When I was a young man, I always looked forward to getting married. When I talked to older people about marriage, their basic advice was always the same: “Marriage is wonderful, but it is also hard work.” Now, seventeen years into marriage, I believe that those people were telling the truth, but that it was incomplete. It is true that marriage is wonderful.
It is a gift from God, and I am profoundly thankful for the wife God has given me. And marriage is hard work because partnering together with someone else takes forgiveness and communication and sacrifice and compromise. But as I look at the current cultural attitudes toward marriage, I think that we need to talk about marriage at a deeper level. We need to talk about marriage’s purpose.
Many people describe their marriages by saying, “It just isn’t working anymore.” Divorced people often look back and say, “Our marriage just didn’t work.” But we have to ask, “How did you know it wasn’t working?” In order to know whether or not something is working, you need to know its purpose.
For example, a foosball would not work well if you tried to use it to play ping pong. But we would consider it foolishness if someone threw away a foosball because “it just didn’t work.” True, it didn’t work for ping pong, but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have worked if you would have used it for its intended purpose. Perhaps we conclude that our marriages aren’t working because we are unclear about what marriage is for.
Before talking about the biblical idea of marriage’s purpose, let’s consider the prevailing view of marriage’s purpose for our culture today. In short, we seem to believe that the purpose of marriage is self-fulfillment. Marriage exists so that we can find that one person who can bring us from loneliness to completion.
This is reinforced in almost every romantic film that Hollywood produces. Because of this, we can become disillusioned when we find that marriage simply isn’t working. If a person is expecting that marriage will lead them to feel loved and valued—that they belong—then they are often right in saying that it isn’t working. And in this way, many marriages end.
While the ideal marriage certainly should lead to a man and a woman feeling loved and valued, self-fulfillment is not at the center of the biblical idea of marriage. First of all, marriage isn’t a necessity, but a choice. In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul tells believers that they can opt to marry or to stay single and that both are options that can facilitate a full and godly life. Second of all, marriage is about more than the two people involved. Marriage is a sign. It points toward the gospel.
In Ephesians 5:31-32 Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 (the verse that introduces the idea of marriage, and then comments on it: “‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” In other words, the classic verse on marriage is not simply talking about a man and a woman joining their lives to one another. It is a sign that points to the gospel. It points to Jesus commitment to his bride (the church) and the church’s submission to her groom (Jesus).
When husbands love their wives (even when their wives are not worthy of that love), they paint a picture of Jesus’ sacrificial commitment to his people. And when wives respect their husbands (even when their husbands are not worthy of that respect), they paint a picture of the church’s trust and deference to Jesus. But when husbands and wives abandon their marriage vows, they not only hurt themselves and their children. They also hurt everyone’s ability to see the gospel clearly.
In his book, The Meaning of Marriage Tim Keller writes, “This is the secret—that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another. That when God invented marriage, he already had the saving work of Jesus in mind.” Keller is rightly highlighting the true purpose of marriage. In light of this, men and women can display the gospel through their marriages, even if the marriage is very difficult. For example, the prophet Hosea displayed this reality as he lovingly committed himself to his unfaithful wife Gomer. And all husbands can display the gospel through loving their wives in good times and bad. And all wives can display the gospel through honoring their husbands in good times and bad.
In fact, when we stay committed during painful seasons in marriage, this displays the gospel in a particularly powerful way. After all, Jesus loved us while we were still helpless, godless sinners (Romans 5:6-8). So when we say our marriage isn’t working, we may be wrong. True, it may not “work” if we think marriage’s purpose is to bring us emotional fulfillment. But it still can work as a signal of the gospel.
One final plea. When we abandon our marriages, we often rob God of the opportunity to bring beauty out of the ruins. The book of Ruth is a beautiful story that begins with death and famine and bitterness and ends with marriage and children and redemption. At the beginning, after the Jewish woman Naomi has lost her husband and both of her sons, her two Moabite daughters-in-law vow that they will follow her back to her home in Israel.
But Naomi warns them that bitterness probably lies in their future if they come with her. At this warning, one of the daughters-in-law, Orpah, leaves and heads home. And who could blame her? It seemed like her best bet. But Ruth insisted that she would go with Noami, even vowing that she would be buried in the same place as her mother-in-law. And Ruth not only ended up seeing the beauty of the redemption that God brought about, but she ended up getting to be the great-grandmother of King David. Meanwhile, Orpah missed out on a chance to participate in the beauty that God brought about.
If you are ready to call it quits in your marriage, consider the beauty you might miss out on. God is telling his story through us, and he is pointing to the gospel through our marriages.