Recently I asked a group of young people to jot down the world’s take on romantic relationships. There were no surprises in their responses: “Get into a relationship if it feels good and get out of it when it is no longer fun”; “It doesn’t have to last, it just has to be fun for both parties”; “Do what feels right for you”; “It’s about feeling.”
These answers capture so much of our culture. We love experiences. Our feelings really matter. Freedom and fulfilment are found in expressing our desires—having as few boundaries and restraints as possible as long as we don’t hurt anyone else. We are awash with a focus upon ourselves. As another of my respondents put it, sex and relationships are “about me”.
As we would expect, the Bible provides a robust alternative to this picture. Not much is said about romantic relationships (more on that later), but the vision of marriage—an institution that our culture still, to some degree, associates with romantic love—is far removed from the self-focused consumerist mentality of our age.
The heart of the biblical view of marriage is a lifelong binding commitment or covenant between a man and a woman. The focus is not upon passion and feeling (which inevitably come and go). Nor is it about having your own needs met. No, the promises the couple make to each other give a particular shape to the relationship. As Timothy Keller puts it in The Meaning of Marriage: “In a covenant, the good of the relationship takes precedence over the immediate needs of the individual”.
The central text that affirms the biblical perspective on marriage is Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh”. Here we see God’s design for marriage and the primacy and permanence of the binding together of a man and a woman.
For the couple, their marriage becomes the primary relationship in their lives. With marriage priorities change. Commitments to parents were vital in the ancient Hebrew context, so to affirm that marriage involves the formation of an even more important bond highlights just how significant it is. If you are a parent of married children—respect this truth. Give them space and don’t interfere! And for the couple to whom God grants the gift of children, never allow your investment in your children to be at the expense of your marriage. One of the greatest gifts you can give your children is a strong marriage.
God also desires that marriages last. The uniting spoken of in Genesis 2:24 literally means to be stuck together—it’s as if the two are superglued to one another! Permanence is on view here. Just as God’s people are called upon to steadfastly commit themselves to him (Deut 10:20; 13:4 etc.), so the couple are to commit to each other.
Permanence is also captured by the phrase “they will become one flesh”. We often think this phrase is referring to sex, but the key idea is the formation of a new family. We speak of family members as our “flesh and blood”. The ancient Hebrews conveyed the same thought by saying “bone and flesh”. To become one flesh is to become kin, to become family.
The thing about family relationships is that we are stuck with them, whether they bring us joy or are painful and difficult. The old saying, “Blood is thicker than water”, is true. Jesus makes a big deal of this one flesh concept (e.g. Matt 19:4–6). Why? Because breaking a marriage is like brothers ceasing to be brothers. This is a relationship not to be dismissed lightly.
It is true that some marriages don’t work out. God in his grace acknowledges our human weaknesses and sin. There are situations of unfaithfulness and abuse when it is not appropriate to continue in a marriage. But we must never lighten the truth of Scripture that entering into a marriage is entering into a covenant, an intense promise of commitment. Breaking that covenant must be seen as an absolute last resort.
In his book, Tim Keller explains the benefits that flow from this perspective on marriage. The commitments made provide a cradle of security that sustains a couple through the ups and downs of life. It frees them up to be their true selves in a way that builds intimacy. And there is abundant evidence that, generally speaking, marriages based on this covenant principle are a much better alternative to cohabitation, in terms of the benefits to the couple, their children, and society more generally.
But isn’t marriage about love? Where does love fit into this biblical perspective? In fact, marriage is all about love, but a love that has a much more full-bodied flavour than the saccharine version filling the songs and TV shows of popular culture.
Love within a covenant relationship is the strong virtue that characterises God himself—that willingness to reach out at cost for the good of another, irrespective of how one feels and what comes back. Keller notes that parents have this form of love forced upon them by their children. Whether or not the child gives back to them, decent parents keep on giving and they know they just have to do that. The new parent has to meet the challenge of a helpless, dependent baby. There is much sleep deprivation and cleaning up before they are rewarded with those first smiles! And many parents face the even greater challenge of continuing to love a rebellious teenager when it seems that all they receive in return is grief.
The selflessness of the biblical vision of marriage extends even beyond the couple themselves. We are told that God made marriage to solve the one thing in unspoilt creation that was “not good”: the problem of Adam being alone (Gen 2:18). This is normally taken to mean that the man is lonely and marriage answers the human need for close relationship. But God’s solution is not to provide a companion, but a “helper”. Why does he need a helper? Because God had given the man a job to do in his world: “to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15). He cannot fulfill that task on his own. As Christopher Ash has so helpfully argued in his books, the joys of married life are never an end in themselves but should extend to fruitful service of God and others.
This is a very significant truth for those who are not married. They, too, share in God’s kingdom work and often have opportunities for service that can be difficult for those who are married (see 1 Cor 7). But furthermore, this understanding of Genesis 2 fits with the rest of the Bible in affirming that the meeting of our relational needs is not dependent upon being married. Rather, in friendships and the fellowship of God’s people we can find the warm companionship and support that we long for (for example, Prov 17:17; 18:24; 27:9–10; Mark 10:29–30).
What I have said so far has the potential to sound unromantic. But I want to return to one of the comments from the group of young people spoken of earlier: “It’s about feeling.” There is a truth here that we need to acknowledge. Because while feelings do come and go, God’s design for marriage is not a picture of cold, hard duty but is deeply emotionally fulfilling.
Adam gleefully cries out when he meets the helper provided by the Lord (Gen 2:23), and two verses later we can see a glimpse of what God intended a marriage to be: “The man and the wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Gen 2:25).
This, as Dale S. Kuehne writes, is “one of the most evocative pictures of intimacy imaginable”. A couple who can be totally open and transparent with each other because there is nothing of which they need to feel ashamed; who feel perfectly safe with each other; who can trust each other fully. There is a joy and delight in this picture that captures something of what we understand romantic love to be and extends beyond it. This couple are true friends.
We find glimpses of this reality throughout the Bible. Jacob worked for seven years (14, actually) so that he could marry Rachel “but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (Gen 29:20). In Proverbs, the son under instruction is urged to “rejoice in the wife of your youth… may her breasts satisfy you always” (Prov 5:18–19). And Song of Songs is a beautiful testimony to married love.
But most significantly it is the great and final marriage—to which human marriage bears witness – that most clearly reveals this reality. In our fallen world, sin will always tarnish even the best of marriages. Our shame causes us to hide and withdraw and this undermines intimacy (see Gen 3:8-10). But Christ loved his bride so much that he gave himself up for her so that he might present her to himself perfectly clean and without anything that might cause shame (Eph 5:25–27). At the final wedding that we long for our sin will be totally wiped away and we will see the Lamb, our bridegroom, face to face in perfect intimacy (Rev 19:7–8; 21:2; 22:4). The picture is one of delight, closeness and safety.
It is often women that articulate a longing for this kind of intimate relationship in marriage but that doesn’t mean it is not important for men. The driver of marital unfaithfulness, for both men and women, is normally not sexual need but emotional need. The clichéd words of the married man to his newly acquired lover, “You understand me so much better than my wife,” capture this truth perfectly.
So if God’s ideal does involve intimacy and emotional connection, what can we do to move marriages in this direction? For a wife to submit to her husband does not mean that she cannot gently express her longings to her husband. In fact, doing this might be the start of an honest conversation that begins to draw the couple closer together. But perhaps we husbands need to take greater initiative here—to see that part of loving our wives as Christ loved the church is to take the time to listen carefully to them and to be willing to open up about our thoughts and feelings.
The goal is to create a warm, open space in a marriage where the couple can share what is in their hearts; where conversation and pillow talk move beyond discussion of the details of the day to how we feel about life—the hopes, fears, longings etc—that reveal who we really are so that each deeply knows the other.
We do not stop loving when we do not receive what we desire in a relationship. But when working properly, God’s design is that the delightful mutuality of the relationship will bring blessing to both husband and wife, a blessing that will overflow in service to others.
And perhaps the best thing to say by way of conclusion is that the security that flows from the covenantal perspective on marriage that we find in the Bible actually feeds the loving feelings that we long for in our relationships. The German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, captured this truth beautifully: “It is not your love that sustains the marriage but… the marriage that sustains your love”.
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