This year has been a year of weddings involving several people in our fellowship, the Manse family included. This may be a good time to ask a very straightforward question: why bother getting married? Isn’t a wedding day just an expensive party, which produces no more than a pointless piece of paper? Besides, possession of a piece of paper will not enhance a relationship, will it?
Or is the wedding day to be viewed not in terms of a party, and not merely as an expression of love, but as a declaration of commitment, upon which love can further flourish, and an occasion to seek God’s blessing on a union. After all, God is love.
Clearly there are two views here and I want to explore them because they are fundamentally two very different understandings of love.
First of all, those who are somewhat cynical concerning marriage, and dismiss it as a ‘piece of paper’, tend to view love as, essentially, a kind of feeling. By that standard, love is measured by how romantically desirous the partner may be. And it is entirely right that a piece of paper won’t make any difference to that.
By way of contrast, a Christian view would measure love not by what we want to receive by way of a romantic feeling, but by how much we are willing to give of ourselves. The love we proclaim for another person is about how much we are willing to lose for the sake of someone else. That love requires commitment, which is expressed in the marriage vows. It was Jesus who gave us this insight into true love; ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:13). It was Jesus who, supremely, gave expression to that love with His readiness to go to the cross, coming to serve and give His life a ransom for many.
This is not to discount romance. Far from it. It is to give romance a secure foundation to deepen and grow.
Self-giving sacrificial love is a million miles from the current Western tendency to seek a partner who will be, to use the phrase, a compatible soul-mate. If you glance at some of the many web sites which try to help you find your compatible soul-mate you will discover what people think ‘compatible’ actually means.
Timothy Keller quotes some surveys which suggested that, for many people today, compatibility means two key things. The first is physical attractiveness and sexual chemistry. For some people these are the foundational requirements for finding a compatible partner.
The second key idea was chiefly articulated by men. Most men cite, rather than sexual attractiveness in a compatible soul-mate, someone who showed ‘a willingness to take them as they are and not change them’. In other words, they want a woman who will fit into their lives, and leave them be; add a wife in such a way that nothing really changes.
The dating site review is that marriage is where you can simply be who you are, and be who you want to be, and your spouse should support you in that. The compatible soul-mate is someone who will accept us as we are and fulfil all our personal desires and longings.
The problem is that this requires a near perfect kind of spouse, one who has no personal problems of their own to make demands on you. Unsurprisingly, there is a large dose of unrealism here with impossible expectations, which at worst sow the seeds of conflict and disintegration.
What of a Christian view of love? Christianity affirms that God is triune - that there are three persons within the one God. Jesus Himself spoke of how, from all eternity, each of these three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, glorified, honoured and loved the other two. (John 17). The early fathers referred to this as being like a great dance, with each person, in love, seeking to honour the others in perfect self-giving. Within God Himself there is the very opposite of self-centredness and, instead, an other-centredness. It was C S Lewis who once wrote that when Jesus gave Himself on the cross for us He did in ‘the wild weather of His outlying provinces’ that which from all eternity ‘He had done at home in glory and gladness’. In carrying forward the Father’s will in going to the Cross, Jesus was expressing on earth the love that is shared within the being of God from all eternity.
Each person in the Trinity seeks the glory of the other persons. The question is: What does that mean? To glorify something then you find it beautiful for what it is in itself, rather than for what we might get from it. For example, I have a memory of sitting through music lessons at school. The teacher would put on a piece of classical music and we would be instructed to appreciate it. I would certainly listen to it but only because I knew that I would have some kind of test to sit. I listened to classical music in order to pass a test. I was looking beyond the music to how it might provide me with good marks in an exam.
Nowadays things are different. I am quite happy to sit and listen to music, not because it might subsequently prove useful to me, but because it is beautiful in itself. I delight in it for what it is.
It can be the same in relationships. To glorify someone is to wish to serve them unconditionally and love them unconditionally, rather than calculate how they will fit your preferences. If you say ‘I’ll serve you only if I get such-and-such’, then actually you are being selfish. You are merely serving yourself through them. You are not delighting in them, for their own sake.
To glorify others is to unconditionally serve them, not because we are getting anything out of it, but just because of your love and appreciation of who they are. This is what goes on in the Trinity. Each Person of the Trinity seeks not to be centre stage so much as to place the others centre stage, as each seeks to glorify and adore and serve the other. The result is immense happiness.
Let me give you an example. You find someone you adore, someone for whom you would do anything, and you discover they feel the same about you. How does that feel? Sublime! Wonderful! Sheer delight! So with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as they pour love and joy and adoration into each other. It is a dance of self-giving.
By contrast, when we are selfish and self-centred, we expect others to orbit around us. When we are being self-centred then everything freezes or becomes conflict-ridden. But when that Copernican revolution takes place, when we learn to serve and be selfless, then happiness and fulfilment are possible.
According to Christianity, at the heart of reality and at the centre of the meaning of life is God, who is One God in three persons. What this says is that relationships of love are what life is really about.
If there is no God and we are here by no more than blind chance, then what you and I know as love is no more than a chemical condition of the brain. If you feel love then it is only chemical reactions in your skull.
If God is not three persons but only one, unipersonal, then there was a time when there was no love, because love can only exist in relationships.
Yet God is One God in three persons and so He made the universe and us, that we might join in the experience of love and self-giving relationships.
In marriage we seek the blessing of God who is love. That is a love that involves commitment and self-giving, as expressed in marriage vows, where other options are closed down, and the other person becomes the focus of our commitment. It is within that context of self-giving commitment that a relationship flourishes and happiness can grow.
Your Minister - Martin Thomson