We have spent time discussing what marriage is, but now let’s ask, “What is it for?” What is the purpose of marriage? The Bible’s answer to this question starts with the principle that marriage is a friendship.
Loneliness in Paradise
In Genesis 1–2, as God was creating the world, he looked at what he had done and repeatedly said that “it was good.” This assessment is given seven times in the first chapter alone, emphasizing in the strongest possible manner how great and glorious the created material world is.1 It is striking, then, that after God created the first man, he said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). It is striking not just by contrast with all we have read so far, but it raises a question: How could Adam be in a “not good” condition when he was in a perfect world and had, evidently, a perfect relationship with God?
The answer may lie in the statement of God in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our own image.” Readers instantly ask the question, “Who is us? Who is God talking to?” One answer is that God is talking to the angels around him, but there is no indication anywhere in the Bible that the angels participated with God in the creation of human beings. Christian theologians over the centuries have seen here an allusion to a truth only revealed after the coming of Jesus into the world—namely, that God is triune, that the one God has existed from all eternity as three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—who know and love one another. And therefore, among other things, being created in God’s image means that we were designed for relationships.2
So here is Adam, created by God and put into the garden of paradise, and yet his aloneness is “not good.” The Genesis narrative is implying that our intense relational capacity, created and given to us by God, was not fulfilled completely by our “vertical” relationship with him. God designed us to need “horizontal” relationships with other human beings. That is why even in paradise, loneliness was a terrible thing. We should therefore not be surprised to find that all the money, comforts, and pleasures in the world—our efforts to re-create a paradise for ourselves—are unable to fulfill us like love can. This is confirmation of our intuition that family and relationships are a greater blessing and provide greater satisfaction than anything money can buy.
In response to being alone, God created what the text calls an ’ezer, a word that means a “helper-companion,” a friend.3 When the man sees the woman, he responds in poetry. “At last!” he says. “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” Some have proposed that he is saying, “Meeting you fills a void in me.” And so we see that, in the beginning, God gave the man a companion to be his spouse. The female speaker in Song of Solomon echoes Adam when she says, “This is my lover, this is my friend” (5:16).
The Character of Friendship
What is friendship? The Bible, and particularly the book of Proverbs, spends much time describing and defining it. One of the prime qualities of a friend is constancy. Friends “love at all times” and especially during “adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). The counterfeit is a “fair-weather friend” who comes over when you are successful but goes away if prosperity, status, or influence wanes (Proverbs 14:20; 19:4, 6, 7). True friends stick closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24). They are always there for you. Another of the essential characteristics of friendship is transparency and candor. Real friends encourage and affectionately affirm one another (Proverbs 27:9; cf. 1 Samuel 23:16–18), yet real friends also offer bracing critiques: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:5–6). Like a surgeon, friends cut you in order to heal you. Friends become wiser together through a healthy clash of viewpoints. “As iron sharpens iron, so friend sharpens friend” (Proverbs 27:17).
There are two features of real friendship—constancy and transparency. Real friends always let you in, and they never let you down. A writer once described a relationship that united these two things. She spoke of:
the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person—having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.4
However, there is a third quality to friendship, and it is not as easy to put into a single word. The right word, literally, is “sympathy”—sym-pathos, common passion. This means that friendships are discovered more than they are created at will. They arise between people who discover that they have common interests in and longings for the same things.
Ralph Waldo Emerson5 and C. S. Lewis each wrote well-known essays about how a common vision can unite people of very different temperaments. Lewis insisted that the essence of friendship is the exclamation “You, too?” While erotic love can be depicted as two people looking at one another, friendship can be depicted as two people standing side by side looking at the same object and being stirred and entranced by it together. Lewis speaks of a “secret thread” that runs through the movies, books, art, music, pastimes, ideas, and scenery that most deeply move us. When we meet another person who shares this thread with us, there is the potential for a real friendship, if nurtured with transparency and constancy. The paradox is that friendship cannot be merely about itself. It must be about something else, something that both friends are committed to and passionate about besides one another.
Friendship arises … when two or more … discover that they have in common some insight or interest.… [A]s Emerson said, Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth?—or at least, Do you care about the same truth? The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend.… That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having friends is that we should want something else besides friends. Where the truthful answer to the question “Do you see the same truth?” would be “I don’t care about the truth—I only want [you to be my] friend,” no friendship can arise. Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.6
Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, 1st ed. (New York: Dutton, 2011)
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