Last night, a friend was telling me about their theory that Megachurches develop and thrive because they provide a forum for social mixing. Essentially my friend was saying that churches become large because they provide opportunities for boys to meet girls (and vice versa).
Ok, it’s an incredibly cynical argument, but somewhat compelling (in a twisted fashion).
As the topic has run round my head, I thought that this was a good opportunity to try and tackle a (related) thorny issue I’ve been putting off blogging for a while: that of Christians and marriage. OK, on reflection, that should be Christians and singleness.
There is no doubt that the drive to mate is a powerful one. We have this innate, hardwired yearning that pulls us towards the opposite sex (in most cases), seeking for a union that is physical, emotional and spiritual. What’s more, we live in a society that drowns us in the understanding that fulfilment essentially only comes in coupling up, and that every part of our lives should in some way be focused on facilitating that process (buy the right stuff, dress the right way, earn lots of money = get the right girl = fulfilment).
So I guess its not that radical a suggestion that, maybe, these often-subconscious urges would influence our spirituality… that we would be drawn to the church that has the most cute single girls (or guys). That a church that provides lots of programmes where people can mingle and get to know each other will be popular. Did you know that the demographic of most megachurches is highest in the 20-30s bracket? And that when people in these churches get married and have babies they create separate ‘family’ services? (according to my friend, so that the successful singles demographic can be preserved in the main service). Cynical, yes. Wrong? Not necessarily…
I’ve been meaning to blog on singleness and marriage for a while, but I’ve been avoiding it because it’s such a controversial issue. And not surprisingly, because we do have these inbuilt yearnings, and when people challenge us on them we get a bit tetchy…
I’ve been concerned and sadden that so many of my Christian friends are ‘looking to get married’. To merge a lot of situations into a gross caricature, they have ‘decided they are ready to get married, and are (actively) looking for the right person’. I have friends who are on the prowl, looking for a mate…
Of course, I’m talking about Christians here. They know they are meant to look at sex and relationships differently from the world. They know that they are called to a higher view of cross-gender interactions. So, they’re not looking to get laid (or even for a boyfriend/girlfriend); they’re looking for someone to marry.
*sigh* I’m not sure how to go on from here without upsetting half my friends… I’ll go carefully, but please try and read me as talking about general principles, not attacking any individual.
Marriage is a good thing. Lets get that clear, right from the start. In fact, it is way more than a good thing: it is a picture to the world of the nature of God, a mirror of His relationship to Israel and the church and a mechanism of His healing grace, of reconciliation, to broken people and communities. Marriage is way beyond good, it is a holy thing, instituted by God for the whole human race (not just those lucky enough to get married).
It is also bloody hard.
[Excuse my language. I don’t on the whole like swearing on blogs, but sometimes emphasis is needed].
In a highly individualistic society, marriage is the intentional giving up of ourselves for the sake of the other. I don’t think I can accurately express to you how difficult that is, how against our nature and our upbringing. In the biblical view of marriage we are not only meant to submit to one another, but to give up the rights to our own bodies to the other. The men are called to give up our very lives for our wives. I’m tellin’ ya, that ain’t easy…
My main issue here, the one I’ve been meaning to talk about for so long, is that marriage isn’t a thing. Marriage isn’t something in and of itself that you can want. If you think of it in abstract, if you reduce it to some form of status, you utterly miss the point. I’m talking to all my single Christian friends here: If marriage is something you are desiring, something you are hoping for; if you are looking for a ‘someone’ to take that space beside you at the altar; then you probably have a wrong view of marriage…
Marriage is not a thing you can want.
It is a covenant with a particular person.
Not any person. Not ‘someone I can settle down with’. Not ‘my dream man/woman/boy/girl/goat (delete as applicable)’. Marriage is a life-long, binding, covenantal promise to a particular individual. It’s not a question of ‘do I want to settle down, spend my life with someone and raise a family?’ Its: ‘do I want to spend the rest of my life tied to bob?’ It’s not a question that you can even ask in general terms, because it is utterly dependent on two things: you, and another real-live, imperfect, individual human being.
[This is turning into a really long post, I’m sorry]
I was having a conversation with a (male) friend the other week about lust. I can’t speak for you women out there, but this is a big issue for us guys. As we were talking about wandering eyes, I made this comment, which has been a key revelation to me in recent years:
“You only get one.
There are lots of beautiful, friendly, godly, Christian women in the world, but you only ever get to marry one of them (if you get to marry at all). You have to chose, (and stick with) just one.”
OK, its an obvious statement, and a very ‘guy’ one. Believe me, I am not trying to in any way demean the fairer sex, quite the opposite. My point is that the world throws at us the impression that other people are there for our benefit, to ogle at for our personal gratification. If we partner up, that’s great. If we get tired of our partner, or find our relationship difficult; ditch them – there’s plenty more fish in the sea… But we’re talking about people here, not things.
Women (and I’m sure its probably the same for guys) look better from a distance. It’s the whole ‘grass is greener’ thing. From a distance you just see the body, or the striking character trait. Up close, you see the real deal, ‘warts and all’…
Christian marriage is an agreement between two individuals to fully share their entire lives with each other. It’s a ‘I’ll show you all of me if you show me all of you’ thing. And not as a one-off either. Because of the nature of marriage it has to be based on the reality of the individuals concerned.
Marriage isn’t a thing. It’s a covenant. It’s not a general covenant (‘I promise to give myself to another person for the rest of my life’), it’s a very, very specific covenant: ‘I promise to give myself to this particular person here, and to take this person as they are, in all their faults and failings, to journey alongside them and give myself up for them for every single day of the rest of my life.’
My problem with people seeking ‘someone to marry’ is that their vision of marriage is based essentially in fantasy, not in the reality of a specific relationship with a specific person. They are looking for someone to fill the vision they already have, rather than building a vision around the particulars of a genuine relationship.
My concern over this approach is that there is a danger of setting yourself up to fail. What happens when the person lying in the bed next to you doesn’t match up with the vision you had in your head?
If you are in a relationship with someone, get to know them really well. Seek to discover their faults and their failings as well as their dreams. Revel in all the things that make them imperfect and annoying. Walk with them for a good long while until the rosy glow of infatuation has faded and real friendship has begun to blossom. Take lots of time. Then, when you feel you’re beginning to know them really well, and they are beginning to know you, ask yourself this question:
“What would it be like to spend the rest of my life just with this person (and all their many faults and foibles)? Can I see myself giving up my every dream and desire for the sake of them? Can I see myself in 20 years apart from them? Would I die for them?”
Get through those questions, and maybe you’re ready to think about what marriage is, and if it’s right for you.
If you are not married, let me say this. I understand why you might want this, especially as our church life seems to elevate being married over being single. I get that it looks good. But the world lies to you, and sometimes the church is complicit in that. A partner will not complete you; Jerry Maguire lied. You will not become more whole by having a life partner. In fact, in a very real way, you will become less you.
If you find a friendship developing with someone that seems deeper and more significant than the norm, journey with them a while until you can ask yourself the questions above. But until then, stop looking. Lay down the dream. And if you don’t feel whole, then run to the only one who can make you that way: Jesus Christ.
Lord, forgive us for not seeing each other in the way you see us.
Give us a vision for marriage,
A vision for singleness
That reflects your glory