Some of the hardest situations we face are those where we might pursue any number of reasonable courses of action, where there is no singular ‘right’ thing to do—or, if there is just one right path, it is shrouded by a variety of tempting alternatives.
Because of that, I am going to try a slightly different format of dispensing ‘advice’ on particular questions. Today I will examine the question from one standpoint; next Monday I will consider it from an alternative standpoint. I have my intuitions and my beliefs about which course is preferable, which should be obvious. Even so, it is invaluable to learn to see how alternate conclusions might emerge. Hence ‘pro et contra,’ for and against: I will lay down what I generally think right, and then next week articulate why what I have said is probably wrong.
And if you have a situation which you’d like considered, well, all you need do is respond to this email.
The question: I have deep reservations about a dear friend’s fiancé; I think that he has made a bad match. These reservations are so strong that I think I ought not attend their wedding, and I have raised the possibility to him. They had a brief dating process, much of which was long distance, and they do not have plans to undertake pre-marital counseling. Should I attend the inauguration of what I suspect will be a bad marriage?
There is a host of questions that we could put to the situation, and to your relationship with your friend, that have nothing to do with the wedding. While you are right to make your objections to this marriage known, have you also fulfilled your responsibilities to ensure your friend understands and is prepared for any marriage? Does he understand the strictures on divorce? Does he know what his responsibilities as a husband shall be? Does he have a sense of how disagreements will be resolved, and what the nature of the sacrifice is that each will be expected to undertake? All those questions are fraught, and it would doubtlessly appear that you are simply trying to persuade him not to marry this particular woman. But as a matter of friendship, there are ways to raise them while reaffirming your care, concern, and love for him beyond and outside this particular, if momentous, decision.
If you have made your concerns known, you should equally make known that you acknowledge his freedom to arrange his life as he sees God calling him to. The freedom he is exercising in making a bad choice is the very freedom which is the lifeblood of friendship: to fail to respect the former is to undermine the latter.
Does his freedom mean, though, that you should attend the wedding? Yes, I think it does. Weddings involve commitments by those who witness the vows being made to support and care for the couple. That commitment itself arises out of the nature of the marriage itself, and the friendship others have toward the marrying couple. Having made clear to him what the concerns are, and having made equally clear the ongoing willingness to love and support him, all one can do is formalize such a commitment by witnessing their marital vows.
The objections to bad marriages arise from prudential grounds, not moral grounds. Your friend might be a fool—but he is not in sin. And that seems to matter for how we make our objections known to one another in matters of love and marriage. The Lord permits foolish weddings; He allows and even consecrates our choices to make our lives miserable. He counsels and cautions and directs us away from them—but if we will not heed his call, He stands with us and around us, dispensing His grace and care to us.
If you are a sacramentalist about marriage, and this marriage is valid before God’s eyes, you may still object—but your objections cannot have the same force as if it were not valid. For God will do a thing in his life, and those present will be publicly bound to honour it. Declining to stand as a witness to it seriously alters the whole basis and nature of your counsel toward this individual: it means that you are only a friend, rather than a friend who is bound to care for his marriage because one has witnessed its origin. If you are right—and let us be clear, you may not be right—and it is a bad marriage, your responsibilities will be all on the side of improving it rather than dissolving it. And if you are not present at its origination, I should think your task in that direction much harder.
Yes, this is hard: weddings are celebrations, and we expect them to be happy. But they are not only celebrations, and sometimes they are not celebrations at all. There are other smiles to be had at weddings than fake smiles; there are types of joy that bear sadness within them.
Last night I read through a scene in Trollope where a young man has made a foolish match, and tells his father of it. His father reacts angrily, as one would expect; he declines to hear more, and denies any assistance. It’s a more extreme case than yours, and it has different textures: money is at the heart of it, as it almost always is in Trollope. I don’t know how this story will turn out, but judging by the very many scenes in his novels of a similar variety, my sense is: not well. Parents must oppose their mature children’s foolish choices: they can do no other. But when that opposition reifies and hardens into the severance of communication, it never ends happily for anyone. I think you right to be willing to sacrifice easy feeling for your conviction: but friendship is a rare and precious thing, and endures (I hope and pray!) the folly of youth and foolishness.