Toward a Positive Understanding of Marriage
Both topics presume that listeners already have some positive teachings about Christian marriage, before they address the ways sin can corrupt it. Last week we touched on the concept of "one flesh" in Genesis 2, Ephesians 5, and 1 Cor. 6:9-20. In addition, Gilbert Meilaender gives this helpful precis in his First Things article, "Marriage in Counterpoint and Harmony:"
In any case, for Christian spouses who understand marriage as a sphere in which we begin to be trained in the meaning and discipline of fidelity, marriage will be understood as a task. Committing themselves to lifelong union, they must learn in the countless ways appropriate to different marriages the meaning of our fellow-humanity, the hard work of being faithful in the whole of life to one who is not just an-other person but who-within this marriage-remains "other." C. S. Lewis came to marriage late in life, long after writing the passage I have cited above. But he was able to say, after the death of his wife, what commitment to that bond made possible. He wrote in A Grief Observed (1966):
We did learn and achieve something. There is, hidden or flaunted, a sword between the sexes till an entire marriage reconciles them. It is arrogance in [men] to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry "masculine" when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in [women] to describe a man's sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as "feminine." But also what poor, warped fragments of humanity most mere men and mere women must be to make the implications of that arrogance plausible. Marriage heals this. Jointly the two become fully human. "In the image of God created he them." Thus, by a paradox, this carnival of sexuality leads us out beyond our sexes.
To begin this work of correction and transformation is a task at the very heart of the marriage bond.
If Meilaender is correct, that [Christian] marriage is the task of correction and transformation so that, together, both husband and wife image Christ to the world, then the question must be asked of each spouse: how has marriage corrected and transformed you, so that you incarnate the faith, hope and love of Jesus Christ? But this is all pretty abstract. I need to find a way to make it more accessible to the teens I will be speaking with, so it seems natural to portray Christian marriage as a spiritual "school." Here is part of what I am thinking of saying.
Relating this to Teens
In taking vows of Christian marriage, we have applied and been accepted into the Jesus School of Marriage, to be trained to reflect Him through a one-flesh relationship with someone different from ourselves.
There are some strange things about His school:
1) There are countless ways to fail and ultimately to drop out:
- by not paying proper attention and respect to the Teacher or to one's classmates
- by failing to do one's "home" work
- by displacing the Teacher or His designated subs and attempting to take the Teacher's place oneself
- by getting into brawls
- by cutting class
- by cheating
2) If one partner drops out, the other must drop out as well.
3) There is only one way to "graduate:" together.
Marriage is not His only school, but once we've enrolled, there are just two ways out: to drop out or to graduate. The closer one gets to graduation, the more one experiences unity without uniformity--exactly what each person of the Trinity experiences. This requires a lot of changes for us as fallen men and women. But upon graduation, we are taken up into the very life of God, finally fit to fully give and receive the love that each of the Persons of the Trinity has enjoyed from eternity, for all eternity.
Transformation and Fear
Now transformation is a scary thing. It means losing some familiar part of ourselves in order to receive something new and different. It means "losing control" and trusting Christ to change us. It means focusing on Him, and not on self. Now in our fallen state, the more control we have over situations, the less we tend to be fearful. But the flip side to that is the less practice we get having to deal with fear. When we find ourselves in positions where we no longer have control, and inevitably, fear hits us, there are different ways we can cope.
Here are two popular but disastrous ways:
1) we can think we are responsible for everything and so try to control everything. Here, faithfulness is distorted to mean micro-managing. This just sets us up for failure and even more fear. (Aristotle would call this the vice of excess.)
2) we can opt out, drop out, refuse to be responsible. Here faithfulness is distorted to mean "to thine own self be true." We rationalize our failure by changing the rules or changing "school districts." We anesthetize ourselves from failure by focusing on distractions and ignoring what we are really responsible for. (Aristotle would call this the vice of deficiency).
Both of these ways tempt us toward behaviors that lead to failure and "dropping out" (divorce).
But here is one healthy way to cope with fear:
3) We cannot be faithful about things we are not responsible for, nor for that which is beyond our control. So first, we can pray for and receive wise discernment (from God, friends, counselors) to understand what we are actually responsible for, and what we really are able to control. Our attitudes and actions must grow from this. Then, we can practice trusting God with those things which are beyond us.
Students Who Refuse to be Trained
Sometimes a student is so disruptive that she must be put in time out, in hopes that she will calm down, reflect on her behavior, and be open for it to be changed. In troubled marriages, this practice is known as "separation." More threatening behaviors can result in expulsion.
You can admit a student to med school, but that alone won't make him a doctor. In the school of marriage, Jesus will not force a student to be trained to imitate Him if s/he refuses to be taught. He will not chain a student to his desk, nor does he expect a spouse live with a spouse who is unfaithful. In those circumstances, divorce is permitted. (Matt. 5:32; 19:9).
When Marriages Fail
Marriage is at bottom, a school--maybe it would be better to say a boot camp-- for learning faithfulness/ faith in Christ. We need to do our best in the school we have been enrolled in. But remember that is not the only school. It is tragic when we drop out, or when we are forced to drop out. I know a tiny bit of the pain and fear that accompanies failure on this level. I had to quit the doctoral program at Notre Dame when I failed my metaphysics comp two times in a row. But the good news is that Christ had other ways of teaching me how to be faithful to His truth; in the end, perhaps even better ways? Only He knows.
It is important that we stay enrolled in His District, and not seek training in outside schools. Of course his first choice is to keep us in our present school and make us repeat a grade. But if necessary, he is able to transfer us to a school where we can better learn to be faithful to Him.
"Perfect love casts out all fear." What matters most is that that He is faithful, even when we fail to be faithful. He loves us, perfectly, even when we can't love perfectly. He forgives us when we truly repent and open ourselves to His transformation. Again. And again. And again, until we finally find ourselves taken up into the life of God, who is Love.
2 Timothy 2:11-13
11 Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
12 if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
13 if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.
(c) Beth Bilynskyj