by Jonathan C. Edwards
It has been said that everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in marriage today.
Marriage is a precious gift and an amazing blessing. Many of us long to experience this great joy, and rightfully so. Yet while many have the desire, far fewer are ready, once they find marriage, to embrace the full extent of what marriage is. We dream, hope, and yearn for the marital bliss we see on screen, but we resist anything that might threaten our own desires or freedoms in the process.
We’ve subtly come to believe that marriage is more about self-gratification and less about self-sacrifice.
Desperate for Love
The apostle Paul paints a different picture of marriage in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul explains that instead of a selfish union, marriage at its core is designed to be a selfless union (Ephesians 5:22–27). Death to self, not personal gratification, is the center of marriage’s gravitational pull. Sadly, we don’t hear that enough, perhaps because it’s so difficult to practice. What we see played out in entertainment, and what our flesh craves by nature, is a marriage that simply fulfills our own longings, furthers our own passions, and covers our own inadequacies.
Many of us are (or have been) desperate for the promise of romance and emotional connection. If we aren’t careful, we will let our selfish desires lead our pursuit of marriage, instead of God and his word. We come to believe that marriage is only worthwhile when we find the perfect husband or wife for us, someone to meet our specific needs and complete our fantasies — the lost puzzle piece, the missing link, the other half of our heart to make us whole and satisfy us in ways we haven’t experienced yet. Like the man in Proverbs 18:1–2, we isolate ourselves from the wisdom and counsel of others, and cast aside sound judgment. Whatever our sinful desires say, we must pray against going down this path in search of love.
“Death to self is the center of marriage’s gravitational pull, not personal gratification.”
Paul exhorts believers towards a life of godliness, fueled by joy in Christ and concern for others, not personal gain and gratification (Philippians 2:1–4; Colossians 3:12–14; 1 Thessalonians 4:3–7). If this is true of how we should live toward all people, how much more toward our (future) spouse?
We’re called to look to their needs and wants above our own. This will be as small as the temperature setting in the house at night, and as serious as practicing patience with struggles in sexual intimacy. Whatever the issue, the more we wrestle against desires to gratify our flesh and instead put our sin to death (Colossians 3:5), the more we will experience the true joy of marriage as Christ designed it.
Joy of Self-Sacrifice
True beauty, purpose, and satisfaction in marriage come when we reflect the true nature of the One that satisfies us completely and eternally. Jesus gives the purest picture of the life we are to live in marriage, showing that life blossoms when we use our lives to serve rather than be served (Mark 10:43–45; Luke 13:14–16). By his life and death, Jesus displays the center of marriage as self-sacrifice. Looking to his example, we must give our lives away for our husband or wife, not fight so hard to preserve ourselves (Matthew 16:25).
The glorious door of marriage swings on the hinge of Christlike sacrifice. Whether you take the time to call the insurance company, fold the load of clothes that’s sitting in the dryer, or run to the store for olive oil, find ways to serve — routine and spontaneous, mundane and creative, immediate and long-term.
Mirror of More
Our earthly marriages exist to be glimpses, mirrors even, of the beautiful relationship between Jesus and his bride (Ephesians 5:31–32). In other words, how we act in marriage must mirror how Christ has acted towards us (John 15:13; Philippians 2:5–8). When we sacrifice for our spouses, our marriages produce sweet gospel aromas to the world, as well as sweet reminders to our own hearts. The aim for marriage is not for our spouse to satisfy our every longing. That’s Christ’s job. Knowing he has met all our needs and fulfills us completely, we can freely give ourselves away. John Piper explains this beautiful truth in This Momentary Marriage. He writes, “Marriage is meant by God to put that gospel reality on display in the world. That is why we are married. That is why all married people are married.”
“We want our marriages to be less about us and more about Christ.”
Constant gratification will never bring lasting joy, and it will rob us of true happiness in our marriages. Instead, as we sacrifice ourselves for our spouse, we let the true light of marriage shine. We want our marriages to be less about us and more about Christ. Radical sacrifice was the centerpiece that brought great sinners a glorious redemption, and it is the centerpiece that will bring marriages the greatest joy, the deepest pleasure, and the truest purpose.
For joy, Christ gave himself in our place (Hebrews 12:2). Let it be for your joy that you sacrifice for your spouse, present or future, pouring yourself out, forsaking your rights for the sake of another, all for the glory of Christ.
Jonathan C. Edwards is the author of Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves. He and his wife Katherine live in Durham, North Carolina where he is pursuing his Ph.D. at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.