Sunday, January 8, 2012

Am I Coveting and Idolizing Marriage?

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Make him the cutest that I've ever seen
Give him two lips like roses in clover
Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over

Sandman, I'm so alone
Don't have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream

As dated as that old song by The Chordettes sounds – filled with antiquated terms like “rover”, “peachy”, and “come-hither gleam” – it’s funny how true it still rings today for many single Christian women.  In the quiet of the night, as the Christian woman petitions God (not Mr. Sandman), she often echoes the words of The Chordettes, asking the Lord for “someone to hold” and “call my own.”

But if you’re like me, the desire for marriage and motherhood is more than just a fanciful dream.  Prolonged singleness brings with it very real concerns and painful realities.  Much of a woman’s identity is tied into her role as wife and mother, so much so that the inability to live out these roles can cause a single to feel that she has not fully experienced life as a woman.  Continually unfulfilled desires for companionship, intimacy, and sexual fulfillment can be intensely painful.  Then there is the very real fear of being completely alone in the world.  I have often wondered who will be my family after my parents are dead and who will look after me in my old age if I never have children.  Many in the church are sympathetic to the longings and desires of single women, but there are some who see these powerful longings as a threat to holiness.

Are Singles Who Long for Marriage Guilty of Covetousness and Idolatry?

One of the hardest things about being a single woman past 30 is the frequent need to constantly defend your desire for marriage and family against accusations of covetousness and idolatry by other Christians.  It seems that any articulated desire for marriage past a certain age invites these charges.  Are these concerns valid?  Can an unmarried woman long for a Sears Family Portrait for so long and so intensely that her desires turn into covetousness and idolatry, sins against our Holy God? 

If you’ve ever been accused of being a marriage idolater or coveter as I sometimes have been (especially since I have the audacity to still desire marriage at my age) you’re probably aware of how maddening such an accusation can be.  It’s nearly impossible to argue against.  You want to jump up and down, screaming and yelling that you have as much a right to want marriage as anyone else does, but this makes you look even more like an idolater, a coveter, and a carnal nutcase while your accuser looks like a saint in comparison.  How can you defend yourself and your desire for marriage?

You can start by searching the Scriptures and discovering the truth.  What you’ll find is that your desire, even your intense yearning for marriage, lasting for years and years, is neither covetousness nor idolatry.

Desire for Marriage Isn’t Covetous    

To determine whether our desire for marriage is covetousness, it helps to get the proper definition of this violation of the 10th commandment.  God is quite explicit about what he considers to be covetousness in Exodus 20:17:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

A married friend of mine in a ladies’ Bible study group once said to me, “Janice, you keep saying you want to be married, but God said you shouldn’t covet what other people have.  So you should stop wanting to be married.”  Seeing the exasperation on my face and attempting to be compassionate, she added, “Don’t worry.  When you stop wanting marriage, God will give it to you.”  Where is that in God’s Word?  And why would God give me something I no longer wanted?

Though meant to be encouraging, statements like these are annoying and biblically unfounded.  God doesn’t define coveting as simply wanting something that you don’t already have or wanting something that some person in the whole wide world already has.  If this were the definition of coveting, then no one could ever want anything without violating this commandment.  If you lived in an apartment, it would be sinful for you to desire a house.  If all you owned was a bicycle, you could never want a car without angering God.  Obviously, just desiring something that you don’t already have does not constitute coveting.  In God’s definition of coveting in Exodus 20:17, we can see that coveting always involves “your neighbor”, a person that you know.   Additionally, the object that is coveted is something that “belongs to your neighbor”.  So we aren’t guilty of coveting if we want a house or a car, but we are guilty if we want our friend’s two-story French colonial on Pine Street or our co-worker’s Cadillac Escalade parked outside the office. 

The girl on the right is obviously guilty of coveting.....but are all women who desire marriage guilty of that sin?

Can we single women be guilty of coveting marriage, then?  No, because the institution of marriage does not belong only to those who are married.  Stated otherwise, it is not something that they can claim as belonging only to them and no one else.  Marriage belongs to God.  It was created and instituted by him for everyone to enjoy (1 Timothy 4:1-5).  Consequently, we cannot covet marriage.  But it is possible for me to covet Eric, Amy’s husband, and her two children, Katy and Matthew, because they belong to her and only her.  If I start entertaining blissful thoughts of being the wife of handsome Eric and the mother of adorable Katy and Matthew, then I am guilty of coveting.  If I only want a husband and children of my own, however, I am not guilty of coveting.

Desire for Marriage Isn’t Idolatrous

Could our desire for marriage be an idol that we are worshiping in place of God?  Again, it helps to know God’s thoughts regarding idolatry to determine this.     

Idolatry is no joke to God.  It is so serious an offense that it shows up as both number one and two of the Ten Commandments.  God commands “you shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything…you shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-5).  These are not just idle suggestions from God, either – he is provoked to fierce anger by idolatry, once instantly killing 24,000 Israelites for their worship of Baal.  Judging from God’s swift and violent reaction to idolatry, it is not only a grave offense but a serious accusation to bring against a fellow Christian.        

You wouldn’t know how serious an accusation it is, however, judging by the statements of some Christian friends.  Charges of idolatry are thoughtlessly tossed in our direction if we desire marriage too much or for too long (in the judgment of others, that is), request prayers for a husband too often, or shed tears over still being single in our 30s and 40s.  In response to one church couple’s accusation of making an idol of marriage, I once said, “I’ve never bowed down to a wedding dress or prayed to a unity candle, so I’m not idolizing marriage.”  I felt pretty proud of that pithy response, but the feeling didn’t last long; the couple quickly moved in for the kill.           

“Idolatry is not just bowing down to things,” they said, “You can create an idol in your mind.”  Flipping through their Bible, they referred me to Paul’s New Testament definition of idolatry in Colossians 3:5-6:

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature:  sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.  Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.”        

I didn’t have a snappy comeback for that.  “Still,” I thought, “is the ‘wrath of God’ that Paul speaks of here coming to punish the yearning for marriage?  Is the desire for marriage immoral, impure, or evil?”  Certainly not, but there will always be those who are convinced we single women who desire marriage are guilty of idolatry.  They’ll say things like, “You want marriage too much” or “You’re greedy for it” (an obvious tie-in to Paul’s statement).   “You love marriage more than you love God.”  But are these accusations fair? 

Single women are often accused of idolizing marriage.....but God knows their hearts.

If you’re an unmarried woman, afraid that wanting marriage and children for so long has made you guilty of idolatry, take comfort in two facts.  First, God does not characterize idolatry as an intense and fervent desire for something nor does he describe idolatry as wanting something for a very long time.  God did not call Hannah an idolater for tearfully pleading for a son, he didn’t question Rachel’s devotion when she cried, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”, nor did he condemn Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) for praying for a son even into his old age.  Second, God knows our hearts.  Only God can “judge the thoughts and the attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).  Sometimes married Christians will try to judge our hearts, but they would do well to reserve their judgments for sinful actions of ours they can actually see.  If I am seen shoplifting in a boutique, accusations of theft are perfectly warranted.  Stealing is a clear and obvious sin.  But since only God can look into my heart and see my true motives, he is the only one who can judge my desire for marriage.  I am certainly not advocating an obsessive desire for marriage that consumes your life.  As the missionary Jim Elliot once said, “Let not our longing slay the appetite of our living.”  I can honestly say, however, that though I have a strong desire to be a wife and mother (most women do), I truly love God and worship only him.  My heart does not condemn me and if you have the same mindset, God will not be angry about your continual desire for marriage.

Our God is not revolted by intense desires and emotions.  The Song of Solomon explicitly reveals the strong desires of Solomon and his bride Bathsheba.  But these expressions are celebrated by God, not labeled as idolatrous.  God is not threatened or insulted by the passionate emotions and desires they have for each other.  He even tells them to “Drink deeply, lovers!”  Not, “Hey, you two, rein it in.  You’re not allowed to want each other more than me.  Stop ignoring me!  Get out of that garden of delights and pray to me!”  The fact that Solomon’s Song is inspired Scripture proves that God takes pleasure in our enjoyment of marriage.  He has no desire to douse the fire between the two lovers.

Jesus’ Warning

Some point to Matthew 10:37 as proof that some love is idolatrous.  The verse reads,

“Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

We love our families intensely.  Most individuals would give a kidney to Mom or Dad without hesitation; they would give their lives for their children.  Is Jesus telling us we shouldn’t love our family members this much?  Is it possible to love your family too much, so much that it is sinful?  If so, how can this sin be measured?  When would we know we were out of compliance with Jesus’ command?  If we loved our mother 92% as opposed to 78%?  Is Jesus really telling us to violate the 5th Commandment to honor our father and mother?  And how can family love be calculated?  Should parents monitor how much they kiss and hug their children?

Our God is not threatened by intense longings and desires.

The Bible interprets itself and by reading what Jesus stated before this verse (reading the chapter in context, in other words), we can see that intensity and length of time is not Jesus’ concern here.  In Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus says,

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’”

Siding with Jesus can alienate and anger family members who do not have faith in him.  Jesus is stating that if uniting with him causes conflict with our families, we are to side with him because he is more important than family.  The purpose of Jesus’ statements here are not to warn us against loving our families too much or for too long, but to never let family (and their possible dislike of Jesus) cause us to stop following him.

Has your desire for marriage and family caused you to stop following the Lord?  Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you any inordinate desires that have shut him out.  Beyond that, do not feel guilty for the desire to marry.  God understands your desires even if your Christian friends often do not.

Copyright © 2012