We understand that Christ-like love is self-giving and self-sacrificial when it applies to loving our neighbor “out there”—in the mission field. But when we marry, we now have a neighbor who lives under our roof and sleeps beside us. We have a neighbor who manages the household with us, raises kids with us, and makes a life with us.
So now that we’re married to our neighbor, it suddenly matters a great deal how we feel? It matters what we’re getting out of the relationship? Isn’t this a double-standard?
As I discuss in this sermon on love and marriage, happiness in marriage is important, but there is no path to happiness in any part of life that doesn’t lead us up a mountain called Calvary.
Sermon Text: Ephesians 5:21-33
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
I’m a fan of the public radio show This American Life with Ira Glass. Each week the show features a theme, and they have a series of real-life stories related to the theme. Last Valentine’s Day their theme was “people going to extremes to find and pursue their one true love.” One of the stories featured a 30-year-old man named Kurt.
Kurt had been with his girlfriend for 13 years—they started dating as high school sweethearts. And they had lived together for their entire adult lives so far. But they never tied the knot. And Kurt started to wonder why. “Maybe the reason I haven’t married this person that I’ve been with for 13 years is that she isn’t ‘the one.’ And since we’ve never dated anyone else, maybe we should take some time off—a month or two—and just play the field. See what else is out there first, and then decide whether or not to get married.” So that’s what this couple did. They took a break from each other. And after several months, they decided to break up once and for all.
And here’s what Kurt took away from this experience. He told Ira Glass, the host, “If I do get married in the future, I want to have an agreement that at the end of seven years we have to get remarried in order for the marriage to continue. But at the end of seven years it ends, and we can agree to get remarried or not get remarried.”
Now Glass, who’s Jewish but not religious at all, had a profoundly wise response: “I don’t know what I think of that, because one of the things that’s a comfort in marriage is that there isn’t a door at seven years. And if something is messed up in the short-term, there’s the comfort of knowing, like, we made this commitment, and so we’re going to work this out… Because you do go through times when you hate each other’s guts. And the ‘no escape clause’ is a bigger comfort to being married than I ever would have thought before I got married.”
Guess which one I agree with?
My friend Mike has never been married, but like so many singles he uses Match.com and the eHarmony. And he told me he was starting to worry because he’s at the age where he has a hard time reading a menu at a restaurant without his reading glasses. But he’s too vain to pull them out on a date, when he really wants to impress the woman he’s with, but he’s also embarrassed about doing that Fred Sanford thing with the menu [mime moving the menu as far away from your eyes].
Why does Mike care? Because when you’re dating someone, you have to constantly prove your worth, put your best foot forward, hide any flaws, defects, or deficiencies. But what happens when you’re older? Will someone still love us when our “best foot forward” isn’t nearly as good as it used to be—or as we want it to be? That’s what the narrator of the Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four” is worried about. I have no idea what possessed Paul McCartney to write this song. He was only 25 at the time. He was rich and successful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. And—I’m sorry if you disagree—but he was the best-looking Beatle by far. I have no idea why Paul McCartney would even imagine feeling insecure about this future version of himself, worrying over whether his future wife will still love him even with his diminished capacities and looks. “When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now/ Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?” “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”
I like the way he preemptively makes his case for love: It’s true that he will no longer be his young, energetic, good-looking self, but he could be handy mending a fuse when her lights are gone. He could take her for a Sunday drive. He could work in the garden and dig weeds. “Who could ask for more?” he says. It’s very sweet. But… notice he’s still trying to prove himself to his future mate. He’s still trying to earn her love. And why not? That’s what Kurt thinks we should have to do… Every seven years let’s renew that contract if we’re going to stay married. Have you proven yourself to me lately? Have you earned the privilege of continuing to be my spouse? If not… you’re out of here, mister.
But a real marriage shouldn’t work like that. No one in the world knows us the way our spouse knows us—both the good parts and the bad parts. In fact, our spouse is the only human being who sees us at our absolute worst. That being the case, isn’t it comforting to know that they won’t simply bail when things get tough. That even if or when our spouse “hates our guts”—which might happen from time to time—it doesn’t mean it’s over. In other words—as Ira Glass rightly understands—the no-escape clause of marriage is good news.
It’s good news that our spouse is stuck with us.
Oh, but I know… To our culture, this sounds like the worst news of all. Anything that limits our freedom is bad news—even when our freedom causes great harm to ourselves. Besides, what if we make the wrong choice?
Remember Kurt? He desperately wanted to make sure before he tied the knot that his girlfriend of 13 years was “the one.” He wanted to make sure that she was his soul-mate. And he goes out of his way to prove it. If it sounds like a plot of a romantic-comedy, I’m sure it is, or it will be. Every romantic comedy is about our quest for our “one true love”: this crazy idea that of all the people in the world, there’s this one person out there for us—our soulmate, the person of our dreams—and before we do anything like get married, we better make sure that we’ve found “the one.”
The devil himself could hardly have crafted a more harmful and destructive lie than the one about the soulmate! The problem is that it makes us hopelessly idealistic about marriage: we imagine that our future mate needs to be a completely well-adjusted and happy individual who is perfectly compatible with us in every way, who isn’t emotionally needy and doesn’t have any significant character flaws. As a result, we become really picky. One writer joked that these days a typical man’s ideal woman is a combination “novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling.” And most women want the male equivalent of that.
So the soulmate idea creates impossibly high standards on the front end, but here’s what’s even worse: When we are struggling in our marriage—long after that wonderful yet unsustainable rush of “falling in love” fades—we are tempted to think: I married the wrong person. I obviously didn’t find “the one.” I didn’t find my soulmate. Because if I did, surely marriage wouldn’t be this hard. Right? Some of you are probably thinking this about your spouse right now. I married the wrong person. Now, suppose you start to feel sexually attracted to someone else, which can happen to any married person. And you start playing with the fantasy of this person in your head—I say “fantasy” because that’s all this person is to you, even though you’re acquainted with her. But you start to think, “Why didn’t I marry someone like her? She and I are soulmates. She and I are compatible.” And before long, you’re having an affair. And if you thought you had trouble in your life before, just wait until you have an affair…
The myth of the soulmate, the myth of the “one true love,” teaches us that marriage, far from being a struggle, should be all about me and my happiness. It’s about self-fulfillment. It’s about what I get out of the relationship. Our culture has swallowed this myth hook, line, and sinker… but my question is, Why has the church? Aren’t we supposed to know better? Aren’t we supposed to know something about love? Didn’t Jesus teach us something about the nature and meaning of true love?
If he taught us anything about love, he taught us that love isn’t about me. It’s about this other person. It’s always about the other person. Love is selfless. Always. Love puts the needs and interests of others ahead of our own needs and interests. Always. Love, true love, is self-sacrificial. Always! Without exception. There is no other kind of love! The love that Jesus Christ demonstrated on the cross was love at its truest and purest, and any human love, at best, will only be a pale reflection of this love! Paul tells us in today’s scripture that when God gave us the institution of marriage, he did so in part to teach us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ! Marriage proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s no exaggeration to say that when we look at marriage, we should see the cross!
So yesterday morning, on the Great Day of Service, many of us from our church and St. James Church gave up our Saturday morning to go and serve people who are in need. For some of us, it felt like a sacrifice, didn’t it? I mean, I hate giving up my Saturday mornings for anything. I do! And I didn’t want to do it yesterday, either. Despite these feelings, however, I did give it up. I sacrificed. And through this small sacrifice, I was pretty sure—however reluctantly and imperfectly—that I was putting Christ-like love into action. It wasn’t much Christ-like love, but it was enough.
So what about my feelings? Well, I wish they were different. I wish I could always be as enthusiastic about serving Jesus as some of my clergy colleagues on Facebook seem to be. They’re all “Jesus this and Jesus that, and isn’t everything I do at my church just the most wonderful thing in the world, and I wish I never had to leave.” But I don’t feel that way. O.K.? And I bet you don’t, either. But you know what? It doesn’t matter how we feel about serving Jesus. We do it anyway. We do so even when it feels uncomfortable, and troublesome and inconvenient. We do so even when we feel irritable, grumpy, or put out. Our feelings are beside the point. Jesus didn’t describe how the Good Samaritan felt when he stopped to help the injured victim on the side of the road. It didn’t matter. Love isn’t about us
I think we Christians mostly know this when it comes to loving our neighbors out there—when we’re in the mission field, when we’re suffering or sacrificing for the Lord. We ignore our feelings and do the work anyway. But guess what? When we get married, we now have a neighbor who lives under the same roof as us. We have a neighbor who sleeps beside us. We have a neighbor who manages the household with us, and raises kids with us, and makes a life with us.
But now, when our neighbor is our spouse, it suddenly matters how we feel? It suddenly matters what we get out of it? Interesting… Isn’t that a double-standard?
Loving our neighbor, whether it’s the neighbor we minister to on the Great Day of Service or the neighbor we’re married to, is mostly about what we do, not what we feel. If love were merely a feeling, what sense would it make for Paul to command love in verse 25? “Husbands, love your wives.” You can’t command a feeling. Feeling happen or they don’t. You don’t have any control over that. You can only command action.
But maybe you’re struggling in your marriage right now, and you’re just not buying this. You’re thinking, “I’m sorry, Brent, I can’t fake it! I can’t go through the motions of love within a marriage if I’m not feeling it.” And I understand that. But I want to read some advice that Tim Keller wrote for people like you. He said that if you’re married and you’re going through a dry spell, and you’re not feeling the love, and you’re not feeling in love, and you’re not feeling attracted to your spouse, and you don’t feel affectionate toward your spouse, you need to tell yourself something like this:
“Well, when Jesus looked down from the cross, he didn’t think, ‘I am giving myself to you because you are so attractive to me.’ No, he was in agony, and he looked down at us—denying him, abandoning him, and betraying him—and in the greatest act of love in history, he stayed. He said, ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ He loved us, not because we were lovely to him, but to make us lovely. That is why I am going to love my spouse.” Speak to your heart like that, and then fulfill the promises you made on your wedding day.
Am I saying that our happiness doesn’t matter? Am I saying that marriage shouldn’t bring us true happiness or joy? No… Absolutely not. But it’s a truism of life that if you aim directly for happiness, you’ll miss it every time! Besides, Jesus said that we save our lives by losing them. And that we take up our cross and follow him. Like it or not, there is no path to true happiness that does not lead us up a mountain called Calvary.
Did I mention, by the way, that I enjoyed the Great Day of Service? I did yard work for a couple of elderly shut-ins. Did I mention that it ended up being fun! My son Townshend did it with me, and he also had fun. Imagine that! Imagine setting aside your own interests, needs, and wants—and focusing instead on someone else’s interests, needs, and wants—and finding, to your surprise, that doing so makes you happy. That’s what happened to me yesterday. The truth is, this kind of thing happens all the time. And don’t you think that that experience softens my heart just a little bit? Don’t you think that the Holy Spirit is using experiences like this one to change me from within just a little bit? Don’t you think that through experiences like this I’m becoming a little bit less of the self-centered little beast that I can so often be?
Of course this is true! Think about your own children for a moment… You give and give and give. And they take and take and take. And the truth is you don’t even give a thought about what you’re getting out of the relationship. Your child may cut the grass or do the dishes or cook dinner, but that hardly begins to “pay back” their debt to you. There will come a time—I think and hope—when the relationship is more of a two-way street; it’s reciprocal; it’s like a friendship; it’s on equal footing. But guess what? Long before you reach that point—after all the giving, all the worry, all the stress and strain without a thought for yourself—you can’t help but love your child with an unbreakable bond of love. Even if your child is unattractive to everyone else, you can’t help but be madly in love with this person.
How does that happen? It happens because being a responsible parent forces us to follow the same pattern of self-giving, self-sacrificial love that the apostle Paul urges husbands and wives to follow. Try it and see if your love for your spouse doesn’t grow! Try it and see if you don’t change and become a better person in the process!
See, I’m afraid my wife, Lisa, might have married the wrong person. But here’s some good news: by the grace of God I’m becoming the right person.
And I honestly believe there’s a better man out there for her. But here’s some good news: by the grace of God, that better man is me.