by Brian Carpenter
I was asked to write more on the subject of men and women and relational idolatry, in order to clarify some things. This I will cheerfully do.The main question put to me is, “Is there not a sense in which men and women do complete each other?”
The answer is not straightforward. We must go ad fontes, back to the source, to see what our loves were supposed to be and what, exactly, went wrong. We must go to Genesis. And we will travel by a very circuitous route.
It is worth noting, to begin with, that when God created the world, he pronounced everything good. The only thing about which the Lord God said “This is not good” was the fact that the Man was alone. (Gen 2:18) The Man had a God-appointed task. He was not capable of performing his task all by himself. He needed a helper who was suitable for him.Now, what does God mean when he says that the aloneness of the Man was “not good?” He certainly did not mean that the situation was evil, or sinful. “Not good” does not mean “bad or wicked,” for there was no sin or evil in the world as of yet. Therefore, “not good” must mean, something like “less than optimum given the current situation and circumstances,” or “not complete.”
And what is the purpose for the Woman? She is a “helper” who is suitable for the Man. Commentators have spilled much ink on the nature of the help intended. I will take the most comprehensive position. He needed help to keep the garden. He needed help in order to obey the command to be fruitful and multiply. He was created as a social being and though the beasts were below him and could provide company of a sort, and the angels were above him, and could potentially be communicated with, none was like him. As Calvin says in his commentary on this passage, “man was formed to be a social animal,” and in another place he says,
But although God pronounced, concerning Adam, that it would not be profitable for him to be alone, yet I do not restrict the declaration to his person alone, but rather regard it as a common law of man’s vocation, so that every one ought to receive it as said to himself, that solitude is not good, excepting only him whom God exempts as by a special privilege.So marriage is a real good. But it is a relative good and not an absolute good. By that I mean that it is not a good which is necessary to the well-being of all human beings everywhere, all the time, but it is a good for at least some people in some times and places. That is a key point.
Jesus makes that point in Matthew 19. He lays out the biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage. It is stern stuff. The society of that day was marked by almost as much marital disarray as our own society is. The disciples say, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus replies, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” He then goes on to talk about “eunuchs.” A eunuch was a man whose testicles had been removed, usually before puberty. Therefore he was thought not to have any sexual desire. Eunuchs were often employed as trusted servants to royal families, and seen as those who were safe to be in close contact with the women of the household. One only has to think of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife to see why the man of the house might want only eunuchs around the house. Often eunuchs occupied positions of very high status and even wealth. In the ancient world, where simply getting enough to eat was not assured for many people, many saw eunuch status as an acceptable and even desirable mode of existence. Eunuchs never, ever married. They were therefore free to pursue other vocations which marriage might make difficult of impossible.
“Some,” says Jesus, “have eunuch status from birth. Some have this status thrust upon them by men. Others have renounced marriage (lit. “made themselves eunuchs”) for the kingdom of heaven.” Those who can accept that they have this status should simply accept it. It is God’s gift to them, God’s task for them in life. In other words, to be without a spouse is also a relative good. It is not an absolute good. It is not a good which is necessary to the well-being of all human beings everywhere. But it is good for at least some people in some times and places.
Now, I’m not going to be able to wrap this up in the space allotted, so I will continue to develop these thoughts next week. But let me leave you with a question to ponder: If both marriage and singlehood are relative goods, right for some people, but not right for others, what is the absolute good? What relationship do you absolutely need in order to be a complete human being who is at rest in your soul? The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 73:
Whom have I in heaven but You?Many of us are in absolute relational agony because the person we are in relationship with is not giving us something we think we need. We are angry. We are bitter. We are vengeful. We strike back at the other person in a thousand different ways. This state of affairs is very bad. It does not have to be this way.
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
….the nearness of God is my good;
I know one man who just realized about a week ago that his wife doesn’t really love him, never loved him, and probably doesn’t even really know what love is. She says she loves him, and she probably believes that she does, but all of her dealings with him have been either positive or negative feedback based on whether she was getting from him what she thought she needed. The most basic dynamic of the relationship involves her communicating one of two things: “You are pleasing me and I am happy with you right now,” and “You are displeasing me and I am insanely angry at you now.” Her happiness never lasts long, and it doesn’t take much to displease her. The slightest unmet expectation can be an occasion for anger and hurtful behavior. Many of her dealings with him look an awful lot like unvarnished hatred. All he ever wanted was for his wife to love and accept him, and his whole marriage has been a treadmill of performance to try and please her, punctuated with bitter whines because she has withheld from him what he thought he needed.
He realizes now that he does not actually need what he thought he needed, and not just where his marriage is concerned. He realizes that there are many, many things that he’s clung to in anxiety because he thought he needed them. He now knows that he doesn’t. He realizes that he can be a complete human being because he has Jesus Christ at the center of his life, and that is all he needs.
He realizes now that this troublesome woman was actually a great gift to him. For now he knows in the depths of his soul that he does not need for his wife to love him in order to be at rest in his soul. I gave him those verses from Psalm 73 to meditate on and they have become his very food.
Now he is free. Not free to divorce her. He does not desire a divorce, believe it or not. If she divorced him, he would accept it and move on, but for now things are stable. He is free to try and teach her what love is by actually loving her as described in 1 Corinthians 13. He no longer has to try and get something from her which she may or may not give him, and never gave him for very long under the best of circumstances. He is now free to just give something to her, regardless of whether she responds appropriately or not. He expects that she probably won’t behave appropriately much of the time. Maybe she’ll never learn what love is. He is okay with that. He knows he’s not in control of the development of her soul (or lack thereof.) But he is in intimate relationship with the One who actually is in control of the development of her soul.
He is excited about what the Lord might do, and there have been some real improvements. “It is,” he said, “a most curious and wonderful state in which to be.” He testifies that he has a freedom he has never known before, and power to do things he never thought possible. He is no longer an angry, bitter man who is enslaved to an angry, unappeasable woman. Now he is a loving, forgiving man voluntarily walking alongside a person who needs sacrificial agape love. His wife literally no longer has the power to wound him or anger him. The absolute good of his relationship with Christ Jesus has enabled him to heal almost instantly from many years systematic destruction of the relative good of a marriage relationship. When he treated the marriage as though it was an absolute good he was miserable because he thought he was being denied something he absolutely needed in order to be happy. Then he learned to relegate it to its appropriate place and turn to Christ to receive what he had desperately hoped to receive from his wife. Now he is deeply happy and at peace. He is calm and strong and is able to give freely and withhold appropriately.
We will always get in trouble when we turn relative goods into absolute goods. We will always wreak havoc when we take something out of the place it ought to be and put it in some other place where it doesn’t belong. But when we recognize that everything has its proper place and is good as long as it occupies its proper place, and when we realize that we do not, strictly speaking, need any of these lesser goods (even the really valuable ones like a good marriage or physical health) and that God is free to give them or take them away as He sees fit, then we can enjoy them appropriately. But there must be a proper place for everything and everything in its place.
Brian Carpenter is the pastor of Foothills Community Church (PCA) in Sturgis, South Dakota. He and his wife Laura have two lovely daughters, Evelyn and Jordan, ages 2 and 3. His interests include automotive and motorcycle repair and rebuilding, welding and metal fabrication, economics and monetary theory, philosophy, classical education, church history, and really expensive Scotch whisky. Brian blogs at TheHappyTR and AFiresideChat. His sermons are available online at SermonAudio.com.
Recommended further reading:
Philip Lancaster: Family Man, Family Leader
J.R. Miller: Homemaking
John Piper & Wayne Grudem (Eds.): Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
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