Together in Joy and in Pain: Rediscovering a Christian Vision for Marriage

May 14, 2019
I will take a heart whose nature is to beat for me alone
And fill it up with you—make all your joy and pain my own
No matter how deep a valley you go through
I will go there with you
And I will give myself to love the way Love gave itself for me
And climb with you to mountaintops or swim a raging sea
To the place where one heart is made from two
I will go there with you

It has been more than twenty-five years since since Steven Curtis Chapman brought these words to us in the song “I Will Go There with You.” My recollection is that Christian romantics of the early 1990s tended to prefer Chapman’s earlier attempt at writing a love song (“I Will Be Here”) to this later ballad, but I always prefered “I Will Go There with You.” One reason is that it just “felt” more emotional to me, and I yearned for a positive musical outlet for my mercurial adolescent emotions.

Contrasting Visions of the Good Life

Looking back, however, I think I preferred “I Will Go There with You” because I detected in it a vision of what married life (and perhaps even relationships between men and women in general) can be like for those who follow Jesus. That vision is also present in “I Will Be Here,” to be sure, but Chapman’s later effort is even more explicit about how men and women can walk together through the most challenging of circumstances. It is even more forthright about the claim that self-giving love is the obligation of a husband to a wife, and it implies that part of being a man is deriving joy from the burdens that we bear on behalf of the women that God brings into our lives.

It is a very spiritually and emotionally mature vision. But I can tell you from experience that it is a difficult vision to keep before our eyes, much less to make the center of our relational lives. Why is that? Because our society presents to us another vision of how life supposedly can be.

This vision, too, was seared into my brain during adolescence. It is summed up in the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) romantic scene in the movie Top Gun. This vision of reality presents us with a singular image—that of a strong and handsome man embracing, and embraced by, a painfully beautiful woman as they give full expression to their passion for one another.

The problem with this vision is not that it is entirely corrupt. After all, the Song of Solomon is one long celebration of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality. Rather, the problem with this alternative vision is that it is ephemeral, unrealistic, and idolatrous.

Ephemeral, Unrealistic, Idolatrous

As all of us who have left our twenties behind us are painfully aware, feminine beauty fades all too quickly (cf. Proverbs 31:30), and masculine vigor is exhausted long before we run out of great deeds to attempt. Even the most attractive and most lively of us will have to learn how to get along in life without these qualities. And far more of us never possess them in the first place. The truth is that real beauty is in short supply, as is genuine athletic prowess.

It would be foolish of us to pin our hopes on finding a relationship that is oriented around beauty and brawn, flirtatious energy and sexual vigor. But that is precisely what our society has done. We tell young men that what they really need is a vivacious, passionate woman on their arm, and we tell young women that what they really need is to be swept off their feet by a handsome hunk. “Never mind about how exactly you will be ‘happily ever after,” our culture tells us. “Just trust us that this is what you need to be happy. (And, by the way, trust us that life is not worth living unless you are happy.)”

Again,it is worth repeating that there is nothing wrong with beauty or brawn, and there is nothing wrong with a vigorously romantic relationship. Indeed, such a relationship can be one tool that God uses to contribute to our flourishing has humans. But what happens when we fall short? What happens when our husband starts losing his hair or our wife gets wrinkles? What happens when kids come along (or that is the natural result of vigorous romance), and caring for their needs gets in the way of our fun? What happens if we never get married or if the frog we kiss never turns into a prince?

By failing to foresee these questions and consider how we might address them, we fall into a trap of our own making. We believe the lie that romantic love can heal all that is wrong with our brains and our bodies, and when it does not work, we assume that we must not be doing it right. So, we throw away the person with whom we have spent years building a relationship in order to pursue a younger, more attractive model. Or, we give up hope and drown our sorrows with fantasies about what we wish we had. Without even realizing it, we have begun to worship the twin idols of physicality and youthfulness. And just like idols of wood and stone, these lifeless entities have no power to save, no power to heal, no power to bring peace and joy.

Evaluating Our Options

So, what are we supposed to do? So many of us are broken and lonely. Do we keep on beating our heads against this same old wall, hoping that somehow we might find the “perfect” person to meet all of our needs? Or, like so many young people in our society, do we just give up on our romantic dreams? Do we give in to the romantic nihilism that is creeping into our collective consciousness and concede that no vision of human relationships corresponds with reality, and so it is best to find satisfaction wherever one can?

Or, do we choose another path—one that not only stands apart from the dominate vision of our culture but that also relativizes many of our most basic instincts? Do we confess that maybe, just maybe, Jesus had it right all along? Do we stop hiding from the harsh realities that confront our children and grandchildren and speak openly and honestly about what fulfills and what does not?

I am convinced that it is long past time to embark on this latter course of action. Churches are not supposed to be “safe and fun for the whole family.” Christians are not supposed to hide from the hard issues of life. We need to be honest with ourselves, with our children, and with our God about the struggles that we have faced, the ways in which we have failed, and the challenges that we have overcome.

More to the point, we need to publicly embrace a vision of the good life that is more consistent with the radical calling we have received from Jesus. That calling requires self-giving love, and it makes no promises in return with respect to the meeting of our needs or the avoidance of suffering. Here is what it does promise, though. Real life is found here.

It is scary to promise ourselves wholeheartedly to another person. They may not reciprocate our sacrifice or even appreciate the affection that motivated it. They may even betray our trust or reject both us and our love. But what alternative do we have? Jesus is our example, and he gave so much for us with no guarantee that we would respond appropriately. And Jesus told us that his way of living is the only way that we will find ourselves, the only way that we will truly live (cf. Matthew 16:25; Luke 9:24). More practically, if we want someone to invest themselves in us—which we all desperately need—we cannot hold ourselves at arm’s length from them.

Making the Most of an Opportunity

So many people in our society are hurt, confused, and disillusioned. They simply will not accept more condemnation for their sexual choices, and they have no confidence in traditional institutions (like marriage). But their lives are not working, and, if they are honest, they will admit as much.

Those of us who follow Jesus have a unique opportunity to speak into the brokenness of our world. We have an opportunity to model a different way of relating to one another, one that puts human relationships in their proper place (which is not at the center of the universe) and shapes them in the proper way (that is, around the cross) but that also frees them to contribute all that God intended to human flourishing. As we pursue this alternate vision of the good life, we will enrich our own experience of love, contribute to the flourishing of others in our families and churches, and show the world that Jesus really can make a difference in their lives. Yes, we will be ridiculed for our choices. Yes, sometimes we will suffer because of our commitment to follow “the Jesus way.” Yes, there will still be unmet longings in our hearts. But we will also find fulfillment that we never imagined possible, and we will light the way for others who want to escape the darkness and find their place in Christ’s glorious light.

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