Gary Thomas, founder of The Center for Evangelical Spirituality, graciously answered my critiques of his pragmatic and helpful book, “Sacred Marriage.” The conversation continues below with my thoughts on excerpts of his helpful response.
I’ve read your primary critique once before: that ‘if marriage existed in a sinless world (it did) then it strikes me as fairly obvious that it cannot have been primarily designed to address the sinfulness and selfishness of human beings.’ I’d encourage you to think just a little deeper. You’re assuming that God was caught by surprise by the fall; doesn’t it make more sense that God would design marriage as he knew it would be lived by every couple after the fall? Since Adam and Eve also eventually lived in sin, every marriage has been the journey of two sinners. Does it really seem so odd to you that God wouldn’t prepare for this? I believe God knew the fall would happen; therefore, it ‘strikes me as fairly obvious’ (to use your phrase) that he would design marriage accordingly, since that’s the reality of what every man and woman would live in—even including the very first marriage of Adam and Eve (after they sinned). If I’m going to design and build something, I’ll design it for how it is really going to be used, not how it would exist in a perfect world that wouldn’t last for long. You risk describing God as a short-sighted sculptor who makes something beautiful out of metal and then is surprised when it starts to rain and the sculpture starts to rust.”
To say that marriage can’t have been primarily designed to address the sinfulness of human beings doesn’t necessarily rest on the assumption that God was too short-sighted to make arrangements for the Fall. Rather, it relies on the assumption that God did not limit Himself by the actions of man, choosing to create things good and for certain ends that could be realized in a perfect world—even though His creation would eventually twist those things into evil.
I contend that God created many things, marriage included, according to a pattern that conforms to His very nature. The Triune God, ever-blessed in His own divine relationship, created human beings in His image: beings with the capacity to relate to others and to find fulfillment and joy in sharing a mutual love. Marriage, we are told later, offers insight into the very heart of God and His love for His people and is able to help illuminate this God-like love when we grasp its analogical import.
Of course, since God created marriage in accordance with His own nature, it follows that, given His redemptive love and triumph over sin and death, that we might find hints and expressions of this aspect of His nature in marriage as well. It is for this reason that much of what is presented in “Sacred Marriage” is of such benefit to Christians. Marriage is something that can be understood even in the context of sinful humanity. As a minor reflection of God’s own character, it points husbands and wives towards God and towards His sacrificial and redemptive love; it calls those happy few to lay their lives down for each other and press forward in sanctification and the pursuit of holiness.
It does stand to reason that God would use the foundational human relationship to assault the pride of human hearts. However, if what I suggest is correct He is using this relationship in such a way because of what the marriage relationship fundamentally is and not as one of many temporal (arbitrary?) educational devices. If the marriage relationship was created according to the pattern of God’s own nature it, rightly understood, will always strike a blow at sin—for no sin can stand in God’s sight.
I’m not trying to be overly contentious here as I appreciate healthy dialogue and even debate, but I believe your second objection to Sacred Marriage is refuted by your second review. You state, ‘Thomas largely views marriage (and life) as being a training ground for eternity,’ but then in the second review you go on to talk about how I discuss God using marriage to shape our prayer lives in the here and now, and how God uses sexual experience to help us live in the now. You were either prematurely superficial in your first review, or overly generous in your second! In fact, you paraphrase my thinking with something so beautifully worded I wish I had written it myself: ‘All the glory and wonder of entering into the presence of God is shadowed in sexual union.’ Yes, marriage prepares us for eternity, but it is about much more than that. Let’s not fall into either/or thinking in this regard. Scripture doesn’t force us to choose one or the other, but rather encourages us to see both as complementary realities. I talk about how marriage prepares us for heaven, and also about how it affects our relationship with God and others here on earth. If I had to qualify every statement that talks about heaven, Sacred Marriage would be a whole lot longer and much more boring.”
Your point is well taken and I think you are leagues distant from being overly contentious to suggest that I have refuted myself between the two reviews. The idea I critique is subtle, and it is very possible that I have dealt with it in a heavy-handed or a glib manner. Have patience, then, as I attempt an explanation of my complaint that you view marriage as a “training ground for eternity,” while commending your specific suggestions that help Christians “live in the now.”
At stake is how best to understand the purpose of life. Is life primarily an educational experience, opening our eyes to see the truth about God and ourselves? Or is life primarily outwardly focused—active and productive—an experience of action and deed, creating and flourishing?
As you mention, an either/or distinction is probably faulty. Still, I maintain that a view of life and human activity that primarily locates meaning in reference to the education of the individual (perhaps too hastily conflated with a preparation for a future glorified state) will lead to abuses of many kinds.
To dredge up John Piper’s oft-quoted scenario, it seems there is something fundamentally wrong with a man giving flowers to his wife out of a sense of obligation or duty. It seems equally wrong for him to give flowers to his wife as an educational opportunity or for the sake of fitting himself for heaven by acquiring the virtue of humility. There may be times when any of these reasons are appropriate, however the force of the scenario lies in our instinctive revulsion to the idea that men would primarily give their wives flowers for any other reason than because they love them.
In like manner, there is something unsettling about the suggestion that marriage finds its end in furthering the prayer lives of husbands and wives or in educating men and women about the nature of God. These results have their place in marriage, to be sure, and at times ought to be brought to the forefront of the mind as a remedy against the propensity to sin. Nonetheless, the suggestion (perhaps implicit) in “Sacred Marriage” that marriage is best understood as a means to an end is one that I find ultimately misguided.