Volume 19 Number 3
Love Triangle
01 June 2006

John Lester gives a Christian perspective on marriage.

AS A DOCTOR I have the privilege of getting to know families from a wide variety of backgrounds and I am offered a window onto their lives.

There are couples among them who choose not to get married, or never seem to get round to it, yet remain faithful to each other and bring up their children with a great deal of love. There are some who are happily married with the commitment it symbolises and the security it affords. And there are those whose relationships break down for one reason or another and who invariably suffer great pain whether married or not.

This era of personal choice has encouraged a great many relationships which do not last. In my work I experience the fall-out of such sadness, particularly as it affects the children.

This has led me to reflect—not primarily on the difference between being married or unmarried but on the difference between a secular union and a faith-based one, and I have chosen to look specifically at what the Christian faith brings to the question of living together.

In the secular world relationships are seen as a partnership. Partnerships of any description are based on mutual self-interest. If there is no longer benefit to both parties then partnerships can be ended. A secular marriage, however committed, unselfish and loving, remains a bond agreed solely between two people.

A faith-based marriage is more than that. It is a covenant—which is a relationship entered into by, and with, God. God’s part of the covenant is that he enters into the relationship. If we break the relationship with each other it affects our relationship with him.

The Church regards marriage as a sacrament, which means an action in which it is understood that the Holy Spirit will undoubtedly be present.

The difficulty today is that so many of us have lost any feeling for religion and so the words do not resonate as they once did. Fortunately the Gospel writers wrote simple narrative stories which are easy to visualise and which illustrate such words.

In one of them Jesus is at a wedding feast in Cana. The wine runs out. Mary, Jesus’ mother, suggests to the stewards that they do anything he asks. He requests them to fill the water pots with water and to ladle it out to the guests. The guests then bombard their host with questions as to why he kept the best wine until last.

A generation reared on science may find it hard to accept such an outcome, but may none-the-less understand the point it illustrates: that if God really is present the result is likely to be totally unexpected.

And this can be the reality of marriage undertaken in that spirit of obedience and expectancy. There is a prayer I have often sung: ‘Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us. Break us, melt us, mould us, fill us’.

I like the picture it portrays. We come—in this case to marriage—with all our angles, our set ways of doing things, and we say ‘melt us’, allow all the stresses, the jagged edges, to be melted away. ‘Mould us’—form us into the people you want us to be.

The water pots in Cana, each holding 30 gallons, will have been moulded on a potter’s wheel. And in Christian marriage the analogy can be taken a little further. We can recognise that God will take the clay of two people and mould it into one water pot. He will fill that pot with ‘living’ water which represents the joy which is there to give to everyone and which refills whenever it is given away. But the pot will only continue to hold that gift if no cracks are allowed to develop between the two. This pictorialises the truth that in Christian marriage two become irrevocably one, and Jesus becomes the third person in the marriage.

One of the difficulties of a non-religious age is that many people who have never understood religious thought and experience WESTGATEsay, in effect, ‘all that is not for me, let us stick to what we all know’. That attitude, which is so understandable, makes new realities so difficult to access. But the fruit of such experience—which can be observed—is a deeper level of relationship, which so many of us do crave.

That relationship contains within it the following characteristics. The first is that it is based on cherishing not on using; the decision to stop thinking of oneself, and to think instead of the other, to look at the other, to tenderly care for the other.

Next is that it is based on intimacy. That is, after all, the setting in which a marriage becomes fruitful, and in which children may be given. But there is a further dimension to intimacy and that is spiritual intimacy. The tendency today is for people to seek more and more of the physical because they have no spiritual intimacy. An over-enthusiasm for physical intimacy does not compensate for an absence of spiritual awareness. That is one of the great errors of our time, the belief that sex can replace the lack of spiritual content in our lives.

Spiritual intimacy is the sharing of our inner lives together; sharing the dreams we may have, the lessons we learn, the mistakes we make, our hopes and fears, our insights and our longings. It is a wonderful enrichment but it requires nurturing.

Such a relationship is a listening one—listening to one another, giving each other the space which allows the half-formed thought, the hesitant thought to emerge. And in a faith-based marriage it involves taking time to listen to God; to hear his whispers; to share together the precious jewels he reveals. It is a praying one. It is difficult to pray meaningfully if there is something that divides us from the one we love. So it involves never letting the sun go down on anger or hurt. At the heart of such a relationship is our need at times for both repentance and forgiveness.

Breathing through all this is the great word ‘love’. Love invokes feeling. It involves commitment. It produces care. It is beyond us and bigger than us. It is the gift from God of himself.

At some weddings these important words of St Paul are read: ‘Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.’

Each individual and every generation has to choose whether to take a secular path or the path St Paul so vividly outlines. Every marriage which chooses for God becomes not only one more likely to last but a living expression of the words I began with—covenant and sacrament—which so many pass by without understanding. Such marriages become candles lit in the darkness to reveal the promises of God’s ways for us all. They point the way for all human relationships. They are a template for a renewed world.