Marriage is hard. Marriage is beautiful. Marriage is mysterious. I have been married for almost 16 years and I know many of the contours of married life but everyday brings new challenges and adventures. To stay committed and hope-filled over decades is no small achievement. Truly, it is a gift.
I am always filled with awe when I hear of a couple who has been married for fifty or sixty years and still they love each other deeply. It is otherworldly.
As a pastor, I interact with married couples all the time. Some marriages are beautiful. Many are trudging a hard road of faithfulness but standing and believing in goodness. And sadly, more marriages than you can believe are relationships that are slowly dying or already dead.
For a variety of reasons, some personal and some theological, I have a deep passion to see Christian marriages thrive. For me, my passion means to do all I can to help marriages flourish.
With this in mind, the next several blog posts are going to focus on marriage. The topics will be:
- Marriage: embodied theology (This post)
- Marriage: what masters of relationship can teach us
- Marriage: The four horseman of the apocalypse
- Marriage: repair
- Marriage: @Calvary
It is my hope that these posts might help all of us grow in our marriages and help in protecting and honoring the second most important institution in our world today.
What Makes a Good Marriage?
I want to answer this question in two ways. First and in this post, I want to consider the question biblically. The Bible, in my opinion, gives us a narrative framework that helps us understand marriage and when we aim to live into and live up to this narrative, our marriages thrive. And then in my next post, I want to answer the question relationally. Or to say another way, what relational behaviors do healthy couples do on a regular basis that cause a marriage to thrive as a place of love? When we have both answers, I think we will begin to get a picture of a good marriage.
A biblical framework for marriages
A Christian narrative framework for marriage is found in one of the most controversial verses in scripture:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
To understand Paul’s commands on marriage, one needs to understand that Paul describes marriage as embodied theology. Ephesians 5 isn’t simply ethical dictums based on gender and marriage but more profoundly it places marriage in its rightful story–the story of Christ and the church.
In the Old Testament, one of the metaphors used to describe God and his people is that his people is the bride and he is the bridegroom. Paul is drawing on this narrative structure here. What he wants to do in Ephesians five is to explain the meaning of marriage, it’s purposes and ends. Marriage is not a human invention. Instead, it is a cultural reality that has meaning in that it points beyond itself to who God is, how he pursues his people, and who his people are to him.
God in Christ is the bridegroom. He is the passionate lover who has laid his eyes on the object of his love, the bride. Interlaced through Paul’s marriage theology are specific ways that Christ acts as the bridegroom.
The bridegroom is the head
Paul uses this language of ‘head’ elsewhere to describe Christ:
“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Colossians 1:18 ESV
When you think of this language of head in its most basic biological function, it is the head that brings together all the separate constituent parts and makes a whole person–body, drives, emotions, and consciousness. It is that organ that runs the body–both its automated parts and conscious parts. The head makes interprets the past and seeks a preferred future. It is also that part of the human person that makes sense of a situation, puts it into context and in a sense, explains it. The head is the storyteller–not in the sense of myth or fiction but in the sense of telling “our personal story”. It is the head that gives meaning and purpose to human life.
Without the head, there is no life at least one worth living. There is no purpose, no meaning. Without the head we cannot know where we are, what we are and where we are going. We would not exist in any meaningful way.
Christ is the bridegroom who is the head of the marriage with the church. He gives the marriage meaning and purpose. he tells the church her story–the meaning of life. He shows her who she is, where she is at and where she is going with him. He makes it possible for her to function. Without him, she has no life. This is what Christ the bridegroom does for his people the bride.
The bridegroom is Savior
Paul tells us that the bridegroom Christ is savior of his bride. He has laid down his life for her. Now we quickly understand this as substitutionary atonement and that is right. But I don’t think Paul wants you to think atonement theories here. He wants you to think in terms of a love story. This is a marital story filled with adventure, passion and romance.
Christ loves his church, he is passionate for her. His eyes are on her. He is consumed by her (the Bible calls this jealously). But she has fallen for other lovers. These are lovers that have turned into tyrants (read the Old Testament and you will see this is the continual story of Israel). She thought she knew her lover but he ended up being a jerk, abusive and cold. And instead of being a bride she became a slave to this lover. And perhaps she even longs for a real lover but she sees herself now and wonders who would want her now–used, demeaned, and made small.
But the great bridegroom still wants her even though she has been greatly diminished by false love. She is imprisoned and under lock and key. He loves her so much and wants to be with her that he goes to war to defeat this tyrant of love. And in the battle to save her, he lays down his life. He wins his beloved but it comes at great cost.
Christ is the bridegroom who has gone to war to have his bride. And to free her and love her, he paid with his life.
The bridegroom makes her beautiful
Paul says that Christ nourishes, cherishes, and washes his bride so she might be presented in splendor. In other words, he gives his energies for one purpose: so she can be beautiful.
The relationship is one in which Christ’s energies are used to make his bride shine like the sun. He waits for the day when he can show her off, when all the residue of that horrible past lover is washed off and forgotten. In the place of a demeaned and abused maiden will be the most beautiful bride.
Christ the bridegroom is a leader who passionately loves his bride. Nothing stands in his way. He faces all her captors and slays them even when it costs him everything. His actions display his love. When he has her, his energies are spent for her beauty and good. His life is spent on her. We might say that the glory of the bridegroom is seen in so far as he is willing to act in love for his bride. His actions are his glory on display. Her destiny fulfilled reveal his magnificence.
Then Paul gives a narrative framework for the bride.
The bride respectfully submits
The bride, the church, remembers her old lover, the tyrant. He promised so much, but he caused her to turn her eyes away from her beloved. The tyrant turned out to be a beast. All he did was use, abuse and demean her. For reasons that our mysterious, her Savior has come. Forgetting and forgiving her the false love, he has rescued her. The bridegroom has laid down his life for her. And he hasn’t just left her all beat up, insecure and small. He has done great work to fulfill the deepest desires of her heart. It’s his aim to bless and honor her in the marriage. Now, she is beautiful. Her glory shines because of the work of the bridegroom.
And her response is the response of love-filled, faithful following.
She declares, “You are so good, strong, mysterious in love that I will follow my beloved wherever he desires to go because I know that his aim is my good.”
So she will go wherever he goes because in following she will flourish. She fully trusts him because he is trustworthy. She submits fully to him.
She respects him. He is unlike anyone she has ever met, a hero of heroes. He is her knight who has rescued her from tyranny, pain, obscurity and raised her up to glory.
Christian marriage is to tell this story of Christ and his church. This is the great drama of the universe and our marriages are to be a reenactment of the greatest love story that ever was.
Before you are married, you are to look for that one woman that captures your attention, the one that captivates you. Find the woman that fills you with passion. You are to look for the one who attracts you and the one who you know with your help could be great and glorious. As her husband you believe she could be everything she was ever created to be. She can be more beautiful than she ever imagined because of your love. When you find that woman, pursue her with all the nobility and passion her unique brilliance demands. Then marry her.
You will find that your wife has tyrants in her life. These days it might be that life and relationships have made her think she is not worthy of love. Maybe she thinks she is not beautiful. Maybe a tyrant of life has said she is not brilliant or capable. Maybe a tyrant has wounded her soul. Maybe a demonic tyrant has imprisoned her with an offer of some good but now she is enslaved by this beast.
Well husband, use all your energies and all your passion to free her from all those who would seek to harm your beloved. Fight to the death to have her and to bring her to her destiny–free, mature & able to do what God has called her to do.
Whatever you do, from morning to night, small things and big, use each moment to bring out the best in her—to provoke and cultivate her beauty. Your work is to make sure this brilliant woman shines with all the radiance that God has given her. Spare no expense, leave nothing on the field. Do all you can to help her live into her destiny. If it costs you everything, it will be worth it because her radiant life is worth the price.
And finally be the head. You are the keeper of the story. You are the leader. You remind, embody and declare that all of life has a purpose. You remind that your love and this marriage points beyond itself to the great purposes of the cosmos. You keep pointing her to the great story. You help her see. You help her find her part. You use all your skills, and learn new ones if you need to, to make sure it all makes sense. Your behavior, the direction and aims of your marriage, her identity and purpose is a beautiful reenactment of the great love story. You are to lead with this story in mind. You are not a tyrant; you are a hero. Don’t settle for a lesser story. Fight for the best with all your might. This is what headship is all about in Paul’s theology.
In response to such a lover, wives go wherever your beloved leads because you know that he is your knight in shining armor, your “savior”. He is the one who is embodying the Bridegroom, the hero in the story of love. You know from experience that he wants you to flourish; his every decision is one with your best interests in mind. He is selfless, brave and noble. You trust him with your whole life and future because he is trustworthy. He is your best friend and it doesn’t cross your mind to stand in opposition because your hearts are so aligned that his will and yours are the same. You gladly submit. It’s easy for your heart to follow him because he is like no other lover you have ever seen.
And you respect him. You make it your marital work to make sure he knows how strong, brave and courageous he is. You let him know how his selfless, life-costing love has won your heart. Every word you utter is one soaked in a kind of awe that you got such a man. And it’s not just with him that you honor him but with all you interact with— kids, friends, coworkers and parents. Everyone. You just can’t help yourself. You have yourself a keeper. Every word you speak about him is intentionally worded to make sure that the whole world knows how his love is the treasure of your heart.
Wife, this is your part. Coupled with his selfless love and leadership, it tells the great story. The world will stand in awe to this other-world reality. This kind of marriage tells in detail the reason for existence–the great love story of the cosmos.
This is marriage as it should be using a biblical, narrative framework. Biblically, marriages that live this great story, with lots of room for sin and grace, are good marriages. In my next blog I will look at how such a marriage actually looks like up close. I will show how healthy marriages work relationally.