Marriage is, without question, the most important and sacred of human relationships. In fact, it is the first human relationship established by God himself. With all the weight that marriage carries, it is important that Christ-followers understand God's purpose for marriage and how that purpose is most effectively realized through the covenant of marriage.
Below are nine truths about marriage that we find in the narrative of Scripture. The list is in no way exhaustive or exclusive, but it is, I believe, helpful for all married and single people as we think through what marriage is and how we can honor God's purpose for it.
1. Marriage is love.
English, as a language, leaves its speakers a little hamstrung in their ability to communicate the idea of love. Because we only have one word—"love"—it is difficult to convey the difference between "loving" cinnamon rolls and loving our spouse. In ancient Hebrew, there are seven words for love, and they all communicate different degrees and aspects of what love truly is. Three of those words build on each other like building blocks; they are rayah (ri-yah), ahavah (a-ha-vah), and dod (dode). Together, they effectively paint a picture of what kind of real love is present in a marriage relationship. The key there is together. Apart, they only contribute an incomplete portion of what kind of love marriage displays.
Rayah is a brotherly affection. It is the kind of love that exists between neighbors and friends. It's a mutual respect and a camaraderie. Rayah is an important aspect of marriage, but, of course, it would be an incomplete foundation for and expression of the love within a marriage.
Ahavah is a romantic love. But, it's not the type of romantic love that Boyz II Men sings about or that we see in Hugh Grant movies. No, ahavah is a covenantal, committed, "I'm in this no matter what" type of romantic love. It's a love that transcends emotions and circumstances. Ahavah is the love that causes a person to say "I'm not going anywhere," not just across the table at a candlelit dinner, but even after a big argument.
Dod is the sexual expression of love. Dod is not only the most misunderstood aspect of holistic love, but it is also the most often abused. Literally translated, dod communicates a "mingling of souls." It is not purely physical. In fact, the physical aspect of dod isn't even the most prominent. Dod is the sexual, soul-binding love that is only capable of being experienced when the rayah and ahavah are also present in the relationship. Without the companionship of rayah and without the unshakeable commitment of ahavah, dod cannot be rightly experienced, and, actually, seeking the sexual, soul-mingling expression of dod without the other two will be damaging.
2. Marriage is a promise—a covenant.
Speaking of Hugh Grant movies, we've all seen the romantic comedy where the girl wants to get married, and the guy (in a seemingly romantic way) says, "I don't need a piece of paper to prove how I feel about you." Awww, right? Wrong. Marriage is not an emotional state; it's a permanent promise. The essence of marriage is not having children, sexual intimacy, romantic feelings, personal fulfillment, or anything else. The essence of marriage is a covenant.
When you get married, you're not saying your vows based on a present emotional reality. No one says, "Since I currently find you beautiful and currently am interested in you, I'll be married to you for the time being." Nonsense. Marriage vows are permanent promises, regardless of future circumstances. Love is not something that you can "fall out of"—it isn't a tree. It isn't a momentary result of feelings. Love is a promise—a decision that's made and solidified.
3. Marriage is about companionship.
"For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." Ephesians 5:31
What reason? To answer that, we have to look at where Paul is quoting this from: Genesis 2. When God is creating the earth, everything is declared good. Well, everything except one thing. The only thing that God said was not good before the Fall was that Adam was alone. "It is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18). The reason for the first marriage was to get rid of "aloneness"—it was to create companionship.
This means, by God's design, that spouses are intended to be best friends. A spouse is the closest companion someone can have, which means a spouse is the closest companion that someone should have. To have a companion closer than one's spouse is to be unfaithful; to do so is to undermine the original design of marriage. This, of course, is especially true with friends of the opposite gender. Companionship is most beautifully realized within the covenant of marriage.
4. Marriage teaches us about grace apart from works.
Marriage, better than anything else, is a beautiful picture of the power of repentance and grace. In any relationship dynamic, particularly in marriage, we will mess up ten times for every one time we get it right. We'll never perform our way to a happy marriage; we'll never perform our way to earning the love of our spouse, just like we'll never perform our way to earning the love of God. And, we don't need to.
Here's the narrative we see in our marriages all the time — Someone stops living for the sake of the relationship and starts to live for him or herself, which causes a break in the harmony of the relationship. The parties are alienated; hostility sets in; shalom is shattered. Then, someone reaches out. Driven by a desire to mend the relationship and based on grace alone, not the merit of the offender, forgiveness and redemption are offered. Hopefully, the gracious offer for restoration is accepted and harmony is restored. The relationship is mended.
Does that sound familiar?
Humanity was created in perfect harmony with God. Then, we started living for our ourselves and our own satisfaction, and we caused that harmony in the relationship to break. We were alienated from God, hostile towards him, and shalom was shattered. Then, God, driven by a desire to mend the relationship and based on grace alone and not on our merit, reaches out. Forgiveness and redemption are offered through the person and work of Jesus. Then, hopefully, we accept the gracious offer for restoration and harmony is restored. The relationship is mended.
In marriage, we see this Gospel narrative play out time and time again on a variety of scales. And, each time, we have an opportunity to mirror the grace and love that we've been shown by our good Father in the person and work of Jesus—a love not based on performance or works, but a love based on grace and responded to with repentance.
5. Marriage is where sex should be.
As we saw above, the love within marriage is multi-faceted, meaning that the sexual expression of love within marriage is designed to be enjoyed when the other aspects of covenantal love and companionship are present. One cannot healthily do with one's body what he or she is unwilling to do with the other areas of his or her life. To be physically naked with another person and not be socially, financially, emotionally, and spiritually naked with them as well is a distortion of what God intended sex to be: an expression of all-encompassing, covenantal love—oneness.
Making sex a merely physical act not only cheapens the beautiful design God set forth for it to be enjoyed as a gift, but it also cheapens the way sex can show us what God's passionate love for us is like. The physical longing that we feel for sexual or romantic pleasure is but a mere shadow to the longing God has for a relationship with us. To disregard God's design for sexual intimacy is to take something that God intended to reflect his covenant love for his people and to cheapen it. Any physical or temporal pleasure we chase after here on Earth is only a minute fraction of the pleasure God wishes to grant us in him.
6. Marriage can be an idol.
John Newton, the writer of Amazing Grace, said that the biggest problem in marriage is idolatry. It is tempting to turn one's spouse, or, more specifically, the fulfillment one seeks from his or her spouse into an idol. Instead of being wholly satisfied and made complete by the person and work of Jesus, we often turn to our spouses to fill the hole that we feel in our hearts. We put the burden of our emotional, spiritual, relational, and any other kind of fulfillment on their shoulders, and it is a burden that no one can bear. Only Jesus is capable of fulfilling the emptiness that we seek to fill. Our spouses, no matter how wonderful they may be, would certainly make lousy gods.
This is why Newton says this idolatry in marriage is such an issue, because it causes deep disappointment. We expect our spouses to give us the worth and satisfaction that our soul craves, and, of course, they are unable to do so, and so we grow bitter. We resent them. God alone can lead a family; God alone can protect a family; God alone can provide for a family. Our spouses are meant to be partners that we co-labor with in God's kingdom work, they are not meant to be our be-all and end-all.
Consequently, the idea that there is "the one"—the perfect other half that God is leading you to—is a myth. Chasing after "the one" is tantamount to chasing a unicorn. How do you know that someone is "the one?" Marry them. Make a covenant with him or her. From that point forward, that's the "one" for you.
7. Marriage isn't to complete you. And, it is.
One of the most common secular approaches to marriage is that its a personal investment. People often treat entering a marriage like entering a business arrangement. "I'm bringing this to the table and you're bringing that to the table, and together, we'll mutually benefit one another's worth and future." Marriage simply isn't built for that—it's not meant to be an avenue through which you better your chances of wealth, prestige, success, or even personal happiness. It's not meant to complete you.
And, it is.
Marriage isn't meant to "complete" you in the sense of worldly metrics. It's not something that you're seeking returns from as an investment. It is, however, meant to complete you in an entirely different sense. Marriage is designed to (and incredibly effective at, for that matter) shaping us into the image of Jesus. So, in a sense, it will help you be the best version of you; but, that best version of you will be determined by the values and commitments that Jesus esteems, not the world. The constant cycle of repentance and grace mentioned above will inevitably remind us of the grace we've been extended by Jesus, and it will empower us to show that grace to others, making us better followers of and reflectors of our Savior.
8. Marriage is unbalanced.
Another reason why grace is so important in marriage is that marriage isn't balanced. Everyone is familiar with the cycle within which the blame-game entraps us. When we mess up, we are okay with acknowledging that we did; but, we only did what we did because our spouse did something worse. We'll say, "Sure, I'm selfish. But you're more selfish." Then our spouse will respond with, "No, because remember this? You're more selfish." And the cycle can continue for as long as both parties wish to remain justified in their actions. People who get married instantly become experts in someone else's sin tendencies, and, coincidently, it seems their spouses sins are the only reason they ever mess up themselves.
We love to put our sin on a scale opposite our spouse's and then point to the scale and say, "See?! You're worse!" But, to worry about the balance on the scale helps no one. What we must do is become experts in our own sin, not the sin of our spouse. We must viciously and diligently seek the death of our own sin rather than our spouse's.
You can either be "right," or you can be Christ-like. It's a decision we must make.
9. Marriage is a picture of Christ's love for his church.
If there is one magnificent truth about marriage that harmoniously encompasses all other truths about marriage, including ones not listed here, it is that marriage is given to us as an opportunity to display the love that Jesus has for his church and the covenant he has made with his people. Everything in our marriages should be able to point others to the even greater love and commitment that Jesus shows this world. Let's end where we began:
Rayah — brotherly love, mutual friendship, companionship. Jesus is the perfect expression of rayah. He came to Earth to befriend us, to walk with us, and to restore the joyful communion that we were made to have with him.
Ahavah — unconditional commitment. Nothing is more unconditional than the love of God. No one has ever made a commitment as unbreakable as the commitment Jesus made to save his people. No one has ever made a covenant as strong as the covenant Jesus made to heal this world. He'll never give up, he'll never take his love away.
Dod — passion and soul-mingling. We were created for perfect intimacy with our Creator. All of the misplaced passions and lusts of this world are mere tastes of what we will one day have in Jesus, and when we experience the soul-mingling love of a marriage union, we are reminded that the day is coming when our souls will be tied to the One who can wholly and perfectly satisfy.
Let us treat marriage as the sacred gift that it is. And let us remember that, above all, marriage is meant to reflect the love of Christ to the world.