Why do we still say 'I do'?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, wrote Jane Austen, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of wife.

Only that’s not quite what she meant, of course. She wanted us to smile a little at the cynicism of this line, because Jane was a believer that marriage is for love. Oh, it isn’t just for love, of course – you can’t just run off with any old soldier in a fancy red coat. It has to be sensible. But it can’t be just sensible. Marriage for Jane Austen, done the right way, is clearly a blissful state; if it is done by two individuals who are self-aware and who love each other. It is the end of the story for her heroines. After Elizabeth marries Darcy, or Emma marries Knightley, what more is to be said? We never have to think about Elizabeth struggling with post-natal depression, or what happened when Darcy squandered his good fortune on the horses.

At the other end of the nineteenth century, however, the novelist Thomas Hardy – most famous for Tess of the D’Urbervilles – had a much less happy view of marriage. His novels are filled with unhappy tales of what happens after someone gets married and finds themselves locked in an institution with high walls and bars on the windows.

In one of his books, Jude the Obscure, Jude discovers a rabbit in a trap, and puts it out of its misery with a swift blow. His lover Sue – who, like Jude, is trapped in an unhappy marriage – says to him: “They ought not to be allowed to set these steel traps, ought they!”

The suffering of the rabbit is for her an image of being imprisoned in the vice of a marriage that isn’t working, and into which you have been perhaps naively coaxed. Marriage is a trap, and it crushes and kills those caught in its vice. and even if Elizabeth and Darcy have lived happily ever after, is this idea really as good for us as our stories tell us it is? Does marriage actually work for most people?

Married, our way

Certainly, a generation of people now has become more than a little skittish about marriage. The institution of marriage was radically changed in the early 1970s by the introduction of no-fault divorce, which made the pressure of the rabbit trap’s jaws a little lighter. But even with an easier get-out, couples have become gun-shy. The stats are well-known: if they get married, couples are almost a decade older on average than they were before; they are more likely to divorce; they almost certainly co-habit before they are married. But, interestingly, people still like marriage, and want to be married.

This story plays out in our marriage preparation classes at St Mark’s Darling Point, Sydney. We marry almost 40 couples every year. Almost all of these couples are not active church members. Nearly all of them are living together and some of them have a child already. It would be rare for them to be under 30, especially the men.

But all of them think that to be married would add something to their relationship. They speak about the joy that they hope being married will bring them. So: we want marriage, generally speaking, but we know and fear how difficult it can be.

What puzzles these couples is the sameness of man and woman…

What hope is there? When we do our marriage classes at church, we always read Genesis 2. I always ask the couples: what delights you, what annoys you, and what puzzles you in this text?

What annoys them is the difference between the man and the woman. They are cross that the woman is described as the man’s helper, because the word in English seems to suggest she is his sidekick, or his secretarial help.

I tell them that can’t be the right way to think about it, because the Hebrew word for “helper” is sometimes used in the Old Testament to describe God. Man and woman are to be partners for the task God calls them to of tilling and filling, naming and claiming the world he made. What puzzles these couples is the sameness of man and woman – which is to say, they hear the story of the rib and don’t understand it. And I tell them that this is a radical part of the story, since in the ancient world people frequently believed that men and women were different species altogether.

But Genesis teaches us that man and woman aren’t from Mars and Venus: they are made of the same stuff. As Adam says when he first meets Eve: This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  Or in another word – wow!  Their difference is not as deep as their sameness. The difference is only a modulation on their sameness.

The joy of being one

What delights the couples is the one-ness. They see the beauty of that scene at the end where Adam encounters the creature of all the creatures in which he recognises himself mirrored; and they love the description of the pattern of marriage it introduces: the man will leave his family of origin and “be united” – or, as the old Bibles used to say, “cleave” – to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.

This is the point of the other two things that we’ve learnt about them in the passage: their deep sameness and their corresponding differences fit them for union. I don’t think we should spiritualise this too much; their bodies match. The male body is made for the female body, and the female for the male. They have in themselves the potential for an extraordinary union of the flesh – not just in the sex act itself, but in the production of children, who are a remarkable, visible evidence of one-flesh union.

At the same time, Jesus sees the union of man and woman in Genesis 2 as not something that they simply choose for each other, but something carried out by God. “What God has joined together, let no-one separate,” he says. When man and woman unite, God is at work to bind them. But marriage does something more, too. While we must be realistic about our marriages, we don’t need to be pessimistic because the Bible offers us marriage as a sign of redemption. In the New Testament, this comes out especially in the terrific passage from Ephesians 5, and in the great vision of heaven in Revelation 21. Marriage is a pattern for the way God works, and then what happens is that the way God works becomes a pattern for human marriages.

… a wonderful marriage between God and the people he has called into union with himself.

That’s due to the great characteristics God brings to relationships. Throughout the Old Testament, God was revealed to us as the promising God, whose heartfelt love was steadfast and everlasting for his people.

And what did it mean for love to play out over time? It meant that God was true to his word, even when his people were faithless. Even in the adversity of the exile years, when Israel had been invaded and destroyed, God did not abandon them. In the fullness of time, the Son of God laid down his life for the people of God, so to present them as a perfect, pure bride. As the lover in the Song of Songs says, love is strong as death. God’s love for his people in Jesus Christ is strong as death, and is not defeated even by death. It leads to that final picture in Revelation 21, of a wonderful marriage between God and the people he has called into union with himself.

So, what?

What does this mean for human marriages? It means that we marry not simply as broken people, but as those who have before them a story of redemption and healing and renewal. And it is not only a pattern from which we can learn; it is an experience that is actually given to those who are in Christ. I can teach my marriage classes about forgiveness, and tell them what it means, as a technique; but for those who are Christians, they actually know what it means to receive forgiveness, to be forgiven. We are those who have basked in the enduring love of the promise-keeping God. We know that to keep promises in a fallen world requires forgiveness, patience and loving sacrifice. We know these are the secrets of a deep, binding, gospel-shaped love. He shows us what it means to say “I will”, and to give yourself in body, heart and mind, to another.

Marriage is an unique blessing to humankind.

And here is the reason not to agree with Thomas Hardy and give up on marriage: the constancy of God. He has made marriage good, but he has remade it even better – as a sign of his own love. He has given us marriage that is not simply about being a boy and a girl, but a way of surviving all the things that life can throw at you.

Marriage is an unique blessing to humankind, even when it is hard. I want to finish with the story of a great marriage, between the American theologian B.B. Warfield and his wife Annie. Soon after their marriage in 1876, the newlyweds travelled to Europe. While walking together in the Harz mountains in Germany, they were caught in a violent thunderstorm. As one biographer says:

Annie Warfield suffered a severe trauma to her nervous system from which she never fully recovered. She was so severely traumatised that she would spend the rest of her life as an invalid of sorts, becoming increasingly more incapacitated as the years went by. Her husband was to spend the rest of their lives together giving her “his constant attention and care” until her death in 1915.

For the 39 years of their marriage, Warfield rarely left her for more than a couple of hours at a time. He used to read to her for hours at a time. One friend said: “I used to see them walking together and the gentleness of his manner was striking proof of the loving care with which he surrounded her. They had no children.”

Was this marriage a rabbit trap? Can you imagine the disappointment and frustration they would have experienced? And yet, here is a powerful sign to us of the patient love of God. And in a surprising way, by the work of God’s spirit, this marriage was a rich blessing to them both. They held on to the gift of the sovereign, loving God, where many would have given up, and received in their lives, alongside pain and loss, a joy and hope which many do not know.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.

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