There’s an old rabbinical story about how the spot was chosen for God’s holy temple. Two brothers worked a common field and a common mill. Each night they divided whatever grain they had produced and each took his portion home.
One brother was single and one was married with a large family. The single brother decided that his married brother, with all those kids, certainly needed more grain than he did, so at night he secretly crept over to his brother’s granary and gave him an extra portion. The married brother realized that his single brother didn’t have any children to care for him in his old age. Concerned about his brother’s future, he got up each night and secretly deposited some grain in his single brother’s granary.
One night they met halfway between the two granaries, and each brother realized what the other was doing. They embraced, and as the story goes. God witnessed what happened and said, "This is a holy place—a place of love—and it is here that my temple shall be built." The holy place is that spot where God is made known to His people, "the place where human beings discover each other in love."
Marriage can be that holy place, the site of a relationship that proclaims God’s love to this world.
The Reasons for Marriage
The early church fathers recognized that the analogy of reconciliation is the highest aim of marriage, pointing as a sign to the union of Christ with His church. Paul explores this theme in his letter to the Ephesians (5:22-33).
One of these early thinkers, Augustine (A.D. 354-430), suggested that there are three benefits of marriage: offspring, faith (fidelity), and sacrament. Of the three benefits, he clearly points to the latter (sacrament) as the greatest. This is because it is possible to be married without either offspring or faith, but it is not possible to be (still) married without indissolubility, which is what a sacrament points toward. As long as a couple is married, they continue to display—however imperfectly—the ongoing commitment between Christ and His church. Thus, simply "sticking it out" becomes vitally important.
Knowing why we are married and should stay married is crucial. This will lead us into a discussion brilliantly argued by Maryland pastor C.J. Mahaney in an audiotape series on marriage titled According to Plan. The key question is this: Will we approach marriage from a God-centered view or a man-centered view? In a man-centered view, we will maintain our marriage as long as our earthly comforts, desires, and expectations are met. In a God-centered view, we preserve our marriage because it brings glory to God and points a sinful world to a reconciling Creator.
More than seeing marriage as a mutual comfort, we must see it as a word picture of the most important news humans have ever received—that there is a divine relationship between God and his people. Paul explicitly makes this analogy in his letter to the Ephesians. You’ve probably read these words (or heard these words quoted) dozens, if not hundreds, of times: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Ephesians 5:25-27).
In fact, both the Old and New Testaments use marriage as a central analogy—the union between God and Israel (Old Testament) and the union between Christ and His church (the New Testament). Understanding the depth of these analogies is crucial, as they will help us determine the very foundation on which a truly Christian marriage is based. If I believe the primary purpose of marriage is to model God’s love for His church, I will enter this relationship and maintain it with an entirely new motivation, one hinted at by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: "So we make it our goal to please Him" (2 Corinthians 5:9).
What Makes God Happy?
Paul answers a lot of questions for us when he says, "We make it our goal to please Him." When something is the motive force behind all we do, it becomes the driving force for every decision we make. And Paul is crystal clear: The first question we should ask ourselves when doing anything is, "Will this be pleasing to Jesus Christ?"
The first purpose in marriage—beyond happiness, sexual expression, the bearing of children, companionship, mutual care and provision, or anything else—is to please God. The challenge, of course, is that it is utterly selfless living; rather than asking, "What will make me happy?" we are told that we must ask, "What will make God happy?" And just in case we don’t grasp it immediately, Paul underscores it a few verses later: "Those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again" (2 Corinthians 5:15).
I have no other choice as a Christian. I owe it to Jesus Christ to live for Him, to make Him my consuming passion and the driving force in my life. To do this, I have to die to my own desires daily. I have to crucify the urge that measures every action and decision around what is best for me. Paul is eloquent regarding this fact: "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body" (2 Corinthians 4:10).
Just as Jesus went to the cross, so I must go to the cross, always considering myself as carrying around "the death of Jesus" so that His new life—His motivations, His purposes, His favor—might dominate in everything I do.
Pleasing God Through Marriage
This reality calls me to look at my spouse through Christian eyes: "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view …" (2 Corinthians 5:16a). The reason is clear: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (5:17). Part of this new identity is a new ministry, one that is given to every Christian, as it is inherent in the person of Jesus Christ: "All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (5:18).
Think about this. The very nature of Christ’s work was a reconciling work, bringing us together again with God. Our response is to become reconcilers ourselves. C. K. Barrett defines reconciliation as "to end a relation of enmity, and to substitute for it one of peace and goodwill."
Clearly Paul is talking about carrying the message of salvation. But we cannot discuss with any integrity the ending of "a relation of enmity" and the dawning of "peace and goodwill" if our marriages are marked by divorce, fighting, and animosity. Everything I am to say and do in my life is to be supportive of this gospel ministry of reconciliation, and that commitment begins by displaying reconciliation in my personal relationships, especially in my marriage.
If my marriage contradicts my message, I have sabotaged the goal of my life: to be pleasing to Christ and to faithfully fulfill the ministry of reconciliation, proclaiming to the world the good news that we can be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. If my "driving force" is as Paul says it should be, I will work to construct a marriage that enhances this ministry of reconciliation—a marriage that, in fact, incarnates this truth by putting flesh on it, building a relationship that models forgiveness, selfless love, and sacrifice.
The last picture I want to give the world is that I have decided to stop loving someone and that I refuse to serve this person anymore, or that I have failed to fulfill a promise I made many years before. Yet this is precisely the message many Christians are proclaiming through their actions. According to pollster George Barna, self-described "born-again" Christians have a higher rate of divorce than unbelievers (twenty-seven percent to twenty-three percent). Those who adopt the label "fundamentalist Christian" have the highest divorce rate of all (thirty percent). We can’t carry a message well if we don’t live it first.
I know there are exceptions. But one of the reasons I am determined to keep my marriage together is not because doing so will make me happier (although I believe it will); not because I want my kids to have a secure home (although I do desire that); not because it would tear me up to see my wife have to "start over" (although it would). The first reason I keep my marriage together is because it is my Christian duty. If my life is based on proclaiming God’s message to the world, I don’t want to do anything that would challenge that message.
Excerpted from Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas, copyright 2000 by Gary Thomas. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.