The Horrid and Beautiful Institution of Marriage

My wife Betty is a really great kisser. When I am actually kissing her it feels like a combination of home and gooey chocolate brownies and rainbows and joy all wrapped up together. She used to do this thing where she would pirouette in this little joy dance when we were walking, and she sometimes does this thing where she gives me “lashings” with her eyelashes on my cheek. She is wise and funny and strong and beautiful, and she is always cheerful, even when she is ill or things are bad. It’s like cheerfulness is constantly trying to explode out of her at all times. I don’t know how she does it.

There came a point when I was afraid to be committal with our relationship when she finally said, “OK – you do whatever you like. I’m going to Colorado.” It hit me – I can’t live without those pirouettes! I like her happiness! I realized I couldn’t live without her. I was actually in love. Life would be colorless and miserable without the whirlwind of crazy joy that is my awesome wife. Over time we have been through some hard patches, but I still could never even think of living without her crazy joy and her unshakeable sweet love for me.

I think evangelicals are killing off marriage. We call it an “institution”, we demand its “sanctity”, we define it as a moral necessity, and we aim to continue it through “commitment” and say that a good marriage is “hard work”. Good God, what could possibly be worse than all of that? You know that when people say things like “marriage is hard work” that they can actually feel in their conscience how ridiculous that is. Many evangelical leaders would say that my infatuation with my wife’s great kissing and pirouettes and other marvelous assets is no basis for marriage! These days it has gotten so bad that by and large, only gay people actually want to get married, probably because their notion of marriage falls so far outside of the evangelical conception that they feel safe from the death-dealing staleness of the standard harsh and lifeless prerogatives of the conservative church. Since their desire to marry spits in the face of conservative evangelicalism, they delight in it.

If I say to Betty, “you know, our marriage is HARD WORK, but I’m committed to it,” do you think that is going to fly? What is my likelihood after that statement for “getting lucky” that night? It just doesn’t work that way. “Marriage” and “Institution” do not go together very well at all. If I make “commitment” and “hard work” the hallmarks of the “institution” of marriage, it assumes that love and affection are either absent or of no consequence.

If a couple comes into a Bb vanilla evangelical church and says “We’re interested in getting married. We want to work hard at it and commit to the marriage,” the minister will say, “you’re our kind of people! Let’s have the ceremony tomorrow.” But if they say, “I want to marry her! I love kissing her. Besides, WOW, she has great legs. We have so much fun together,” the minister will say, “you can’t build a marriage on kisses and nice legs and fun. In 40 years she will be old and wrinkly – will you still love her then?” You know what, no one knows what will happen or what they will be like in 40 years. But if there is only commitment and no affection, if there is no human love, there is no way that marriage is going to last. I call bull-poo. Good kissing is important. No 20 year old knows anything about what they will be like when they are 60, how can you possibly press that responsibility onto them?

Marriage stands as a beautiful thing. Why has heterosexual marriage come to be so despised among the current generation? It seems like almost 100% of young people would prefer to cohabit rather than marry. Have evangelicals so badly lost the culture wars? I don’t think that is the case. I think that as evangelicals have left the centrality of the gospel, and have made morals and not mercy the hallmark of the church, they have killed the joy off in everything including marriage.

Let’s imagine a young 20-something who has emerged from an evangelical upbringing, and has heard of all of this institution of marriage commitment/hard work business. Suppose our 20-something finds someone who is a really great kisser, whose affection and acceptance and comfort are like warm gooey brownies. They’ve never been so happy! The last thing on earth they want to do is spoil that beautiful thing by dragging it into the horrid universe of the forced coercive mean world of the evangelical church! After all, they’re in love! Living together without marriage is so much more honest. They don’t want to be coerced into staying together, they want love to keep them together. Since marriage is defined as a coercive force instead of a public declaration of lasting love, they resist.

You know what, I think they’re right. I really do. Marriage has been so harshly defined by the church that the legalism it represents would almost certainly kill the affection and beauty and cherished union they really do have. So instead of nurturing and encouraging and fostering young love, the church pushes it away, and when it finds it somewhere, it ferrets it out and kills it off. If we are going to gain the high ground again with our desire to promote marriage, we need to see ourselves that marriage is a gift and a wonder, not an institution and a moral prerogative.

Here is the way it should work. I have found a woman, and she is THE woman! I am in love, she is fantastic! I want to grow old with this person. I want to cherish everything about her and find out everything about her. A lifetime is probably too short. Of all the women on earth, she is the one for me. I want everyone to know it. I want to make it public. I want to make it official. I pledge myself to her welfare because I really do love her. It is my joy to single her out and say, in the grandest way possible, YES.

I’ve been through a lot of stuff in 25 years of marriage. You know what? It has never been about hard work. It has never been about “commitment”. It has always been about grace and acceptance with each other, about loving and being loved as two imperfect people joined in life. It has been about seeking the Lord’s great grace and love for us together. It is still about what a great kisser she is, how much I like her legs, and how cheerful she is and how much fun I always have with her. You want to say that isn’t enough, that there has to be hard work and commitment to make it last. You’re wrong and I reject the idea completely. Stay away from me! When it becomes about “hard work” and harsh commitment, it will have strayed from God’s best for us, even if we stay together. Why is it so strange that marriage is about love and affection? The whole world understands that, except possibly for the evangelical church.

It is time for the church to return to its central and core value: love. The gospel is about love, and marriage is our best picture of that love. God is committed to us because He loves and cherishes us, just I am committed to my wife because I love her.

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  1. I almost fell out when I heard a Pastor say he wouldn’t marry a couple that were living together in sin, unless they agreed to live apart for a length of time first. Glad Jeremy and I didn’t go to him to get married! I have no doubt it was the Holy Spirit who told me to marry my live-in boyfriend of 4 years, and we did it within days of His command, despite my deep fears of marriage.

  2. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this beautiful and encouraging message. I am of the younger generation with that aversion to marriage. I found the most amazing man. We go through rough times and wonderful times. We still laugh and kiss and intellectually tear apart every piece of media we can consume, staying up until 4am talking about everything–even when we have to be up early for work. We have watched friends younger than us go through divorce… sometimes more than once!!! And we say… WHY ruin this? We don’t work hard at this… we just focus on building each other up and being there for one another… why do people have to think this is hard? We did finally decide that we want to get married… I’ve planned it TWICE. haha… but we have really demanding careers and I had to call my family and be like… don’t save the date anymore, we have to go to travel out of the country that month instead. They were devastated, acting like we weren’t really committed to each other. I told them he’s not going anywhere, and neither am I, and they should care more about my happiness with a wonderful uplifting man than they care about a white dress and a ring. I think we’re shooting for 2015. Just like everything in our relationship, we are just patient and we’ll figure it out eventually.

  3. You make some interesting points, but I don’t agree with this. I am a 20 year old, raised in the church, currently in college in Texas. Of all the people I know, some church going, some not, nobody has this reaction to marriage. I completely agree that being married should be about love and wanting to spend your life with someone more than any other reason, but the hard work and commitment are there too. I’ve seen couples get bored and end up having a stale marriage, when if they worked a little harder to keep those sparks alive, it might have turned out better. And what’s wrong with commitment in marriage? I think it’s beautiful that you would love someone so much that you would commit to them for life. I have a boyfriend who I love dearly and am going to marry someday, but until then I would never live with him. God has told us to wait for each other until we’re married, and as a Christian I don’t see how you can view having a live in boyfriend as an okay thing. I’m not judging here, I have plenty of friends who do this, I just don’t see how you can read how the Bible says over and over again to save yourselves until marriage and think it’s five to do otherwise. That being said, I think it’s fantastic that you have been married so long and still love kissing your wife!

    • A. I am not advocating living together and not getting married. At all. I am saying that the evangelical church has made itself a laughing stock with its loveless and colorless way of making marriage out to be about “commitment” and “hard work” instead of being about love and romance.
      B. Eph 5:25 says husbands are to love their wives, not “work hard on their marriage”.
      C. What does it mean that you “aren’t judging”?
      D. What exactly does “hard work” and “commitment” mean? Do you want to be a “hard work” project that your guy has to be “committed” to? Or do you want him to love you?
      E. Here is a project for you to work out: why is living together less desirable than living apart until marriage? Why would a God who loves us and wants our best ask such a thing? I have my own ideas but I am holding out until I see what some others think. Figure that out and tell your friends that good thing. It can’t be simply because that’s what you’re supposed to do, it has to be some reason why it is a better way.

    • The other thing is this: the reason why so many people want to live together instead of getting married is manifold, but one of the main reasons is that in leaving behind the gospel of grace, the church has ended up making everything it touches including marriage become condemning advice about working hard and committing to things. The love which Christ has for the church is turned into a scary and loveless sacrifice and commitment and responsibility. In pushing everyone away, we don’t make them more committed and responsible, we make them less so. Grace and forgiveness are the hallmarks of the Christian walk, and they certainly define the marriage of two imperfect humans. So, it really is about love, especially when someone doesn’t work hard enough or commit very well. It is about love when love is underserved, and of all things, the evangelical church has left this message behind.

  4. Jim,

    I appreciate everything you said here. I have always felt there was a huge disconnect between reality and what evengelicals (I like how you are able to separate yourself from them as a spiritual person by using this word.) are telling people they should be doing.

    I don’t know if you were able to see Bishop Robinson when he came to Seattle but I was very inspired by most of what he said.

    A couple of books that this post made me think of:

    The Red Thread of Passion by David Guy: This book looks at sex and the spiritual tradtion over the years. He covers everyone from Marco Vassi to Joseph Kramer to Walt Whitman.

    The Stoned Apocalypse by Marco Vassi: This book pulls together one man’s quest for enlightenment with drug trips and sexual adventures. It might be graphic for some, but the author’s confusion, his honesty, his imperfection, remind me alot of myself. There is definitely a spiritual component to the book that I really appreciated when I found it.

    Marco Vassi also wrote a couple of short stories and essays that are relevant here:

    “Bodhi is the Body”, about how spiritual traditions have left women out to their detriment.

    “Kingdom of Come,” this one is as irreverent as they come and I am almost hesitant to recommend it here, but I think you’ll get it too.

    God is love.
    That is all.

    • Thanks Sarah, I love your input! I hope to hear more from you, and I’ll certainly look at your book suggestions; The Red Thread sounds especially fascinating.


  5. No amount of hard work or commitment will cause passion to spontaneously generate in a marriage that is lifeless and cold. To believe we can create life where there is none is the basest pride.

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