People are obsessed with relationships. Relationships seem to be at the bottom of everything that is good and, sadly, everything that is bad about our world. There has hardly been a story told, a book written, or a film made that does not depend on a relationship for its power to grip our imagination. There is hardly an issue in society that raises people’s passions that does not revolve around relationships.
Why are relationships so important? Are there good and bad relationships, or are they all the same? If there are what makes one relationships and another bad?
We need top interact with other people for our own physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. From the dawn of history people have depended on one another for food, shelter, protection, and emotional support. Two or three hunters cooperating were more than a match for the largest and most ferocious quarry. The birth of agriculture saw the first permanent human settlements and, as people worked together, more and more complex civilizations developed. And civilization will only work if the relationships within them are effective. No one person can hope to master all the skills necessary to make modern society run. But if a group of people each concentrate on mastering a few different essential skills everything can be covered. All that is needed then is for them to develop the types of relationships that foster cooperation, sharing, respect and mutual support so that society can run smoothly and each member feel valued, worthwhile and fulfilled.
The bible recognizes the importance of relationships from the very beginning. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” said the Lord God “I will provide a partner for him.” This is also where we see for the first time that all relationships are not the same. When the Lord God sets out to find a partner for the man he first forms all the wild animals and all the birds. But, in the words of Genesis 2:20, “…for the man himself no partner had yet been found.” None of these animals had the necessary qualities to form a suitable relationship with the man. Then the Lord God put him in a trance, took out one of his ribs, and fashioned from it a woman. At last, a suitable partner had been found, and the first human relationship had been established.
This relationship, as well as being the first, was also an example of the most special human relationship, that between husband and wife. So far I have been speaking about relationships in general but our bible readings this morning deal specifically with marriage. And marriage is such an important relationship in the bible, and in our society as well, that it deserves closer treatment. It has quite a few unique characteristics as far as human relationships go, but there are also lessons to be learned from marriage that can be applied to other human relationships. And the bible extensively uses marriage as a metaphor for mans relationship with God, and for Christ’s relationship with the Church.
Let me say something now about a person’s relationship with God. Evangelical Christianity has always strongly emphasised a personal relationship between God and the believer. But a relationship with God should not be pursued at the expense of relationships with other people. In the Garden of Eden Adam walked and talked with God. What would we modern Christians give to be able to do this? Yet the Lord God still says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Cultivating a relationship is without doubt something we should all do, but we should not neglect our relationships with other people.
I hope we can agree that not all relationships are good. There are abusive relationships, violent relationships, exploitative relationships, demeaning relationships, and unfaithful relationships. None of these are good, and all these faulty relationships can occur in a marriage. Let’s now look at how God intended marriage to be.
What did Adam say when the Lord God brought the woman to him, and he recognized that at last here was someone with whom he could form a meaningful relationship? “Now this at last—bone from my bones, flesh from my flesh!..” He recognized her as someone who shared his humanity, someone the same as himself, dare I say someone who was his equal. I do not say he recognized her as someone identical with himself, but as his equal. I believe this similarity between partners makes good relationships easier: people with similar outlooks, similar values, and similar aspirations are more likely to get on with one another, and hence more likely to form productive and satisfying relationships. Of course we can’t always choose the people we have to deal with in our everyday lives, but we can choose our friends and we can choose our husbands or wives. That’s just as well because, while many of our relationships are ephemeral, the ideal marriage is not. I believe your ideal marriage partner is someone you recognize as being the same as yourself in terms of outlooks, values and aspirations, and someone you can consider as being your equal. Should a Christian marry only a Christian? Paul certainly did not think so—2 Corinthians 6:14 says “Do not unite yourself with unbelievers; they are no fit mates for you.” I’m not so certain. In our society individual Christians will share outlook and values with individual non-Christians, who could perhaps be thought of as potential Christians, or latent Christians. And there is no doubt there are Christian men and women who are not well suited to one another.
In the eyes of God marriage is more than a casual interaction between two people. Marriage is a sacred and mystical union between a husband and wife. It is sacred because God brings the two together and joins them to become one flesh, and mystical because in the eyes of the world they remain separate people, but in the eyes of God they become one organism. I should add that in very many cases they become one spiritual organism in their own eyes too.
So we can think of a marriage as a unified spiritual organism. But what distinguishes a good marriage from a bad one? I think it boils down to the husband and wife accepting that they are now united in one flesh and accepting one another as equals. I think Paul sums it up very well in 1 Corinthians 7:4,5 “The husband must give to the wife what is due to her and the wife equally must give the husband his due. The wife cannot claim her body as her own; it is her husbands. Equally, the husband cannot claim his body as his own; it is his wife’s.” Again in 1 Corinthians 7:33, 34, in a slightly different context, Paul says of the married man “his aim is to please his wife” and of the married woman “her aim is to please her husband.” I think this is critical. If husband and wife recognize they no longer belong to themselves but to one another, and if their aim is to please each other rather than themselves, then the marriage is likely to be good. Far too many faulty marriages are due to one or both partners selfishly aiming to please themselves at the expense of the other, not recognizing (or not caring) that by their marriage they are one spiritual organism.
There has been a great deal of discussion about marriage in Australia lately and there are widely divergent views about what it is and who should be allowed to be married. One of the problems with thinking clearly about marriage is that it carries a great deal of cultural baggage as well as spiritual power, and these often get confused in public debate. Some value marriage purely for its ceremonial trappings, and go through the traditional wedding ceremony all too glibly. What we call the traditional wedding ceremony may not be all that old! But is the ceremony really what makes a couple married? I’ll bet Adam and Eve did not stand before God in the Garden of Eden and say “I do!” I believe it is what is in people’s hearts that makes them married (not the sloppy hearts of popular culture, but the hearts that God speaks to). I have no doubt that there are a great many couples in Australia who, having committed themselves to one another, and who aim to please one another rather than themselves, without having been through a wedding ceremony, are already in the eyes of God husband and wife and a single spiritual organism. Many of these couples will celebrate wedding ceremonies in the future, some will not.
Other people see marriage purely as a civil contract to be dissolved as easily as it was entered into when it is no longer convenient. I think such people are in the minority and that most recognize some spiritual dimension to marriage. Why would there be such passionate pleas for “gay marriage” if it were simply a legal contract like one for the sale of a house, or to set up a business partnership?
Husband and wife becoming one flesh is the reason why, according to Jesus, divorce is so serious. Tearing apart a physical organism makes a terrible mess. In most cases the separated parts will die. Tearing apart a marriage also kills a spiritual organism and does immense damage to the partners in that marriage. Perhaps it does little physical damage but it cannot help but do emotional and spiritual damage. I said earlier that some people see marriage as little more than the wedding ceremony and perhaps a party at the reception. Of course it is much more, and divorce is also more than a court judgement saying you are no longer married. I believe spiritual organisms can die no less than they can be born. If a husband and wife cease to be one flesh, whatever that might mean, or even if they go through a formal wedding ceremony without ever uniting spiritually, then a formal divorce may not be an event separating what God has joined together, but merely acknowledging that what God joined together has already fallen apart and cannot be rejoined. Don’t think I’m advocating easy divorce. But in a fallen world I think we have to recognize that some times marriages die.
But of course God does not intend it to come to that. He recognizes that we need partners in the same way he recognized that Adam needed a partner, and he will go to some trouble to provide us with a partner in the same way he provided Adam with a partner. We should not fall for the first potential partner that comes along, but be ready when we recognize someone with whom we have the right rapport. A successful marriage is an organism, and like any organism it needs to be nourished. That nourishment comes in the form of giving to one another equally, and aiming to please your partner rather than yourself. That way you are far more likely to reach fulfilment than if you set out only with selfish aims in mind.