In 1753, a love-smitten, John Newton (author of Amazing Grace), wrote to his new bride about his deep love for her. As he expressed flowering sentiments to her, he also expressed these words: “I wish to limit my passion within those bounds which God has appointed.” In other words, he loved her deeply but wanted to be sure that he didn’t love her too much.
What Newton was expressing was the idea that marriage could become an idol. It is a great gift from God and is a means by which we can display God’s glory. It is an apt shadow of Christ and His relationship with the church.
But is it possible, as Newton intimated, for our passions to go outside the bounds in which God has appointed? What would that look like? And if marriage has become an idol, what do we do in response?
What Is an Idol?
The best definition that I’ve seen for an idol is that given by Tim Keller in his book Counterfeit Gods:
“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give… An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure. There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.”
For many, the prospect of marriage can quickly turn into an idol. Some who are single feel as if this is the thing, which will complete them. Often times the church does not help in this regard.
The church can mistakenly exalt marriage to a position that is unhealthy and cause singles to feel as if they are second-class. In doing this, we end up cooperating with, rather than mortifying, a bent toward an idolatrous view of marriage.
But the same can be true for those who are already married. Our spouse, or even an idea we have of marriage, can become more important for us than our relationship with Christ.
This is what Newton meant when he told his wife, Mary (also called Polly), that he wished to “limit my passion with those bounds which God has appointed.”
Our spouse should never take the place of God in our lives. To do this is not only to put undue weight upon them, but it also will inevitably do harm to the relationship. Idolatry isn’t love. And it undercuts God’s purpose for marriage.
What Is God’s Purpose for Marriage?
A while back, I wrote a curriculum for a marriage seminar. Part of my task in this was to define marriage. This is what I came up with: “marriage is a binding covenant created by God between one man and one woman for our holiness, for our joy, as a picture of the gospel to spread the glory of God.”
We could probably quibble with a few words here and there, and it might be helpful to add something in there about procreation, but I think this is still a pretty solid definition, especially when it comes to the purpose section.
It’s common to believe that marriage is meant only for personal satisfaction and fulfillment. In this view, the purpose of marriage is for two people to fall in love, express that love, and enjoy each other. But what happens in difficult times?
If marriage is meant predominately for my happiness, does this mean we can leave our spouse if they are no longer “making us happy”? That is a subpar view of Christian marriage. God uses our marriage as one means to redeem us and make us holy.
But a view, which believes that marriage is only to make us holy also misses the mark. We should desire each other’s joy and satisfaction. Marriage can, and should, be extremely joyful.
If you don’t believe me, look at Song of Solomon. But there is also a relationship between holiness and joy. If marriage increases our holiness, it likely will also increase our joy. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Marriage, though, is not only for us. It is also a cosmic display of the glory of God. It is meant to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church. It’s a visible picture for all the universe to see.
And this relationship is meant to spread the glory of God to the nations. Not only through procreation but also through a husband and wife loving one another well.
The purpose of your marriage, then, is not only about you. It’s about displaying the glory of God. This is why idolatry of marriage is such a danger. If our enemy can make this picture one that is focused on humanity, then the display of the gospel is marred.
What Do You Do if Marriage Has Become an Idol?
I appreciate what Newton said to his wife, Polly. I think there is a good heart and intention behind his words. But at the same time, I’m not entirely sure that it is wise counsel.
When we think about idols in the scriptures, they are to be destroyed and utterly decimated for the false gods that they are. How do you do that with a marriage? Is it even helpful to think of your marriage as an idol?
It might be more effective to not think of marriage itself as an idol but rather that marriage is the arena in which another idol is displayed. Do you have an inordinate desire for human affection?
Is your desire to be loved by another so intense because something is unsettled in your relationship with the Lord? Are you making your spouse (or even the idea of a spouse) a functional idol in your life?
When we frame it this way, we can come to a solution a bit easier. If your marriage is an idol, the answer isn’t divorce. That is not the right solution.
The issue isn’t that you are married, and it’s likely not even your spouse. The issue is within your own heart. So, what does God do to pull us away from idols and into deeper affection with Himself?
I once did an in-depth study on idolatry in the Old Testament. What immerged was that God primarily uses two things to root out idolatry. First, he exposes the emptiness of idols.
Secondly, he exalts His fullness at the idol’s expense. You can see this strategy employed in Psalm 115. Whereas the idols are empty to prosper, YHWH is powerful to abundantly bless.
In regards to marriage, we might say that marriage is wonderful, but it makes a horrible god. It will always leave us empty if we attempt to make our marriage do things that only God can do.
And God will graciously allow this idol to come up empty in our lives. Though marriage is a wonderful blessing, He will not allow it to take His position in our hearts. He loves us too much for that.
This seems to me to be the most prominent strategy the Lord employs in conquering idols in the hearts of his people. Psalm 115 is a beautiful picture of the convergence of both of these strategies.
In the first section of Psalm 115, the Lord exposes the emptiness and nothingness of idols and those that follow them. In the second section of Psalm 115, he reminds the Israelites of the work and blessing that He has accomplished on their behalf.
Love your spouse but love them as your spouse. When we have difficulties in our marriage, allow those difficulties to drive us to a deeper longing for Christ. Yes, marriage is a shadow. But it’s only a shadow.
Christ is the fulfillment. When we do this, it will not cause us to diminish our spouse or disrespect them, but it will cause us to love them rightly. When we make our marriage an idol, we aren’t in a position to love with the deep affection, which comes from being securely loved by Christ.
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