It’s ironic to me that Jean-Paul Sartre penned the thought, “No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point.” Marriage finds it’s meaning in our Infinite reference point, God. Otherwise, we argue without resolve on such issues as who has the “right to marry” and what are the grounds for dissolving a marriage. One of my students at Dallas Theological Seminary has written a paper that makes this blueprint for marriage clear. I share it with you and ask for your comments.
TO GLORIFY GOD THROUGH DISPLAYING HIS ATTRIBUTES: A STUDY OF GOD’S DESIGN FOR MARRIAGE
Meredith Maris Ziafat
April 6, 2009
Marriage as the union of man and woman as one flesh finds its origin in God’s creation. As revealed in Genesis 2:18, after the creation of man in God’s image, “the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.’” Upon the creation of woman out of the side of man, Genesis 2:24 declares that it is “for this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” If the union of man and woman finds its roots in God’s creation, and the chief end of man is to glorify God, it follows that the chief end of marriage is to display God’s glory. To display God’s glory is to reveal His nature. His nature is revealed through His divine attributes. As seen in Genesis 1:27, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The image of God is revealed through both male and female, as ordained by God in creation. Marriage, it follows, as the union of male and female, most closely reveals God’s image. Thus, the marriage relationship is the primary arena through which God allows man to glorify Him through displaying attributes of His divine nature.
Within marriage, man glorifies God through displaying God’s faithfulness, as he strives to love unconditionally in the context of the marriage covenant. Scripture reveals, in Psalm 100:5, that “the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations.” God’s faithful love is seen through His covenant with His people. He continues to love faithfully, despite the waywardness of His children. His faithfulness is grounded in His character rather than in the deservingness of those He loves. He is true to His word.
Similarly, marriage is a covenant between a man and woman that is grounded not in a response to the spouse’s behavior, but rather is rooted in faithfulness to one’s word as expressed through unconditional covenantal love. To embody faithful commitment to one’s spouse is to reveal God’s faithful character. Tommy Nelson explains that “having a faithful commitment to marriage is like having a permanent seal affixed to each person’s life.”1 As seen in Song of Solomon 8:6, the seal characterizes the covenant of marriage, in that it is a sign of ownership, of possession, and of affiliation. The metaphor of the seal portrays an inseparable union, in which the seal serves both as a reminder to oneself of his commitment as well as a public declaration of commitment to one’s spouse.2 Today, wedding rings serve as the symbol of the covenant union of marriage. Commitment serves to bind the covenant of marriage. One keeps the marriage covenant by the power of the Holy Spirit, grounded in the faithfulness of God rather than simply man’s ability to keep his word. Through divine enabling, man is able to reflect God’s faithfulness through his loving commitment to his spouse.
Within marriage, man glorifies God through displaying God’s love, as he aims to selflessly sacrifice on behalf of his partner. Paul, in Romans 5:8, teaches that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God’s love for His people is seen through His sacrificial atoning death on the cross for the sins of man. Christ died on behalf of the ungodly, who were by nature enemies of God. Christ’s sacrificial love is extended to the least deserving. His love gave rise to action.
In the same vein, man expresses God’s love as he loves his spouse selflessly and sacrificially. In marriage, love is expressed through action, namely through putting to death one’s selfishness in deference to his partner. A helpful guideline for sacrificial love in marriage is the teaching of Philippians 2:3-5, in which Paul exhorts: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” The ability to crucify one’s selfish desires in the course of conflict is a sign of spiritual discipline. To have the same attitude of Christ, as this passage suggests, is to have the notion of sacrificial love undergirding one’s thoughts and actions.
Dewey Wilson, in his Devoted: God’s Design for Marriage, asserts that in the same way that the Old Testament covenants were confirmed by an animal sacrifice, “the marriage covenant also requires a form of death. As we live out our marriage covenant, we must ‘die’ to selfish desires and ambitions.”3 Marriage is a call to lay aside one’s selfishness and to pursue the best interest of one’s spouse, following the model of the servant leadership of Christ. The hallmark of marriage is selfless, loving sacrifice.
The biblical view of marriage, as seen in Ephesians 5:22-23, is a model of sacrificial love. Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, writes: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.” Wives are called to sacrifice on behalf of their husbands, in submission and reverence, in the same manner that they honor the Lord with their lives. Husbands are called to lay down their lives sacrificially for their wives, in the same manner that Christ lay down His life for man. Both the role of husband and wife are marked by selfless sacrifice.
Jim and Sarah Sumner, in their book on practicing oneness in marriage, explain that the roles of husband and wife promote the idea of unity in that the man is the head and the woman the body.4 In their view, man is not head of the marriage, but of the wife. Together husband and wife make one body that together strives to honor Christ, who alone is Lord of all, including the marriage. Both husband and wife are called to selflessly sacrifice as they seek to honor the Lord and each other.
In fact, research is clear that the strongest marriages are between two partners who learn to derive pleasure from giving to one another and who are willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the other.5 It is not surprising that the most successful marriages are those which most closely resemble biblical guidelines for marriage. This is an example of the alignment of special revelation, namely the relational model of Scripture, and general revelation, which is demonstrated through secular research. Both forms of revelation represent God’s truth, and both agree that sacrificial love is the foundation of successful marriages.
Within marriage, man glorifies God through displaying God’s holiness, as he grows in his expression of godliness through experiencing the crucible of marriage. In Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul exhorts: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” This passage underscores the sanctifying purpose of marriage. As man loves sacrificially, woman submits. Both sacrificial love and loving submission require putting to death one’s selfishness.
Through marriage, sin patterns surface and are confronted. In so doing, one is refined to more closely image Christ. Gary Thomas, in Sacred Marriage, sets forth the thesis that the primary purpose of marriage is sanctification, citing that the aim of marriage should be holiness rather than happiness.6 Certainly his view of the centrality of holiness in God’s purpose for marriage calls for a paradigm shift. Seeing marriage through the lens of a desire to be sanctified can transform one’s response to hardship and conflict. Specifically, through viewing marriage as a crucible for sanctification, one is able to realign his expectations for marriage and therefore his response to trials encountered in it. Working through the relational difficulties that arise in marriage serves as an impetus for growth and change. Through the sanctification that occurs within the context of marriage, one more closely resembles God’s character and reveals His nature.
Within marriage, man glorifies God through displaying God’s relational communion, as he longs to embody unity amidst role diversity. John records the words of Jesus in the Upper Room Discourse, in John 14:10: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works.” The Triune God displays complete unity and trust, while demonstrating a diversity of roles within the Godhead. In this passage, Jesus and the Father are portrayed as one, while at the same time Jesus submits to the Father. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are unified while maintaining distinguishable role contributions.
Along these lines, marriage affords man and woman the experience of the relational communion as one flesh within differing roles. Man is called to sacrificial love as woman is called to loving submission. Marriage is an experience of unity and diversity. The aim of marriage is growth in oneness, in which marriage more closely resembles the nature of Trinitarian unity.
Millard Erickson, in his Making Sense of the Trinity, explains that within the Trinity there is a “dimension of openness and extension not necessarily found in a love relationship between two people.”7 He goes on to demonstrate that certain factors work against relational oneness, which include man’s physical body, differing experiences, and preoccupation with oneself.8 Therefore, growth in Trinitarian-like oneness in marriage comes through experiencing intimate physical union, creating common experiences through life, and crucifying one’s selfish desires. One experiences growing intimacy or oneness in marriage through learning to appreciate his spouse’s differences and sacrificing to meet his spouse’s needs.
From a historical perspective, the Trinity is not the only Christian analogy that has been used to describe the marital relationship of unity with diversity. Other analogies explored throughout Christian history include: “the joining of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ; the Eucharist, in which the bread and the wine are joined to signify the body and blood of Christ; and Christ’s union with his church.”9 The helpfulness of these metaphors for marriage lies in the power of the coming together of two distinct elements in a purposeful way. In each of these metaphors, the necessity of each element in the union creates the missional impact of the union. In the same way, the distinctiveness of both man and woman, when joined in the union of marriage, has the unique potential to embody the Gospel. Marriage serves a missional purpose as it seeks to give flesh to the unity and diversity of the Triune God and embody His attributes to an unbelieving world.
Within marriage, man glorifies God through displaying God’s creativity, as he procreates to produce and parent the next generation. After the creation of man and woman, in Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” God, who created all things, gives a command to man and woman to populate the earth through procreation. Through childbearing, man and woman participate with God in creation.
In When Two Become One, Christopher and Rachel McCluskey suggest that God’s first instruction to man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply” makes the connection between sexuality and spirituality overt from creation.10 They explain that this instruction from God is His initial blessing spoken over them, essentially inviting them to “express your love and spiritual oneness bodily, and allow me to create more love (new life) through your love.”11 Through sexuality, God allows man to experience physical and spiritual intimacy. The physical union of man and woman pictures the Gospel in that it represents the initiation of God toward man and man’s open reception of Him. Within the one flesh experience of sexual intimacy, man not only experiences physical and spiritual intimacy, but also is given the ability to reproduce and display God’s nature of creativity.
In addition to procreation, man reflects God’s creativity by raising a godly line. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:5-6 instructs man to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” and explains that “these words . . . shall be on your hearts.” Verse 6 goes on to exhort: “You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” This passage, according to John Barnett in his The Joy of a Word-Filled Family, reveals the threefold responsibility of parenting: 1. to love God preeminently, 2. to treasure His Word in our hearts, and 3. to pass on that faith diligently to our children.12 Building a godly family legacy is one of the primary avenues for expressing God’s nature of creativity, which brought order into chaos in the Genesis creation account. To raise a godly family line allows man to bring meaning and order into a lost and chaotic world for generations to come.
Within marriage, man glorifies God through displaying God’s heart for reconciliation, as he strives continually to extend grace and practice forgiveness. Scripture reveals, in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, that “all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” Forgiveness and reconciliation lie at the heart of the Gospel. God, by His grace, has offered man forgiveness from the wages of his sin which is death, through the atoning sacrificial death of Christ. Not only has God reconciled man to Himself, but He has also given man the privilege of ministering His grace to others.
Within the marriage arena, man is given the opportunity to mediate grace and practice forgiveness with his spouse, as he embodies the Gospel of Christ. Anthony Bash, in his Forgiveness and Christian Ethics, asserts that “it is undeniable that forgiveness is central to Christian faith and praxis. Any statement of the Christian gospel that does not have forgiveness as one of its foci is a misstatement of the gospel.”13 To embody the Gospel within the context of marriage is to practice forgiveness with one’s spouse. The ability to forgive in divinely enabled through the Holy Spirit as a result of a life transformed by divine forgiveness. Bash explains that “the capacity to forgive interpersonally is a correlate of having experienced divine forgiveness because . . . forgiveness is regenerative, enabling the recipient to become a forgiving person.” Having received divine forgiveness for the debt owed to God by man because of sin, man can then in turn offer forgiveness to others. The marriage relationship, given its intimate nature, is likely the most difficult and thus most spiritually significant relationship in which to practice forgiveness. As man consistently seeks reconciliation with his spouse, he extends grace through forgiveness, reflecting God’s divine nature. Grace-filled marriages are life-giving both to those who experience the power of reconciliation within their marriage and to those who witness its power against the background of selfishness seen in the world. Marriages characterized by grace and forgiveness are evangelistic in nature, as they give flesh to the transforming power of the Gospel.
Through marriage, God allows man to glorify Him through displaying certain attributes of His divine nature, in order that man may more fully understand His character and may more intimately experience His fellowship. Marriage is a metaphor for the relationship of the Triune God and His people. In fact, Thomas asserts that “a giant thread runs throughout Scripture comparing God’s relationship to his people with the human institution of marriage.”14 God is revealed as the faithful husband of an adulterous wife, as seen in Hosea 1:2 and Ezekiel 16:32. Jesus is portrayed as the Bridegroom, as seen in Matthew 9:15. The Kingdom of God is described as a wedding feast, as seen in Matthew 22:1-14. Furthermore, in Ephesians 5, Paul concludes his treatment of marriage in verse 32, stating: “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” In divine revelation as revealed through Scripture, marriage is the primary metaphor for the nature of God’s interaction with His people. Marriage allows man to experience the love of God in a tangible way. Through experiencing unconditional, sacrificial, and covenantal love in marriage, one is sanctified. Putting to death certain aspects of the sin nature, man grows in conformity to the image of God. In the arena of marriage, man grows in fellowship with the Savior as he seeks to live out the truth of the Gospel in relationship with his spouse.
Barnett, John S. The Joy of a Word Filled Family. Tulsa: Mullerhaus, 2004.
Bash, Anthony. Forgiveness and Christian Ethics. New Studies in Christian Ethics, vol. 29. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Erickson, Millard J. Making Sense of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000.
McCluskey, Christopher, and Rachel McCluskey. When Two Become One: Enhancing Sexual Intimacy in Marriage. Grand Rapids: Revell, 2004.
Nelson, Tommy. The Book of Romance: What Solomon Says About Love, Sex, and Intimacy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.
Stanley, Scott et al. A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
Sumner, Jim, and Sarah Sumner. Just How Married Do You Want to Be? Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2008.
Thomas, Gary. Sacred Marriage. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Wilson, Dewey. Devoted: God’s Design for Marriage. Dallas: Marriage Mentors, 2006.