What is love?

“I love you”. Three simple words that – as the saying goes – makes the world go around.  And quite literally so!  This year the US Economy received a boost of $18.9 Billion with Valentines Day sales, less than 2014’s Christmas sales but more than 2014’s Mothers Day sales.

And the record industry literally turns year after year with songs singing these three words.  From the time when Huey and the News felt The power of love”, when Whitney promised her Bodyguard “I will always love you”, Elvis pleaded “Love me tender” or the Righteous brother lamented “You’ve lost that loving feeling” – the great songs written by people in love makes the record companies very rich.  But I wish more people spent some time to wonder with Foreigner when he sang “I want to know what love is.”

Love does makes the world go around, and no-where is it on greater display than at a wedding, where two people make vows of love to each other.  The essence of the familiar marriage vow is a promise “to love and to cherish, to have and to hold from this day forward, until death do us part”.  The wedding vow is a promise of companionship in love.   So frequently while conducting wedding ceremonies I have two questions I silently wonder do you know what you are letting yourself into?” and do you know what you are promising – do you know what love is?”  Because marriage, as in every other relationship, only flourishes when love true.

Building blocks of love

The word love occurs in various forms in some 290 times in the New Testament, and is thus a major Biblical theme – for obvious reasons.  We read that “God is love” and that he “so loved the world that he gave his Son” and we should emulate him so that we “walk in love”, meaning “love one another” and “love your enemies” – ultimately Christians should be known by our love.  Yet many times our definition of love is informed by contemporary culture, powerfully influenced through music, movies and novels, and the power of love is missing from our lives.

This was also true in days of the early church, heavily influenced by the booming Roman culture (from where we get our word romantic), so the New Testament writers had to define what they meant with “love”.  We get definitions in most of the New Testament letters (Paul’s definitions of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5:22-23, as well as Peter’s definition in 2 Peter 1:5-7 come to mind).  But one of the most helpful definitions of love if found in Colossians 3:12-14:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

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Love begins with compassion in the heart

Paul teaches that love begins with compassion – a deep feeling of identification with the person and his or her circumstance.  This is the place where real love starts, as you consider the other person, and value him or her enough to stop to think and identify with the his or her circumstance.  Love starts with giving attention and time to someone, and that moves our hearts to act for the benefit of the one whom we love.

Looking at our example of love, we see Jesus being motivated by compassion.  In fact, often before Jesus acted in kindness the Gospel writers would mention Jesus’ compassion as the motive for his benevolence.  For example, Jesus was moved with compassion, therefore he taught those who gathered (Mark 6:34), healed the crowds (Matthew 14:14) and fed the multitudes (Matthew 15:32).  The pleas of the two blind men (Matthew 20:34), the leper (Mark 1:41) and the demon-possessed boy’s father (Mark 9:22-23) filled Jesus’ heart with compassion before he healed them all.  When he saw the mourning mother at Nain (Luke 7:13) and Lazarus’ sisters weeping (John 11:33) his heart was moved with compassion so that he resurrected the dead.  As he looked at the crowds, the gospel writers recorded that Jesus was filled with compassion and was moved to pray for them (Luke 13:34), and at another time to time send out his disciples to heal the sick, cast out demons and preach the good news of God’s reign in the surrounding villages and towns (Matthew 9:36).

Some of Jesus best-known parables are also about compassion: the parable of the Forgiving Master (Matthew 18:22-35) tells us that the Master forgives debt because he has compassion, and we should do likewise.  The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) teaches us that love for our neighbor starts with compassion for someone in need, regardless of political or racial preferences.  The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) teaches us that the Father sees his returning son and has compassion, and forgives and restores him with great joy.

Love starts with compassion.  Compassion is activated as you stop and look or reflect intently at the person and his or her circumstance, as Jesus taught Simon the judgmental Pharisee who was offended when Jesus allowed the immoral woman to touch him, wash his feet with her tears and pour fragrant perfume on his feet.  Looking at the woman, Jesus taught him “Simon, do you SEE this woman…”  (Luke 7:44).  This is Jesus’ ultimate lesson on compassion: it’s easy to judge “sinners” because of their wrong, to stereotype “lazy beggars” because of their circumstance or be indifferent to the needs of strangers.  But Jesus demonstrates here that love starts as we look and see the person, to reflect on this person’s pain and suffering and to see the human being whom God loves enough to send his Son to die for.  And that is when God starts to stir his love in our hearts, when we identify with the image of God in this person.

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“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate demonstration of the compassionate love of God.  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14).  God, the righteous Lawgiver and Judge left the holy heavens to walk with mankind and identify with the temptations and suffering of humanity, even experiencing the death and agony of separation with God his Father. In a sense Jesus answered the prayer of Moses in Psalm 90 “Lord… you are from everlasting… we are like grass that withers… come down Oh Lord, have compassion on your servants!” (vv2, 5, 13).  And because Christ came to share in our humanity, we have a High Priest that can “sympathize with us in our weaknesses” so we can be confident of his forgiveness and help. (Hebrews 4:15-16).  God took time to identify with us and has compassion with us – therefore he is merciful towards us.  His love starts with compassion.

Compassion_cures_sin

This example of God’s identification with us in our weakness is the model of our love: love starts as you take time to walk in another’s footsteps, feel their pain and suffer with them.  Like Christ, love overlooks the wrongs done and first considers the one in need.  Like Christ, love values the person before dismissing the sinner.

This is not only a model for working with the poor, the addict and the offender.  This is the model of love for your conflicting spouse and difficult child, your rude coworker and racist service official.    Lover starts with compassion gained through time, attention and reflection until you can identify with this person whom God has made in his image, and who joins suffers with you in this sin-infested, loveless world, and is also in need of God’s desperate need of loving grace – like yourself.  Everyone needs compassion.

This short animation by Dr Brené Brown on empathy helps a lot to give practical guidelines to grow in compassion.

Before love is visible in acts of kindness, it starts in the heart and moves you to not do good deeds from a position of superiority but to do good because you identify with the suffering, the want, the pain of this person you love.

Compassion enables us to embrace even our enemies because we identify with their common humanity. Image credit: Hien Nguyen/Flickr
Compassion enables us to embrace even our enemies because we identify with their common humanity.
Image credit: Hien Nguyen/Flickr
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Do you know what you are letting yourself into…?

Often, as I stand at the end of a long flower-draped carpet, looking at the anxious bridegroom and nervous, beaming bride being ushered down the isle by her dad, I silently smile and wonder “do you have any idea what you are letting yourself into…?” 

Because – honestly – I had no idea what I was saying “yes!” to when I enthusiastically promised forever love to my wife ten years ago.  Yes I was repeatedly warned by older married people that married life is tough, that it requires work, that the romance is not all it is promised to be in the movies, that I should enjoy my time of freedom before I say “I do” to a life of “ball and chain” etc.  At that time I was also aware that the divorce rate in my country was about 50%, being Christian or not.  In short, from all over I got the message that married life is quite grim.

But I was never told what I discovered over the last decade, and what research is progressively revealing about married life.  Today I know that “he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord!” (Proverbs 18:21) and this “favor” or “blessing” is evident in at least the following verified benefits over non-married individuals: married people will statistically live longer, happier, healthier (physically and psychologically), wealthier and safer than non-married adults.

Married adults enjoy longer and healthier lives

It has been suggested that the longevity and health is closely related to wealth, education or even nationality.  But contemporary research has discovered for you to live longer and healthier you don’t necessary have to earn more, study more or even emigrate – you simply need to get married!  Married adults generally outlive their unmarried counterparts[i] – regardless of cultural background or nationality[ii].  Linda Waite, University of Chicago sociologist concluded after years of researching sociology “The evidence from four decades of research is surprisingly clear: a good marriage is both men’s and women’s best bet for living a long and healthy life.”[iii]  In fact, saying “I do” has a similar impact on one’s health as that of a smoker quitting.[iv]

Married couples are more likely to enjoy better overall physical health: married persons have the lowest incidences of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease than adults from any other relational status.[v]  “The protective influence of marriage applies not only to more minor illnesses like colds, flu, and migraine headaches but also to serious health issues like cancer, heart disease, and heart attacks – as well as the need for any kind of surgery.” [vi]  In addition, married couples recover better from both minor and major illnesses[vii] and even boast stronger immune systems.[viii]

Married adults enjoy better emotional and mental health

Referring to a 2004 report from the (US) National Center for Health Statistics[ix] Bridget Maher from the Center for Marriage and Family Studies at the Family Research Council concludes that married people are happier and healthier than widowed, divorced, separated, cohabiting or never-married people, regardless of race, age, sex, education, nationality, or income.” This same study revealed that the improved emotional health show that married adults have the lowest amount of serious psychological distress and exhibit less addictive behavior, while another reveal that married people live longer and are less likely to commit suicide that those who are unmarried.[x]

Marriage leads to higher incomes and greater wealth

Married people accumulate more wealth over time than unmarried people[xi]  and tend to earn higher salaries as well – one study found the increase to be 22%![xii]

Marriage brings safety

Marriage is undeniably the safest relationship to be in – physically and emotionally.  One study revealed that the occurrence of physical aggression in unmarried relationships to be three times higher than that in married relationships.[xiii]

Marriage brings the benefits, not simply living together

Interestingly, these benefits are not shared by adults who simply live together – only those who get married enjoy these health, wealth and safety benefits.  Studies indicate that co-habitation (and singles with intimate relationships) experience less financial satisfaction and poorer psychological health than their married counterparts.[xiv]

Now you know what I wish every bride and groom knew before they got married, and what every fearful lover and struggling married couple knew: that married adults have a much higher likelihood of living longer, being healthier, happier, wealthier and safer than being single or divorced.  Truly, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord!” (Proverbs 18:21)

So it seems that you will be better off marrying the lonely girl in the office across from the passageway, or the person having coffee with you, or your neighbor (what’s his name again?) – even if you don’t like them.

References

Note: the two most influential papers I used in compiling this blogpost are the Focus on the Family Memo on The Health Benefits of Marriage (September 2012) by Andrew Hess and Glenn T. Stanton as well as the Family Research Council Issue Analysis Paper on The Benefits of Marriage (March 2010) by Bridget Maher.  See also Marriage and the Family in the United States: Resources for Society (2012) by Theresa Notare, PhD for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

[i] Robert M. Kaplan and Richard G. Kronick, “Marital status and longevity in the United States population,” Journal of Epidemiology and Com-munity Health 60 (2006): 763.

[ii] Yuaureng Hu and Noreen Goldman, “Mortality differentials by marital status: an international comparison.” Demography 27 (1990): 233-50.

[iii] Linda J. White and Maggie Gallagher. The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 64.

[iv] Chris M. Wilson and Andrew J. Oswald, “How Does Marriage Affect Physical and Psychological Health? A Survey of the Longitudinal Evi-dence,” Institute for Study of Labor Study Paper 1619 (Bon, Germany: Institute for the Story of Labor, May 2005), 16.

[v] Amy Mehraban Pienta, “Health Consequences of Marriage for the Retirement Years,” Journal of Family

Issues 21 (July 2000): 559–586.

[vi] Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser and Tamara L. Newton, “Marriage and Health: His and Hers,” Psychological Bulletin 127 (2001): 472-503.

[vii] Catherine E. Ross, John Mirowsky, and Karen Goldsteen, “The Impact of Family on Health: Decade in Review,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 52 (1990): 1064.

[viii] Sheldon Cohen, William J. Doyle, David P. Skoner, Bruce S. Rabin, Jack M. Gwaltney Jr., “Social Ties and Susceptivility to the Common Cold,” Journal of the American Medical Association 277 (1997): 1940-44.

[ix] Charlotte A. Schoenborn, “Marital Status and Health: United States, 1999-2002,” Advance Data from

Vital and Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Number 351, December 15,

2004).

[x] Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier,

Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000) 50–52.

[xi] Waite and Gallagher, 97–123.

[xii] Leslie S. Stratton, “Examining the Wage Differential for Married and Cohabiting Men,” Economic

Inquiry 40 (April 2002): 199–212.

[xiii] Sonia Miner Salari and Bret M. Baldwin, “Verbal, Physical and Injurious Aggression among Intimate

Couples Over Time,” Journal of Family Issues 23 (May 2002): 523–550.

[xiv] Steven Stack and J. Ross Eshleman, “Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study,” Journal of Marriage and Family 60 (1998): 527-36.

“It’s just sex” – Relational MythBusters 2

When I was a young teenager I wondered whether “fruit of the tree” was a euphemism for sexual intercourse – the original sin that caused the fall.  It’s a ludicrous thought, but I recently found that I was not alone in my thinking:  the Church fathers, heavily influenced by Stoic and Gnostic education deduced that all sex was wrong and only necessary for procreation.  For instance Tertullian (150 – 230 AC) accused woman of being “the unsealer of the forbidden tree” that caused the fall, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) said “Christians marry only to produce children” with Jerome (c. 320-420) adding “he who is too ardent a lover of his own wife is an adulterer.”  This statement makes no sense, but he firmly believed Adam and Eve were virgins before the fall, and only married (euphemistic speech for “had sex”) once they were cast out of paradise.  The severity of sexual sin is evident in their responses to temptations:  Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) once looked at the face of a beautiful woman, and to avoid sexual temptation jumped into an icy pond.  Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE) once threw himself naked into thorn bushes, rolling around to ensure the pain would remove all sexual desires.  Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) frequently rolled around naked in the snow when tempted with sexual desires, but when there was no snow he followed the painful example of Benedict.  (Be thankful for ready access to cold showers!)

thorn_bush

Yet we know sex is not sin – we were created as sexual beings “male and female” from the very beginning, and commanded to “multiply” (Genesis 1:26-28).  Our sexual desires were not the result of the fall but part of the desire for intimacy – the reason God made Adam a helper to deliver him from his loneliness (reference).  Sex between husband and wife is good and meant to be pleasant – it is created by God, honoured by God (Hebrews 13:4), encouraged by God (Proverbs 5:18-19) and married couples are even commanded to please one another sexually (1 Corinthians 7:2-4) to avoid sexual temptation.

Only sinful sex is sin.  The Mosaic Law lists various sexual misconducts including adultery (Exodus 20:14, Leviticus 18:20, Deuteronomy 5:18), bestiality (Leviticus 18:23, Deuteronomy 27:21), homosexual acts (Leviticus 18:22), incest (Leviticus 18:6−18; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20, 22−23), prostitution (Leviticus 19:29, Deuteronomy 23:18), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25−29), sex before marriage (Exodus 22:16−17), shrine-prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17), transvestism (Deuteronomy 22:5), unclean acts (Leviticus 18:19), and violation of betrothal (Deuteronomy 22:23−27).  These laws, although negative and carrying severe punishment in case of transgression, were given by God “for [our] good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24). [i]

These Mosaic laws were asserted by Jesus (Matthew 5:19), stating that these sins emanate from the heart (Matthew 5:27-28; compare Proverbs 6:27-29) and defile a person (Mark 7:23) so that one who practices these things will not inherit the Kingdom of God and therefore have to be avoided at all cost (Matthew 5:29-30).  Therefore the apostles also taught that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:5), and warned against the sins of adultery and fornication (Hebrews 13:4), homosexual acts (Romans 1:26−27, 1 Corinthians 6:9−11, 1 Timothy 1:8−11, Jude 1:7), incest (1 Corinthians 5:1−5), and prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:15−16).  As in the Old Testament, the apostles warned the early church that God still judges sexually immoral acts in the new dispensation (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 10:8; Jude 1:7; Revelations 21:8, 22:15).

However, in the new dispensation there is grace for forgiveness and restoration of those who have fallen prey to sexual temptation and a lifestyle of immorality (1 Corinthians 6: 11).  Jesus demonstrated welcoming hospitality and kindness toward those who sought him (Luke 7:36-50) and taught humble identification and mercy with those battling the lure of lust (John 8:2-11).  Yet he never stopped warning about God’s judgment on sexual immorality (Matthew 5:29-30; Mark 7:23), but reached out to sinners (Luke 5:32).  Thus the disposition of the church towards believing sexual sinners should not be indifference or judgment, but rather humble support towards restoration (Galatians 6:1), yet unrepentive believing sinners should be publically disassociated after ample warning to prevent others emulating the immoral  behavior and perhaps granting the sinner repentance in the light of the seriousness consequences (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), all the while trusting and praying for repentance and hoping for restoration (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

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Light in a dark world

Both the Old Testament Law as well as the New Testament letters were written so followers of God living in utterly perverse societies: the older in Baal worshiping country and the newer in Grecko-Roman society.  Both these societies were obsessed with sexual practices, even incorporating shrine prostitutes in their religious ceremony.  Thus it is not strange to find within these writings many instruction pertaining to morality and sexuality.  The commands intended to set a people aside for God which is holy or distinguished from contemporary society so that their everyday lives display the holiness and loving nature of God, a people where God can dwell in holiness.  In one such instruction pertaining to sexuality Paul uses Mosaic text to motivate holiness “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18)

Sadly, today there is no discernable distinction between the sexual conduct of believers and unbelievers.[ii]  Tyler O’Niel reported earlier this year that “A new study on Christian attitudes toward dating and marriage reveals a broad acceptance for cohabitation, premarital sex and a rejection of traditional gender roles. Experts believe that many Christians are following cultural trends over scripture when it comes to sex and marriage.”  The majority of believers have adopted the sinful practices of the world around us, so that we are unable to represent the nature of God and ineffective in our witness to the world.

Justification for sex before marriage

I have heard three noteworthy arguments from believers to justify pre-marital sex, each of which I will shortly address Biblically.  Also refer to a previous post “On Spiritual Maturity: the error of Balaam” to see the various Biblical references to spirituality without morality.

Some think that remaining sexually pure before marriage is out of date.
Some think that remaining sexually pure before marriage is out of date.

1. Abstinence is “outdated” or “old-fashioned”. God does not change (Malachi 3:6), nor does his prescribed law. That is why Jesus himself did not change but obeyed the Law (Matthew 5:17), even intensified the interpretation to go beyond literal fulfillment but taught that it also judges thoughts, motives and emotions (Matthew 5:19-20, 29-30; refer Hebrews 4:12, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).  Consequently, the apostles also continued to reinforce the sexual morality laws of Old Testament Judaism.  The intent of Scripture is clear: God designed man to find sexual intimacy and fulfillment in faithfulness to one spouse – “for our good always.”

2. Abstinence is “the invention of the Church fathers” – the Bible does not prohibit sex before marriage. Sexual purity was not the invention of the early church fathers but God’s desire for humanity as expressed in the Mosaic Law and contained in the teachings of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus himself and the apostolic writings (as briefly outlined above). Yet some argue that use of “fornication” (Gk: pornea) does not prohibit sexual relations between unmarried, consenting adults – rather it is expressly used for perversities such as pornography, orgies, bestiality etc.  Although pornea is generally used to mean “inappropriate sexual conduct” and is normally translated “sexual immorality” very few linguistic or Biblical scholars would argue that the word excludes fornication (sex outside the bounds of marriage).

However, without using this word a few sections in the Bible make it clear that sexual relations are reserved for marital partners, of which this pointing case suffices to defeat the argument:  1 “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband… But if [the unmarried] cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:2-4)  In this short text Paul makes it clear that no unmarried believer has rights to sexual relations; only with a married partner should that desire be fulfilled. All sex outside the covenant of marriage is sinful and will be subject to God’s judgment (Hebrews 13:4).

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3. “Sex is just sex”. Some believe that “sex is just sex”, meaning it is a biological act like holding hands without spiritual effect and therefore can be enjoyed without harmful spiritual consequences. However, anyone who has been victim of molestation or rape knows that what they experienced was more than a mere physical touch.  Sex is inherently spiritual – this is why God warned the religious leaders in Malachi’s day that unfaithful sexual conduct is detrimental to their spirits, and therefore he cautions them to guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:14-16).

The congregation in Corinth had a similar argument as “sex is just sex”, stating that just as the body needs food, so the body needs sex – and therefore one should feed its sexual appetite; there is nothing more to it.  Paul answered with a powerful rhetoric (1 Corinthians 6:13-20), stating that sexual intercourse binds two people together in a mystical manner, and that should one should not do that improperly (outside of marriage) since the believer is “joined one in spirit with the Lord”.  He concludes that therefore believers ought to “flee sexual immorality… [because] your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you… therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”  Much could be written about this section, but the essential truth here is this: sexual intercourse is immensely spiritual, and has an impact on the spiritual welfare of the believer.

How do we respond to this?

My personal goal for sexual holiness is articulated in the phrase that Paul used to encourage the church in Ephesus: “among you there should be not be a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3 NASB).  How do we grow towards that in this immoral society?

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  • Protect your eyes. One of the most useful lessons I have learned is to seriously sensor what I watch and look at – a lesson I learned while reading the famed Every Man’s Battle by Arterburn and Stoeker. They teach tat like Job we “make a covenant with [our] eyes to not look upon a young woman [or men] with lust in [our] heart” (Job 31:1).  Then you seriously sensor your environment not get sensual stimulation – go cold turkey for a while.  And your learn the habit to “bounce the eyes” – as soon as you see something that usually give sensual stimulation to your mind, you bounce your eyes off to somewhere else and not look there.
  • Renew your mind. During my student years God seriously challenged me to no longer think and live like the world around me does but to “renew my mind” (Romans 12:1-2) and adopt his perspective on life and relationships. Sexual happens when our perverse desires lead us astray (Mark 7:23; James 1:13).  This necessitates a retraining of the heart and mind through deliberate study of God’s precepts, prayer and reflective conversations with believers about God’s will.  Over time I have found that my actions change, my dreams and daydreams became innocent and my relationships became healthy.  God restores innocence!
  • Accountability.  As motivated in a previous blog on accountability relationships we need friends that watch out for us and that help us stay on the path of holiness and relationship with God.  This especially needs confession when we fall in some sexual sin, since nothing brings a sense of shame, guilt and condemnation like sexual sin. A lifestyle of transparency and honest confession (1 John 1:9, James 5:16) keeps us on the path of holiness.
  • Self-control. Learn to control your sexual urges (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Romans 13:11-14).  I do not advocate throwing yourself into thorn bushes like Benedict and Francis, but one has to do something to redirect energy and teach your body that it cannot always have what it desires.  Simple ways are endurance exercises or fasting which teaches you to ignore the demands of the body, learning the blessing and wisdom of delayed gratification (in a healthy way).  What many young people do not know is that this sexual self-control is also absolutely essential to a happily married life.
  • Avoid tempting circumstances. Not Samson the strongest, nor Solomon the wisest, nor David “the man after God’s own heart” overcame sexual temptation. But Joseph got it right by running away from his seductress (Genesis 39:13).  That is why Paul taught Timothy to flee youthful lust (2 Timothy 2:2; see also 1 Corinthians 6:18).  Avoid sensually luring situations – it is the sure way to have victory over this sin.  You have learned when you are vulnerable to this sin – simply avoid it.  If you can’t, so as the marines do and call a friend to provide cover (prayer) fire!  When tempted we should resist it (1 Peter 5:8).  Just know that you will never be tempted above your ability – with the temptation God will provide a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In closing, God is holy and desires us to be holy as He is.  He has made us to be sexual beings, and created us to enjoy sex – in its rightful place of marriage.  In that proper place God blesses it and calls it good.  Therefore we ought to take heed to the dangers and judgment of sexual immorality, resist and avoid temptation.  We ought to encourage one another to obey God’s moral laws, so that in this perverse society we may represent God’s holiness and loving nature well.

For further reading on similar topics refer to Marriage and our culture, Our Lonely world and The Perfect Match – Relational Mythbusters.

[i] The references in this paragraph comes from a good article by P.G. Nelson © 2009 found at www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/smorality_nelson.pdf

[ii] The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009 found at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/188-faith-has-a-limited-effect-on-most-peoples-behavior#.VEDa5fmSySo .         Results discussed in Kinnaman D., & Lyons G., unChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).  See also Scazzero P., Emotionally healthy Christianity (Zondervan, 2009) for more statistic and results on culture and Christian distinction through discipleship.

A Perfect Match! – Relational Mythbusters

The Perfect Man: Dark, sweet, rich.  And if he angers you - you can bit his head off!
The Perfect Man: Dark, sweet, rich. And if he angers you – you can bit his head off!

We have all seen greeting cards like this one: The perfect man: sweet, rich, dark and handsome; and if he says anything wrong you can simply bite of his head and unwrap another!  Wish relationships were really that simple!

The search for the perfect mate is a very personal and emotionally draining one, so I aim to write this blog carefully, lightly and humorous. Even  as I am writing about “finding your life partner” I think of my friends whom I love dearly, that are suffering in what is described as the epidemic of with loneliness.  I have previously written on marriage and our culture and do not wish to repeat everything I have written about, so I recommend you to read on the intent and definition of marriage I unpacked there.

I now invite you to laugh with me at popular crazy ideas and sentiments we hold onto in our pursuit of “finding the perfect life partner”.

“Soul mates”

"You complete me!"
In search for your soul late… “You complete me!”

In Plato’s The Symposium he writes that humans originally had four legs and four arms, and that they angered the gods. The gods did not want to destroy them fully, fearing the loss of their tributes and Zeus therefore split them in two as punishment (while doubling the amount of tribute given).  Humans would forever wander miserably in search for their other half – their soul mate – and once they had found that soul mate there would be perfect understanding between and happiness between the two.  Thus “love is the desire of the whole.”

In a study by Rugters University 94% of unmarried people agreed that the primary search for a marriage partner is one’s “soul mate”.  This ancient myth has been popularized in contemporary movies, novels and even preaching, that there is a person “destined” for you to find and marry.  While non-believers bank on “fate” to find their soul mate, authors and preachers have “christianed” this fable to sound Biblical, stating that God has created you for one mate.  Although this statement sounds good, the core of the assumption is you’re your happiness rests in finding that one which God created you for, thus putting the thrust of your energy into “finding the right one.”

This popular theory has two major contemporary relational consequences.  Firstly, loneliness and late marriages singles persistently search for their “soul mate”, or the one to complete them.  This search for a mystical satisfying union provided in a specific individual person “out there somewhere” is in my opinion one of the greatest contributors to the loneliness epidemic of young adults.  Secondly, the belief that there is “one perfect soul mate for me” out there somewhere causes even people in steady relationships to doubt the legitimacy of the that relationship, wondering whether everyday conflict and the normality of the relationship are indications that they are not with the “wrong one.”  Counseling professionals warn that this myth is very destructive relationally, some going as far as saying nothing has produced more unhappiness than the concept of the soul mate.”

What does the Bible say about this?  The whole counsel of the Bible teaches very little about who to marry, except that that person should be a Christian (2 Corinthians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 7:39).  The one clear instance in the Bible where God instructs someone to marry a specific person is the prophet Hosea – and it is because God commanded him to marry a prostitute, something immoral and foolish!  (This marriage was meant to display prophetic significance of the character of unfaithful Israel, to their own shame).

I personally know of one or two individuals to whom God spoke directly about their marriage partners, but this is by no means normative, as we can see from Scripture.  The Biblical text says a lot about marriage, but very little about who to marry.  The focus of the Scripture is on who you become and how you ought to conduct yourself in marriage – because love and fulfillment in found in how your marry, not who you marry.

“The Consumerist Gambling” – there must be a better one out there

Gambling_2
Leaving Mr Good in the hope to find Mr Better or Mr Perfect is a gamble, because at some point the table stops turning…

The second popular trend is what I like to call “consumer-based relational roulette”, where potential life-mates are compared with each other as we do with clothes or cattle or cars, weighing up their apparent strengths and weaknesses, dismissing those who fail to meet our standards.  This comparison happens either virtually by viewing an online dating catalogue, Facebook pages or in real life interactions.  Consumer-based relational roulette results is either serial dating as the “consumer” tries out the “products” or in passivity where “buyers” wait for the perfect specimen to “procure”.

Where does the gamble come in?  The gamble comes in when one disengage from a promising relationship  or dismiss a potentially good life-mate in the hope for a better one, just like gambler would bet all his winnings in hope of gaining more.   The relational result is the same as in the previous section: late marriages with agonizing loneliness, and break-up of good relationships (even marriages) in the hope of better ones.

What does the Bible say to this myth?  The answer is simple: marry a Christian, and be faithful and be content with whom you have.

“The Cupid deception” – all you need is love!

Cupid shoots his arrows and the victim is love-struck!
Cupid shoots his arrows and the victim is love-struck!

We are well aware of the Roman Cupid myth as he is the popular icon of Valentines Day.  The myth of this demi-god tells that he has the power in his bow and arrow to strike his unsuspecting victim with uncontrollable passion for the one he/she lays eyes on: instant infatuation as the victim helplessly “falls in love” and blindly does whatever it takes to be with the object of obsession.  This myth is also popularized in contemporary films and drama, novels and poetry, and music.  It is this love which quite literally makes people’s worlds go around.

Emotions of love are not bad at all – emotions are created by God and God himself expresses very passionate love and anger through the prophets in the Bible.  The danger in this myth is when life-long relational decisions are based upon feelings alone.  Infatuation causes people to say and do stupid things, like “I have to follow my heart” and marry an abusive man who was divorced three times, because “I cannot deny this feeling”.  Love-struck people who follow this loving feeling alone can cause themselves tremendous harm; after all, “love is blind.”

We live in a society primarily lead by emotions; the anthem of our younger generation is “if it feels right, it is right!”  But we know that emotions are fickle, evidenced by the many heart-aches and bitterness from people who woke up one morning released from the “spell of cupid” having “fallen out of love.”  The Biblical teaching on this emotional desire is clear: be aware of luring emotions, since “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”(Jeremiah 17:9) and can tempt us to do foolish and sinful things (James 1:14).  Secondly, love is not enough for a fulfilled relationship, as Paul teaches us that we need faith (shared conviction and trustworthy character), hope (a common or complementary vision or direction) and love (the bond of perfection manifesting in grace for each other) (1Corintians 13:7, 13).[i]

I must just point out that the our cultural understanding of love is far removed from the love we read about in the Bible.  Contemporary definitions of love reads something like “tender feelings, passionate affection,  deep affection or sexual desire for another person.”  Biblical love on the other hand (as defined by Voddie Baucham) is action-oriented: “The biblical definition of love is that love is an act of the will (it’s a choice) accompanied (not led) by emotion that leads to action (it’s proved by our efforts) on behalf of its object. ”  Or simply put by Dr Dallas Willard “Love is a decision to do good.”

Loving emotions are not wrong, but left unchecked it has the potential to lead us into great trouble, as many of us have experienced in the past. Biblical love leads to loving actions for others, and that always leads to goodness and life.  So if Cupid hits you with his arrow and the “poison tip” fills you with this second type of (Biblical) love, there is no harm in that!

“God will send her my way”

Passively waiting for Mr Right might be the wrong approach to marital satisfaction...
Passively waiting for Mr Right might be the wrong approach to marital satisfaction…

The last myth to be busted in this post is that of passive waiting: “if we are destined to be together, God / fate will make it happen!”  But we know this passivity does not work in any area of life.  We don’t say “if God wants me to be a doctor, He will make it happen” and then do nothing.  We agree with the plan and then pursue it with hard work an excitement, recognising His grace along the way.

The writer of proverbs recorded a proverbs that instruct the young men to “find” a virtuous wife (Proverbs 18:22; 31:10), implying intentional, intelligent effort.  I know many young men who spend hours behind computer screens or some odd hobby who desire a life mate, but make no visible effort.  The same holds true for young ladies – make yourself known.  If you seek you will find, Jesus said.

What to do

We have busted some destructive relational myths, but how do we respond?  I counsel single people with these four things:

  • Evaluate your expectations.  Are what you want from a life partner, or the meeting of this life partner, fair and Biblical?  How much of what you expect or desire is culturally informed and how much is what God intents? Re-evaluate your image of marriage and lovein prayer, study and discussions.
  • Become marriable. Marriage is great when both you and your spouse are loving people, meaning you are patient, kind, gentle, humble, faithful, honest, etc.  So grow to “have love”  ( 1 Corinthians 13:1) – spend time with friends and family where you deliberately grow in the loving character of Jesus our example.
  • Marry a Christian. Rather than building catalogues of potential mates to build through, marry a good Christian.  Any good Christian whom you respect and can have pleasant conversation with.  Re-evaluate your “check lists” – cut it down to “godly man” / “virtuous woman” who has friends and family that prove he/she can maintain healthy relationships.  Don’t look for the perfect partner – find a suitable partner who share your convictions, because once you marry you find out that imperfections are part of relational life, which mainly get dealt with inside the marriage. [I don’t propose marry without discretion and counsel, I simply mean to
  • Grow in contentment. In the pursuit of your life mate, learn contentment as Paul did with being single now.  Use your flexibility and time well now to noble causes that you cannot do once you have family responsibility.  Don’t allow the desire for marital intimacy consume you; learn contentment and find joy in your situation now.  But never loose hope – God hears and God cares!

[i] From a teaching of Ps Fred May “Love is Not Enough” 2002 in Shofar Christian Church, Stellenbosch.

On marriage and our culture

Marriage is still very popular[1], but it is increasingly reported that single Christians struggle to find suitable life partners[2], which is ironic in this information-age where a Google search for “dating web sites” return 122 million responses in under 1 second.  This seems to indicate that a multitude of possible life partners does not solve the problem of loneliness.  But why not?  Is it because there are too many options, or that a more perfect partner is perhaps one more click away…?

Another possible explanation why single people today struggle to find suitable life partners are due to unclear or unrealistic expectations from marriage and marriage partners.  The myriads of writings and  media resources[3] bring varied opinions and ideologies about marriage which leave a world in confusion about the essence and design of marriage as God intended it.  In particular three most destructive trends keep people from finding and enjoying fulfilled marital lives: firstly the culturally accepted norm of “falling in love”[4] where marital partners are selected (and de-selected) based primarily on emotions. Secondly, the belief that there is a “other half” or “soul-mate”[5] you need to find in order enjoy a fulfilled marriage relationship. Thirdly, the consumerist mindset that markets, searches and compares potential partners to seek an ideal fit, as we do with accessories, cars or clothes. These secular ideas are perpetually propagated and fueled by contemporary music, films and novels, and has become normative in our Christian thinking.

I believe that finding a marriage partner is not primarily about falling in love, not about finding my soul mate, and not at all about comparative shopping.  These ideas are foreign to Scripture and does not lead to fulfilled marriage.  This leaves us with the questions “what is marriage?” and “what makes marriage work?”

In the light of this confusion I find God’s message through the prophet Malachi refreshingly clear and concise.  Although the tone of the conversation we pick up is quite negative: God says that He has no interest in listening to the religious elite’s prayers because of their lack of respect for the institution of marriage and their marriage partners (Malachi 2:13).  Then the the Lord clarifies the intent and meaning of marriage, cautioning them regarding the destructiveness of promiscuity and divorce for both the couple and the children.  Malachi 2:14-16 reads as follows:

But you say, “Why does [God not hear our prayers]?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.  Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

The terms God uses to define marriage in and it’s intent in this passage are companionship, covenant, union, for children, and faithfulness.  Let’s look at each one of them to re-evaluate our understanding of marriage.

old-married-couple

  1. Marriage is companionship: she is your companion”

In definition and defense of marriage in Malachi 2:14-18, God first mentions companionship.  Here in Malachi 2:14-15 companion refers to the wife, but in Proverbs 2:17 it refers to the husband. Marriage is companionship.

The common interpretation of the role of the wife as “the helper” quoted from Genesis 2:18 is understood to mean that she should help in the purpose of the husband and running of the household.

However, that interpretation misses the intended meaning of Eve as helper, and the primary intent and definition of marriage.  Genesis 2:18 reads “LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’”  To understand the meaning of the term “helper”, one should ask “in what area did Adam need help when the Lord graciously sought to solve his problem?”  The answer is clear from the context: Adam was lonely – in the midst of a perfect world!  Adam needed someone to share life with, to take away the sting of loneliness.  Adam needed companionship, and the Lord gave him a helper, a companion.

This first picture of marriage is important since it reveals God’s design intent of marriage: to remove the sting of loneliness, so that man and woman may share the fullness of life together in intimate relationship.

Another important point to notice here is that while Adam was in a perfect environment, in a perfect relationship with God – with no sin and consequently no separation because of it ­­– Adam had a need for companionship which God recognized, God articulated, and God acted upon to solve.  (The solution was marriage).  I mention this because I have read and heard too many times that single people should “find their happiness and contentment in God.”  The sentiment is great, but it seems as though God did not meet that need for companionship in Adam, and that He was the one who recognized (and even created) that need in Adam, and provided that for that need in companionship.

Marriage is companionship.  Marriage is given to eradicate loneliness.  This is the primary task and responsibility of the marriage partner.  Every other motive for entering into marriage will set one up for disappointment and eventually marital failure.

Rings - the sign of the covenant
Rings – the sign of the covenant
  1. Marriage is covenant: she is …your wife by covenant”

In Christian circles we frequently hear that marriage is a covenant (legal promise).  But less frequently the covenant is defined.  We frequently read or hear about the ceremony regarding ancient vow-taking, but the essence of the vow is mentioned less frequently.

However, every person who contemplates divorce remembers his/ her vows to be something like “I will never leave you nor forsake you… in good times and bad… in sickness and health…” And that is the essence of the promise: marriage is a covenant of companionship[6]a promise to never allow the other person to feel lonely again.   Marriage is a promise which bind two people together in this life in mutual partnership.  Where two is better than one.[7]  It is not a contract of mutual performance (“you do this – i do that”) but rather a promise of companionship (“being with you always, regardless of your performance or state”) as Ruth did to Naomi. [8]

Marriage is covenant – a partnership by promise to remain together and share all “until death do us part”.  Marriage is a covenant of companionship.

  1. Marriage is unity: make them one”

One of the most frequently quoted Old Testament text by New Testament authors is Genesis 2:24, where we are reminded that the essence of marriage is to “leave” what is familiar and “cleave” your spouse, and “the two shall become one flesh.”  Thus the unity requires in part our participation (perpetual actions that move us towards our spouse (“cleave”) and move away from our old familiar life of singleness (“leave”).  But God’s strong hatred for the Israelite’s prevailing indifference and unfaithfulness towards marriage in Malachi 2:15 also reveals His part in marital union: “did not I make them one with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” 

This phrase shows the essence of marriage is a mystical, spiritual union of two people, brought about by God.  “Mystical” means something difficult to explain, but can be understood through participation.  This truth is also taught by Jesus when He is asked to comment on the practice of divorce made cheap in His day: “So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:8-9).    It is a mystical unity that speaks of a shared life, a shared identity.

Although the unity is difficult to observe, the effects of separation – what Malachi calls “violence to one’s flesh” (Malachi 2:16) – is observable.  The well-researched, traumatic effects of divorce affect the loss of identity, decreased emotional and physical health as well as shortened life expectancy, lowered social status, increased financial pressure and lowered relational attachment[9]. The devastation in children affected by divorce include behavioral problems such as aggression and rebellion, psychological effects such as depression,  anxiety and lowered concentration, followed lower academic achievement and poor self-esteem.[10]   These adverse effects in physical, emotional and spiritual well-being makes sense when one considers that divorce is a tearing apart of two people that have in reality become one, causing tremendous injury and death in all involved.

 holding baby

  1. Marriage is for Godly offspring: what was… God seeking? Godly offspring.”

Contemporary Western civilization is self-seeking, bent on entertainment and consumerism.  It is a culture that opposes long-term commitments, any difficulty and a sacrificial lifestyle.  This lifestyle hates children and views such dependent relationships as burdensome and thus undesirable.  Even within good marriages children will be delayed as long as possible to ensure a time of care-free enjoyment.  And a family who has more than 2-3 children will be followed by stares and comments such as “don’t you have a TV?” from passer-by’s wherever they go.

At the heart of this culture, marriage is for self-enrichment and pleasure for self children is an after-though or necessity to prolong society.  However, God says He made marriage as a union to solve the problem of man’s loneliness through the covenant of companionship.  Yet, what He wants from this union is “godly offspring”.  Marriage is the only setting where godly offspring can be raised, in the secure setting of mutual faithfulness.  This is the place where godliness is modeled and grafted into the young children, and where children are protected in their identity and perception of others from the “violence” of divorce and unfaithfulness. Thus the immediate context of the phrase in Malachi 2:15-16 teaches us that “godly offspring” require “faithfulness” in the union between husband and wife, to not bring about “violence” to the home.

When God thinks of marriage, he thinks of children.  What God wants from the union of marriage is godly offspring.

couple-bed-feet

  1. Marriage requires faithfulness: do not be faithless”

However, “Why does he not [hear our prayer]?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant… So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi 2v16)

Marriage is a divine union through a covenant of companionship, a place where Godly offspring is raised.  And marriage requires faithfulness.  Two reasons for faithfulness emerge from the text:

Malachi 2:14 starts with a question from the Israelites who faithfully offer to God sacrifices to maintain good relationship with Him, and entreat His favor.  But God says clearly that He does not hear their petitions, because of their marital unfaithfulness.  About 450 years later the Apostle Peter again wrote to the people of God “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel… so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7).  This is a profound statement – that God cares so much about our marital relations that He either hears our prayers or not!  Thus the first reason for faithfulness in marriage is because God sees, God cares, and God requires faithfulness (and honor) at home before He accepts public worship or answers prayers.

Yet a second reason in the text seems to be the core reason of the appeal to marital faithfulness from God: to not cause “violence” to self, your spouse or your children.  This text enriches our understanding of our sexuality, teaching us that sexual practices are not merely physical or biological activities, but also spiritual and relational.  Malachi warns that sexual promiscuity has a negative impact on your own spirit and therefore cautions us to “guard yourself in your spirit”.  Your spirit is the seat of your identity and relationships, is your capacity to create and dream (hope), to rejoice, to endure, to trust (or have faith), to communicate, to understand or perceive etc. God says “preserve this! – do not be sexually unfaithful!” 

But God also says to remain faithful to your wife for the sake of your wife and children – since the breaking of the covenant brings violence to the spirits of the entire family (as mentioned in the previous section).  It seems as though the covenant family enjoys protection from God as God enters into the marriage with “a portion of [His] Spirit in their union” (v15), and faithlessness regarding the covenant allows violence to spirits of the family members, especially if the faithlessness leads to the breaking of the covenant (divorce).

married-couple-talk

Conclusion and practical response

Thus a clear definition and intent of marriage from Malachi 2 could read:

Marriage is a covenant of companionship by which God makes the husband and wife one for the sake of godly offspring, which is preserved in mutual faithfulness.

How do we respond to this revelation of marriage from Scripture?   We need to re-evaluate our expectations of marriage and our (potential) marriage partners in light of God’s design.  For a fulfilled life, we need to approach marriage from a Biblical perspective otherwise we will not find the life of satisfaction and joy God contained therein.

Our first mental adjustment from this definition is that marriage is not primarily a romantic notion.  It is a relationship built on companionship, trust, faithfulness and a shared life.  Thus the marriage partner is not firstly a lover, but a companion.  The aim is an intimate life, not an erotic life.  What one seeks for in a marriage partner, and seeks to maintain in marriage is good companionship: someone trustworthy, someone supportive, someone with whom you can live well and work well.  Someone to take away loneliness by living a shared existence.

Secondly, marriage is permanent.  Malachi’s understanding of marriage re-enforces the truth that marriage is indeed “until death do us part”, and the consequences of faithlessness and divorce is “violence” – death and destruction to all involved.  This requires loyal devotion as well as patience and forgiveness from both marriage partners. Thus marriage cannot be approached with the self-centered consumer mindset, where marriage partners are compared and traded in.

Thirdly, the end of marriage is not merely “my happiness” but a Godly legacy, including God-fearing children.  The pursuit of self-indulgence (“my happiness”) increases selfishness – the worst enemy of marital joy and bliss.

How do we renew our minds about Godly marriage?  I suggest three ways, the first of which are obvious: study the Scriptures to prayerfully evaluate and re-adjust your own opinions of marriage.  I do not believe that a mere reading of the Bible is sufficient for transformation here – one has to systematically study it, preferably in discussion with your spouse.  Secondly, once a good Biblical understanding of marriage is established, one needs to actively evaluate the underlying presumptions and messages in contemporary music, novels and movies, etc relating to love and marriage.  For the trout to swim upstream he needs to know the force with which the river is flowing downstream, and compensate appropriately.  Lastly, and sadly this is a difficult one: find a godly example of marriage and make deliberate effort to spend time with them and learn from them. A good, living example is still the best way to grow in godliness.

So, in light of this Scripture – how does your view of marriage compare with God’s design and intent?

[1] Amidst increasing divorce rates, 80% of Americans are still expected to marry according to NY Times article by Cherlin A. J., In the season of marriage, a question – why bother?, NY Times Sunday Review dated 27 April 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/opinion/sunday/why-do-people-still-bother-to-marry.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[2] From Christian Today published 18 April 2013 http://www.christiantoday.com/article/single.christians.experience.anxiety/32169.htm

[3] A search into the Amazon online shopping database on “marriage” results in more than 230’000 books and related resources. Accessed 14 July 2014.

[4] From the Roman Cupid myth where the belief is that the angel Cupid shoots arrows and the victim falls helplessly in love with another upon sight. Refer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid

[5] From the Greek creation myth where the humans were created both male and female in one body, one soul, but for their rebellion Zeus split them in half so that they male and female would forwever wander miserably in search for their other half or “soul mate” Refer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul_mate

[6] Adams J.E., Marriage, Remarriage and Divorce, Baker House Books (Grand Rapids, MI, 1980), p8

[7] See Ecclesiates 4:9-11.

[8] See Ruth 1:16 -17 as a good example of such a vow, although this vow is not between husband and wife, the context is a vow of companionship.

[9] Hawkins J.H., Fackrell T.A., Should I keep trying to work it out? (Utah Commission on Marriage: 2009), p96.  Online version and program available here: http://divorce.usu.edu/

[10] Cherlin A.J. et al, Longitudinal studies of effects of divorce on children in Great Britain and the United States, Science, Vol. 252 no. 5011, 7 June 1991, pp. 1386-1389