I started this post about a month ago, well before yesterday’s Supreme Court decision. There are, of course, no shortage of hot takes and quick responses to Roe falling, but I’d like to take a wider perspective: what it means to recognize that life rarely comes on our terms or in our timing.
In a recent article, Ephraim Radner writes that we live in a day where we discard children in the womb, but develop them in the lab. In other words, we want children on our terms. But it’s not just children, it’s everything. We want life on our terms. We want to manage and plan our lives — how we live it, with whom we live it, and when and how those “whom” come into our lives. In short, we like control.
This is certainly a part of the human condition, but it’s also a trend accelerated by our technology. Because we are so used to having things we want, when we want them, we have come to expect the same about relationships.
So, we start marriage when we want (much later than our grandparents’ generation), often living together before making a commitment. We delay marriage until we feel like our lives are all together (e.g., school is finished, career is advancing, house is purchased), and we end marriage when we feel like our lives have gone different directions. If we enter and exit marriage on our terms, why wouldn’t we do the same with the children we have (or not have)?
But what if relationship, by its very essence, is opening ourselves to the unexpected? What if the whole point of marriage is committing yourself to the unknown with someone who is different than you? What if marriage, by definition, is a covenant of opposites — where two people bring their difference and complementarity together, for the purpose of doing the hard work to reach the blessing of becoming one? More specifically, what does it look like when a man and a woman who choose to follow Jesus as Lord, also then choose to commit to each other in marriage?
I think it looks like a marriage covenant that is both closed and open. Christians who say “I do” close themselves off from other relationships and other entanglements that would keep them from faithfully loving the person they have married. They choose to close themselves off from things that might harm the unity they are forming. But this kind of marriage is also wondrously open to the new thing that happens when two lives are joined as one. It is open to the reality that each person will learn new things about the other, and themselves, that will then shape them individually and collectively as they become more like Christ. Precisely because they have a closed covenant with each other, they can then be open to what God wants to do in them and through them.
This might look like opening their lives to their neighbors in a way they could not on their own as individuals. This might look like opening their home in a way they could not as single people (perhaps to single moms who will now be giving birth to the baby growing inside of them, now more than ever needing help to choose life). There are a number of ways a couple who chooses each other can then choose together how to bless others through their mutual commitment. But the most obvious and most common way is by welcoming children into their family, through birth, fostering, and adoption.
In other words, the whole point of marriage is this: by closing yourself off from intimacy with anyone else but this one, you are choosing to open yourself to the new things and new people who will certainly come your way. By giving yourself to an exclusive commitment, you are also choosing an inclusive approach to those who will be blessed by your oneness. By choosing marriage, one is also choosing to be open to the life that comes from that love. And while children might be unexpected or unplanned-for, they should never be considered unwelcome, unwanted, or discardable. They should be welcomed as a gift, even if they are untimely or they come “before we have our lives together.” Children are not an infringement on our autonomy, but an invitation to expand our hearts and grow our love.
This is all made possible by the reality any parent (heck, any babysitter knows): children are demanding, difficult, and they really limit our options. They tie us down and keep us moving. They have never-ending needs and cost us tons of money. But when we choose to close ourselves off to other partnerships when we get married, we open ourselves to new life, which then leads to a tighter commitment as children come along. In the process, we learn the reality that it is in our commitments that we truly become human. It is in the limitations that we choose that most help us learn to turn from the self-focused child we all start as to an others-focused adult we all need to become.
As others have pointed out: you are your commitments. Your limitations are the things that actually give you life. True freedom, unhindered by the restraint of relationship and obligation, doesn’t ultimately expand one’s life; it shrinks it. This is true whether we are married or single; but marriage is certainly a foundational way many of us learn how to grow and serve in ways that enlarge our souls, expand our world, and enliven our gifts.
And isn’t that the point of being human? We experience life fully when we embrace what is good and true and beautiful — as we open ourselves to those God gives us and find ourselves in the giving of ourselves to them.
Behind all of this is the question of trust. When it comes to issues of marriage and family, do we trust ourselves, waiting until we feel Mr. or Ms. Right has come along, and then make a commitment only after we have done our best to ensure everything will work out according to our plans? Or do we walk into relationships — with our eyes wide open, for sure — trusting the One who created us to be relational beings, and who invites us into relationships that are messy or difficult (whether in marriage, church, or community)? After all, aren’t relationships (and life), by definition, messy?
In one study, researchers looked at marriages of those who were “in love,” and compared them to arranged marriages. They found that at the beginning of marriage, those who chose their spouse felt better about their marriages than those whose marriages had been arranged. No surprise there, right?
BUT when they asked the same question of those couples 10 years into marriage, those in arranged marriages felt more contentment in their relationships than those who had married for “love.”
What? Why? How can that be?
Well, it appears that arranged couples have to learn HOW to love regardless of what they FEEL about love. Maybe it’s because they don’t start on the Mountaintop of Love, that they come to realize that the only way to get there; or, even move in that direction, is by taking one step at a time, even when it’s difficult — especially when it’s difficult. Perhaps they learn that when they open themselves to another, they have to learn how to love. And in learning how to love, they become the kind of person they never could have become on their own.
While I am not advocating for arranged marriages — although I’d be open to giving it a try with my own kids 🙂 — I am definitely advocating for the importance, the necessity, of opening one’s life to the closure of commitment, where we are open to the new life that comes when we commit to relationships (marriage and children, yes, but also elderly parents, single moms, as well as annoying people in our church family, ruthlessly ambitious people at work, or people of different backgrounds moving into our neighborhood); where by closing ourselves off to other options, we commit to this option; to these people God is inviting us to learn to love.
That’s definitely counter to the zeitgeist of our age — the desire to be free and live life on our terms. And while it certainly seems easier and more fulfilling to live life free of attachments and limitations, what if it’s actually more humanizing to live life bound by the relationships and obligations we make? What if it turns out to be more enslaving to live life free of commitment, but it’s actually more freeing to choose this person, these children, this church, these people, and live life in committed relationship with them?