In the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus teaches about the bond of marriage, the disciples respond with their conclusion, “It’s better not to marry” (19.10). Jesus doesn’t disagree. In 1 Corinthians, after Paul answers questions about marriage, he adds, “If you do not have a wife, do not seek to get married. But if you do get married, it is not a sin” (7.28).
Try writing that verse at the bottom of your next Valentine’s Day card. Everybody seems to know that the Bible is anti-divorce; verses like these make the Bible sound anti-marriage, too. It’s not a sin to get married, Paul says, but it’s probably better if you never do.
Why does he hold such a tepid view of Christian marriage? Two reasons, and the first is spiritual. It’s not that Paul thinks marriage isn’t a good thing—for some people, at least. It’s that marriage for Paul is clearly not the most important thing—not even for married people (7.29). Serving Christ is best. Even if you are married, he says, you mustn’t focus only on your marriage; pleasing the spouse matters, but pleasing Christ matters most. Your life is not about marriage—it’s about Christ. The second reason Paul points believers away from marriage is practical. He explains, “Those who get married at this time will have troubles, and I am trying to spare you these problems” (7.28).
In other words, marriage is hard. It can be a lot of trouble, which comes as a surprise, since the bridal magazines and wedding planners never tell a couple what it means to promise “for worse.” When things actually get worse, the lovers are bewildered. If the misery lasts for very long, the pain can become overwhelming. Many wives and husbands finally end the marriage just to relieve the pain, having also never been told that divorce brings its own form of pain.
Don’t say Paul didn’t warn you. Simply speaking, marriage involves pain, because life involves pain. Of course as a society, our pain tolerance is very low. Our great-grandparents came through World Wars and the Great Depression, but we can’t get through a normal day without some form of medication or escape. The wedding vows handed down from previous generations are honest about the old sources of pain in marriage: poverty and sickness.
Those external threats were what couples used to fear—the threat of debilitating illness, the challenge of putting food on the table. Truly, little irritations don’t matter when you don’t know where the next meal will come from, or when you have Nazis. Lacking such fears, married couples now have the luxury and liberty to turn against one another over issues less-related to death and life— internal threats related to relational dysfunction or bad habits. For the man and woman who can’t even keep their friendship alive, the marriage struggle is real.