At the beginning of November 2013 blogger Seth Adam Smith wrote a post entitled “Marriage Isn’t for You”. The post went viral and attracted over 24 million views within four days after its publication. No one was more surprised than Smith. He described the experience as “staggering, inspiring, overwhelming, and more than a little intimidating.”
Smith’s clever choice of a heading certainly had something to do with it. I spotted the sentence amongst a myriad of Huff Post headlines, and immediately followed the link to the article, wondering what on earth this was all about.
But the post surprised me. Contrary to expectation, and quite opposite to first impressions, it argued that marriage was never intended for self-gratification, but for the sake of one’s partner. In Smith’s own words: “A true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love — their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, ‘What’s in it for me?’, while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’”
This, I would suggest, provides the real reason why the post caused such a media sensation. Not only had Smith inadvertently touched on one of the greatest mysteries of the universe, but also allowed his readers to hold the key that unlocks it.
A Profound Mystery…
Remember that rather strange sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – the one that reads: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church”? Remember that Paul was writing about marriage, and how marriage is an earthly reflection of a heavenly relationship?
If you do, then you may know where I am heading with this. According to Paul, the relationship between marriage and faith is a hidden one. It is a “profound mystery”, meaning that humans in general are unaware of the correlation between the two, or, if they are aware of it, they generally do not understand it too well.
It is this very ignorance that Paul addresses in the passage that contains the sentence mentioned above (Ephesians 5:21-32). In the human relationship between a husband and wife, the husband depicts Christ and the wife depicts the church, Paul says. Understand the correlation, and you can unlock the mystery of marriage.
Beginning with the wife, Paul explains that the way for a wife to understand her role in marriage is to turn to her knowledge of Christ. There she will be confronted with a story of a lover and his beloved, and her experiential knowledge of what it means to be the beloved, that is, the one at the receiving end of the lover’s favour. She will be reminded that to be loved is a gracious and wonderful thing, a thing of acceptance and not initiation. She will be reminded that her calling is to yield, to surrender, to succumb, to be filled with the fullness of her lover’s life. Herein is ultimate satisfaction and safety, and the word that Paul chooses to embody this act of blissful concession is the word translated “submission” in most of our English Bibles.
It is this very holy and indescribable thing that the wife is to take from her walk with Christ, and bring into her marriage. This is not intended to be something mysterious or complicated. If a woman walks with God, it is as easy as taking the trusted old family recipe into a new kitchen and having exactly the same results as everyone has always had in the old one.
Having made this point, Paul turns his attention to the husbands. Their advice is exactly the same as their wives’, with one important distinction. What they are to bring into their marriage is not the role of the beloved, but of the lover.
This may sound daunting, but it is not supposed to be any more difficult than the preceding advice.
The man who walks with God understands that he was first loved before he could love in return. He understands that the love that saved him was the love of God, that is, a love that cannot be evoked, stirred up or earned by some ongoing performance on his part. It is something sovereign, eternal and unconditional, and it is so in all of its aspects.
To drive the point home, Paul uses the metaphor of the love that a “head” has for its very own “body”. It is a love that is birthed from an indescribable unity, and its very nature is to nurture, protect, nourish and cherish. “No one has ever hated his own body”, Paul says, and so the husband is informed in no uncertain terms what it means to be the “head” in this equation.
But there is something else that we need to notice. This act of loving “headship” on the husband’s part is not in contrast to the one of “submission” prescribed to the wife. In fact, the husband is also called to submit to the wife (see verse 21). What this means is that we are not talking about a role of submission versus one of non-submission, but of two roles of submission, albeit in two totally different ways.*
Of course the body is “submitted” to the head, but the head is in fact very much submitted to the body. Even though it initiates the animation of the body, its entire function can rightly be described as one of “service” to the body.
Is it any wonder that Christ, who is the head of the body, first introduced himself as its servant?
It is in submission that the two roles of husband and wife meet and are united. Diverse as these callings may be, they are introduced by a singular overriding and collective call: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
What the Copy Tells Us About the Original…
This is where our friend Seth Adam’s Smith’s insight comes in. Marriage is not for me or for you, Seth points out. It is for the other. He hit the nail on the head, if you would excuse the pun. “I am there for you”, the body says to its head. “I am there for you”, the head replies to the body.
But it goes even further than this. Whilst the insight may be a novel one for some (and undoubtedly fiercely disputed by others), it underlines something else, namely the nature of what it means to be a part of that other marriage, that is, the heavenly one.
If the nature of earthly marriage is derived from heavenly marriage, and if that nature is selflessness, submission and service, then what does it in fact tell us about heavenly marriage?
Put differently, if “marriage is not for me”, then how much more is “Christianity not for me”?
As It Is In Heaven…
I realise that I’m putting the cart before the horse here. We are supposed to get our understanding of marriage from our understanding of Christianity, not the other way round.
But sometimes one sees the cart before you see the horse, and this is what has happened with Seth’s post. Whilst it does a wonderful job of telling us how to behave in marriage, it does not provide the source of that wisdom. And so we shall do well to remind ourselves that marriage is selfless for one reason only: The model that it is based upon is thoroughly selfless, from beginning to end.
Let’s start with the head of this body, Christ: Christ loved his bride selflessly. What this means is that Christ’s attraction to his bride did not spring from his own needs or desires, stirred up by the prospect of having those needs met in a union with her. Rather, it sprang from the needs of the bride, and the prospect of him fulfilling that need in her. Christ’s love was a giving love, not a taking love.
To be drawn to a person to the extent that that person needs you, rather than the extent to which you need him or her, is a strange and foreign concept in the world we live in. It turns the direction of what we understand as “love” around. Yet this is the way in which Christ loved us.
The Bible is clear about the correlation between people hungering and thirsting after God, and God’s love for them. Passages in this regard are numerous. Our need for him is what draws him to us, as upside-down as that may sound. The blessedness of the poor in spirit and those who mourn and hunger and thirst after righteousness are contrasted with the woes of those who are full and need nothing. He came for the sick, not the healthy. He is close to the brokenhearted. He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. He sides with the returning prodigal of Luke 15, the sinful tax collector of Luke 18 and the adulterous woman of John 8. To drive the point of his strange love home, each time he does so in the presence of those who are religiously smug and unaware of their need for him.
But the passage that sketches the contrast most strikingly comes from Luke 7. Here we find the principle repeated in a narrative of another sinful woman and another Pharisee, but we also find something else. Note the following words:
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wwiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Yet again it is the needy one who attracts Christ to her, and who receives his mercy. But the story goes one step further than the ones mentioned above, and explains how this very fulfillment of her need is transformed into a miraculous and wonderful thing, namely her love for Christ.
What we learn from this passage is that the selfless love that Christ has for those who are desperately aware of their need for him, fills them in such a way that it evokes deep gratitude and a reciprocation of that very love. Indeed, they love God because he first loved them.
At first glance this reciprocated love may seem selfish, in the sense of “I am attracted to you because of what you can do for me.” But in fact it is not. The reason why Christ can love without the anticipation of some sort of “filling” is that he is already filled by the love of the Father. And so he loves freely and without condition or ulterior motive.
Once a human being becomes the recipient of this divine love, the same miracle occurs inside of her. She is filled with the fullness of God in such a way that she no longer needs anything else, and this divine contentment manifests itself in a love that bubbles forth from a position of fullness exactly as Christ loves from a position of utter fulfillment and joy in the fullness of the Father.
Note the words of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
This fullness enables us to be attracted to others based on their needs, not ours. This fullness enables us to love one another as Christ has loved us, demanding nothing from them and anticipating no reward for our love, but desiring only to share the richness of the fullness within us.
The Insight that Transformed Karl Barth
Few people are aware that much of the theological genius of the legendary Swiss theologian Karl Barth can be traced back to a book that dramatically altered his understanding in this regard. It expounded the two different types of love described above, namely the love of God as opposed to the love of fallen man. This monumental work was written by Anders Nygren and the title says it all: Agape and Eros.
In Barth’s classic work Evangelical Theology, he relies heavily on Nygren and says the following about these two types of love:
Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible. In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.
The conclusion of this whole matter is astoundingly simple. If Christ has filled me with all the fullness of God, then I no longer need Christianity to do so. Then Christianity need not feed or satisfy me in any way to retain its appeal. Then my Christianity is no longer for me, but for others. Then the fellowship of the brothers and sisters need not meet the requirements of my personal checklist to qualify for my inclusion. Then I become a giver of the life that is within, wherever I am and whatever I do.
And as I do so, the words of Christ constantly prove to be true: It is more blessed to give than to receive. This type of giving does not deplete my resources, but expands and increases them. This type of love does not drain me, but reinvigorates me. As I give, God replenishes, and what could possibly be more blessed than that?
* Not everyone agrees that Ephesians 5:21 teaches mutual submission. See, for instance, Wayne Grudem’s “The Myth of “Mutual Submission”. It should be noted that most scholars who share Grudem’s views do so because they believe that the idea of “mutual submission” promotes “egalitarianism” by seriously undermining the Biblical teaching of the unique authority and leadership role of the husband in marriage. However, if we understand the term “submission” as a general category of selflessness and service, and one that underlies all the distinct callings of the members of the body, including that of husband and wife, the dilemma is solved.