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Going Beyond Our Expectations

Marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be—and more than we can imagine.

A classic love song that still gets a lot of radio time goes like this:

You're the meaning in my life
You're the inspiration
You bring feeling to my life
You're the inspiration
Wanna have you near me
I wanna have you hear me sayin'
No one needs you more than I need you.

"You're the Inspiration" by Chicago is typical of the genre we call love songs. Such songs promise that our lover will bring us "meaning," "inspiration," and "feeling," and when our natural resources fail us, our lover will rescue us, so that we can belt out, "No one needs you more than I need you!"

Sort of makes the lover sound like God.

And that's the rub. Christians recognize that such songs are silly at best, idolatrous at worst, and just plain unrealistic. No human relationship can do all that.

But I'll be honest: deep inside there's a part of me that wishes it were true. And I don't think I'm alone.

We're fascinated, even in the Christian world, with books and articles that promise to help "find the love of your life," or to discern whether Mr. X or Ms. Y could possibly be our "soul mate." We live in a culture that longs for what's been called superrelationships. Who wouldn't want one?

We especially pine after the superrelationship when, a few years into marriage, we find ourselves at the breakfast table, sitting across from someone who suddenly seems like a stranger, with disheveled hair, wearing a tattered robe, bent over a newspaper, slurping coffee. We discover we don't have a soul mate but a mere roommate, and we wonder what office we go to in order to find a new one.

Unfortunately, many people do just that. And it's a sad but accurate statistic that Christians divorce as regularly as their unbelieving counterparts. And though it's impossible to show statistically, I suspect that a lot of divorces occur because couples are disappointed that their marriage is not a superrelationship. We expect our spouse to give us inspiration and meaning; we long for a "soul-mate;" we hunger for companionship and intimacy that will make Romeo and Juliet's love seem like childish infatuation.

Why this longing when we know that the only true superrelationship is found in the Trinity? Why thirst for this when in doing so we risk idolatry, expecting marriage to do something only God can do? And to what extent and under what conditions can marriage become an inspiration—literally, something breathing with the Spirit—or as the Book of Common Prayer so simply puts it, an experience of "mutual joy"?

Disappointed with marriage

To answer this, we must look at marriage as an institution common to all humanity throughout history. As such, it is bound to disappoint us in several ways.

Marriage will not bring complete sexual satisfaction. Paul may have said, "Better to marry than burn with lust" (1 Corinthians 7:9, NLT). And there's no question that marriage can have its sexual highlights. But after the honeymoon, there will be times when you'll burn with passion while your spouse is as frigid as dry ice. And even when your spouse is turned on, he or she won't be turned on to the same degree or by the same things.

One of the biggest lies of our culture is that sex is one of the most effective ways to achieve fulfillment. But note: "I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines … and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 2:8, 11, NRSV). The ancient wisdom of Solomon is as relevant today as then: One can have hundreds of wives and lovers and still find that one's sexual cravings remain unsatisfied.

Marriage will not completely satisfy our desire for intellectual stimulation. Our spouse might share a number of intellectual interests with us, but in the end, because we're each unique, and because we grow and change throughout life, there are many moments when we share some insight or idea we've discovered and receive only a half-hearted, "That's nice, dear." We know instantly she doesn't really care—and it would be unfair to expect her to.

Marriage will not satisfy our longing to love. Human beings are designed by God to love, and to love in a variety of ways, with all manner of people. In order to blossom into the people God has created us to be, we need to be in relationships with lots of people—spouse, children, neighbors, relatives, the needy, and even our enemies. Even a really, really good marriage will prove unsatisfying if we expect it to satiate our yearning to love and to serve.

Marriage will not satisfy our hunger for intimacy. My wife was once trying to explain a disturbing event in her life and the profound emotion it produced in her. I pulled out all the empathic stops and listened with a compassion unknown in human history. I nodded. I affirmed. I asked follow-up questions. In the end, she said she didn't sense I understood. She was right: I'd never gone through that particular experience.

But she wasn't disappointed by this fact. "No one can really, truly, deeply understand me," she said, "except God."

She didn't intend this, nor did I take it as a put down. Most of the time when we share something personal with each other, there's that mutual "ah-ha" of understanding and empathy that makes us feel more connected. That's one of the great blessings of marriage. But once in awhile each of us goes through something that's so unique, the other doesn't fully "get it." At such times, while we still try to sympathize, we know we can never truly empathize.

As good as a good marriage can be, marriage—as an honorable but human institution—will inevitably fall short of our hopes and expectations. Sometimes this signals that we have work to do in the marriage. But sometimes it's just a recognition that marriage is a human institution: fallen, finite, incomplete. It can never be a superrelationship.

But that doesn't mean it can't be a supra-relationship.

More than marriage

The problem with most love songs—and our yearning for a superrelationship—is that they assume a closed universe: it's all about me and my spouse—as if we were the only beings in the marriage.

A supra-relationship, however, is not only possible but promised in Scripture: "'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church" (Ephesians 5:31-32, NRSV).

As Paul suggests, marriage's fulfillment is found in Christ. Love has become flesh and dwelt among human flesh; by this he blesses and honors human flesh, and when two become one flesh, something greater still can be known.

While this happens when we come together sexually, it also happens in so many other dimensions of marriage: in deep conversation, in joint tasks, and in rearing children. When we come together in love in any way, our marriage suddenly points to something else—the One who creates and sustains love. The not-so-superrelationship becomes a supra-relationship.

The other night, my wife had to return to work late at night. She works at a nursery, and she'd set a hose in a bed of plants, but she couldn't remember if she'd shut off the water. I didn't want her walking alone around the nursery in the dark, so I joined her. We made our way through rows of plants, on a crisp night beneath a cloudless sky, only a small flashlight guiding us. We found the spigot and shut off the hose, and then I turned off the flashlight. I gently pulled her toward me, and we kissed and hugged. We walked hand in hand in silence back to the car. Between fatigue after a long day and early appointments the next, lovemaking was not in the cards. But that didn't matter: As she answered e-mails and I bustled around the house, the rest of the evening was still charged with a kind of holy love.

No, marriage isn't the kingdom of heaven, but it does allow us to taste it. Our lover is not The Lover, but our lover can become a means by which we know ever more deeply the author and perfecter of love. At such moments, marriage manifests a human-divine institution that does so much more than a silly love song could ever hope for.

Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, is author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit (Baker).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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