BY ERIC TSANG
As we take a look around at the throng of divorces we stand in the midst of, we see that “commitment” – the ultimate supporting column of marriage – has been drowned out and swept away by a multitudinous cacophony of distorted ideals. We now live in an age that overly sensualizes close to everything, marriage included. Simultaneously, marriage has been romanticized as a walk down the primrose path. These two factors lead us to easily forget what marriage actually entails, and what true romance is. To understand true romance and love, we must look back to a love story that began before time began and continues today without end.
A marriage is destined to falter and fall flat if it is supported by something as ephemeral and shallow as sexuality. But according to Stephanie Coontz in Marriage, a History, this is the case for many marriages today. She writes that since the early 1900s, the US and Europe have become increasingly obsessed with sex, as can be seen from flappers to Freud to steamy movies to casual sex and dating (197–199). (There is no need to mention the extent of this obsession today. Just turn on the TV.) She writes that, as a consequence, “The New Woman … expected to hold her husband not by her ‘quiet goodness’ but by her active sexuality” (205).
Two destructive problems accompany this transition, both due to the temporality of sex appeal. Husbands who stay attracted to their wives in this way will, after a certain number of years, inevitably find themselves wondering, “What happened to that nice curvature of her waist, those lean, long legs, that casually flowing hair she used to have – what happened to that…body?” First, this mentality debases a woman into a mere summation of limbs, skin, and meat, when her intrinsic worth far surpasses this ridiculous judging. Secondly, it is downright unfair for a woman to have to focus on her own externality as the greatest asset she has in her relationship with her husband. What happens to her character? To her values? To her personality? Is her identity – as a person – contingent upon the condition of her body? Unfortunately, it seems that this transition is already taking its toll: the statistics as cited by Coontz point out that in 1880, the divorce rate was one in twelve; however, in the 1920s, it jumped to one in six (202). As people began feeling unsatisfied with their “sex partners” – as in some cases, their spouses are seen only as such – they divorced.
The shift of focus to sexuality is only one example of how the media has portrayed a “romantic” marriage as an ideal state of bliss that meets unrealistic demands, a view that undermines the necessity of commitment. When we think of romance in marriage, we may imagine a festive, white chapel on the wedding day, or maybe a clean, one-family home in the suburbs, possibly candle-lit dinners or an idyllic stroll through the park. Certainly, these can all be parts of a happy marriage, but the danger arises in our turning such ideals into an expected reality, to the point where we forget that marriage is often painful.
In our oblivion to pain in marriage, we degrade real romance and passion into a fantasy wherein no commitment is required since it is self-sustained by a nonexistence of pain. There are no tensions on the relationship, no need to make any effort to keep it together, and in this “perfect” world, neither is there room for love to display its strength through commitment.
Believing in such an illusion also leaves us extremely vulnerable to reality, when the marriage turns out not as we had expected. Marriage may start out as beautiful as flowers blooming in the spring. We may think, “I’d love to live with him/her forever like this.” But a sudden loss in job turns our sunlit, suburban home nestled on a hilltop into a dingy, cramped apartment sticky with grease. Suddenly life hurts; the marriage hurts. Without having made a commitment, without having consented to suffer through the pain with our spouses, a divorce looms right above the horizon.
A true partnership in marriage, however, is one that recognizes great pain is written into the contract but is undeterred by the odds stacked against it and instead is determined to grow by overcoming every wave of pain. This couple understands the sacrifices in love: the financial difficulties that may lie ahead, the emotional strains that could cause them to fall on their knees, crying out in anguish, and the physical trials of staying up entire nights beside a beeping respirator, praying that he or she would recover. In spite of these anticipated hurdles, the husband and wife make a vow of unconditional love to stand by each other’s sides, never to separate, especially in times of trouble, when each needs the other most. It is in these relationships that commitment is proven, in which the strength of love is made known. These are the couples that scale mountains, travel through deserts and emerge because they clung harder to each other than ever before.
The greatest extent of this romance and passion is found in the love letter God has written as his Word, whose unsurpassed beauty is grounded in pain. It is not a flowery, lovey-dovey tale of two young couples frolicking on an open plain; it is a love story that moves because of self-sacrifice and mercy.
The original root of “passion” comes from Late Latin, passio, meaning “suffering and enduring.” It was used originally to refer to the suffering Christ endured as he was crucified to the cross. Only later was its meaning changed to “strong emotional desire.” This is why I say that passionate love is not a cheap, sultry scene of writhing, naked bodies, but is a bloody, painful scene of selfless giving and teeth-gritting endurance that makes love look glorious.
By suffering and enduring, I refer not only to the length of time Christ was brutally flogged, ridiculed so humiliatingly, pierced with nails in both hands and feet, and left to die the torturous, shameful death, even though he himself was sinless. I refer also to the thousands of painful years preceding the climax of this love story, when God’s pain was not in flesh but in spirit as he unceasingly loved those who only hated him in return.
To God, his people Israel are to him as a bride is to her groom. To them, he had made a promise that he would never leave them just as a bride/groom vows to never leave her/his spouse. Yet, Israel constantly committed the greatest offense against the relationship: adultery. Story after story in the Old Testament, God’s people, to whom God gave all of himself, turned their backs on his kindness and left to worship other gods instead, gods that demanded sacrifices of sons and daughters, gods that did not respond to any supplications, gods that were idols and fake. In essence, the people “prostituted themselves” to others.
An adulterous man or woman takes a deep, scarring stab at his or her spouse from behind the back. Imagine if you were in a marriage in which you give up your entirety – your time, your freedom to shop or hang with friends whenever you wanted, and even your personal goals – to the one you love so dearly, only to find that one day he or she comes home late at night, after the dinner you’ve prepared in anticipation has gone cold, because he or she was having sex with someone else. The agonizing pain, the sudden snap of trust, and the haunting after-effects of discovering such a sacrilege are horrible enough for even Christ to allow divorce in such situations. And yet, God himself, even after being subject continuously to this pain, chose not to divorce his people.
After each adulterous relationship of the Israelites, God was mad, but even in his justifiable anger and deepest pain, he remembered the day he made his vow, the day he saw how beautiful his bride was, the day he married her. Time after time, he swallowed the bitterness, as sharp as shards of broken glass, and endured the pain.
Then came the most “foolish” act of God: not only did he patiently suffer in spirit, but he became flesh and took upon himself a physical death, as reparation for his bride’s sins. Justice requires that the price of sin be paid in death, “for the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But because Jesus could not bear letting his bride, whom he loved so much, die, he himself stood before Death, saying, “Take Me; crucify Me, but let her live.” This love, which is blind to previous injuries and sees only the commitment made, which gives itself over to torture in place of another: this is the greatest Passion.
This commitment lives on today! Christ’s death did not mark the end of God’s pain, but each day, as we sin, we daily crucify him in our hearts. But how amazing his love is, that it would stand our defilement, our scorning of him! Though at times we may revile him, reject his love; though we cheat on him; though we tell him he is unwanted and despised, he chooses to take our scorn and still stay by our sides, always protecting, always willing to trust, always hoping, and always persevering.
God’s marriage to his people and to us has been fraught with pain and suffering, but even so, he never divorced his people; he never left us, never broke his promise. And the paradox is that out of this pain, this self-sacrifice, this enduring commitment come romance, passion, beauty, love, and glory. As we consider our own nuptial futures or lives, we must rid ourselves of the sensuality marriage has been idealized as and take on the view as God has shown: that only loving commitment, manifested through Passion, sustains marriage and exemplifies a love that never fails and never gives in to pain.