An overview of the Biblical principles governing courtship and marriage.
MARRIAGE IN THE LORD
David M Pearce
Marriage is a wonderful institution. It comes from God himself, for God arranged the very first marriage in the Garden of Eden, and laid down the rules for all subsequent ones. Sadly, in our day this beautiful relationship, ordained by God for human happiness, is being attacked on all sides. People ‘live together’ without getting married. Marriages split up through divorce. Films, novels and newspapers assume that it is ‘normal’ to have an affair and commit adultery. The result is broken hearts and broken homes, loneliness, financial difficulties and weeping children. If you are a young disciple of the Lord, it is important to understand the principles of Bible marriage before you commit yourself, for marriage in God’s eyes is for life. You need to think through the roles and responsibilities that lie ahead, and learn how to create a strong and lasting bond that will take you through the trials and tests ahead, united and secure in each other’s love.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE?
When God made the living creatures, they were all in pairs, male and female, except for Adam, who was created alone. In Genesis 2 v18 God observed ‘it is not good that man should be alone’, and he provided Adam with a companion. Here we have the key to the primary purpose of marriage. It is to provide companionship. Eve was not just another man, a duplicate of Adam. She was specially designed as ‘a helper suitable for him’. She was to provide qualities which would complement the man’s, so that together they would make a strong and practical partnership. Straight away, we see how the spirit of our age has spoiled this relationship. It tries to make women and men interchangeable, with the same opportunities. There must, it decrees, be no discrimination. Yet God’s arrangement was balanced. The softer qualities of the woman – her maternal instincts, geared to caring for children, her dexterity in spinning, sewing, and weaving, her patience, sympathy and affection, all match the virile characteristics of the man – physically stronger, organising, planning ahead, hunting and cultivating the soil, solving problems, protecting and defending his family.
The second purpose of marriage is stated in ch 1, where God says to the human pair in v28 that they should ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Marriage provides a stable and secure background for the rearing and training of children. We shall need to return to this topic later.
TWO BECOME ONE FLESH
Uniquely, Eve was created, not from the dust, but from Adam’s own body. So she and he had a closeness that was much greater than any of the other animal pairs. She was literally Adam’s flesh. When they were joined together in marriage, the two halves became one again in the perfect partnership, and Adam declares this when in Genesis 2 v23 he declares Eve to be ‘bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh’. What is particularly interesting is the next verse, v24. At a quick glance you might think this was spoken by Adam, like v 23. But at the time when Adam made his declaration, there were no fathers or mothers to leave behind. In fact, Jesus tells us in Matthew 19 v4 and 5 that it was God himself who made this pronouncement. God was looking ahead to all future marriages, and saying that in these marriages too, in some mystical way, there would be an affinity between the two partners, which would come to resemble the unity between Adam and Eve. It is on how to foster that bond that we must focus our attention.
SEX WITHOUT MARRIAGE IS WRONG
Many young people nowadays fall in love, and then move in to live in the same rooms. They go to bed together, and frequently have children in this relationship.
It has to be said that this arrangement has no parallel in Bible times. Down through thousands of years of human history, people would never openly go to bed together until they were legally married. Jacob, for example, fell in love with Rachel, but he waited seven years until he had finished paying his dowry to Laban before he “went in” unto his beloved. In Israel in Old Testament times, premarital sex (going to bed with someone before you were legally married) was treated as seriously as adultery (sexual relations with a married person who is not your partner). Both were punishable with death! For example, when Shechem went to bed with Dinah their sister, her brothers insisted “He had done a disgraceful thing in Israel...which ought not to be done” (Genesis 34 v7), and they killed him. Under the Law of Moses, if a young man found his bride was not a virgin, she could be executed (Deuteronomy 22 v14, 20,21). The New Testament says the same. It calls sex before marriage ‘fornication’, and warns that God will judge both the fornicator and the adulterer (Hebrews 13 v4). Both sins, if unrepented of, Paul says will exclude us from the Kingdom of God (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6 v9, 10).
This condemnation of pre-marital sex may come as a surprise, if you have grown up in recent years. A great loosening of moral standards came about in the 1960’s, a period when rules and laws were being widely challenged. People were no longer afraid of the judgement of God. At the same time easily available contraceptives (the Pill) made it possible to have sex without having children, and a wave of promiscuous behaviour swept through society. Its mores were changed, probably for ever until the coming of Christ. The pursuit of Bible-forbidden sex has brought in its train a wave of sexually transmitted diseases. Sadly, ours has become “an adulterous and sinful generation”. But it is not just unwanted babies that make sexual relations outside marriage wrong for believers. As we shall see, it is the whole principle of two people becoming one flesh, as a permanent, secure foundation for life-long companionship in the Lord. If we want to please our Heavenly Father we will be different to other people, and keep ourselves virgins until we are married.
WHEN ARE WE TRULY ‘MARRIED’?
But, you may argue, could we not say that people who live together for years are effectively “married”? Indeed, some people claim that the act of intercourse itself constitutes marriage. What does the Bible say about this? Well, here is an example. The Samaritan woman who spoke to Jesus at the well was living with a man, but she insisted she had no husband. Jesus agreed. “Thou hast well said ‘I have no husband’”, he said. So in his view she was not “married” to the man she was living with. “He whom thou now hast is not thy husband,” he declared (John 4 v16-18). So, just living together is not the definition of being ‘married’. What, then, actually makes the difference between a married and an unmarried couple?
THE MARRIAGE VOW IS CRUCIAL
The Bible answer is that the essential ingredient of a marriage is the marriage vow, an oath made by both parties, normally taken in public, that they will stay together for life. This vow is considered so solemn that in the Bible it is often referred to as a covenant, the most binding of all agreements. It was taken before witnesses, so that there would be no argument afterwards that the agreement had been made, and in Jewish (and New Testament) weddings there was normally a written contract, too.
Let us look for examples of weddings in the Bible. The very first, indeed the archetypal wedding, is the one where Adam declared, before the angels, that Eve was to be his partner. From that day, as in our own weddings, Eve took his name, just as a bride today takes her husband’s name. “She shall be called ‘Wo-man’”, he said (Genesis 2 v23).
God speaks of his covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai as a symbolic marriage; he spread his wing over her, he said (just as a Jewish bridegroom does today, spreading his shawl over his bride). They were bound to each other for ever (Ezekiel 16 v8, 59). He would be their God, and they would be his people.
The fullest description we have of a Bible wedding is the taking of Ruth by Boaz. He calls together 10 witnesses (Ruth 4 v2). He makes a public declaration that he is taking her to be his wife (v10). The people of the city then bless the bride and bridegroom, wishing them a happy and fruitful marriage (v11). After that Boaz was free to have sexual relations with the maiden (v13).
Once we have made our vows, and the marriage bond has begun, there can be no going back. If we are believers, we cannot just ‘try out’ living with someone, and leave them after a few years because we are bored, or have found someone we like better. Jesus says ‘What God has joined together, let not man separate’ (Matthew 19 v6). Our marriage vow ‘joins us together’ in the sight of God, and he expects us to keep our promise, as he always keeps his promises. So we must think very carefully before we embark on marriage. It is not a casual relationship. We must be absolutely sure we have found the right person with whom to spend the rest of our mortal life.
‘BETROTHAL’ IN BIBLE TIMES
In Bible times, the first stage in a marriage was the betrothal, a period of preparation during which the couple had agreed to get married, but had not yet taken their vows. It was a period of adjustment, of testing fidelity, and of organising somewhere to live. Is important to note that in this period the betrothed had no sexual relationship. They were expected to remain virgins. That is why Joseph was so upset when he discovered Mary was “with child” (Matthew 1v18). We ourselves are in exactly this position, spiritually speaking, as the future bride of Christ. We have been ‘espoused to one husband’, Paul says, so that we may be presented “as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11v2). The wedding will take place when our bridegroom returns.
The modern Western concept of being “engaged” is similar to the Bible betrothal, but there is a difference. It is not legally binding on the couple, and although upsetting, there is no stigma attached if they decide to “break it off”.
FINDING THE RIGHT PARTNER
Since Bible marriage is for life, we need to be absolutely sure we are yoking ourselves to the right person. Sadly, there is a true saying - ‘love is blind’, and in the heady passion of falling in love, we may lose our normal good sense of realistic judgement.
How does the Bible help us find the ideal partner? One thing becomes plain from the very beginning. If a marriage is to be happy, a believer must only marry a believer. Any compromise on this issue will result in a tension in the marriage, and will make it difficult for the believing partner to remain faithful to the Lord. Some examples. Right back in Genesis ch 6 we have the sad story of the ‘sons of God’ marrying ‘the daughters of men’. It does not take a lot of imagination to see that the sons of God are the descendants of Seth in ch 5, the faithful few who, when men were worshipping many gods, named themselves by the name of the Lord (ch 4 v26). Conversely, the daughters of men are probably the seed of Cain. Instead of marrying only ‘in the faith’, the family of Seth began to choose partners on the basis of their physical beauty (ch 6 v2). The results were disastrous. Instead of the righteous men lifting up their glamorous wives to a higher standard of morals, it worked the other way round. They were dragged down. And the result was a world where the Way of the Lord became almost extinguished.
The Law of Moses was emphatic about marrying only a believer. As the Israelites were entering the Promised Land, God spoke through their aged leader. He warned them that they must not inter-marry with the nations round about them. “You shall not give your daughter to their son”, he said, “nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn away your heart from following me!”
A similar situation resulted when Solomon ‘married many strange wives’. They turned him away from God.
And in the New Testament the Apostle insists that believers must not be “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6 v14). We should marry “only in the Lord”, he says (1 Corinthians 7 v39).
If we marry an unbeliever we shall have different standards and expectations from our partner. Yoked together, we will inevitably end up pulling up in opposite directions. We will want to meet with our brothers and sisters at the Breaking of Bread or Bible School, but they will want us to take the family out shopping. We will try to tell the truth, but they, knowing no better, will tell lies, to the confusion of our children. We will make a big effort to be holy to God, but they will follow the way of the world.
Sometimes a young believer meets a girl and becomes interested in her (or vice versa – a girl meets a boy). Right early on, he must explain to her that there is no future in their relationship unless she is to become a disciple herself. Sometimes, impressed by his sincerity and his good example, she will start looking into the Truth, and eventually she may be baptised. Then there is no barrier to their marriage. But if from the beginning she shows no interest, it is best to end the relationship at once, rather than to press on and be sorry later.
One important aspect here is the importance of prayer. Although we often feel very small in His presence, God,
through his angels, is concerned about the everyday details of our lives. Hagar found this, when her mistress cruelly drove her out. An angel met her in the wilderness and told her God had seen her affliction. She could not believe it. ‘You, God, see ME!’ she said. She had discovered God was concerned about the happiness even of a little Egyptian slave girl. (Genesis 16 v 8-13). So it is with us. God sees our tears and feels our yearnings. A few chapters later in Genesis, in a time of arranged marriages, Abraham’s servant was sent by his aged master to search for a wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer approached Haran, the city of Abraham’s family. He knew Abraham would want him to bring back a God-fearing girl. But there were many young ladies in Haran. How would he choose the right one? He made it a matter of prayer – the earliest recorded prayer in the Bible. ‘May the first girl who volunteers to draw water for me and my camels’, he said, ‘be the one you have chosen!’ Within minutes, his prayer was answered. And a few days later, he returned home with Rebekah, who became the beloved wife of Isaac, and grandmother of the 12 tribes of Israel. Our prayers may not be answered quite so promptly, but we can have every confidence God knows and hears.
TIME TO REFLECT BEFORE MARRIAGE
Once we are convinced we are truly in love with each other, it is time to announce to the world our intention to get married, normally indicated by the wearing of an engagement ring. Out of courtesy we need to tell our families we intend to get married, to enlist their support. There are many plans to be laid, the most important being where we will live. To buy a house or flat takes a lot of capital, and so the money is usually borrowed, and paid back over a long period, typically 25 years. Because house prices tend to rise, the sooner a married couple can start on the ‘property ladder’ the better, but we need to calculate carefully whether we have a steady enough income to make the monthly payments. If not, and especially if our job situation is uncertain, it may be better to go for rented accommodation, at least for a while. If it is just impossible to find separate housing, then we may have to start our married life by living with our in-laws. This is not ideal, because ‘leaving father and mother’ is part of the definition of marriage made by the Lord in Genesis ch 2, and while we need to care for our parents, on both sides, it is better if we are physically separated from them to give us freedom to create our own, new family. So we should take the earliest opportunity to become independent.
There are many practical arrangements for a wedding, which usually involves booking with a Registrar, and organising a service, a reception, a wedding dress, etc., all of which takes time. In Christadelphian meetings a mature person will often be appointed to advise the couple about the duties and responsibilities of marriage in this period before the wedding.
This time of waiting can be frustrating, but it is valuable, because it gives us time to reflect, to get to know each other, to learn to take decisions together, and to be sure we are truly committed to making a marriage work. We will need a lot of patience in the years ahead.
AFTER THE WEDDING
A wedding lasts for a day, but marriage is for ever. It takes effort to achieve the sublime union the Bible holds out as the fruit of a happy marriage. We will need to work at our marriage to make sure it lasts
Our society attaches huge importance to ‘successful’sexual intercourse. The tenderness, the release of tension and the feeling of warmth and peace that lying together can bring to married couples is undoubtedly a wonderful expression of the ‘becoming one’ that God spoke about. It is a beautiful gift from God. There is however a spiritual dimension to marriage, which is more important. In 1 Corinthians 6 v 15 Paul says union with a harlot makes a man one body with her. But the union of a man with his wife he calls one flesh. So there is a difference. Intercourse itself does not produce the bonding implied by ‘one flesh’. When the heady, hormone-fuelled first phase of ‘falling in love’ is over, the relationship between husband and wife will slowly mature into a deeper and richer attachment based on both physical contact and shared experiences. The partners will gradually develop a confidence in each other. There will be a certainty of loyalty, of sympathy, of support and concern. A wife or husband becomes a shoulder to cry on, a fund of advice, a tower of strength, a mother or father figure, a Personal Assistant, a carer when sick, a sharer of jokes, of books, of country views and room cleaning and nappy changing and the hundred and one chores that make up human existence. LOVE is the keyword in scriptural marriage. Erotic love is there, yes, but also the other sorts of love that Jesus reminded Peter about in John 21 v 15-17 - the love of a friend, and the self sacrificing, heroic love of the Samaritan for the man that fell among thieves. It is in the early years especially, as two people from different backgrounds and with different family values and expectations learn to submerge their own interests before that of the new family, that true Christian love will be needed.
MARRIAGE IS THE BEST ENVIRONMENT FOR CHILDREN
God commanded Adam to be fruitful and multiply. Having babies was intended to be based on a stable and happy marriage between two partners. Note, Jesus says that in the beginning God intended monogamy (“two shall become one flesh”). Polygamy (more than one wife at the same time) is wrong. If a speedy “replenishing” of the earth had been the sole objective, God would have allowed many wives. Polygamy was tolerated in Old Testament times, but in the New Testament one man to one wife is the rule (see 1 Timothy 3 v2, 12).
Man’s children have the longest growing-up period of all the animas. The stability and security of scriptural marriage allow them to develop life skills and a conscience through discipline, example and teaching, over a period of many years. Surrounded by the love of father and mother, (and grandparents) children will learn to show love themselves. Hearing father pray, they will know how to pray themselves. Seeing quarrels forgiven, they will forgive too. Learning to obey Mum and Dad, they will in time come to obey God.
God decided twoparents are needed to share the burden of bringing up children. It is too much for one person alone to earn a living for the family as well as to feed, clean, educate, and discipline them. Social studies show that juvenile crime has at least one of its roots in one-parent families (we must pay tribute to the lonely heroism of widows and widowers who do their best for their youngsters, wearing themselves out in an effort to fill the gap after the death of their partner.) And ideally they need to be the same two parents, for step parents never have quite the same love for children that are not their own.
Children need role models to copy as they grow up. They form their ideas of the duties and relationships in a marriage by observing Mum and Dad, so that a child who has not known a father will have difficulty creating a balanced marriage when he or she grows up. In our society, a huge number of people live together without getting married. This frequently means that after a short time they split up and leave their children to grow up in a single-parent family. And even when partners are legally bound by marriage, too often this is allowed to end in divorce, with financial hardship as well as grief and insecurity for the children. How thankful we can be if we grew up in a Bible-based family home, enjoying the peace and support and security that God intended. As disciples we have a tremendous responsibility to keep our marriage strong, so that we can face the problems of life together right into old age, and set our youngsters on the path to a happy future.
KEEPING A MARRIAGE STRONG
There are several reasons why marriages end in divorce or ‘splitting up’. Most often the basic cause is our evil human nature, which tempts us into the sins of selfishness, pride and lack of self-control. Here are some practical suggestions for believers to avoid the dangers.
As the primary purpose of marriage is companionship, we must make sure we spend as much time as possible together. To be absent from our partner for long hours, especially in ‘prime time’, for example at weekends, or when the children are home, will lead to feelings of neglect and loneliness. A manager, always away from home on business. A wife, working all day on Saturdays and Sundays and leaving her husband to look after the children. A husband who never gets home from work until after the children are in bed. A young brother with a family who is frequently away on trips to give Bible talks at distant ecclesias. All these are in danger of neglecting their duty of companionship.
It takes wisdom to establish the priorities. We need to pay for food and clothes and furniture, of course, but it may be better to forget about the extra money we might earn from a second job, and make do with second hand furniture, if it gives us more time at home. The wife may need to consider whether the money from her part time job is costing the family dearly - her children need her to be there when they are small, and her spouse needs her support. The case of the young brother who goes off to other ecclesias to help them with Bible talks, or who spends hours hunched over his computer keeping up to date with his correspondence, is an interesting one. He probably considers it his duty to be working long hours for the Lord, caring for his brothers and sisters. Now, it is quite true that Jesus says we need to “hate” our family (including parents, wives and children) in order to be his disciples (Luke 14 v 26). But he means that, in proportion, we must love him more. If it comes to a straight choice (and it does sometimes, for example when we have an unbelieving father who tries to keep us from going to the meetings), we would always have to put our duty to Christ first. However, we also have a duty to instruct our children in the way of the Lord, which means being at home to read the Bible with them. The husband has a duty to see that his wife is “washed with water by the Word” (Ephesians 5 v 26), which means stopping in to look after the children so that she can get to the meeting to receive spiritual meat. And the family of the young brother has a higher priority than his brothers and sisters. The right balance is always God first, then our family, then the brothers and sisters, and last the people of the world outside the ecclesia.
Watching out for Selfishness and Pride
Human nature says “me first”. We live in an age obsessed by “human rights”, and being “equal”, and having freedom to develop our own careers and interests. We get caught up in this atmosphere of selfishness. The media are full of it. We insist on our own way, and if we are thwarted, we start to shout, or sulk, or refuse to speak, or walk out and slam the door. The problem is, once we start to stick up for our rights, pride jumps onto the running board and takes over the wheel. We speak angry words, in haste, and even though we realise afterwards we behaved badly, we cannot bring ourselves to apologise. The quarrel escalates. A wedge has been driven into that happy unity with which we started off, and we feel miserable.
In this situation, our scripture training should tell us what to do. After all, both of us (if we are believers) have the same Master, in heaven. Christ is the real head of our household, and his rules bind us both. He teaches us to put others first. To do to others what we wish they would do to us. We must think up the little deeds of kindness, the surprises that make life sweet. If we have offended, we must ask forgiveness. When insulted, we must turn the other cheek. Christian love is the key to a happy marriage, and reading 1 Corinthians 13 is the perfect antidote to selfish behaviour. There Paul in his inspired wisdom says that love means not being puffed up with pride. It means suffering long the irritations of our partner without retaliation. It does not gloat over the bad things they do, and call everyone’s attention to them, but rejoices in good and kind and noble deeds, and gives praise for them. And if Jesus says we should forgive our brother seventy times seven times, how much more our husband or wife!
They say ‘the grave of marriage is made up of little digs’. Solomon warns of the misery of dwelling with a wife who nags – “It is better to dwell in the wilderness”, he says, “than with a contentious and angry woman” (Proverbs 21 v19). It sounds funny whne he puts it like this, but the reality is that it is too easy to fall into the habit of constantly criticising our partner, nagging him or her for not doing what we asked, or doing it wrong, or doing it late. Simple psychology shows that this negative approach is wrong. If when we offer to help wash the dishes we are told we are not stacking the dishes properly, or the water needs changing, or we have put the spoon in the wrong drawer, we will be less likely to offer next time. People respond much better to praise than to criticism. Sometimes we need to look firmly in the mriror and ask ourselves “Would I really like to live with this woman?”
Another point. If we want something done – a new washer on the drippng kitchen tap, the rubbish taken out to the bin, or even a hot cup of cocoa – we need first to explain plainly what we mean. Ladies especially go wrong here. They drop hints, expecting their husbands to read their minds, and then go into a huff when nothing happens. Men are simple folk, and need to see clearly the problem to be dealt with. Then, when the job is done, even if it is not perfect, we need to be profuse in our thanks and praise. Men like to feel they are heroes. It works both ways; even a modest meal of beans and potatoes has taken time to prepare, and wives too need a hug and a ‘thank you’. We all need to feel appreciated.
Sometimes we feel envious of our husband, enjoying the stimulus of meeting people in the office, and the satisfaction of bringing the money home, while we are stuck with the washing and taking the children to school. We act grumpy, and ask ourselves why we have to cook yet another dinner. But marriage is a partnership. We share the load. Think what a privilege it is to be able to bring up the children in the fear of God, to see them grow in knowledge and care for others as they follow our example. Our husband spends himself working long hours to make it possible to feed and clothe the family, but our contribution is just as important as his. We must keep alive the warm flame of love that brought us together in the first place, and make time, however tired we feel, for our partner to feel wanted and respected and welcome when he comes home. Our effort will be rewarded. If he walks in and has to stand listening to a long tale of woe about what the neighbour said in the lift and “I haven’t had time to cook dinner – you will find some pizza in the fridge” – he will not look forward to coming home. But if he is met at the door with a hug and a kiss, and asked how his day went at work, and sat down to a steaming plate hot from the oven, he will be home on time every night.
The Marriage Bed
It is normal and natural and essential to the continuation of the human race that men and women should have a strong desire to make love to each other. The institution of marriage was intended by God to channel these desires towards one particular partner. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 7v2, “because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband”. It follows that we have a duty to allow our partner to satisfy those instinctive drives. Indeed, if we withhold our bodies, constantly excusing ourselves through tiredness or, worse, as some kind of ‘punishment’, we will endanger our marriage. Paul continues “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due to her, and likewise the wife to her husband … do not deprive one another”, he continues, “… so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control”(v 3-5). He is warning us that frustrated desire may end up tempting our partner to find satisfaction outside the marriage, and commit adultery, to the ruin of both. The peace and unity that follows making love is a precious gift from God, and not to be neglected.
A woman can wield extraordinary power over a man, reducing even the strongest to soft clay.
“Adam was not deceived” (writes Paul), Eve persuaded him to eat the forbidden fruit. The love of a forbidden woman led Samson to disgrace, and David to spiritual ruin. Because respectable people indulge in affairs all around us, we may come to believe there is nothing wrong with a little excitement, even that we are missing out on the fun. We can be swept off our feet by fluttering eyelashes or flattering words, and persuade ourselves it is all harmless, and we can handle the situation, until suddenly we realise we cannot put our feet down and touch the bottom. The glamour of the affair is deceptive. Any liaison involves a cruel deception of our marriage partner, and when discovered, to reproach and shame. The covenant has been broken. The loyalty and trust have gone, for ever.
Solomon has sound words on the subject. “When wisdom enters your heart,” he says, “. Discretion will preserve you...to deliver you from the immoral woman, even from the seductress who flatters with her words; who forsakes the companion of her youth (her husband), and forgets the covenant of her God (her marriage vow)”. “Her house”, he concludes, leads down to death, and her paths to the dead” (Proverbs 2 v10-19). “Rejoice with the wife of your youth”, he insists a few chapters further on, “Always be enraptured with her love. For why should you, my son, be enraptured by an immoral woman, and be embraced in the arms of a seductress? For the ways of man”, he reminds us, “are before the eyes of the Lord” (Proverbs 5v18-21). We may hide our activities from our spouse, but God sees even in a dark bedroom. And again, “Whoso commits adultery with a woman lacks understanding: he who does so destroys his own soul” (6v32). Solomon warns us against the female temptress, but there are plenty of male seducers, too!
Because our worldly neighbours and workmates have no conscience towards God, the risk of temptation from them is great. Provocative dress, suggestive talk, parties where alcohol loosens our inhibitions - these can be a fatal snare for the feet of the upright. We are particularly at risk of being tempted if we are suffering from a feeling of neglected companionship, or under the influence of injured pride, when we are inclined to say to ourselves “I will show him/her that I can still make friends with the other sex!” Again, we have to stand back and view our actions as God does from heaven. Are we allowing ‘the old man’ of the flesh to overcome our Bible-taught conscience? Draw back, before it is too late.
It takes a strong will to break out of the magnetism of an affair, as only those can know who have been affected. It is much better to avoid temptation in the first place. Again, Solomon’s advice is sound (same chapter). “ Let your eyes look straight ahead, and your eyelids look right before you... do not turn to the right or the left: remove your foot from evil” (4v25-27). It is our eyes, and then our feet, that lead us into evil, in this field. Jesus warns us "whosoever looks on a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5v28). The Greek word here implies a look that desires to possess, and that the “woman” is a married woman. As the proverb says, the “thought is father to the deed”. Cultivating the unlawful desire in our mind inflames the passion, and in the end leads to action, just as hating our brother in our heart leads at last to his murder. We must look the other way. “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out”, Jesus continues. Sacrifice short-term pleasure, he is saying, rather than lose eternal life. Job, right back in the Old Testament, is a shining example to us. “I have made a covenant with mine eyes”, he affirms. “Why then should I look upon a young woman” (Job 31v1)? He had promised himself he would keep his eyes looking the right way.
What do we do if we find ourselves trapped in a situation where we are already compromised, through naiveté or poor judgement? Again, the Bible answer is plain. “Flee sexual immorality!” commands the Apostle (1 Corinthians 6v18). Get out. Run for your eternal life. Joseph is our great example here. Day after day his master’s lustful wife tried to tempt the handsome young Hebrew to make love to her. “How can I do this great wickedness?” he insisted, and deliberately avoided her company (Genesis 39v9, 10). So she waited till they were alone in the house, and then, no doubt as provocatively dressed as any film star, she tried again. Determined to have her way, she “caught him by the garment, saying “Lie with me!’” The response of Joseph was swift; he “fled, and ran outside”. May we have the same self-control, faced with such temptation!
FAILURE AND FORGIVENESS
We must expect that there will be disagreements in marriage. We come together from different backgrounds, and with different standards, for example for tidiness or punctuality or use of leisure time. We have to make decisions about spending money, and holidays, and who gets up first in the morning. There are bound to be quarrels and arguments. It is inevitable. We have to learn to accept our partner has a different point of view, and work towards a solution that we can both live with. Often this will have to be a compromise or a bargain. For example, we have an unexpected ‘windfall’ – a payment we were not expecting. The wife needs a new dress, but the husband absolutely must have two new tyres on the car. Maybe we split the money 50-50. Or we agree that one has the benefit this time, but the other will take priority next time a bonus turns up. The husband is crazy on football, and wants to watch the world cup matches on television night after night. But his wife thinks watching sport is a waste of time. Again, a sensible compromise is needed, where each gives way a little – she tolerates his passion for football by keeping out of the way for three nights a week while he watches his chosen teams play, and he turns the set off on the other evenings and helps her put the children to bed.
What about the everyday situations where we forget to do what we were asked, or unkindly eat the last of the chocolate, or come home late so that our lovingly cooked dinner is spoilt? This is the time when we must swallow our pride and apologise for our bad behaviour, sincerely and promptly. “I’m sorry!” is a key phrase in a successful marriage. And when we are on the receiving end, we must graciously forgive, without grudging, and smile in spite of our feelings, just as God smiles and forgets when we upset Him for the seventy seventh time this week.
Perhaps we should look briefly at the worst possible scenario, where we discover our marriage partner has been unfaithful to his or her vow, and committed adultery. Anger, fear, self-reproach, despair - all these emotions sweep over us. Where did we go wrong, we ask ourselves (and sometimes with reason, for we may well have contributed to the break-down through lack of companionship, or hurt pride)? Is it the end of our marriage? Should we rush out and file papers for divorce? What does the Bible say about this sad situation?
Clearly, as in any crisis in life, the first thing to do is to ask for God’s help. He knows and cares about every aspect of our life, and he may choose to open or close doors to bring an early end to our suffering. It may be our partner’s conscience can be aroused sufficiently by our entreaties and the tears of the children to abandon the affair, and ask to be forgiven. In this case, we are duty bound by the law of Christ to be generous and receive them back, as God forgives our trespasses. But if he or she remains determined to have their fling, we must resign ourselves to living alone in hope of a future change of mind, and find solace in the company of the brothers and sisters, whose care at these times is a lifeline for our morale.
If the erring partner refuses to accept that he or she is in the wrong, and remains determined to continue the unlawful relationship after entreaty from the spouse, then the ecclesia needs to become involved. Following the procedure Jesus laid down in Matthew 18 v15-17, two brethren should be asked to pay a visit to the erring brother or sister, to point out the wrongdoing. If this, after a suitable interval, has no effect, then the ecclesia has to act. It is wrong for a member of the body to be living an immoral life, in public view. It brings the community into disrepute. After careful examination of the facts, and allowing due time for repentance, and when the accusations have been substantiated and the offending person has been given opportunity to speak for him or herself, the ecclesia should take a communal decision (by a vote) to withdraw fellowship (see 1 Corinthians 5 v1-5). The offender is counted no longer a member of the community, and is not permitted to join in the Breaking of Bread.
But what of the hurt and grieving spouse? Suppose, after many months, or possibly years, the unfaithful one “comes to himself” like the Prodigal Son, and wants to return. This puts great pressure on the injured party. There can be no worse example of “if my brother sin against me”, to use Peter’s phrase, than deliberately to break the marriage bond. Do we really have to hold the door open for an erring spouse?
Once again, the Scripture must be our guide. Christian love, in all situations, demands that we swallow our pride, and forgive an offence, deep and grievous though it is. Hosea is the classic example. His wife was not only loose-living, she even had children by other men while she was married to him. And Hosea was still expected by God, in spite of his own feelings, and the cruel jibes of his neighbours, to take her back into his bosom again. He was living out a parable of God himself, who time after time forgave Israel when she went after other gods, and then, when it turned sour, wanted to come back. We ask God to forgive us “as we forgive.” This kind of situation puts us to the test. He forgives all our offences, day after day, when we confess our sins. His love is an example of the love we should have for each other, healing, blessing, making free, without gloating, or humiliating, or raking over the past. To forgive like that will be to the eternal credit of one who by so doing, helps to convert a sinner from the error of his ways, and saves a soul from death.