The lost mystery of marriage

The lost mystery of marriage February 18, 2011
The Mystery of Marriage
Photo by Leon Brocard, Flickr

Ask a person what they think about marriage in society today, and they’ll probably say that the institution isn’t looking too pretty.

Yes, the divorce rate has steadily declined over the last thirty years in the U.S., but so has the number of people getting married in the first place. More and more couples are choosing to live together unwed, while domestic partnerships and gay-marriage initiatives challenge the traditional purpose and place of marriage entirely.

Various versions of this same story are unfolding throughout the world. Earlier this week, for instance, The Catholic Thing covered the state of marriage in France, particularly following civil-union legislation ten years ago. The upshot of the article was that marriage rates have declined in France for decades and the option of civil unions has only steepened the downward slope.

I tweeted about the CT piece earlier this week. Someone took issue and pointed out that France has a lower divorce rate than does America, which is true enough. “[T]he ones who get married are serious,” he said. “Here [in the U.S.] they divorce like crazy. Which model is worse?”

My response? Both. Marriage is suffering in different ways in both countries.

Why? Theology precedes sociology. We do what we believe. The primary concern is not that we are abandoning the institution of marriage; I think we go wrong when we focus our attention here first.

The primary concern is that we have abandoned the mystery of marriage—that marriage exists in the Church and for the world as a picture of Christ and the Church. More than a picture, it is by God’s grace a transformative reality, a sacrament.

That’s what Paul says at the end of the fifth chapter of Ephesians. Yet we discuss the text’s statements about spousal obligations in marriage and miss the whole point of the passage.

Our behavior about marriage comes from our beliefs about marriage. We are losing the institution because we have already lost the mystery. The latter is the foundation of the former. And the former without the latter is nothing more than a mutual-aid agreement.

Maybe it’s a mutual-aid agreement over which a minister presides. But as the widening array of alternatives to traditional marriage attests, the minister is superfluous without the mystery. Any agreement will do if it’s just an agreement.

But marriage is more than an agreement, even more than a solemn vow.

I am the worst of sinners. I have no room to talk. I am divorced and now remarried. I entered my first marriage without understanding the mystery, lived in that marriage without the help of the mystery, and left it without regard to the mystery. It’s no wonder that it all fell apart. But allowing for the particulars of my story, it’s the same as that of many men and women I know, all of us data points on a disastrous societal trend line.

My conviction is this: The institution of marriage doesn’t need defense so much as its mystery needs restoration. Only by fixing one will save the other.

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  • I agree, Joel, that the mystery is disappearing. I don’t think the answer to divorce is to make a law prohibiting it or for preachers to yell and scream at people to not do it. I think the answer is to try and restore that mystery you speak of. For people to fall in love with their spouse. Love is partially a decision and something that is developed and nourished, not just something that happens.

    • Love is a decision. That’s where part of the power of the mystery comes into play. We know what love is because of Christ, who voluntarily chose to lay down his life for us. That’s definitely part of what Paul is getting at. How well we understand and behave is another matter, but that’s the starting point.

  • This is a profound truth, Joel. Kudos to you for pointing it out.

  • This was a great read, really jump started my thought process. I guess my thoughts on this subject are that this “mystery of marriage”mindset is somehow possible only through the renewing of our mind that the New Testament talks about. The “equally yoked” thing comes into play also. Both persons in the marriage would find benefit from each recognizing/honoring the mystery.

  • Great post. Right now there are four families in our area that are going through divorce (prayer request). I was trying to pray for them all this morning but was not sure what to pray. I believe God has given me direction via your post. We need to pray for people to find the mystery of marriage. We must also recognize that losing this mystery not only destroys marriage, it keeps us from fully enjoying the blessings that are a part of living the Gospel.

  • Joel,

    Thank you for tackling this complex and important subject. Our decisions with regard to marriage have profound impact, not just on ourselves, but on all those we love.

    I heartily agree that our expectations are primary. I married expecting my husband to meet ALL my needs and to fill up ALL my empty places. This he could not do, and we very nearly became one of those statistics. Coming to see marriage differently…as a Sacrament…as one of the primary tools God is using to save me is teaching me to embrace even the difficult places and to live with hope.

    • Shelia, you are so right. Seeing your spouse as one of the means that God is using to conform us into the image of Christ is central.

  • Brilliant insight, Joel. Thanks so much. You are right that we need to recover the mystery of marriage. To further unpack Ephesians 5, we need to recover the mystery of the Church, the Bride of Christ, as both mysteries are integrally linked.

    • Totally agree. Understanding of the Church has fallen on times as hard as marriage.

  • Rich

    I disagree. Firstly sociology predates everything, including theology. People recognised society before they attempted to understand God.
    And the mystery of marriage – perhaps partly. I think it’s more a lack of full commitment, or understanding the longevity of the commitment, or heck, maybe an equal number of people wanted to get divorced 50 years ago but because it wasn’t socially acceptable, they kept up the appearance. That isn’t a shackle we have to bear now. There were probably equal number of homosexuals only a few decades ago, but it was so taboo they kept it to themselves. Unless you think that as the mystery of religion has slipped somewhat homosexuals are somehow being created in a post-religious society?
    Certainly, marriage doesn’t require mystery to succeed, nor do the couple need to even be religious. Some of the most long lasting marriages are between agnostics, atheists, or non-practicising Christians, and I have yet to hear those who acknowledge marriage as a sacrament actually credit it for the success of their marriage.

    Society has changed immensely over time, and profoundly over the last 50-60 years. So much has changed and become acceptable that once wasn’t, including divorce. It’s a short-sightedness of religion to think all would succeed with it, when in fact there are numerous factors and reasons for these divorce rates.

    Joel you said we know love because of Christ. What rubbish! We know love because as human beings we are meant to know love. There was life long, long before Christ, and how do you propose people reproduced in all the preceeding years before Christ? If we listen too intently to Paul we’ll be telling unmarried women to keep their hair down, married women to keep it up, women not to go out without their husbands and not to talk in church.

    The fact is attitudes have changed, and whereas those of grandparent age today would marry at 16, 17 or 18 to their first partner, that is hardly true at all today. Most people would be loathe to even consider not being with more than one person,not to be promiscuous but to just get some life experience. Now it is notihng to see unmarried people in their 30s. I don’t think it’s a lack of mystery, just that marriage is no longer seen as so important.

    • Rich

      Also Jesus didn’t “voluntarily” lay his life down at all. We can ignore the ‘why hast thou forsaken me’ part and just skip straight to the logic.
      Jesus was killed (illegally) by society consensus. No one volunteers to get murdered, you volunteer to commit suicide.
      Jesus had society turn against him because of things he said, spreading the word – not a deliberate ploy to generate hatred to lead to his murder.

      If God really wanted to cleanse our sins, he could have done it. Jesus’ death wouldn’t have been necessary, because he is powerful enough to just cleanse our sins if we live under grace as is the same condition nowadays anyway.

    • Thanks for putting your point of view out there for us. Obviously we disagree about a lot. But we do agree about some things.

      I think you’re right about mores and values changing over time. I also believe that people desire multiple experiences. Polygamy wouldn’t be in the Bible if that weren’t the case. Maybe our desires don’t change much as our ability to express our desires.

      The Christian conviction is that God intends something different for people, that we should sacrifice those desires for a greater end.

      The most obvious example of this is monasticism, but Christian marriage tells the same story. They are both a kind of martyrdom — dying to one’s interests and supporting those of others. For the monk, that is particularly in the life of prayer; for the married person, in upholding their spouse.

      The idea is that of laying down your life for another. The Christian believes that this is what Christ did for us. We say that his death was voluntary because of a line from Christ captured in John’s Gospel where Christ says that he lays down his own life; others do not take it from him (see John 10 if you’re interested in the passage; similar sentiments are expressed in other passages as well).

      When I said that I know what love is from Christ I was speaking of the example I see in his life and what I experience in the sacraments of the Church.

      We disagree about that, and that’s fine. I hope to have at least clarified some things for you.

      • Rich

        Thanks for the answers Joel – and for clarifying the part about understanding love from Christ. Seeing an example of love from Christ’s actions, that I can agree with.

        We agree on most things i would say, but perhaps from a different angle. The commitment to marriage is long-term, and while i do think divorce is acceptable, i also think people are too hasty to take that action these days.We have lost sight of long-term, commitment, future etc, and not just in marriage – most aspects of society have become disposable, short-sighted, tunnel vision, “we want things done yesterday”, fast food, X-Factor, always available with technology and emails and smartphones etc etc etc. Society is so fast paced now that we tend to cut off whatever holds us back, and with marriage, divorce is seen as a solution more than working out the problem.

        I think we agree. But i see marriage as part of the wider context picture as opposed to its religious roots.

  • “Theology precedes sociology. We do what we believe.” A good insight that we too frequently reverse in popular Christianity.

    Considering that alongside the idea of *mystery* – not just in marriage (which after 25 years in that sacramental relationship with Diana, I agree with you) – but in our faith – it’s helpful (healthy, too) to ask why we’ve compromised, diminished, the mystical nature of God than transcends our illusion of control and opens us to a deeper appreciation for this temporal season of life.

  • Joel… amazing post. I was married for 8 years and i failed. even though i’m in a great place today and my ex-wife and i speak to each other, i can go back and see where the mystery was lost.. thanks for writing this post. As i look to the future, the mystery is something i want to remain at the foundation.

  • I am not sure I know what you mean by its mystery?

    What does that look like? How does having the mystery solve the problem? I know I am speaking like a never been married person here but I have read this three times trying to understand what it is and how you restore it and I’m still clueless.

    • Phil Kaufmann

      I’m not sure I understand what Joel means by the mystery either, and I’ll hit 16 year of marriage next month. The trick, or mystery, for me is the cycle of making the promise and keeping the promise, making the promise and keeping the promise.

      C.S. Lewis wrote (my apologies because this may be a rough summary) that no one can have feelings of love all the time. Rather, the feelings of love enable you to make the promise, and the promise releases you to forever love in action.

      What I’ve found is that I have to continue fall in love (feelings) with my wife (that sounds so silly but I’m finally starting to understand it) so that I am able to love (actions) her (especially when I don’t feel like it).

      That may not be anything at all what Joel meant.

    • Lindsey, Phil: It has to do with how God’s grace unites and transforms us through marriage. Stay tuned because I’ve got a piece cued up for Monday that I hope will clarify more of what I mean by “mystery.”

  • Joel – thank you for the post and wonderful insight. I was in a bookstore a few weeks ago, and found myself saddened by all the help books on fixing broken marriages. Half the store felt like it was about relationships and either how to dream them or how to fix them (which actually prompted a series of posts talking about them).

    Part of me also agrees with Rich in the fact that this is not limited to just the “religious” sacrament, but I feel it is a sacrament nonetheless. Even if for some it is a social binding.

    In that regard, it brings up a lot of questions for me.

    It seems like so many people rush into marriages or at least the “idea of the mystery”. They have yet to learn that it isn’t about finding the right person, but more about being the right person.

    My wife and I find that while our marriage isn’t always perfect (we are human after all), it actually isn’t “hard to be married”. We talk about everything. We trust each other, and our being married came out of a calling to be together. There was no question, but we had a lot of personal growth to go through first. With that all that said, we both fully admit we actually know very little about relationships, and each day is a day to learn about them and ourselves.

    Sometimes I wonder if people’s multiple marriages / relationships / serial monogamy comes back to our own stupidity of thinking we know something. Richard Rohr had some excellent words the other day that I keep thinking about. “Just because you think you have the right words for the Mystery does not mean you’ve experienced the Mystery at all.”

    So many people go into marriage reading about it from romance novels and movies. This is more prevalent as entertainment is more “in our face” (disney weddings). We all think we know the words of marriage, but in truth, the bond of marriage goes beyond words. That bond goes beyond any religious points of view – so all are able to feel the mystery, if they stop believing in the words.

    Part of me thinks the problem in our society isn’t marriage – it is what we do that leads us to “marriage as a solution” not marriage as a calling. The social conditioning that relationships are supposed to be a certain way, and when they aren’t – work work work on it. Maybe we need to look back to how we teach people to view relationship and work work work on how we treat people before we are married or even in a relationship.

  • Jim Thomason

    I’ll have to be among the minority of dissenters on the idea that marriage is as beleaguered as you feel it be. What is actually eroding and beleaguered is chastity, and that in a perverse way is helping marriage.

    The 10-year divorce rate among those married at least 10 years (mostly 30-somethings) is at its lowest rate since the current explosion of divorces started in the 1970s. I had researched this for a blog that I never wrote, so forgive me if memory serves me poorly, but I believe while the overall divorce rate for all American marriages hovers around 50%, that includes marriages of all durations from people of all ages and is skewed by those who have been married multiple times and have multiple divorces.

    However the 10-year divorce rate among the youngest generation of adult is somewhere just under 20%. This is being accomplished, as you accurately observed, by young people living together and weak relationships never making it to the altar. This is in part reflective of a generation who grew up largely raised by divorced parents and who appear to revere marriage as an institution more seriously than did my generation when it was in its youth. This phenomenon is just as prevalent among young Christian women and it is with the non-religious.

    If you doubt this just look at the Facebook pages of your young staffers and see how many live with someone of the opposite sex.

    So the paradox for Christians is that the loss of the value of Chastity is contributing to the “comeback” of marriage. However we might disagree with that and how it doesn’t square with moral theology, the value underlying it is an unmistakable improvement in how important the generations after us value marriage.

  • I believe marriage is sacramental and the word ‘mystery’ has meaning in the same way that faith is a mystery – or not some scientifically notable entity. Mysteriously, the sacrament I live-in with my husband includes God – the 3 of us invited and accepted each other into the sacrament. We created a union of sacramental love that supports a cognitive commitment (decision) – that, yes, I think needs to be revisited in the way that Phil described.

  • David J. Dunn


    I appreciate this reminder about the sacramental nature of marriage, and for my part I agree. That said, I am not sure I would agree that “theology precedes sociology” anymore than I would say that “sociology precedes theology.” Their relationship is more dynamic. Our capacity for awe is part of what it means to be human at all (there were no societies – at least not human ones – before there were gods and spirits and angry dead ancestors). Theology and sociology, as you say, always reinterpret each other (they form a “symphonia”). Which is to say, there have always been two aspects to marriage. Marriage preceded the church, which “baptized” it. The civil component to marriage never went away, even as it was given a spiritual meaning by Christianity. Thus, I tend to find myself unable to mourn the “decline” of marriage as a civil phenomenon in society. I only mourn insofar as Christians have confused civil with sacramental marriage, which is what I understand you to mean by “mystery” (mysterion). For Christians, marriage strives to realize the sacrifice of Christ. In my opinion, what happens outside the church (let’s call it civil marriage), well, that’s something different.