Nov 12, 2014

Why marry someone? Part 3

The Intimacy of an Answer:

If you knew that your life was going to end next week, what would you do?

Consider your answer. 

Do not read on before thinking about it for a moment. 

. . .

In the settings where I have discussed the question, which have usually been in a small group of young unmarried men, their answers almost invariably begin with, “I would have sex.” This response is often marked by a confident alacrity—as if the answer was obvious. While I cannot directly comment on young unmarried women's common answers to this kind of question, some women have suggested that most would answer in a similar fashion.

So why is sex such a high priority in the human experience?[1] For that is what the answers are suggesting, right?

Undoubtedly, sex is at the forefront of many cultures. The Bible reflects this to some extent, though most commonly in the context of addressing infidelity—namely, Israel's unfaithfulness to God. Furthermore, sex is the most obvious factor that distinguishes a marriage relationship from all the rest. At least, that is what the church typically teaches. Considering how much sex is happening outside marriage, however, something about sex has definitely been abandoned. Marriage is no exception, including Christian marriages.

Again, why is sex so important? Honing in on the Christian culture, most would include procreation in an answer. They may even conclude the conversation there, though some do mention the value—destructive or productive—of the spiritual or emotional union fostered between the two people who have sex. Some might even identify the simple pleasure or joy of the act. Fewer still may even add that it is absolutely necessary to the health of the marriage. This is all true. Yet while sex is the intended biological means for procreating a family, a bonding emotional experience, not to mention a gift to the body and senses, these answers are not enough to marry someone in particular. Many people procreate successfully outside of marriage. Many people experience physically pleasurable sex outside of marriage.

The real issue that is at stake is holistic health. Therefore, as there are many layers of influence in this subject, my aim is to just examine how sexuality points to a deeper human need and fulfillment that only marriage can healthily provide and sustain: to be truly known and to truly belong. As discussed in Part 1, God’s love for humanity must be the foundation of that hope. Holistic, meaningful love on earth will not grow or ultimately stand without God’s love. As addressed in Part 2, the more tangible love of friendship finds roots in God’s love because the deepest of friendship has been modelled by God himself: Jesus Christ. Jesus is still with us today because his Holy Spirit dwells in each of his disciples. Therefore, each Christ-follower can and is called to demonstrate not only God’s merciful and gracious love to all of humanity, but to go further with some people by offering a more consistently tangible, personally committed love—the love of a friend.

These two kinds of love are essential to being known and to finding belonging in a community. They are, therefore, essential to a marriage—the most ambitious and intimate of unions. But they are not the culmination of the human-human potential for relationship. They are not enough to answer the title question, nor are they enough for a healthy marriage. The potential goes deeper and blossoms more fully than the love of others and the love in friendship can provide on their own.

The consummation of love is not the love expressed through sex, however. Many seem to suggest this, but that is really not enough. I use the word consummate very intentionally, for it means “complete in every detail: perfect (adj.)" and "finish, complete; to make perfect (verb)."[2] Sex is indeed an expression of that consummation, but it is not the ultimate goal. Rather, the goal is intimacy. [3]

Intimacy is the ultimate reason to marry someone.

Namely, the hope and potential for intimacy. Let us explore what that means.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines intimacy as “something of a personal or private nature”. Since that is not a very helpful definition, it is necessary to go further by examining the root word intimate, which simply means “having a very close relationship; very warm and friendly; very personal or private; involving sex or sexual relations.” More specifically, it is
  1. intrinsic, essential; belonging to or characterizing one's deepest nature
  2. marked by very close association, contact, or familiarity
  3. marked by a warm friendship developing through long association; suggesting informal warmth or privacy
  4. of a very personal or private nature.
Some synonyms are “belonging, closeness, inseparability, familiarity, nearness.” 

Intimacy is the culmination of love. It is only possible when all manifestations of love unite, call it human-God-human love or man-God-woman love. "Sex is not the search for something that's missing. It's the expression of something that's been found. It's designed to be the overflow, the culmination of something that a man and a woman have found in each other. It's a celebration of this living, breathing thing that's happening between the two of them."[4]

The foundational and frail answers provided in Parts 1 and 2 of this series are absolutely necessary for intimacy to be realized, but they alone are insufficient. For some reason, God designed a man and woman to also need and want to know each other in a very physical way. Sex is not the reason for marriage, but God designed it solely for marriage—to never be dissociated from the marriage relationship. Alas that sex has been so extensively dehumanized and decontextualized throughout human history.

Raymond B. Dillard and Trempor Longman III comment on this very real challenge to marriage:
Both society and the church have often perverted human sexuality, so it is important to be reminded that sex within the parameters of marriage is a God-given gift.

The perversion of sexuality comes in two forms. On the one hand, our society makes sex an idol. Sex is a major obsession. It does not matter what kind of sexuality it is: heterosexual, homosexual, adulterous—our society promotes the idea that a life without some type of sexual stimulation is boring at least, perhaps even meaningless. . . . Many have rejected the Creator and have tried to fill the void in their lives with sexual relationships.

On the other hand, the church at times perverts sexuality by making it unclean or taboo. There is still an ongoing bias against the body in many parts of the church that suggests that sexuality is base or wicked even within the context of marriage.

The Song of Songs, however, is a canonical corrective to the perversion of sexuality. It reminds us that sex is good and pleasurable. It is not evil when enjoyed within the parameters of marriage.

However, the Song is more than a canonical sex manual . . . The book contributes to a biblical-theological study of sexuality. The lovemaking that takes place in the garden . . . should remind us of the Garden of Eden. . . . 'The Song of Songs redeems a love story gone awry.' The book pictures the restoration of human love to its pre-Fall bliss.

But the story does not end here. While the primary reference is to human sexuality, the book does teach us about our relationship with God. Although God is never mentioned by name in the book, the marriage metaphor is a strong one in the Old Testament. God has a covenant with his people much like the marriage covenant . . .

The intimacy of marriage pictures the intimacy of God's love for us. It is, thus, not inappropriate to read the Song of Songs as a poem reflecting on the relationship between God and his people, as long as the primary reference to human sexuality is not repressed.[5]
In The Gift of the Jews, Thomas Cahill adds to the conversation,
Throughout the Bible there have been innumerable marriages and sexual relationships, but here [in the Song of Songs] for the first time is a reciprocal relationship—a relationship 'face to face,' with much of the mystery, drama, power, and pleasure of Israel's face-to-face relationship with God. If the Song of Songs were only an allegory, the relationship of the lovers would serve as a mere mirror for the relationship of the soul (or Israel) with God. But the Song of Songs, appearing in the Bible after the long recounting of Israel's labyrinthine relationship with God, suggests rather that this God-human relationship has at last made possible a genuine human-human relationship.[6]

The ambition of marriage is to foster the most genuine—the truest, most honest—of human relationships. This is only possible when the man and woman seek and allow themselves to be utterly vulnerable with one another—as they each must first do with God. Their sexuality is central to this dynamic.

What does sexuality really mean?

A way of understanding sexuality is that "Our sexuality [. . .] has two dimensions. First, our sexuality is our awareness of how profoundly we're severed and cut off and disconnected. Second, our sexuality is all of the ways we go about trying to reconnect. . . . with our world, with each other, and with God."[7] Through Jesus, God begins to mend and heal our wounds, reconnecting us with purpose. Through our friendships in community, God gives us tangible strength and reconnects us with meaning. Finally, through a marriage spouse, God can give us a particular kind of inspiration, reconnecting us with the narrative of Eden.

Divine inspiration is not exclusive to marriage, but marriage certainly offers unique vision. For one, marriage is a means to redeem and reframe our broken relationships in an almost unavoidably deliberate way. It is an intense way to be faced with our shame and the need for healing. Mike Mason writes,
One of the most fundamental and important tasks that has been entrusted to marriage is the work of reclaiming the body for the Lord, of making pure and clean and holy again what has been trampled in the mud of shame. . . . It is to know the holy fear of reaching out and doing the very thing one longs most to do. It is to be afraid . . . out of the sudden realization that this thing is too holy, that one is not good enough for it and never can be. It is to expect rejection and yet to be received.[8]
Sex is a unique gift only intended for the marriage covenant.[9] But its spiritual power is not meant to be contained in marriage. It is meant to overflow to the married couple’s friends, community, and neighbors—to the world. Why? How?

Marriage is important because it can herald the advancement of the Kingdom of God. I appreciate how Rob Bell frames and summarizes this:
Jesus is God coming to us in love. Sheer unadulterated, unfiltered love. Stripped of everything that could get in the way. Naked and vulnerable, hanging on a cross, asking the question, “What will you do with me?” . . . [Marriage, then, is] two people, in their unconditionally loving embrace of each other, showing each other in flesh and blood what God is like. These two are naked, and they feel no shame. . . . A marriage is designed [. . .] to add to the 'oneness' of the world. This man and this woman who have given themselves to each other are supposed to give the world a glimpse of hope, a display of what God is like, a bit of echad ["oneness"] on earth.[10]
By God’s power, the potential for a marriage to model, inspire, and build love and unity in the world is immense. Alas, by our human power—and the power of the enemy who does not want God’s love to be known and to unify[11]—the potential for marriage to confound, discourage, and damage love is also immense. There is no guarantee that love will be consummated in marriage, that intimacy will be experienced. Therefore, each of us must consider the risks, whether we will engage, and how we will equip ourselves and ultimately respond to difficulty. Each of us must decide if we have the courage to enter the wilderness of marriage, to partake in the adventure. A wilderness adventure will bring a couple through harsh climates, rutted paths, and dark damp places. But amidst that it will also bring them through the freshest and most vibrant kind of life, along stirring paths, and to unbelievably beautiful panoramas.

I began writing this series because in the face of so many broken people and marriages, I am left wondering: When marriages fail as much as they succeed, what hope is there? The Holy Spirit guided me to begin here: "Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?"[12] In Nelson's Bible Commentary, “portion of the Spirit” is understood to indicate “the work of God's Holy Spirit in the life of the married couple. God has joined them, and by His Spirit He has worked to strengthen them." When both a man and woman are truly inspired by God to commit to a marriage of holistic love[13], God will always be with them. Jesus Christ will guide them. The Holy Spirit will empower them for the challenges, and overwhelm them with delight in the triumphs. That does not mean that it will be easy. Nothing ever is. The man and woman still have many choices—choices that can lead to fulfillment or to heartache.[14] That is the frailty of the hope and risk. The likelihood for suffering is inherent to following Jesus in this world. But so is the potential for a life of peace, meaning, and purpose.

The Real Question

Why marry someone? In a way, the real question all along has actually been: Why pursue intimacy with someone? Or, perhaps most specifically: Who should I pursue intimacy with?

While many knowledgeable people have tried to answer that last question, anyone with relational experience recognizes that there is no real formula. Before I can even enter the dangerous wilderness that is marriage, for example, I must choose whether or not to enter the dangerous wilderness that is dating.[15] Though there may be some generally universal principles therein, there are numerous subjective ways to go. To that, I wish you the best of success. Be courageous. Be a learner. Be honest. Aim to be so much more than seems possible.

Consider it this way: "To pursue being naked, you have to believe that this person is worth getting to know for the rest of your lives. Being naked is peeling back the layers, conversation after conversation, experience after experience, year after year. It's rooted in a belief that the soul has infinite depth and you'll never get to the bottom of it."[16] Simply put, marry someone only if you mutually inspire a sense of infinite possibilities in one another, particularly in terms of holistically growing in love for God, each other, and humanity—in short, to become more like Jesus.

One reason that I have taken so much time to write this three-part series—aside from my personal need and desire to grapple with the subject—is to offer the only certain fractions of an answer that I can currently recognize and understand. I welcome your feedback if you think that I have missed something. In the meantime, I hope that this series offers you something encouraging. More so, I hope that it inspires you to take the journey seriously, to not pursue romance and marriage heedlessly. And please, please, do not just pursue marrying someone simply because that is what someone or some culture told you that you are supposed to do, or because you want to have “church-approved” sex. Discover, claim, and understand in your own words the true vision for marriage. Remember that there are no guarantees; that marriage is a risky journey that only has a hope for intimacy because of God's strength, the utterly committed and selfless investment of a man and woman, and an incalculable abundance of gracious man-God-woman love.

It is disheartening that only a small fraction of marriages are healthy and experiencing intimacy. For myself, all I can do now is live in the power of Ephesians 6:10-18: to be absolutely grounded in my relationship with God and to grow in my capacity for loving friendship. Only then will I have the strength to keep hoping that my relationships with others can mean anything and do any good. Only then will I have the strength to not give up in my pursuit of intimacy.

Intimacy is possible. People are experiencing it. Recognize them. Learn from them. If I come to behold the gift of intimacy in marriage, I must be ready to fight for it. May each of us who knows such a gift fight for it. May each of us strive for a marriage that inspires people and contributes to the advancing Kingdom of God. May we hold one another accountable, helping everyone to stand and press on in faith and community. May we not give up. May we believe that by God's unfathomable power, it can be so.

Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.

[1] By sex, I am and will be referring to sexual intercourse.
[2] The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
[3] "[Sex] is not a step that establishes deep intimacy but one that presupposes it." (Mike Mason, The Mystery of Marriage 129).
[4] Rob Bell, Sex God 117.
[5] An Introduction to the Old Testament 264-265.
[6] 233-234.
[7] Rob Bell, Sex God 27, 30.
[8] The Mystery of Marriage 131, 134.
[9] "Central to the celebration of their marriage is the celebration that they are sexual beings. And central to their union is their sexual relationship. . . . Their understanding is that sex is not an optional thing for a marriage, something couples can take or leave. The sexual bond is central to what it means to be married. . . . The power and the mystery and, therefore, the strength of the bond come from the exclusivity. . . . the power of their coming together is rooted in their choice to give themselves to each other and to no one else in this particular way" (Rob Bell, Sex God 130, 133, 134). Why is this gift meant to be exclusively fostered by one man and one woman in a marriage relationship? Mike Mason writes, "The institution of marriage is founded not just upon the principle that men and women are dependent one upon the other, but that at a level much more profound and mysterious, maleness and femaleness are themselves interdependent" (The Mystery of Marriage 142). This is rooted in the context of Genesis 2:23-24: “Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (ESV).
[10] Sex God 97, 151-152, 149. Echad is the Hebrew word for "one', e.g. "The Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4); "And the man and woman shall be one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).
[11] For example, consider the context of I Peter 5:8.
[12] Malachi 2:15a ESV.
[13] As examined throughout this three-part series.
[14] For a scientific perspective on what helps relationships last, which actually correlates well with Biblical principles, read “Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down To 2 Basic Traits” (accessed November 12, 2014).
[15] For some more thoughts on dating, check out “Biblical Dating”, “Talking about Romance”, and “Talking about Romance again.”
[16] Rob Bell, Sex God 155.

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