Each year divorce tears apart the homes of 750,000 children
Four thousand times a day a man and woman stand before a clergyman or magistrate to be united in matrimony. At that point they are at the door of heaven or at the gates of hell; they are beginning a life either of marital happiness or of what someone has called “conjugal infelicity.”
Many a romance has collapsed under the strain that comes when two people try to make a life together. That pretty girl who was always well groomed now spends half the day in a housecoat with her hair in curlers. That young athlete is beginning to put on weight around the middle. Before they were married, she admired him for his strength as he made end runs and touchdowns. Now when she asks him to put up the screens or mow the lawn, his strength seems to vanish. Somehow Hollywood does not tell us the whole story when it shows the hero and heroine riding off into the sunset. The real test of love lies ahead, as two people who before have lived separately now live together and attempt to adjust to each other’s faults and idiosyncrasies.
Nowhere is there greater optimism than at the marriage altar. Many young people stumble into marriage convinced that love conquers all. And yet one out of every four new marriages ends in divorce. (Among teenagers the rate is three times as high.) Each year 750,000 children have their homes torn apart by divorce. All this indicates that our ideas about love and marriage need re-examination.
What has gone wrong with American marriage? As a Navy chaplain, I have done a lot of marriage counseling. During one year I talked to many young people whose marriages were disintegrating; the longest any of them had been married was five months. One couple who had been married six weeks and another who had been married five weeks were both ready to give up.
What does the Bible say about marriage? What does God expect of married people? As the people asked the Old Testament prophet, “Is there any word from the Lord?” In this day of promiscuity and divorce, we have heard from Hollywood and Ernest Hemingway and Dr. Kinsey. The Christian Church now needs to return to the Bible to find the theology of marriage. Let us give our attention, then, to three ingredients not just of marriage but of holy matrimony.
Love is the basic ingredient. Yet so many unfortunate couples suffer through a loveless marriage because no one ever told them what love is. Their life together is one of frustration rather than fulfillment, because their philosophy of love is based on the idealism of a Hollywood musical, the perversion of a character in Tennessee Williams, the escapades of an Elizabeth Taylor, or the sob-stories of True Romance magazine.
One of the tragedies of American life is that love is being defined for us by those who have never experienced it. We are hearing about marriage from those whose own marriages—one or two or more—have failed. We have listened to the pied pipers of sex-obsessed movies and literature. Now we are reaping the consequences—the young man who wants his girlfriend or fiancée to prove her love by compromising her purity, though he is not willing to prove his love by waiting; or the young married couple (or not-so-young couple) who tell the marriage counselor that they just do not love each other any longer. The fact is that in the true sense they never did love each other. What they consider love is sadly like the degraded concept of it in “adults only” movies or in books that talk about “love in the raw,” or “free love,” or “love for sale.” The cruel hoax undermining our society is the notion that love is only physical. Capitalizing on this error, Madison Avenue tries to persuade us that to be loved we must use the right kind of toothpaste, bath soap, and hand lotion, and that domestic tranquillity depends upon keeping Anacin in the medicine chest and Billy’s bike out of the driveway.
Although we are all fairly well read on the subject of love, most of us have been reading the wrong books. We need to ponder what Paul wrote in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians: “Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth.” We need to listen also to Shakespeare’s words: “… Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/ … Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom.” We need to hear Solomon as he says: “Love is stronger than death.”
The trouble began when we stopped listening to Solomon and St. Paul and began listening to Sigmund Freud and Hugh Hefner; when we stopped listening to Shakespeare and Robert Browning and started listening to Bertrand Russell and Henry Miller; when we stopped listening to God and began listening to unregenerate man. That was when we began confusing love with lust, and when marriage started leading to the gates of hell instead of to the door of heaven. It used to be that a person with a shameful past moved away to a place where no one would know what he had done. Now he writes a book about it, Hollywood makes the book into a movie, and we call it sophistication, art, realism.
Conjugal love has its God-ordained physical expression. Suppose someone tells you that there is a fire in your house. Whether this is good or bad depends on where the fire is. If it is in the furnace, the stove, or the fireplace, it is good. If it is in the roof or the walls, it is bad. In the right place, fire provides warmth and comfort; in the wrong place, it destroys what is good. Lust is destructive not only of human relationships but of the human personality as well. It is impurity at the deepest level of the spirit, and quick boredom follows. But the physical expression of love within marriage is an endless road of profound satisfaction and ever-deepening union.
God made us the way we are and told us how to live. We are free to violate his laws, but we are not free from the effects of our transgressions. Married love has both a physical and a spiritual side. When we try to have one without the other, we are going against the plan God has made for our completion and happiness. It is he who has made us and not we ourselves. If we want to live life to its fullest we must do things his way, a way clearly outlined in the Bible.
The Bible most certainly condemns both adultery and fornication and says that they who commit these things will have no part in the kingdom of heaven. When God says “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” there is no room for rationalization. Today public opinion is more permissive of illicit unions and even of perversion than it has been since pagan times. Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. Yet the Christian rule is either marriage with complete faithfulness or total abstinence. Marriage is ordained of God and is thus a sacred institution of the Church. Therefore, a violation of the marriage vows is an enormous sin.
The greatest example of love the world has seen is our Lord Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us and who wants for each of his children a holy love that honors God and enriches man. I had a couple in my church years ago—and they are representative of many others everywhere—who, having just celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary, told me they were more in love then than ever before. This is what God wants for us all.
The second ingredient of a true marriage is maturity. This means keeping one’s eyes wide open before marriage and half shut afterward. In marriage counseling, problems fall into fairly well-established patterns. One familiar pattern is the marriage in which two people who are deeply in love cannot stand each other. They lack the maturity to live together in a relationship any more congenial than that of a cobra and a mongoose. They fight over every picayune detail; one gets angry and the other gets hurt. They cannot stand being together and they cannot stand being apart. He shows her that he is the boss by trying to smack a little sense into her, and she, to show him he cannot treat her that way, goes home to mother—and we know whose side her mother is going to take. It is the old story of each trying to teach the other a lesson.
After two sessions in which I talked to a young man and his wife separately, I brought them together in my office and had them retell their respective sides of the story. The problem was obvious, and since they wanted me to tell them what it was, I did. I told the husband, “You need to grow up and stop acting like a child every time you don’t get your own way.” To his wife I said, “My dear girl, you talk too much.” And she did. There was no big problem, just little things they lacked maturity to cope with. Physically they were adults; emotionally they were children, married four months but not ready for marriage. Man and wife are two people united in matrimony but with different goals and divergent viewpoints.
A divorce lawyer once said he was absolutely convinced that any two people who had made the wrong marriage could be reasonably happy if they had enough maturity really to try. That may be far from the ideal marriage; but when a man and woman stand before God and solemnly vow that they will take each other for better or for worse, may God help them if they do not mean it. What God has joined together, man by judicial decree cannot put asunder. The state may legalize divorce, but God says that marriage is for life, and it is he who will ultimately judge us.
Jesus permitted divorce and remarriage for only one reason—unfaithfulness—and even that is not always sufficient grounds. By the laws of many states, marriage is easily contracted and easily dissolved. Yet in the sight of Almighty God it is a lifetime contract that can be broken only by death or by unfaithfulness. The marriage vows are sacred, binding, irrevocable. This is the divine order, and we cannot change it without serious consequences.
Success in marriage comes not just from finding the “right person” but also from being the right person. Booth Tarkington has said that an ideal wife is any woman who has an ideal husband. The degree of success in marriage reflects the degree of maturity brought to it. “Incompatibility” and “mental cruelty” are usually just pseudonyms for immaturity.
Many young people rush into an ill-advised marriage for no other reason than that it seems to be the answer to their problem of insecurity or of unhappiness at home. This is why most ministers read in their introduction to the ceremony that matrimony is holy and is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, and in the fear of God. Where in heaven’s name did we get the idea that marriage is a refuge from an unhappy home life, a haven of security, or a bower of moonlight and roses?
Genuine love and personal maturity, then, are ingredients for a happy marriage. But for those who want to go beyond a happy marriage to a perfect marriage, there is a third ingredient. This is a person, Jesus Christ.
St. Augustine said: “Love God and then do whatever you wish,” because he who loves God will never do anything to hurt love. It is true that some marriages are made in heaven. Human love has reached its peak when it says: “I love you because God made you mine.”
The perfect marriage is a uniting of three: a man, a woman, and Christ. This is what makes matrimony holy. When a husband and wife pledge their lives each to the other and build their relationship solidly on spiritual principles, they create the greatest assurance of success and happiness possible. In 95 per cent of all divorces cases, either one or both partners did not attend church regularly. In regular church families, only one marriage in fifty-seven fails. And in families that worship God publicly in church and privately in the home, only one marriage in five hundred breaks up. It may be trite but it is nevertheless true that families who pray together stay together.
Those who look to Christ for guidance in choosing their marriage partner and who make Christ the head of their home will be blessed. Those who leave him out of their life and out of their marriage will be left to ways of their own choosing. One of the consistencies of human nature is that we are always wrong when we are not right with God. “Except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.” Jesus said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” He is the pilot who knows what is ahead—the narrow channels, the rocks and reefs where many lives have been wrecked. And he says; “If you will trust me, I will direct your life.”
What marriage is may be summed up in these lines from a wedding ceremony used by Peter Marshall:
“Dearly beloved, the marriage relation when rightly understood and properly appreciated is the most delightful as well as the most sacred and solemn of human relations. It is the clasping of hands, the blending of lives, and the union of hearts, that two may walk together up the hill of life to meet the dawn—together bearing life’s burdens, discharging its duties, sharing its joys and sorrows.
“Marriage is more than moonlight and roses, much more than the singing of love songs and the whispering of vows of undying affection. In our day it is by many lightly regarded, and by many as lightly discarded. But marriage will ever remain in the sight of God an eternal union, made possible only by the gift of love which God alone can bestow.”
The Wrong Corpse
With their fraternity mates, the beatniks, the confirmed secularists in the “God is dead” cult have plunged into the, depths of existential despair, romped about in the dark in their subsurface play-pens, and emerged to announce that “God is dead. He died in our time, in our history, in our existence.”
Who assassinated God? One is moved to ask whether they were sufficiently well acquainted with the Person pronounced dead to be able to identify the deceased.
What kind of “good news” is this? And what hope? Am I now to tell my son that the whole business is a fraud—that all these years I have been working for a “corpse” when I believed that the Jesus of history emerged from the tomb on Easter Day to become the living Christ of the Ages—and that in this vindicating and authenticating act of God there is “good news” for the race? The ages assure us that God doesn’t die by pronouncement, denial, or assassination—and already the “God is dead” cult is passé while it is aborning.—DR. EDWARD L. R. ELSON, in a sermon in the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, D. C.
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