[Someone:] "...and who you marry is the most important decision of your life..."I had no intention of setting off so explosive a debate, but with young married friends in the car, I should have known better. We all engaged in friendly fracas, throwing out Scripture and invoking everyone from Jesus Christ to Hitler.
[Me:] "I hope I get to make decisions in my life more important than who I marry."
This may seem like a triviality or a debate over definitions, but I believe something of substance is at issue. Clearly, one's choice of spouse is a weighty and ticklish matter, and all the more important in a liberated society, one where neither women nor men are firmly wedded to societal norms. But what could be more important? Deciding to pursue a career that leads to a cure for cancer? Deciding to take a nation to war? No less a dignitary than Mrs. Hill agreed that for truly remarkable, influential people, their choice of spouse could be a decision of less import than other decisions they must make. As I asked a few times, Who was Winston Churchill's wife?
Most of my friends, however, seem to believe that for ordinary folks, a marriage is the most vital decision one can make (outside of choosing to follow Christ). Taking as given that we as Christians seek to glorify God above all, and that we generally do so in human life through relationships, it follows (they argue) that this most intimate of all human crucibles is thereby the most important; the more so because it greatly affects every subsequent relationship.
Furthermore, one friend argued, ambition is dangerous. To desire a decision of more import than marriage is to desire greatness, that unmeasurable but undeniable quality of but few of our race. This desire, I am told, leads to pride, running counter to the attitude of a Christian.
I concede this point to the degree that said ambition becomes the driving force in a man's life. But why does marriage get off so lightly? Is not the desire for a noble spouse just as selfish as the desire to be the best athlete or most successful CEO? Is it not a more godly attitude in any area of life to hope that one has the opportunity to make important decisions - and that one makes them well - than to avoid responsibility to the wider world?
When did Christianity cease to have as a central interest the state of the world around it? When did the family become the sole sphere of godly action and selflessness? Is not a man who delays marriage to care for his parents - my Moroccan friend Driss, a reader of this blog, comes to mind - more noble than one who marries wisely but neglects his aging parents? Jesus, speaking in Mark 7:11, certainly suggests so. Or does Mr. Churchill's choice of Clementine Hozier (after, Wikipedia notes, being turned down by Ethel Barrymore) loom larger in God's economy than his decision to go to war with Nazi Germany? And cannot the same be said for many people in many fields: that their decision for good or ill in some area of their life had a far greater impact - on people's lives, on world history, or on the advancement of God's peace on earth - than their decision of whom to marry.
Marriage is a God-given institution and dear to many hearts, married and single. To speak personally, I find in myself many oft-conflicting desires, impulses, appetites, and goals. Among these is the desire to marry and become a father. But these are not somehow more sanctified nor more important than, say, my desire to help my fellow man or my impulse to compete and excel. This perspective is borrowed from C.S. Lewis, who notes in The Screwtape Letters that even as 'good' an impulse as patriotism or mother-love can be wrong if not controlled by the will. Scripture is not silent on this issue:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband...But this I say by way of concession, not of command...To Paul, the fetishism of marriage in the American church would be a humorous reversal of first-century norms. Enshrinement of temporal relationships is as foolish as their denial.
But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.
-I Corinthians 7:1-8, exerpted
Thus, it is rather in the manner I carry out the business of my life than in the content therof that God is chiefly glorified. Thus, the decisions of what career to pursue, where to live, or whom to marry are of import - but not of as great import as my friends suggest. Decisions of significantly greater magnitude are, I believe, a rare privilege, and one to be desired. As the Lord said,
"His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'"