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April 28, 2009

Deep Marriage

The following is way too long for a blog. But it may interest someone enough to plow through the whole thing. As a person who is called upon to officiate at weddings, it was good for me to try to articulate my current thinking about "marriage."


I have been challenged recently to think about the meaning of marriage. Particularly, I have been caused to think about the modern Western monogamous parameters that define the traditional understanding of marriage. Why should marriage necessarily involve a life-long commitment “forsaking all others, to be faithful to you so long as we both shall live”?

I have no particular expertise in any professional sense to speak about marriage. But, I have been married for thirty-two years. And I often say that in my life I have done one thing really well; I married well. I take no credit for this fact; it is simply a miracle, a freely given grace that frequently surprises me in all its wonder. Any reflections I have on marriage are profoundly shaped by this primary human relationship in my life.

My thoughts on marriage are also informed by the fact that I am a follower of Christ. I attempt to allow my Christian worldview to shape every aspect of my behaviour; this is as much true in my understanding and practice of my marriage as in any other aspect of my life.


Biblical Context

Stating that I view the world through Christian eyes, it is not surprising that the starting point for my vision of marriage should be the Bible. As a Christian the Bible is the primary sacred text with which I interact in an attempt to allow my life to be shaped by God. But, the Bible is a complicated book. In the case of marriage, it is not possible to point to any one isolated text and claim, “This is the biblical teaching on marriage.”

For much of the historical period covered by the Bible, the prevailing pattern of marriage included various forms of polygamy. In the Hebrew scriptures Abraham, Esau, Jacob, David and Solomon were all polygamists. God’s law in Exodus 21:10 spells out stipulations for polygamous practice stating that “If a man takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” And in II Samuel 12:8 God is quoted as having stated that God gave Saul’s wives to David. It is interesting that the New Testament makes no reference to polygamous practice. It is likely the early church faced the dilemma of polygamous men accompanied by their wives converting to Christian faith. Yet no guidance is given about how such an awkward situation should be handled.

Jesus’ teaching on marriage occurs in the context of his culture’s debate about divorce. Only a man could initiate divorce; the only discussion was what grounds constituted adequate reason for a man to send his wife away. Jesus sided with those who took a strict view forbidding men to divorce their wives for trivial reasons and thus offered the maximum protection possible to the women of his day.

The main point of Jesus’ teaching about marriage was to reinforce the indissoluble bond of the relationship. For Jesus this bond was based on the creation ordinance of Genesis 2:24 in which God is said to have declared, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This mystical concept of becoming “one flesh” forms the basis for the Jewish and Christian understanding of marriage.

For Jesus marriage is fundamentally spiritual. A marriage relationship is much more than a mere contractual agreement. Marriage cannot be comprehended simply in sociological or psychological terms. It is not merely one more human institution constructed by human beings for the stability of society. Marriage is a deep and profound mystery; it reaches the depths of what it means to be human and how we live together in relationship to God and to other human beings. The mystical unity of marriage is taken so seriously by Christian writers that the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians draws a parallel between the relationship of husband and wife to that of Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32,33) This one-flesh teaching also lies behind Paul’s claim that “whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her.” (I Corinthians 6:16)

The vision that marriage creates a new entity in which “the two become one,” is not restricted to Christian faith. Robert Bly, in his poem “A Man and a Woman Sit Near Each Other,” offers a deep vision of the new creation that occurs through the bond of a committed faithful marriage relationship. This new creation is so real that Bly pictures it as the creation of a third person, “someone whom we do not know,” “someone we know of, whom we have never seen.”

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, or time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or not-talking.
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.
The man sees the way his fingers move;
he sees her hands close around a book she hands to him.
They obey a third body that they share in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.
Age may come, parting may come, death will come.
A man and a woman sit near each other;
as they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
someone we know of, whom we have never seen.

For Bly, as for Christians, although an embodied reality, marriage finds its deepest meaning in the hidden realm of the spirit where a new entity of “one flesh” comes into existence through the bond of marriage.

The rest of New Testament teaching found in the epistles relating to marriage attempts to spell out the implications of this deep one-flesh mystery. Paul describes how men and women should function in the marriage relationship. His teaching is coloured by the common Christian assumptions of his day that human history was rapidly coming to an end and that men should occupy a position of superior power in relation to women. In response to these convictions Paul argues that the real priority for the Christian is a life of service to God and that, while functions in a marriage may differ, there is an absolute equality of being between male and female. Thus, properly understood, Paul moves in a radically egalitarian direction, offering a measure of power and dignity to a woman in the marriage relationship that would have been denied her in Paul’s day.

In keeping with his assumption of equality between the sexes, Paul appears to assume that the new pattern for Christian marriage will be monogamous. In I Corinthians 7:2 Paul states that “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” This appears to encourage his readers in a direction of marital exclusivity that would have been challenging for the men of Paul’s day but deeply liberating for the women.

When we look at the broader biblical concept of what it means to be human and what it means to be a follower of Christ, there are two important points. First, all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:26,27) Second, God’s purpose in Jesus Christ was to set human beings free. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’ (Romans 8:2) “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (II Corinthians 3:17)

The Image and Likeness of God

There is that within every human being that bears the mark of God. This mark may be obscured over time; it may be denied or ignored. But the Christian understanding of what it means to be human starts with the assumption that to be human means to bear something of the reality of God. If you contain the breath of life, God is present in your innermost being. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)

Because all human beings bear the image and likeness of God, all human beings are indelibly marked with the dignity, mystery and beauty of God. Therefore, every human relationship is based fundamentally upon the presupposition of deep honour, mutual respect, shared dignity, and absolute equality of being.

Husbands are to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:25) Christ’s only intention for the church is that those who make up the church should become everything they were created to be. Jesus is reported in John’s Gospel to have said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) For husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church,” is to do everything in their power to facilitate the realization of abundant life within the marriage relationship. Marriage exists to enable the full coming to life of both people in the relationship. Anything that hinders the abundant life of either person is to be excluded from the marriage relationship.

This requires a willingness to walk the costly path of self-sacrifice. My primary concern in marriage is not my own fulfillment, the realizing of my own desires, or the fulfilling of my own needs or wants. In marriage I am called to give myself away. As Christ “gave himself up,” for the church so I am challenged to give myself up for my wife. Marriage is my primary training ground in surrender for the well-being of the other. Self-giving is the only context in which love can grow. It is the pattern of the universe realized in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is the central reality of human becoming, the path along which lies the realization of the full dignity and beauty of what it means to be human.


Modern Western culture has laboured for generations under a massive illusion about the nature of freedom. Freedom is commonly seen as the ability to make whatever choices I feel like making without suffering any ill-effects. Beatrice Bruteau writes of “choice-freedom,” and “creative freedom.” “Choice-freedom” is the ability to choose between a variety of alternatives. In “choice-freedom” my freedom is limited by my options and, therefore, I am not truly free. What Bruteau calls “creative freedom,” emerges from within the core of the human being and is not chosen “in reaction to some kind of external stimulus,” but rather within the context of our true human nature. “Creative freedom” is an inner quality of the human spirit that exists regardless of external circumstances and is thus truly free.

Christian freedom is the ability to choose to live within the parameters of what it means to be truly human. To be free is to choose to live according to that image of God in which I have been created. I am not free because I can do anything I want. I am free because I can choose to live as I was created to live, in tune with the nature of God, regardless of my circumstances.

The nature of God is best described by love, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (I John 4:16) So to be free is to be free to love. Freedom and love form an inseparable bond at the heart of what it means to be truly human. Love is not love as understood in a Christian context, unless it is freely given and freely reciprocated. The eternal circulation of the flow of love lies at the heart of the unique Christian understanding of God as Trinity. God lives in relationship to God’s self and all of creation as a never-ending flow of love. To be human is to choose freely to enter into the energy field of this love thus finding union with God, the source of all life.

Like a river, in order to reach its source, the flow that is love must find its way along a path defined on either side by the banks of the river. The freedom that makes deep love possible is shaped by the banks of commitment and lifelong fidelity. As Wendell Berry says in his poem, “To Tanya on my Sixtieth Birthday,” “In binding love you set me free.”

Life fulfills its destiny by accepting the realities of boundary and confine. A kite cannot fly unless tethered by a strong line to a fixed and stable point. A ship cannot move purposely through the water unless the sail is firmly fixed to a steady mast. A child who grows up without any reliable stable relationship will struggle to mature into the fullness of her intended destiny.

It is the nature of love to provide this stable, secure vessel for the flourishing of life. As Shakespeare says in his “Sonnet CXVI”,

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove

Love is the steady centre of the universe around which it becomes possible for the human spirit to reach its fullest reality.

it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Helen Luke suggests that stability is the foundation for the full flourishing of love because the confidence stability makes possible enables each person to open most deeply to the reality of the human condition. Writing of the husband and wife in marriage, Luke states that, “There is no hope that they will be able ‘to love and to cherish’ each other unless each is prepared to accept his or her own darkness and weakness and to strive for the ‘holy marriage’ within, thus setting the other free to find his or her individual reality.” Marriage is that place where my entire life is received and embraced; it is the context in which I am able to extend an absolute welcome to the other. In this welcoming, we open to the fullness and depth of our true nature.

At the same time marriage is the place where I am caused to face my own woundedness. Because I have committed myself to remain for life in this one relationship with honesty and openness, I must face my demons here. I cannot run away. I refuse to escape into distractions, fantasies, or self-serving denial. By staying put I grow and mature. When I leave a relationship that becomes a struggle, or because I feel my needs are not being met, I condemn myself to a life of immaturity and triviality. If I seek in another relationship, what I feel is lacking in my marriage, I am choosing to live as something less than the profound and beautiful being I was created to be.

The commitment of marriage requires that I make the adult choice of accepting all possible consequences of my choices. Under normal circumstances, healthy hetero-sexual sexuality may result in procreation. To give myself fully in heterosexual sexual activity I must acknowledge this possibility and embrace the potential accompanying responsibility.

At the same time, sexual intimacy outside the confines of life-long monogamous commitment carries an increased possibility of infection and even serious disease. In order for sexuality to be a loving action, the participants must do all they can to reduce any possibility of inflicting harm upon their partner. Life-long monogamous sexuality is the only guarantee of regular sexual intimacy without the potential for disease.


There is a dark unpredictable vein that runs through the human psyche. All human relationships and all forms of human community manifest to a greater or lesser degree the reality of human brokenness. Healing is only possible within the crucible of trust and faithfulness forged out of life-long commitment and the deep opening that is represented by the sacrificial choice to give oneself exclusively to another person.

Marriage enables those who are called to this particular form of embodying love, to realize the image of God in which all human beings are created. Marriage is the vehicle for the full becoming of both persons because it provides a stable trusting framework within which it is possible to open to the deepest most vulnerable part of our being. The life-long exclusive commitment of the marriage relationship provides a secure context within which to risk offering the gift of oneself fully to another.

The exclusive commitment that is marriage is the ultimate expression of the dignity each person has in the eyes of the other. In marriage I say, ‘I choose the limitation of forsaking all others to cling only to you. In this commitment I demonstrate my love for you; I honour you; and I affirm the inestimable value you have in my life.’ The choice of self-sacrifice sets us free to entrust ourselves to the other. Anything less is a decision to hold part of myself back from this relationship and to diminish the love we are able to share.

The seed that is our true self only sprouts and begins to grow when it chooses to fall into the earth and allows its shell to be broken open, releasing the power of life contained within. In order for this process to take place, the seed must hold itself in the same place long enough to allow nature to act. A seedling will never grow into a healthy tree if it is constantly uprooted and planted in different soil. Marriage is a stable environment in which growth can take place. The miracle of marriage only happens when, as Wendell Berry writes, “once again I am blessed, choosing/again what I chose before.”

Choosing faithfulness, steadiness, self-giving, and deep opening, I discover

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade

(Wendell Berry, “The Wild Rose”)


Andrea A said...

While it is still just the beginning of our journey, I also am happy to say I married well. This piece articulates beautifully the deep marriage we experience and the freedom of love.
One thing I wonder is how to pray this for others.
I have always had the sense of my identity as God's creation -that I was worth this ideal. I waited for marriage feeling committed to my husband before I met him.
Obviously not everyone is such a goody-two-shoes. I feel very sad when I see the cyclical hurt in my friend and the feeling she has, that this kind of love life is impossible for her.
How can they even start?
I suppose I've answered my own question: Christ's forgiveness and renewal.
Does my hope for them help? I think it does.
Christopher, thanks for articulating truth and holding it up and out there.

Christopher said...

I don't think "goody-two-shoes" has much to do with it. I think it relates to your ability to open to your deeper self and to trust your most profound and human instinct for love and faithfulness. You quite rightly and beautifully call it your "identity as God's creation." This is a great gift. By living from this deeply human/godly place, you will always be a help to others to connect with that reality in themselves simply by living your life. Your presence is the only gift and wintess you need to offer.

ernest said...

Thank you Christopher! This is a beautiful piece of work.

I have been thinking a lot about sacramental rites in the church recently and marriage is a great example of a pastoral question that relates to this. I have more questions than answers and rest assured they are rhetorical.

When is a marriage not a marriage in the way you described it?

What is a marriage when there is abuse or control or unhealthy co-dependence; when the fullness of Paul's vision does not seem to fit?

It seems like a church wedding, or marriage of Christians is no real guarantee that the decision to get married is not itself born out of pain or desire for unmet needs to be met. Of course, every marriage will have times of shadow and struggle, and we never do things for perfectly pure motives. But when are things so broken to be able to say that there is no longer a marriage to work on or to save? Do things ever reach that point?

It is interesting how the Christian institution of marriage has been secularized in such a way that to proclaim its fullness in Christ, as you have so eloquently done, is a radical call even in the church.

Pastoral questions abound. How do we, the church, prepare people for marriage? How do we uphold a vision of this fullness? Can we in good conscience just marry whoever comes in off the street and wants a church ceremony? I would submit that we find ourselves in a culture of approval and lurking guilt where the church is seen,at best, as a moral sanctioning body. What happens to marriage, indeed all the sacraments, when we remove from them the spectre of worthiness and instead focus on their transformative potential?

We need say nothing of secular marriage; no judgment or censure. But perhaps if we want to be prophetic then we might think about how we as Christian communities can support and uphold the vision of marriage that you have gifted us with.


Christopher said...

Wow Erenest! thanks for the beautiful and deeply challenging questions. And thank you especially for the assurance that they are "rhetorical." You have set an outline here for a year long survey course in pastoral, moral, sacramental theology!

The one question I want to comment briefly upon is "Can we in good conscience just marry whoever comes in off the street and wants a church ceremony?"

In response I have a few questions of my own. Can I judge the degree of "faith" that may be represented by a couples' desire to be married in a church? Is it possible that, even though they may not understand or appreciate the full implications of marriage in a church (as if any of us do) that something a little bit deeper is opening in them by their choice to be married by a priest in a church than if they simply chose to be married by a JP in the garden? And, should I not be willing to honour this tiny, mustad seed gesture of faith, even if it may seem pitifully inadequate?
Is it possible that this little gesture of faith might grow by being supported, encouraged and nurtured through the process of a church wedding?

What is an adequate degree of "spirituality," or faith, or commitment to "qualify" a couple for a church wedding? How do I judge whether or not a couple merits the sanction of a church wedding?

Perhaps "to be prophetic" means in part being willing to affirm the tiny little sparks of God's work in peoples' lives wherever we can discern them. Perhaps the church role might be to blow gently on the faint embers of faith represented by the often mixed, confused and conflicted request for a church marriage.

ernest said...

Thanks for your response Christopher. I think you are absolutely right. I think we are called to nurture little embers of faith and gestures towards transcendence. It is certainly not for me to judge another's faith or motivations.

Surely the answer to your question, "Is it possible that this little gesture of faith might grow by being supported, encouraged and nurtured through the process of a church wedding?" .... is a resounding YES. As long as there actually IS an intentional process.

If we hold marriage in the light of your great vision I think we have a responsibility to model its importance by paying attention to how we offer it. This does not mean excluding anybody but it does mean that some people might choose not to participate.

Do we work with the couple together and as individuals to deepen their spiritual practice and prayer life? Their practice of reading scripture? Their participation in life-giving community? Dealing with the inevitable pain that we all bear that comes out in close relationship...and may already be lurking?

There are certainly pastors, priests, and ministers that do precisely this. But my experience is that leaders in the church are generally not exposed to this approach to Christian formation; whether in marriage, baptism, confirmation, etc.

The church throughout history has made the mistake of judging and condemning those who decide not to participate in our Christian calling and we need to be careful to avoid this trap. They are no less moral, good, spiritual, or in communion with God. I simply do not have authority to judge. But, when we allow ourselves the freedom from making judgments I think we find ourselves able to model, imperfectly as it may be, what we discern to be the fullness of Christ in the life of our communities.

This is, I admit, a post-Christendom perspective. I don't think we can any longer pretend that the social milieu where 'everybody' went to Church because it was the prevailing cultural value is a useful model. We can now cast off the approval of the culture and the burden of being its superego and try and pray and stumble our way to what it means for us as church and individual Christans to be baptized into the life and death of Jesus Christ.

Christopher said...

Amen to all of that!! But, to be really spiritual - boy it feels like a lot of work!!