Sermon 03-14-21: “Marriage is Not About You”

Scripture: Exodus 20:14; Ephesians 5: 15-33

I’m tackling the seventh commandment today, not by talking about what “thou shalt not do” in marriage, but what “thou shalt do,” and why. In other words, I believe that this scripture from Ephesians chapter 5 is like reverse image of the seventh commandment—that it’s describing what it looks like to fulfill this commandment.

As some of you know, I’m teaching a Bible study on Ecclesiastes for college students on Thursday nights, and I was struck recently by something that Solomon wrote in chapter 2 of that book. Solomon, you may recall, succeeded his father, David, on the throne. He was one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most admired men in the world at the time. His kingdom was the envy of the world. He could do anything, he could buy anything, he could experience anything that he wanted.

So Solomon conducts an experiment to answer this question: Can I find meaning and satisfaction and happiness in my life apart from God. So he puts it to the test by devoting himself to different pursuits, one of which seems very contemporary: the pursuit of romantic love. Well, that’s an understatement, as some of you know, because Solomon had—get this—700 wives and 300 concubines.1

So… did Solomon’s pursuit of romantic love make him happy? Did he find it satisfying? Was he fulfilled? No: “all was vanity,” he said, “and a striving after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”2

wo things we learn from this, which, in our contemporary culture, we desperately need to hear: First, there is no one person out there who is able within herself or himself to bring you lasting happiness, or fulfillment, or joy. 

Yet how often we’re tempted to think, “If only I could meet that one special person, then… then… I’ll be truly happy.” How many romantic comedies, how many Hallmark movies, how many sit-coms on TV are all about finding and falling in love with that one special person? Most of them! 

Most of them accept the premise that if a romantic relationship falls apart, it’s because the other person wasn’t “the one”!

And let’s face it: It’s very possible that someone who is listening to me speak these words right now is either having an affair, or thinking about having an affair, or thinking about divorce in part because you don’t think you’re married to “the one.” You believe you made a mistake. And so you think that there’s someone else who can give you something that the person you’re married to is not giving you—and that’s the person you should have married in the first place.

If so, consider Solomon: Not even one in a thousand was “the one” for him. For all we know, all 700 times he got married he thought, “This is the one.” But he was disappointed each time. I get it: A lot of those marriages were for political reasons, but surely he was deeply in love with a small percentage of his spouses and concubines—at least a couple of hundred of them, right?

Yet he never found “the one.”

This reminds me of something that a theology professor at Duke named Stanley Hauerwas famously said. Just because he was at Duke doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but you’re going to think he’s wrong when you hear what he said. He said that we assume that 

there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person… 

Or even if you have married the right person, give it time. They’ll change!

And that sounds depressing, or pessimistic, or cynical, but not so fast: His point is, if you think that there is one right person, with whom marriage won’t at times be incredibly difficult, then you are bound to end up bitterly disappointed or angry. And it is out of this disappointment and anger that we often act out through adultery or some other sexual sin—and we often get divorced.

But there’s good news. If it’s true, according to Hauerwas, that you “always marry the wrong person,” the flip side of that coin is that most marriages have what it takes to become happy marriages. 

It’s just that your happiness in marriage depends much more on you than on your spouse.

Did you hear that? Chances are that your marriage right now, at this moment, can start to become a happy marriage. But whether or not it does become happy depends far more on you than on the person you’re married to.

Today’s scripture from Ephesians 5, believe it or not, makes this same point. If you have your Bibles—and you should—look at verse 18: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…”

In other words, Paul implies that getting drunk or getting high would, at best, be a cheap substitute for being “filled with the Spirit.” That’s how amazing it is to be filled with the Spirit! And Paul goes on to describe some of the consequences of being filled with the Spirit—none of which involves getting a hangover, or getting a DWI, or getting addicted. 

Picking up at verse 18 again, Paul writes, “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” 

Can you imagine being happy like that? Look at verse 19: “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” With your heart. You can’t fake this kind of happiness. How often have you been so happy that you feel  like singing? Probably not as often as you’d like! Yet this is, Paul says, what it’s like to be filled with the Spirit. These are some of the consequences of being filled with the Spirit. And this filling of the Spirit can happen to us Christians, and it should happen to us Christians.

But notice that it’s only after Paul commands us to be filled with the Spirit that he talks about husbands and wives and how they relate to one another in Christian marriage. Do you see that? This is not a coincidence. This is Paul’s way of telling us that the foundation of a good and happy and satisfying marriage is not that we find our deepest joy in our spouse, but that we find our deepest joy in Christ—which happens when we are filled with the Spirit.

It’s a cliché that’s been said a million times, but we do have a God-shaped void in our hearts. And as Solomon bore witness in Ecclesiastes, we try desperately to fill that void with so many other things that can’t or won’t satisfy us. Only Christ can do that! Even the greatest, most loving, most patient husband or wife cannot ultimately make us happy.

With this in mind, we can now understand some of the most difficult words that Jesus ever uttered: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”3 Now, this is hyperbole. Jesus is exaggerating to make an important point. He doesn’t mean we should literally hate these people closest to us, including our spouses… only that in comparison to our love for Christ, our love for others comes nowhere close. 

Jesus sounds harsh and maybe even cruel to put it like this. But he’s actually being kind. Jesus knows that if you “live for” your family, or live for your children, or—yes—even live for your spouse and your marriage, you’re not going to find lasting happiness and joy and satisfaction. So we must live for Christ. That’s the starting point to a happy marriage. And that’s what Paul means when he commands us to be filled with the Spirit.

Some of you remember Keith Green, that late great Christian singer-songwriter from the ’70s and early-’80s, who died in a plane crash in 1982. He had a song called “Pledge My Head to Heaven,” in which he sings these romantic words… to his wife: “As I told her when we wed/ I’d surely rather be found dead/ Than to love her more than the one who saved my soul.”

How romantic! They wouldn’t exactly put that on a Valentine’s card! But Keith Green gets it… He understands the truth that Jesus communicates when he talks about hating father and mother and spouse… and indeed, the truth that Paul communicates when he says that the starting point for a happy Christian marriage begins with putting Christ first!

Do we get it? 

If not, I’m afraid we won’t understand what comes next. In verse 21, Paul concludes his long sentence about the happy consequences of being “filled with the Spirit” by saying that we Christians are supposed to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. This is required of all Christians, Paul says—not just wives. And what does “submitting to one another” look like? The Bible gives many examples. Here are a few:

[Jesus said,] And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.4

Or how about this, also from Jesus:

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.5

Or this:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.6

Or this, from Paul:

[Love] is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.7

Or this:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves8

When Paul talks about submitting to one another, he’s referring to the same kind of self-sacrificial love that Jesus and the rest of the Bible demand of us. He isn’t saying anything new.

I hope that’s clear enough… 

Because the next verse causes a lot of modern people trouble. But it shouldn’t if we understand it properly. All Paul is saying in verse 22 is that wives ought to love their husbands in this exact same Christ-like way that he was describing in verse 21. In fact, in Greek, the word “submit” doesn’t even appear in this verse: Verses 21 and 22 literally read as part of the same sentence, as follows: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Do you see? The submission that Paul asks of wives in verse 22 is literally the same submission he asks of all Christians in verse 21.

It’s as if Paul were saying this: “You Christians—every single one of you—ought to submit to one another as an expression of your desire to please Jesus alone. You’ll want to bring this attitude of submission—which is, ‘putting the needs and interests of someone else ahead of your own—into all of your relationships. 

“If that’s true for relationships in general, isn’t it also true for the closest, most important, most intimate of all human relationships—the marriage between husband and wife? Naturally!So of course the wife will want to submit to her husband as an expression of this same kind of Christ-like love!”

And you may say, “Yes, but I notice that Paul doesn’t tell the husband to submit to his wife.” No,  he doesn’t. Instead, he asks of the husband to do something even harder:“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church”—and did what? “Gave himself up for her.” In other words, “Husbands, love your wives like Jesus… and be willing to die for them!”

The following scenario is trivial, but I hope it gets the point across: A husband and wife are buying a car. The husband wants the blue one; the wife wants the red one. They can’t decide. So the husband says, “Babe… Remember what Ephesians 5:22 says? ‘Wives, submit to your husbands.’ Therefore we have to get the blue one.” Is that what he would say? I hope not, because the wife could rightly turn around and say, “Honey, remember Ephesians 5:25: you have to be willing to die for me, and obviously I’m asking for you to do much less than that! So let’s get the red one.”9

I hope you see the point. By all means, the husband is the head of the wife, as Paul says in verse 23, but this scripture is hardly about who gets to pull rank. On the contrary, it’s about setting rank aside, like Jesus, who, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…”10 It’s about both husband and wife loving one another enough to put the needs and interests of the other ahead of his or her own needs and interests—the way Jesus taught us to do. 

But in order for this to work, we have to realize this truth: Marriage is not about you!

We Christians more than anyone else, should be uniquely positioned to understand this! When the Good Samaritan in the parable came to the aid of the injured victim on the side of the road, it didn’t matter how the Samaritan felt about this person who was his enemy—it didn’t matter what this injured victim was giving back to the Samaritan. It didn’t matter what the Samaritan was getting out of the relationship. It didn’t matter how fulfilling the Samaritan found this relationship to be. What mattered was the Samaritan’s responsibility to love this enemy—who was also his neighbor.

And of course we Christians understand this: We do all sorts of self-sacrificial things for people in our community, in our nation, and around the world. And we don’t ask for anything in return. We love our neighbor. We sacrifice for our neighbor. We give and give and give to our neighbor without a thought for ourselves.

And when we get married, guess what happens? We now have a neighbor who lives under the same roof as us. We have a neighbor who sleeps in our bed. We 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 matters a great deal what we get out of the relationship? It matters a great deal whether we find the relationship fulfilling to us? 

To say the least, isn’t that a double-standard?

My dad was a Shriner. He became the “Grand Poobah” back in 1985—technically, he was called “Potentate,” but Happy Days changed it around a little bit. Anyway, at a banquet celebrating his inauguration into office, I heard someone ask my mom about her marriage… why was her marriage successful? Did she ever think about divorcing my dad. She said, “No, I never thought of divorcing Alton. I thought about murdering him on a few occasions. But never divorcing him.”

Those of you who are currently married for more than a few years, or who are divorced, are thinking, “Yep! I know the feeling!” 

But listen: I know this is not something that you learn about from watching Hallmark movies. But it needs to be said: There will be times in your marriage when loving the neighbor who shares your bed will be incredibly difficult. Please hang in there, if at all possible. And I agree it’s not always possible! But if at all possible hang in there. Because Paul also says something very optimistic, very hopeful, very encouraging in this scripture about spouses who are, at times, very difficult to love.

Look at verses 25 and following: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her”—the “he” refers to Christ and the “her” refers to his church—“that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Paul is describing what Christ does for us Christians: he sanctifies us. That is, he changes us from within by the power of the Holy Spirit… in order to make us more like Christ!

And Paul is saying here that one of the most powerful ways in which Christ sanctifies us… at least for us Christians who are married… is through our relationship with our spouse.

I quoted the Hauerwas Rule earlier: “You always marry the wrong person.” Well, let me tell you: Lisa Michelle Blancato, bless her heart, married the wrong person on June 26, 1993, 28 years ago. She did! I was a mess! And the truth is, there was a better man out there waiting for her, and she didn’t even know it! Good thing, huh?

But here’s some good news: By the grace of God, that better man out there waiting for her… was me! Granted, he didn’t exist back in 1993, and God knows he hasn’t fully come into being yet, but I promise you, God is working on it, and I will be that better man for Lisa. Amen? And the Bible says that’s true for you and your spouse as well.

But here’s some more good news—the best news of all… Look at verse 31. Paul quotes the scripture from the very first wedding, back in Genesis chapter 2: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 

And you’re thinking, “Oh, sure, Paul is talking about husbands and wives, so it’s natural that he would quote these famous words about marriage from Genesis 2.”

But then he says something strange: “This mystery is profound…” “Mystery” is an unusual word: Paul is saying, in other words, “God has revealed the following secret to me.” And what is that secret? “I am saying it”—what is it? Marriage itself—“I am saying that marriage, human marriage, refers to Christ and the church.” In other words, God intended from the beginning of time for marriage to tell the story of how God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.

So think of it like this: Just as “a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” so the Son of God left his Father in glory and became human. Why? Because he loved us that much… and he wanted to become one flesh with us.

Needless to say, if the love we have for our spouse is supposed to bear witness to Christ’s love for us, well… it’s not a love that gives up easily. Even when times get tough.

I want to close with some words from pastor Tim Keller… In his book The Meaning of Marriage, he says that if you’re married and you’re going through a dry spell, and you’re not feeling the love for your spouse, and you’re not feeling in love in your spouse, and you’re not feeling attracted to your spouse, and you don’t feel affectionate toward your spouse, you should 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.

  1. 1 Kings 11:3
  2. Ecclesiastes 2:11
  3. Luke 14:26 ESV
  4. Matthew 5:40-41 ESV
  5.  John 13:14-15 ESV
  6. John 15:13 ESV
  7. 1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV
  8. Philippians 2:3 ESV
  9. This illustration comes from Tim Keller’s sermon on the same text called “Marriage in Christ.”
  10. Philippians 2:6-7 ESV

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