Christianity reserves all sexuality to the act of marriage, but not everyone can get married in the Faith. Millions of Christians will never get married, because nobody wishes to marry them or the people they love do not want to marry them.* As the number of people getting married in the West declines, and as we marry later, we oddly demand that this pleasure be available to us . . . even though we know it will not be available to all of us anymore than any other good thing will be in the grasp of everyone who wishes it. My I-hope-ludicrous-but-who-knows-anymore fear is that some government someday will decided we all have a right to marry and set up a Department of Marriage to make sure it happens!
(“Your failure to marry Bob is the result of the thought crime of lookism and as a result of this bigotry your right to choose is superseded by his right to marry.”)
Bad ideas about marriage have consequences. A by product of the myth that marriage must be romantic or fully erotically satisfying to be good and that of all goods it is the greatest good may be fewer marriages or greater stress on marriages. Marriage is very good, but many loves can be just as sweet. Friendship is a great good that not all of us experience, but thousands of years of human experience testify to how sweet it is! It is a loss when we cannot or do not have friendship and no amount of happy marriage can cover up that loss nor can we bid friendship come into beings just because we wish it. Some humans even seem hardwired in ways that make some types of friendship unlikely or even impossible.
But in our age it is romantic love that is almost the only love we sing, write, or film and so it is the love we fear most to miss.
As a result, many romantics will not “settle” or when they have “settled” are in constant longing for someone “better.” I face this culture challenge myself whenever romance wanes in our marriage or I feel an erotic attraction to another person. A good dose of Fiddler on the Roof wisdom helps me: I love Hope when I do my duty. The feelings are less important than the relationship and my training in moderation continues. Thankfully, in my experience, romantic and erotic desires oft return, though not always and in every circumstance for everybody or when we wish it.
This Christian kind of love, points me toward the day when old age may strip one or both of us of desire and death will surely separate us, but never from the love of Christ! Only that single love can survive death and so I cannot rely on Hope at the most fundamental level. Bad things happen to good marriages. If Bertha Mason goes mad, but still lives, then it is still sin for Mr. Rochester to marry Jane Eyre. One can be married and still face the bloodless martyrdom of celibacy.
There has never been a time when everyone who wished to marry could marry as they wished: the maiden aunts following World War I all over the British Empire testified that singleness can have many causes. Celibacy is a gift they did not want, but received. What is to be done? Like the pain of being childless when one wants a child, there is no avoiding sorrow and nobody should dismiss that sorrow lightly as “nothing” or try to cheer up the person in pain.
There are good things in life, very good things, that are not for me (at least in this life) and that is hard. My friends and family members who have embraced this pain have grown better for it, but the pain and sometimes the loneliness are still there. One thing that does not work are substitutes for marriage. One can get sexual satisfaction, perhaps, without a married relationship with another human being, but it is not the same satisfaction and for a Christian never wholly licit. The same, of course, is true of the thousands of married couples who due to illness, unfaithfulness, or for spiritual reasons face times of abstinence.
The hard word for all of us is that the world is broken and human attempts to fix it most often make it worse. We may not have been created for singleness, but singleness comes nonetheless. The call for unwanted chastity in a bad world is no different than any other call for extraordinary virtue in a sinful world: We were not created for manmade disasters, but manmade disasters come. Nobody wished to be on Titanic, nobody deserved to die in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, but some hundreds faced that challenge.
The Christian answer is, I fear, quite unpopular: there is no fixing it just now, we must seek grace for virtue extraordinary to our character. There is no avoiding this need in this life, even if one avoids it in the particular area of marriage. Imagine a woman with a perfect romantic marriage. She is satisfied in every way, but like Job suddenly faces the loss of this perfection due to human sin. What if her husband is killed in war? She was not “designed” for this pain, no human being is, but she must endure it: including at the very least a longish period of celibacy. Eventually one or the other of them must die and then pain, pain for which humans are not designed, will come again.
Good can come of this broken world, though the sin that causes the pain is never good. We can all embrace the eternal love of Jesus: the love that in the last analysis is the only fully satisfying love there is. Our Christian ancestors knew this truth and so had a tougher faith than we have. They did not expect so much from life and so were less depressed, prone to suicide, and other growing evils.
It is here that the hard word (so uncomfortable to the disciples) about divorce and remarriage from the Lord Jesus challenges us today. God hates divorce, but divorce happens to good people. What is to be done? The Christian ideal, preached until the most recent times, was to devote life to God. One good had passed and so another good must be sought. If you were divorced, then do not seek to remarry. If you were single, rejoice in your singleness. Whatever your condition, even if it is a hard one, learn, and it is so hard to do, to rejoice in the Lord.
We do not all live up that calling, our ideal, and we must be candid about it without compromising the ideal. If we fall from the good, the true, and beautiful (as I have done), then we confess our sin and Jesus is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from unrighteousness, but not if we do not turn from our sin. We cannot confess a sin we mean to go on committing!
We cannot find every kind of satisfaction in Christ, but we can find enough satisfaction in Christ to become as fully human as men and women can be before Paradise. People are designed for good things, food, drink, companionship, and those good things should come to good people, but they do not always. We cannot tell a starving man to be satisfied with Jesus, if we can give him food, but we can be satisfied with Jesus while starving if there is no food to be had licitly. It is the experience of Christians throughout the ages that though Jesus is no substitute for “other goods,” He is still so good that one can be as happy as anyone has a right to expect this side of Glory.
The prosperity teaching is evil and not just when the preachers teach material prosperity, but also when they claim that we can demand any other kind of good in this life. “God will give you the car you covet if you do or say the right things” is no more true than the lie that “God will you the friend or spouse of your heart if you only ask the proper way.” Be as skeptical of those retailing relationships in religion as those peddling prosperity. Whenever I demand my rights or stand up for my desires I have sunk to a sub-Christian level and nothing I try will work in any case. I must build all my hopes and stability on the one rock of happiness that cannot change: Jesus.
If I do this, then I am commanded (!) to enjoy any good thing or relationship that comes to me. I can rejoice in the wife of my youth. I can feast on the holidays having fasted in the lenten seasons. Goods come and go, even when they should not, but fundamental happiness can continue in the sorrows. My unmarried friends are happy sometimes and sad other times. My married friends are happy sometimes and sad sometimes. There are goods to marriage and goods to singleness. Some of us long for one good when we have the other and many receive “presents” they did not wish, but in all of this I am persuaded that Jesus is more than enough. In Glory, soon for all of us who are mortal and doomed to die, all the accounts will be righted and we will have the joy to which every earthly joy pointed.
Come quickly Lord Jesus!
*This post is not about gay marriage.