Holiness Is Not The “Point” Of Marriage

One of the recent trends in that I see in much of Christian culture is the idea that marriage makes you holy or that the point of marriage is holiness.  In fact, as you look back over the last few decades (if not centuries in Protestantism), you see some groups state that it is the path to holiness.

Some of this was a reaction to celibacy for the kingdom previously being seen as more holy than the domestic life.  But I see this idea of marriage as the path to holiness all of the time and frankly it’s not helpful as it views the whole frame in the wrong way.

Here are a couple of ways that this plays out in our culture:

One place that this comes from is the thought that going into marriage we need to understand that the point of marriage is to make us holy, not happy.  A lot of this is an attempted reaction to the divorce culture that started decades ago.  The thought is that if we go into marriage looking for it to give us happiness, or fulfillment in and of itself, then when we don’t feel happy or fulfilled we will be in trouble in the marriage.

To be fair there is obviously a lot of truth to this.  We should’t look to marriage to fulfill us.  Jesus does that.  We shouldn’t enter marriage purely for our own self happiness or only because of romance and attraction because no matter how great the marriage there will be times where we don’t feel any of that.  If one enters marriage thinking they will always feel those things, or that those things (attraction, happiness, etc) are the main barometer of the marriage, then there are going to be problems.  All of that is fair, and a good thing for both singles seeking marriage as well as married folks to realize.

But in a culture where people are delaying or not even seeking marriage (80% of people between the ages of 19-29 are not married) this can become sort of counter productive.  I’ve written a whole post on the Marriage is Hard Movement™ previously.  But suffice it to say, focusing constantly on how hard marriage is probably isn’t going to change that.

But a second less discussed idea that that comes out of the marriage makes you holy line of thinking is that marriage makes sex holy.  This line of thinking goes something like this: we all want sex, in fact we’re actually driven by sex.  It is an unstoppable animal instinct.  We can’t control it.  Especially men.  We are told that we can’t control any of this.  So what is the answer to this uncontrollable desire?  Marriage.

But this misses some very serious biblical truths about us as humans and about marriage as instituted by God.

First, we are not just animals with uncontrollable desires.  We are created in God’s image.  We have this thing called choice.  I’ll say more about desire soon, but the fact is that if we were just animals we’d have no responsibility whatsoever for sin.

Secondly, God did not institute marriage as a concession because we wanted sex.  It’s not as if we were created, then we desired sex and so God said, “Whoops, didn’t think that through, what am I going to do here. . . . Oh wait. . .  I’ve got it: Marriage!”

Marriage was instituted before sin and before sex.  Marriage was not created for sex.  Sex was instead created for marriage.  

This matters because it changes the entire frame of following God in our unmarried state by not having sex and in marriage itself.  By telling people that marriage is the answer to sex and our uncontrollable desires, we put the emphasis on sex instead of the covenant relationship of marriage.

Marriage doesn’t legitimize sex.  Marriage doesn’t redeem sex.  Marriage doesn’t fix our sexual sin.  When we place marriage as created for sex we are opening the door to all of that.  The implications of that are enormous in our current culture.  I’ll spell those out more at a later date, but you can see it everywhere both inside and outside of the church.

What we’ve discussed here doesn’t even get into the fact that if marriage is what makes you holy, then what does that say to the unmarried?  Can they not be holy?  What is that person to do?

The bottom line is that marriage is not what makes you holy.

This of course raises several key questions.  If the marriage doesn’t make you holy, then what does?  If holiness is not the the point of marriage, then what is the point?  If marriage doesn’t make sex holy then what is the point of the creation of sex?

I’ll explore more of this soon.  But let’s start with this truth:  God wants us to be holy.  He is constantly calling us and pulling us towards holiness.  But assuming we let Him, He is going to do that regardless of marital status.

Sexual Sin Myths

Coming into adulthood in evangelical culture one of the constant messages was that sexual sin was different and more important than other sin.  Now of course the official line was that all sin was “equally” bad.  This is sort of true and sort of not true and therefore super confusing.

Let’s clear up a couple of things about sin to sort of set the table for this topic.

First, and this is the best way I can think to describe it, there is a difference between Sin as a core issue and sins that we commit.  Sin as a core issue is really about idolatry.  In other words the first sin for all of us is not being God focused.  We choose to be God of our own life, write our own story, run our own lives.  We worship other things, principally ourselves, instead of God.

It is out of this condition that we commit other sins.  Both what we do wrong, and what we don’t do right.  In a sense, these are the symptoms of the bigger issue.

The cost of this condition is death.  Regardless of the consequences of a particular sin.  We can’t fix it because it’s a heart problem not an action problem.  This is why Jesus came and went to the cross.  Amen.

However, our sins (the symptoms part) have different consequences.  This is just the truth. So sexual sin has different consequences.

But this is where we need to get a hold of some important facts and to debunk some myths.

Myth 1 – Sexual Desire Itself Is Bad.

First, sexual desire is not a bad thing.  It is part of God’s creation.  It’s pre-fall.  This is important.  We are sexual beings.  God made it powerful because it is to be used to bond two people together inside the context of marriage. There are even chemical reactions to it in the body.  It bonds us physically, emotionally and spiritually.  This is why separating sex and marriage (or even orgasm from sex) is not good.

Sin, in many respects, is really the manipulation of what God has created as good into something that is not.  Sexual sin is no different.

But desire is not a bad thing in and of itself.  If it’s seen as a bad thing then we end up trying to kill the desire.  This is the “eastern” religion answer: Don’t desire anything.  We need to submit the desire to God, but we don’t need to kill it.  We should flee sexual immorality, but we don’t need to kill sexual desire.

This is also important because if we say that sexual desire is bad we end up doing theological gymnastics when it comes to marriage.  For example I’ve heard people say that marriage redeems sexual desire.  That gets confusing real fast.  Sex is for marriage, as stated above, but that sex doesn’t need redeeming.  That’s just one example.

Myth Two – All Sexual Sexual Sin Is The Same

I’ve discussed this before, but looking at a woman lustfully does not have the same consequences as sleeping with the same woman.  It comes from the same place, but it doesn’t have the same consequences.  We need to quit teaching people, by accident or on purpose, that it’s all the same.

Now we shouldn’t use this fact as an excuse to sin less boldly so to speak.  I’ve spoken before about what I call lazy sexual immorality.  There are still costs involved.  It’s still wrong.  But its important to realize that the resulting problems are different.

Myth Three – Sexual Desire Always Leads To Sexual Temptation Always Leads To Sexual Sin 

This is the idea that sexual desire is so strong that I can’t possibly have victory over sexual sin . . . at least not outside of marriage.  Again, I need to submit the desire, along with all other desires, to the Lord.  But the thing is, I can actually do that.  We don’t have to fail.

It also creates a situation where we end up saying that celibacy for the Kingdom is not a viable vocation or calling.  This is part of the reason that in evangelical culture we have no room for those called to celibacy.  Frankly most protestant leaders don’t really think this is even possible.  We don’t have any sort of plan for it.  As I’ve written many places here, with no theology of, or plan for, celibacy, we set up everyone to fail, even married people.  The reason they don’t think it’s possible is that they don’t think that anyone can avoid sexual sin.

We are not just animals with no moral agency.  We can, with the Lord, avoid moral failure.

Myth Four – Men Are Responsible For All Sexual Sin

This is worthy of at least a post itself.  But let me see if I can briefly go at this.  We have to quit talking about the issue in this way.  The idea is that men want sex all the time.  If a man and woman have sex outside of marriage it is the man’s fault.  He is the sinner – she is the victim.

Don’t believe me?  Check out this example from Matt Schmucker on Boundless:

We do not want a brother standing at the altar on his wedding day looking at his beautiful bride only to imagine behind her the boys and men who took advantage of her and robbed her of the trust and confidence that she now needs for her husband. We do not want a sister standing at the altar on her wedding day looking at her handsome groom only to imagine behind him a string of relationships with girls and women he failed to honor, and knowing that images in his head from pornography use and past flings may stick with him for a long time.

Do you see it.  Evil boys and men have victimized the woman.  But the man has failed morally. This is just one example.  I could link hundreds.

There are so many factors in this.  But what I can tell you is that this teaching is not helping.  I do believe that the man should lead, even in a non marriage relationship.  But telling men that they are basically animals forcing women to have sex is not productive and frankly it’s not true. Really it’s a shot at both gender’s moral agency.  It also sets up married sex in the wrong way*, but that is for another day.

The Bible clearly calls us to flee sexual immorality.  It’s important, not just in terms of our personal purity and becoming married, but also because of our witness.  However the right view of it is part of the key to doing just that.  Taking short cuts and getting it wrong, just leads us back to the same cycles we are in.

 

*Examples of this include but are not limited to: teachings that husbands have to earn sex from their wives, that men cheat and women don’t, that men evolutionally (married or not) are always looking for the next person and women are not.

Is Marriage Under Attack?

There’s a lot of talk these days in the Christian community that marriage is under attack. The idea is that marriage is no longer seen as valuable or as a lifelong commitment.  I’ve heard it stated that young people don’t see it as important.

I can see how people come to this conclusion.  We are all well versed in the numbers. 50% of marriages end in divorce.  A third of first time marriages are over within 10 years. But, the divorce rate has actually dropped steadily for the last couple of decades. (That doesn’t make it good, but it’s not going up).  (This is also in spite of the fact that no fault divorce has been legal in 48 states since 1983).

But one of the biggest reasons the divorce rate is going down is that people aren’t getting married to begin with.  Only 51% of all people in the U.S. are married at all.  Only 20% of those aged 18-29 have ever been married.  That number is down from 60% 40 years ago. Catch that number again – 80% of adults 30 and under have never been married.

But here’s the part that should have everyone freaking out.  A lot of singles seem to not care about getting married.  They seem to be saying do whatever you want.  We haven’t quit having sex or even living with other people and having kids.  This is where the numbers are just astounding.  41% of women aged 15-44 have cohabited.  The number of cohabiting unmarried partners increased 88% from 1990 to 2007.  Most startling of all, since the late 1980’s more women in the U.S. give birth to their first child out of wedlock than as a married person.  Read that last line again!

So everyone is dong what every generation has done. . . except get married.

That is not Biblical singleness.  Let me assure you that when the Bible talks about singleness it is not talking about living with someone and having a kid or two.

But here is where I think we are missing it. I’ve met literally thousands of people currently age 15-35.  I don’t actually think young singles are devaluing marriage.  In fact, a recent survey found that 84% of women and 82% of men said that marriage was somewhat or very important.  Only 5% said that it wasn’t important at all.

The problem is they have no idea how to do singleness and most don’t know how to get married. Many are scared crapless of marriage or better stated they are scared of divorce and bad marriages.  People like the idea of marriage, they just don’t know how to do it.

Marriage is under attack but not in the way we think.  The problem isn’t that people don’t want it.

I think we need a new strategy.  We need to quit defending marriage, and start helping people figure out how to get married.  This is going to take a lot more than slogans and rhetoric.  We are going to have to get messy.  We are going to have to actually go after these people.

First we have to help define what marriage really is.  We need a right theology and practice of marriage.  This is one thing that the Church is doing very, very well.  There has been a huge movement in the last 20 years to talk about marriage in a new way with an emphasis on covenant and commitment.  We have gotten much more real about how hard that can be.  We’ve become more practical and real in our sermons and books.  We’ve stepped up Christian marriage counseling.  I’ve been hard on the Church here and there so I want to give due credit here.  The Church truly is fighting for the married.  Not perfectly of course but they have changed.

But we also have to figure out how to help the unmarried.  We have to step into the mess, not just send out conflicting and confusing spiritual platitudes.  Instead of trying to convince people that marriage is right, we have to help them become right for marriage.  We have to help them face fear, be it fear of commitment, fear of failing, fear of rejection, fear of divorce, fear of choosing wrong, fear of being let down, fear of how hard it is, or fear that they’ve already disqualified themselves.

That requires reaching out to them.  Want to change the culture?  Change how we do singleness.  Want to help people not have sex outside of marriage?  Want to deal with homosexuality, abortion and porn in a new way, and help young single people navigate this stuff?  Then help these young single people understand the theology of celibacy and marriage.  Help them pursue one or the other. Don’t just call out their sin, help them face their fear, hurt, and wounds. We need some sermons and books on this.  We need Christian singles counseling – dead serious.

Right now, over all, we are not winning.  But it isn’t because young singles don’t want to be married.  We are helping married people stay married.  It’s time to help single people get married.

Unmet Desire Is Good

When I was a kid, I really, really loved basketball.  I wanted to be good.  I would pretend to be the Missouri Tigers in the driveway.  You know the drill – down two with time running out, you shoot, and. . . if you missed – well you were fouled.  Haha.

In high school I wanted to win, and I wanted to be the star.  Now the truth is I was good but not a star, but that didn’t keep me from working at it.  I would practice a lot.  I bought the “strength shoes” to improve my vertical. I did endless drills.

I had a good not great career.  But I loved the whole thing.  But what drove me was the chance to win.  I had a desire to win.  It wasn’t always met – but it drove me to be better.

We have a huge problem in our culture and it has a crazy impact on us as singles.  We think that unmet desire is always bad.  If I have a desire, then it should be met – right now!  This is America damn it!  Meet My Desire!

Desire is good.  In fact in Psalm 37:4 God promises to give us desires (not give us what we want, but give us what to want).  Desire drives us to do incredible things.  Desire makes us want to grow, to change, to become better.  Without desire we would be dead.

Desire drives us to act.  Always. The question becomes where do we let us drive us.

We all have a desire for love. Now obviously we need to take our desire for love to Jesus first.  This is critical for everything else in life.  The best part is that God will meet us and He does love us.  In fact he is the only person who can meet that desire.

But what about other desires.  Can God meet our desire for sex?  Can God be our spouse? Can God physically hold our hand or give us physical intimacy?  No.  And yet God created sex.  He created us with the desire for physical and emotional intimacy and partnership with another person.  That’s awesome . . . and frustrating!

So what do we do with unmet sexual/intimacy desire?

We can go out and meet that base desire by having sex with someone.  I mean we have needs and they need to be met.  A lot of us don’t want the work involved with that sin though so we settle for what I call “Lazy Immorality”.  By this I mean, porn, masturbation, romance novels, whatever.  (I’ll define this more soon).

We can also just try to kill the desire so we don’t have to feel it.  Just focus on work, or school, or a hobby.  The more extreme the better.  Whatever works.  Ministry works well here.  Just focus on other stuff.  Shove that desire down deep.

We can get religious.  Just be content where you are.  We can drop in some misused Pauline quotes.  The favorite is in Philippians 4 where Paul says, “I have learned the secret to being content in any and every situation.”  So just don’t want.  “Just Be” is how we take that.  But that isn’t really what Paul is getting at.  The “secret” isn’t to kill desire.  It’s not to be ok with whatever.  Paul gives us the secret in the next verse – through Jesus “who gives me strength”.

Paul had learned that regardless of what he felt, Jesus would meet him and sustain it.  His identity, joy, or overall life was not wrapped up in unmet desire or circumstance. That is the contentment Paul was talking about.  He wasn’t saying, “Don’t feel.  Don’t try to make things different. Stay as you are it’s fine.”  No Paul was saying Jesus was bigger than all of that.  He is saying let whatever your situation is let it drive you to Jesus.  I don’t need to kill my desire or have it met the wrong way.  I need to walk straight into unmet desire – with Jesus.

We can’t just tell people to not worry about it.  We don’t do this in other areas.  The church doesn’t say to the poor – just stay poor and be content.  It doesn’t say to the sick, just stay sick and be content.  No, we step up and step in.  We act.  (Or at least we are supposed to).  All the while pointing out that no matter what the circumstances Jesus has to be desired first.

The truth is that these desires we have are natural and good, and from God.  We need to engage Him and we need to move forward.  It’s hard.  Unmet desire is a part of life to the full.  We need to feel the tension.  It drives us to the things that God has for us – if we let it.

What do you do with your unmet desire?