When an argument is made for God’s design for marriage as the best pattern for married life, perhaps in the vein of Ephesians 5, people are quick to point out that many people who do not follow the Bible enjoy long unions where both people are fulfilled. We need to admit this is true, and even be thankful for it. God has designed marriage to be something that last “until death do us part” and when this happens in a broken world, we should give thanks! But at the same time we need to acknowledge that as Christians we are not pragmatists, not even in marriage. So in other words, just because a marriage works doesn’t mean it is healthy, just because it is happy does not mean it is holy, just because a marriage last doesn’t mean that it is a reflection of what marriage is supposed to be.
The world most commonly says that a marriage works through compromise. Successful relationships, many will say, is about living with an understanding of “give and take”. This philosophy when held to can indeed make marriages last a long time. And when we hear it, it seems right and fair, like a good formula for a successful marriage. But this is where I think we need to slow down and remember that just because something works doesn’t mean it is how it should be done. We need, rather, to be asking what God has designed for marriage and furthermore, we need to consider how marriage should look in light of the good news of free salvation through Jesus Christ.
So back to the most common pragmatic approach to making marriage work. Compromise. Give and take. When held up in light of Scripture, is this really a biblical philosophy for marriage? I am arguing that it is not. Because think about it. The strategy of “compromise” for an enduring marriage is built on maintaining the union by feeding the individual selfishness of the two parties involved. “Okay, fine. You can go bowling on Thursdays, but that means I get a day at the spa”. Or “Okay, fine. You can buy that dress but I get to buy those new tires I have been wanting”. It is not always that obvious, or even put into words, but you get the picture. Marriages work, or I should say, they happily maintain in this way. But those involved ultimately remained unchanged. And for Christians, this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for any meaningful relationship – be it the church or marriage or friendship – to be maintained by placating the inner pride and selfishness of the other person involved.
Christian marriage isn’t about maintaining for the sake of keeping the marriage going. Christian marriage is about transformation. If the man and woman were originally created to complement one another in their calling, Christian marriage follows this same design. And what is the calling of the Christian? Ultimately, it is to be conformed into the image of the Son of God. Yes, into the image of Jesus who in love offered up himself as a substitute sacrifice for sinners! So Christian marriage serves the purpose of our calling as Christians – to be conformed into the image of Christ, to reject the status quo, to throw off the tyranny of sin and this through the same means that Christ did. Through death.
Marriage means death. That is how Christian marriage works. Through glad death for the joy set before us. Through the realization that unless a grain falls into the ground and dies it cannot bring forth life. When a marriage is marked, not by the mutual compromise of two individuals, but through the death of two that have become one – God is glorified as the marriage speaks to what God is like.
Or to put it in biblical terms from Ephesians 5, the husband dies, the wife submits. In the end it looks like the Gospel – it is cruciform. It requires not that they meet in the middle, not that each becomes weak, but that each dies. Both the leadership of Jesus and the submission of Jesus, both driven by love, led to his being offered up to death. But what is the result? Glory.
And I want to argue that glory is the result in a marriage when a marriage takes the shape of the cross.
Think of it this way.
As the husband goes the way of the cross in his role as head in the marriage and the wife goes the way of the cross in submission to her husband both are honored. When the husband lays down his life for the spiritual flourishing of his bride, she is uplifted, she shines. When the wife dies to herself by submitting to her husband, he is uplifted, he shines. And with each passing moment and year, taking the shape of a cross, their relationship builds through death into in a Gospel-gleaming monument that stands in defiance to a fallen creation that maintains itself ultimately through self-preservation.
In the original creation, marriage that reflected the Maker would have been marked by a self-giving generosity, joy out of seeking the good of the spouse, reflecting the generosity and self-giving that God showed man and woman, which would ultimate redound to the glory of God and the lead to the good of creation. And now marriage in the history of redemption is a reflection of that same divine generosity, that same grace, now taking the shape of a cross.
Seeing this and pursuing this in marriage may actually make your marriage more difficult in some respects than the compromise-based marriages in the world. As you, husband or wife, pursue cruciform marriage, such an approach may not be reciprocated and as you die to self with no acknowledgment from your spouse, you will be tempted in that moment to climb down from the cross and return to a “better”, “easier”, “more realistic” strategy for maintaining your marriage. But I pray, as a married person for other married people, that we will learn to stay there and endure, trusting in the joy that awaits on the other side of the pain. A cruciform marriage will be difficult, it is in the shape of a cross after all! But in the end it will be a marriage that is what marriage was made to be, it will be a marriage that makes sense in light of the gospel, it will be a marriage that glorifies God and is glorified.