People today enter marriage for many reasons, among which are love, finding one’s “soul mate,” fulfillment, and companionship. Disturbingly, “growing in virtue” never makes the list. For generations marriage was viewed as a house of virtue in which males and females matured. In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller writes, “Older cultures taught their members to find meaning in duty, by embracing their assigned social roles and carrying them out faithfully” (28). This is no longer the case. Today, as Keller explains, “Instead of finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms, and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family, marriage [has been] redefined as finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization” (28).
Marriage and relationships have, in essence, become a substitute for God. Keller writes that we live with “the illusion that if we find our one true soul mate, everything wrong with us will be healed,” but, as Keller points out, “that makes the lover into God, and no human being can live up to that” (42). Instead of seeing marriage as a sacred institution given by God for 1) the development of character through the conquering of vices and honing of virtues, 2) the procreation of children, 3) the reflecting of God’s nature, and 4) the betterment of society, couples marrying today view marriage as a private arrangement for personal gratification (28).
As a result, they no longer see marriage as an entrance to a house of virtue, but as a continuation of their personal field of freedom. When marriage limits their freedoms or fails to fulfill their personal desires, they divorce. And they are scarcely shaken by the immensity of the act. In their mind their needs simply weren’t being met, so they leave in hopes of something better, scarcely considering the witness they’re making to marriage’s “profound mystery” of which St. Paul speaks in Ephesians 5.
This is made worse by the widespread practice of cohabitation. Hoping to move men closer to marriage, women often welcome the arrangement, but as Keller details, “Cohabitation gives men regular access to the domestic and sexual ministrations of a girlfriend while allowing them… to lead a more independent life and continue to look around for a better partner” (31). Some believe marriage stifles masculinity. True masculinity, however, isn’t demonstrated through independence and self-assertion; true masculinity is learned through interdependence and self-mastery. Keller cites an op-ed piece in the New York Times, which rightly explains, “For most of Western history, the primary and most valued characteristic of manhood was self-mastery. ... A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping, or sex—who failed to ‘rule himself’—was considered unfit to rule his household ...” (32).
At heart men’s true need is respect (women need self-sacrificial love). Wives who readily respect and admire their husbands through their speech and body language greatly assist their husbands in their mission of self-mastery and loving sacrifice. Husbands who practice the virtue of loving sacrifice greatly assist wives in their virtuous loving submission. At bottom this requires godliness in husbands and wives, the very thing marriage is designed to produce. Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage, explains, “Godliness is selflessness, and when a man and a woman marry, they are pledging to stop viewing themselves as individuals and start viewing themselves as a unit, as a couple. In marriage, I am no longer free to pursue whatever I want; I am no longer a single man. I am part of a team, and my ambitions, dreams, and energies need to take that into account” (77). Ultimately, Thomas writes, “We must not enter marriage predominately to be fulfilled, emotionally satisfied, or romantically charged, but rather to become more like Jesus Christ” (96). And surely this is a house of virtue every married Christian couple wants to enter.
Pastor Jonathan Conner of Zion Lutheran Church in Manning, Iowa, is a former board member for the Hausvater Project.