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When Two Become One?
No, this post isn’t an oblique reference to the Spice Girls ;)
Instead, it’s inspired by a short Tim Challies’ article, Two Lives Blending Into One Life in which he reflects on a little book (published around the beginning of the twentieth century), authored by JR Miller and titled The Wedded Life.
Challies includes an extended quote from Miller’s book, calling it ‘wise counsel’ for married couples. While I encourage you to head across and read the article in full, I wanted to share just a couple of excerpts from the extended quote here.
“No marriage is complete, which does not unite and blend the wedded lives at every point. This can be secured only by making every interest common to both.”
“Let the whole life be made common.”
“Thus they should live one life as it were, not two.”
“The moment a man begins to leave his wife out of any part of his life—or that she has plans, hopes, pleasures, friendships or experiences from which she excludes him—there is peril in the home.”
“Thus their two lives should blend in one life with no thought, no desire, no feeling, no joy or sorrow, no pleasure or pain, unshared.”
It sounds just so whimsically lovely, doesn’t it?
But stop. Go back. Carefully re-read each of those quotes. Did you genuinely absorb their meaning?
A marriage is only complete if the life of a husband and wife is blended at every point.
Every single interest of one—the whole of their life—needs to be common to the other.
There should not be any single part of one’s life that does not include the other. A husband is to have no experience that excludes his wife. A wife is to have no friendship that excludes her husband
They should have absolutely no thought, feeling, desire, sorrow, joy, pain or pleasure not shared with the other. None at all.
JR Miller is saying—this ‘wise counsel’—that the individual lives of a husband and a wife in this world should blend into one life.
They should no longer be two individuals living their own lives as those in an exclusive and covenanted relationship with each other. Instead, they are to live one life. They are to have absolutely everything in common with one another. Nothing is to go unshared. To fail to blend their lives into one means that not only is their marriage incomplete, but their home is in peril.
Aspiring to Oneness?
As I read this excerpt, I was reminded of an anecdote I heard recently. It was given by a faithful and thoughtful Christian pastor explaining the kind of aspiration he has for his marriage, and indeed for all Christian marriages.
He told the (real) story of an elderly married couple who visited a new doctor for the first time. The doctor was taking both their medical histories. The husband listed off his various ailments, medications and surgeries. When he said, “And then I had my appendix out”, his wife leaned over, tapped him on the knee and said, “I think that was me, dear”.
The anecdote was intended to picture the kind of “oneness” to which a husband and wife should aspire. It, too, painted a whimsical, lovely picture. This man and woman’s lives have become so intertwined that they forget what happened to who. This blending within marriage is not only something to be smiled at. It’s something to be aspired to.
But as I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder if that kind of oneness in marriage is actually what the Bible would have us pursue?
Like JR Miller’s advice, this anecdote speaks of a kind of oneness where husband and wife blend into one another. They share so much with one another that they actually confuse themselves with the other. It’s a oneness that involves the necessary loss of each person’s individuality, such that husband and wife become essentially indistinguishable in their life and existence.
Friends, is this the kind of oneness that the Bible calls us to in marriage?
At this point, I probably need to put in my usual disclaimer. I’m not married. I’ve never been married. I may never marry. Certainly, I’ve seen lots of marriages up close and personal. I have some idea of the complexities, joys, challenges and blessings they entail. But as all the cool kids say today, I’ve not had the “lived experience” of marriage.
So there is definitely a sense in which I just don’t and can’t get it. I don’t have a personally experienced appreciation of the one-flesh union and all it entails. And so perhaps what I’m about to say is merely a reflection of my limited perception and imagination?
Or perhaps standing outside the institution of marriage also gives me a distinctive perspective? Maybe it allows me the freedom to take a step back from this particular talk of “oneness”, tilt my head at a slight angle and seek to puzzle it out?
Because here’s the thing. I just don’t see it. I just don’t see where the Bible speaks of husband and wife blending every single point of their lives into one new life; where it speaks of them becoming indistinguishable from one another; where it commends them to have no experience or relationship or feeling that they don’t share in common with each other.
Indeed, Genesis 2:24 speaks of a husband and a wife holding fast to each other and becoming one flesh.
But they become one flesh.
Not one person. But one flesh.
Surely that is the wonder of the unique, incredible, exclusive bond between husband and wife? That two different, individual, separate, distinguishable human beings with their own different, individual, separate, distinguishable bodies join those bodies together. Two bodies… two persons… are made into one flesh.
This one-fleshiness signals the depth of intimacy, vulnerability and hospitality that two separate people—one woman and one man—share. And it serves to point us to the even more remarkable intimacy, vulnerability and hospitality that the eternal bridegroom will share with his bride—the church.
The church and Jesus will share a one-flesh relationship in the new creation. But they will do this as separate “entities”. Jesus will not blend into the church. The church will not become indistinguishable from Christ. The kind of “oneness” that we will experience with him will not result in any confusion about just which one of these marriage partners needed to be saved and which one did the saving.
The true remarkability of marriage's one-flesh relationship is the union of two separate, distinguishable, wonderfully individual people. To put it another way:
Marriage speaks to oneness in covenanted relationship.
It doesn’t speak to a oneness of personal existence.
What’s Our Source Material?
And so, I’m afraid I disagree with Tim Challies. (Again). I don’t believe that JR Miller’s words offer wise counsel for a young married couple. I don’t think they reflect a Christian theology of marriage. Instead, I think they promote a Christianised idealisation of marriage.
Rather than sourcing an understanding of marriage from God’s word, they borrow heavily from secular romantic sensibilities. They resound with echoes of “soul mates” and “happily ever afters” and “you complete me’s”. They paint an unrealistic picture in which husband and wife lose their unique, God-given individuality in the broader context of their existence in this world. They undesirably aspire that the thoughts, feelings, experiences, relationships, and interests of two separate people be blended such that a strange, new double-headed hybrid emerges.
Brother and sisters, let’s work hard at thinking carefully about what we read, hear, speak and think about when it comes to the marital relationship. Let’s read between the lines. Let’s ask questions. Let’s not allow ourselves to be lured by the world’s lovely sounding whimsy and sentimentality.
Instead, let’s seek to discern the far richer, deeper, greater joy and wonder of God’s plans and purposes for our marriages and each other in them.
Let’s stop settling for the world’s vision for marriage.
It’s simply not as good as God’s vision for marriage.
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