You know God is doing something when single and divorced non-Christians come to you after a sermon on Husbands and Wives to tell you how moved they were by the message. I prepared this message with an unusual level of interpretation. How do I faithfully interpret both the text and the culture? “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (3:18-19). One way I did this was to address the deep-seated cynicism and idolatry of marriage.
The biblical approach to marriage fits our created design, our divinely given roles as husbands and wives to love and respect one another, but there is a problem. When it comes to marriage, many of us have become cynical or idolatrous. We are either cynics or worshippers when it comes to the perils and promises of marriage. 93% of Americans rate “having a happy marriage” as one of the most important or a very important objective for life. But a happy marriage is one prospect we simply find unbelievable. Americans have become so cynical about marriage that we are chucking the traditional, seemingly unrealistic vows of “to death to us part” and opting for apparently more realistic vows that require commitment only “as long as love lasts.” Cynicism has set in.
Alternatively, we idolize marriage. If I just found that soul-mate I would be truly content. If God would just give me a husband or a wife, then I would be happy. If my husband was like this or my wife looked like that, then marriage would be good. Idolatry in marriage. What do husbands idolize? Looks and Sex. We view women as sexual objects to be lusted over and love as a means to the greater end of getting them in bed. We idolize physical appearance and abandon true love, generating a ridiculous number of industries that cater to sex and superficiality.
Radiohead for Marital Therapy
On this, whole matter of idolatry in marriage Thom Yorke of Radiohead is helpful. One of their proudest moments, “Fake Plastic Trees” is about the mass marketing and mass consumption of our age, an age of superficial, plastic, cheap love. The song depicts a couple whose marriage has become plastic. We are told that the wife:
“She lives with a broken man, A cracked polystyrene man, Who just crumbles and burns.”
What is polystyrene? A rigid transparent thermoplastic, like those cheap translucent waste baskets from Target-see-through cheapness. His broken, cheap love is reflected in his vocation:
“He used to do surgery, On girls in the eighties, But gravity always wins.”
Now why would a woman get plastic surgery? Barring medical reasons, it is to attract men who idolize looks, sex. A plastic body for plastic love. Oh, and Thom insightfully points out that surgery is only temporary, gravity always wins. And how does our idolatry of looks and sex affect women? It wears them out. We force them into the hamster cage of our demand for sexiness. And when we idolize looks we not only offer cheap love but also beat down our wives:
“And if I could be who you wanted, If I could be who you wanted, All the time, all the time.”
Performance based love. Look like this, act like that and I will love you. This is a far cry from biblical love. Fake plastic love for a fake plastic marriage. What about wives? What do they tend to idolize? If men idolize sex, women idolize relational intimacy. Women tend to view men as the solution to their never-ending pursuit of satisfying, relational intimacy. They look to their husband or the prospect of a husband to provide them with a perfect sense of acceptance, intimacy and security. A man who will understand you completely. Enter Thom Yorke, our martial therapist. From the recent, Grammy-winning In Rainbows, “All I Need” articulates our insatiable need to be accepted and loved, the idolatry of relational intimacy:
“I am a moth who just wants to share your light, I’m just an insect trying to get out of the night”
We are desperate to escape the darkness of relational isolation, of a companionless journey that we are like moths flocking to the light of a man’s attention. Or to use the cruder image, we are like animals trapped in a hot car of a man’s indifference, suffocating from our idolatry of intimacy. And so you cling to the closest thing that will stick:
“I only stick with you because there are no others.”
You convince yourself that what you really need, above all things, is a man who loves you, who accepts you, who affirms you, you understands you:
“You are all I need You are all I need I’m in the middle of your picture.”
You want more than anything to be in the middle of the picture of his life. To be the central character in his story. To be enveloped by his life and love.
The Gospel Sees Thru Cynicism and Redeems our Idolatry
But we are looking at the wrong picture, desperately desiring to be central in the wrong story, the story of self-fulfillment, the story of marriage, of relationships. The story we have been created for is not one in which marriage, a husband or wife fulfills our deepest longings for pleasure and intimacy. That place is reserved by Christ; he should be in the middle of our picture. He is all we need. Sex and relational intimacy do not ultimately satisfy.
We have made these good things ultimate things, displacing our ultimate God from his rightful place. He calls us to repentance and, as we repent we need not swing from idolatry to cynicism or from cynicism to idolatry, becoming jaded about marriage or obsessed with relationships. After all, the cynic is critical because deep down he knows that his or her experience of marriage was not all it is intended to be. He knows and wants to believe that marriage could be more than divorce and abuse, that it could be characterized by love and respect. The cynic attempts to mask his pain with jaded disregard.
But you see, marriage is not the problem; it is our idolatry of marriage, our idolatry in marriage, sexual pleasure, personal rights, or relational intimacy. Unfortunately, our views of marriage and relationships have been conditioned by the brokenness of our own stories. But God in Christ offers us grace. He does not love us based on performance. He does not demand that we perform perfectly to obtain his love and acceptance. Instead, he performs perfectly for us, in life and in death and in resurrection, offering us true and ultimate joy and intimacy, from which we can freely love and respect our spouses. You see, when we let go of the idols of sex and intimacy, of husband and wife, we are free to love and respect one another. The Gospel Sees Thru our Cynicism and affirms our longing for love and respect, calling and enabling this in marriage. The Gospel also Redeems our Idolatry, leading us away from the worship of our needs and wants into true worship and spouse-honoring, society-enriching, Christ-glorifying marriages. Make Christ central in your picture. Look to the gospel for your identity. And by grace, love and respect one another.