Marriage. It’s what, as the bishop with the speech impediment in The Princess Bride so famously said, brings us together today. Or completely divides us.
Even before last month’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, the topic of marriage has felt to me, a single woman in her 30s, like the monkey on my back, always screeching at me for food.
It almost feels like a cliché to write this, like I’m a neurotic character from a 1980s Nora Ephron movie (or God forbid, Bridget Jones) lamenting the fact that I’m single. It’s not being single that bothers me. It’s constantly being made to feel like I’m missing out or that I’m somehow defective that really stresses me out. Being single in my 30s, especially upon emerging from a tiring and hard relationship, is blissful, especially when you have strong community and a centered faith. Centering your life on the fact that you have a perfect divine Husband who even went to hell for you frees you to be able to choose a flawed, earthly partner who won’t ever be perfect, but hopefully wants to imitate Christ.
But just try telling that to your mother.
A few weeks ago, the single person’s lament was eloquently stated in The New York Times opinion pages, with a piece called "The Supreme Court’s Lonely Hearts’ Club" by Michael Cobb. Cobb articulated some of the pause that many of us singles have felt as the conversation has gone on about marriage, in particular how Justice Kennedy captured the spirit of the age by extolling the matrimony as the highest institution in the land.
I don’t disagree about the importance of marriage, but I have a lot of concern about how it has been talked about and in many ways idolized in this country. Much of the church has led the way on this idolatry — on the policy end, claiming the need to defend marriage; on the spiritual side, treating marriage as a pseudo-salvation, as though being married means that in some way you’ve "arrived" spiritually.
As Christena Cleveland writes in Singled Out: How Churches Can Embrace Unmarried Adults,
"Married people aren’t more holy or godly or mature than single people. Married people haven’t ‘arrived’ in a way that single people haven’t. Married people aren’t even ‘on track’ in a way that single people aren’t. I can see why people are confused about this though. There are plenty of (married) Christian leaders who teach that married people are better candidates for holiness than single people."
The church is joined in this by a culture that has made romantic, erotic love the highest ideal and the nuclear family the standard of the good life. You are not fulfilled unless you are having regular, mind-blowing sex with your soul mate and bearing gorgeous, brilliant, and cultured children. Never mind that pesky human condition where we find that once we get what we thought would fulfill us, we still feel empty.
I am someone who bought into both of these lies and worshipped at the altar of these idols. I have looked at potential partners first through a lens of desire rather than emotional, spiritual, or intellectual connection, instead of looking for those connections and hoping to find some spark of desire.
I have treated marriage like an item on my to-do list, like an obvious next step, and a means to an end (having children, not being lonely, not getting married after 30 because again — the absolute worst).
I have believed the lie that I am less spiritual or sanctified because of my singleness and that I have a lesser experience of God or that my life has a lesser impact on the world because I am single.
And I have believed the lie that if I never marry or have children, God is withholding something from me, and my life cannot possibly be good.
It took me a long time to see this idolatry in my life, and the journey to know and own God’s love for me has not been easy. I have had my heart broken a few times, even though I was called to love anyway. I have had to face the fact that I may never get married and have children, and that God still loves me. I have had to face the fact that even if I do marry one day, marriage will not justify or save me. And that even when it is hard, God still loves me.
But I still push back on the idea that being married is where worth comes from. No human can fill your soul nor bear the weight of all the glorious wonder God has made you to be. Only God can do that. And the best part — God wants to do that, whether or not you’re married.
Not to spoil it for anyone, but the end of the story for every Christian is a wedding, of being a perfect and spotless Bride prepared for the perfect and spotless Groom.
That’s also the story that Christians are invited to live in right now. Right now — today — we are pursued by an unfailing Love that sees us in all of our brokenness and sin and refuses to turn away. It is this marriage that I care the most about defending, this marriage that I hope more Christians will embrace, and this marriage that can truly "satisfy us in the morning with [God’s] unfailing love so that we will be glad all of our days."
So to my gay and lesbian friends who are now free to marry their partners anywhere in the 50 states, I say congratulations and best wishes. But I also pray that you will not make the same mistakes that straight Christians have made by idolizing marriage. And to my single and celibate LGBTQ friends, I say — it’s going to be ok. Because God has made us all far too worthy of a greater kind of love than what this broken world offers. Don’t settle for anything less.