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Marriage Is Not God’s Answer to Loneliness1

In one of my favorite cartoons (given me by a fellow minister) a group of cavemen stand on the top of a cliff. One has just been hurled over the edge. As he falls, the leader turns to the group and asks, “Now, is there anyone else here who feels their needs are not being met?” As pastors, we are under insidious pressure to show people how their needs can be met. Perhaps nowhere more so than in the expectations which are promoted of sex and marriage.

We live in a society where sexual relationships (whether married or not) are held up as the place supremely where needs are met; here, we are told, is self-fulfillment, self-realization, contentment, and joy. How many films portray a sociable and contented bachelor or spinster? (And how old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy those words sound!) Either the lead character is in what we call a “relationship” (by which revealing shorthand we mean a sexual relationship) or the drama consists in his or her getting “into” one. If it’s a feel-good movie, they end up in the relationship. They don’t often ride off into the sunset in a happy group of unmarried friends!

We pastors encourage this whenever we preach from Genesis 2:18 that God’s purpose for marriage is to remedy human loneliness. I write as one who has been guilty of this misreading myself in the past. But I am sure it is a misreading, for two reasons.

First, from the flow of Genesis 2. When we begin a marriage reading at Genesis 2:18 and read, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” we naturally interpret it within our cultural framework. So one Christian writer says of this verse, “It's simply said that Adam had a personal need, and this was basis enough for God to fill the void” (my italics). One children’s story bible we used with our children put these words into Abraham’s mouth for Genesis 24, after Sarah has died and when he wants Isaac to find a wife: “I must make sure that Isaac has a wife to love him. I don't want him to be on his own when I die.” A sweet thought, but far removed from the text or sentiments of Genesis 24. Similarly, on this kind of reading of Genesis 2:18, poor old Adam was lonely. A pet or a farm animal (v. 19ff.) cannot be the companion he needs.

But we forget the context. Adam has just been placed in God’s garden with a very responsible job to do: he is “to work it and keep it” (v. 15). He is the gardener (cf., Psalm 8). And in this context God looks at him and says it is not good for him to be alone. He needs a helper (not specifically a companion). Why does he need a helper? Not because he is lonely, but because the job is too big for him on his own. Which is a pointer that the reason God invented marriage is that we might the better serve Him in His world. Marriage is not an introspective religion of coupledom in which each gazes endlessly into the other’s eyes and each expects to be all to the other. Rather it is an outward-looking union dedicated to serving God together. When contemporary Protestants buy in to the contemporary idolatry of “relationship,” we act as though marriage were a discipleship-free zone. But it is not. There is a world to be cared for, people to be loved and brought into the loving fellowship of the people of God.

Which leads to my second reason. In the rest of Scripture, God makes it clear that His remedy for human loneliness is fellowship, not (necessarily) marriage. Fellowship with the Father and the Son, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ, this is God’s remedy for loneliness. It is a remedy gloriously open to all, including all those for whom marriage is not a possibility—those too young for marriage, the widowed, the divorced, those struggling with homosexual temptation, those who cannot find a marriage partner.

Many passages in Scripture speak of love and the fulfillment of human longings; yet very few speak of marriage in this context. For example, in 1 John 4:7-21, we read in wonderful depth about the love of God for His people, the love of His people for God, the love of His people for one another; but marriage and sex are nowhere in sight. In 1 Thessalonians 2:6-8, Paul speaks with great warmth about the sharing of his life with the believers; but again, sex and marriage are nowhere in sight. 1 Corinthians 13, so popular for marriage services, is actually about the love that ought to (but in Corinth does not) mark a fellowship of believers. John 13-16 are all about fellowship love, but again sex and marriage are nowhere in sight. Nowhere in the Psalms are the longings of the human heart related to sexual love (except perhaps Psalm 45, although this focuses more on the joy of a family).

So, as pastors let us keep the challenge of discipleship and the privilege of serving Christ uppermost when we teach about sex and marriage. Those of us who are called to marriage are called to serve God in our marriages and not to expect our needs to be met. Too many who have expected their needs to be met have found themselves falling off the proverbial cliff into disillusion.2


This article was originally published as a Kairos Insight. It was written by Christopher Ash who is Director of the Cornhill Training Course in London. He is the author of Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Nottingham, UK: InterVarsity Press, 2003), and also of Out of the Storm: Questions and Consolations from the Book of Job (Nottingham, UK: InterVarsity Press, 2004).


These ideas are expanded and developed more fully in Christopher Ash’s book, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003).