Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The nature of marriage and family. . .

We are a culture in love with love and desperate for a love story.  We all want fireworks, excitement, spontaneity, and passion.  We live in an erotic world in which desire trumps all things.  But marriage is built upon something too often considered dull and boring -- fidelity.  It matters to marriage less that you love your spouse (which I do) and more that you are faithful to your husband or wife.  This faithfulness is the embodiment of love.  We take our cue from God's faithfulness to us -- it defines His love.  His steadfast love endures forever.  It does not waver with the ebb and flow of feeling or desire.  Everyone knows that passion cannot be maintained forever.  We need rest even from passion.  But the love that God shows to us and that St. Paul connects to marriage is the faithful, sacrificial, and giving love that continues when other aspects of this love wane.  It is devotion.

The problem with the marriage wars currently being fought is that we are ignoring an unpleasant truth.  Much of heterosexuality have already given up on this kind of love -- pursuing instead a cohabitation built upon desire without the untidy and unpleasant duty of fidelity.  For as long as it lasts we love -- loving the idea of love more than its reality.  Even Christians have found it easy to cohabit (mostly without shame) rather than own up to the obligation of love that is faithfulness.  Even straight people are not so sure they want to be married if marriage means fidelity, faithfulness, and sacrifice (without counting the cost or seeking to balance out what is given with what is received).

Many, dare I say most (?!) homosexuals are less interested in marriage than equality, less desirous of a sacrificial love manifest in faithfulness unto death, than gaining a sense of legitimacy for their desires.  Perhaps this is more true of gay men than of gay women, but the truth is that homosexuals want marriage on their terms and expect to redefine the nature of marriage as much as who may marry.  There is no shortage of sympathy for this wish for an easier marriage with fewer strings and obligations.  Straight people would also like to skip the for worse, in sickness, and till death do us part.

The marriage that the Christian Church fights for is not simply who marries whom but the very heart and soul of what it means to be married.  We have for too long looked the other way at cohabitation, shrugging our shoulders at our sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who have decided that there is either nothing in marriage worth its trouble or no real difference between marriage and living together. 

Children are intrinsic to this idea of marriage not because the moms and dads love large families but because, just as God's love is creative, so is the love He has placed within husband and wife for each other.  No one but a fool has children for what they can do for you.  You learn very quickly that children are by nature takers -- consuming as much as they can the time, energy, financial resources, and attention of their parents.  This is not because they are bad children -- it is inherently the nature of the child.  What parents teach their children is the opposite of what comes natural to them -- love that sacrifices, gives, serves, and is faithful long after desire has grown cold and the newness or fun has worn off.

That which makes marriage noble is not glorified desire but desire sacrificed -- the me that gives way to the other.  We have talked for so long about the egalitarian nature of marriage, of its equal partnership, and of the value of desire and passion that our children have learned to see marriage almost exclusively in these terms.  They find it almost impossible to conceive of a marriage that continues strong and loving when time and age have worn the luster off of desire.  But that is the point.  It is this fidelity that stood out among the early Christians -- not simply how they love one another but how they love their husbands and wives.  This radical sexual ethic was hard to miss in a pagan world that glorified desire in nearly every form.

I spent some time at my in-laws earlier this fall.  My father-in-law has Alzheimer's and now lives in a care facility for just such folks.  What amazes me is the love that still lives between them even when memory loss has left this man a stranger to his own wife at least part of the time.  It is this kind of love that mystifies the world.  It is daunting.  And it should be; we did not invent it.  Not that we first loved but that God first loved us.  A wife who loves her husband who cannot return much of her love and a husband who loves this woman whose name he forgets, well, that is about the most profound definition of love and marriage I know.

At times I have sat with a husband or wife who has seen his or her spouse slow slip away from them either due to physical or mental infirmity.  The devotion that these show to a spouse who cannot respond in kind represents some of the most profound examples of love I have ever seen.  I wish more folks could join me in those moments.  I believe they would learn with me to see this as the highest expression of what it means to love.  I do not mean to diminish passion or romance at all.  These are all well and good.  Life is not about fairy tale endings or movie script relationships.  It is real, it is messy, and it is a challenge.  Fidelity may not be glamorous but it is surely noble, profound, and godly.

The world may not be ready for this.  Even Christian folks find it hard to imagine such love.  Yet it is this kind of love that marks the lines of battle about what it means to be married and to love your husband or wife.  We cannot afford to settle for getting the who can marry right.  We must work with equal vigor to reclaim that which ennobles this simple word love -- fidelity, faithfulness, endurance.  In an age when we gladly exchange our technological toys once the next model has come out, fidelity to the husband or wife you gave promise to before God and witnesses may be the hardest and most godly thing we ever do.  Marriage may surely be more than just fidelity but it cannot be anything less.


Anonymous said...

Amen and Amen

Mary Kruta

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Well said. Our society has slipped so far morally, and marriage has become disposable to many people. I believe we must do what is right regardless of the blowing winds of cultural change, hold true to values we cherish as Christians, and remember that we ourselves are accountable to God. Popular moral values and ethics should not be embraced by those who call themselves God's followers and His people.