[The following article was published in the June 8, 2014 edition of The Lookout. For more excellent reading, or to subscribe to The Lookout, click here.]
“Aaaas Yooooou Wiiiiiish!”
This was the cry of Westley (a.k.a. the Dread Pirate Roberts) after being pushed down a hill in The Princess Bride, the beloved 1987 film by Rob Reiner. His long unrequited love, Buttercup, had pushed him over the edge; she had yet to discover that this Pirate who had taken her captive was, in fact, her long lost love and stable boy, Westley.
Decades after being introduced to this movie, “as you wish” still strikes me as a pretty good statement of love and commitment. Far from the passivity of “Yes, dear” that is so often called (mostly in jest) the key to a happy marriage, “as you wish” is a statement of service. It implies action will follow. Because of his commitment to serve her, Buttercup followed Westley faithfully from this point onward. He led well because he led as a servant.
Paul’s teaching on marriage, and particularly his teaching intended for husbands, strikes this chord. In his letter to the Ephesians, he makes clear that we are to lead our wives as men leading under authority, sacrificially laying ourselves down, with their good ultimately in mind, rather than our own.
Leading Under Authority
Israel in its early days was more like a toddler than the chosen nation of God. No matter how God warned them they just wouldn’t refrain from making a good mess. His will was always that they would trust him alone, but they always wanted something more tangible. From the beginning, God predicted that Israel would desire a king,[i] and eventually conceded this.[ii] God’s instructions to Israel’s future king were to be humble; his role as “king” was to point to the True King. His role as leader was to lead people to God. His role as king would be a privileged position to be sure, but the privilege was given by God not for Saul’s or David’s or Solomon’s own benefit, but to God’s glory. Such is God’s will for husbands.
Like Israel’s monarchy, men are given positions of authority, but are never really the Authority. God puts men in authority to be his representatives[iii], to be the lead follower amongst all those called to follow. In a marriage, the husband’s job is to be the living, breathing demonstration of the way in which Christ loved the church. We can see this in this Ephesians 5, where Paul talks at length about marriage:
- “The Husband is head of the wife just as Christ is head of the Church. (v. 23)
- “Love…just as Christ loved” (v. 25)
- “In the same way…” (v. 28)
- In verse 32, Paul makes connection between the mystery of Marriage and “Christ and the Church,” namely that the marriage should resemble or emulate Christ’s relationship to his Bride.
The call here is to take our example from Christ himself, which majored in proclaiming the Kingdom of God and bringing God glory, rather than ourselves.
What’s so hard about that?
The root of every sin is pride, but specifically it is a pride that makes us crave God’s throne. Some say it is what Satan desired just before beign tragically cast from God’s side.[iv] Eve was promised it.[v] Saul’s downfall was failing to honor God’s authority over him.[vi] Frankly, David’s downfall—although appearing to be lust for Bathsheba—was a drunkenness from power that fictitiously promised him he could have anything he wanted and treat people like pawns.[vii] The tempter in the desert promised Jesus God’s seat without any of the pain of the cross. Even now, I think we husbands get most frustrated when we are expecting to be the sovereigns over our own domains and have wives that are subservient to us. But there is a big difference between submissive and subservient, and the desire to rule as God rules—rather than leading under His authority—tends to drive imbalance into marriages. Paul knew we naturally love ourselves. That’s why he tells us, “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”[viii] Just giving our wives the kind of thought and attention we give to ourselves would go a long way in building stronger marriages.
Our selfish desires tend to drive our expectations for marriage (or any relationship, for that matter) to be about mutual roles. It can be described as a “fifty-fifty” proposition. By that model, if my wife doesn’t give her fifty, I’m no longer obligated to give mine. Over time, our motivation becomes pragmatic. Our motivation to do our part becomes our own satisfaction in the marriage, and we give of ourselves so long as there is a “payoff” in it for us. The fifty-fifty relationship model is, at its heart, selfishly motivated.
Contrast that with Jesus’ motives. Jesus didn’t “lay himself down” so that the church would submit, but “to make her HOLY (5:26),” “radiant,” stainless, wrinkle and blemish-free (5:27). Can you imagine if Paul had said, “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her submit?” Was the purpose of Jesus’ whole mission simply for us to submit? If so, he could have accomplished it with better results and less pain by simply flexing some divine muscle. Rather, at the heart of his mission is to draw those who will believe to himself, to take their sin and repair the brokenness it has caused them.
Husbands, we are called to lay ourselves down—our whole selves—for our wives, not because we love ourselves (that’s the pesky fifty-fifty principle trying to get a word in edgewise), but because we love our wives.
There is great beauty in this truth Paul gives us. When you base your marriage on these truths, love becomes a choice, made daily, that necessarily involves action. The age-old phrase “I just don’t love you anymore” becomes an indictment on my own laziness, rather than a critique of my spouse’s “unlovable” character. So yes, motivation matters.
A Profound Mystery
In ministry, it is not difficult to find women who have even been disenfranchised by what they perceive as chauvinistic teachings on marriage, teachings that enabled abusive men whose understanding of marriage ended with, “You are supposed to submit to me.” This hurt is real, and is all too common. In part, it is common because we have a tendency to read Scripture with other people in mind, rather than ourselves. It is common because we all struggle with pride and a desire to be honored among men (or at least our own wives!). However, the whole Bible-study enterprise gains new life when we turn passages on ourselves and let the Sword of the Spirit[ix] start fileting up our own heart’s desires.[x] What if the last fifty years had been characterized by those same men telling other men, “we need to love our wives as Christ loved the Church: sacrificially and completely.”
Imagine with me how the world would be different if verse 25 were the verse plucked from its context and repeatedly quoted, rather than verse 22. Imagine the way Christian marriage would stand as a beacon to the unbelieving, when men are cherishing their wives, giving of themselves to see their wives develop spiritually.
Better yet, imagine a future where this could become our rallying cry. Imagine the next generation being told in their teenage years that preparation for marriage means preparing yourself for sacrifice. Imagine if those celebrating their Golden anniversaries sought to strengthen those celebrating Silver Anniversaries with this truth, and if those celebrating a quarter-century mentored those celebrating a quarter-decade. What if our young men were taught not to seek a submissive woman, the type of girl they could see being a good wife, but we focused on developing the type of men that will be good husbands.
When this dream becomes reality, Christians will become the golden standard for marriage again. And this is true not only because our marriages will be stronger, but also because it will fulfill in us a much deeper desire: to experience our Lord and Savior in a meaningful way. This is what Paul means when he begins the summary of this structure of marriage: “This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and His Church.”[xi]
[i] Deuteronomy 17:14-20
[ii] 1 Samuel 8:22
[iii] Paul might say, “ambassador” (2 Corinthians 5:20)
[iv] Isaiah 14:13-15
[v] Genesis 3:5
[vi] 1 Samuel 13:9-12
[vii] 2 Samuel 12:7-12
[viii] Ephesians 5:28, 32
[ix] Ephesians 6:17
[x] Hebrews 4:12
[xi] Ephesians 5:32