Sermon 09-15-13: “Back to School, Part 6: Love & Marriage”

September 20, 2013
Marriage is not a romantic comedy.

Marriage is not a romantic comedy.

We Christians understand the nature of self-denying, cross-carrying Christ-like love when we choose to love our neighbor “out there”—in the mission field, suffering and sacrificing for the Lord. When we marry, however, we now have a neighbor who lives under our roof, sleeps beside us, and makes a life with us. Are the demands and expectations of this kind of love any different?

As I explain in this sermon, the answer is a resounding no.

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:31-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

[Ask congregation to snap along. Begin by singing:] “Love and marriage, love and marriage/ They go together like a horse and carriage/ This I tell you, brother, you can’t have one without the other… Try, try, and separate them/ It’s an illusion/ Try, try, try and you only come/ To this conclusion.”

Today’s sermon is about, yes, love and marriage. In so many words, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that you can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable. Last week’s scripture touched on that theme. But Jesus goes a step further in this week’s scripture to say that not only are they inseparable, they are also permanent. Or at least they ought to be.

Obviously, when we consider the divorce rate, even among Christians, it’s clear that we are failing to take Jesus’ tough, uncompromising words as seriously as we should. There’s no way to read these words of Jesus and come to some conclusion other than divorce, in most cases, is wrong. It’s a sin. Listen: I made this point in last week’s sermon, and I need to make it again and again. We are all sinners. Church is a sinner’s club to which everyone is invited. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. And even if we haven’t sinned in one particular way, we have sinned in so many other ways. When it comes to sin, none of us has any moral high ground on which to stand. O.K.? The good news is that there’s always, always, always forgiveness for us sinners who repent, and our gracious God always gives us an opportunity to start again. If you hear me say nothing else, please hear me say that. Remember God’s grace!

Besides, anyone who’s been married for any length of time can understand the temptation to get divorced. Amen? We can all afford to be compassionate toward people who make that painful decision. I have friends on Facebook who sometimes get all mushy about their marriages, especially when their anniversary comes up: “Twenty years ago I married my best friend in the world, and every day—every single day—I just grow deeper and more madly in love with this person.” Do you know what I mean? When they say stuff like that, I wonder if they’re not laying it on a bit thick. My mom was married to my dad a long time before Dad died of cancer, and she could hardly love Dad more than she did. But she was asked once, when the going got tough, if she ever considered divorcing him, and she said, “No. I never thought about divorcing Alton… I thought about murdering him a few times, but never divorcing him!”

Let’s be honest: marriage, at times, feels like that. Even at its best, there are times when it’s tough. Even at its best, it’s often a struggle. And our culture lies to us about this all the time. Our culture tells us, in fact, that if only we find that one, right person—our perfect match, our one true love, our soulmate—everything will be smooth sailing. Most romantic comedies are about finding “the one.” Most love songs are about finding “the one. Many TV shows are about finding “the one.” Online dating services like eHarmony and and now even are about finding “the one”—that one person with whom we are perfectly compatible, that one person with whom marriage won’t at times tempt us to commit murder.

The devil himself could hardly have crafted a more harmful and destructive lie than the one we tell ourselves about our soulmate, our one true love. First, because it creates impossibly high standards on the front end, until we become very skittish about tying the knot, and we make things worse by living together before marriage—which is also a sin. But 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.

If that describes you, I want to put your mind at ease: You did marry the wrong person. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas, a Christian ethicist at Duke Divinity School, puts it: “We always marry the wrong person.”[1] That sounds cynical, but it’s not: His point—and my point—is that there is no right person—if by “right person” you mean a person with whom you will not have to sometimes struggle to be married to.

How could it be any other way? No one in the world knows us the way our spouse knows us—both the good parts and the bad parts. We can put up a front for other people, and fake out other people, and pretend that we’re someone we’re not for other people. You can’t do that for very long with the person you’re sharing your life with. Our spouse is the only human being in the world who gets to see us at our absolute worst. It’s a wonder the divorce rate isn’t worse than it is!

Speaking of which, I heard this really terrible idea on the public radio show Marketplace. An economist believed that he knew just the solution to cut down on the divorce rate in our country. He said that marriage licenses should be renewable, like a driver’s license. They should have an expiration date. When your license expires—after a period of two or three years—you get to decide whether or not you want to renew it. This is a terrible idea for a couple of reasons. First, no couple exchanging vows at the altar of a church doubts for a moment that, in their case at least, their love will last forever. Second, and more importantly, because our spouse sees us at our absolute worst, it’s a good thing that divorce is as expensive and difficult as it is. It might give us just enough incentive to fight it out and work through our problems.

Obviously, if we feel like we married the wrong person in the first place, well… We may not work as hard to solve our problems.

The biggest problem with the myth of the soulmate, the myth of the “one true love,” is that it flatters our ego. It teaches us that marriage is mostly about me and my happiness. It’s about self-fulfillment. It’s about what I get out of the relationship. I know that 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 Jesus taught us anything about love, he taught us that love isn’t about what’s in it for me. It’s about this other person. Always! 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! I think we Christians mostly understand this cross-carrying kind of love 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 our duty: we do what we know the Lord wants us to do, regardless of what we get out of it; regardless how it makes us feel. When the Good Samaritan in the parable came to the aid of the injured Jew on the side of the road, it didn’t matter how he felt about this person who was his enemy. What mattered was how he treated him. He was a neighbor to the injured man not because he felt warm and fuzzy feelings but because he loved him like a neighbor. And love is action.

And when we get married, guess what happens? We now have a neighbor who lives under the same roof as us. We now have a neighbor who sleeps beside us. We now have a neighbor who manages the household with us, and raises kids with us, and makes a life with us. But now—now that our neighbor is also our spouse—it suddenly matters a great deal how we feel about this relationship? It suddenly matters what we get out of the relationship? It suddenly matters whether or not we find the relationship fulfilling to us? Isn’t that a double-standard?

The apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5 that the love between a husband and wife should look like the love that Christ has for the church. And what does Christ’s love for the church look like? It looks like someone who empties himself, humbles himself, sacrifices himself—lays down his own life—for the sake of the one he loves. If that’s what the love of husband and wife is supposed to look like, it’s no wonder we’re not supposed to get divorced; it’s no wonder we’re not supposed to give up on one another: Jesus Christ didn’t give up on us! It’s not like we could have mistreated Jesus any worse than we did, and Jesus kept on loving us to the very end.

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 a love that’s just not there anymore, that I’m not feeling.” And I understand that. But I want to read some advice that Tim Keller wrote for people in your situation. 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.[2]

If this kind of love seems impossible, it’s not.

I listen to a public radio program called This American Life. The theme of a recent episode was related to our pets. One story was about the show’s host, Ira Glass, and the dog that he and his wife own, named Piney. Piney is a pit bull, which they rescued seven years ago as a puppy. And the dog has been the most high-maintenance dog imaginable. First, he has an anxiety disorder, and he expresses his anxiety by biting people. Repeatedly. Drawing blood. Including the only two people in the world who love him. He’s very aggressive, and he lunges angrily at Ira every morning when he wakes up—as if the dog has forgotten that this is the kind man who takes care of him and keeps him alive. They’ve spent a ton of money on trainers over the years to no avail. The couple can’t entertain anyone in their home with the dog around, so no friends have set foot in their home for seven years. They have to home-cook the dog’s meals because of Piney’s many food allergies. And since the dog can’t eat regular food without getting sick, they pay hundreds of dollars a month on rabbit, bison, and kangaroo meat. They spend a fortune on all the pills they give him each week.

Basically, their lives revolve around this pathetic creature who pays them back so much of the time by, you know, trying to kill them. And the obvious question is, is Piney worth all the trouble? Does Ira Glass get anything in return for all the trouble? Is there pleasure? Ira said, “It’s not as much pleasure as the amount of work it is.” So why does he do it? And he said, “He’s sweet, as a dog. I love him. And I love my wife. And it would kill her if we could’ve kept him alive longer and we didn’t do it.”

Ah, the interviewer said. So it’s not about loving the dog; it’s about loving your wife. And Ira agreed that early on, that’s what it was about. He made a promise to his wife that if something happened to her, he would always care for the dog. But he said that promise doesn’t matter now. He said that if his wife were to vanish off the face of the earth, he would still take care of the dog. Because, he said, once you love something, or someone, the way Ira loves Piney, “You can’t flip off that part of yourself like it’s a light switch.”

I’m not suggesting for a moment that marriage should be nearly as hard as taking care of a crazy, aggressive, high-maintenance dog like Piney. But I am drawing attention to the fact that Ira Glass grew to love this unlovable creature with an unbreakable bond of love. How did that happen? It happened because, once Ira decided that he was going to care for this dog no matter what it cost, his commitment forced him to follow the same pattern of self-giving, self-sacrificial love that Jesus models for us. Ira committed himself to loving the dog in this way, and, even if it didn’t change the dog, it changed Ira. It melted his heart. It stirred up a love within him that wasn’t there before, and this love was completely unselfish.

What would happen if we followed this same pattern of love when it comes to our spouse?

Try it and see what happens! 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![3]

Besides… I preached a couple of weeks ago about removing the log from our own eye before we attempt to remove the speck from our neighbor’s eye. That principle applies to our marriage, you know? Just as we have more than enough sin in our lives to worry about without worrying about the sin in someone else’s life, we’re responsible for more than enough problems in our marriage before worrying about the problems our spouse is responsible for. What if we said, “I can’t make my spouse change and become less selfish. But you know what? With God’s help, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I can change myself. I’m going to treat my own self-centeredness as the main problem in this marriage.”[4]

Try that and see if your marriage doesn’t improve.

Listen, I’m afraid my wife, Lisa, married the wrong person 20 years ago. And the truth is, there’s a better man out there for her.

But here’s some good news: By the grace of God, I’m becoming the right person for her. And by the grace of God, that better man out there is going to be me. Amen.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas in Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 38. The footnote in Keller’s book mistakenly refers to this article, which itself merely refers to the original Hauerwas piece.

[2] Keller, 109.

[3] This insight about parenting comes from Ibid.

[4] This characterizes a point Keller makes in Ibid., 65.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

One Response to “Sermon 09-15-13: “Back to School, Part 6: Love & Marriage””

  1. Peggy Podolec Says:

    I really enjoyed this sermon. Wish I could have heard it in person. Peggy

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: