The benefits of having three in a marriage

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Do you remember Princess Diana saying, on Panorama in 1995, “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”. That was clearly a deeply unhappy situation – but I regularly tell couples who come to me seeking to get married in church that one of the major benefits of a church marriage is that it allows a third party to get involved. No, this isn’t the Rector getting racy, I’m still very orthodox! What I mean is that getting married in church is inviting God to get involved with the relationship; that this is the most important thing that happens in a wedding in church; and that this has distinct practical benefits in terms of the health and longevity of the relationship. Let me explain.

First off, there is more going on with a church wedding than with a wedding that is conducted through a Civil Registrar, and by that I don’t simply mean things like hymns and prayers. Consider the vows that are going to be spoken. With a Civil Ceremony, as you would expect, the emphasis is upon the legal and contractual nature of the wedding. This is a typical example of what needs to be said: “Declaratory Words: I declare that I know of no legal reason why I ………….. may not be joined in marriage to …………..; followed by Contracting Words: I ………….. take thee ………….. to be my wedded wife/husband.” Compare this to the vows that are spoken by each party in a church service: “I, N , take you, N , to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.”

I usually remark to couples that the vows are the most important element of the wedding day – everything else, the dress, the cake, the reception and so on, all of that is just setting. Of course, making such vows is wonderful and marvellous and beautiful and a totally reckless thing to do. It is a radical act, a brave act, one that goes against the grain of our culture which doesn’t seem to value long lasting promises quite so much as it used to, which has become so obsessed with passing feelings. The vows make the wedding what it is, and it is by holding fast to the vows, no matter what the provocation, that the marriage endures and the fruits of holy matrimony start to show. Essentially what the vows form are a safe space within which a person is set free to be themselves. This other person has stood up in front of all their friends and family and said these remarkable words, which resolve down to ‘I promise to stay here’ no matter what – and that gives a profound reassurance to their loved one. It is the definition of unconditional love – and it is that aspect which makes the matrimony holy.

All marriages have their bumpy patches, it is an inevitable consequence of being sinful human beings. One of the most practical benefits that inviting God into a marriage entails is that there is a third party to whom conflicts can be referred. Where there are only two people, and when those two people start to fight, it can quite rapidly descend into a simple conflict of willpower – he wants this, she wants that, who will win, who will lose? Very little creative can happen in such a situation. Yet if there is a shared invitation to God to be involved, suddenly there is a meaningful question that can be asked when the couple have become stuck: what does God think about this? Where does God want to take us? How can we best become the people that God is calling us to be – full of abundant life and love? How can we be healed from all of the things that have wounded us until now?

I actually believe that, rather like the grains of sand that end up making the pearl, marriage needs frictions. It is only when we face such frictions in our closest relationships that we are brought up against the reality of the other person, and we have to pause, take stock, and face this wondrous, marvellous, beautiful human being whom God has created and with whom we are walking for a while on this earth. This is where the real work of love begins – this is where a marriage becomes truly holy matrimony – because it is when we see the full, real, unvarnished truth of who another person is – and when at that point we remain committed to our vows and are still prepared to say ‘I love you’ that we begin to know what it means to share in the love of God.

It is in sharing in this sense of unconditional love that a marriage starts to become sacred, for this is how we start to understand what it means to say speak this language that ‘God is love’. Does this mean that God is slushy and sentimental and fond of pink flowers and Celine Dion? I think not. For love is not a feeling. Love is not something that can be captured if you buy the right card from Clinton’s. Love as Christians understand it is rooted in a decision, a settled choice to act in a certain way irrespective of how we feel. Our feelings will change over time, they will go up and down and all over the place – but love is a decision, a decision to keep faith with the commitments that we make to each other, in the marriage vows most of all.

In the story of creation in Genesis there is a consistent repetition of ‘God created… and saw that it was good’. The first mention in the Bible of something not being good comes when God says to Adam that it is not good for him to be alone. We are meant to be in this business of life together, rubbing up against each other, snapping off our sharp edges, breaking our hearts of stone and turning them into hearts of flesh. That’s why God gave us the great gift of marriage, a gift that not only keeps on giving, but like a fine wine gets better and better with age.

Self-denial, desire and the cross

This is by way of a follow-on to my last post.

Self-denial, in the modern psychological sense of that term, I do see as a potential good. I see it as a corollary of the ‘self-control’ which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5). I understand it to be the suppression or elimination of one facet of our nature in order to facilitate the development or growth of another facet which is even more important. So, to take a trivial example, refraining from extra chocolate pudding in order to preserve bodily health is a form of self-denial in this sense – bodily health being more important than the pleasure to be gained from the pudding.

In other words, the self-denial is not an ultimate good but an intermediate good – it is something which transitions to something else. Where my suspicions are aroused with the language of ‘self-denial’, and the equating of this with ‘taking up our cross’ is that I see a punitive and sacrificial theology behind it, by which self-flagellation is seen as a form of spiritual purification. I do not see it as an accident that those who are most concerned with this question are also most associated with the doctrine of penal substitution. That is the nature of the God that they worship, whereas I believe in a God who desires mercy and not such sacrifice.

So in the specific context of discussing gay relationships – and hetero ones come to that – I think that what I would most want to emphasise is that nobody on the outside can actually judge what is going on on the inside, save by some expression of the fruits of the Spirit mentioned earlier. It may well be that for some people, a denial or suppression of their sexuality is indeed of God, for such suppression enables them to become more the person that God originally created them to be. Yet for another, it seems equally plausible to me that to not deny themselves but instead to enter into an emotionally intimate and loving relationship is itself what will enable them to become the person that God is calling them to be. I don’t think anyone can rule from the outside which is the best path for a particular person to take (a wise spiritual director might help a soul to make that decision for themselves perhaps). Of course, this ties in with one of the least-listened to but most dominant aspects of Jesus’ entire ministry – Judge not.

My principal point, then, is not to say that ‘self-denial’, in the modern psychological sense of repressing desires, has no place in the life of the disciple. I do not believe that, and, indeed, I see that form of self-denial – if integrated with a wider theological understanding of the nature of God and what it means to be a creature – as a holy endeavour. Yet I would still maintain that there is a difference between this and ‘taking up our cross’ despite what would appear to be a superficial similarity of language. I see the taking up of our cross as essentially about enduring the hostility or criticism of a wider society when we choose to follow God. It is not about this psychological repression – unless, of course, that psychological repression is itself driven by social disapproval, as has no doubt happened in myriad situations, especially sexual ones.

So, to sum up: self-denial has a place in the life of discipleship, especially when theologically informed, but it is not the same as the taking up of a cross. Taking up our cross necessarily means accepting and enduring the rebuke of society, in all its various forms. The cross is imposed upon us by a sinful and adulterous generation, it is not something that we choose in order to get closer to God.

Is "self-denial" the right way to understand "take up your cross"?

This is from the interview with Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St. Ebbes Church, Oxford, by Julian Hardyman, found via Andrew Brown’s article.

Julian: That’s encouraging. But what about the pain, surely that’s very real? What do you do with that?
Vaughan: Yes, the pain is real — I can’t deny that. The world, the flesh and the devil all conspire to make sin appear very attractive, so it will be hard for believers to remain godly in this area for the sake of the kingdom of God. To do that you need a clear understanding of the call to self denial in the kingdom — and the dynamic of resurrection life proceeding out of sacrificial death. Christ does call us all to a life of costly suffering as we take up our crosses for him, but, just as it was in his experience, that way of the cross is the path to life: ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ (Mark 8.35).

And here is another article, found via Peter Ould:

The reality is that I acknowledge my same-sex desires. I talk openly with family and friends about homosexuality, especially as it relates to my commitment to Christ. More importantly, I’m honest with God about my struggles with same-sex attraction. I don’t pretend the feelings aren’t there; on the contrary, I consider them very real temptations. The only denial happening here is self-denial, the daily charge to take up my cross and follow Christ (Luke 9:23). That’s the calling of every Christian, not just those who fight against homosexual desires.

For me there is something significant being missed in this sort of language and the understanding of “taking up our cross” that is being assumed. I am not persuaded that what these two articles are describing counts as the denial of self that Jesus is talking about.

What, after all, is the key point to understand about the crucifixion? Is it about Jesus denying himself, or is it about Jesus being rejected by society? I am sure that there is some mileage in talking about Jesus denying himself on the path to Golgotha, but if we want to say that when Jesus was crucified he was denying what was most central to himself then I think we have misunderstood what was happening. I would, in contrast, want to say that on the cross Jesus was most truly himself, he was most authentically keeping faith with his core vocation and destiny. To me, the crucifixion – why it was necessary for Jesus to be crucified – centres upon the contrast between what is acceptable by society and what is called by God.

This came up in the lectionary reading set yesterday (Mark 9.42-48) when Jesus is saying that it is better to be maimed and enter the Kingdom, than to be whole and not enter it. I understand this to be about drawing a contrast between being a fully accepted member of the community (which at the time necessitated being bodily whole) and being a member of God’s community, where being the person God has called us to be is more important than any particular physical attribute. The contrast repeatedly drawn in the gospels, so far as I can see, is between what it means to follow God, and simply falling in with what society sees as acceptable.

I believe that when we interpret ‘deny yourself and take up your cross’ as being about the repression of a part of ourselves, we are misunderstanding what Jesus is describing. I understand Jesus to be saying that if we are to follow him then we have to let go of any desire for social approval and acceptability. This is why in the context of the Mark 8 passage that Vaughan Robert references, Jesus rebukes Peter and says ‘Get behind me Satan’ (ie prince of this world, society) ‘you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men’. That is the contrast we are to have in mind when understanding this teaching.

To take up our cross is to embrace the necessity of social rejection. Each of us has a tailor-made cross – it is what happens when we follow the law of love, accept Christ’s invitation into the Kingdom, and are rejected by society as a result. The cross as I understand it is about what the wider society will do to us; it is not about what we do to ourselves. In other words, taking up the cross looks more like Matthew Shepard than these other commenters.