When “Happily Ever After” Becomes Elusive

There is a “normal” above our “normal.”

Chapter 5 of Ephesians contains a well-worn passage concerning family, specifically marriage.  We typically refer to it as traditional marriage, however, the word “traditional” may trigger the wrong kind of associations.   

All too often, traditional marriage has been about a man finding a woman who will satisfy his physical needs, and bear and care for his children. After accomplishing this, he pursues many self-centered purposes and interests that may have little to do with his family.  In fact, he finds his family gets in the way. Meanwhile, his wife resents this arrangement, since she is left to do a great many things, including raising and disciplining the children, and trying to lead the family from the second chair.    

This has often characterized traditional marriage.  It’s a recipe for unhappiness, and ultimately, divorce.     

Social experts have sought to correct these shortcomings with a more modern, or, progressive family model.  They suggest the woman rise up and overthrow the oppressive patriarchy of her husband—Whatever you do, don’t submit to that man!  In response, either the man digs in deeper, resists, and war breaks out in the home, or he retreats, and becomes more of a visiting uncle to the family than anything else.  Progressive obviously does not mean “better.” 

Neither traditional nor progressive marriage models represent the level Christians hope to attain.  On the contrary, they tend to amplify sinful attitudes.  

As Christians we need to reach higher, into the very mind of God, where marriage exists to reflect the eternal gospel.

Our marriages have a higher reference point than anything here on the ground. 

Eph. 5:31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.  

Here is marriage described:  a man leaves his parents, and joins a woman for a lifetime of physical, and spiritual unity.  However, this arrangement “refers” to something bigger than itself. It points to Christ and the church.  It is not the product of social evolution, or social contract. Its origin was not human at all. 

In God’s eternal intention, He planned, in His Son, to become a universal husband to people he would  choose, redeem, sanctify, and glorify, so that he would be joined to them forever as husband and wife. This theme surfaces repeatedly throughout the Bible.  

He demonstrated it first in the Old Testament, where he told Israel, “Your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called” (Isa. 54:5).  In the New Testament, the church is “betrothed…to one husband…as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2).  And the end of the Bible says, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:8).  

With such a desire in God, it affected everything He did and established.  And so, at the beginning of the human race, He created an earthbound reflection of the reality in Him–a man, representing the universal male, Christ,  and a woman, representing the universal female, the people of God.

While the heavenly marriage is perfect in every way, the earthly reflection of it has its difficulties, which is why verse 33 says, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

Why would husbands and wives need to be told such obvious things, unless due to their failures and shortcomings, they forget them frequently?  The earth-bound reflection sometimes does not faithfully reflect its great reference point, and can begin to suffer distortion, like a funhouse mirror.  

What directions does the gospel provide for us?  Let’s loop around to the beginning of the marriage passage.

Paul says, “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” (vv. 22-24).  

The word “as” tells us the submission commanded the wife here is reflective.  It looks like something larger than her.  It is the church, the redeemed people of God.  What does this submission look like? Thankfully, neither bullies nor control freaks get to tell us.  That honor belongs to the picture in this passage.  When the church submits to Christ, it doesn’t lead to her personality being erased.  Submission doesn’t mean the suppression of viewpoints, honesty, or insights. Submission doesn’t include the diminishing of one’s humanity.    

And though the church submits to Christ “in everything,” it certainly doesn’t include violence, ungodly demands, abandonment, or tolerating immoral behavior, such as adultery  (In fact, a wife can be released from her marriage union if a husband commits adultery).     

The picture in Ephesians 5 demonstrates submission as setting aside self-centered independence, or a mindset of competition. For the church does not try to exist apart from Christ, or overthrow Him.  Instead, it trusts that its submission to Him will lead to sanctification, to cleansing, to holiness, to glory.  

Paul doesn’t tell wives to copy social trends, or prevailing attitudes of the day.   He tells them to look at the glorious church, who is the work of Christ throughout all the ages. Every wife is modeled after her.    

Just like a wife’s submission is “as” something else, husbands are supposed to love “as” something other than his own narrow definitions. 

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…

His love for his wife should be reflective, drawing on a point of reference larger than himself—Christ, whose love is utterly self-sacrificial.   This is a challenge to most men because we tend to descend into emotional detachment. Even if we’re doing the things we should be doing, like paying the bills, we can become insular, and autocratic, making decisions as if we were single, and still doing whatever pleases ourselves.  Even when we manage to be active for our wives, and around them, little energy is left for personalized affection toward them. We wonder why they cannot appreciate the efforts we already make by working long hours in the office, doing projects at home, and coaching little league for the kids.  We see such things as self-sacrificial, but it still manages to be a detached self-sacrifice.              

Other men interpret self-sacrificial love for their wives, as meaning resignation, or disengagement—Whatever you want, honey, you make the decisions! That might sound enlightened at first, and generous.  But some guys are more than happy to unload the burden of leadership in their homes, if it frees them up for video game marathons, and wall-to-wall sports.  That isn’t self-sacrificial; it’s self-preserving.   

We need to know more about how Christ loves his bride, the church.  Otherwise, we won’t know how to practice it.  As husbands, we don’t first ask how our dads did it, or how our buddies do it, but how Jesus does it.  And the first thing we’ll in the Ephesians 5 gospel is that Christ is not a dictator. He doesn’t say, “Oh, you disagree with me? Then tomorrow morning, cancer.” Nor does his sacrificial love turn into an indulgence that ruins us. If Jesus always said yes, He wouldn’t be the head of the church, but a clerk with a rubber stamp in his hand—Would you like to suffer for me today, Church? No? Okay. Would you like to gather for worship on Sunday morning? No?  Okay.   

The love of Christ toward His church doesn’t spoil her, it sanctifies and cleanses, nourishes and cherishes:  

26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 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. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body.

This is what husbands ought to see when they look at what he did/does.  

Jesus didn’t give Himself up for us on the cross and then disappear.  He stays involved with us in a way that extends His work of salvation into the rest of our lives.  It is intimate and personal. When a husband sees this, he sees not so much power and authority, but loving responsibility.  

When husbands and wives know, experience, and practice Ephesians 5, their families begin to conform to the eternal gospel in God’s heart.

One day not long after Aleisha and I got married, we were about to go somewhere, and I told her, “We can leave as soon as you finish those dishes.” She said, “Excuse me? Are your hands broken?”  This wasn’t playful teasing, either.  I thought, “Uh-oh, I don’t know this territory.” 

I had been a U.S. Army sergeant, and was not used to asking, but rather, telling people what to do. That was the wrong template for married life. Eventually my attention was drawn to the gospel in Eph. 5. I can’t tell you how many times since, during the middle of an attitude, or a season of attitudes, that the Lord has broken in and asked me, Is this how I love, or is this something you picked up from some other place?

And I wasn’t the only one learning things.  Later, I wanted to enter full-time vocational ministry.  It was something Aleisha felt she hadn’t signed up for. Like a lot of reasonable women, she expected when she got married, it would be into a stable, predictable, and secure life.  This took some time to work through. Not only so, but during my internship, our ministry organization asked us to move repeatedly, so I could augment church leadership, or strengthen campus outreach in different cities.  During one stretch, we moved with our baby, seven times in five years, living in fraternity apartments, tiny church properties, and once, in a friend’s basement.

Aleisha wasn’t wild about going to most of those places.  A few of them she didn’t want to leave.  One time we relocated to a place she had actually wanted to go. In the morning we unloaded the truck.  That afternoon, while all our possessions and boxes were still askew, I got a phone call from a Ministry leader who asked me to get the moving truck back, load my family, and return, because I was needed in the church we had just left.  Like a good foot soldier, I was ready to go. Aleisha deeply wanted to stay. That event challenged our commitment to the gospel of Ephesians 5. I had to self-sacrificially love her. She had to submit to me. In the end, neither of us “won.” And in another sense, both of us did. 

I have led my family the last thirty-five years, according to the way I think the Lord was leading us, but it was not by dictating terms.   Aleisha has exemplified a respectful wife, but not by taking orders. During all this time, we’ve had to observe and practice the same gospel.  When I hear people disparage wives who submit to their husbands, I cannot agree at all. Not only does it mock the gospel, but it disrespects every wife who has entered the reality of that gospel.  

You may say to me, “I’m so glad it worked out for you, John. But I have serious gridlock in my house.  There is neither self-sacrificial love, nor submission.” Here’s a secret: Usually when one of the two in a marriage  begin practicing the gospel, the gridlock eventually breaks. However, you must stop asking whether your spouse deserves it, and start telling yourself that the Lord deserves it.   The fact is your spouse probably doesn’t deserve it. But I guarantee you that the Lord does.

Practice the gospel out of obedience to Him. And as for your spouse, expect lag time. This isn’t something that works overnight. It takes time for stubborn spouses to notice when they are being loved, or to notice when they are being respected.  Besides, this is not some manipulative technique to get what you want. 

If you were wondering how the details of these things work out, I don’t need to tell you very much.  It is likely that the Holy Spirit has been talking to you. My guess is that you already know what you should or shouldn’t do.  It’s just that for a while now, you might have gotten in the habit of dismissing what He’s been telling you.  

If you’re a husband, it will probably be in some area of selfishness and emotional detachment, like abiding in an attitude of not wanting to talk, and not wanting to listen.  If you’re a wife, it might be in areas of subtle disrespect, like the way you treat your husband in front of the kids, or as you’re pouting over a cherished dream you perceive he is blocking.  

At any rate, the Spirit of God seeks to conform your marriage to the shape of Christ’s glorious gospel. Let’s go there with Him.

 

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