Anthropologists tell us that from the beginning of time all cultures have found a way to propagate the race and join themselves together in tribes. Researchers agree that marriage is a social invention unique to human beings, but though there are "hundreds of theories, stories, and fables explaining its origin" (Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History), they have not been able to determine how it arose.
What has been neglected is a clear and concise examination of the opening book of the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis (Greek for "origins"). What is unique in this account is that, before the establishment of government, education, health care, or industry, God joined a man and a woman together in marriage. Marriage, and the resulting family, were the building blocks of society and the only system whereby all parties would benefit: men, women, children, the elderly and infirm, the poor and needy.
Today we see the institution of marriage being disassembled before our eyes in the name of freedom. Open marriages, same-sex marriages, and cohabitation are quickly becoming the norm. The statistics for those engaged in marriage are also bleak: we are told that 50% of marriages end in divorce, 70% of the people who stay married are unhappy, and that these numbers hold true across the board, even for evangelicals.
Can a post-marriage culture succeed? I believe the resounding answer is no. And I want to use the remainder of this essay to reveal the true genius of marriage and why it makes me believe in God.
God instituted marriage because - in the midst of a creation where He had declared everything "good" - it was "not good" that man would be alone. Adam was incomplete without someone to come alongside him as his complement, so together they could complete the work God gave them to fill, multiply, and take dominion over the earth. The conclusion of the matter? "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." (See Genesis 2:18-25.)
I want to unpack the genius of this in five critical points, the five reasons why God's plan for marriage was the only way love and relationships could thrive.
Marriage, a Public Institution
Number one, marriage is a profoundly public institution. In our day and age where everything's about the individual, let's take a closer look at the ceremony. There are rings, a sign of the vows. There are legal witnesses to the vows exchanged. There is a marriage license, showing legal sanction. There is a civil servant, whether a pastor or justice of the peace, presiding over the event. The couple will be pronounced husband and wife, legal social terms. And there are certain legal benefits they will derive when the ceremony is over. Two people who have lived individually for all those years have been joined as one, and society now recognizes that.
Sociologist Linda Waite and researcher Maggie Gallagher, in their book The Case for Marriage, say that when you marry, the public commitment you make changes the way you think about yourself and your beloved. It changes the way you act and think about the future. And it changes how other people and other institutions treat you as well.
A marriage begins with the exchanging of vows, which are essentially the terms of the contract, or covenant, the couple is making. Contrary to what Captain and Tennille (who are now divorced, by the way) sang, it's not love that will keep us together, but our vow. This is because most of us don't know what love is. The vow is the glue, the ironclad commitment, that we are joining together for the rest of life.
If you look at statistics on people who live together as couples without marriage, they fail miserably on every index compared to those who are married. Why? Because you can take your chips off the table at any time. Marriage is an all-in institution, and the words which many of us exchanged at our weddings show it: "To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part" (The Book of Common Prayer). That was the contract or the covenant. Notice it has a beginning day: from this day forward. It has an ending date: when one of us dies. And then it stipulates the conditions.
Let me talk about gay marriage. Experts will tell you civil partnership can give two people, gay or not, 95% of the rights you get on the day you said "I do." They can have a large celebration, they can certainly find some clergy to marry them, they can designate each other as heirs. So why the big fuss? Why the great fight? In my opinion, the great fight is over social recognition. It matters. God set it up to be the building block of society and there's something in us where we want this social recognition.
The Economics of Marriage
The second thing about marriage, as God created it, is the genius of shared resources. This is the "richer" deal. The vast majority of us who are married are richer than when we got married, not poorer. One of the great myths of the day is that you have to have a lot of money to get married.
In fact, financially it's easier to be married than not. Why? Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 says, "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken." There's one rent bill, one electric bill, one cable bill.
Then there's specialization, meaning we each bring different skill sets to the equation. One can do this, the other can do that, and when you put those skills together, you get a greater good and don't have to pay for those things your mate is good at. Even in-laws can be considered another asset brought in to the marriage: most of us have been helped by in-laws at some time, in one way or another.
If you Google retirement wealth, you can see a huge difference in what married couples accumulate compared to those who are separated, widowed, divorced, never married, or even married but not working together at saving. Why this disparity? Why is the difference accumulated so exponential? One word: permanence. When people say, "We're all in," they shift from short-term vision to long-term vision. The whole mindset switches. Dave Ramsey says that the first thing every couple needs to do is identify who the saver is in the marriage and who the spender is. Typically there's one of each, and they need each other; they counterbalance each other.
I can speak from personal experience here, because my wife and I had a rough start financially. But fast forward thirty-one years. By God's grace we have three kids who've finished college, on their own work and ours. We were able to help our eldest with a wedding. We're in our third home. It wasn't easy. But it was a journey, and we did it together.
Sometimes I think about what would've happened if, as a young couple, we had money to do all the things we thought we wanted to do. I'm not sure where we would be right now. Instead, we learned to trust God, to thank Him and be grateful for all He's given us, and to watch Him direct our paths. It was hard while we were in it, but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.
Health and Marriage
The third genius behind marriage is the health it brings. Waite and Gallagher (The Case for Marriage) state that "the evidence from four decades of research is surprisingly clear: a good marriage is both men's and women's best bet for living a long and healthy life." Briefly, among the health benefits of marriage: much lower rates of alcoholism, lower illness rates, lower rates of mental disease, lower death rates (whether by accident, disease, or suicide). Married people with heart disease or cancer on average live longer than their unmarried, healthy counterparts. Married people eat better, take better care of themselves, and live a more stable life. And, in general, married people are significantly happier than those who are not married.
Why is this? I think it's because there's more to live for. You now have a wife you have to care for, your kids that have come along, a house to take care. That's why insurance rates go down when you're married. There's also what I call good nagging. Bad nagging is when "it is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife" (Prov. 21:9). But good nagging is when my wife says, "Did you have your yearly checkup yet?" Good nagging is when I tell her she needs to get her mammogram this month. When we put two people together, invested in each other, there's greater health.
Intimacy in Marriage
The fourth point is God gave us the genius of intimacy. Here's where sex, the "fruitful and multiply" part, comes in. Many of us were taught that sex was only for propagating the human race. It does accomplish that, but it was also intended for pleasure. In fact, God gave us a whole book in the Bible called Song of Solomon, so explicit that the moms of Jewish boys refused to even let them read it.
Sex is one of the highest gifts given to mankind. That's why it is so counterfeited. It is a gift that is so wondrous and can bring about so much intimacy, that it's been perverted on a large scale. Intimacy is what everyone is looking for. Intimacy is the understanding and celebrating of each other's innermost worlds.
When the Bible talks about sexual relations, it uses a word that literally means "to know": Adam "knew" Eve and they bore children. So the person that I'm being sexually intimate with over a very long time, I'm growing to know and understand and appreciate. God knew that the whole idea of love is murky, and that His agape love is just something that takes a long time to understand. We can gain a glimpse of it through intimacy.
There's a myth that sexuality decreases among the married. But married people actually have more sex, and probably not because they're more in love, but because of logistics: it's available, it's in close proximity, it's safe, it's with a known person.
Marriage: For Better or Worse
Number five, God in His genius showed us how to live happily ever after. Even secular books on marriage admit that one of the greatest contributions to your marriage is some sense of a belief in a higher power, i.e., what we would call God. And contrary to popular belief, this is borne out by the statistics:
We've all heard that half of marriages end in divorce. When we drill down into the origin of that statistic, we find that it was only an estimate put out in the late 1970s when no-fault divorce was legalized. It was assumed that, because divorce was getting easier, everybody would do it. In fact, the real divorce rate among first-time marrieds is about 25%, one in four. Among evangelical born-again Christians who love God, who read the Bible and pray, it is actually one in eight.
Another statistic we hear is that 70% of married people are unhappy. This also is false. In fact, 80% of people report themselves as being happy in their marriages. So this whole idea that you could have more freedom and be happy by not being married is not true. This is the ultimate genius of God.
Marriage as the Bible defines it - one man, one woman, forsaking all others till death do them part - is the only system where all parties benefit. And the critical piece is children. Study after study tell us that intact families raise healthier children. On average, children of married parents are psychologically, physically, and mentally healthier. They are better educated later in life and enjoy more career success than children in other family settings. Children with married parents also are more likely to escape some the more common disasters of 21st-century childhood and adolescence.
And please don't be discouraged if you are the product of divorced parents or even are divorced yourself, because this is where Christ can make the difference. Both my parents have been married and divorced three times, yet by God's grace I have a successful marriage. I have found out the truth of Ecclesiastes 4:12: "A threefold cord is not easily broken." A Spirit-filled marriage with God at the center is really the key to making this thing work the way God wanted it to work.
"Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." Ephesians 5:32 adds, "This is a great mystery." The profound mystery is that marriage is a metaphor, the only true metaphor, for Christ's union with his Body, the Church.
So be it.
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