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Along with the rest of my generation, I know the best lines from The Princess Bride by heart. People of all ages are familiar with the wedding scene. An iconic, goofy fellow in a pointy hat shouts, “Maaawaaage! My sister was well aware I could recite the whole thing, and still, she asked me to officiate her wedding. The mere threat of channeling that guy was entertaining enough.
Unlike the droll characters you see depicted in film, many pastors have a deep investment in the couples they wed. My standard line is this: If you will let me help start your marriage, then I will do your wedding. It’s a momentous rite of passage, but that one-day event can demand the wrong kind of attention. Outward details get managed to the neglect of the main thing.
Like a wedding cake. It never ceases to amaze me how a magnificent pastry, worthy of the Smithsonian, could taste so bad. Obviously, it’s the recipe that counts. In a similar way, a great marriage needs the following three ingredients, starting with the plate.
Agape love is the plate.
I was speaking to a group of college students. “How many of you are looking for friends with benefits during your four years here?” I asked. Many hands went up. One of those hands belonged to an eager young buck who agreed to a brief interview on stage.” Using my baked goods illustration, I suggested that a healthy relationship included a cake, icing, and a plate.
“Do you have a plate?” I asked. “Nope,” he replied. “Hold out your hands if you still want friends with benefits.” I said. I smooshed a hidden piece of cake between his fingers. Graphically and dramatically, he experienced the need for a legitimate safe space: commitment.
Some people experienced a lot of shame and manipulation growing up to keep them from pushing things too far on dates. Young adults reflecting on these excesses of purity culture have my sympathy. But desires are fickle things and should not drive a relationship. They wax and wane.
A plate represents agape love, the security of unconditional acceptance and commitment which keeps us from making a mess of desire. Those two simple words, “I do,” bring the safety to know and to be known. To get naked. Would you want your daughter or friend marrying a guys who said, “I guess so?” instead of “I do?” That wouldn’t inspire much confidence. You cannot test-drive the kind of loyalty that enables greater levels of vulnerability.
Lewis Smedes wrote, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed – and each of the five has been me.” Every wedding should have this reminder: Attraction got you here, but it won’t get you there. No couple standing there all beautiful and buttoned-up can foresee what challenges lie ahead for their relationship. A cake needs a plate.
Phileo love is the cake.
When our children were younger, a couple of them would wolf down a piece of cake in under a minute. “What flavor was it?” I’d ask. Eventually, they understood what I meant: “You are missing out on something.” Like tasting it.
According to wine experts, it’s possible to distinguish several hundred notes or nuances of a vintage. That means someone with an unsophisticated palate like mine may not be aware of fragrant pleasures and complex beauties in their glass.
Once while I was visiting family friends, a very old Bordeaux was opened by mistake. It was a paycheck-level mistake. Without missing a beat, our host said, “Well, there’s only one thing to do now!” Again, I’m more of a common sewer than connoisseur, but I recognized something extraordinary.
Marriage is a place to discover the complex beauties of relationship. It’s a place to get naked and mean it. To get nakeder than most. To really know and really be known. Consider what kind of disconnect it must take to separate sexuality from the other layers that make up a person. It may feel like an outdated social convention to wait for marriage. But walking through a season of delayed gratification can give time to orient two people to a serious, lifetime commitment.
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.Tim Keller
We can learn to savor things hidden in plain sight. It takes time. You cannot wolf down your cake and taste it too.
Eros love is the icing.
A group of men sat discussing stereotypes about men, women, and sex. One young guy said, “They are true! My wife rebuffed me just last night.” An older fellow asked how they’d gotten along that day. “We had an argument but that was at breakfast,” he answered. The older guy smiled and said, “Home fires start in the kitchen, not the bedroom.”
Sex is a form of communication. What exactly does it say? Emotional, psychologically, spiritually—and physically—it says, “I’m yours.” Not yours for the night but “naked I came into this world, naked I will leave it” —yours. All that truly is me I am making available to you. The physical act cannot really be separated from that message. So, sex outside of marriage is not first and foremost about doing something wrong but about saying something hollow. To align sex with a lifetime marriage commitment is to live closer to reality.
In his book, Love and Friendship, Allan Bloom warns how many young people confuse an intense physical attraction with genuine romantic love. He suggests hook-up culture can short-circuit the potential for profound emotional and intellectual intimacy. Today novelty is disabling the risk and rewards of a long obedience.
What happens when you try to isolate one form of communicating only for the pleasure of the thing? Like eating a piece of cake too quickly, you may be missing something. A bottle of wine with layered notes requires patience. A certain aging in the oak barrel. An achievement. Such complexities emerge by developing healthy emotional bonds.
Loons and swans, bald eagles and beavers make lifetime commitments. That seems challenging these days for humans. Is it passé? Many people talk about it that way as if it were an inherited social convention. But, marriage is an institution.
We create institutions to support values the way a trellis supports a vine. However, marriage is no mere social construct. It reflects a blueprint that orders appetites. It suggests an Architect who created and celebrates desire and knows its intended purpose. Following that pattern is no guarantee of a fulfilling marriage season to season.
But over a lifetime, ordering desire according to the blueprint creates an environment where relationships can thrive. Where each layer lines up with its intended purpose and speaks with integrity. That environment promotes the risk being known. It may not always result in perfect acceptance, but season to season, you can find persevering acceptance.