Marriage Forever?

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 3, 2015)

Barb Mitchell and her team usually have flowers up front on Sunday mornings.

But when she saw the topic today was about marriages that last, she thought a 50th anniversary balloon would be a good addition. I like it! Yesterday, I was over at Friendsview because Leo and Abigail Crisman were celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary. 70th!! That’s such an amazing thing it is difficult to wrap my mind around.

We all know not everyone experiences that kind of lasting marriage. People who never imagined divorce have gone through it. People who’ve tried everything have still been left by their spouse. Sadly, abuse happens and unfaithfulness happens, causing deep pain and ending marriages.

And of course there are many here who have never been married. There are people here who are still married in name, but not living with the joy or intimacy that they would like. There are people here who have lost a spouse to death, there are people here who left a marriage and carry guilt and remorse over it.

I want you to be sure and hear me say that I know the struggle and pain, the shame and guilt that come up for some people when we talk about marriage being forever.

So many times, I’ve spoken of God’s deep love for us, love that isn’t contingent on getting it right or being mistake free or having circumstances go well. God’s love just IS. If at any time today you feel that shame or pain taking over, remind yourself that God’s love for you has never changed. It just is!

Just as we talk about God’s love for us no matter what we do, I think it is also valuable for us to talk about ideals. If we never talk about what we hope to be our goals, if we avoid talking about ideals because we are afraid of causing hurt, I think we’re making a mistake. There is value in talking about what we are aiming for, always remembering we don’t earn God’s love by “doing things right”. Remembering that Jesus brings healing and forgiveness, transformation and redemption no matter what we’ve done or how we haven’t measured up…remembering God gives grace gives us the strength to talk about ideals.

One of those ideals and goals is that when we enter into a marriage covenant, we intend for it to last forever. And to be honest…we have no idea when we make those vows to someone we love how difficult it will be to live them out.

Years ago I got to know one of the guys on the Newberg high track team who was a few years ahead of our daughter Natalie.

I didn’t get to know him real well, more of an acquaintance…but enough that we kept in touch by Facebook and in person after he graduated. We got together for lunch one time, not long after he had seen a picture of Elaine and I celebrating our anniversary. “That’s what I want,” he said. “I want to find someone and I want it to last forever.”

His parents had been divorced, and that had been a difficult experience for him. He knew marriage didn’t always work; but as he looked around, there was something about a lasting marriage that was desirable to him.

I think many people are like that. Even though it is clear to all of us that marriage is not perfect, we also see glimpses of what it can be. We see people like Leo and Abigail, we see an older couple finish each other’s sentences, we see the sense of home and community that can exist when children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren can gather together, and something inside us longs to have that kind of belonging to one another.

I don’t mean to say that you must be married to experience that kind of belonging. One of the things I love about Newberg Friends are many single people who have been beautifully intentional about building and making community with each other. I’m thinking of one group in our church that has been doing what they call “family night” each week for more than a decade, a community of relationships with singles and married alike. I love it! It is beautiful!

So I’m not saying that we must be married to experience community and family and a sense of home. Rather my point is that when we think about marriage, many if not most of us see the value and power and love that can be experienced when a marriage stays together and vibrant a whole life long.

That’s what my track star friend was saying over lunch. And I remember telling him: “It doesn’t just happen. You have to work for it. You have to sacrifice. There are characteristics of faithfulness and self-control that you can be working on right now that will help if you do someday have a relationship that results in marriage.” And, I said: “My experience has been a lasting marriage takes God being a part of it. The forgiveness and sacrifice necessary, in my life, have needed Jesus’ forgiveness and strength to bring about.”

Today I want to talk some about how the bible envisions the permanence of marriage.

I want to talk about some of the things I’ve noticed over the years that can be done to be the kind of person and for us to be the kind of church community that gives the best chance for marriage to last. By no means can I cover it all!

Through it all, I am trusting God’s Holy Spirit to remind you that even if you are not living in a healthy and vibrant marriage, you are still loved as you are! God is still at work in your life. God can still give you a sense of love and home and community.

Turn with me to Genesis 2:18-25. If we are talking about ideals, let’s go back to a time before there was sin, before there was brokenness. Let’s see what we can find there.

  The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die.’
The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The man said,
‘This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called’ woman, ‘
for she was taken out of man.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. (Gen. 2:18-25, TNIV)

This story of origin, this story of beginning, is given to us in the bible to help us make sense of the world we live in.

But the world of Genesis 2 is a world so different from our own. These few verses begin with one man alone, instead of a planet with 7 billion people. These verses end with the man and his wife completely open, naked in every sense of the word, vulnerable to each other with no walls, and no shame. No shame.

Scholars tell us that this is about more than just sexual shame. This is being open without ever being wounded by another. This is an intimacy which to be honest, we have never experienced… even in the best relationships in our lives. But we were made for intimacy, closeness, and vulnerability with God and others…without shame.

When we were planning the service today, Bethany Lee reminded us of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, when Jesus asked God to make all of us unified and one, as intimately connected to each other and to God as Jesus was connected to God. We were made for intimacy with God and with each other, not just back in Genesis, but also as Jesus prayed for us. “And maybe,” Bethany went on to say, “maybe that’s why Jesus said there isn’t marriage in heaven. Maybe it’s because when we get to heaven, we have the kind of connection and intimacy with everyone that today we can only single out for our spouse.”

My new thought this week was how Genesis is like the picture of heaven… how the beginning is also like what we are heading toward. In Genesis 2:25, it is not just a married couple who were naked and felt no shame…it is all of humanity. That’s what this first man and woman are: those two are all of humanity, made for intimacy with God, and intimacy with each other, experiencing it in vulnerability and without shame.

And if we now work backward through this passage, we can see other beautiful truths about marriage and about humanity.

That “one flesh” description of marriage describes a unity, a permanence. The words translated “leave” father and mother and “be united” are strong words in the original Hebrew. It’s to forsake parents, a word frequently used in other places to describe how Israel rejected God. You forsake and reject parents in order to cling or be united with a spouse. This word cling is often positively used in the bible to describe a covenant relationship…not just a contract that can be broken if one of the parties fails to live up to the bargain, but clinging to someone with an unconditional bond and promise.

Moving back to verse 23, our English translations smooth over an exuberant, poetic expression of deep fulfillment from the man when he finds an equal to be partnered with. “Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh”…this is language showing their sameness, their connection.

So much of the language, despite what is often taught, points to the equality of men and women. One flesh; bone of my bone; these show the woman, as opposed to every other animal in creation that has come before, is finally someone equal to and compatible with the man.

Some have argued that because a woman was created out of the man’s rib, that implies a subordinate relationship. By that logic, we would then have to believe that men are subordinate to dust, because that’s what Adam was made out of! The point here is not what we are made from. It’s that both, male and female, are fashioned by God’s own hand…made by God the life giver!

Some have argued the word “suitable helper” or “help-meet” (as the King James Version translated it) implies a subordinate relationship by the so-called weaker gender. But when you look through the bible to find this Hebrew word in other places, you find it is most often used to describe how Yahweh is a “suitable helper” for Israel. Anyone want to argue Yahweh is subordinate to the people of Israel? God is Israel’s helper because God is the stronger one, the one who can bring what is needed.

A beautiful thing that I learned this week is that none of Israel’s neighbors had a separate story of the creation of the female. Rather than just ignore or be silent about females, Genesis explicitly says God and God alone created both male AND female. Genesis explicitly says humans, male and female together, are made in the image of God. That’s unique and a powerful sign of equality!

These first two humans had some big advantages that we do not. 

They had not yet gone through the rejection of God that leads to broken relationships. They had not yet experienced sin and how that brings shame and fear and doubt.

They also had a pretty good matchmaker; God is the one who introduced them and set them up. And there wasn’t yet any jealousy or wishing your spouse was like somebody else because…there wasn’t anybody else. Set up by God, no other competition…what could go wrong?

Well, all sorts of things went wrong, of course. Even the ideal marriage had sin and struggle and shame later. Two of their sons set a very high bar for sibling rivalry when one killed the other. It’s clear that even the best marriages are going to have struggle and pain and shame. We, like this first marriage, can aim for clinging to the other in covenant, unconditional love. And we, like this first marriage, will need God’s redemptive work to heal and make right our failures and wrongs.

One of the questions our Yearly Meeting has regarding marriage is this:

“Do you conduct yourself in a manner that supports and preserves the sanctity and permanence of marriage?” The reality is, many things we do work against the permanence of marriage. We can’t guarantee our marriage will last forever; we can’t even guarantee we will be married. But there are some things we can do, as singles, as married people, as a community, that point us toward that ideal.

I think one of the things today that is dangerous is the emphasis on finding “the one”. 

We’ve got eHarmony and to put algorithms to work finding compatible people. The idea underlying most stories of romance is finding someone compatible, finding your soulmate. The emphasis is on finding the right one for you, and less on becoming the person God intends you to be.

Elaine said this was the thing she most wanted me to say today. The problem with looking for a soulmate is that it implies you always have a connection, there will always be bliss, that you will always be understood. And then when you are married and you struggle or are misunderstood or don’t feel that connection, it can make you think you picked the wrong person.

Struggle and hard work are normal, even in a good marriage! Misunderstanding and differences are not a sign you need to find your “real” soulmate. Different couples experience the hard work at different times. For some, the challenges rear up in a very difficult first year of marriage. In our case, the first several years were pretty easy, but having a baby brought difficult things to the surface.

Many couples find themselves living almost separate lives, either due to the challenges of raising young kids, or the pressure of careers. And then the kids are gone or retirement comes, and the challenge of being disconnected is there. After years of marriage, patterns of hurt arise that can be really difficult to get out of. Conversations that other people would hear and would sound totally benign, but to the couple who have fought the same fight over and over, little benign words can actually bring up all the pain of the past.

The answer is not always to give up and try to find a “better” soulmate. As one of Elaine’s friends said, “You don’t always find a soulmate, but you work to make a soulmate.”

Shared experiences, intentionality, and most of all the redeeming power of God can build and can re-build connection in a marriage. I really believe that the best way to “make” a soulmate out of your spouse is actually to ask God what needs to be changed in you. We really are pretty powerless to change another person. But married or single, we believe in a God who can transform us into the image of Jesus Christ. We can focus on asking God to give us unselfish love, to help us forgive the hurts we’ve received, to give us a love for our spouse that is outside of ourselves.

I’ve said before to couples before they get married, that Christ needs to be at the center of your marriage. I don’t just say that as some sort of nice, spiritual sounding thing. This is the practical kind of stuff I mean. I need God’s help to forgive when I’ve been hurt, because I’m not always able to do it on my own. I need God to give me the love described in 1 Corinthians 13, a “love that keeps no record of wrongs”…because I’m actually really good at keeping track.

But mostly, what I need from Christ is my own sense of identity that I am accepted, valuable, and loved by God. When I look for Elaine or for other people to do that, I create unfulfillable expectations in a relationship. Only God can give me a solid center to accept myself.

Whether we are single or married, one of the best things we can do to support and preserve the permanence of marriage is to ask Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. It is to find our identity and fulfillment in being in right relationship with God, so that we are allowing God to forgive our brokenness, heal our hurts, and make us whole. A marriage between people who are forgiven and whole in themselves, who have Christ living and loving through each one…that’s one that can last.

There is so much that could be said. Let me just briefly name some more, and since I can’t go in depth, I invite you to talk with me or someone else you trust if you need to go deeper.

We support the permanence of marriage when we don’t make sex our highest priority. Sex is best as an expression of intimacy within a married relationship, not as something to create intimacy. Not as a personal pleasure, but as a shared intimacy. In so many ways, we have raised the importance of sex while at the same time diminishing its value.

Our God-made desire for intimacy in the broadest sense has been narrowed to a desire to engage in sex and to be desired for sex. So often, our longing to be known and accepted and loved in our whole selves is reduced to a longing to be sexually desired and sexually active. This desire for sex has ruined marriages, when one spouse has broken trust by seeking out and acting out sexual desire with another.

It has caused pain and resentment within marriage, when one spouse feels desired only for sexual pleasure. This is where pornography causes the greatest damage, whether single or married. Pornography creates a selfish bent to sexuality: it’s all about what pleases me, what excites me. Pornography has been proven to be progressive. What once was enticing becomes stale, and pornography constantly pushes for more and different things to pleasure me. A flesh and blood person with a will and desires can’t compete with a fantasy that always does what I want.

If you aren’t married, a good reason to avoid pornography is to stop yourself from making sexuality self-focused instead of an expression of intimacy between married people. If you are married, a good reason to avoid pornography is to stop unfair expectations on your spouse, stop the incessant desire for new and more, and to stop hurting your spouse with betrayal.

I know some in our world teach that pornography can be helpful in a marriage relationship, but my experience has shown over and over that the spouse of someone using pornography experiences it as rejection and betrayal.

What else? We support the permanency of marriage by honoring other people’s marriage vows.

Our own desire for affirmation and intimacy can cause us to look for someone else’s spouse to fulfill our emotional or sexual needs. Wendall Berry reminds us that the reason a marriage ceremony is public is that it’s a social agreement by everyone that those people are now off-limits. This actually is very freeing, and allows us to experience friendship intimacy when we aren’t always trying to draw out sexual intimacy in others.

We support the permanency of marriage by being honest and open about our struggles in marriage.

The first thing I tell people when I do pre-marital counseling is that I want them to know I love marriage and being married…because many times during counseling it’s going to sound like I don’t. Because what I talk about so much are the challenges of marriage. I want people to know that even the best marriages take a lot of work and go through struggle. I don’t want them to be surprised and buy into the lie that if they struggle, they must have picked the wrong person.

If couples are open about struggles early, they can get help. Counseling has rebuilt marriages who have had the worst kinds of betrayal and hurt and distance. It doesn’t always work, but I have been surprised at the situations God has been able to redeem with counseling and time and healing.

I want the church to be the place where we can share our struggles and our failures. As we hold up the ideal of marriage lasting a lifetime, we don’t want that to create such pressure and shame that people won’t share when their own marriage is facing serious struggles.

Finally, we support the permanency of marriage when we work to be good stewards of the money God has given us.

This includes those who are single but may be married one day, to take care with what debt you take on. I’ve seen marriages that have been crushed by financial pressure of school loans and credit card debt. Within a marriage, financial pressure and differences on spending and saving cause major stress. Being practical and responsible about money, being a community that fights against ostentatious displays of wealth…these are ways we work toward the permanence of marriage.

May we be a community that is honest about our struggle and that honors and respects the marriage vows of others. 

May we be people who find our identity in Christ, not in our marital status. May we strive for long and faithful marriages, and offer grace when that ideal isn’t met.

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