Marriage as spiritual practice

June 18th, 2014

There is plenty of debate taking place around the topic of marriage but it is often limited in scope. The recent battles across our nation to legally define marriage in new ways has created much conversation, particularly about the role of government in this matter. While it is helpful to discuss the ramifications of how we legally define marriage, surely marriage, which involves the complexities of human relationships, cannot be reduced to a mere legal matter. As the legislative battles go back and forth, what voice can the church offer to give focus to the spiritual dimensions of marriage?

Marriage and the false self

The power of a healthy marriage is that it helps us identify the delusions we hold about ourselves and moves us closer to the person God desires for us to be. A committed relationship acts like a mirror as the other person reflects back to us the parts of ourselves that are disconnected from reality. Thomas Merton, the great spiritual writer and Trappist monk, wrote “every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.” In his spiritual classic New Seeds of Contemplation Merton describes this illusory self as the “private self…who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s’ will and God’s love–outside of reality and outside of life.” According to Merton, our devotion to the false self, which is rooted in our egocentric desires, leads us to sin and prioritize worldly values such as power, prestige, possessions, pleasure, and popularity over God’s values.

Through the intimacy and vulnerability we experience in a deeply committed relationship, the false self and its destructive tendencies are brought into the light of our consciousness where God can help us address them. This holy process of allowing someone we trust to help us name the illusions we live under leads to transformation. Marriage is a beautiful witness to the power of committed relationships over time and their potential to enrich our spiritual lives so that we may become our true self and live more fully into our identity as a child of God.

In my own marriage my wife acts as a mirror that reveals the false parts of my self that are rooted in egocentric desires and not reality. I often find myself living under the illusion that I can save or rescue other people; as a pastor I mistakenly believe that I can fix the church’s problems. My distorted thinking leads me to believe I am doing this for altruistic reasons but the truth is, I'm doing it to serve my own purposes. The thought of people praising me for saving or rescuing them strokes my ego. My wife helps me to shatter this illusion by pointing out its true motivation; she mirrors back to me my people pleasing and minor savior complex so that I can recognize it as a part of my false self. Our relationship provides me with the gift of being able to identify the parts of my personality that keep me from living more fully into the person God created me to be in this world.

Church, marriage and millennials

It would be wise for the body of Christ to speak boldly about the spiritual aspects of marriage and the richness of marriage as a spiritual practice. Younger generations are seeking an alternative to the rigid and exclusive understandings of marriage offered by many congregations, which often include beliefs that are condescending towards women and hostile towards gay people. These narrow views have turned off many people from a spiritual understanding of marriage. Regrettably, those who turn away often do not receive an opportunity to hear the voices of more open-minded congregations that define marriage in more inclusive ways.

The lack of an alternative to the more rigid understandings of marriage is disappointing because recent research has shown that younger generations, particularly the millennial generation (ages 18-33), are choosing to postpone or forgo marriage. In comparison to older generations, like the baby boomers and the silent generation, millennials are significantly less interested in marriage than their elders were at their age. There are various reasons one could use to explain why millennials are disinterested in marriage, but I can’t help believe that one of the main reasons is the church and other religious organizations have failed to give them an understanding of marriage that contains spiritual depth.

The church can present marriage to younger generations as a spiritual conduit through which the love and grace of God flows allowing individuals to grow more fully into the people God created them to be. Despite the inevitable pain involved in letting go of the false self, there is joy in becoming the person God created us to be and embracing our true self. Of course, many people will struggle to recognize marriage as a spiritual practice; not all marriages are healthy and some become emotionally and spiritually damaging for reasons we cannot control. It would be naive to think that every marriage will be a blessing; however, the church can still articulate an understanding of marriage as a spiritual practice that gives individuals in committed relationships the opportunity to identify the sacred movement between them. Marriage is a gift that reveals God’s truth in powerful ways and encourages a hurting world to discover their true identity as a beloved child of God. 

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