CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Love and Marriage

Jun 29, 2009

A very brief news item caught my attention just recently which is worth commenting on. It had to do with where modern marriage is heading, and how some people are seeking to change the usual marriage vows to reflect their own preference for non-commitment.

Here is what the news item said: “Couples are abandoning traditional ‘till death do us part’ wedding vows in favour of those with a get out clause in the event their love ‘shall falter or fail’. Newlyweds are increasingly acknowledging that love does not always last forever and pledging ‘as long as our love lasts’. A few are even making agreements to review the state of the marriage after as little as five years.”

Of course in one sense this is not new. Prenuptial agreements are similar, in that they provide an opt-out clause from day one. Both thus seek to raise the white flag of surrender even before the marriage is embarked upon. This is hardly the solid ground marriage needs to be built upon.

Of course part of the problem is modern man has managed to totally disconnect sexuality from procreation. Until recently, everyone knew that they went together, and one without the other was hardly even considered. As Ogden Nash once quipped, “The reason for much matrimony is patrimony”.

Thus marriage as an institution has always been about two chief social ends: the regulation of human sexuality, and the provision for the next generation that arises from that sexual union. And these two have always been bundled together.

It was especially because of the next generation – but not limited to it – that marriage was always seen as a lifelong social bonding. And almost all human societies therefore gave high value to marriage, knowing that a good marriage makes for a good family, and good families make for a good society.

But the real problem with this whole concept of temporary marriage is the fundamentally faulty notion of love that underpins it. Today when we speak about love most people mean something like feelings, or lust, or sex. Love of course has something to do with these three things, but is certainly not the same as those three.

Love, in a more sober age, meant things like commitment, self-sacrifice and willing the best for the beloved. Indeed, most cultures have realised that mere romantic love is the least vital aspect about love. Love is so much more than feelings. Feelings of course come and go, and in that sense we fall in and out of love all the time.

But that is exactly why the marriage vows have been the way they have been for such a long time. It is exactly because we have known that the feelings and emotions of love are fickle, temperamental and temporary, that we featured the “till death do us part” clause.

Indeed, so different was our understanding of love and marriage until recently, that we could very rightly speak about “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health”. Real love was about dedication, loyalty, commitment and perseverance, not mere fleeting emotions.

Real love was about sticking with the partner of one’s vows, loving them to the end. It was always about true love, which always wills the highest good to the other person. It is the very opposite to selfishness and self-centredness. No marriage can work with two people fiercely clinging to their own rights.

A genuine marriage is about renouncing one’s rights and declaring one’s commitment to the well-being and good of the beloved. Thus marriage works on loving commitment, not selfish individualism.

But these new marriage vows clearly reflect such selfishness and me-first-ism. They are all about the individual, and not about the couple, or about any potential offspring of that couple.

Thus they are a perfect reflection of the age of self we now live in. We may well be one of the most self-centred generations in human history. Everything is about me, me, me. So we have taken an institution like marriage, which is fundamentally a social, giving institution, and turned it into a personal, taking institution.

Marriage both as a concept and as an individual union will not last with this fixation on selfishness. Of course it was never meant to. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once very wisely said in one of his wedding sermons, “Love does not sustain your marriage, but marriage sustains your love.”

That has always been the right way of looking at marriage. And without this way of looking at marriage, we will be in an awful mess. I probably have fallen out of love with my wife zillions of times. But I have also fallen in love with her zillions of times. That is the nature of human relationships.

They have their ups and downs. But the truth is, a good marriage, like anything else worthwhile in life, must be worked at. Wonderful marriages do not pop out of thin air. They are the end result of two people who are committed to each other – warts and all – and who are committed to their marriage.

A marriage will never work with two people who are only in it for themselves. Marriage works when two people put the other first, and see marriage as a valuable and noble institution which must daily be worked on and improved.

Sure, there will be setbacks and progress, momentum and lulls, high and lows. And any married couple will have their fair share of fights. But the right attitude is the key. As Ruth Bell Graham once remarked, “A good marriage is the union of two forgivers.”

So if you are seriously considering marriage, my first word of advice to you would be to abandon any foolish thoughts about using such self-destructive phrases as “as long as our love lasts”. That is a recipe for disaster, and will pretty well guarantee that your marriage will be very short-lived indeed.

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23 Responses to Love and Marriage

  • I remember the remark of a child who’s parents divorced saying that his mother had told him that if his parents had stayed together they wouldn’t love each other thus his parents had to divorce for the child’s own ‘good’.

    This comment typifies todays Hollywood ‘love’. Some days I feel like praying and other days I don’t. The underpinning principle of this is that in spite of not possessing the ‘right’ feelings I still choose to pray regardless. A marriage is no different – love is ultimately a choice regardless of feeling and to simply say that someone cannot sustain a marriage because a feeling is absent is hogwash.

    F. Trpimir Kesina

  • My mother told me that on the day of her wedding, in 1925, that my father said to her, “Oh well if it doesn’t work we can always get a divorce.” Well after 49 years of unstable and insecure marriage, they did precisely that; they divorced!

    www.peter-ould.net/2008/10/11/some-thoughts-on-the-debate-2-the-glorification-of-heterosexualit/

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sitting in a Nazi prison cell, once wrote a wedding sermon for a niece who was about to be married. In it he said, “Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal – it is a status, an office.”

    Davd Skinner, UK

  • One wonders whether persons who don’t take vows that include the idea of a life-long commitment are legally married at all.

    The Marriage Act 1961 defines marriage thus:

    “marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

    Section 46 of the Act makes it clear that a celebrant or minister of religion is to make clear the obligations of marriage including the commitment for life.

    Find it here:
    www.comlaw.gov.au/ComLaw/Legislation/ActCompilation1.nsf/0/FBD98E84AEF32A27CA25719C0028D1A7?OpenDocument

    Chris Cullen
    Kurrajong, NSW

  • Good point Chris. Thanks for raising it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Wonderful post, Bill; Thank you. 🙂

    It’s good to be reminded that society’s views on marriage weren’t always as distorted as they are now. Take today’s comment from someone, when I said something about children: “Never repeat mistakes. One husband; One daughter; One dog.”

    I’m with Ps Bonhoeffer; Marriage is linked to families and generations, and is not just about two infatuated people. Thank you David for adding that quote.

    Alison Keen

  • Dear Bill, You have reveled that God’s creative genius to make woman from the rib of man and bring them together in a life-long union has been forgotten. 68 years ago My beloved and I vowed to love, honour, cherish, keep until death do us part.
    I teach with a fellow family medicine GP and a CPA. We completed the Ten Commandments. I was allotted the 7th – ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.’ Bill, it’s the most solemn study I have given. Backsliding is prostitution, while loving the world is adultery. I included the tsunami efect in David’s life and family after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. The study is on our web site: if you feel it merits commendation. The Christian church must be purified.
    Harrold Steward

  • It seems we are approaching Pointland more quickly than ever (Flatland A Mathematical Allegory by Edwin A. Abbott, 1953 reprint)

    Chris, that’s a VITAL point. Thank you for reminding us.

    John Angelico

  • Thanks John

    In case people don’t have a clue what you are referring to, I explain a bit of the storyline of Flatland here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2007/02/20/the-flatlands-of-reductionism/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, We had Pastor Leo Godzich speak to our church the other day. He is part of NAME, a marriage enhancement organisation from the U.S.

    He mentioned ‘covenant marriages’ and how they had 3 states in the U.S. give provision for this more biblical marriage concept

    Alan Grey

  • Bill
    Well put. The difficulty with many today who have been raised in a society and in an age of relative ease and with many expecting (demanding) what they want now – none of this let’s plan and work towards it. So with marriage, if things aren’t just quite right let’s try a new one.

    Statisitcs have long taught us that second marriages have a higher rate of failure than the first, so increasing rates of failure, facilitated by the anti-family “Family Law Act” are confronting us regularly.
    As you say Bill it is a total commitment that underpins marriage. When two become one in marriage, each of the two who join in the union of marriage must work ay it each day of their lives.

    Working at it at times can be hard, particularly when there is hardship brought about by sickness, unemployment, loss of a family member, economic strains brought about by unopedicted events, etc. That is when the uniqueness of the two becoming one is so important. When one carries the other through a difficulty, or both carry each other through a shared difficulty, the joys of the commitment are realised.
    As St Francis of Assisi wrote in his beautiful prayer “Lord make me an instrument of your peace” he said “it is in giving that you receive”. A very true statement.

    Those who do not give cannot know the peace you get in giving without counting the cost, of doing what has to be done even if you are tired, frustrated, even angry. Love often has its challenges. Those who do not want to face challenges that marriage creates will probably fail in marriage bacuse thay fail in themselves and to their spouse.

    A recent journalist in a Brisbane paper suggested that marriage should be first a contract for 5 years then renew for 5 years and maybe then for life.What a great idea. I could only guess at what the marriage would be like in around year 3 or 4? Will he/she renew next year? What if we talk and he/she does not tell me the truth? How can married couples plan a future without the confidence of commitment for life from the start?

    What would be the reaction to having children? And if children are in the family and they hear their parents talking about whether they will renew their contract.What is the likely psychological impact of that on the child? The reason why marriage has been developed as an institution for life is to give the greatest level of comfort that human beings can have in the future for their own benefit and for the stability of the family.

    As unpopular as it may sound to the social engineers, we need to hold the line on marriage as a commitment between a man and a woman for life and a determination to make it work despite the ebb and flow of emotions that come with the challenges of the day in married life.

    And hey there are many wonderful, fantastic days too!!

    David Grace

  • Thanks Bill for this profound article. Really it is how marriage is meant to be. Very timely!!
    Jane Petridge

  • Our marriage vows are “till death do us part”, not till we find another or better person.
    Our vows are a covenant, made and said before God, not a contact to be broken when the going gets tough.
    Our marriage vows ate not based on behaviour or performance of any kind.
    We are to stand firmly planted on the Word of God as our foundation.
    I am very thankful for my parents 68 years of Christian role model marriage, still going strong today.
    www.wisereaction.org
    Mrs Judith Bond

  • I married my wife in Scots Church Melbourne nearly 27 years ago. We had one of William Barclay’s students be the minister, and he made it quite clear that marriage was for life and stressed that it was God’s Holy Ordinance.

    Dr Stewart, are you THE Harold Stewart who started Southern Christian fellowship in Adelaide, because if you are I have met you a few times.

    Wayne Pelling

  • Your Flatlands account of Materialistic reductionism is an incoherent analogy. The Flatlanders’ problem is that they cannot conceive of dimensions other than their own. Reductive Materialists and atheists can of course conceive of “dimensions” other than their own. Why? Because they were usually raised in a religious culture where such ideas are familiar. Indeed in some cases they themselves were once religious, subscribing to and acting on such ideas. To make it more complicated, I know of atheists and agnostics who not only imagine the religious dimension and find it wanting but also find reductive Materialism problematic.

    The Flatlanders are collectively closed-minded as a race. The analogy is too simple for the real human world where closed-mindedness and open-mindedness are variable personality traits not necessarily congregating in one socially-sorted spot. Some atheists are closed-minded, some are not. Same applies to religious folk.

    In any case a Materialist philosopher can have his revenge by writing his own Flatland myth where the inhabitants are locked into their metaphysical myths and positive illusions as “Truth” and are inherently incapable of imagining a reality in contradiction to theirs. Since there have been thousands of religions, cults and sects, all convinced they are right, such a Materialist author will have a field day.

    If you want to give reductive Materialism the good thumping it deserves, then you need more than a weak question-begging analogy from Flatland. Finally, I would point out that reductive Materialists with their physicalist philosophy of mind to not actually behave as if they believe what they claim to believe. For a start they use folk psychology to promote their own theoretical put-down of folk psychology. And they puff up a Self that they are not supposed to have.

    John Snowden

  • I know that marriage is not easy. However marriage is necessary and we have God to thank for that wisdom. Marriage has taught me that I must put my husband/family first, to be selfless. In my moments of weakness I have sometimes been impatient so thats another test from God, to be patient. When i dont love enough because he does it different from me, i have to learn unconditional love. When he does something i dont understand, i need to learn to wait & see and all shall be revealed, patience again. Conclusion, marriage is a spiritual necessity.
    Siti Khatijah

  • Marriage also teaches us I feel the spiritual notion of gratefulness. I thank God everyday for the person I married, for his unconditional love towards me, taking care of the family, striving to make our lives and those of others good, helping others when he sometimes has no time for himself, always thinking of others. I thank God for the person I married. Thus marriage also teaches us to pray to God.
    Siti Khatijah

  • A marriage certificate is as foundational as a birth certificate. As one cannot be unborn unless through acquiring a death certificate so one cannot be unmarried, even through divorce, unless through a death certificate. Where marriage is reduced to the means to mere subjective experience, to companionship, the means to intimacy, the means to pleasure, the means to social standing or approval, or the means to any other number of socio-legal benefits (such as taxation privileges, medical aid benefits adoption rights, etc) to being a primary instrument to attain other ends, the creation ordinance of marriage, the objective reality, context (system in which these subjectivities exist) is deconstructed – destroyed. Its like thinking that a fish swims simply through the actions of its body, without taking into account that it must also be water. Take out the water and the fish might continue to experience the pleasure of wriggling but sooner or later it dies. Marriage, like life itself is a reality that exists with or without our consent or experiencing it.

    “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.” – Ephesians 5:25-33

    The fact that they become one flesh becomes even more evident when they have children who are truly bone of their bone. When people say with resignation and regret “We only stayed together for the sake of the children” they ought to be grateful that having children did glue them inseparabley together.

    “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” – Matthew 19 3- 9

    David Skinner, UK

  • To John S re Flatland:

    My short point was that Pointland was one single point shouting “me, me, me!” incessantly, with no-one listening – a rather apt illustration of Bill’s point, and signalling the direction our society seems to be heading.

    Yes, it’s reductionism, but as Francis Schaeffer pointed out, sometimes we have to confront the non-Christian with the logical reduction to absurdity of his position.

    He is either incapable of doing anything rational, or he has to make a totally irrational ‘leap of faith’ contrary to his rationalistic/materialistic logic.

    John Angelico

  • Dear Bill,
    For those interested in supporting Marriage, I recommend the upcoming National Marriage Day launch breakfast in Federal Parliament house on 13th August. The organisers can be contacted at [email protected]
    for a registration form.
    Marriage, in my opinion, is a reflection of the relationship of our wonderful Creators-Father,Jesus and The Holy Spirit. The Spirit in the marriage sense being the relationship, which is both part of each husband and wife and yet separate to both as well. Might I say, the relationship “indwells” them and is both in them and separate to them at the same time. So if marriage is a gift of Themselves to us in this form, it is no wonder that marriage will come under attack by the one who hates this relationship-satan. May we recognise that this is a spiritual attack by the same proponent of the fall. We are such a gullible bunch. Been believing the lies since the beginning. The answer to all the ills of marriage and relationship breakdown is a true understanding of who God is ie. Father,Son and Spirit, and an understanding of our included place within this relationship. Unconditional inclusion!!! Once we understand objectively that Jesus has set us free 2000 odd years ago, we are free subjectively to relate to others. Without this revelation, we will always be at the mercey of our fallen selves and manipulation by the evil one to focus on ourselves, as if the answer is somehow some sort of work we have to do. Jesus sets us free to relate firstly to THEM and then throught the healing and transformation process that takes place through THEM, relate to others, especially our wives and husbands.
    Be free to be loved by THEM and pass it on!
    Blessings in THEM
    Lou d’Alpuget

  • FREE DOWNLOADS

    www.WiseReaction.org

    Read what covenant really is…

    Blessings Michael Whennen

  • Wayne Pelling. Yes I had the privilege of being founding elder of the Southern Christian Fellowship.
    My web site www.biblestories.stellaris.com.au has a solemn, awful study, ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’.
    This agrees with what Bill has written so searchingly.
    Harrold Steward

  • I like your site Michael. So many churches do not teach anything close to a biblical message about the marriage covenant, even to the point of saying that the covenant is broken once there is a *displayed lack of love* for their spouse. These grave doctrinal errors have devastated families everywhere – it tore mine apart.
    Garth Penglase

  • Correction, Go to
    www.biblestories.stellaris.com.au
    for my Father Harrold Steward.

    Judith Bond

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