What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
I gave the following talk in another ward today:
photo credit: crschmidt
The Purpose of Marriage
As is generally the case, the subject I’ve been asked to speak on is one for which I yet have much to learn, and significant room to improve. Yet, it is one that is central to our faith, and crucial for building a healthy and vibrant society. I speak of the institution of marriage, and, specifically, how to strengthen that institution.
What is marriage? Marriage is a covenant, or promise, that a man and woman make to each other and to God. For our part, those covenanting to abide the law of celestial marriage promise: to remain faithful to one another and to God throughout all eternity; to confine our intimate affections and sexual relations to each other; to live in ways that contribute to happy and successful family life; and to "be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth."
God’s promises for those who faithfully adhere to this covenant include: eternal life in the world to come, and the glory of the celestial kingdom; an inheritance of "thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers"; exaltation in the highest degree of the celestial glory; and that we will come to know God the Father and Jesus Christ.
Marriage is, as Joseph Fielding Smith said, "an eternal principle upon which the very existence of mankind depends." These are not words used lightly. President Smith continued: "No ordinance connected with the gospel of Jesus Christ is of greater importance, of more solemn and sacred nature, and more necessary to the eternal joy of man than marriage in the house of the Lord" (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that "Marriage is sacred, ordained of God from before the foundation of the world." In "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" the men whom we sustain as prophets affirmed that "Marriage between man and woman is essential to [God’s] eternal plan." In the scriptures, the Lord teaches that men should cleave unto their wives, and "be one flesh."
To "cleave" means to unite, or to be united with. Thus, the foundational marital relationship is (ideally) one of unity, cohesion, and fidelity. Having noted that "it is not good for man to be alone", God made "an help meet" for him. Indeed, as Benjamin Franklin once observed, "A single man has not nearly the value he would have in a state of union. He is an incomplete animal. He resembles the odd half of a pair of scissors." Paul taught the Saints in Corinth: "Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord." Elder David A. Bednar further explained the importance of this man/woman partnership:
By divine design, men and women are intended to progress together toward perfection and a fulness of glory. Because of their distinctive temperaments and capacities, males and females each bring to a marriage relationship unique perspectives and experiences. The man and the woman contribute differently but equally to a oneness and a unity that can be achieved in no other way. The man completes and perfects the woman and the woman completes and perfects the man as they learn from and mutually strengthen and bless each other.
Leaving the definition of marriage to the foregoing quotes, one might think that the covenant partnership of marriage is between the man and woman alone. An article published by the Church in August 2008, titled "The Divine Institute of Marriage," explains otherwise.
Marriage is not primarily a contract between individuals to ratify their affections and provide for mutual obligations. Rather, marriage and family are vital instruments for rearing children and teaching them to become responsible adults.
Marriage is the divinely-appointed institution through which God’s children are properly brought into this mortal realm, "entitled," as the Proclamation states, "to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity." Both marriage and family are separately listed within the Proclamation as being "ordained of God."
Marriage Under Attack
To understand how marriage should be strengthened, it’s important that we first recognize and understand how it is under attack. To do so, an analogy may prove helpful. Let us for a moment compare our own marriages to the metaphorical marital relationship between the Savior and his people. The scriptures are replete with instances of this metaphor, in which Christ refers to himself as the "Bridegroom," and the Church as his bride. The breakdown of this marital relationship after Christ established his Church while on the Earth was analyzed in great detail by Elder James E. Talmage in his book, The Great Apostasy. Throughout the book, Elder Talmage focuses on two main sources of the betrayal of Christ’s covenant: internal and external. In the following paragraph, he notes the greater influence of one source over the other:
Persecution [from external sources] at most was but an indirect cause of the decline of Christianity and the perversion of the saving principles of the gospel of Christ. The greater and more immediate dangers threatening the Church must be sought within the body itself. Indeed, the pressure of opposition from without served to restrain the bubbling springs of internal dissension, and actually delayed the more destructive eruptions of schism and heresy. A general review of the history of the Church down to the end of the third century shows that the periods of comparative peace were periods of weakness and decline in spiritual earnestness, and that with the return of persecution came an awakening and a renewal in Christian devotion. Devout leaders of the people were not backward in declaring that each recurring period of persecution was a time of natural and necessary chastisement for the sin and corruption that had gained headway within the Church. (James E. Talmage, The Great Apostasy, 84-85)
Thus, while we often hype and point a finger of blame towards external factors that threaten marriage, the most significant threats are internal ones. Increased pre-marital cohabitation, over-scheduled lives reducing time spent with one another, laws that attempt to alter marriage to include homosexual relationships, no-fault divorces—all these are but externalities that are secondary threats to our marriages.
As was the case with the early Church, the primary threats to our marriages come from within. Indeed, the external threats just mentioned, and many more which exist, can in fact serve to strengthen our marriages and increase our fidelity to one another and to God. In the scriptures we learn of various people being humbled through adversity, and becoming stronger in their faith as a result. The apostle Paul "[took] pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak," he said, "then am I strong."
What, then, are the internal threats that undermine our marriages? Consider the following passage by Joseph Milner, an 18th Century English Reverend and church historian, quoted extensively in Elder Talmage’s book. While Milner is referring to the internal threats that led to the early Church’s demise, think of the institution of marriage as you listen:
During this whole century the work of God, in purity and power, had been tending to decay. … Outward peace and secular advantages completed the corruption. Ecclesiastical discipline, which had been too strict, was now relaxed exceedingly; bishops and people were in a state of malice. Endless quarrels were fomented among contending parties, and ambition and covetousness had in general gained the ascendency in the Christian Church. The faith of Christ itself appeared now an ordinary business; and here terminated, or nearly so, as far as appears, that first great effusion of the Spirit of God, which began at the day of Pentecost. Human depravity effected throughout a general decay of godliness; and one generation of men elapsed with very slender proofs of the spiritual presence of Christ with His Church. (Ibid., 87)
In other words, the Church was plagued with division, dissension, loose standards and morals, a lack of observance of covenant promises, anger, contention, selfishness, and a rejection of God’s holy spirit. Similarly analyzing some of the problems besetting marriages in our day, then-Elder James E. Faust cited "selfishness, immaturity, lack of commitment, inadequate communication, and unfaithfulness" as examples. It should be noted that every item on that list as an internal threat.
Marriage on the Defense
Strengthening our marriages against all possible threats necessarily implies erecting defensive barriers. Though Captain Moroni went to exhaustive lengths to "[throw] up banks of earth round about to enclose his armies, and also building walls of stone to encircle them about" to protect from external threats, he was keenly aware of the higher danger of internal ones. Under the impression that those in charge of his government were full of sloth and neglect, he told them that "it will be expedient that we contend no more with the Lamanites until we have first cleansed our inward vessel." Moroni observed that "were it not for the wickedness which first commenced at our head, we could have withstood our enemies that they could have gained no power over us."
In our own marriages, we must seek to ward off any "selfishness, immaturity, lack of commitment, inadequate communication, and unfaithfulness" by proactively performing those tasks that run counter to such carnal tendencies. To fight selfishness, we must serve our spouse, spend time looking after their needs and desires, and place the concerns of others, where possible, before our own. To fight immaturity, we must seek after experiences that will mature our spiritual and emotional capacities, such as service, sacrifice, and education. To fight a lack of commitment, we must sacrifice to fulfill our obligations to our spouse and children, and prioritize them above other secondary demands on our time. To fight inadequate communication, we must hold family councils, conduct daily family prayer, and engage in conversation on enlightening and uplifting topics. To fight unfaithfulness, we must reserve our intimate actions, feelings, and thoughts only for our spouse, and none else.
Once we have taken the steps necessary to ensure that our marriages are strengthened against internal threats, we can focus on the external ones. We can do things to lessen the impact of ever-changing societal normals and influences, such as getting rid of the television and putting filters on our computers. The onslaught of today’s media and its less-than-virtuous messages is enough of a reason to defend ourselves and our marriages against its corrosion. We can decline or decrease demands on our time that take us out of the home and away from opportunities for interaction with our spouse and family. We can manage our finances wisely and ignore enticing opportunities to take on debt in pursuit of entertainment or prosperity. We can become involved in the public arena to defend the institution of marriage itself against those who seek to redefine its very meaning.
A key to a strong defense is erecting thicker barriers at the weakest points. Of Captain Moroni’s efforts we read that "in their weakest fortifications he did place the greater number of men; and thus he did fortify and strengthen the land…" While we can analyze general threats to marriage as we have just done, every situation is different. In our marriages, we should thoroughly analyze our own weaknesses, our deficiencies, and our greatest areas of temptation, and more proactively and thoroughly implement actions that will allow us to correct sinful or bad behavior.
Marriage on the Offense
Marriage is not a relationship, however, that should be relegated to the defensive position throughout life. We have been instructed to "be… an example of the believers," and let our light shine before men. In a world where marriage is quickly becoming loosely defined, deemed as irrelevant or unnecessary, and viewed as a temporary commitment more likely to end in divorce than not, positive examples of marriage are extremely important. Elder Neal A. Maxwell stated that:
Latter-day Saints therefore have no choice but to stand up and to speak up whenever the institution of the family is concerned, even if we are misunderstood, resented, or brushed aside.
While setting an example for the rest of society is clearly an important and divinely-mandated task, the most receptive audience will be our own children. As President Monson has said:
Are our examples worthy of emulation? Do we live in such a way that a son or a daughter may say, "I want to follow my dad," or "I want to be like my mother"? Unlike the book on the library shelf, the covers of which shield the contents, our lives cannot be closed. Parents, we truly are an open book.
Similarly, President Gordon B. Hinckley once taught:
The strength of the nations lies in the homes of the people. God is the designer of the family. He intended that the greatest of happiness, the most satisfying aspects of life, the deepest joys should come in our associations together and our concerns one for another as fathers and mothers and children.
Thrust into a society that thrives on chaos, controversy, and contention, balance is needed in the form of strong marriages whose members demonstrate through word and deed the power, peace, and protection that such a strong bond creates. As Elder Maxwell has written: "The ways of the world receive constant reinforcement—should not the ways of heaven?"
A recent article that has been circulated widely in the past week provides an interesting—if anecdotal—example of the power of demonstrating and promoting strong marriages. Published on a well-known internet media site, its author is a self-described "standard-issue late-20-something childless overeducated atheist feminist" who writes about her obsession with "Mormon mommy blogs"—websites created by Latter-day Saint women who share a behind-the-scenes look into their lives for all the world to see.
The author referenced "confessions" from "other young non-religious women similarly riveted by the shiny, happy domestic lives of their Latter-day Saint sisters." Her own analysis of this obsession was that peering into the lives of these women was "weirdly uplifting."
Our marriages can and should be uplifting to those around us, demonstrating fidelity to one another, commitment to God, and a desire to serve, love, and show affection for each other. While defensive measures are needed to ensure our bonds of matrimony are fortified to withstand any assault, we must go on the "offense," as it were, and let the world see what eternal marriages look like.
Being "an eternal principle upon which the very existence of mankind depends," marriage is a covenant in which we should invest significant time and energy. Rather than worrying primarily about external threats, we should focus our attention on defensive, proactive measures that will counteract selfishness, contention, or infidelity. And since "the plan of happiness requires the righteous union of… husband and wife," as Boyd K. Packer has noted, let us work to be happy—even "weirdly uplifting"—and share that happiness with those who wish to observe, and hopefully emulate, the characteristics of a healthy, happy, eternal marriage.