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“Made in God’s Image and Likeness” — What Does That Have to do with Marriage?

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Theresa Notare, Ph.D. - published on 09/30/14

A second key to understanding what marriage is all about

“In the beginning,” God created man and woman in His image, “male and female He created them” (Gn. 1:27). With this exalted beginning, Scripture proclaims that human beings mirror God and do so precisely in one of two distinct ways — as either male or female.

Being made in God’s image and likeness is an awesome reality. Unfortunately, I would bet that many Christians don’t think about it. Or, maybe we’ve heard it so often that we have lost a sense of its profound meaning. More than likely, most of us would not connect this belief directly to marriage. And yet, this essential teaching forms the foundation of marriage. To be made in God’s image speaks of the essential inherent and complementary gifts that God gave to each man and woman. Let me explain.

Men and Women — Made in God’s Image

What does it mean to be made in God’s image? Beginning with the basics, it means that men and women are both earthly and Heaven bound ("Catechism of the Catholic Church," no. 355). Furthermore, men and women have a type of “homing instinct” deep within the human heart. St. Augustine described it as being “restless” until the heart rests in God.[1] The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (CCC)  explains that each of us has a deep “desire for God” that is “written in the human heart” (CCC, no. 27). This desire is one of God’s gifts. It is expressive of our ability to be people of faith.

Why would each of us have a desire to know God? Because among the fundamental gifts that God has given us is the capacity to be in relationship to Him — to know and love Him (CCC, no. 356). Think of it, “God, the first principle and the last end of all things” (CCC, no. 36) wants every one of us to know and love Him! He doesn’t want us to be alone! This can only make sense if we accept what Jesus has revealed to us — that God is love.

Since God is love, among His characteristics are faithfulness, justice, mercy, generosity and selflessness. God has given every person the ability to love as He loves. Every man and woman therefore can be faithful, just, merciful, generous and selfless but, this does not happen automatically, at least not for most of us. 

Divine Love “invites” every man and woman to be in relationship to Him. God does not force Himself on us. He waits for each of us to accept His invitation to love. When we accept it, this is nothing less than cooperating with God’s Grace. It’s what enables us to be all that God intended. And, as the Church teaches, God’s grace is transformative. When we grow in our relationship to God, His image becomes clear in our lives. In order to be fully human and fully alive, we have to open our hearts to God’s love.

What does being made in God’s image have to do with marriage?

Beginning with our double-belonging — earth and heaven — a man and a woman need to keep the bigger picture in mind when they marry because marriage is not just about them, it is wrapped up in the mystery of God who is its author. (“Gaudium et Spes,” no. 48) Marriage is a life-long vocation in which husband and wife vow to live the responsibilities of matrimony. Among those responsibilities is their need to help each other to Heaven. That means that husband and wife are called to “go the distance” and persevere together through life’s doldrums or trials. When one fails, the other should help. If life tosses losses, both need to stand firm together. And when tempted to think of only “me,” spouses need to remember that marriage is, as a wife once said, an “unrelenting daily demand to think of others!”

In many ways, marriage has “prerequisites” that make full use of the gifts God has given us as made in His image. Those prerequisites include the capacity to have faith, to form relationships, to love just like God. Of course, all of us are called to love like God, and it can be difficult. That’s because people often get stuck in “our own worlds.” We easily think of ourselves before all else. Marriage, however, requires a radical call to love like God: faithful, permanent, total, generous and fruitful. It is radical because marriage is a unique union between a man and a woman.

Marriage is unique because when a man and a woman form a marital union they truly become “one flesh.” The cry of Adam upon seeing Eve that this one “at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gn. 2:23) is an ancient confirmation of the truth and goodness of God’s will that the two should become one flesh. Of course, as mentioned above, all people are called to form communions of persons because it is everyone’s vocation to love like God. In marriage, however, this call reaches a unique fullness precisely because it brings together a man with a woman. When they exchange consent, husband and wife give themselves thoroughly one to the other in a gift of self that unites them with all their unique gifts as persons and as male and female, as the U.S. bishops wrote in "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan" (p. 11).

On this last point, it is important to remember that maleness and femaleness are essential to marriage. The Lord God created humanity in two different sexes — “Male and female He created them.” (Gn. 1:27). With regard to God’s image and likeness, this does not mean that God is divided into two different sexes. It does mean, as Pope St. John Paul II explained, that “man and woman constitute two different ways of the human ‘being a body’ in the unity of … [God’s] image.” Masculinity shows a unique image of God and femininity shows a unique image of God. Marriage is the reality of the two different but equal and complementary sexes forming a unique union. ("Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan," p. 10) Without going down the road to a heady conversation about research on significant differences between the sexes,[2] we do need to take a quick look at sexual difference with regard to reproduction and why it’s essential to marriage.

The gift of human fertility is linked to one of the key goods of marriage — procreation. We all know that human love can be fruitful in a variety of ways. For married men and women however, their spousal love can enable them to participate in God’s creation of new life. Since God is the Creator, it is an awe-inspiring act of generosity for God to ask men and women to share in His acts of creating a new human life. That is why the Church has often spoken of procreation being a “primary good” of marriage. It is the invitation by the Lord God to share in the sacred task of creating new people. Children indeed are the supreme gift of marriage, and husbands and wives who are blessed with children are called to receive them as gifts.

The marital communion is unique because it embraces the unity of the male and the female with the procreative potential of both husband and wife. ("Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan," p. 11) I know one theologian (a married man) who once said that a man and a woman become a type of timeless reference to the future when married. By virtue of their different but complementary sexes, husband and wife remind us of the possibility of new life. This remains true even if a couple is infertile. The significance of the male and the female and their role in bringing new life and nurturing that life in the world is that strong!

In their conjugal love husband and wife are called to a way of life that nurtures them as individuals and builds the family. As they pour out their love for each other, it spreads to their children, their extended family, neighbors, friends and wider community. This is what the Church means when it says “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (“Familiaris Consortio,” no. 86; see also “Gaudium et Spes,” no. 47).

Marriage is the unique way in which husband and wife reveal God’s image in the world!

Theresa Notare, PhD, is assistant director of the Natural Family Planning Program, Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  1. The quote is: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (St. Augustine’s “Confessions”).
  2. Stephen E. Rhoads’ “Taking Sex Differences Seriously” (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005) details research demonstrating differences between men and women.

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