The following post is excerpted from the chapter, "The Purpose of Marriage," in my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God.
At some point, all the practical questions about marriage find their basis in the central question of what marriage is supposed to be all about. One might think that we should begin with that question, but in reality none of us do. Ask most couples when they’re about to get married, and they will tell you that they’re getting married because “We’re in love.” Doubtless at the time, that is true. Ask a couple on the verge of divorce why they got married in the first place, and sometimes they’ll say the same thing, and say that later on they fell out of love. If they’re being sincerely reflective, though, they’ll acknowledge ulterior motives. She wanted to get out of her parents’ house and couldn’t afford to be on her own. He wanted sex, and for religious or other reasons didn’t want simply to sleep around. She wanted the security of a committed relationship. He was afraid he was going to lose her if he didn’t lock in the relationship with a ring. She hadn’t had a lot of guys interested in her, and felt that this was the best she could do. He had been scared to death of marriage, until he ended up being more scared of ending up alone. She wanted children and didn’t want to raise them alone. There are a multitude of reasons. Feel free to swap the pronoun genders around: none of these reasons are specific to men or to women in particular.
So which is true? The romantic version at the time, or the jaded version from years later? Most likely, both are. People are complex beings, and we all have ulterior motives, whether we think we do or not. It doesn’t make the love we feel at the time any less real.
But the important issue is not what we think marriage is all about. Rather, it’s what does God think marriage is all about? Why did he create marriage? What is it for? How is it supposed to function in our lives?
Back to the Beginning
The only way to answer that question is to do what Jesus did when the Pharisees asked him their question about divorce. Jesus went back to the beginning in Genesis. So what does Genesis actually say?
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”So God created mankind in his own image,in the image of God he created them;male and female he created them.God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”(Genesis 1:26-28)
So the most significant aspect of God’s creation of humanity in this account is that we were created in God’s image. The chief purpose of humanity is for us to reflect God’s image, to be at least in some sense like him. How exactly we are to be like God has long been a matter of debate. Various theologians have associated the image of God with various aspects of human existence. Medieval theologians associated it with human rationality, by contrast with the animal kingdom. Others associated it with spirituality. Some, looking at the present passage, took God’s image as being dominion over the rest of the created order. Karl Barth took a novel but very biblical approach and located the image of God in the male-female relationship. As a Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are in a perfectly unified and loving relationship with one another. The creation of human beings as male and female, with the capacity for love and unity, is intended to emulate that relationship. The command to “be fruitful and increase in number” is obviously related to that sexual relationship.
Marriage and sexuality are not specifically the only things that being in God’s image is all about. Trying to locate God’s image as an aspect of humanity is a wrongheaded approach. We don’t have God’s image; we are God’s image. All aspects of who we are were intended to emulate who God is. But the capacity to enter into the marriage relationship is a significant part of that image, a part frequently neglected because we’re looking for something either more spiritual or more individual.
So at least one of the purposes of the marriage relationship is to provide a context in which human beings can reflect God’s image, in the expression of mutual love and in the development of oneness. As we share life together, as we share our bodies in the sexual relationship, as we make decisions based on submission of our self-centered desires and viewpoints, as we raise children together, we emulate God—we act out a reflection of who God is, a reflection that the world can see and in which we ourselves find a greater understanding of God and our relationship to him. God’s image finds expression in how we conduct our marriages. The more godly the manner in which we conduct our marriages, the more faithfully we reflect his image.
The next relevant section is in Genesis 2:
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The man said,“This is now bone of my bonesand flesh of my flesh;she shall be called ‘woman,’for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.(vv. 18-25)
Genesis 2 fleshes out the poetic and abstract account in Genesis 1. What we see in Genesis 2 is that none of the other animals that God had created were suitable to Adam as a companion. God could have made Adam and one of the other animals similar enough, or he could simply have created Eve from the dust as he had created Adam. Adam and Eve could simply have been created at the same time for one another. It’s clearly intentional that Adam be introduced with aloneness as a problem. God's solution was to take from his rib, or his side, material with which to fashion a companion. The imagery is unmistakable: Eve is being taken physically out of Adam, in order to be reunited physically to him. One becoming two becoming one again—the imagery could only more clearly reflect the triune Godhead if there were another person involved. But then, the potential for a third person to be created from that union completes the picture. Genesis explicitly unites the Adam and Eve story with marriage, and the innocent nudity of the couple illustrates the purity of the relationship, a purity that will be marred as a result of sin.
Reflecting God’s Image Practically
So marriage is one of the ways in which we emulate God’s image. But how does that work itself out in practical terms? How do we reflect God’s image in our marriages?
A good place to start would be with the self-sacrificing, self-emptying love that God has for his creation, and that the members of the Trinity have for one another. The Father glorifies the Son, the Son does the will of the Father, the Father and the Son send the Spirit, the Spirit bears witness to the Father and to the Son. God creates a universe and a world and populates it with image-bearers that he knows will rebel. Then, not because of any necessity imposed upon him, but rather simply in accordance with his own nature and character, God provides a way of salvation, one that involves him becoming one of us, one that costs him humiliation and painful death. He knew exactly what would happen when he created us, and he did it anyway. It was all inherent from the beginning. In creation was the cross.
Of course, no one in a marriage relationship can possibly approximate the self-giving love of God. We are the image of God, but we are only an image. Nonetheless, the more we show self-sacrificial love toward one another, the more we are true and undistorted images of what God’s love is.
This is what really lies behind the commands to submit to one another in love, for wives to submit to their husbands and for husbands to love their wives. We tend to think of the Bible as a list of more or less arbitrary commands, things that God wants us to do simply because God wants us to do them. We look at sin as isolated, individual acts that cross very specific lines or violate very specific commands. We don't want to recognize that the central desires of all our hearts, apart from the redeeming mercy of God, are sinful to the core. We fail to recognize the centrality of the two commands Jesus identified as being the foundation of all the Law and the Prophets: the commands to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. All the human problems that exist—economic problems, political problems, social problems, war—they all stem from our total refusal to love our neighbors as ourselves, to say nothing of our refusal to love God.
That is why I have said that selfishness is the main thing that destroys marriages: it is, in fact, the main thing that destroys all human relationships and destroys our relationship with God. We want what we want, not what God wants. We want what pleases ourselves, not what pleases our spouses. All too often, even when we’re trying to please our spouses, we’re doing so with ulterior motives, so that we will get something out of it. We don’t want to please someone else for their own sake—we want to please someone else so that the other person will like us, or will be attracted to us, or will do the same thing for us in return, or will feel that they are indebted to us, or will simply treat us with gratitude.
But God came to this earth in the form of Jesus and died for us, not for any benefit that he could get from us, but simply out of love. There is nothing that we could give God that he didn’t already have in the perfectly loving relationship that exists in the Trinity. If we are to reflect God in our marriages, we have to act out that self-sacrificial love toward one another.
To do so, however, involves overcoming fear. A fear that is, unfortunately, all-too-well grounded in what we know of other people: the fear of being taken advantage of. The fear that my sacrifices won’t be reciprocated, the fear that my husband or my wife will take my love and my sacrifice and my kindness and my forgiveness and my submission to him or to her, and I won’t get anything in return. And in truth, that is exactly how abusive and codependent relationships work. So there’s something real to fear.
We all tend to think that we do these things; in fact, that we do more than our fair share. But “fair share” is exactly the attitude we need to let go of. The members of the Trinity don’t glare at one another, demanding that each serves the others exactly the same amount. No, the Father glorifies the Son and sends the Spirit, the Son honors the Father and sends the Spirit, the Spirit honors and glorifies the Father and the Son. They all do it joyfully, willingly. Any thought of “how much is too much” is immediately ridiculous when applied to the Godhead. And that is exactly the sort of self-giving service that God wants us to engage in, that reflects and honors him. If we think we’re doing our duty and no more, it’s almost certain that we are doing much less than God wants.
“But it’s so hard!” we inevitably respond. An old story says that a great artist was asked if it was difficult to paint a picture. He responded that no, it’s not really hard—it’s either easy or impossible. The same is true of living out any aspect of the Christian life. In our flesh, our sinful nature, it’s impossible, because it’s precisely in our flesh that the struggle lies. It’s the flesh that wants what it wants, no matter how it affects the next person. But a struggle against the flesh is a struggle we cannot accomplish by the flesh—that is, by our own natural willpower—and the harder the struggle seems, the more clear it is that trying to conquer the flesh by the flesh is exactly what we are doing.
The answer to our need to be more Christlike, especially in our marriages, does not lie in us trying harder. It lies in us focusing more on the great kindness and mercy that God has given us through Jesus. The more I think of myself as basically a good person, a good husband, a good Christian, the more easily I can look down on others and be more demanding, especially in my marriage. The more I recognize myself to be a recipient of God’s mercy, grace, kindness, and favor, the more easily I can pass these things along to the woman I’ve pledged to love for a lifetime.
This is the difference between God-honoring love and flawed human love. Flawed human love is love seeking for a payoff, seeking for validation or gratitude or love in return, and the truth is that all of us are afflicted with that to some degree. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, much of what we experience as love is actually the desire to be loved. But with Godly love, the payoff has already come. We don’t give in order to get, we give because we have already gotten. Our love flows out of the love we have already received. We demonstrate love because we have already had the greatest demonstration of love given to us.
When we find it difficult to show love, especially to our spouses, it doesn’t mean that we need to try harder or do things inauthentically because we know we should do them. It means that we need to reconnect with the source of all love. It means that we need to remember the goodness and kindness and mercy and favor that God has shown to us, and be filled with gratitude at his amazing love for us. When we’ve recharged and filled up with the wonder of his goodness, then it becomes a lot easier, even natural, to serve others, especially our spouses, in love. It just flows out of us.