fulfill. And because your identity is in Christ, first and foremost, rather than your husband, then his sin, if and when it shows up, will not destroy you. And also know that a man, by God’s grace, can join alongside Job, who made a covenant with his eyes not to look upon a young woman with lust (Job 31:1). God’s Spirit can give men new desires, desires to love and serve their wives, and desires to honor them as women worthy of the greatest kinds of love.
Let God sanctify your marriage. Let God tell you that it will be special. Battle your fears with faith–believe God when He tells you that marriage is good, and for His glory, and for your joy.
One of the books that helped my wife understand the temptation that men (not only men, but mostly men) face in this area was Every Man’s Battle. If you haven’t read it, you might consider doing so. But it may be a bit of a jarring experience for you. If you read it, read it to understand the nature and heart of a sinful man–that all men are sinners, and all face temptation, but that many are made righteous by God in Jesus and experience freedom from the bondage of lust. Be wary of despair in reacting to what you read; this despair will not from God, but it may come as other fears or insecurities arise in your heart. There is grace from God to heal those as well.
Another book I commend to you is This Momentary Marriage by John Piper. It gives, from what I’ve read, the best Biblical articulation of what marriage is meant for and how it should work.
If and when God leads you into marriage, he will be leading you into a life of loving and serving your husband, not yourself. That will mean praying for your husband, and helping him to be a man of God, respecting him, and submitting to his leadership, and forgiving him when he sins, and encouraging him in his walk with God. And God will lead your husband into a life of loving and serving you, not himself. That will mean his praying for you, and helping you to be a woman of God, and loving and leading you with a sacrificial kind of love, and forgiving you when you sin, and encouraging you in your walk with God.
But in even preparation for marriage, and in the midst of marriage, remember Asaph’s words in Psalm 73: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” God is your portion, not your husband. God is your greatest treasure, not your husband. God is your first love, not your husband. If we put these first things first, as CS Lewis says, we get second things, like joy in marriage, thrown in with it!
Question: How would you write the purpose of marriage in one sentence?