Here is another letter that I am sharing because having the opportunity to respond to these concrete, heart-felt, and existential questions gives me the opportunity to unpack the implications of the Gospel to the realities of every day life. As always, I hope reading this is thought provoking and edifying.
Dear Ms. O,
Regarding your questions about marriage, Wow! That’s a lot to process particularly in trying to give such a subject its proper due. I would say that marriage is one of the basic elements of society, as it takes a natural reality, the biological impulse for procreation, and it directs it toward something greater: the development of civilizations and all the good it can bring into our life. I would also say that from a Christian perspective it is a profound theological reality, as it potentially mirrors the dynamics of the life of the Trinity, and is a kind of living parable of Christ’s relationship to the Church. With this context in mind, the character of a potential mate is one of the key factors to consider, and by character I don’t mean perfect moral character, but rather qualities that are critical for a person to have in order to be open to growth and to sustain good relationships. I suppose good conversations could be had about what these characteristics are, but off of the top of my head a person should be relatively humble, honest, at least moderately considerate of others, principled and yet open-minded. If two people possess these qualities I believe that on the whole they will be able to navigate the promises and pitfalls that two imperfect people face when living the challenges of life together.
You asked why it is that people get married and what is marriage’s purpose. In some ways these questions are intertwined. Of course the personal reasons why people get married are diverse, with some reasons being more noble than others. I think on some basic level we have a deep drive to connect with others in an intimate way, and marriage is the avenue for expressing the deepest intimacy, body and soul. Often people approach marriage seeking self-fulfillment, which is not bad, but it can become idolatrous, and in the world often is idolatrous. I mentioned marriage mirroring the dynamics of the Trinity, which specifically is being-in-communion, a deep sense of one’s self in the giving of one’s self to the well being of the other. In the Trinity this is the Father eternally begetting the Son, and the Father eternally processing the Spirit, and the Spirit intimately moving through the Father’s begetting of the Son, as well as the Son’s response of self-giving obedience to the Father. This means that the Father knows himself in and through the Son, and the Son in and through the Father, and the Spirit in and through the Father and the Son. I could go on, but the point is that each distinct person has himself in and through the self-giving relationship to the other. In other words, the fulfillment of each is found in self-giving to the other, and in God this distinct self-giving is so complete and without reservation that they are substantially one, one being. Marriage, in a limited human way is supposed to be this reality in time and space, and marriage goes awry or dies when the two involved either become enmeshed, which means the loss of distinction of the two members, or when the two members never really give of themselves to the other in a self-sacrificing way, which is the loss of communion. Most often marriages die because the two people of the marriage are using the other for their own self-fulfillment, which, from a Xian perspective, goes against the most foundational law of the universe, the law based on the very being of God. This is the problem of sin, and this is why in marriage much grace is needed.
Regarding how you know you are ready for marriage, I am not sure how to answer that. Throughout my dating life I lived in great ambiguity and uncertainty about these things. This uncertainty about readiness and finding “the one” is in part because of the complexity of relationships, but at a deeper level, it was about my own brokenness. Fortunately, graciously, God acted in my life by confronting an idol I had long been laboring under, and that confrontation freed me so that I knew I loved Paula, and soon after I proposed. I don’t think my experience is common, nor do I think it should be, as it is more likely a testimony about my brokenness and God’s grace, than it is an expression of how God moves in people’s lives to bring them together. During the time in my life that I was dating Paula, I remember having a discussion with a brother about marriage and making the right decision, and I remember him telling me that “It’s not about making the right decision, but about making the decision right.” Obviously that stuck with me. As I see it, this notion frees us from the search for “the one” or “the soul mate” who is going to bring self-fulfillment, and moves us toward considering whether the person we are attracted to has the qualities to face the challenges of life together, as well as opening us to the grace we will need to overcome our own brokenness, however it has taken shape in our life. It is this kind of wide-eyed perception of both the realities of human sinfulness, especially our own, as well as the promises and possibilities of marriage, as a reality patterned after the Trinitarian life of God, that provides a good foundation for marriage.
Peace be with you.