Tying ourselves to the mast

April 30, 2013
This book is simply one of the best I've ever read.

This book is simply one of the best I’ve ever read.

In my sermon last Sunday, I talked briefly about the surprising good news of marriage’s “no escape clause.” It’s good news, I said, that we’re “stuck” to the person to whom we’re married, at least in the short run. Even with no-fault divorces, divorce remains (thank God) costly and difficult.

How can we make sure we’re “stuck” for a lifetime? Which is another way of asking, “How can we keep our Christian marriage vows? How can we remain true to the covenant into which we enter on our wedding day?”

Well, we certainly don’t do it simply by finding the person with whom we are “compatible”—I don’t care what Match.com or eHarmony promise. (Notice how both those companies’ names imply compatibility.) Compatibility doesn’t amount to much, because, at best, it’s only a snapshot. Marriage partners change. Compatibility today doesn’t guarantee compatibility in the future. As Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes pointed out, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed—and each of the five has been me.”[1]

Or as contemporary Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas (who coined what’s become known as the “Hauerwas Rule”: “You always marry the wrong person”), wrote: “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it  a while and he or she will change… The primary problem is… learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”[2]

How do we do it? Timothy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage is filled with wisdom and practical guidance. In my sermon, I intended to share some positive statistics about marriage, which Keller cites in his book. One, based on longitudinal peer-reviewed research, says that fully two-thirds of unhappily married couples will get happy again within five years if they wait that long. I love this analogy:

When Ulysses was traveling to the island of the Sirens, he knew that he would go mad when he heard the voices of the women on the rocks. He also learned that the insanity would be temporary, lasting until he could get out of earshot. He didn’t want to do something while temporarily insane that would have permanent bad consequences. So he put wax in the ears of his sailors, tied himself to the mast, and told his men to keep him on course no matter what he yelled…

What can keep marriages together during the rough patches? The vows. A public oath, made to the world, keeps you “tied to the mast” until your mind clears and you begin to understand things better.[3]

Keller explores the power of the promises we make. He quotes Smedes again:

The connecting link with my old self has always been the memory of the name I took on back there: “I am he who will be there with you.” When we slough off that name, lose that identity, we can hardly find ourselves again.[4]

1. Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 92.

2. Ibid., 38.

3. Ibid., 87.

4. Ibid., 38.

2 Responses to “Tying ourselves to the mast”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I largely agree with this, but with a caveat. I agree that nobody should get divorced based on “incompatibility.” But, I think there can be OTHER reasons why it is sometimes okay for a person to “put away” the other spouse. Jesus himself mentioned adultery as a proper ground for divorce. I think that abuse can also be a ground.

    I look at this issue, as with others, under my lens of “the doctrine of competing principles” (my own moniker!). The vow is for life. That’s a principle which, unless it collides with another principle, totally controls. But sometimes controlling principles do collide with each other in our “sin-warped” universe, in which case one or the other or both have to give way somewhat. God himself speaks figuratively of putting away Israel for her infidelities. And I think maintaining physical wellbeing, especially for the protection of children, is another “principle” which can collide with the vow and sometimes override it. Conceivably there could be other circumstances. But never just because you “get tired of” the other spouse or just believe you “made the wrong choice” or the “going gets rough.”

    A similar “principle” context is not lying. All other things being equal, it is always wrong to lie. But what about if you are Corrie Ten Boom and you are hiding Jews from the Nazi’s? Preserving life overrides the truth rule (I think). Not wanting to break a young child’s spirit by telling her what you “really think” about the picture she drew could be another example.

    I would love to hear what you think of this reasoning.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree with you, Tom. (Keller mentions God’s “divorcing” Israel, too.) There are a rare number of circumstances in which divorce would be a gracious option of last resort. But until we reach the “last resort,” we haven’t exhausted all other options. As for physical abuse, of course I agree.

      The problem is that most people, even Christians, feel perfectly justified getting divorced for any number of reasons that fall far short of the principles that emerge from scripture. That’s a problem.


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