When Marriage Becomes an Idol

silver wedding bands
When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, I had a conversation with my older sister about whether or not we each wanted to be married when we grew up. I actually thought it might be interesting to not be married, but my sister reminded me that our parents were, after all, married and they seemed to enjoy it. She told me that our dad really hoped that we would marry — not because singleness was bad, but because having a life partner could bring such joy. So from then on, I pretty much decided I would get married when I grew up.

It would have been a surprise to my younger self, then, to find out that I’m now nearing the end of college and I’m not married, engaged or dating. Of course, I now realize that deciding to get married doesn’t work the same way as deciding to go to college. I’m also learning I have mixed emotions about singleness and marriage that lead me toward different, sometimes opposing, temptations.

These temptations are built upon cultural lies.

Let me explain.

In general, I’m fine with being single. While I still imagine myself getting married “when I grow up,” I don’t see singleness as being inherently lacking in some way. I also like the flexibility of singleness. I’m not particularly interesting in anyone, so why stress about not being in a relationship?

That’s me on a good day. On other days, I feel lonely and anxious about being alone for years — maybe the rest of my life. I feel like a failure for not being able to find a boyfriend or husband (a common lie in our culture and even in Christian circles, and yet so hard not to believe). I feel inferior or at some sort of disadvantage compared to my married or engaged friends. I dread having to answer the inevitable question: “So, are you dating anyone?” On these days, I have two sorts of reactions:

One reaction is to fantasize about marriage. I buy into the belief that if I were married (or heading towards marriage), then my life would have more purpose, I would be able to serve the church better, I would have relational and sexual fulfillment, and I would be able to face all my friends with my head high when I return home and answer the dreaded question.

There are many problems with these beliefs, but what makes them so convincing is they contain many half-truths: marriage does indeed contribute to relational and sexual fulfillment, it does allow you to serve the church in certain ways, and it does give your life a purpose to the degree that you now have a mate to serve and a biblical home to build. The issue, however, is that none of these statements, left alone, are completely true. They come from the sinful (because it is idolatrous) belief that marriage will satisfy the longings of our hearts. As long as I, and others, place marriage —  a good and wonderful gift from God — on this pedestal, we will never be satisfied with singleness or marriage.

My other reaction is to despise marriage. I think of all the reasons why being single is better. I determine that I don’t have a desire to be married and will never get married. And, of course, I make fun of all my married friends.

It isn’t hard to see that such a reaction flows from pride, insecurity and my desire to prove (to myself, my friends and society at large) that I don’t need someone else to make me complete. While it is true that another person cannot complete me, I’m also in danger of believing that I can make myself complete. Yet we know with St. Augustine that our hearts are restless until they rest in God; therefore, thinking that we each can make ourselves complete isn’t correct. We’ll only feel complete when we belong to God.  So again, we see an idolatrous solution to unfulfilled longings.

So what are we to do about these unfulfilled longings?

1. Recognize when you’re believing lies about marriage and singleness, and let Scripture fill you with the truth. For instance, Paul tells us that marriage is good, and that singleness is good (1 Corinthians 7:1-16) and the Psalms tell us that God himself satisfies our desires (16:11; 73:25-26).

2. Search your hearts for idols, looking particularly at longings that lead to bitterness and jealousy, and pray for forgiveness. Doing this doesn’t mean we won’t still struggle with them; however, that very struggle is what God often uses to help us to cling to Him and long for Him more.

3. Pray about your longings. Pray for contentment and patience, but also (if you desire to be married) pray for God to bring you a spouse — simply bringing this desire before Him is an act of submission. By praying for God to bring us a spouse we acknowledge that our desires must align with His will.. But praying about our desires is more than just submission. It opens our hearts to our God who cares deeply about our desires and who loves when we come to Him with them. It opens us up to experience His care so that we can pray, along with the psalmist, “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (Psalm 116:1-2).

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