Marriage: An Idol?
Where we most often sin in our desire for marriage is not in worshiping marriage itself, but in doubting God’s ability to bring it about.
But today there’s an added reason women hide their desire for marriage. They’ve been told and retold that nurturing such a desire will not only scare men off, but worst of all, it may lead them to idolatry. I see and hear this warning a lot among Christians. It seems anytime someone writes or preaches about marriage to singles, they start with the caveat that wanting marriage is good “as long as you don’t make an idol out of it.”
Can the desire for marriage really become an idol? It’s technically possible. But that notion has been blown out of proportion. And repeatedly suggesting the possibility of idolatry has done more harm than good. It’s caused a lot of women to be tepid in their approach to marriage and made them afraid that any amount of thinking or acting on their desire might be a sin. Both have the unfortunate consequence of making marriage even less likely to happen.
Such caution is rarely urged with other desires. No one would discourage a woman from praying fervently, even daily, for an unsaved family member. And we’d applaud intense and passionate faith for the healing of a friend who was dying of cancer. Even desires that more easily border on idolatry — education, career pursuits, and hobbies — get a near-universal pass. But giving a fraction of such attention to the desire for marriage solicits dire warnings of overdoing it. Fervency when petitioning God for a mate comes under singular scrutiny.
Idol worship is a serious charge. God’s warning against it is the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). It’s also a major liability: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs” (Jonah 2:8). How can a Christian woman make sure her desire for marriage doesn’t drag her into idolatry?
Wood, Stone, Gold, and Sex
For starters, by looking at what the Bible says about it. Almost every one of the more than two hundred idol verses are about objects made of wood, stone, silver, or gold. Physical idols were pervasive at the time the Bible was written and were a direct violation of the second commandment. Considering this over-whelming focus on statues, the first and most obvious thing a woman can do to avoid making marriage an idol is never to bow down to one of those plastic bride and groom miniatures that goes on the top of a wedding cake.
That’s easy enough. But what about intangible idols? The prophet Ezekiel said, “Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces … ‘” (Ezekiel 14:2-3). It is possible for us to put other gods before the true God, to worship created things instead of the Creator — even if they can’t be seen. “The heart is an idol factory,” said John Calvin. But can we really make marriage an idol in our postmarriage culture? Not in the way that’s often implied. Where we most often sin in our desire for marriage is not in worshiping marriage itself, but in doubting God’s ability to bring it about.
That some would make women doubt the rightness of desiring marriage shouldn’t surprise us. Paul told us it would happen. He wrote:
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5 NASB)
Sadly, the “marriage as idol” warning prevents many young women from gratefully sharing in what God created as good. And the harder it is to marry well, the more likely it is women will accept cultural counterfeits — premarital sex, endless youth, self-centered singleness — falling into true idolatry of heart. Paul told us what that looks like in Ephesians 5:3-5:
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person — such a man is an idolater — has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
He repeats this warning again in his letter to the Colossians, “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:4-5).
MacArthur says of these verses, “When people engage in either greed or the sexual sins Paul has catalogued, they follow their desires, rather than God’s, in essence worshipping themselves — which is idolatry.”John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Nelson Bible, 2006), 1806. That sounds a lot like what James said: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?” (James 4:3-4).
Scripture is clear: Idolatry has everything to do with our earthly nature, evil desires, wrong motives, and pursuit of our own pleasures. We’re repeatedly told to trust God’s ways and resist the ways of the world. David said, “Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away” (Psalm 37:1-2).
Too Much, or Too Little?
These are desires we must avoid — envy, greed, and lust — not the desire for marriage as God designed it. Paul said, “But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). Not only is it unlikely that a godly woman’s desire for a biblical marriage would become an idol, biblical marriage is the antidote to much of the idolatry — “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” — that plagues our culture. And it is a plague, an epidemic. As such, our desires for biblical marriage, if anything, aren’t strong enough.
C. S. Lewis wrote,
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 3-4
To those whose desires have been manipulated by the Enemy, we could say, “You’re fooling about with premarital sex, recreational companions, endless buddies, when what I’m offering you is marriage, the desire of your heart.” “Marriage,” writes Lewis, “is the proper reward for the real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it.”Ibid., 4.
What, then, is the proper channel for our desire for marriage? David advised, “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: he will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun” (Psalm 37:3-6).
A genuine posture of delighting in the Lord actually helps us grow in our understanding of what He created marriage to be, replacing our perceptions with His design. It sanctifies our natural desires for it. As Romans 8:5 says, “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”
With the sacrifice, commitment, and obedience God built into biblical marriage (see Ephesians 5 for details), it continually puts God and His ways above all. A woman who is delighting herself in the Lord, daily committing her ways to Him in prayer, and doing everything unto the glory of God, can trust that her desire for marriage is good and that God is able to grant her desire for the thing He created. She can join the psalmist and say with confidence,
Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits — who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s…. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him. (Psalm 103:1-5; 145:19A)
Taken from Get Married, Moody Publishers Copyright 2008 by Candice Watters. Reprinted by permission.
About the Author
Candice Watters is a wife, mom, and Bible teacher. She is the author of Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen, co-founder with her husband, Steve, of Boundless.org and co-author of Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. They have four children and blog at FamilyMaking.com.