Thoughts on Christian marriage

I want to write a post about Christian marriage. The point will be this: Christian marriage is a counter-cultural act.

It is to intentionally promise something that you cannot possibly understand — to live a life with another person come what may — and to stand by that promise because doing so shapes who you are and teaches what it means to love.

Marriage is cruciform. It is dying to self. It is learning to love as perfectly as Jesus Christ loves us.

You see, we get love all wrong. Hollywood has trained us poorly. Or perhaps it has trained us all too well.

Love is not about raging glands and sweaty hormones. It is not the final scene of You’ve Got Mail when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks finally embrace in the park while the golden retriever cavorts at their feet.

That is all a beginning. But it is not love fully realized.

Love is long-term. It works slowly because the human heart is a stone that resists change. Like water, love works patiently.

And so marriage is the binding together of a man and a woman to give love time to do its work on them and between them and with them.

Marriage, therefore, is often hard. Often it is so hard you don’t think you can do it any more. And in our culture the message more often than not is to give up trying, search for greener pastures, take care of you first.

I’m not trying to romanticize anything here. There are marriages that are a perversion and abomination. People abuse the one they are supposed to love or neglect them or bleed them dry. If marriage is a school for love, some of us fail horribly at the test. Some marriages are a mockery of the name marriage and should be broken. The church should help those battered by such false marriages in every way it can.

But every marriage has its hard and terrible places where two sinners, two broken and incomplete people, crash against each other like wild animals caught in a cage. It can be terrifying at times.

This is why we need the church around us to love us and remind us who we are and whose we are. This is why we need gray-headed veterans of marriage to remind us that this is for life and that it does last and does give life.

An old navy veteran turned turkey farmer and I were talking one day about his wife who was dying of cancer. I said it must be difficult to have the one he’d spent a life with in such pain and to see her slipping away. He looked at me with both a gleam and a tear in his eye, and said, “When we got married, I signed a life-time contract.” I took him to mean, this is what love does.

I was not a Christian when I got married. I did not understand any of this at the time. And I’m sure I understand it incompletely even now. Don’t read this post as a dogmatic pronouncement.

But my belief is that God calls men and women into marriage to teach us how to love each other. We are often very bad students, and so require time. We are often very bad students, and so must learn how to forgive each other. We are often very bad students, and so our children are hurt by the living with those who still are figuring out how to love.

I think God wants us to keep sex inside of marriage because sex without love is a dangerous and destructive thing. It damages our soul and crushes our spirits. Even among the married — as we often do not really know how to love each other that well — sex can be destructive. Sex can be a flame that invigorates and warms a bond of love, or it can be a consuming fire that destroys.

I don’t think the thought and opinion shapers in our culture would disagree with most of this. But they do not really believe it, as best as I can tell. The idea that “I just gotta do what’s best for me” always hovers beneath the surface.

Christian marriage says that we do not know what is best for me outside of a life defined by love. Of course, not everyone marries. Some souls learn to love outside the bonds of marriage. Singleness is a holy vocation to learn to love as Jesus did. St. Francis lived among us. His disciples remain, although we often fail to appreciate their witness.

Those of us not called to singleness, however, find we need to learn to love in growing circles. We learn to love one other. We learn to love the children that God brings into our lives. And, if we are good students, we learn to love our neighbors and enemies. We learn to love as Jesus Christ loves us.

My seminary professors like to remind me from time to time that blogging and serious theological writing are different things. So I have no illusions that this post is complete or systematically sound. But it is my understanding of what we mean when we speak of Christian marriage.

I don’t think what I describe here is what our federal courts mean by “marriage.” I certainly don’t think it is what Kim Kardashian or other popular culture icons mean by the word.

I do think it is at least close to what the church means by marriage, which I hope and trust is close to what God desires and designs for us.

Hauerwas, Rolling Stone, and Mars Hill

It is probably because I’m reading Resident Aliens again, but I keep hearing Stanley Hauerwas when I’m reading other things.

For instance, this Christianity Today piece on this Rolling Stone article about the sex lives and norms of Millennials strikes me as something straight out of Hauerwas. (BTW, read the Rolling Stone piece and tell me again how polyamory is not something the church needs to be able to talk about.)

The gist of the CT piece is the author’s shock at the sexual norms of Millennials followed by the realization that advocating for conventional biblical sexual norms will either be drowned out or will drive people away from the church. Instead, the author comes to realize, all that talk about what to do with our private parts is intended not for the pagan culture outside the church but for those inside the church trying to live a new people.

From the records we have, we can deduce that Paul talked about sex with people who were already within a church community. He didn’t stand up on Mars Hill in Athens and preach about immorality. He told the story of Jesus, the one who rose from the dead. He didn’t argue about “lifestyle issues” with pagans. If he argued about anything, it was about grace and truth and love. And then he told the story of Jesus again. (See Acts 13, and Acts 17 for two examples.)

Of course Paul writes plenty about sex, but again, he does so to people in Christian communities and he almost always does so in the context of whole-life change. Sex is one moral issue amidst a host of others. Paul assumes that for these Christians to change—whether in what they eat or who they sleep with or how they talk or anything else—Paul assumes change will be radical, positive, and ongoing. He assumes it will only happen with the help of the Spirit, in the context of Christian community, and only as they grow up in the knowledge and love of Christ.

Christian speech is only intelligible inside the community called church. This sounds a lot like Hauerwas to me.

The writer concludes that she should not speak of biblical morality at all outside the church community. I’m not convinced that is the right approach.

I’m certainly not advocating getting on a soap box and screaming “fornicators!” at people on the street. But there is something to be said, I think, for the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord and he offers something that all the sexual exploits in the world cannot. When Paul stood up in Athens, he did not shy away from saying he knew something about God that all their searching and striving had missed.

We should never be smug. To be a Christian is to be humble and meek. But I don’t think we want to hide the holiness of Jesus Christ under a basket.

I could be argued out of this thought. What do you think?

Do you love God?

Do you love God?

That is the first great commandment, yes?

Love God.

Do you love God?

Please note, this question is not “Do you think highly of God?” or “Do you admire God?” or “Do you like it when God does good stuff for you?” or even “Do you sing a good praise song and lift your hands in worship?”

Do you love God?

Of course, if you do not know God, the answer must be “no.” We cannot love the idea of God or the rumor of God. We must know God to love him.

Too many Christians spend their spiritual might trying love a God they neither know nor experience. They try. They say all the right words. They do all the right things. But they, as John Wesley put it once, have no more love of God than a stone.

And as a stone our hearts will remain until our eyes of faith are opened to the great truth that we tell during Holy Week. Jesus Christ loved you, loved me, so much that he died to free us from sin and death. He knelt in the garden that night — when he could have run — because he loved us. He bore the lash because he loves us. He took the nails because he loves us. He died humiliated, tortured, and mocked because he loves us.

Do you know how much God loves you?

Do you know?

Do you know?

The words we use #LukeActs2014

But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. (Luke 15:32, NRSV)

I had a conversation with someone not too long ago who said it was offensive for the church to speak of “the lost.”

The gist of the complaint was that it imposed a category on people that they did not choose themselves. The sense was that this was a kind of verbal colonialism or oppression.

I have to confess, I always think of Stanley Hauerwas when I hear these kinds of statements.

Hauerwas argues that one of the fundamental challenges of the church is to get our language right, to learn how to name and describe the world as Christians. What we are generally offered instead of Christian speech are the words that pass for noncontroversial in our consumer society. To the extent that the world is not Christian — and it manifestly is not — the world will always resist the names Christians use.

Put another way, Hauerwas writes that it is a great moral achievement to be able to call ourselves sinners. It is a moral achievement because it means we are speaking in ways that only make sense if Jesus Christ is the defining center and focal point of the community we call church.

And so, we do use words such as “lost” and “found” and “sinner” and “saved.” We do it because these words — properly used and understood — describe the world in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These words give us the vocabulary to understand who we are. These words give us reason to celebrate like the angels in heaven when something as ordinary happens as a man getting down on his knees and asking God to lead him home again.