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Making Too Much of Marriage

The problem is not God's good gift of holy matrimony—it's when we desire it above all else, forgetting the Christian virtue of self-denial.
Making Too Much of Marriage
Making Too Much of Marriage

Editors note: In Altared: The True Story of a She, a He, and How They Both Got Too Worked Up About We (Waterbrook), Claire and Eli (aliases) reveal themselves as a couple who "met," "dated," and "broke up." Sure, that sounds like the predictable story of innumerable other couples. But Claire and Eli went further. They took stock of their relationship, considered why things had gone awry, and awakened to "the possibility that marriage was less of linchpin to Christianity than we initially thought." And they collaborated on this book, a joint memoir of their courtship spliced with theological reflection on the dangers of allowing blissful anticipations of marriage to distort our understandings of love and discipleship.

God gave me a desire for a husband or wife, and therefore I know he'll provide one."

Heard this before? We have, countless times. Whether in small groups, post-breakup consolations, late-night talks with roommates, or any number of conversations with other Christians, there was often the sense that our desire for a spouse meant that God would provide one. We're not sure we ever heard it from the pulpit, but quite a few of our friends, and even ourselves at times, thought that longing for a spouse meant marriage was imminent.

But if we desire a husband or wife, does that always mean God will provide one? We can't answer one way or another, of course, but the breadth of the statement and the conclusions drawn from it make us uncomfortable. We ourselves often don't know the difference between our own desires and desires from God. And even if we are sure a desire is from God, can we be sure He'll be faithful in the way we think He will? It would seem that if our desires always translate into a particular outcome from God, then God becomes something like a puppet.

God clearly can and does lead us through our desires, and desires from Him can illuminate, inspire, or provide a loving reproach. At times, holy desires are just the spark we need to orient our lives away from something destructive. And yet it seems there is also wisdom in not being overly sure that God will fulfill our desires in the time and manner we expect. Any time we're positive God will give us something, we must remind ourselves that His ways are above our ways (see Isaiah 55:9), and that our desires should be humbly considered in view of who He is.

As we thought about this in light of marriage, we wondered what Christ's teachings meant for our desires in the average search for a spouse. To be sure, we need to remind no one that the desire for intimacy is a good and God-given gift, a pillar of the created order and God's beautiful design. And yet we can sometimes forget our human potential to distort that design. Sin stalks and stains the beauty of how things might otherwise be.

As we reread the Gospels, we kept stumbling upon a recurring thread of self-denial, the idea that following Christ requires us to let go of the things we have and want. Try as we might, the theme could not be dodged: everything is to be given to Him, and that includes our desires.

A.W. Tozer described the situation this way: "The roots of our hearts [grow] down into things," and this is a danger because "God's gifts now take the place of God, and the whole course of nature is upset by the…substitution." Nature is upset not because the gift is bad, but because we make too much of it, because we treat it as a god rather than a gift from Him. And this is no less true for relationships, one of God's most beautiful gifts. Even marriage can risk replacing God in our hearts (see 1 Corinthians 7). So long as our hearts grow into it instead of God, the gift threatens to replace the Giver.

The more we wrestled with this, we came to see how self-denial is helpful and particularly Christian counterpoint to this, whatever our marital status may be. If self-denial means the letting go of what we want and surrendering it to Christ, as we explore below, and if intimacy is one of our greatest cultural desires, then our desire for relationships seemed like a natural starting point for active surrender to Him. (By this we don't mean a surrender of its importance in our hearts to Him, of our tendency to replace first loves with seconds.) If denying ourselves is a part of following Christ, as the Gospels imply, our deepest desires should be viewed as opportunities to lay down what is dear to our hearts at the feet of Christ. The deeper the desire, the greater the risk we will give it all our allegiance.

But oddly, it seemed self-denial was rather absent from our discussions on romance and love.

Let Him Deny Himself

Jesus often describes following Him in abrasive terms: leaving your father, taking up your cross, selling all you own, losing your life, and so on. We, meanwhile, as modern evangelicals, tend to associate these losses with extreme situations, Job-like spells, or times of great martyrdom. They are not what comes to mind when we describe the typical Christian's life. The fact is, we seldom think about Christian identity in terms of living without or denying ourselves. Rather, we think about denials or deprivations as things inflicted upon us, forgetting that taking up our crosses is an act done willingly, just as Christ did. "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me," he said. "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:24-25).

Even as we write this, we know we've been guilty of not allowing the fullness of Jesus's words to sink into our hearts. We have looked away in order to avoid any upheaval in our lives—any disruption to our plans, schemes, and desires; we have found excuse after excuse. Perhaps intellectually both of us know that we are to deny ourselves, but in the daily practice of our lives, denying ourselves easily morphs into a convenient slogan rather than a reality.

The giving up of self is an immensely important part of Christian love. In fact, we can't even talk about Christian love without a discussion on self-denial. Frankly, we didn't realize this until we had already begun to formulate our thesis [that in seeking marriage, we had neglected Christian love], but as soon as we picked up the thread of self-sacrifice throughout Christian history—tentatively—we were startled to find that in addition to Jesus, many of the most influential minds in our tradition described following Christ primarily in terms of self-renunciation.

Indeed, as we mulled over the writings of past Christians, our understanding of love grew vastly larger as our understanding of self-denial grew more challenging. The more we read works about the early church—Acts, the Desert Fathers, the lives of the saints, some of the monastic traditions—and the more we read a range of older Christian writers—Augustine, a Kempis, Calvin, Pascal, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Bonhoeffer, Tozer, and Lewis—the more convinced we became that Christian love and self-denial are often two sides of the same coin. We cannot expect to love our neighbor as Christ did until we lay down our lives and the preferences that rule our loves. We cannot place God wholly first until we uproot our hearts and forsake the pronouns my and mine.

Excerpted from Altared by Claire and Eli. Copyright ©2012 by Claire and Eli. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Making Too Much of Marriage