I wonder if you have ever thought about Jesus as a husband crazy in love with his bride. You know the type. The groom who cries at his wedding. The doting newlywed who leaves a card on the kitchen table as he dashes off to work in the morning. The guy who meets his wife for lunch every Wednesday and brings home flowers every Friday. That’s the way Jesus feels for his church, and I wonder if you sense his white-hot passion?
I also wonder if you’ve ever thought about Jesus’ love for his bride as the necessary inspiration to keep the sizzle in your own marriage, or at least the staying power in the covenant you made with your spouse so long ago. After all, the apostle Paul said, Husbands, love your wives, not Men, marry your lovers.
We don’t have to look too far or think too deeply to understand that marriage is in trouble in our society. Cohabitation is on the rise, and divorce is inexpensive and popular. A recent Newsweek essay, written by two unmarried women, bore the title “I Don’t: The Case Against Marriage.” The authors do a pretty good job of showing that—from a legal, financial, sexual, and cultural perspective—marriage is increasingly a relic of the past. Indeed, a deep cynicism about the institution is growing. Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round wrote, The question is not why fewer people are getting married, but why are so many still getting married?
Once upon a time, marriage was undergirded by numerous props and supports. Marriage was an economic necessity. Marriage was the gateway to sexual pleasure. Marriage was the only socially approved place for the begetting and rearing of children. Marriage provided tax benefits. Marriage was understood to be a place where a woman was protected and a man was domesticated. Et cetera.
But today, in 2010, marriage. . . Well, what is marriage for anyway? We’re not too sure. Marriage is just one option among many for those who are single, and staying married is just one option for those who have tied a very loose knot. In June, for example, Al and Tipper Gore, formerly the second couple of the United States of America, announced that they were separating. The news was met with a yawn; it was neither scandalous nor salacious. One editorial almost celebrated the breakup of this marriage. The writer pointed out that the Gores had been married forty years: The fact that they both can look forward and see a promising future by not being married [is] a celebration about how much optimism they have for the rest of their lives.
So what does this have to do with Jesus’ ravenous love for his bride, the church? And what does his love have to do with our personal discipleship and our troubled marriages? Everything! When we grasp even a tiny bit of Christ’s love for his church, our marriages and our discipleship will be changed almost beyond recognition.
Consider how Paul spelled out in Ephesians 5:25-33 the overflowing love Jesus has for his people. Read and ponder these verses and you’ll see that Jesus loves his bride, even lays down his life for her. Jesus purifies his church and has a future for his church. Jesus cherishes the church in the same way a man cherishes his own body. He nourishes and cares for the church. In short, Jesus is not a polygamist. He doesn’t court other lovers on the side. He doesn’t have a wandering eye. Jesus is all in for the church. He’s even coming back to consummate his marriage with the church (Revelation 19:11ff)!
As I said above, when we understand the overflowing love Christ has for us, everything changes, both in our discipleship and in our marriage. Marriage and discipleship, you see, are two sides of a single coin. After all, keeping our marriage vows and fulfilling our vow to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, and mind work nicely together. Furthermore, the issue for the believer is not usually raw adultery. It is not that we will forsake Jesus explicitly and knowingly. The issue is that we want to enjoy a flirtatious relationship or two on the side. We don’t want a divorce; we want to fool around. We want a dalliance, a trifling affair. We want to court cars and gadgets. We want status or wealth or even privacy and spare time. Far from taking up our cross and following Jesus to Golgotha, we want to mess with 401ks and promotions at the office.
So also in marriage: it is not usually adultery, much less polygamy, that will destroy our union. Instead, it is plain ol’ garden-variety sin. Subtle, unnoticed, not-overtly-evil sin. The 10th commandment is more likely to get in the way of a healthy marriage than the 7th. Specifically, I am much more likely to covet my rights, my time, and my way than I am to break my marital vows with another man’s wife. But the accumulation of what we might call 10th-commandment sins is not to be underestimated. To borrow from C. S. Lewis’sScrewtape Letters, the road to hell is a gradual one: Murder is no better than cards if cards do the trick.
Paul Tripp has written an excellent book on marriage called What Did You Expect: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage. The title alone is worth the price of admission! Tripp wrote, You both bring something into your marriage that is destructive to what a marriage needs and must do. That thing is called sin. Sin is, according to Tripp, essentially antisocial and therefore it dehumanizes those around us. Sin puts our self at the center even after we have pledged to put our spouse before ourselves. That same sin will cause us to betray our heavenly bridegroom, Jesus himself.
Lisa and I recently celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary. Even though we are both quite adept in the practice of sin, and even though we are very saturated with sin itself (Romans 7:18), we have enjoyed almost three decades of marriage. It has been a great run, and we’re looking forward—Lord willing—to another 29 years together. I’d even go so far as to give myself at least a B+ in the art of husbandry. Okay, maybe a B-. I love my wife, and there is no one else I’d rather be with. I’m not a polygamist either in deed or in my heart. But, when I think about it, any merit I have as a husband flows from Lisa’s unconditional, exuberant, enthusiastic love for me. She loves me, she likes being with me, and she gets excited when we meet at the end of the day or, for that matter, at the beginning of the day. Her enthusiasm for me and her love for me have a marvelous boomerang effect. Her unconditional love motivates me like nothing else. In the shadow of her love, I find myself loving her more and more.
And when I think about and enjoy Lisa’s love for me, I am led to think about the perfect Lover. I find myself pondering the One whose passion compelled him to die for his beloved so that love itself might flourish and thrive. Jesus was not a polygamist, and neither should we be. Not because polygamy is so bad, but because monogamy is so good. G. K. Chesterton agreed:
It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.
We love God because he first loved us, and monogamy is two thousand times one. Let’s stay there in both our relation to Christ and in our marriage.