We have all been to a wedding, at least one if we are married. We have seen a bride almost faint or fall right out because she locked her knees. We have seen the groom struggle to get the ring on the bride’s finger, or the other way around. We have sat in the freezing cold or the sweltering heat. In our wedding, Cindy and I knelt on a kneeling bench to take communion together as our first act as a married couple, and when I stood, the knees of my tuxedo pants were pasty white from the talcum powder that my groomsmen had so helpfully put on the bench.
We all have stories about weddings. But at the end of the day, as long as both bride and groom showed up and made vows to one another in the presence of God and those who witnessed the event, at the end of the day they are … married. No longer single. The two had become one. In this biblical math that refers to marriage, one plus one equals one. God said it in the creation account of the first marriage, “A man shall leave his father and mother, hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” It is a profound mystery, isn’t it? That God would join a man and a woman together and transform not only their lives, but the lives of their children, and the lives of those in the church and community where those two put Christ’s love affair with his church on display.
Though the mystery is profound, it is not always permanent. It is always two sinners who marry, and even though they may be saved by grace, not only husband and wife in this life but brother and sister for all eternity, marriage is difficult. I believe it is at the same time the hardest and the most glorious thing we do this side of heaven: to stay married to the same person for a lifetime. I also understand that there are times when it is good to separate, as in the case of abuse or other dangerous circumstances. The exceptions do not change the norm, however, which is to stay together.
Jesus repeated the founding principle for marriage in Matthew 19, and added, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Paul repeated the same principle at least twice. What’s the point? The biblical foundation for marriage between one man and one woman for life could not be clearer than it already is.
Have you ever seen a video review of a play on an NFL game? The catch was called a touchdown, but the opposing coach throws a challenge flag because he thinks the receiver stepped one toe out of bounds as he raced for the end zone. You see the replay 50 times, and there is no question that the receiver was in bounds. So the referee finally says, “After further review, the calling on the field is confirmed.” That’s what the Bible says about marriage for a lifetime. God said it more than once. Jesus said it more than once. Paul said it more than once. After further review, the calling on marriage is confirmed: what God has joined together, let not man separate.
May I suggest to you what you already know if you are married? Divorce should not be an option, should never be discussed, or threatened, or hinted at, or even thought about. My wife of 36 years told me recently that she determined early on not to allow herself to ever even think about separation or divorce. That’s what I call, “taking every thought captive to obey Christ.”
If you are ready to throw in the towel, it’s too early to quit. Get help from biblical counselors. Cry out to God. Speak and do what communicates love to your spouse.
Marriage is hard. But it is worth the fight to stay together.
God calls everyone to singleness for a season, and some to singleness for a lifetime. In either case, singleness is not a mistake or an aberration, and single Christians are not second-class! Vaughn Roberts writes, “A friend of mine once belonged to a young adult church group called ‘Pairs and Spares.’ Single people can be made to feel like spare parts in their families, social groups, and churches. One man was so fed up with being asked ‘Are you still single?’ that he began to respond, ‘Are you still married?’”
Singleness is a gift from God. That’s what the Bible teaches, and you can see it for yourself in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. However, singleness can only be received by those to whom it has been given. Many do not have that gift, but remain single because God has simply not provided a mate for them yet. That begs the question, what about those who are choosing to remain single, for reasons that are not good? Marriage is defiled in the minds of many by Hollywood, the media, and fairy tales. Some cannot find the “perfect mate,” so they keep playing the field. Not to mention that they are nowhere near the “perfect mate” themselves, for that person does not exist. Tim Keller writes, “There are two factors for having this so-called new idealism. The first is physical attractiveness and sexual chemistry. In other words, the other person (you would marry) has to be extremely physically attractive. Secondly, compatibility. Compatibility means ‘you want someone who has the willingness to take you in as you are and not change you.’” That sounds like narcissism, not a desire for compatibility.
Another unbiblical reason for staying single is simply because you don’t want to be bothered. You cherish independence more than anything in life, and simply do not want the hassle of accommodating another person who might, God forbid, interfere with the way you live to please yourself. By the way, that happens too often in marriage. A woman said to her husband, “Bob, the problem in this marriage is that both of us are in love with the same man.” In order to be the single or married person God has called you to be, you have to lay down your independence altogether.
The single man or woman is in the unique position to only be concerned with how to please the Lord. And those folks are greatly used by God. I think of John Stott, single his whole life, pastoring and writing books that shaped the Christian landscape until his death in 2011, at 90. His message and ministry still speak. I think of Gladys Aylward, tiny little lady, never married, who served as a missionary to China in the 1900’s. She shared the Gospel with untold thousands, rescued orphans during the Japanese invasion, and traveled the country to let women know that the barbaric practice of foot-binding was no longer the law of the land.
Singleness requires self-control. Those with the gift of singleness are not extra-terrestrials who have no desire for physical intimacy. They have been given a different gift from God, and with that, abundant grace to be able to live celibate lives. Paul adds that those who cannot exercise self-control, should marry.
Finally, John Piper has this encouragement to single Christians: “As long as you are single, this is your calling: to so live for Christ as to make it clearer to the world and to the church: That the family of God grows not by propagation through sexual intercourse, but by regeneration through faith in Christ; that relationships in Christ are more permanent, and more precious, than relationships in families; that marriage is temporary, and finally gives way to the relationship to which it was pointing all along: Christ and the church — the way a picture is no longer needed when you see face to face; and that faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life; all other relationships get their final significance from this. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is.”
Some church people were reacting to the stain of sexual immorality that saturated the culture by saying, “Ok, that’s it. Sex is bad, so we will abstain from it in marriage.” In other words, in order to avoid the ditch of licentiousness, they ran into the ditch of ascetism, which is severe self-discipline to the point that you deny yourself any self-indulgence. But, dear readers, sex is not bad. People are bad. Sex in marriage is a good and holy creation of God. Sex is not just a good idea in marriage, it is required for a healthy marriage. That’s why Paul responded to them with this: “each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” In that one sentence, he said no to polygamy, yes to monogamy, yes to healthy sexual relations in the marriage, and no to the Shakers, who must have been distant descendants from some of these ascetics. The Shakers were founded in the 18th century, and were also known as the Shaking Quakers, because of their ecstatic behavior during worship. Very early on, women assumed the leadership roles in the group, and one of the tenets of their faith was that everyone, married or not, must practice celibacy. As a result, they slowly died off because, well, no sex equals no children.
Paul continued his instruction to married couples with this encouragement: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” The operative word in that sentence is “give.” The husband should give and the wife should give, even though each has been given authority by God over the other’s body in marriage. The key is giving of yourself, not taking what is yours. If you just focus on the word “rights,” you will get all twisted up and turned inward. You start thinking about your rights and your desires and your needs and your feelings, instead of how to give to your spouse. What makes a marriage work? It is not a demand for rights that brings a blessing, but two people with a heart to give to one another. It is there that God commands His blessing. I can hear someone say, “I just don’t feel like giving myself to my wife, or to my husband!” C.S. Lewis wrote this: “Though natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings…The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will probably come to love him.” In other words, if God has told you to give to your spouse, don’t wait until you feel like it. Act yourself into a way of feeling.
One thing we know for certain, that it is rare that both in the marriage have the same level of interest and passion about intimacy, or the same comfort level. And we know that the level of interest and passion changes over time for husband and wife, but often at different times. Tony Reinke says, “Both have authority, but what do you do if the desires or how they call the shots are not the same? Any simple formula will not fit reality, and Paul knew he was dealing with complex, emotional moments. In a Christian marriage, where the couple is growing in grace, they will figure this out. (As the Bible says), ‘Outdo one another in showing honor.’”
Finally, I know this is a complex and difficult area for many. What if there is brokenness in the marriage or in the past of one or both partners? In her book, “Rethinking Sexuality,” Juli Slattery writes this: “How to move forward: Tell the truth about your experiences, past and present. All progress begins with telling the truth. Pursue God’s truth. Apply God’s wisdom. Use a biblical counselor if needed. Don’t put it off.”
Mostly, become a giver.
I noticed a few days ago that there was huge hole in my backyard where a tree used to be, a sugar maple that we bought and planted this week. Then on my way to work, I saw the tree in my neighbor’s yard! There it was, and you could see from the fresh dirt that it had just been planted. Or…transplanted. On my way home from work that night, I saw the tree again, on the side of the road, making its way slowly to another neighbor’s yard. It kind of threw a wooden look at me as I slowly drove past, like, “Yeah? Do you have a problem if I want to try a different place?” I just shook my head and drove on, watching this tree struggle to drag itself down the street, leaves falling off, roots dragging behind … it was a pitiful sight.
By now you know I am pulling your collective branches … er … legs, right? Of course the tree didn’t uproot itself and move to another place. Trees have this very consistent habit of staying where they are planted. That’s a constant in the universe: where you plant a tree is where it will grow. In fact, the quickest way to kill a tree, or to at least hinder its growth and fruitfulness, is to transplant it. Trees grow best in their natural habitat.
Christians do, too, and a Christian’s natural habitat is the house of God. That’s where we grow the best, in fact that is where we flourish. Psalm 92:13: “They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.” Then the Psalmist says, “They still bear fruit in old age.” I like that part.
Sadly, Christians are too often like that rogue tree I was telling you about. They move from place to place, never taking root downward to grow upward, never really getting established anywhere so they can truly be used by God to do what Christians are created by God to do. Read Psalm 92 and see how the believer is compared to two specific kinds of trees, the palm tree and the cedar. Palms flourish and cedars grow.
Palms are extremely durable during storms because of their spongy wood; they will bend during a hurricane and not break. That’s a picture of the followers of Christ. They endure. They are still standing after the storm. Besides endurance, palms also represent refreshment and rest. People love to be near palm trees, don’t they? They travel miles to sit under them, soaking up the warm sun beside the blue ocean. Christians are like palm trees, the Bible says. Refreshing. Drawing others to them. Inviting and gracious. Paul commended a man by the name of Onesiphorus for being a brother who refreshed him, for taking initiative to find ways to serve others.
Cedars grow in four ways, just like Christians. They grow downward, sending roots deep into the soil for nourishment and stability. They grow upward. Cedars in Lebanon can grow to more than 130 feet at elevations of over 6,000 feet, literally piercing the clouds, reaching for heaven. They grow outward, spreading their huge branches more than 30 feet from the trunk, providing shade and shelter. They grow onward, some cedars living hundreds of years.
Here’s what we can take from Psalm 92, then. Settle in a good church and grow there. Send roots deep into Christ and into his Word. Reach for things above, not the temporal stuff of life. Reach others with your life and message. Enjoy the assurance that your life will bear good fruit that remains long after you are gone.
And if you see one of my trees on the road, send it home.