I begin a series today on John Piper’s new book about marriage (This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence
) but I do so by posting a recent essay of mine from Out of Ur: it was called there “The Story of Us.”
The Story of Us
At the end of his lecture and after answering a smattering of
questions, the pristine and aged New Testament scholar, Bruce Metzger,
asked Doug Moo, at that time a colleague of mine, if he could say
something on his heart to the seminary students gathered that day. With
the moral vigor and verbal clarity Metzger was known for, he looked at
his audience and simply said, “Stay married.” The brevity of his words
was matched by moral significance.
Questions: What is your church doing to help couples develop long-lasting, loving relationships and staying married?
Those of you who are divorced, where did it go wrong for you? Was there something that could have been taught or practiced that would have altered your path?
I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon called “Stay Married” or even a sermon that dealt with reasons to stay married. I suppose we can guess why this is so. At the top of my reasons would be a fear to offend the many – some say as many as 50% of evangelical, Christians are divorced – who are sitting there, giving money, and serving in the church who are already divorced. Next on my list would be the knowledge that we preachers have of those listening to the sermons who are struggling with a spouse who is borderline abusive or a creep in some ways. We know well that such marriages will likely dissolve. Probably next would be that we have family and friends, some of whom are leaders and pastors themselves, who are divorced. I’m thinking we might come up with a half dozen or more other ideas that pop up and make us cautious about preaching about staying married. I hope not to offend this audience in what follows but, for the sake of the holiness of the church and the potent witness of a good marriage, I want to offer a pragmatic reason for staying married. But first a biblical reason.
The ageless commandment of Moses and then repeated by Jesus is where we begin: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Jesus fleshes out the implication: “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). Written into the fabric of creation and into law is an ontological union of a man with a woman and of the permanence of that union. “Writ in Scripture” is enough to believe it and to preach on it, but it seems to me that more believe it than preach about it. I’d urge more pastors not only to preach on the permanence of marriage and need to stay married, but to think through the comprehensive significance and pragmatic value of staying married.
I’ve heard a number of other reasons to say married, the funniest and quirkiest being from a friend who heard it from his Bible college professor. The professor, obviously a bit pragmatic, told him the reason to stay faithful was because, if you’ve been driving a VW all your life you may never know it is a small car until you’ve experienced a Cadillac. But once, he warned his students, you drive in a Cadillac you may become dissatisfied with your VW.
One pragmatic argument on which I have reflected is the pragmatic value of memory. Even though I believe in the wisdom of Jesus and the potency of recognizing the permanence of the marital union, I do think other arguments can startle us into thinking more reflectively about marriage. Kris and I have been married for thirty-five years. We grew up in the same community; our fathers coached together; we were boyfriend and girlfriend in grade school and junior high. We got serious as sophomores in high school and got married as sophomores in college. (Not what we recommended for our two kids.) Here’s my point: nearly everything about each of our lives is known to the other. Furthermore, in our daily conversations we draw on our collective memory of our thirty-five years of life together and it is now rare that one of us says something about the past that the other one doesn’t already know. Our stories are reminders, not revelations, of our past together. They glue our stories into one story. Admittedly, that we grew up together gives our collective memory a dimension that most don’t know, but my point is not so much about marrying someone from your hometown as staying married.
From anthropologists to theologians to those who write technically about story-telling, thinkers today reminds us over and over that who we are emerges from the story we tell ourselves. Our identity swells from our story. Divorce inevitably rips chapters and pages and paragraphs from the identity-shaping story that guides our everyday. Those who are divorced, in the presence of a variety of audiences, are driven to modify or silence chapters of their story. In effect, they can only be partially visible in many, if not most, contexts. They can tell only parts of their story.
A good reason to say married, I am contending, is to keep your story in tact and to let that in-tact-story develop over time by adding new chapters that deepen earlier ones. Good stories have drama, and perhaps the rough patches in a marriage will someday be redeemed by the memory that those patches, too, were part of the story we wove into one story, the story called Us.