Marriage isn’t a Religious Vocation

Jason Micheli —  August 1, 2019 — 3 Comments

Here’s a snippet from my new book, Living in Sin: Making Marriage Work Between I Do and Death. You can get your copy here. Just think this may be your only opportunity to pick up a Christian book whose title pulls it up in Amazon with a whole bunch of porny-sounding romance novels. Here you go…

Many engaged couples I meet have only vague goals for their marriage: We want to be happy. We want to have a family. We want to be best friends.

“That’s all well and good,” I’ve typically told them, “but how in the hell do you measure goals that airy?”

Likewise, I’ve met with many married couples who describe their marriage as “stagnant” or “stuck.” They have no idea where they’re trying to go.

“You only put your car in drive to head toward a destination,” I tell them, feigning a fraudulent wisdom. “Otherwise you leave it in park. Or neutral. And if you’re not headed to any particular, specific destination, it’s not long before you’re wondering why you’re wasting your time sitting in a car that’s not moving. And it’s not long before you get annoyed with all the commotion the kids are making in the back seat.”

Theologians use the term telos to describe human life. It’s Greek for end. By it, they mean that having been made in God’s image, a life well-lived is one with a trajectory that points to and proceeds toward Christ and his grace. Sin is literally something that gets our lives off track.

Husbands and wives should have specific, concrete goals for their marriage. Not only should couples have micro goals for each stage of their marriage, they should have macro goals for their marriage as a whole. It’s just common sense. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can end up anywhere but there. You cannot solve the problem of impotence effectively. And if you don’t know where you’re trying to get, it’s very easy to get hung up on things that don’t matter and to compromise on things that do.

For years I’ve told engaged couples to imagine their married life as a story or memoir—as a book. “What do you want the dust jacket to say?” I ask them. “What do you want the summary of your story together to be?”

And I tell them to be damn specific. I tell them I don’t want to hear something like “Dick and Jane were just so happy together because they loved each other so much.” That’s usually what their first drafts will say. I tell them they should choose, together, three to five things they want to accomplish in their marriage and weave that into dust-jacket summary:

Dick and Jane built their dream house at X.

Dick and Jane traveled to Y.

Dick and Jane worked to make sure their relationship was always characterized by Z, that nothing ever changed _______ about them.

Sure those three to five things can change as life happens and things change, but you’ve got to be intentional about identifying what the new three to five things are when that happens. You’ve got to be intentional about what the rewrite on the dust jacket says now.

“This isn’t about married people having a bucket list,” I counsel them, “It’s about married people having a compass to steer by. You have to have an agreed-upon basis by which you’ll make decisions and set priorities as a couple. You have to be able to say as a married couple: These are the three to five things we refuse to compromise on in our marriage. Because the truth is, if you have goals in your marriage you won’t compromise on, it’s less likely that other things will compromise your marriage. You’ve got to know the ending of the story you’re trying to get to. You’ve got to know what your dust jacket says.” 

I think it’s good counsel for couples, and it’s always been received as such, but I don’t think I ever appreciated how the oughts accuse us as couples into thinking our story needs to be about something awesome and extraordinary. With the dust-jacket lingo, I gave couples a good image by which to think about the trajectory of their marriage. 

I just never gave them enough freedom. 

I didn’t convey clearly to them: What do you want the dust jacket of your story to say now that you have the freedom for it not to say anything in particular at all?

When the Peasants’ Revolt roiled the kingdoms of sixteenth-century Germany, the unprecedented violence and depravity of war spurred a wave of doomsday preaching and end-times predictions. Many churchmen, including Martin Luther, suspected the apocalypse was near and Christ’s return was around the corner. With the world upside-down and maybe nearing closing time, Luther didn’t put on a sandwich board or pick up a bullhorn. He didn’t throw himself into prayer or fasting. He didn’t become a prepper, packing away food into flood buckets. 

He got married.

If the end was nigh and Christ was near, Luther didn’t think he was required to be found doing super-spiritual, pious, religious acts, as though he needed to impress God or had any outstanding IOUs. No, if the Maker of heaven and earth was about to bring heaven to earth, then Luther wanted to be found by the Creator living as a creature. He wanted to be found tending his little patch of the garden of God, an unanxious Adam with an at-ease Eve, both of them unafraid because of the happy news that the Creator has already born all the brokenness of the Old Creation away in his body and has returned to still the groanings and labor pains of a New Creation awaiting its promised full and final redemption.

Marriage, therefore, isn’t a religious vocation. 

It is a creaturely one. 

Marriage is one of the ways we give flesh-and-blood expression to the gospel announcement that “religion” (what we do to get right with God) is over and done, consummated once for all by the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Marriage is a means that two creatures, in all their sin and infuriating imperfections, wonder and beauty, embody the hilarious news of God’s grace. 

Marriage is a creaturely vocation because the work of religion is finished for all time. In marriage, we can enter one another’s lives fully, embracing another as they are and accepting the two of you together as you are, with all your dirt and in all your delight, freed by the knowledge that, because Christ has taken care of everything, your marriage doesn’t need to be anything. 

Your marriage doesn’t need to be anything other than what you want it to be. 

An ordinary marriage can become something extraordinary, a sacrament even, once it’s freed from the burden of being a religious undertaking.

It’s true, as I said at the outset, that by their mutual vows husband and wife become a parable of the love of God. But that’s not as weighty or freighted as it sounds, for the Christ who compares his kingdom to a wedding party also compares his kingdom to a stupid sheep who can’t help but get itself lost. 

By themselves, sheep are lunch for wolves. Not only are sheep weak and stubborn and easily led astray, they’re completely useless. Sheep aren’t like other animals. Sheep aren’t like asses. Sheep don’t do any work by which they merit their worth. Even goats do work by which they earn their value. The only real work—if you can call it work—a sheep performs is trusting the shepherd’s voice. 

By our daily “I do’s” to one another, living in sin yet loving one another in spite of those sins, we become a parable of the Shepherd who found us lost. He put us on his shoulders and carried us back once and for all, so that, as his friends, we can rejoice in one another as the stupid but spectacular creatures we are. 

Jason Micheli

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3 responses to Marriage isn’t a Religious Vocation

  1. wait, sheep produce wool and milk, just by being live sheep

  2. That’s about it in a nutshell. 42 years and counting.

  3. Very wise counseling, Jason. Anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that marriage is not easy and sometimes it is downright depressing. My husband and I were older when we married (29 and 33), so we knew what we wanted in a marital relationship. Despite our common values, there were many disagreements; early on, we averaged about one good fight a week. He was stubborn and I was independent and strong willed. One goal we agreed upon before marriage was that there would be no divorce –that whatever problems we had would have to be worked out, with counseling if necessary. Little did we know that some problems would never be “worked out.” Instead, we had to adjust to or overlook each other’s annoying habits and failings. I used to joke with my friends that while divorce was not an option, homocide sometimes seemed a desirable alternative. Having children amplified all the differences we had about each other’s roles, and the kids learned quickly that mom and dad did not hide their annoyances with each other. We were not perfect parents; naturally, we did not have perfect kids. One thing we did regularly was pray together at dinner. This prayer often included the phrase, “….and please help us get through this meal without a fight.” Beneath the occasional overt hostility and the more minor and unspoken feelings of frustration, however, was an underlying respect for each other as “a good person.” Next year we will celebrate our 50th anniversary. The commitment we made to each other in the beginning held; we made it through the rough times. I would rate our marriage today as “very happy.” Faith played a huge role in this outcome. Thanks be to God!

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