"I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
If you’ve studied the Biblical position on divorce and remarriage, you, like me, will probably be familiar with this answer of Jesus to the Pharisees’ question of when divorce is permissible. But until reading Stephen Holmes’ recent essay on marriage (from which the following reflections are drawn), I had not thought enough about the disciples’ response. They say, “If this is how it is, then it’s better not to get married!”
Consider how different their answer is from the way marriage is spoken of today. Marriage, it is said, is the way we experience the fullness of joy and fulfillment. To be married, it is believed, is to be made complete. (This elevation of marriage, it should be said, coincides with the 20th century conviction that being sexually active is a necessary part of living a full and satisfying life). Yet here the disciples—Jesus’ followers!—say quite plainly, “If there’s no escape hatch to marriage, then it’s probably better not to get married.”
I wonder if the disciples saw something we do not: that being inextricably bound to another (sinful) person is not an effortless road to delight. More often than not, it is a pathway of hardship. It is painful to surrender our own freedoms and personal desires in consideration of the other. It is exhausting to allow another’s sorrows to weigh you down and to experience another’s faults wounding you. “If that’s how it is, it’s better not to get married!” we might say along with Jesus’ disciples.
An honest appraisal of the challenges (and joys) of marriage will lead us to a different view of marriage’s place in God’s kingdom—a view that continues to elevate marriage, but not because it “fulfills” us. Marriage, like celibacy, is given to us to reorder our desires. One might say it is a form of asceticism: as we give ourselves up in submission and sacrifice, as we let go of many things that are precious to us, we are taught to love.
And that love that is produced within us—yes, love between husband and wife, but also love between members of Christ’s body, and ultimately love expressed in the communion with our Triune Creator—that love is where we find that God-given delight in which we are truly made complete.