~ The Sanctification of Marriage ~
The secular world view continues to infiltrate our understanding and practice of the sacred and holy way. Even our old fairy tales of romance typically end with "and they lived happily ever after." Today's educators and psychologists often repeat platitudes such as "Are you comfortable with that?" and "If it makes you happy, that's important." Can't find those mindless platitudes in the Scriptures, however.
The history of marriages include arranged ones where you met your spouse on the wedding day; ones that could not take place without the father's permission; ones that required intensive, year long instruction in all aspects of the marital union from sexual expectations and meaning to how decisions would be made and conflicts resolved, overseen by the authority of the church. (This is still done by some churches.)
Unfortunately, we are more "enlightened today". "Try out" your prospective life-long partner by first living together, without a covenant of commitment. If things don't "work out," you can separate and still stay friends, and try out other people. Hey, as long as it makes you comfortable, happy and fulfilled.
However, if you are not that enlightened, you can get married and still bail out quick if your spouse doesn't meet your needs and the arrangement becomes more of a struggle, pain overshadowing what used to feel like love, realizing there isn't going to be a "happily ever after." This is easier with a pre-nuptial contract that makes you feel "comfortable" and secure. So instead of a year or more of intensive preparation for the pain and work of marriage and what is needed to ensure its longevity and sacramental grace, spend a few hours with your lawyer to hammer out a legally binding agreement to make it very easy to part ways without risk, cost and discomfort.
"God has a wonderful plan for your life!" We are increasingly hearing that mantra, but what does it mean? Is it a Christianized version of the "happily ever after"? The Scriptures are clear on what that wonderful plan is; to be conformed to the likeness and image of Christ; to offer God our contrite spirits so His Holy Spirit can fill us; for our sacrifice of contrite (bruised and wounded) hearts that thirst for His tender love; to be holy as He is holy. This is indeed a plan full of wonder.
Study the "wonderful plans" God had for Abraham, Moses, all the prophets, John the Baptizer, the apostles, the martyrs (witnesses) that followed them, and for Himself in the Incarnate Divinity of Christ. God's wonderful plan may just be for us to work among those we despise, to be called to the Ninevehs of this world. Jonah hated the wonderful plan for his life and was happy to be thrown into a stormy ocean to die than accept it. But God, in His cosmic sense of humor that hammers in the truth, used a fish to keep him on the path.
The wonderful plan worked and Nineveh followed the ways of the Lord. Jonah still didn't like it. "I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, patient and always ready to forgive…So now, Lord, take my life. I'd rather be dead than alive" (Jonah 4:2b-3, GW). The account ends with God's question, "Shouldn't I feel sorry for this important city, Nineveh? It has more than 120,000 people in it as well as many animals. These people couldn't tell their right hand from their left" (4:11). We don't know if Jonah "lived happily ever after." But sanctification is God's goal for us, not happiness as defined by our secular dictionaries and philosophies.
Such is the wonderful plan of marriage, in the Christian paradigm. "For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or health" is a description of our spiritual pilgrimage as well as part of the traditional vows of marriage. Instituted by God, marriage is an archetype of mystical union with Christ. We may know that, but the ancients actually believed and lived it. The New Covenant Scriptures are saturated with images and metaphors of the kingdom of heaven being a marriage feast, of Jesus being the Bridegroom and the Church the Bride.
Speaking of human marriage, "The two shall become one flesh" is ritually symbolized by physical intercourse but means so much more. Acting as one requires a union of beliefs and convictions, of heart and soul, of the wills to rejoice and to suffer as one entity, and mutual self-denial and surrender in a love that is unconditional. Not coincidentally, this also describes mystical union in Christ.
The Church has been courting Christ for two millennia. Christ needs no sanctification or preparation for this marriage, but the Church certainly does. Our history is the story of our triumphs and failures in preparatory sanctification. In the Book of Revelation, Christ dictates seven different messages to the Church, each addressing a different point in the process of sanctification. And again not coincidentally, these messages comprise an excellent manual for human marriage.
As in the Church, in the marital relationship one member is typically on a different path or place in his or her metanoia, or personal transforming toward Christlikeness. One may even be spiritual dead or regressive, bringing great challenge and suffering into the marriage. The temptation is to view this as "unacceptable," a failure.
In an egocentric (rather than theocentric) marriage, the pain and struggle is despairing, to be stoically endured or to be escaped through separation or divorce. In an egocentric relationship with Christ, the same happens, and people abandon the faith.
In a theocentric marriage, where Christ is the center of the marriage for both husband and wife, or even for just one of them, out of any suffering and conflict comes the grace to not waste it, but make it redemptive, using it to practice Christlikeness. The theology of suffering and persecution, neglected by the Church in "First World" nations but prevalent in the gospels and epistles, is as much as part of the fabric of marriages as it is of every other endeavor of our lives.
In good times and bad times, marriage is a wonderful plan to help us learn Christlikeness. In that growing Christlikeness, spiritual joy grows that transcends and transforms the good and bad, happy and sad turns and twists of the marital journey.
Many Christians are willing to work and suffer for the sake of Christ. We may not consider a bout of the flu or an unhappy marriage as suffering for His sake. We are instructed, however, to do all things in His Name, even responding to illness. When we respond in such a manner and grow more "conformed to His likeness," no matter what the cause of suffering, we are suffering for His sake, for His sake is our sake. Otherwise there would have never been an Incarnation of God in Christ.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © May 4, 2002
"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotations are used by permission.
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