God and the metaphor of marriage
Regular Network Norwich & Norfolk columnist James Knight explores how the metaphor of marriage in the Bible speaks of our relationship with God.
One of the most powerful methods of storytelling is through metaphors and analogies – yet in scriptural terms metaphors and analogies are more than just stories conveying simple truths, they are intricately woven into the very fabric of what mind is, so it is not surprising that God uses the powerful metaphor of marriage to speak of our relationship with Him. The metaphor is a very effective tool because it allows old scriptural ideas to timelessly filtrate into any age and retain power and meaning.
Of course, despite the scriptural power of metaphors and analogies, the literal aspects of the Bible mustn’t be overlooked. God becoming man and dying for us and defeating death and then giving us the Holy Spirit as a counsellor for us in our daily interaction with Him are almost worthless if they are not literally true. Using the marriage metaphor to deny this and treat them otherwise would be a bit like saying that one could conceptualise a marriage and take all the benefits from reading Shakespeare and then not have to literally experience marriage to know its true delights. It is the very experiencing of it that brings the delights – and to think one could distil the same benefits from reading about it or viewing it only in metaphorical language would be a bit like thinking you could enjoy the experience of visiting Paris by looking at a roadmap of the city.
God and marriage
As a general piece of guidance, one ought to perhaps always try to stick as closely as one can to the marriage metaphor for understanding our relationship with Christ, because it seems to convey the clearest message that God is intending to send. The Old Testament can only be viewed correctly if it is viewed through the lens of the grace theology of the New Testament. Thus when one thinks of God as being a God that excludes people from heaven or a God who wipes out ancient tribes we must look for the 'whys' in relation to Christ and St Paul's grace theology, because these are the truths on which Christianity rests. So to look upon heaven and hell or the story of God's people before the incarnation in any other way is to be guilty of compromising significant chunks of the true story.
This might be clearer once we look again at the marriage metaphor. Think of the issue of heaven and hell, but instead of picturing yourself as a dissonant sceptic angry at this proposed God not being to your liking, think instead of whether your views would be fruitful in relation to a marriage. It’s certainly interesting that the vast majority of the ‘new wave’ atheists that have emerged following Dawkins and Hitchens are ‘Ex-Christians’. Perhaps some will return, perhaps others were never Christians in the first place, perhaps others have walked away from God. I will comment a bit on this because the accounts from those who claim they have tried very hard to believe but just cannot bring themselves to do so are worthy of some consideration. I will consider this issue by bringing in a wider framework for perspective.
The Bible says that the gift of heaven is not something we can earn - it is a free gift given to us by grace. Divine grace certainly stretches to the extent that all have been drawn to that grace (John 12:32) but the treasure of that grace cannot be either enjoyed or accepted under certain conditions. This ought to be clear when we think of it in terms of a marriage metaphor. We may feel the same - that no one deserves marriage (in the sense that marriage is not someone’s inalienable right) - it is more what we might think of as what the heart deserves if one applies himself in the right way. In other words, when we appreciate a person and all their qualities we may be moved to say that that person 'deserves a nice girl’, and by that we mean we think him a very worthwhile suitor so 'it would be nice if he found one' – that is, wishing for good things for people when we see that they try to bring good things to the world.
But clearly if such a man was unable to see how ill-prepared he was for marriage or unwilling to recognise his faults we would say that marriage would be of no use to him - and by marriage I mean the truest and highest qualities and delights that can be attained when two beloveds treat each other in the highest and most loving way. With this in mind, it might be good to think of heaven as something being on offer in the same way that the delights and true benefits of marriage are on offer - they are available to one's heart in a way that is commensurate with their desire and willingness to be the sort of people that will make good beloveds for the one they will marry.
Without those qualities marriage cannot be successful, but it is not the case that marriage makes unreasonable demands on us, it is that the very quintessence of a successful and beautiful marriage is that it is based on the kind of love that St Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Corinthians:
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." 1 Corinthians 13:4-6
This is why the Bible's metaphor of a marriage, and all the imagery we see in Revelation about it, is not some arbitrary metaphor thrown in for good measure - it is the whole quintessence behind a Divine love in which our Saviour on the cross identified Himself as the bridegroom who had come to give His bride (the church) the kind of love and kindness and patience and security that we all know is so wonderful in marriage.
Consider now what getting to heaven is really like - it's not that anyone is excluded - after all, we are all equipped with the longing for eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and we know that God wants for us to turn to Him and be saved (Ezekiel 18:32) - it's that God and sin cannot be together in heaven, so where sin is still present and where a man fails to accept what heaven is, he is in the same position as the man who is at present not ready for a successful marriage (as per 1 Corinthians 13:4-6) - he cannot be included until something changes.
Thus it seems likely that the verses in the New Testament that talk of division between those going to heaven and those going to hell (as per ‘wheat and tares’), ought to be seen as being consistent with God's marriage metaphor (and there are reflections and prophecies of this in Hosea, of course, as he himself was willing to take back his bride despite her infidelity). Thus, it is likely that when the New Testament talks of final destinations, it is not about a final damnation or separation, but an edict on how a man will never see eternity with God until he becomes ready to be included in grace.
In earthly terms, a man who enters into a marriage for the wrong reasons, and abuses and manipulates his wife will be in a worse position than a man who, realising that he doesn't have the temperament for marriage or the necessary understanding of what love and kindness is, decides it would be best to remain a single person. And similarly, a man who isn't ready to enter heaven because he doesn't understand what grace is and hasn't fully accepted it (or perhaps not even at all) is presumably in a better position to remain in hell until he can unlock the doors from the inside and acknowledge Divine love.
Thus it seems reasonable to suggest that it is best not to see the situation as conditional on God's part, but more so conditional on our part, in that the marriage between Christ and the church must be of the kind in which the bride can recognise the love and grace and kindness of the bridegroom, and until then might as well remain in the singledom of hell.
Once saved always saved?
The “Once saved always saved?” issue often pops up, with many Christians differing on this issue. But if you have come this far with me, then given the foregoing thoughts, it ought to be pretty clear how this fits in with the 'once saved always saved' questions. In case it's not, then for further clarity, let's consider another important point about Biblical metaphors because we all know that being in a relationship with Christ is comparable to a tree that is living and healthy produces fruit. The relationship isn’t based on works, but we know that faith and commitment and dedication naturally produce good works. I want to consider this metaphor in relation to those who once called themselves 'Christian' but have since fallen away. The key question would be twofold - was the relationship healthy and was it alive?
Both of these can be thought of in terms of the marriage metaphor. Was the 'ex-Christian' in a relationship within Christ in the same way that a man wants to be the best beloved he can be for his wife, in exhibiting love, grace and kindness, and recognising the power of Christ on the cross paying a price that we could never pay? I would guess that the vast majority of ex-Christians called themselves Christians more in relation to being in a church environment, but I wouldn't wish to make any grand statements.
But here is an important qualifier - in the tree and fruit analogy Christ tells us that for the person with a relationship that mirrors a beloved in marriage (again, as per 1 Corinthians 13:4-6), good works and a progressive journey with Him should be as natural as fruit is to a fruit tree. Just as a tree being alive and healthy is what produces its fruit, being in a strong relationship with Christ is what makes our Christian faith alive and healthy.
Just as a marriage without love and patience and dedication and commitment is fruitless, a marriage to Christ without love and patience and dedication and commitment isn’t going to bring the fruits, and if one starts to fall away the tree will stop producing fruit altogether. It is here that we can consider something else profound – remember that human-human relationships are symmetrical relationships and God-human relations are unsymmetrical.
That is important here when one thinks about Divine love – you see, Divine love is a limitless love and a perfect love, and as such, given perfect love and perfect justice, it seems true to say that before one can enter heaven one must recognise the price Christ paid so that we could be free from sin, and in doing so recognise that the epitome of Divine love was provided by Christ on the cross.
Given that God will love and love despite a man’s rejection of Him, our accepting His grace is not an acceptance in the same sense that one might accept a deal being offered. I think the real truth is that after judgement one will come out of hell when one sees Divine love for what it is – not as a single point between it being rejected and accepted, but as a recognition of the qualitative gulf between not knowing and knowing the depth of Divine love.
One can see that that is clear in human terms too – any who have been married and experienced success in the terms of 1 Corinthians know that the love isn’t a case of one choosing the other and the other accepting – it is that both minds and emotions grow into each other’s by working with the very qualities that make love what it is.
That is perhaps the best way to look at the ‘Once saved always saved’ issue, and the subject of people falling away from the faith. Given that ‘Once saved always saved’ has to be a two-way relationship, and given that we know God will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) any departure from a relationship is our doing not God’s. That, at least, offers us all the assurance that we need – that a relationship with God is there for all who are able to see it as being like a marriage that requires love, patience, kindness, dedication, commitment, honesty and trust.
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk