When I was in seminary I had a professor who used to say, “People don’t get married for love, but for lust. Only later does marriage teach us what love is.”
I don’t think we should push too hard on that idea–there are all sorts of exceptions to it–but I agree with the basic premise. The early stages of a relationship are frequently the easiest. They are marked by novelty, passion, electricity, and irresistible attraction. Before we really get to know each other through the character unveiling obstacles of life, there’s a bit of a honeymoon period.
Marriage, however, is the crucible that purifies love of its selfish motives. Marriage helps widen our gaze and look beyond ourselves. It humbles and softens us. It can make us better people, more focused on others and less self-centered. It can even make us more Christ-like, which is why Catholics believe marriage is a sacrament: It is a means of grace in our lives, calling us outside of ourselves and making us holy. In this way, marriage is one tool that God uses to transform us into our intended selves.
Yet this aspect of marriage is easy to forget. Given how many women pine for a man who will “love them just the way they are,” it’s easy to believe that is the goal of marriage. From that particular perspective, marriage is ultimately about you and your own happiness, not about God or the world you live in.
Interestingly, the romantic, Prince Charming-involved conceptions of marriage are relatively modern. Although the Bible contains Song of Solomon, a beautiful and passionate love story that ends in marriage, most ancient marriages were not of the romantic variety. They were contracts, deals brokered between families that had little to do with love and more to do with financial provision.
For a different kind of Biblical love story, consider Hosea. Hosea was a prophet who God ordered to marry a prostitute. His wife, Gomer, left him multiple times and fathered children with other men, but Hosea did not leave her. Why? Because God commanded Hosea to keep pursuing Gomer and to remain faithful to her. If anyone had an excuse to leave the marriage it was Hosea, but instead he stayed as an act of obedience.
What is significant about this latter story is that Hosea’s marriage was not about attraction. Hosea did not, initially, seem to love Gomer at all. If anything, Hosea was probably disgusted at the idea of marrying her. This was no Redeeming Love.
However, Hosea’s marriage wasn’t about his love for Gomer as much as it was his love for God. His marriage was to be a symbol of the Israelites’ unfaithfulness to God. Like Gomer, Israel had rejected her one true love and whored herself out to false idols. Even so, God had remained faithful to Israel through it all, and now Israel had a flesh and blood visual of her betrayal, displayed in the life of Hosea.
As strange as Hosea’s predicament may sound, Christian marriage is not altogether different. Like Hosea, our marriages are a symbol of God’s relationship with us. Like Hosea, Christian marriage is a faint echo of the unconditional love we have in God. For a world that struggles to grasp such an abstract idea, Christian marriage is a compelling visual. Marriage inspires a collective imagination that can’t conceive of a love like God’s.
Along those lines, Hosea’s marriage is also similar to Christian marriage in that we are called to marital faithfulness as an act of faithfulness to God. Marriage is not, ultimately, about attraction or happiness but about becoming more like Christ. Like Christ, we love our spouses and persevere with them, not because it’s easy but because we are modeling the love of God when we do. When my husband is unlovable and I love him anyway, my marriage is an echo of Christ’s unconditional and sometimes illogical love for the world.
I was struck by that truth after re-reading Hosea this week. It’s easy to gauge my marriage according to how my husband and I are getting along, and Hosea’s example reorients me toward a higher standard. Hosea and Gomer did not get along at all! Yet Hosea stayed, and I find his dedication is a rather challenging indictment of the common approach to marriage today.
Happiness is a blessed by-product of marriage, but holiness and patience and love for the world–personal transformation that conforms us to the heart of God–that is the purpose of marriage. It is a lesson that is hard-learned over time, but we will certainly be better for it.
Final Note: Whenever I write on this topic I think it’s necessary to highlight an important exception to my above words. In the case of abuse, the principles of marital perseverance are different. Whether you choose to remain married or not, please do not enable your abuser by continually putting yourself in danger.