Futility of marriage

Sex and Marriage – Article Series
1. The Bride and the Bridegroom
2. Sexual sin and purity
3. Purpose of marriage
4. Shape of marriage
5. Futility of marriage
6. Marriage or undivided devotion?
7. Dating for marriage

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Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
~ Colossians 3:5-11

Marriage is the union of one man and one woman for the purpose of serving God. Marriage is to be honoured as a relationship that is given to all humanity, though not everyone will enter into it. The ways in which husbands and wives are to act, or relate, in marriage is seen in the commands to be righteous, loving, and forgiving with one another. It is also seen in how marriage is to be a picture of the relationship between the church and Christ. Sounds grand, doesn’t it? But the reality of marriage can be far from it. Indeed, human relationships in general – and marriage in particular – can be gross distortions of God’s original good intentions and designs. For some, marriage can become an excruciatingly difficult experience without a clear hope, and can seem futile. Why is this the case?

The purpose of this post will not be to act as a replacement for proper, personal, and gracious pastoral care. Nor is it seeking to be a comprehensive ‘how-to’ guide in order to avoid the difficulties. Instead, I will point out some indications from the Bible that may help to make sense of some of the complex challenges that are faced within the context of marriage.

Firstly, in Colossians 3:5-11 the Apostle Paul writes about how Christians are to put to death activities and behaviours that are opposed to the Christian life. These include sexual immorality (any sexual activity that is not in line with God’s design for sex), greed, rage, and lies. Humanity rebels against God and replaces right worship of Him with worship for created things e.g. money, entertainment, or ourselves. This is idolatry. As such, everyone is an imperfect lover of God and a broken lover of those around them. None of us act rightly all the time. None of us can be selfless in all circumstances. None of us can be completely sacrificial with our time, our thoughts, and our words. Even though Christians have been saved from the penalty of their sin, they continue to struggle with the presence of their sin and its effects in life.

Marriage is a unique relationship in that, unlike friendship, it is not designed to be something that can be let go or picked up at a whim. Instead, it is meant to be permanent and continuing as husbands and wives seek to keep their vows to one another. As such, when wrongs have been inflicted against one another, it can become exhausting and distressing to know that you must live with a perpetrator. It can also lead to a paralysing guilt when you are a perpetrator and you don’t know how to bring it up to apologise and resolve the issue. Some wrongs have a greater impact than others. For example, it may be the case that a harsh word to a spouse may be resolved with a quick apology (depending on the persons involved), but committing adultery against a spouse is not the same. But all wrongs hurt, and they can cause us to doubt whether the other person truly loves us.

Many of the wrongs we may inflict may also be the cause of our upbringing or our experiences. All of us are a product of our parent(s) or guardian(s), for better or worse. What was considered normal for one household may not have been righteous before God, and so when two people get married they are bringing the baggage of what was considered normal for decades in another household. Additionally, some of the wrongs we commit against another are a result of the hurts, fears, and traumas that have been experienced in the past. We can only really speak in generalities in an article like this, but I find it worth mentioning because some of the wrongs we commit are a direct result of our histories and not an intentional attempt to wrong another. Nevertheless, the first reason why marriage can seem futile is that no one is sinless, and our sin can hurt each other.

Secondly, due to sin entering the world, God pronounced a punishment on humanity and the creation. We see this in Genesis 3, but in verse 16 there was a specific word to the woman:

16 To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” ~ Genesis 3:16

It’s the second half of the verse I want to draw attention to. We see that the punishment on women is that she would seek to control, possess, and replace her husband.1 Meanwhile, the husband would rule over her, implying that he would seek to govern and control her. The point is that a punishment on humanity is a perpetual disunity between females and males. Men tend to dominate women and seek power over them. Women tend to want to dominate men and seek power over them. The difference is that, to the shame of the biological sex, men have succeeded for the most part through sinful means.

Consider how men have ruled over women: through objectification, through oppressive gender stereotypes, through physical and emotional abuse, and it goes on and on. Women have suffered incredible injustices in the name of preserving ‘masculinity’ and the superiority of men. This should not be the case. But it is the case, in a fallen world apart from the grace of God, and it can make marriages seem futile. Wives can become battered, emotionally and physically, as their husbands dominate them. Christian husbands can use the Bible as a form of emotional and spiritual bullying as they command their wives to submit to their authority because “the Bible says so” and seek to enforce their obedience.

Meanwhile, wives can disrespect their husbands and refuse their love and service. Wives can demean their husbands and make them feel worthless, with constant put-downs. Wives can also defer to oppressive gender stereotypes, in behaviour and in expectation of their husbands, and judge the marriage based on worldly standards. Christian wives can use the Bible as a form of emotional and spiritual bullying as they command their husbands to love and sacrifice themselves for them “because the Bible says so”, openly displaying their exasperation and disapproval because their expectations aren’t met sufficiently. When this happens, marriage can seem futile and not worth continuing the commitment for.

Thirdly, marriage can seem futile due to unfaithfulness. This can be seen in husbands and wives committing adultery, and in seeking to end the commitment that they made to each other. Let’s take each one in turn.

In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, we see the huge significance of sex. Sex is never casual because it is meant to be an expression of intimacy and oneness. Indeed, this is why sex is only meant to be enjoyed within the context of marriage, where faithfulness is promised and maintained. Adultery is an immense betrayal of this promise where this oneness is shattered. I am not going to attempt to provide explanation of why people do commit adultery – such an attempt goes against the fact that sin is inherently irrational and any attempts to rationalise it are doomed to fail. It is important to mention that, in Matthew 5:27-30, Jesus says that lusting after someone is a violation of the command not to commit adultery. Note that Jesus is not saying that lust is just as bad as committing adultery. However, God does care about the heart and not just the action of adultery. It is possible for a married person to be immorally desiring or fantasising about sex with another person without having committed adultery itself. This can also have a devastating toll on the marriage relationship, especially if it is revealed.

What if a husband and wife no longer wish to maintain their commitment to each other? This might be for many reasons (including adultery). A divorce in marriage is a tragic circumstance, a sign of the failure of the marriage and an open acknowledgement of the desire to no longer be faithful to one another. Divorce is a legal separation that no longer binds a spouse before the state. It may be in the best interests of the family, but it should always be a last resort. And it must be said that even though divorce can occur on a legal level, before God marriage is a binding union that can only be separated by death (1 Corinthians 7:39). This is why it is considered adultery before God for a divorced person to marry another person (Mark 10:1-12). What God has joined together in His sight is more binding than legal recognition. There are a host of issues that are related to this topic, but we’ll leave the discussion of divorce here.

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For all these reasons, marriage can seem like a useless and futile endeavour. Why bother with it, if it can lead to hurt, mistreatment, abuse, or betrayal? Despite the many ways in which humans fall short of God’s good design and will for our lives, we see in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that there is hope in the midst of the muck and messiness. Jesus died for our sins and was raised that we might follow into a new life. This new life gives us a greater purpose for marriage and a calling to godliness and grace as we relate with others. It may not be easy, but it is worth it, since marriage points beyond itself and to God.

There is a legitimate question that must be asked about whether or not marriage is what you should enter into (if you haven’t already). Should you get married, or should you stay unmarried? We’ll look at this in the next post.

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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  1. The Hebrew word that is here translated as ‘desire’ comes with these connotations.