As I write, I am in Prague—a romantic city paved with cobblestone streets, littered with cafes and built around a magnificent, picturesque castle. Unfortunately, I have been in one of the most romantic European cities for five weeks without my husband. I currently work with a Christian organization, Cru, that takes university students all over the world for summer missions. On a daily basis, we go onto university campuses and ask Czech students cultural and spiritual questions. While the work is important, I think anyone can concede that five weeks away from one’s spouse is difficult. Further, Silas and I are newlyweds, so I will admit to having shed a good amount of tears these past five weeks.
As my time here in Prague is coming to an end, I can now see how the trip and the many tears are acting as a gift and a lesson in marriage. Generally speaking, Czechs cohabitate with their short-term or long-term partners rather than choosing to marry, and the Czech Republic holds one of the highest divorce rates in Europe. I see the statistics lived out in the lives of my new Czech friends, who mostly do not believe in the institution of marriage. Whenever a new Czech friends finds out that I am married, I am met with curiosity and endless questions aimed at why I would choose to marry at the young age of twenty-five. In the midst of the questions, many of my female Czech friends betray an almost secret longing to be married to their long-term, cohabiting boyfriends. The amount of single mothers in the Czech Republic reflects this downward trend in marriage and an upward trend in divorce and relational instability. Underlying the resistance to formalized marriage, I sense a desire for independence from religion but also a sense of insecurity generated by the lack of commitment.
I am not writing to critique Czech culture. While more Americans give a go at marriage, we do not produce wonderful statistics on long-term marriages. In fact, we produce quite the opposite. Instead, I am writing because of a conversation I had today with a Czech girl named Šárka. Like many young people, Šárka does not believe in marriage, so she was fascinated by my relationship with Silas. She was curious why I chose to marry Silas rather than choosing to live together indefinitely. She wanted to hear my perspective on dating, sex, etc. The conversation caused helpful self-reflection on my part, and I am thankful for her questions and her perspective. While opinions on the ins and outs of dating and marriage differ amongst Christians, I think the linchpin of Christian marriage is promise making and promise keeping.
It was when Šárka asked, “Aren’t you afraid that you will regret your decision and want something else later in life?” that I realized both the risk and the reward of marriage. When Silas and I were married, we made promises to put the other person first and to cherish one another until separated by death. One of my favorite theologians, Robert Jenson, talks about all human communication as either gift or demand. Gifts come in the form of promises, where someone offers another person a proposed future free of obligation and motivated by joy and love. Alternatively, if relationships are not offered as gift, they are offered in the form of obligation and requirement. If Silas and I had not made promises to cherish one another unto death, we could easily live together in manipulative ways, using the possibility of leaving as a way to require the other to meet our needs.
Humanity has a bent towards faithlessness and manipulation. When we look at the ways God makes promises to humanity in Scripture, we see good promises met with not thankfulness and joy but with complaint and faithlessness. Rather than scraping the entire human project, God makes better and better promises, climaxing in the incarnation. In our inability to take hold of God’s promises, Jesus comes as both the promise maker and the promise fulfiller. In Christ, God’s grace is given and humanity is made faithful. The gospel is thus promise made and promise fulfilled in Christ.
As the Spirit of God transforms us into the image of Christ, we are more and more able to live self-less, love filled lives. We are more able to deny our rights over others and able to graciously give of ourselves as gift rather than relating to others in terms of demand and obligation. This is how I think of Christian marriage. Christians should seek to communicate not by means of obligation but by means of gift. In the promises we make and (by grace) fulfill, the gospel orients our lives. In marriage, husbands and wives do not lord over one another or manipulate the other with threats of various sorts. Instead, we give ourselves as gifts to one another and are then able to gift ourselves as couples to a world in need images of promise making and promise faithfulness. I am not naïve enough to think Silas and I will be forever in newlywed bliss. I recognize there might be times where Šárka’s idea of leaving an option of “an out” will be appealing, but this is not the way of giving gifts and making promises. If the gospel is a story of ultimate promise, I want my marriage to be a relationship of learning gospel faithfulness, of learning how to make joyful and loving promises rather than acting only in my individual best interest. So, Šárka is right to think that marriage comes with a cost, but I believe the cost is part of the blessing. I hope that my marriage will be a gift to both Silas and myself and will consequently be a blessing to the world, as we are together formed more into the image of Christ.