One of my favorite cartoons shows a group of cavemen standing on top of a cliff, watching one of their own fall over the edge. But he hasn’t fallen—he’s been thrown. As he falls, the group’s leader looks angrily at the others. “Well, is there anyone else here whose needs are not being met?”
This is a mischievous but timely critique of a culture in which we expect everything—including our marriages—to meet our needs.
When we approach marriage expecting our needs to be met, we fail to understand the real nature of love, and we sow seeds of marital destruction. God hasn’t designed marriage as a means to meet our personal needs. Assuming marriage is about meeting needs is dangerous for at least two reasons.
1. Because it’s not real love.
Inward-looking marriage isn’t real love because it encourages us to view sex and marriage selfishly. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you?” Jesus asked (Luke 6:32). Any love that merely gazes adoringly into the eyes of another who adores us isn’t really love at all.
One of the most frightening things about Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) is that the rich man seems to have been a good family man. Even in the place of the dead he’s concerned for his brothers. But his so-called love isn’t really love at all, for it never extends to Lazarus, the poor man lying at his gate. He cares for his family, but his care doesn’t overflow to needy people outside.
Marriage and family can easily become a respectable form of selfishness. If we marry mainly to meet our own needs, then our marriages will be just that: good-looking masks for selfishness.
If we marry mainly to meet our own needs, then our marriages will be just that: good-looking masks for selfishness.
It is a short step from “loving you” to “loving me and wanting you.” And it’s too easy for Christians to think of marriage as a discipleship-free zone. Outside of marriage we love to talk about sacrifice, taking up our cross, and so on. But inside marriage we often talk about how to communicate better, how to be more intimate, how to have better sex, how to be happy.
If a marriage isn’t serving God, no amount of personal and sexual fulfillment will make it right. After all, so far as we can see, Ananias and Sapphira had a marriage with excellent communication and shared values. Each understood the other perfectly, yet they suffered terrible deaths under the righteous judgment of God (Acts 5:1–11).
2. Because it destroys marriages and society.
A self-centered view of sex and marriage destroys marriage and society. At a time when we have higher-than-ever expectations of what marriage offers, marriages are crumbling as never before.
We can see this destructiveness by looking at how societies work. Societies in which sex and marriage are viewed as a means to personal fulfillment encourage a man and a woman to gaze into each other’s eyes, encourage each to find in the other all they need, each to be all to the other. Such cultures promote what we may call a “religion of coupledom,” in which the goal of every man and woman is to live in such an exquisite union. The very word “relationship,” when used as shorthand for “sexual relationship,” reveals this way of thinking. To not be in a “relationship” is presumably to be lonely. And if it were true that “relationship” is found primarily in sexual relationship, then we would have to seek sexual intimacy at all costs. We don’t need to swallow this lie.
Overemphasizing couples as couples also isolates them from the supportive influences of wider family and society. The defining moment is thought to be when they’re alone in the bedroom, not when they’re serving as a new social and family unit. Historian Lawrence Stone writes:
It is an ironic thought that just at the moment when some thinkers are heralding the advent of the perfect marriage based on full satisfaction of the sexual, emotional, and creative needs of both husband and wife, the proportion of marital breakdowns . . . is rising rapidly.
Christopher Brooke, another historian, observes: “While faced with the spectacle of broken marriages, we have come (by a strange paradox which however goes very deep into the roots of the subject) to expect far more from a happy marriage.” Yet one theologian put it, “Even the smallest cottage of the happiest of lovers cannot be habitable unless it has at least a door and a few windows opening outwards.”
The key to a good marriage isn’t to pursue a good marriage, but to pursue the honor of God.
We are not made to gaze forever into the eyes of another human being and find in them all we need. If we think we are, we’re bound to be disappointed. If my dear wife ever thought I could be everything to her, she certainly knows better now! And, of course, if I think marriage is there to meet my needs, what do I do when it fails to meet them?
This irony—that we expect so much of marriage but find it disappointing—is an irony Scripture understands perfectly. It’s called idolatry. If I pursue any goal above the honor of God, I’m worshiping an idol. The moment I make my “relationship” the goal of my life, I doom myself to disappointment.
Surprisingly, the key to a good marriage isn’t to pursue a good marriage, but to pursue the honor of God.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted except from Christopher Ash’s book Married for God: Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be (Crossway, 2016).